Karl Barth on Totus Christus

June 18, 2014 — 5 Comments

I have been doing a little bit of study on the doctrine of totus Christus. From my viewpoint, many Catholic distinctives stem from this doctrine. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this in paragraph 795:

Christ and his Church thus together make up the “whole Christ” ( Christus totus ). The Church is one with Christ. The saints are acutely aware of this unity:

Let us rejoice then and give thanks that we have become not only Christians, but Christ himself. Do you understand and grasp, brethren, God’s grace toward us? Marvel and rejoice: we have become Christ. For if he is the head, we are the members; he and we together are the whole man . . . . the fullness of Christ then is the head and the members. But what does “head and members” mean? Christ and the Church. [St. Augustine, In Jo. ev , 21, 8: PL 35, 1568]

Our redeemer has shown himself to be one person with the holy Church whom he has taken to himself. [Pope St. Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job , praef., 14: PL 75, 525A]

Head and members form as it were one and the same mystical person. [St. Thomas Aquinas, ST III.48.2]

A reply of St. Joan of Arc to her judges sums up the faith of the holy doctors and the good sense of the believer: “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.”

Here is the summary paragraph that I have come up with.

Typically Protestants take the “body of Christ” to be a metaphor similar to other images the NT used to discuss the nature and function of the church. But Catholic and Orthodox theologians see 1 Corinthians 12:27 where Paul says “you are Christ’s body” as more than a mere metaphor, but a statement of reality speaking to the indissoluble relationship between Christ and his church. This has become know as the doctrine of totus Christus, which asserts the identity between Christ and his church is so complete that Christ and his church are now one and the same person. Through the Spirit, Christ is organically united to his body, the Church, so that he is with her totus Christus, caput et membra (the whole Christ, head and members). Christ and his church are not only related conceptually, but ontically and metaphysically. The two have become one singular reality.

karl_barth_1167312313122810Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar argued over the doctrine. Here is a fascinating little back-and-forth between Barth and a student on the subject.


Student: Does ‘Body of Christ’ have any sociological meaning for you?
Barth: Yes, if seen Christologically.  The Church is indirectly identical with Jesus Christ.  He is not without his Body. We believe in the totus Christus, and that includes his body on earth.  But it is a living body,  so we came back to the notion of event.
Student: Is the body an event?
Barth: Yes, bodily existence is an event.
Student: Is it not dangerous to say totus Christus?
Barth: No, we are only Christ’s Body, not the head. This means that we can never have a ‘head’ of the Church on earth; this is the Roman Catholic heresy.
Student: But should we say that his body is not yet perfect?
Barth: I would rather say, ‘His body is not yet revealed.’ What we see is imperfection, but what we need is apokalypsis.”

~ Noted by Mangina, Karl Barth: Theologian of Christian Witness, 165.

Patrick Schreiner

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I teach New Testament at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. I am married with three children. This blog, against all wisdom, includes anything I am interested in. That includes movies, music, theology, culture, hermeneutics, the Gospels, and politics. Feel free to comment and let me know you are reading or that you have found something helpful. I reserve the right to delete unhelpful or rude comments. Many of these posts are simply things I find interesting and therefore I am not asserting I agree with everything I link to.

5 responses to Karl Barth on Totus Christus

  1. Hey Patrick! This is great. I’ve been reading up on this a little bit myself. I’m in systematic theology and historical theology classes at Moody Bible Institute and I’m fascinated by this concept. Any suggestions on where to read up further? Thanks!

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