Thursday, October 16, 2008

Coping with the Real Absence of Christ

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the more headway I make into Michael Horton's People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology, the more I hope to blog about it. It's dense and only readable in bite-size chunks, so my posts on it will be somewhat scattered.

Horton's argument in Chapter One ("Real Absence, Real Presence") is that the church's tendency to treat Jesus' bodily ascension merely as an exclamation point tagged on to the resurrection results in a discomfort with what he calls "the real absence of Christ." The way many evangelical churches cope with Jesus' absence is by attempting to be "incarnational" while forgetting, apparently, that the incarnation already happened. Ironically, Horton argues, the Catholic Church fails to reckon with Christ's absence as well with an "incarnationalism" of its own, only not missional but Eucharistic, with a parousia of a sacramental rather than historical variety.

"The space between the ascended Christ and his ecclesial body," Horton says, "was increasingly filled by ecclesiastical accessories." He quotes Farrow's Ascension and Ecclesia: "Indeed, [the miracle of transubstantiation] meant that the church now controlled the parousia. At the ringing of a bell the Christus absens became the Christus praesens." Not only is this "ecclesial substitution" occasioned by the bodily absence of Christ, but, Horton argues quoting Farrow, "Western ecclesiology requires a completely absent Christ if it is to provide instead that miraculous eucharistic one who will underwrite the programme of the church."

It was Calvin, following Irenaeus, who directed our attention to the eschatological and economical, forcing us to deal with the problem of Christ's absence. Rather than moving from Eucharist to ascension, Calvin moved in the opposite direction, seeking a Pneumatological rather than ecclesial solution. Horton writes:

When we refuse to collapse the resurrection, ascension, and Parousia into one event, a pneumatological space appears for the time between the times. The Spirit is the mediator of, not the surrogate for, Christ's person and work.... The Spirit's work both measures and mediates the eschatological difference between the head and his members.
Contrariwise, an "overrealized eschatology of the Eucharist... actually undermines the eschatological tension that this event highlights rather than resolves." He continues:

When the Spirit is appealed to as merely the solution to the problem of Christ's absence, and not also as the one whose very presence constantly provokes our sense of the "more" of the Parousia, we are no longer speaking of the Spirit's mediation so much as the Spirit's replacement of Jesus Christ.
The Holy Spirit, Horton insists, should not be treated as a substitute for the absent Christ but as the one who negotiates the eschatological tension between this passing age and the one to come. The ironic result, therefore, is that a supposedly anti-Gnostic focus upon the incarnation may in fact be a refusal to deal with Christ's real absence and instead seek for a false presence. Such replacement, Horton insists, is an idolatrous substitution of a golden calf on the part of those who are bored waiting for Moses to come down the mountain and lead them to the promised land.

Oh, and it's also rather Gnostic....