Thoughts of a Living Christian

Musings of an amateur theologian and hopeful writer

Archive for the month “March, 2013”

What Actually is the Church?

Unfortunately there is no simple, concise answer to this question. We may immediately race to the Bible to find an answer, but what we find may initially confuse. We are to be the bride of Christ? We are to be salt and light? The uninitiated may balk at such metaphor! However the issue is compounded upon viewing the Church today – or, rather, the many styles and theologies; the many interpretations of the Biblical metaphors of this “flock.” Often, it seems, the discussion comes down to three factors: 1) who, 2) where, and 3) its origin and authority. This paper reflects upon the Roman Catholic ecclesiology as presented in Lumen Gentium,[1] with more recent interpretations of the Second Vatican Council from whence this document originates by Joseph Ratzinger, as well as a comparison with the Protestant ecclesiology of Karl Barth. Despite many similarities, both are remarkably distinct, with the differences in theology emanating from differing responses to the above three factors.

Lumen Gentium asserts that the ‘who’ of the Church consists of those participating in the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Holy Communion, Penance, among others, unified in Christ’s body – as celebrated at the altar in the sacrament of Eucharist – to form one Body in Christ.[2] This is further asserted by Ratzinger, who argues the Universal Church is found in the sacraments.[3] Those within the Church are “united in a hidden and real way to Christ,” who gives to them the Spirit to constantly renew and unify the Church.[4] Furthermore, “All men are called to be part of this catholic unity of the people of God which in promoting universal peace presages it. And there belong to or are related to it in various ways, the Catholic faithful, all who believe in Christ, and indeed the whole of mankind, for all men are called by the grace of God to salvation.”[5]

Similarly, the ‘where’ of the Church is wherever the sacraments are faithfully and properly administered. These sacraments can only be administered by “those ministers, who are endowed with sacred power,”[6] who receive this “power” from the seat of Peter, thus “the faithful must cling to their bishop, as the Church does to Christ, and Jesus Christ to the Father, so that all may be of one mind through unity, and abound to the glory of God.”[7] Thus the third factor, of the origin of the Church, or where the Church derives its authority, is from the Pope, as Christ “placed Blessed Peter over the other apostles, and instituted in him a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and communion.”[8]

The Church is thus defined, according to Lumen Gentium and Ratzinger as the mystical body of those who are unified to one another and to Christ through participation in the sacraments (who) properly administered by bishops and priests (where) who receive their power and authority from Peter and ultimately Christ (origin/authority). An evident issue arises when determining soteriology. Much emphasis is placed on correct administration of the sacraments; “Fortified by so many and such powerful means of salvation, all the faithful…are called by the Lord…to that perfect holiness.”[9] A typical Protestant argument would be that faith comes from Christ alone, not through a physical action.[10] This argument is, however, inadequate, due to the complexity of Catholic ecclesiology. Ratzinger, for example, would agree that faith comes from Christ, but it comes through the Pope, the bishop or priest, the sacrament to the recipient.[11]

Barth’s ecclesiology, however, seems to make much more sense of the link between ecclesiology and soteriology. Where Lumen Gentium places the origin of the Church with the ‘blessing’ of Peter, Barth, in typical Barthian style, places a greater Christological emphasis on the Church. He links the beginning of the Church with Christ’s resurrection, arguing the Church is an event; “The Church exists by happening. The Church exists as the event of this gathering together.”[12] This avoids the Roman Catholic overemphasis upon the Church as an institution wherein grace and faith come through the ministers, because rather than faith being administered through papal authority, the Church – as an event – leads toward the source of faith and grace rather than being the source itself. Barth argues, “The essence of the Church is the event in which the Holy Scriptures as the prophetic-apostolic witness to Jesus Christ carry through the “demonstration of the Spirit and power.””[13] He further states that “the Holy Scriptures establish the Church.”[14] The ‘who’ is thus the ‘living congregation’ whose fellowship is formed by the Holy Spirit, deriving its authority from the Bible. As to the ‘where,’ he argues that “the one, holy, universal, apostolic Church exists as a visible congregation…assembled by God’s Word, comforted and exhorted by God’s Word, and which serves God’s Word in the world.”[15]

Barth’s ecclesiology is much preferred to that of Lumen Gentium and Ratzinger, largely because its authority is based not in a human, but in the dynamic working of God through the Holy Spirit, speaking through the Word. The Church is not the source of faith, but directs towards the source of faith. It does not dominate, but serves, as Barth argues.[16] That is the wonderful truth of the nature and essence of the Church!


Barth, Karl. God Here and Now. Translated by Paul M. van Buren. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964.

Hill, Graham. Salt, Light, and a City: Introducing Missional Ecclesiology. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2012.

Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal. Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith: The Church as Communion. San Francisco: Igantius Press, 2005.

Vaticana, Libreria Editrice, ed. The Documents of Vatican Ii with Notes and Index: Vatican Translation. Strathfield, NSW: St Pauls Publications, 2009.

