Visions of Daniel

The Same Jesus
A Contemporary Christology


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"Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever." So reads the Letter to the Hebrews (8:13). Yet Christian understanding about Jesus has changed, and it continues to change. This book is about Jesus and our changing understanding of him.       

This topic is delicate. Jesus is no abstract issue, something on the sidelines of people's lives. To talk about Jesus is to talk about something personal to many people. Deep feelings and strong commitments are invested in the discussion. Jesus has been the focus of meaning in the lives of thousands of people. Belief in Jesus has governed communities, churches, nations, and for a time even the whole of Western civilization, christendom. Today, when secularism is the dominant ethos, Christians committed to varying beliefs about Jesus continue to influence the course of history. Whether one is a believer or not, one can hardly afford to be indifferent to beliefs—or shifts in belief—about Jesus Christ. So, to talk about Jesus is to touch a sensitive nerve. To present new thoughts about Jesus is often to irritate that nerve and upset people's lives.

In general, we can never afford to be casual about a central focus in people's lives. But today, in particular, the topic of Jesus is especially important. For something has indeed happened to the traditional understanding about Jesus, and in one way or another we are all aware of it. Church-goers hear their pastors preaching an insistence on orthodox beliefs about Jesus, and that very insistence tips them off that somewhere someone is "questioning the faith." The phenomenal rise of fundamentalist "Christian" groups and of the “electronic churches" tells us that something is threatening people's security; they are banding together to protect their beliefs and to be safe from the questioning. Theologians or not, we read the newspaper, we watch TV, we glance at the Christmas and Easter issues of national news magazines. We have heard that scholars are proposing new interpretations of the Bible and that the Vatican has called in theologians and questioned their thinking. We cannot avoid the issue. There is new speculation abroad about Jesus Christ. The issue is too important to ignore.

So what is the position in this book? Absolutely that Jesus Christ is God. He is the Eternal Son of the Father—and equally absolutely, that he became human, one like us in all things but sin. He did this for our sakes. By his incarnation, life, death, and resurrection, Jesus Christ changed the meaning of human life. He opened to humanity a new possibility, to share in the very life of God. That is to say, he saved us.

What is professed here is traditional Christian belief, but the way it will be presented may seem unfamiliar. After all, something has happened to our understanding about Jesus, and the goal here is to incorporate the new understanding into our insistence on the old. Nonetheless, the assurance is here from the start. Though in the end he may not look exactly like the Jesus of yore, this book presents the Christ of the Church, the Christ of the traditional Christian faith, the same Jesus.

I write as a Christian believer, and I address myself primarily to other believers. Moreover, I am Roman Catholic. Necessarily I will speak out of my own Christian tradition, the one I know best. But my words are not restricted to Roman Catholics. On the contrary, this book presents authentic Christian belief about Jesus, valid across denominational lines. In this sense it is addressed to all Christians. Indeed, the hope is that by clarifying belief about Jesus this book might make some contribution to the reunion of the Christian churches. But this book is also addressed to non-Christians. Anyone interested in knowing what Christians believe about Jesus and on what grounds they believe it should find this book helpful. Such is the case particularly because the intent is not to convince anybody about anything. The intent is simply to show how traditional Christian belief about Jesus Christ can still be a coherent, reasonable position.

Why Another Book on Christology

When so many books about Jesus are appearing on the market, why another one? Simply because there is something more to be said. There is need for a text that can hold together the conclusions of contemporary biblical scholarship and the teaching of the early Christian ecumenical councils.

