Review of “What is the Church?” by T.F. Torrance

This is not your traditional book review for one reason, this is not a book. This is an article, written in the Ecumenical Review journal vol 11 from 1958 and is only 16 pages long. The reason that I chose to write this review is because this article is one of my favorite things that Torrance has written and I believe that it has a massive impact on how we view the church, so much so that I gave it to my students in a class that I am teaching at church to read.

Scripture uses many different analogies to describe the church such as temple, building, people of God, household of faith. While all of these are necessary to fully understand what the church is in all its dimensions, Torrance argues that “the most significant of them [analogies] is this expression, the Body of Christ, because it holds most of them together in itself” (pg 6). While the word “body” is significant because it can refer to Christ and to believers emphasizing the participation aspect of our union with Christ. But the phrase “body of Christ” is more significant because it emphasises “Christ.” “It directs us at once to Christ in such a way that we have to lay emphasis upon ‘of Christ’ and not upon ‘body'” (pg 7). The emphasis on Christ over the body shows the importance that we must be careful not to allow our thinking and speaking of the church to ever distract us from Christ. So when we “think of the Church our eyes must travel at once to Christ the Lord himself, for it is he who is the essence of the Church; it is only in Him that the Church is Church, only in Him that it coheres and has its principle of being and unity, and only in and through Him does it have its function and mission in the Gospel” (pg 7).

Because “there is no Church apart from that which participates in Him and lives in Him and loves Him and obeys Him,” (pg 8) our relationship with other churches must change for if we “look out from our own Church upon the other and are tempted to criticise it, perhaps even to call in question its doctrine of orders, do we not hear Jesus saying to us, ‘I am that Church you are criticising; with all its faults and weaknesses it is Me, for I have identified myself with it and made it my very own Body?” (pg 8).

Moving from this introduction Torrance argues two propositions concerning the church as the Body of Christ. First, “Christ is the Church, for the Church is Church only in Him” (pg 9). He argues that this is the case for Christ “embodied himself in our humanity and as such gathered our humanity in Him into oneness with God. He identified himself with us, made himself one with us, and on that ground claims us as His own, lays hold of us, and assumes us into union and communion with Him, so that as Church we find our essential being and life not in ourselves but in Him alone” (pg 9). Second, “The church participates in Christ and draws its life and nature from Him, sharing in all He has done for it and sharing in His very Life as the Son of the Father in the communion of the Holy Spirit” (pg 9). This means that everything that the Church says and does must be done in the name of Jesus Christ for his honour and glory alone. The reason that the church can be a community and reconciled fellowship is because of our “participation in Christ himself” (pg 9).

Thus, Torrance argues that we must speak of the Church with reference to a vertical participation (participation in Christ) but also a horizontal participation (participation with fellow believers). The Church, in its vertical participation, is the Body of Christ because it “reflects in itself the nature of Christ himself, for it shares in his new humanity” (pg 10). The Church, in its horizontal participation, provides reconciliation and fellowship with each other only because of our “conjoint participation in Christ” (pg 15).

In order to keep this review short, I sadly had to leave out a lot of beautiful theology that Torrance wrote which is why I encourage you to get this article to read for yourself. What Torrance has done in this article is given a beautiful articulation of the Church as the Body of Christ which means that the very existence and being of the Church is bound up in our union with Christ as we live in, and participate in the very life of Christ. This is incredibly practical as it shows us the importance for reconciliation and fellowship with each other in the Church. Torrance does recognise that while we live in this reality we still are dealing with sin. But, if a church is not defined by reconciliation we must ask if they truly understand what the Church even is. For while we are still dealing with sin, the Church is supposed to live with eschatological vision. Just as humanity looked forward to Christ’s first coming (the first advent), the Church now lives in advent recognizing that “although it is already one Body with Christ through the Spirit, it has yet to be made one Body with Him in the consummation of His kingdom” (pg 15). We must live in such a way that we are manifesting the reality of Christ’s kingdom, the coming Kingdom.

This article has changed the way that I view the Church of Christ in a major way and I hope that your reading of this article you come out the other side with a fresh view on the Church as the Body of Christ.

Readability: Moderate

Quality rating: 5 stars

Recommended Reader: Beginning theologian +

Price: No price tag. It’s an academic Journal article.

Pages: 15 pages

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