To understand the Bible, St. Augustine tells us, we must first know, love, and be united to the one Church, which is Christ!
In order to understand the Scriptures, it is absolutely necessary to know the whole, complete Christ, that is, Head and members. For sometimes Christ speaks in the name of the Head alone … sometimes in the name of His body, which is the holy Church spread over the entire earth. And we are His body … and we hear ourselves speaking in it, for the Apostle tells us: “We are members of His body” (Eph. 5:30). In many places does the Apostle tell us this. 15.
The Whole Christ: The Historical Development of the Doctrine of the Mystical Body in Scripture and Tradition, Emile Mersch, London, Dennis Dobson LTD., 1939, p. 419.
Note 15. In Ps. 37, P. L. vol. 36, p. 399.
Further, inasmuch as the “Whole Christ” is every bit as much an historical reality - as it is a Biblical - knowledge of the “Whole Christ” therefor implies having more than a mere cursory familiarity with the movements of that Providential hand which has guided and protected His one Church from her founding.
But how could he fail to do so, since, as St. Paul tells us, “Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her?” (Eph. 5:25) And, as “no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it,” so too “Christ does the church.” (Eph. 5:29).
Indeed, it is this great love of the Church which dominates the writings of all the Apostles, not the least of which, those of St. Paul. For Paul, this great love affair with the Church began with a vision - a vision on the road to Damascus - a vision which, along with the tremendous love it would inspire, was destined to profoundly inform and influence all he would thereafter say and do. Indeed, as learned French Jesuit Fr. Emil Mersch tells us, this vision “is always at the heart of his preaching, so that it may be called the whole of his preaching.” p. 86.
Thus for Paul, this vision represented not only Christ the Head, but Christ in his Head and his members -“the Whole Christ.”
Now given the utmost importance of this concept of the “Whole Christ," not only in relation to the Sacred Scriptures, but also in relation to the Church, I thought it might be interesting to examine some of the history of this doctrine as presented in the writings of Fr. Mersch, and then invite discussion.
Also, since the Donatist controversy in Africa had much in common with the later Reformation controversies, I thought I would perhaps just begin there.
Fr. Mersch writes:
Augustine and Donatism, Augustine and Pelagianism, and Augustine, in his sermons to the people: such will be the outline of our study. It will enable us to bring out the full significance and richness of the Saint’s teaching.
In expounding the doctrine of the Mystical Body against the Donatists, Augustine continues the works of St. Cyprian; in his anti-Pelagian writings he prepares the way for the teaching of the Schoolmen and of modern theologians on grace and the Mystical Body. But in his sermons to the people it is his soul that speaks; nowhere else is his teaching so faithful a reflection of his personality or so eloquent a testimony to the truth.
Augustine and the past, Augustine and the future, Augustine and himself. This division seems most natural and most convenient; it would be perfect, except for one defect, always regrettable where Augustine is concerned: the mere fact that it is a division.
He had entered the lists against the Donatists as early as 393. In 421 the battle was still in progress, though the efforts of the imperial police had greatly moderated its violence.
Here was no ordinary foe. Of all the out bursts of fanaticism that occurred in this turbulent land of Africa, Donatism was the worst. Its adherents were actually bent on excommunication the whole world, charging that all the priest and bishops of Christendom had lost their powers. The trouble had begun in 311, according to the Donatist, when Bishop Felix of Aptonga consecrated Caecilianus as bishop of Carthage. This consecration was irregular, they alleged, because Felix was a “traditor,” i.e., he was said to have surrendered the books of Scripture to the pagans during the persecution of Diocletian.
The Catholics denied the charge, and were even able to prove the contrary from official records, but all their efforts were in vain. Not only had the Church of Carthage been contaminated by this unworthy pastor and by those who had succeeded him, but all the churches in the world had disgraced themselves by remaining in communion with the culprits.
The entire clergy was cut off from God and deprived of holiness, and hence could not validly administer the sacraments. Africa alone, and in all Africa the Donatists alone, constituted the pure and glorious Body of Christ!
This inflexible attitude appealed to fanatical minds, while violence, the bigot’s favorite weapon, overcame the hesitancy of many others. Although the heresy was scarcely eighty years old in Augustine’s time, it already boasted a complete hierarchy of bishops and had enlisted an army of cutthroat propagandists.
St. Cyprian’s doctrine of ecclesial unity and of the Mystical Body had prepared the ground for the struggle against these adversaries. But on the essential point, which the present situation rendered more important than ever, his doctrine was vague and indefinite. It was very clear in speaking of the unity of the local church with its bishops, less precise on the unity that binds all the bishops together, and had nothing whatever to say of the criterion whereby one might determine which of two rival bishops or groups of bishops belonged to the true unity of Christ.
Such a weapon was useless in the face of the Donatist schism. The logic of history as well as the logic of Cyprian’s own teaching called for further correction and completion. This task, begun by Optatus of Mileve, was continued by Augustine, who enters at this point into the development of the African tradition.
“Augustine and the Donatist Schism,” The Whole Christ, pp. 390-391.