WTS March 2004
“ChRISTUS TOTUS and Testimonies:
The Centrality of Jesus’ story and the legitimacy of ours”
In certain segments of the Wesleyan circle of Churches, there is a noticeable decline in the practice of testimonies. Though personal storytelling is far from lost, one is hard pressed to find it taking a prominent place in a worship service. Over the years once can watch the migration of testimonies from Sunday morning to Sunday night to Wednesday night, and finally to the privacy of a Purpose-Driven Life Small Group. Of course, very few theologians would decry such a decline. What has contributed more to doctrinal ignorance than the subjectivist, individualist notion that we can and should talk openly about what God is doing in our lives?
One contributing factor to theological distaste for testimonies may be the contemporary focus on epistemology. If the constant challenge before us is the foundation of knowledge, then pointing to testimonies does seem a bit bland. But what if we relocated the matter of testimonies from epistemology to ecclesiology? What if we reflected on the significance of testimonies not as a ground of knowledge but as an aspect of the Church?
What I aim to do in the following paper is connect the ancient doctrine of Christus totus with the contemporary practice of testimonies. What is implied for the meaning and significance of testimonies if “there is no Christ without his Church?” What new light can this doctrine shed on practical problems surrounding testimonies? As a humble attempt to overcome the disjunction of theory and practice, the following paper aims to exemplify the practical divinity proper to our Wesleyan heritage.
The first step toward this theological synthesis is to describe the doctrine of Christus totus. I have selected Augustine as the foremost expositor of this doctrine. Such a selection is far from controversial, since he both coined the phrase and is known for his ecclesiological reflections. After getting a firm grasp on the Christus totus idea in Augustine, I will turn to explain its potential significance for the practice of testimonies. I will then exemplify how this conceptual marriage might bear practical fruit.
Augustine’s Doctrine of Christus totus
The role of Christus totus in Augustine’s theology is often forgotten.[i] The idea unites Christology and ecclesiology by affirming the real connection of Christ, the head, to the Church, his body. Quasten summarizes the concept saying, “Christ, as head, is always present and active in his body, the church; the church and Christ form one single person.”[ii] On the one hand, to speak of Christ alone is to forget the whole Christ, for Christ is united to the Church. On the other, to speak of the Church alone is also to forget the whole Christ, for the Church is united to Christ. Christ and his Church together are the Christus totus.
Although the idea is spread throughout his corpus, Augustine’s Homilies on the First Epistle of John are the key to understanding the concept of Christus totus. Immediately in the first homily, Augustine explains the concept and coins the phrase. After commenting on John’s reference to the witnesses of the embodied Christ, Augustine says, “Verbum caro factum est, et habitavit in nobis; illi carni adjungitur ecclesia, et fit Christus totus, caput et corpus [The Word was made flesh, and dwelled among us; to that flesh is joined the church, and there is made the whole Christ, head and body]” (In. Epist. Io. 1.2).[iii]
Lewis Ayres points out the significance of the context of this famous formula. Augustine is speaking about the physical aspect of the Word’s appearance. Augustine intentionally plays on the words “martyr” and “witness” to lift up the continued physical testimony to the physical appearance of the immaterial Word of God.[iv] In a sense, the embodiment of the Word is not finished at the ascension of Christ. Rather, he continues to be embodied in those who witness to him.
Augustine made use of this concept in his ecclesiological controversy with the Donatists. Augustine saw the tragedy of institutional division in the Church. He and his opponents had different ecclesiological views, yet both sides claimed to affirm Orthodox Christology. Hence, Augustine made his ecclesiological case by appealing to Christology. With the aid of the concept of Christus totus, Augustine could accuse those who divide the Church of actually denying the very incarnation of the Word. In his sixth homily on 1 John, he declares: “He came to gather in one, you come to unmake. You would pull Christ’s members asunder. How can it be said that you do not deny that Christ is come in the flesh, [if you have] torn asunder the Church which he has gathered together?” (In. Epist. Io. VI.14). Therefore, the Christus totus concept served Augustine well in the midst of theological controversy.
