I would like to thank Jim Keating, Matthew Colvin, Leonard Vander Zee, Chris Green and Jacob Hanby for taking the time to respond to my “Bodies and the Body of Christ” essay. Why add one more essay to the multitudes already written on the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood? Simply because articulating the faith anew must be much on the contemporary Christian mind. I live in a region of the U.S. where the post-Christian future appointed as our mission field is arriving apace, and I make my living trying to teach theology to the eighteen- and nineteen-years-olds who will be the denizens of that field for decades ahead. Even the undergraduates who come from Christian backgrounds have little grasp of what they professedly believe—very bad news indeed for the region’s Catholics, from whom the majority of the student body comes. Yet Protestants have no reason to gloat, so far as I can see: also in the denomination and congregations where my family and I worship the picture is quite grim, for the language of “representation” or “picturing” is the predominate terminology for interpreting the Supper, despite confessional documents and worthy theological tradition. Thus I am thankful for any and all help in the work of articulating anew what it means to confess that the Church and the Sacrament both are the “Body of Christ”: speaking that fact intelligibly I take to be integral to speaking the gospel as such.

I do wish I had made one significant change to my essay from the very outset: I ought to have defined the language of “intention” (and its etymological associates) as specifically deployed here. To “intend” something, in the unusual sense proper to this essay, means “to be conscious of” it, “to have an experience of” it, or “to perceive it as an object in the world.” It does not mean “to have purpose x in mind when one acts,” which is how we commonly use “intend” in everyday language. I gambled that I could show how the term was to be understood; but in this I was mistaken, for I clearly tripped up at least one of my respondents and may very well have done the same for other readers of Theopolis. I apologize for being unclear, and I hope this paragraph remedies that defect.


To my respondents:

1. Jim Keating reflects thoughtfully on the significance of headlines regarding purported rejection of the doctrine of Real Presence by many contemporary Catholics in the pew: this isn’t always the straightforward rejection of Church teaching authority that the headlines insinuate it to be. Still, it is ominous (see above). Moreover, as others have noted and as Jim also hints: the past eighteen months have truly been an “apocalypse” (literally, an “unveiling”) of sorts for Christians of all varieties. In their response to COVID and COVID-related state mandates, Christian leaders—Catholic bishops aplenty and Protestant pastors without number—have effectively conceded that worship is nonessential, even though it is supposedly what we were made for. What will the long-term effects of this be?  

I was curious to see what a Catholic theologian would make of Jenson and a sacramental theology heavily engaged with Jenson. (Almost no one that I know of—Catholic or Protestant—bothers much with Volume 2 of Jenson’s Systematic Theology.) So I’m particularly interested in Keating’s verdict that “Jenson’s notion of ‘availability’ operates at the level of being rather than confined to the subjective experience of believers.” So far so good. Faithfulness to Catholic orthodoxy and the teaching office of the church does not require deployment of the term “transubstantiation” per se, says Keating, and “Catholic theologians are free to explore other ways to express Christ’s Eucharistic presence provided that they attain the same ontological density one finds in transubstantiation.” But then, in the interests of being able to come together at a common Eucharistic table someday, I do have to ask: how do we go about assessing or comparing relative “ontological densities”? Is my (or Jenson’s) construal of “availability” dense enough? And what to do about Protestant scruples concerning corpus Christi celebrations and Eucharistic adoration: is only a Eucharistic theology directly fungible with these practices acceptably dense?

2. Most of what Matthew Colvin attacks in his contribution was no part of my plan to defend. Yet I would respond along several lines even so. First, as noted above, “intention” was used in an irregular sense in the original essay: so for instance, one can aim one’s intention. Colvin seems not to have noticed this. He summarizes Long and Jenson as claiming that “real-presence-as-availability” happens because the gathered Church “intends” the elements as Christ’s body and blood, and he chides Long and Jenson (“the problem with this account”) as not understanding that bodily presence doesn’t depend on “intention”—or if it does, depends only on the priest’s intention, according to the Catholic position that Colvin heartily rejects and to whose flimsy coherence Long and Jenson did not even manage to attain. But all this is “intention” in a very different sense than that actually used by Long and Jenson. Moreover, Colvin does not deign to interact at all with the Christological foundation of Long and Jenson’s point, which might have accommodated Colvin’s paschal point rather neatly. So when Colvin issues his pronouncement that “I have no use for either of these positions”—one of which is purportedly mine—I can’t help but feel that my position might have had a “use” that wasn’t really grasped before being rejected.  

