Christians have never doubted Christ’s parting promise to his disciples, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” But throughout the history of the Church there has been no end of controversy over the question of how the risen, ascended Christ fulfills his promise. From medieval times the Roman church has conceived of a corporal presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Reformed theology, following Calvin’s lead, speaks of a spiritual presence of Christ mediated by the Spirit, who bears witness to Christ through the Word and sacraments. More recently, Christ’s presence with and in his Church has been viewed as a “corporate” presence, Christ being embodied in the Church, in its worship and work in the world.

Among contemporary American theologians, Dietrich Ritschl has turned out a skillfully tooled doctrine of Christ, showing the implications of Christ’s presence for the Church in our time, from the viewpoint of secular theology. What follows is an examination of the main outlines of contemporary Christology, particularly the view of Ritschl expressed in his Memory and Hope: An Inquiry Concerning the Presence of Christ (Macmillan, 1967).

Christological Gap

Ritschl contends that the main problem for Western theology since the time of Augustine has been how to relate the historical past to the existential present. Concretely, this is the problem of the relation between the present Church and the presence of Christ, and also the relation between the present Church and the Christ of the past. Western theology has concentrated on the latter issue exclusively, says Ritschl; it has been concerned with understanding the “relevance” of the historical Jesus and the “historically risen Christ” instead of focusing attention ...

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