Yet we would be amiss to think of this concept as a mere speculation in service of ecclesiastical disputes. It also had considerable practical import. For Augustine, Christus totus meant that the unseen God could be seen in his Church. The concept therefore underwrote his call to brotherly love. He puts it well in his fifth homily: “You may say to me, I have not seen God; can you say to me, I have not seen man? Love your brother. For if you love your brother whom you see, at the same you will also see God” (In. Epist. Io. V.7). By linking ecclesiology to Christology with the Christus totus concept, Augustine can make an appeal for love of neighbor that is ultimately aimed toward the love of God.
Augustine’s discussion and application of the concept of Christus totus is not found exclusively in his Homilies on First John. Tarsicius J. van Bavel argues that Augustine lifts the concept from Paul.[v] The phrases “body of Christ” and “in Christ” play a central role in Paul’s epistles. Furthermore, Paul speaks repeatedly of the unity of Christ and Christians, especially in suffering.
Such a unity in suffering is not
unique to Paul among the writers of the New Testament. Van Bavel notes, “Augustine frequently quotes
two New Testament texts about Christ’s identification with the human being.”[vi] These two texts are Matthew 25:31-46 and Acts
9:4. In both cases, Christ speaks of his
people in the first person singular. In
Matthew 25, the Son of Man addresses the sheep and the goats regarding their
compassion when he was sick, hungry, or in prison. He declares, “Whatever you do to the least of
these, you do to me.” In Acts 9,
Jesus asks Saul on the road to
One might object, however, that all this language in the New Testament as well as in Augustine is merely figurative. There is no real, ontological connection between Christ and Christians, is there? In response, it must first be noted that simply identifying a concept as a “metaphor” or “figure” does not necessarily discredit its realistic import. Some of the most significant ontological realities are expressed through metaphor. Additionally, one must remember that in the ancient world identity was often construed in corporate terms. Van Bavel cites a story of Livy’s where an aristocrat calms a rebellion by appealing to a head-and-body analogy similar to that found in the New Testament. The aristocrat is the head of which the lower classes are the body. Amazingly, this speech appeals to the lower classes and the rebellion ends.[vii] Finally, in the case of Augustine, his language is so striking and his use of the concept so forceful that it is difficult to suggest he is only waxing metaphorically. The following passage from his Homilies on the Gospel of John is a case in point:
Then let us rejoice and give thanks that we are made not only Christians, but Christ. Do you understand, brothers, and apprehend the grace of God upon us? Marvel, be glad, we are made Christ. For if he is the head, we are the members: the whole man is he and we… The fullness of Christ, then, is head and members. Head and members, what is that? Christ and the Church (In. Io. XXI.8).
Therefore, we can agree with van Bavel’s statement, “This is more than a simple comparison or metaphor; it is a personal unity.”[viii] Christus totus is a realistic concept for Augustine.
This realism asks another question: does the concept of Christus totus take away from the uniqueness of Christ? Does the affirmation that we have no Christ without his Church make Christ incomplete? Whatever one makes of the Christology of Augustine in general, this specific concept is not intended to detract in the least bit from Christ’s uniqueness and completeness. The priority in the formula is always given to Christ. Christ can be identified without the Church. Yet Christ chooses not to limit his identifiability to himself alone, but shares it with the Church. As van Bavel insightfully notes, “It is not so that Christ would be incomplete without us or without a church… The union of Christ and the human being is a matter of unity through identification (not identity), freely chosen out of love.”[ix] So Christ graciously unites himself to us, so that he cannot be found without us or us without him.
The Logic of Christus totus Applied to the Practice of Testimonies
What might this imply for the ecclesial practice of testimonies? What does the concept of Christus totus have to say about members of the church telling their stories? I propose that the Christus totus concept affirms the practice of testimonies by relocating them. Testimonies serve as identifying narratives of the ecclesial community. When members of the community tell stories of God’s work in their midst, they identify the community in relation to God. Testimonies therefore assume a communion between God and his people.