As to the rest of Colvin’s response, Vander Zee and Hanby covered most of the questions I’d want to raise for Colvin’s Theopolis essay, and Roberts (as reported by Colvin himself) has already asked the questions that seem to me most pressing for Colvin’s larger project.

3. To Vander Zee and Hanby I have little to add, except to repeat my thanks and to express my general agreement.

4. Chris Green recollects several edifying exchanges with Jenson and some theological maxims from Zizioulas and Yannaras. All well and good. Along the way, Green reminds us that the body of the risen Jesus is transfigured by the Spirit, and thus “we do not make the Eucharist by gathering, however faithfully; it makes us. For that reason, we should refuse to accept any discussion framed by the assumption that we can and should determine the boundary conditions for God’s action.” The last sentence is undisputable: no one said we can establish the boundary conditions for God. But as at least one of the Greeks just cited would surely point out, the Eucharist is the sacrament of assembly: we do not force God’s hand, but we do obey a summons—to come together as the Church. Green’s last section reminds us that the Lord who is the Spirit cannot be stymied: he blows where he wills as the Lord and Life-giver, and so perhaps we shouldn’t foreclose the possibility of “virtual” communion after all. Once again, the claim about the Spirit’s character is undisputable and just so not disputed by me. Even so, sentences of the type “the Lord is free to do x” are not quite the same as “the Lord has promised to do x.” It is with the latter that we must be principally concerned when speaking of mandated rites and their significance for the life of the church.


Synthesizing biblical usage, Christ is or “has” a three-fold body: a biological body born of Mary, an ecclesial body in the Church, and a sacramental body shared at the Lord’s Table. Confession of that three-fold body in the West travelled a curious and still not widely-enough understood path. Had you asked, in late antiquity or the early mediaeval period, about the identity of Christ’s true body (his corpus verum), your attention would have been directed to the Church, gathered around the sacrament of the altar understood as Christ’s “mystical” body. The Church and the Eucharist thus formed the liturgical pair of visible community (corpus verum) and liturgical action or mystery (corpus mysticum) that together constituted the availability to us of the risen and ascended Christ.[1] But this theological deposit from late antiquity didn’t last. By a circuitous twist of affairs, the referents of those descriptors “true” and “mystical” got inverted, so that the Church came to be thought of as the “mystical” body and the Eucharist as the “true” body.[2] Moreover, the distinction between the three bodies collapsed in a very important sense: the historical body and the eucharistic body (now the “true”/verum body) were effectively molded into one—making room for the real life of the Church (now the “mystical” body) to be understood as hidden, realized only in the eschaton, and cordoned off from historical space and time.[3] 

My purpose was not to commend Robert Jenson as a way to re-stabilize the three-fold body of Christ per se. To the contrary, I suggest that understanding body as “availability”—and particularly as availability rooted in the triune life of God—is a genuine resource for articulating “sacramental presence” in an “ontologically dense” way. But with that said, the last thing I will say here is that I do think this conceptual move also helps to re-stabilize confession of the three-fold body—and it does so in a way that absolutely does not relegate the life of the Church to a hidden, privatized realm. The Church and her life is the concrete offer of salvation made public. And that ought not be forgotten, especially at our present moment.

Stephen Long is Assistant Professor of Theology at Providence College.

[1] William T. Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 212. The formulation is Cavanaugh’s, mixed with Jenson.

[2] The story is told by Henri De Lubac, Corpus Mysticum: The Eucharist and the Church in the Middle Ages (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006).

[3] To this and its further ramifications, see Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist, 213-14.

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