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People of God


Essentially, a segment of the human race, freely selected and set apart by God, the recipient of special divine blessings. Thus God chose abraham and isaac, Patriarchs, promising them the land of Canaan. In return, God made certain demands on His chosen ones, entering into a formal pact, or covenant, with them. [see covenant (in the bible).] After narrowing down the line of Isaac to the Patriarch jacob's descendants (the Israelites), God established the Mosaic covenant with this ethnic group. The elements of both nationality and religious fidelity, then, formed the basis of the Old Testament people of God.

The purification of this chosen nation entailed further selection. Only a remnant of Israel survived the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities. Later, in the second century before Christ, the Syrian persecution took its toll. Second Isaiah, in fact, describes the remnant under the figure of the Servant of Yahweh, whom New Testament writersespecially St. Markwere to identify with Jesus Christ.

Christ's choice of the twelve Apostles inaugurated the New Covenant envisaged in Jer 31.3134, and His death on Calvary sealed it in His blood. After His Resurrection the new people of God manifested a striking similarity to the synagogue. Like the qāhāl of old, it was convoked by the proclamation of the word of God, to which was added the breaking of bread (cf. Nehemiah ch. 8; Acts 2.42). Nationality no longer served as a basis for the selection of members. Indeed, a distinctive feature of the New Covenant was the admission of gentiles into the Christian community without discrimination. The people of God, however, did not come together by a spontaneous coalescence, but by apostolic activity as outlined in Christ's discourse (Mt ch. 10). The Apostles and their successors are the connecting links referred to in Eph2.20.

In developing the theology of the new chosen people, St. Paul sees them as constituting a living organism that he designates as the Body of Christ. Following the lead of such exegetes as P. Benoit and L. Cerfaux, more and more theologians are adopting a position of physical realism in treating the union between Christ and His members. According to mystici corporis, the terms Church and mystical body are coextensive. The term people of God does not represent a different reality, but rather the same. This New Testament counterpart of Israel will continue to expand until, in Pauline terminology, the pleroma, or fullness, of Christ has been attained.

Mid-twentieth-century exegesis also led to a new emphasis on the use of the term people of God in dogmatic treatises on the Church. In its dogmatic constitution on the Church, Vatican Council II gave it preference over the term Mystical Body. Chapter 2 of the constitution is entitled De populo Dei. Transcending both Old and New Testaments, "people of God" lends itself better to a synthetic approach to the Church. It takes its origin from the raw material from which the community of the redeemed is constructed: those diverse races that have been amalgamated into a single religious unit through the Holy Spirit. The term Mystical Body, on the other hand, suggests the end product: the organism with its charisms and functions sustained by the sacramental bond.

The generic designation of the Church by the term "People of God" suggested also a way in which one could speak of various levels or degrees of "membership," not all of which require full sacramental communion. The council documents envisage Catholics as "incorporate," non-Catholic Christians as "linked" or "joined," and non-Christians as "related" to the Church (Lumen gentium 1416; Unitaris redintegratio 3). Within the full communion of the Church, the People of God have responded to this title by the assumption of new roles, notably in the Eucharistic celebration: permanent deacons, readers, commentators, and lay ministers of Communion. Team ministries have become commonplace, often including persons of both sexes. Catholic education and communications have witnessed an increase in lay leadership. Lay spirituality, although developing along its own proper lines, has been freed of the "double standard" of perfection which relegated it to a lower level of holiness than that demanded of priests and religious.

Even if Christ and His people are identified in a truly ontological sense, there remains a principle of opposition preventing any pantheistic fusion of divinity and humanity. Creating a wholesome polarity, this ambivalent relationship between Head and members is perhaps best subsumed under the Church's title Spouse of Christ. He is one with His people insofar as they have become apostolic instruments of salvation to others; He is other than they to the degree in which they themselves are still in the process of salvation. This consideration brings out clearly the eschatological character of the people of God: only at the end of time will Jesus become totally one with His Spouse, the people of God, the Church.

See Also: church, articles on; kingdom of god.

Bibliography: h. strathmann, g. kittel, Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (Stuttgart 1935) 4:2957. g. bertram, ibid. 2:362366. j. scharbert, "Volk (Gottes)," in j. b. bauer, ed., Bibeltheologisches Wörterbuch, 2 v. (2d ed. Graz 1962) 2:114758. p. grelot in Vocabulaire de théologie biblique, ed. x. lÉon-dufour (Paris 1962) 815826. j. hamer, L'Église est une communion (Paris 1962) ch. 2. a. vonier, The People of God (London 1937). r. schnackenburg, God's Rule and Kingdom, tr. j. murray (New York 1963). a. dulles, Models of the Church (New York 1974).

[m. k. hopkins/eds.]

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