Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

The Church as Sign or Sacrament: Trinitarian Ecclesiology, Pilgram Marpeck, Vatican II and John Milbank

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

The Church as Sign or Sacrament: Trinitarian Ecclesiology, Pilgram Marpeck, Vatican II and John Milbank

Article excerpt

Abstract: This essay compares Marpeck's incarnational and trinitarian Christology with developments in Catholic sacramental theology related to Vatican II, arguing that notions such as the "humanity of Christ" or the "unglorified body of Christ" found throughout Marpeck's writings have striking parallels to recent Catholic descriptions of the church as "sign" or "sacrament." The second half of the essay demonstrates that the comparison is of more than historical interest by engaging the thought of the contemporary theologian John Milbank. Milbank, like Marpeck and the theologians of Vatican II, ties the visible presence of the church in the world both to a trinitarian theology and to a more narrative understanding of nonviolent discipleship. In so doing, Milbank demonstrates that Marpeck's Anabaptist theology, cast in incarnational, trinitarian and sacramental language, could be quite useful for Mennonites as they think about how they might participate in wider conversations with other Christian traditions and develop an ecclesiology that is more consciously catholic and missional, while at the same time maintaining--and perhaps even strengthening--the fundamental convictions of their own tradition.


One of the main ecclesiological contributions of the Vatican II Council (1962-1965) was its emphasis on the church as a "sacrament or sign of salvation" (1) and its readiness to define the church primarily as the "people of God" rather than in more traditional hierarchical terms. References to the church as a sacrament obviously have deep roots in the history of Catholic theology. (2) Vatican II documents cite references to the patristic period and note that an important development took place in the thirteenth century, when scholastic theology systematized reflection on the sacraments and conceived of the union between Christ and the church as the principal sacrament, and therefore as foundational for all particular sacraments. Although medieval sacramental theology, according to the Dominican scholar Yves Congar, was often disassociated from its ecclesiological foundations, Thomas Aquinas--and specifically his notion of the "humanity of Christ"--kept alive the possibility of a sacramental understanding of the church. (3)

Neo-scholastic Catholic theology of the mid-nineteenth century revived this theme in its conception of the church as the "prolongation of the glorified Christ on earth." In keeping with Aquinas, for whom the seven sacraments had their origin in the one true and unique sacrament, more recent Catholic theologians articulated the idea that Christ, through the church, is at work in its members "as through diverse instruments." (4)

In 1937, Yves Congar began to formulate his ecclesiology in sacramental terms. Around the same time, the Belgian theologian Emile Mersch wrote of the church as prolonging the humanity of Christ, and therefore as the sacrament par excellence. (5) Twenty-five years later Henri de Lubac insisted on the necessary distinction between Christ and the church, but claimed nevertheless that the church perpetuated the work of the Son of God on earth. (6) This neo-Thomist approach did not always make a clear conceptual distinction between Christ and the church. As the "prolongation of the humanity of Christ" the church was understood to participate in and contribute to the accomplishment of salvation. The church thus became the fundamental sacrament; as the prolongation of the Incarnation it was not always distinguished from Christ. (7)

The German Jesuit Otto Semmelroth brought this concept of the church to its pre-conciliar fruition in the 1950s. (8) Citing Pins XII's 1943 encyclical Mystici corporis, which described Christ as the instrument of God still at work in the life of the church (the incarnati verbi instrumentum), Semmelroth described the saving action of God as located in the present in the life of the church, which possesses the divine reality in a way so real and so objective that whoever is in contact with it comes into contact with the divine reality. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.