Studies about Jesus abound. Most of them treat one or another aspect of christology. For example, many deal with the New Testament teaching about Jesus or with some one aspect of that New Testament teaching.1 Others deal with the ecumenical councils or with later christological development.2 Still others treat a particular aspect of, or focus on, Christian belief about Jesus .3 Those works that do present an integrative position tend to represent particular opinions, new approaches, or creative stands that may leave non-professionals wondering what is to be believed, or lose them in a haze of philosophical subtlety or lengthy and tedious discussions .4 The present book offers a comphrehensive position that unites the various aspects of study about Jesus while remaining accessible to the ordinary educated reader.5 In many ways this account is already familiar since it affirms traditional teaching about Jesus without question and builds on philosophical presuppositions inherent in Christianity from the start. Moreover, since so many contemporary specialized studies about Jesus have already been written, the present study can presume that material and borrow its conclusions without in every case having to rehearse all the technical discussion. Most of what is written here is not new. What is new is the way in which all the pieces hold together.

This is a work in systematic theology. The task of systematic theology is to present a comprehensive picture of multiple individual beliefs. It is to make the whole make sense by relating all the elements within one comprehensive system—hence the name "systematic." Accordingly, this book integrates the various elements in any understanding about Jesus—the biblical, the doctrinal, and the speculative.

The overriding concern is to spell out a system of thought within which all the elements fit together. So this book will explain its presuppositions in detail, for the beginning points of any discussion actually determine where the discussion goes and limit the conclusions that result. By way of contrast: this book does not present a detailed account of the New Testament development nor of the later conciliar and speculative developments themselves. On these issues there are ample resources in the endnotes. Rather, the present study takes the conclusions of those other scholarly specializations and integrates them into a comprehensive whole. This study presents only the biblical and doctrinal detail needed to make its point and to construct the intended synthesis. Often an issue is presented only by way of example. Historical complexities are simplified for the sake of clarity in the overall argument. Of course, such narrow focus on an integrative framework might easily obscure an accurate account of historical detail. The systematic theologian does have a blind eye. Nonetheless, I risk this endeavor because an integrated presentation is so sorely needed. And at this point in time such a synthesis is possible.

Specific Contributions

This book is a contemporary summary of standard Christian belief about Jesus Christ. Yet it is more than that. Any real synthesis also represents some advance, for every synthesis entails some creativity. So the unfolding of this contemporary christology inevitably leads to some original conclusions. I must acknowledge them and take responsibility for them.

First, Bernard Lonergan presented a masterly study of development of doctrine in a work published in English as The Way to Nicea. That book traced christological development from the second century up to the Council of Nicea. His later article, "Christology Today: Methodological Reflections," addressed the contemporary problematic. Following Lonergan, this book correlates his notion of "common sense" with the New Testament mentality and accepts his philosophical analysis of the shift from common sense to theory.7 There results a theoretically elaborated account of the development from Jesus himself and the New Testament through the ecumenical councils. Such an account of this critical shift is the linchpin needed to hold the Christian tradition together.

Moreover, accepting Lonergan's revitalized explanation of the traditional notions of “nature” and “person,” this book discloses fuller implications in the commonly accepted conciliar teaching about the humanity of Jesus. Then, as contemporary christology is concerned to do, this book can insist fully on Jesus' humanity—but without prejudice to his divine status. Specifically, the present approach highlights Chalcedon's teaching—not the summary definition so often cited about one person and two natures but the other—that the humanity and divinity in Jesus are "without change, without confusion," that is, the two are not mixed together to form some hybrid. The key here is to realize that what the Eternal Word brought with himself into this world was not divinity and its powers—he emptied himself of these—but himself, an individual subject, an eternal identity, a divine person. The unity of humanity and divinity in Jesus is hypostatic; it is the unity of one person, not the mingling of two natures. This same point can be made by suggesting—carefully!—that in himself Jesus did not primarily show us what God is like but rather what he himself, Eternal-Son-of-God, is like.

Third, contemporary christology is enamored of the approach from below, the move from Jesus' humanity to his divinity. This approach could never be used legitimately to suggest that anyone or anything became God, and thus to explain the Nicene decree. Yet the approach from below makes an important contribution. Bernard Lonergan's understanding of human consciousness and its potential and his understanding of the distinction between the “natural” and the “supernatural” are relevant here. Relating these three issues—the approach from below, dynamic human consciousness, and the supernatural—this book proposes a notion of human “divinization” as an account of what happened to Jesus in the resurrection. The suggestion is that insistence on this real change in Jesus is the valid intent of the contemporary christology from below. Thus, Jesus' resurrection/divinization is a complement to the incarnation; it is the fulfillment of a possibility inherent in the incarnation. This fulfillment in Jesus is the paradigm of human salvation.

