Word and Spirit: Yves Congar’s Account of Church and Eucharist – Part 3

Word and Spirit in Ecclesiology 

The pattern of relation between Word (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit that Congar sees in Christology is replicated in ecclesiology. Just as the missions of the Son and Spirit are united in Christology, they continue in “operative unity” with reference to the church as “the two ‘hands’ proceeding from the Father [who] do conjointly whatever the Father…wishes to do.”[1] What more can be said about this relation? 

It was seen in the above discussion of Christology that Congar thinks of Jesus as ontologically or hypostatically the Son of God but then also as the Son of God in actuality for us and our salvation on the basis of the Holy Spirit’s work. There is a sense in which this can be thought of in terms of objective and subjective poles. Jesus is the Son of God objectively on the basis of the incarnation and hypostatic union, an activity of the second person of the Trinity, and Jesus Christ is the Son of God subjectively on the basis of the actualizing work of the third person of the Trinity. In this schema, Word is associated with the objective pole, and Spirit is associated with the subjective pole. Congar states this in something of a paradigmatic fashion when he writes that, with reference to the life of the church, “it is the Holy Spirit who makes the work of Christ present.”[2] Here, it is Christ, the Word, which occupies the objective pole and the Holy Spirit who subjectively actualizes that which is objectively given. Congar makes much the same move when speaking of faith. “The word is effective in and by the faith that receives it. It is here, theologically, that the Spirit intervenes.”[3] Again, the Spirit makes subjectively actual what is objectively given, namely, the Word. Congar even lifts up Karl Barth’s teaching on the Holy Spirit a being particularly perceptive on this point.[4] 

How does this relation between Word / objective pole and Spirit / subjective pole translate into Congar’s ecclesiology proper? Roughly speaking, the formal structures of the church, in Congar’s case the Roman Catholic hierarchy, is connected with the Word / objective aspect, and the Holy Spirit is understood as the animating principle of this structure. As one of Congar’s interpreters has put it, “There is no aspect of the Church’s structure and life which does not involve both the incarnational-structural role of Christ and the sacramental-sanctifying function of the Spirit.”[5] However, this schema is a bit too simple, for the Holy Spirit not only enlivens the structure instituted by Jesus Christ. Rather, the Holy Spirit is “the ‘co-instituting’ principle”[6] along with Jesus. As Congar goes on to point out on the basis of numerous Scriptural texts, the Holy Spirit was involved in the institution of the apostolate and the succession of the apostolate. Even now, Congar notes, the Holy Spirit raises up ministers for the church. 

This intimate connection between the work of the Holy Spirit and that of the Word (Jesus Christ), which has become equated with the institutional forms and structures of the church, gives the church a sacramental character.[7] Congar connects this sacramental character to physical contact with Christ, which is encountered in the Eucharist and which is transferred derivatively to the church as a whole as the Eucharist nourishes it. “The sacraments are a continuation, a supplement, of the presence of the incarnate Word and of the role of his body in the work of salvation.”[8] And yet, although Congar speaks about the sacraments as a ‘continuation’ of the incarnation, and the Church as the same insofar as it is a sacrament, he also introduces a discontinuity by saying that the sacraments are a ‘supplement’ for the incarnation. The church and the sacraments can, then, be understood in terms of a continuation of the incarnation but only in a manner of speaking. 

The question of whether or not the church is a continuation of the incarnation of Christ is not as pressing for Congar as that of whether or not the church is an incarnation of the Holy Spirit. He is careful to distinguish between the hypostatic union found in Jesus Christ and the way in which the Holy Spirit indwells the church. While the former relation had the effect of making Christ’s humanity “sinless and adorable,” there is no such effect with reference to the creatureliness of the church.[9] 

Congar frequently describes the relation between the Holy Spirit and the church by speaking about the Holy Spirit as the soul of the church. This manner of speaking is, however, fraught with danger for if the Holy Spirit is the soul of the church, this must be understood in either an Apollinarian or a pneumatomachian way. Either the Holy Spirit replaces the human soul of the church, or the human soul of the church is understood to be the Holy Spirit thereby undermining the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Both of these moves are heretical. Congar is not unaware of the dangers of speaking of the Holy Spirit as the soul of the church, and he notes that, “Taken literally, it clearly points to an ecclesiological monophysitism.”[10] Thus, Congar registers concern about the simplistic use of this affirmation in the encyclicals Divinum illud munus (1897) and Mystici Corporis (1943). He prefers instead to go back to Augustine’s use of this notion, which provides Congar with a vital distinction: the conviction that the Holy Spirit is the soul of the church “is functional and not ontological.”[11] Congar elucidates this distinction further elsewhere:
The Holy Spirit does not inform the Church by entering into a physical composition with it to constitute a single substantial being which is both divine and human; he is with it to guide and assist it, to enable it to perform actions which, while outwardly human, are bearers of a divine virtue.[12]
The union between the Holy Spirit and the church, in which the Holy Spirit can be described as the functional soul of the church, is a union of ‘alliance,’ that is, a covenantal union. 

To think in terms of an ontological union would make the Holy Spirit the sole subject of the church’s action, but this is unacceptable for Congar because the church is also the body of Christ “instituted by Christ as a subject in its own right.”[13] Thus, the church is a subject dependent upon Christ and the Spirit, but in continuity with Christ and as ‘other’ with reference to the Holy Spirit. Congar’s most basic understanding of the relation of the Word and the Spirit has returned in a new form. In this case, the church is the present tense institutionalized form of the Word. The Word is objectively present in the institutional structures of the church, and especially in the sacraments, and is realized subjectively by the Holy Spirit. Congar thinks of this in terms of exterior and interior work. With reference to Christ’s saving work: “Christ established an objective reality of grace…the Holy Spirit applies it to the interior of each of us.”[14] With reference to the church: “what the apostolic body and the institutional Church effect in the exterior and objective order the Holy Spirit does within the institution itself and within individuals.”[15] The structures and institutions of the church are understood as objectively presenting Christ’s saving work, which the Holy Spirit then applies inwardly. This arrangement reveals how it is that Congar can think of the church as a continuation of the incarnation, but also as the incarnation’s supplement in that it simply presents what Christ provides, and the Holy Spirit as the functional soul or the inward animating principle of the church.
  1. Congar, Word and Spirit, 25.
  2. Ibid, 35.
  3. Ibid, 12.
  4. For a fine treatment of Barth’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit that deals with the relation of the Spirit to the Word, Jesus Christ, cf. George Hunsinger, “The Mediator of Communion: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Holy Spirit,” pp. 148-185 in Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000).
  5. Louis-Marie Nihal Navaratne, The Relationshi between Christology and Pneumatology in the writings of Yves Congar, Karl Rahner and Jacques Dupuis (Excepta ex dissertatione ad Doctoratum in Facultate Theologiae Pontificiae Universitatis Gregorianae; Roma: 1987), 41.
  6. Congar, Holy Spirit, 2:9.
  7. Cf. Yves Congar, A Gospel Priesthood (Translated by P. J. Hepburne-Scott; New York, NY: Herder and Herder, 1967), 118.
  8. Ibid, 111. Emphasis in the original.
  9. Yves Congar, The Revelation of God (Translated by A. Manson and L. C. Sheppard; New York: NY: Herder and Herder, 1968), 151.
  10. Congar, Holy Spirit, 1:154. Congar’s worry of monophysitism is correct but overly simplistic.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Congar, Mystery of the Church, 171.
  13. Ibid, 170.
  14. Ibid, 151.
  15. Ibid, 169.


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