Monday, April 07, 2008

Word and Spirit: Yves Congar’s Account of Church and Eucharist – Part 5

Critical Engagement

Congar’s understanding of the relation of Word and Spirit in church and Eucharist is certainly both intricate and perceptive. It especially bears fruit in the multifaceted if fragmentary way in which Congar thinks of the Eucharist. Congar certainly has much to teach on these matters. However, there are also certain deficiencies in Congar’s work, especially when considered from a reformational point of view. By way of conclusion, a number of internal and external critiques of Congar’s treatment are offered below.

First, Congar’s treatment of the role of the Holy Spirit in Christology raises some interesting questions. As was seen above, Congar understands Jesus Christ to be the Son of God objectively on the basis of the hypostatic union and subjectively or for us and our salvation on the basis of the Holy Spirit’s actualization and realization of that objective reality in different ways and at different stages in Jesus’ earthly life. The two primary events that Congar identified of this actualization and realization by the Spirit in Jesus’ life were his baptism and resurrection. This formulation raises a number of questions that Congar does not directly address. Do the first thirty or so years of Jesus’ life have any saving significance? Congar seems to imply that they do not if Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan represents the commencement of his saving activity. More pointedly, does the incarnation itself have any saving significance? Again, the implication is no, except insofar as it is a precondition for what would follow. The problem here is that, by treating the incarnation as a mere precondition, the important link between the person and the work of Christ is severed. Precisely because Christ’s work of “atoning reconciliation falls within the incarnate constitution of his Person as Mediator,”[1] we cannot think of these two as separated. Indeed, it is because Jesus Christ is himself God that the very depths of our being are cleansed by his work.[2] To the extent that Congar’s emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s actualization and realization of Jesus Christ’s identity as the Son of God undermines this important connection between Christ’s person and his work, Congar undermines the very possibility of affirming that Christ’s work is accomplished effectively for us and our salvation.

Second, Congar makes an important move in recognizing that “[t]he one real priest is in heaven.”[3] Jesus Christ must be understood as the decisive subject of the Eucharist if the Eucharist is to be understood as anything more than an entirely human exercise of memory. However, Congar does not carry far enough this notion of Jesus Christ as the one true priest who is in heaven. Congar is certainly careful to note that just as Jesus Christ is the one true priest, there is only one true Eucharist that becomes present in the church’s celebration of the Eucharist, but Congar identifies this one true Eucharist as the Last Supper.[4] Schmemann places this one Eucharist in heaven and understands it in terms of time. The Eucharist “is served on earth, [but] it is accomplished in heaven, in the new time of the new creation” and, with an emphasis that Congar would appreciate, “in the time of the Holy Spirit.”[5] Not only does this do justice to the eschatological aspect of both Eucharist and Holy Spirit, it also does justice to the notion of Christ’s heavenly and eternal priesthood. Too often Congar seems to limit Jesus Christ’s importance to the acquisition of salvation and the institution of the sacramental church. Relocating the one Eucharist from the Last Supper to the eschatological banquet would help to balance his treatment.

Third, Congar makes an important point when he notes that in the Eucharist Jesus Christ becomes the church’s offering to the Father.[6] However, Congar makes no mention, as far as this study has been able to ascertain, of the complimentary and perhaps more fundamental notion that the church becomes Christ’s offering to the Father. It must be maintained that in the Eucharist the church worships the Father in and through Christ and that Christ worships the Father in and for the church. Thomas Torrance hits on both sides of this equation when he writes that Christ “unites us an our worship with his own” and that “we worship the Father through the priesthood of the Son.”[7] This notion of Christ including the church in his worship again moves toward correcting Congar’s tendency to downplay Christ’s eternal priesthood. It is only as Christ makes the church part of his offering to the Father that the church can plead the blood of Christ as the decisive thing about its worship of the Father.

Fourth and finally, John Webster notes that ressourcement theologians, including Congar, “commonly write the history of Christianity on the understanding that the distinction between ‘apostolic’ and ‘post-apostolic’ ought not to be pressed.”[8] Webster’s worry is that the church might loose the capacity to encounter the Gospel as something that addresses the church from outside of itself. Instead, the institutional structures and hierarchy of the church might become so equated with the Gospel that such encounter is passed by as unnecessary and even unwanted. This equation of post-apostolicity with apostolicity is the interpretive mechanism that lays the foundation for Congar’s notion of a new priesthood from above that allows for the church’s upward movement of spiritual self-sacrifice to be met with the downward movement of God in distributing the benefits of Christ’s saving work.[9] But, if one understands the post-apostolic period as the continuing elucidation and proclamation of the Gospel in light of the norms set down by the apostles in Scripture, and if one then understand the apostles themselves as the authoritative witnesses to Christ, one is able to find room for numerous expressions of the church whose institutional structures take shape according to the needs of contemporary context, although always tied to the practice of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the preaching of the Word. Webster gathers up these matters and puts a fine point on them when he states that “the church is not only a Spirit-produced set of expression of the mystery of salvation, but a company which looks back to the apostolic testimony set before it in Scripture and finds itself placed beneath its judgment.”[10] Karl Barth was on to something along these lines when he wrote of the relation between Christ and the church that while “Jesus Christ is the community,” the “community is not Jesus Christ.”[11] This distinction locates the decisive thing in the work of Jesus Christ in the community rather than in the work of the community as the institutionalized continuation of Jesus Christ’s presence and saving effect.

May all Christians everywhere find nourishment, union and peace in the Supper of the Lord Jesus Christ as, firmly planted in the needs of the present, the church looks behind and ahead to Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of its faith, and proclaims the message of salvation wrought once and for all in him.


  1. Thomas F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers and Howard, 1992), 63.

  2. Cf. Ibid, 62.

  3. Congar, Gospel Priesthood, 183.

  4. Cf. Congar, Holy Spirit, 3:233.

  5. Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom (Translated by Paul Kachur; Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 218.

  6. Cf. Congar, Revelation of God, 178.

  7. Thomas F. Torrance, “The Paschal Mystery of Christ and the Eucharist” in Theology in Reconciliation: Essays towards Evangelical and Catholic Unity in East and West (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1996), 111.

  8. John Webster, “Purity and Plentitude: Evangelical Reflections on Congar’s Tradition and Traditions” in Yves Congar: Theologian of the Church (Edited by Gabriel Flynn; Louvain Theological & Pastoral Monographs, 32; Dudley, MA: Peeters Press, 2005), 60.

  9. Cf. Congar, Revelation of God, 186.

  10. Webster, “Purity and Plentitude,” 60.

  11. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/2 (Translated and edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1958), 655. Indeed, Barth takes much care to ensure that we do not simply collapse Christ into the community. To this end he discusses two forms of Christ’s existence. The primary form is his existence in heaven, and the secondary form is his existence in the community. Furthermore, the secondary existence is dependent upon the primary, which ensures that the secondary is possible. The relation of these two forms of Christ’s existence is the basis of the relationship between Christ and the Church. Cf. Ibid, 652-653.

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