Fourth, contemporary christology is also concerned to integrate an account of human salvation—soteriology—with the account of the mystery of Jesus Christ. In the course of Christian history, these two considerations had become separated. The present account does unite christology and soteriology, and in a way found nowhere else. This aspect of this book is perhaps the most original and so the most subject to scrutiny. Yet it follows naturally as an integral part of the christological position developed here. And the fact that at this point this christology necessarily entails trinitarian considerations confirms that this understanding is on target, true to the Christian tradition. Three main ideas constitute this soteriological understanding: 1) Jesus redeemed the human race by his fidelity even unto death—and not by his death itself. 2) It is inaccurate to say without qualification that Jesus saves us, for our immediate saving contact with God is through the Holy Spirit. And 3) Jesus' achievement of divinization constituted in human history a new possibility for human becoming, a new epitome. In this way Jesus became central to the salvation of all humankind, whether people know and reverence him or not.

Finally, Jesus is the model of Christian living. So one's christology is intimately related to one's spirituality. Whether we are aware of it or not, our understanding of Jesus determines how we conceive the ideal of Christian life. Therefore, sections throughout this book treat the practical implications of the Christian doctrines and, thus, clarify the Christian position in contrast to other possible understandings of life. These practical sections also show that firm insistence on traditional dogma does not entail a stifling legalism in Christian living. Rather, on the one hand, an adequate christology disqualifies the excessive christocentrism that legitimates oppressive ecclesiastical institutionalism. And on the other hand, it highlights the work of the Holy Spirit, who invites God's sons and daughters to new freedom.

Why a Popular Presentation

In light of the above list of technical issues, one would expect that this book itself is very technical, written for a circle of specialized scholars. It is not—for a number of reasons. Above all, I was concerned to provide a text for my own students. An introductory text could not presuppose technical christological background but would have to explain terms and arguments step by step as it moved along. Of course, this does not mean that this book avoids all technical issues. One simply cannot resolve contemporary christological questions without some technical considerations! Still one can introduce technical considerations in such a way that the ordinary educated reader can understand them. So, oftentimes this book presents the same issue in different ways. Then, hopefully, in one way or another the reader will "catch" what is meant. At critical junctures there are not only suggestive accounts of the issue but also a full technical account. Those who wish to go that far may; others can rest content with an "intuitive" grasp of the issue. Nonetheless, throughout the book discussion is limited to issues essential to the overall argument. For example, varying theological opinions are seldom discussed in the text itself. Such discussion is relegated to the endnotes. The notes are deliberately placed at the end of this book so that they do not distract from the main argument. Admittedly, there is a danger in this arrangement. The novice reader might think that there is little difference of opinion among scholars on these issues when precisely the opposite is true. Let the reader be advised on this score here. For the other arrangement, including variant opinions in the text, also has its danger. It is likely to leave the reader overly informed and thus merely confused. Let the reader first understand the main argument. Then he or she can go on to consider the varying opinions that surround that argument. Advocating this approach, the teacher in me hopes to have presented a text that is sufficiently technical to deal adequately with the issues but still easily enough readable to speak to non-theologians.

Indeed, to present a contemporary christology for the church at large is becoming increasingly important. Many people are confused about their belief in Jesus. They want to be up-to-date in their understanding, but they have difficulty integrating the new theology with their former beliefs. The pieces do not seem to fit together. At this point in time the needs of ordinary committed believers seem more pressing than those of the trained theologians. So I want to provide a book that speaks also to pastors and ministers and priests and catechists and lay ministers and missionaries and vowed religious men and women and all those leaders of the churches—intelligent, dedicated, educated in the faith—whose main concern is pastoral ministry, though they know they also need sound critical theology. I want to provide a book for them—and also for committed lay people who, though not involved in ministry, want to understand the Christian faith and its role in our world. Most of these could not benefit from a highly technical christology text.

