Monday, March 31, 2008

Word and Spirit: Yves Congar’s Account of Church and Eucharist – Part 4

Word and Spirit in the Eucharist

This study now reaches its goal of discussing Congar’s account of the relation between Word and Spirit in the Eucharist. The pattern that has been discerned thus far is maintained in Congar’s treatment of the Eucharist, that is, he correlates an objective pole associated with the Word and a subjective pole associated with the Spirit. Congar’s treatment of the Eucharist is both rich and fragmentary, and perhaps rich precisely because it is fragmentary. Justice cannot be done to it as a whole, and the following will be limited to three specific concerns. First, the difference between the church as a whole and the ordained ministry in the Eucharist will be explored. Second, the difference between consecration and communion will be discussed. Finally, Congar’s account of the Eucharist in terms of upward and downward movements will be examined.

First, what of the relation between congregation and priest in the Eucharist? Congar thinks of the whole church as a mystical union with Christ and with each other produced by the Holy Spirit.[1] It is in this sense that the whole church is the body of Christ. Each member within the body of Christ has a task to perform, and each member has received from the Holy Spirit a grace or charism for that purpose. It is in this way that Congar is able to approximate the reformational doctrine of the priesthood of all believers when he writes, “Every cell in the body is priestly.”[2] However, within this priestly body is a class whose task it is to serve the mission of this priestly body in a special way. This is the hierarchical priesthood, and Congar directly connects this priesthood to the sacraments. Whereas the common priesthood of the church is one of spiritual self-sacrifice, “A liturgical and sacramental sacrifice requires a liturgical and sacramental priesthood.”[3]

This leads directly into the second topic, which had to do with the difference between consecration and communion. In keeping with the difference in priesthood between the hierarchy and the church as a whole, consecration of the eucharistic elements is a function of the hierarchy while communion with Christ through the elements is an act of the church as a whole. Further, Congar understands the eucharistic elements as the Word / objective pole and communion as the Spirit / subjective pole. Insofar as the elements are the body and blood of Christ, “the Eucharist…brings about a corporeal unity, just as the Spirit brings about a spiritual unity,”[4] with Christ and with each other. Consecration establishes the eucharistic elements as objective reality, and communion is the subjective activity by which this reality is received and realized in the communicant.

What is the relation of Word and Spirit in the consecration of the eucharistic elements? When thinking about consecration one has to do not only with the relation between Word and Spirit but with the relation of the priest to both Word and Spirit. Congar is right: “The one real priest is in heaven.”[5] The work done by human priests is not done on the basis of “powers inherent” in the priest; rather, Christ “himself is the sole priest upon whom every valid action that takes place in the sphere of reconciled existence…depends.”[6] Congar demonstrates this way of thinking with direct reference to the Eucharist when he explains that there is “only one Eucharist – the one celebrated by Jesus himself the night he was betrayed. Our Eucharists are only Eucharists by the virtue and the making present of that Eucharist.”[7] In the present, the priest acts in persona or in nomine Christi to make that one Eucharist present, and this is understood as Christ’s own act. In this way, the priest can even be spoken of as a sacramental reality.[8]

The relation between the priest and the Word, Jesus Christ, now becomes apparent. The priest, as part of the hierarchical structure of the church, acts in the name of or in the place of Christ in consecration and thereby the eucharistic elements are offered to the congregation as the body and blood of Christ. But, the priest is also related to the Spirit, just as we have seen the pairing of Word and Spirit throughout this study. Congar affirms both that the effects of the Eucharist belong to the Holy Spirit and that the consecration of the elements such that they become Christ’s body and blood belongs to the Holy Spirit.[9] The priest, then, acts in the Eucharist according to his ministry in the church, a ministry given and affirmed by the Holy Spirit. In the act of consecration, Word as embodied by the priest but as definitive in Christ and the Holy Spirit work together to present the eucharistic elements as Christ’s body and blood. This is the meaning of eucharistic epiclesis, although this epiclesis no more produces the effect than do the words of institution.[10]