The doctrine of Christus totus speaks of a similar communion. Yet Christus totus and testimonies are seldom spoken of in conjunction. Why is this? My suspicion is that such a cleavage exists precisely because testimonies have been poorly located conceptually. All too often, testimonies are appealed to as an epistemic warrant for belief. The problems with such an appeal are manifold and obvious, and so need not be rehearsed at present. Unfortunately, the weakness of testimonies as epistemic warrants has resulted in a general mistrust of their ecclesial usefulness. Yet I propose that testimonies were never meant to fulfill such an epistemic function and therefore were doomed to fail at such a weighty task.
If we rethink testimonies in Christus totus terms, they can serve a fruitful ecclesiological function. No longer must testimonies bear the heavy weight of justifying belief in God or salvation. Rather, testimonies can narrate the identity of the church as a witness to Christ’s salvation of the world. By telling the story of the church, testimonies indirectly tell the story of Christ. How can this be? Since Christ and the Church are united as head and body, a story about one is mysteriously a story about the other. So when we tell our story, we are telling Christ’s story. Our testimonies are narratives of the Christus totus.
The concept of Christus totus therefore helps to overcome a constant struggle in modern Christian theology: the relation of objective history to subjective experience. Some so emphasize the objective revelatory and reconciling activity of Jesus Christ to the point of disavowing any personal experience. Thus they have the head without the body. Yet some who emphasize experience cannot help but fall into the trap of downplaying the objective reality of Jesus Christ. Thus they have a headless body. The concept of Christus totus balances this seesaw effect by uniting the two terms into a mysterious relationship. As head of the body, Christ is certainly the objective ground of the Church’s subjective experience. Yet there is no Christ without his people.
Therefore, testimonies are an indispensable practice whereby the church narrates its own saved identity in order to narrate the saving identity of Jesus Christ. Just as the church regularly reads the Gospels to render the identity of Christ, so the church regularly testifies to render its own identity. In the former case, the head is in the foreground. In the latter, the body is in the foreground. In both cases, head and body are united so that one is never identified without the other. So by rethinking testimonies as narratives of the Christus totus, our stories can be legitimized without losing sight of the primacy of Jesus’ story.
Doctrine Solving Practical Problems: Three Principles
I have aimed to show that testimonies make the most sense in a broader ecclesiological framework governed by the doctrine of Christus totus. But what difference does this theological relocation make? What would testimonies look like if we understood them within the context of the Christus totus? I suggest that three practical principles emerge. Each deals with common problems surrounding the practice of testimonies as usually conceived.
Testimonies often run aground because they are treated as the private property of the testifier. One narrates the work of God among us, citing it as evidence of the existence of God and/or the reality of salvation. Yet once someone asks questions of historical truth or narrative coherency, the testifier will quickly hide behind the claim, “Its my personal experience.” Hence a crude concept of experiential infallibility is at work among many Christians.
If we think of testimonies as narratives of the Christus totus, they can no longer be treated as the exclusive property of individual Christians. Rather, a personal testimony contributes to the larger story of Christ and his Church. It is a piece of the Christus totus. Thus the logic of Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 12 applies to testimonies as much as it does to gifts. The ear or eye (my testimony or yours) do not stand alone, but contribute to the whole body of Christ. Our testimonies are therefore the public property of the Church.
Traditional practice already implies this principle by insisting that a religious experience does not “count” until testified to publicly. The logic of Christus totus enables us to tease out the theological significance of this ecclesial habit. Furthermore, we can stress the public element even further by permitting the Christian community to discuss and even question the details of a particular testimony. This ought not be carried so far as to silence all deviations from the “typical testimony.” But of necessity, the community will shape the form and content of our stories, so we might as well be intentional about the discernment process.
A second problem surrounding the practice of testimonies is pride. Many testifiers worry whether their impulse to testify comes from a desire for attention rather than from the Spirit. While such a concern is understandable, the search for humility in any act of public speaking is always a difficult task. All too often, words the community needed to hear are left unsaid because one of God’s prophets was afraid of being (or looking) prideful.