[1] Of the two ‘great pillars’ of Vatican 2, Lumen Gentium discussed the ad intra aspects of the Church, and is thus a theological document pertaining to what the Church actually is. The second, Gaudium et spes is virtually inseparable to the first, but focuses on the ad extra aspects of the Church, hence focussing on the Church within the world. Both are essential in understanding the theology of Vatican 2, but also both the ad intra and ad extra aspects of the Church are essential in any discussion of what the Church is.

[2] Libreria Editrice Vaticana, ed. The Documents of Vatican Ii with Notes and Index: Vatican Translation (Strathfield, NSW: St Pauls Publications, 2009). 18 – “As often as the sacrifice of the cross in which Christ our Passover was sacrificed (cf. 1 Cor 5:7) is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried on, and, in the sacrament of the eucharist bread, the unity of all believers who form one body in Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 10:17) is both expressed and brought about.”

[3] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith: The Church as Communion (San Francisco: Igantius Press, 2005). 141-142 – “We are given a quite practical answer to the question, What is this one universal Church, which is ontologically and temporally prior to the local Churches? What does she consist of? Where can we see her at work? The Constitution answers this when it talks to us about the sacraments. First there is baptism…in baptism the door is opened for us into the one Church: baptism is the presence of the one Church and can come only from her…to the Eucharist, in which Christ gives us his Body and, thus, makes us into his body.”

[4] Vaticana, ed. 21-22.

[5] Ibid. 29.

[6] Ibid. 32. Cf. Ratzinger. 143 – “The dimension of the sacrament extra nos is seen yet again in the office of bishop and of priest: the fact the sacrament of priestly service is requisite for the Eucharist is founded upon the fact that the congregation cannot give itself the Eucharist; it has to receive it from the Lord by the mediation of the one Church.” One cannot but notice the blindingly enormous presupposition that only bishops and priests can administer the sacraments. Neither Ratzinger nor Lumen Gentium make any argument as to why “the congregation cannot give itself the Eucharist.” My question is thus, “why not?”

[7] Vaticana, ed. 42. With this comes liturgy, “Our union with the Church in heaven is put into effect in its noblest manner especially in the sacred Liturgy, wherein the power of the Holy Spirit acts upon us through sacramental signs,” (p. 64). Cf. Ratzinger. 126 – “The Church derives from adoration, from the task of glorifying God. Ecclesiology, of its nature, has to do with liturgy.”

[8] Vaticana, ed. 32. Furthermore, “This Church constituted and organized in a world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him,” (p. 23). Cf. Graham Hill, Salt, Light, and a City: Introducing Missional Ecclesiology (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2012). 9, regarding Ratzinger’s ecclesiology, summarizes, “Faith and Christian experience, therefore, are mediated through the church, which they encounter as sacrament, sign, and instrument of salvation.”

[9] Vaticana, ed. 26-27.

[10] Cf. Hill. 11 – “Reformed evangelical ecclesiology believes that the individual Christian is saved by grace and faith alone, through the person and work of Christ alone, whereas Ratzinger affords the larger, universal church, as well as the local church, a defining place in the sacramental mediation of faith.”

[11] Though it is not within the scope of this reflection, one must then ask the question: where, then, is the place for repentance? Does one need to repent to receive this faith, or can one simply receive this faith through participation in the sacrament without any thought whatsoever of repentance?

[12] Karl Barth, God Here and Now, trans., Paul M. van Buren (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964). 62. His actualistic ecclesiology continues, “The essence of the Church is the event in which this peculiar human togetherness becomes possible and effectual,” (p. 63).

[13] Ibid. 64.

[14] Ibid. 64. Many Roman Catholics would respond to this by arguing that the Church came first, then Scriptures – after all, were not the people of the New Covenant gathered before the New Testament was written? Ratzinger argues that the Church originated “with the community of 120 gathered around Mary, and especially with the renewed community of the Twelve,” (Ratzinger. 136). This may be true, but the question is not which came first, rather where authority is derived. This Catholic response can be countered in two ways. Firstly, the early Church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching,” (Acts 2:42) obviously the teaching given to them by Jesus Christ Himself. Hence, from the very beginning, the Church received its authority from this teaching which was eventually written down, becoming Scripture. Secondly, the assertion that Peter was the source of authority is fairly short-sighted. He was given a particular vocation by Christ for leadership, but there is no mention of him being elevated above the other apostles in terms of faith. It seems his mission was no more important than the others! Therefore, the source of the Church must be something other than Peter, which is thus Scripture.

[15] Barth. 76.

[16] Barth. 80 – The Church guides; “to guide means to serve, not to dominate.” Furthermore, “Had the congregation in Rome wanted to serve rather than rule, rather than needlessly underscoring its domination, in addition, by erecting a throne in its midst and raising up its incumbent as an infallible judge over the faith and life of all the congregations, we might all be Roman,” (p. 80).


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