Word and Spirit, focused upon the priest, are both operative in the consecration of the eucharistic elements. What of this relation in terms of eucharistic communion? Here, the Word / objective pole is the body and blood of Christ offered in the eucharistic elements. The Spirit / subjective pole is the proper reception of these elements by which Christians are put in touch with Jesus Christ’s physicality and thereby with the salvation that he has wrought.[11] Proper reception calls not simply for the communicant’s physical reception of the eucharistic elements, but also for the communicant’s spiritual reception of the body and blood. This inner or spiritual reception is the work of the Holy Spirit.[12]

It is now that the third and final theme of this section arises. Congar’s understands of the Eucharist in terms of upward and downward movements. First, the upward movement is the movement made by the church as a whole on the basis of its common priesthood. The church offers itself as a spiritual sacrifice to God. Congar is even able to speak of the priest’s activity in persona ecclesia with reference to this upward movement.[13] Thus far Congar understands the church to be in continuity with ancient Israel’s relationship to God. The new thing about the church, as per Congar’s understanding, is that there is now a new priesthood “coming from above, whose function is to communicate the good things…given once for all time in Jesus Christ.”[14] It is in this sense that the priest acts in persona or nomine Christi. This movement from above to below is decisive in the Eucharist, and this is precisely the point of transubstantiation for Congar:
[I]n the Eucharist, and precisely, in transubstantiation, it is the essential point of God’s purpose that is fulfilled; our approach to him suddenly concludes because it has been met with a gift from above.[15]
While the Word / objective pole is to be found in the downward vector, the Holy Spirit is active in both vectors. On the objective / downward side, the Holy Spirit, along with Christ, instituted the new priesthood from above and continues to work with this new priesthood to make the body and blood of Christ present in the eucharistic elements. On the subjective / upward side, it is the Spirit who enlivens the church’s spiritual self-sacrifice to God and also works subjectively and interiorly within the communicants what is offered to them objectively and externally in the eucharistic elements. It is through eucharistic contact with Christ’s physical reality by the work of the Holy Spirit that the eucharistic “expression…of our ‘return’…is changed….into the expression of [Jesus Christ’s] own return,” and the church’s offering to God becomes acceptable because Jesus Christ becomes the church’s offering.[16]


  1. Congar, Holy Spirit, 2:15.

  2. Congar, Gospel Priesthood, 96.

  3. Ibid, 93.

  4. Congar, Holy Spirit, 3:35.

  5. Congar, Gospel Priesthood, 183.

  6. Ibid, 182.

  7. Congar, Holy Spirit, 3:233.

  8. Ibid, 3:235.

  9. Ibid, 3:250.

  10. Ibid, 3:228. Congar thinks it a false dichotomy to oppose epiclesis and the words of institution. He understands them as intimately related.

  11. Cf. Congar, Mystery of the Church, 130.

  12. Cf. Congar, Word and Spirit, 34.

  13. Congar, Holy Spirit, 3:236.

  14. Congar, Revelation of God, 186.

  15. Ibid, 177.

  16. Ibid, 178.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

My Most Recent Publication

Review of Paul T. Nimmo, Being in Action: The Theological Shape of Barth’s Ethical Vision (London: T & T Clark, 2007).

In other news, the von Balthasar blog conference is now over. It was a great conference, and David deserves our thanks for putting it together. Thanks also to the many excellent contributors.

Stay tuned for the 2008 Barth Blog Conference, here at DET.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Von Balthasar Blog Conference Continues...

...with my own contribution. It is a mere response, but I'm sure that all of you - my dedicated readers - will want to check it out. And, while you are over there, be sure to catch up on the rest of the conference. It has been quite good. Thanks, again, to David for putting it all together.

Monday, March 17, 2008

2008 Balthasar Blog Conference: Now Underway

That's right! Over the next two weeks you will find a wide variety of reflections on Hans Urs von Balthasar's theology over at Fire & Rose. David has put together a good line-up. Yours truly has contributed a response, which will appear late next week.

Don't forget that the 2008 Barth Blog Conference to be held here at DET is in the works. It will appear in June.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Happenings at PTS

(1) There is a new review up on the Center for Barth Studies website of Donald Wood’s Barth’s Theology of Interpretation (Ashgate, 2007).

(2) The Center for Barth Studies website also has the full schedule for the 2008 Barth conference posted, along with a link to online registration.

(3) PTS has partnered with Microsoft “to digitize a large number of materials in the public domain from the collection of the Seminary library.” I’m very excited about this, as it will make many excellent theological resources widely available to pastors and students across the world. Way to go PTS!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

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.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Karl Barth on the Hiddenness of God

This is one of those especially good little fine-print sections that Barth is wont to give us from time to time, and which we are wont to too easily breeze past.