If testimonies narrate the identity of the Christus totus, then the problem of pride is, in principle, side-stepped. If my story is merely a contribution to the whole story of Christ and his Church, then my motives are displaced from the outset. I still need to deal in my heart with the question of my true intentions. But in the meantime, the story of God’s work among his people can and must be told.
Such a sidestepping of the motive question leaves open the broader question of personal discernment. How does one determine whether or not to speak up? If the answer is not found by testing the genuineness of our intentions, where can we look? I recommend that we answer this question by means of the spiritual discipline of secrecy. The question to ask oneself is whether or not God intended the particular experience under discernment to be enjoyed (or suffered) in secret. The deciding vote is one of edification. One asks whether this story serves God’s church better in spiritual secrecy or as proclaimed testimony. The focus therefore is on God’s intentions for his Church, rather than my own intentions and motives.
One last issue connected with the practices of testimonies is the pressure felt by many to testify. Some Christians sense they have to “drum up a good story”—even if they do not have one. This kind of pressure seems unavoidable when testimonies are treated as epistemic data to prove God’s lively work among us. But if testimonies are reconceived as identity-rendering narratives of the Christus totus, the pressure is lessened. Certainly some sense of the urgency to bear witness remains. Yet the identity of the Christus totus, rendered by the many stories of both Christ and Christians, does not require one more story. Rather, the Church welcomes new and fresh stories that continue to shape and extend her identity. The Church must turn from pressure tactics to acts of hospitality. The Church can make room for testimonies by helping Christians to form them, setting aside time for them, and, most importantly, being patient as the words take time to form.
Testimonies are narratives of the Christus totus. They identify the Church and therefore point to Christ. By conceptualizing testimonies as such, certain practical problems can be addressed. What I have tried to do in this paper is exemplify theological reflection in the service of the Church. My intent was to avoid the typically awkward transition from the academic study of theologians to the practical application of ideas. Rather, I moved from the sort of “third-order” academic study of Augustine’s doctrine of Christus totus to the second-order discourse of connecting Christus totus to testimonies. Only after this constructive reflection of my own did I turn to a sort of first-order practical application. I recommend such a flow from third- to second- to first-order discourse as a prudent method for reconciling academic theology and real life.
Of course, in these last words I have managed to spoil this flow by shifting into a reflection on method, which is about as second-order as you can get. Yet I have done this in order to make explicit my intentions: that academic theologians can move from obscure textual study to relevant practical matters, but not without doing a little constructive theology along the way. Too often we move from a figure like Augustine to the contemporary church, without constructing a theological bridge for which we can and must take responsibility. I hope and pray that this paper can humbly display the daunting task of doing theology.
[i] Tarsicius J. van Bavel, “The ‘Christus Totus’ Idea: A Forgotten Aspect of Augustine’s Spirituality” in Thomas Finan and Vincent Twomey, eds., Studies in Patristic Christology (Portland Oregon: Four Courts Press, 1998) 85.
[ii] Johannes Quasten, Patrology (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1986) IV:447.
[iii] All translations of Augustine’s Homilies are from In Epistolam Joannis ad Parthos Tractatus Decem, in Opera Omnia 3:2 (Parisiis: Apud Gaume Fratres, 1836), checked against Augustine, “Homilies on the Gospel of John and on the First Epistle of John,” Philip Shaff, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series 1, Volume 7 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956). Hereafter cited in-text by tractate in Roman numerals, paragraph in Arabic numerals.
[iv] Lewis Ayres, “Augustine on God as Love and Love as God” Pro Ecclesia 5:4 (Fall 1996) 473.
[v] Van Bavel, “The ‘Christus Totus’ Idea” 84-87.
[vi] Van Bavel, “The ‘Christus Totus’ Idea” 88.
[vii] Van Bavel, “The ‘Christus Totus’ Idea” 84.
[viii] Van Bavel, “Church” 171.
[ix] Tarsicius J. van Bavel, “Church” in Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia (Gen. Ed.: Allan D. Fitzgerald; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999) 171.