On the other hand, theologians will also be able to read this book and assess its worth. Seeing through the metaphors and stories and examples and easily filling in the broader implications of this popularized statement, they will readily recognize the underlying technical issues and be able to pass judgment on the theological moves. So I hope to address both the scholarly community as well as a more popular audience with this book.

One other set of considerations led me to write as I did. The major issues dividing theological and christological schools of thought today are presuppositional. What exactly this means will become clearer as this book unfolds. As it is, to write for the scholarly community, one would have to dedicate a major portion of one's book to philosophical presuppositions. But philosophy is not at issue here; christology is. I have already confessed my philosophical loyalties. The thought of Bernard Lonergan undergirds this whole christological enterprise. A number of places, especially Chapter Two, present an exposition of Lonergan's thought. But the presentation is popular, very popular indeed. Even scholars not trained in Lonergan's thought might not recognize this material as Lonerganian if the fact were not documented here or in the notes. This point is important for two reasons. First, despite its popular form, I consider this study to be well-grounded in Lonergan's cognitional, epistemological, and metaphysical—and, so, methodological—analyses. Second, presupposing Lonergan's own works, I believe that the philosophical background presented in this book is sufficient for the task at hand. Those who wish a technical presentation can read Lonergan himself. There is no reason to believe that a more adequate statement of his position could be presented here. Those who have quibbles about his position must, nonetheless, accept it here as a presupposition. It will not be argued at length. Rather, it will be implemented. Then, perhaps, not be being convinced of the position from the start but by recognizing its effectiveness, some might be willing to reconsider their judgment about the position and return to the original sources to study it. These considerations also encouraged me to write with so serious an intent about so complex a topic in so popular a style. Presupposing a philosophical position—the stage being set—I want to get on with the show. The hope is that under these circumstances both professionals and amateurs can enjoy the presentation.

Use of this Book in a Course

This book can be used as a basic text for an introductory christology course. Most importantly, it provides an overall context into which other christological material—contemporary and traditional—can be easily integrated. It provides the framework. Obviously, however, this book is not comprehensive. It is not sufficient in itself for an in-depth study of contemporary christology. An essential supplement is a text on recent New Testament studies like James D. G. Dunn's Christology in the Making or sections from his Unity and Diversity in the New Testament or Joseph A. Fitzmyer's A Christological Catechism. Bruce Vawter's This Man Jesus and Raymond E. Brown's Jesus God and Man are also very useful introductory biblical texts, though unfortunately they are no longer in print. Also needed is a text on the conciliar development of christological doctrine—to give students some appreciation of the complexity of the politics and theological issues behind the conciliar decrees. P. Smulder's The Fathers on Christology is an excellent little summary, and the christological chapters from Jaroslav Pelikan's The Christian Tradition, vol. 1, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100‑600), are also useful. Finally, a book like John F. O'Grady's Models of Jesus can give students some hint of the breadth of opinion in contemporary christology. However, in an introductory course one can hardly do more than mention various opinions and approaches. To do some of them justice would require an additional seminar course.

A Note on Language

I must also comment on my use of gender language in this book. Language structures our worldview, and a consistent preference for male pronouns distorts that worldview. Therefore, this text renders all generic human references in non-sexist form. Unfortunately, this same principle is not applied in cases of God-talk in this book. This text continues to refer to "The Father" and "The Son" and to use masculine pronouns for them and the "Holy Spirit" and for references to "God." This is not to suggest that God is actually male. Neither is it to suggest that those male symbols—Father, Son—are so sacrosanct that they need to be preserved intact.9 Theologically correct alternatives are available and have been used.10 However, such alternatives proved to be counterproductive for the present text. Preliminary readers found the christological issues here challenging enough without being asked also to restructure their images of God and Trinity. In deference to those readers and with a concern that this christological statement be effective, the standard usage has been restored throughout the text. It is to be hoped that widespread concern about this issue will intensify and that generally accepted alternative formulations will quickly emerge. Then one could be theologically as well as socially responsible and still expect to be understood. Unfortunately, that time is not yet here.