Church Dogmatics II/1, 193.
"It would be a serious misunderstanding of the Deus definiri nequit [Editorial Note: “God cannot be defined”] if we were to conclude from it that theology and proclamation must be completely silenced. The positive origin and meaning of the matter would then not be understood. Deus definiri nequit is, rightly understood, the confession of God’s revelation by which we certainly affirm that the incapacity of our own viewing and conceiving of God is disclosed, but by which the mouth is not stopped by opened for the delivery of the divine mandate. And again, it would be a misunderstanding if the conclusion were to be drawn from the Deus definiri nequit that all theology and proclamation has to take the form only of negative statements, and that in this form, as “cataphatic” theology, in the form of a revocation or relativising of all the definiteness of the divine nature, it is in a position to express and to establish true knowledge of God. Taken in this way, as in Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and all his disciples, the Deus definiri nequit is not understood radically enough. Again, we cannot flee from the hiddenness of God into the possibility of a negative comprehensibility, as if this were less our own human comprehensibility than a positive, and not just as incapable. And again, it would be a misunderstanding of the Deus definiri nequit if theology and proclamation tried to renounce the viewing and conceiving of God Himself in order to become instead a theology and proclamation of the underlying feeling of “absolute dependence.” For this time, as in Schleiermacher, it is not understood that the assertion of the incomprehensibility of God does not point us away from God to man, but simply tries to cleave to God, yet to the grace of God in His revelation. The Deus definiri nequit means that the Church receives permission and command to keep to the true knowledge of God bestowed upon it and not to escape into the supposed knowledge of God of a self-explanation of the pious man. Taking the latter course, it will know only a god who will certainly be apprehensible, but who will not be the true God. The true God is the hidden God. The Church must not flee from the task of knowing and proclaiming just this God. The misunderstandings of the Deus definiri nequit which we have mentioned – they are the misunderstandings of different varieties of mystical theology – are all of them attempts to evade this task, which means, to evade the true God in His hiddenness. It is advisable not to take part in these attempts."
The point that Barth seems to be trying to make about the hiddenness of God is that God truly is hidden to us, and that this goes not only for the constructive task that is called ‘natural theology’, but also for the various forms of what Barth here calls “mystical theology.” The via negativa is no better than the via eminentia. Both depend on human capabilities to know, and it simply is the case that human’s are not capable of knowing God on their own steam. As Barth says in the first words of the thesis statement for this section, “God is known only by God.” For this reason, we can know God only where God has made himself known – i.e., Jesus Christ. As Barth says at the top of the next page when he switches back to large print, "Knowing the true God in His revelation, we apprehend Him in His hiddenness. And just because we do this, we know the true God in His revelation." Any attempts to circumvent this locus of the knowledge of God is fundamentally un-Christian and, moreover, impossible.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Maurice Merleau-Ponty Congress

It has been recently brought to my attention that a congress will be held next week at Sofia University (Bulgaria) to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Maurice Merleau-Ponty's birth. Merleau-Ponty was a French phenomenologist in the school of Husserl, was an associate of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and had affinities with Heidegger as well.

If you are in interested in learning more about the congress, you can check out its website, which includes a schedule. You might also be interested in checking out the university's website.

Thanks to my frequent commentator "Luke" for alerting me to this congress. He is presenting a paper there, and perhaps he would be willing to share briefly with us the argument that he will make.

Monday, March 03, 2008

2008 Trinity Blogging Summit

Nick Norelli has recently gone live with the 2008 Trinity Blogging Summit, which he organized and edited. The table of contents will guide you to numerous intriguing and thought-provoking offerings, including my own reflections on Augustine Among the Social Trinitarians.

Nick has done a great job with this summit, and I highly encourage you to surf over and check it out. I would particularly enjoy seeing comments on my contribution with which to engage. So, don't be shy.

Finally, I am extremely gratified by the immense proliferation of theo-blog collaborative endeavors such as this since the First Annual Karl Barth Blog Conference was held here at DET last June. The 2008 Barth Blog Conference is coming, but first we have to Balthasar Blog Conference coming soon from David D. over at Fire & Rose