Hans Frei

Hans Frei on the Identity of the Church

It is not easy, then, to describe the church. In one sense, it is the indirect, localized presence of Jesus Christ in and for the world. But even if we stress that he is in that community only because he is present for the whole world, the assertion still sounds so exclusive, if not arrogant, that it seems to come dangerously close to dissolving the mystery that is the presence of Christ. So it is best to go on and balance this statement by saying that the church is simply the witness to the fact that it is Jesus Christ and none other who is the ultimate presence in and to the world in its mysterious passage from event to event in public history. This is indeed what believers must affirm, for Jesus Christ himself was declared (in the Fourth Gospel) to be a witness, and the disciples surely are not above the Master.

Nonetheless, this description also is insufficient. The relation between church and Jesus Christ is somewhat like that between Israel and Jesus. To describe the people of Israel is to narrate its history. And to identify that people (as Christian believers are bound to do) with the identity of Jesus Christ is to narrate the history of Jesus–as we sought to do earlier–in such a way that it is seen as the individual and climatic summing up, incorporation, and identification of the whole people, by which the people receive their identification. The church likewise moves toward an as yet undisclosed historical summing up that must be narrated, though it cannot yet be because the story is unfinished and the new Israel’s Kingdom of God not yet climaxed or visible in our midst.

What we are saying here is that the church has a history, indeed it is nothing other than its as yet unfinished history transpiring from event to event. The identity description that we applied to Jesus in the Gospels must, to a lesser extent and in merely analogous fashion, be applied also to the church as his people. We can only touch on what this means. The elusive, persistent, and continuous ‘subject’ that is the church–and the indirect, abiding presence of Christ–is constitute by the Word and the Sacrament. It is therefore proper to say that they constitute the church rather than the church them. The given and instituted, spatial and temporal bases for the indirect presence of Christ allow the church that relatively permanent institutional structure without which no community can exist or be self-identical. But it is obvious that this understanding of the church as a ‘subject self’ is analogous to rather than identical with the subject self that is Jesus.

… The other side of the identity description can also be applied to the church, indeed it can be applied much more directly or literally. Jesus’ identity was the intention-action sequence in which he came to be who he was. His being had to be narrated, as historians and novelists must always narrate the matters they describe. He was constituted by the interaction of his character and circumstances. So also is the church. Like Jesus, like the people of Israel, the church is its history, its passage from event to event in a mysterious pattern that is dictated neither by a mechanical fate nor by an inner and necessary rhythm of the human psyche.

Hans Frei, The Identity of Jesus, 189-190.

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6 thoughts on “Hans Frei on the Identity of the Church

  1. robbbeck says:

    “To describe the people of Israel is to narrate its history. And to identify that people (as Christian believers are bound to do) with the identity of Jesus Christ is to narrate the history of Jesus–as we sought to do earlier–in such a way that it is seen as the individual and climatic summing up, incorporation, and identification of the whole people, by which the people receive their identification. ”

    Love that you shared this! Although fashionable right now in some circles to critique the Yale school/postliberalism, this specific piece alone reminds me that that there’s still much to be reckoned with.

    Thanks again.

    Robb

    • I actually see him anticipating some recent critiques (or rather old voices made new again) in this very passage. Frei, if anything, was not someone who could be critiqued through simpleness. Clearly the future’s task of dealing with Frei is a tall order.

  2. robbbeck says:

    Exactly.

    If any further portions of the book stand out to you, please do share.

    You prompted my curiosity: who do you regard as Frei’s recent critics?

    • I’ll try to say more later, but it will be a while. My comprehensive exams start on Monday and the process isn’t over until December 2. I am trying to be absent to most of reality so I can get this done.

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