Augustine wrote, “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.” (On the Epistle of John 1.2)
In this concept, Christ and his Church together form the totus Christus (“the whole Christ”). Augustine said it was not that Christ would be incomplete without us, but that he did not wish to be complete without us or without a church. (cf. Sermons 341.1.1 and 9.1)
This concept influenced Augustine’s interpretation of the Bible and his theology.
Firstly, with regards to the Scriptures, because Christ is at the centre of God’s plan for humanity, he must be at the centre of the Bible.
The entire message of Scripture is about Jesus Christ, his person, his sufferings, and his glory. It is not enough to read the Bible as a book about God; we must learn to read it as a book about God-in-Christ.
But Christ can never be separated from his people. To say the Bible is Christ-centred is to say it is church-centred. The idea unites Christology and ecclesiology by affirming the real connection of Christ, the head, to the Church, his body.
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.
Augustine’s first rule of biblical interpretation is totus christus. Christ-centered and church-centered hermeneutics are one and the same. To find Christ in the pages of Scripture is to find his bride, the Church.
In his theological combat, 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 totus Christus, 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 totus Christus concept served Augustine well in the midst of theological controversy.
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