Friday, March 4, 2011

The Omnipresence of Christ and the Perichoresis of the Ages.

Re-reading The Babylonian Captivity of the Church for my Luther class, it occurred to me that the working assumption of Luther's entire approach to the sacraments is in fact his Christology of the omnipresent Christ. Catholicism and the Reformed necessarily work from the perspective of the absent Christ. Christ dragged down from heaven at the command of the priest, Christ substituted for with an earthly vicar, the Pope. Conversely, for the Reformed, a totally absent Christ. Minus the mechanism of an institutional Church and its special power to make Christ present, he remains trapped in heaven.

Luther by contrast believes that Christ already present according to his humanity and divinity. The issue is not whether he is present, but whether he will communicate himself and his benefits to the believer. The promise announces and communicates his presence "pro te." There is therefore no need for substitute Christ (Pope and priest acting in persona Christi). Christ is present and ruling- the question is, will it be law or gospel? The promise of the Word makes all the difference.

The second point I noticed was the issue of time. I was meditating on this issue in light of the question of penance and baptism, the thing which initiated the Reformation. The conclusion I came to was that both Roman Catholics and Reformed folks view revelation and the presence of Christ within the straight jacket of time, just as they view Jesus' humanity bound by straight jacket of space.

How do I mean this? Think about the what Catholicism says about baptism. Baptism forgives all sins, all temporal and eternal punishment in one shot. After that, it's up to you to maintain that. Of course, we know that doesn't work. People fall. So, penance repairs baptism- but of course not that well. You are disconnected from your baptism by time. There's no breaking through.

One can also make this observation about how Church and ministry are understood. The historic episcopacy is needed because otherwise the historical chain between Christ and the believer is broken. Jesus is "back there"- only a chain of historical succession can connect us to that history.

The Reformed think the same way. Why the obsession with the Lord's Supper as "memorial?"- because that's all they got! In other words, memory now serves as the mechanism whereby the absent, historical Christ is brought to the believer- just as the historical chain of the institutional Church functions for the Catholic.

Oswald Bayer observes that this is not the case for Luther. Though Luther obvious believes in a linear view of history (he's not a Hindu or Buddhist after all!), he nevertheless the holds to what might be called a perichoresis of the ages (my term, not Bayer's). In The Babylonian Captivity, Luther rejects confession and absolution as something different than baptism. Why? Because it is a return to one's baptism. In one's baptism, one's reality is determined eternally before God. We can reject the faith and fall away from that promise, but there a certain unreality in that action. The action is a sort of unreality because our true identity is established by that Word of promise. This is not to say we can't fall away and be damned. The issue is that our old self isn't really our true essence anymore- the new person of faith is. That Word of promise and that event are present to us throughout our lives. In a word, time doesn't separate us from our baptism, but it is rather a present reality through the promise of the gospel. It penetrates our present existence in a manner that doesn't contradict the linear nature of time, but rather transcends it.

This inner penetration of the person's existence also opens one up to one's larger context in the life of faith within the whole history of salvation. In that I am an old being sold under sin, the Fall is and remains until the last judgment a present reality to me. So too, my daily return to my baptism unites me with both the crucifixion, resurrection, and the last judgment. The promise of baptism is present and already actualized in the cross. "I am crucified with Christ" says Paul. In other words, my own destruction and resurrection in the flesh of Jesus is something already real and actualized. As a reality present to me and penetrating into my present existence, it determines me now. The same is true of the last judgment. As Jesus says, those who hear his voice have already "passed from death to life." As a result of the crucifixion and my baptism into it, I'm already past all that.

But how can this be? Bayer doesn't give an answer, but my response would be: it's Luther's Christology! The risen, omnipresent Christ, present to faith in the Word, unites us with the past, present, and future of salvation history through Word and sacrament. By these means, linear time doesn't cease, but it ceases to be the barrier that it is for the Catholics and the Reformed. There is a perichoresis of the ages.


  1. Thanks for the post--a helpful one! I'm working on the Crypto-Calvinist/Phillipist Controversy for a Luther class I'm in now. Your post helped point me to some other documents I should look at. I just don't get how the Crypto-Calvinists could think they were holding on to Luther's Christology while they took Christ's real presence out of the sacrament at the altar and didn't take Christ's words as they are!

  2. I can't speak for the Reformed folks, but this article shows a very strong misunderstanding of Catholicism and the teachings of the Catholic Church. I especially enjoyed the part about Luther's Christology: "The risen, omnipresent Christ, present to faith in the Word, unites us with the past, present, and future of salvation history through Word and sacrament." Wow, that could have been lifted from the Catholic Catechism!

    I would not say Catholics view Jesus in the straight-jacket of time either; I do not think the Catholic Church could be accused of boxing up God. Neither would I say that Christ is absent-- he is specifically and physically with us at the Mass, through the sacrament of the Eucharist. In terms of penance, when two of three are gathered in his name, he is with us. Baptism cleans Christians of original sin, but that does not mean we then think we are on our own. That is a heresy to say we rest on our own works to gain salvation through God. That is why we have the sacraments, and the necessity of God's grace.

    We are to live out our baptismal promises every day for we have been bought for a price; we are not our own. Catholics would never say that Christ is absent- God is living and viable in mankind. Absence implies that he's gone from this world, and he most certainly is not. The Pope is not the stand-in for Christ; he is the shepherd, leading the Church. Every priest, from the parish priest to the pope, is considered an alter Christus – another Christ. The priest does not gain this dignity and honor through his own piety, but through answering the call of Christ to come, follow him, and binding himself to the Church, becoming another manifestation of God's love for us.

    Really intriguing post- I think you've made some excellent points, but I also think there is more you could hash out here!

  3. Greetings.
    In my book I cover the differences between Calvin and Luther. Maybe you'll find it helpful: