The Body of Christ: Paul’s Notion of Ecclesial Deification

In the Pauline corpus, the church possesses multiple identities, such as the ekklesia, the temple of God, the house of God, the Bride of Christ, the new man, and notably, the Body of Christ. Within the past century of studies in the modern guild of biblical studies, the latter identity has been the subject of significant debate, not least due to the explicit literalness Paul seems to ascribe to the church being the Body of Christ; per Albert Schweitzer, “it is almost impossible to exaggerate the materialism and crudity of Paul’s doctrine of the Church as literally now the resurrection body of Christ” (1931). Broadly speaking, scholars have dealt with the identification of believers as “the Christ” or “the Body of Christ” in one of three ways: (1) as a rhetorical device employed to solidify an ethical or communitarian outlook (Mitchell 1991; Martin 1995); (2) as an analogy describing what the community of believers is similar to (e.g., Best 1955; Whitley 1967; Gundry 1976; Thiselton 2000; Tuckett 2008); or (3) as a description of a real, ontological identity (Schweitzer 1931; Robinson 1952; Lee 2006; Engberg-Pedersen 2010). Though nearly all modern commentaries and Pauline interpreters favor the first two (overlapping) characterizations, this paper argues for the third possibility, and additionally, situates this ontological understanding of “the Body of Christ” within a burgeoning line of inquiry within Pauline studies that interprets Pauline soteriology as deification.

While multiple passages are worthy of examination to support of this claim this paper will focus upon Rom. 12:1-21. First, aspects of the passage that are suggestive of the ontological nature of the church’s identity as the “Body of Christ” will be articulated (10 minutes). Thereafter, attention will be directed toward Romans 12:2 which, it shall be argued, describes the believer’s μεταμορφόω (transformation) as the prerequisite and means for becoming totally identified with/assimilated into the Body of Christ (10 minutes). This transformation effected by the renewing of the mind is both what reinterprets individual believers’ identities in relation to a greater whole as “members” and what allows their location and pneumatically-engendered functionalities to be intelligible. Lastly, Romans 12:2 will be placed in dialogue with 2 Corinthians 3:18—a verse which Stephan Finlan calls the “most frankly theotic passage” (2004) in Paul and has been noted for its deiform implications by M. David Litwa (2012), Ben Blackwell (2016), Michael Gorman (2019), and a host of patristic interpreters–as it contains the only other usage of μεταμορφόω in the Pauline corpus (10 minutes).

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