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Can the Church Embody the Word?

John Webster suggests that the church can “never embody or present or realize” the “word of reconciliation” in its own midst. Webster is concerned to stress the utter gratuity and irreducibility of God’s action over against the church’s action. God saves and we do not. We are never the subject of salvation, always its object.

However, does the gratuity and singularity of God’s action entail the church’s utter extrinsity to God’s saving action? Bonhoeffer suggests, not that the church has some sort of immanent ability to embody the Word of God, but rather that the Word itself seeks the ecclesial community within which to take shape. The Word itself “has an inherent impulse toward community.”

The question is decidedly not one of the church’s capacity to participate in or extend God’s own action, rather it is a question of the character of divine action itself. The Word of reconciliation is (of course!) beyond any human ability to embody or realize in that the presence of the Word in history is an absolute novum, an apocalyptic event. Rather, the apocalyptic Word, by its very nature seeks out the church, makes it its own, and transfigures it, and conforms it ever and again into the image of Christ, entering into it from without, and just so indelibly making the church its home. The church is, as Barth liked to express it, the “crater” left by “the great disturbance” of God’s invasion of history in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The church is a the crater, the space created by the presence of God which transfigures, and recreates by first dissolving and bringing to nothing.

The church does not, then “embody” the Word in the sense of performing some sort of act of cultural-communal repetition whereby they achieves something. Rather the church is a space of emptiness, an epicenter created by the apocalyptic Word of God which is always and ever at the center of the church, as its vivifying life which is always alien, new, and irreducible to something immanent. The church does not so much embody the Word as the presence of God in Christ “Words” the church, seizing it and catching it up into the movement of God’s apocalypse which dissolves and renews the world.


  1. bobby grow wrote:

    I think this represents a good answer, to your previous post on Bonhoeffer. So not only are ‘we’ the ‘object’ of salvation, but we become ‘subjectified’ in the ever giving life of Christ’s becoming.

    Monday, October 13, 2008 at 1:38 pm | Permalink
  2. Josh Furnal wrote:

    Good stuff… I find Rowan Williams perspective quite compelling:

    “… it is and is not true to see the Church as ‘identified’ with the risen Jesus: the Church is where Jesus is met, where bodily, historical grace and reconciliation are now shown, it is the ‘body’ of Jesus’ presence; but the Church still meets Jesus as an other, a stranger, it never absorbs him into itself so that he ceases to be its lover and its judge.” – Resurrection, p 95.

    Monday, October 13, 2008 at 3:04 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Exactly, Josh. Williams right on the money there, as in so many other places.

    Monday, October 13, 2008 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

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