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.
Augustine’s discussion and application of the concept of totus Christus is not found exclusively in his Homilies on First John. The late Tarsicius J. van Bavel O.S.A. argued that Augustine lifts the concept from Paul. The phrases “body of Christ” and “in Christ” play a central role in Paul’s epistles. Furthermore, Paul speaks repeatedly of the unity of Christ and Christians, especially in suffering.
Such a unity in suffering is not unique to Paul among the writers of the New Testament. Van Bavel noted, “Augustine frequently quotes two New Testament texts about Christ’s identification with the human being.” These two texts are Matthew 25:31-46 and Acts of Apostles 9:4. In both cases, Christ speaks of his people in the first person singular. In Matthew 25, the Son of Man addresses the sheep and the goats regarding their compassion when he was sick, hungry, or in prison. He declares, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.”
In Acts 9, Jesus asks Saul on the road to Damascus, “Saul, why do you persecute me?” It can be concluded, then, that the unity of Christ and Christians, especially in suffering, is a theme throughout the New Testament. A strong case can be made that Augustine regarded the totus Christus as being more than a figure of speech, a metaphor. The following passage by Augustine in his Homilies on the Gospel of John indicates this:"Then let us rejoice and give thanks that we are made not only Christians, but Christ. Do you understand, brothers, and apprehend the grace of God upon us? Marvel, be glad, we are made Christ. For if he is the head, we are the members: the whole man is he and we…The fullness of Christ, then, is head and members. Head and members, what is that? Christ and the Church." (In. Epist. Io. XXI.8)
Therefore, van Bavel stated, “This is more than a simple comparison or metaphor; it is a personal unity.” Totus Christus is a realistic concept for Augustine. This realism prompts the objection: does the concept of totus Christus take away from the uniqueness of Christ? No. Whatever one makes of the Christology of Augustine in general, the priority in the formula is always given to Christ. And as van Bavel added, “It is not so that Christ would be incomplete without us or without a church…The union of Christ and the human being is a matter of unity through identification (not identity), freely chosen out of love.” So Christ graciously unites himself to us, so that he cannot be found without us or us without him. AN2343