Outline of this Book

This book is divided into three sections. The first treats the background for contemporary christology, the second treats the Christian tradition on Jesus, and the third presents a summary understanding about Jesus, a contemporary christology. Each section contains a number of chapters.

Chapter One deals with the major cause of the contemporary shift in understanding about Jesus—the development of historical-critical method. This chapter explains the emergence of this method, relates the history of its application to the Bible, indicates some results of that application, and discusses the validity of the method for scripture studies. Chapter Two continues to explain the contemporary intellectual climate and the problems it poses for christology. This chapter treats an issue related to historical-critical method—relativism. In so doing, it highlights a prevalent position contrary to the overall presentation here. The basic insistence is that christology is reflection about Jesus and, as such, must follow the general criteria of sound thinking. Chapter Three introduces, discusses, and criticizes the two major approaches to Jesus in contemporary christology: "from below" and "from above." Chapter Four introduces a further presuppositional issue, the distinction between kerygmatic statement and systematic statement. In so doing, that chapter forges yet another of the tools that will allow a retrieval and integration of the whole tradition on Jesus.

The next three chapters apply the tools to the tradition. Chapter Five presents a brief summary of contemporary knowledge about Jesus himself and reviews the development of Christian thought about Jesus as witnessed in the New Testament. The conclusion is that New Testament Christians certainly looked on Jesus as God and that late New Testament statements say as much. Chapter Six jumps 225 years to the Council of Nicaea. There the further question was, “But is he God?" And the answer was, "Yes " That chapter is crucial. It explains and defends as legitimate the milestone shift in Christian theology from kerygmatic to systematic statement. It provides the link between the New Testament and later conciliar teachings. Granted the argument of Chapter Six, Chapter Seven follows easily. It summarizes and interprets the teaching of subsequent ecumenical councils about Jesus. With the conclusion of Chapter Seven, all the spadework in the garden of Christian tradition is finished, and the ground is prepared for a new, comprehensive account of Jesus.

The final three chapters present that new account. Chapter Eight makes a summary statement of this contemporary christology. This chapter is the core of this book. It elaborates a picture of Jesus that integrates the traditional and the contemporary, the "from above" approach and the "from below" approach, the incarnational and the resurrectional, the concern for the mystery of Jesus Christ in himself and the concern for human salvation through Christ. Chapters Nine and Ten provide a more detailed account of some important questions raised by contemporary concerns in general or by Chapter Eight in particular. Chapter Nine treats the difficult but burning questions about Jesus' consciousness and knowledge and his freedom and sinlessness. With these questions the insistence that Jesus was the Eternal Son of God and still human like us comes to the crunch. Finally, Chapter Ten develops an account of human salvation in accordance with, and integral to, the christology of the previous chapters. Here, more than anywhere else, the practical implications of christological doctrine come to the fore.

A Contemporary Christology

The picture of Jesus that emerges may be summarized as follows. Because of love for us, the Eternal Word, Son of God, stripped himself of divine glory and became human, being born of the Virgin Mary. While on earth, he was empty of all divine knowledge and power. He had surrendered his divine prerogatives. In all things he was human as we are. The critical difference is that that human life was the life of God the Eternal Son. His was a divine and eternal identity. Nonetheless, like all human beings, he had to live his life from day to day, relying on what human knowledge and sensitivity he had, deciding at each moment what he would make of himself. Would he be true to himself, or not? Would he repress the sense of himself that burned in his heart, or not? Would he live out his contribution to others as he saw it, or not? Unlike us who are sinners, he was absolutely true to himself. Faithful to his eternal identity, he was by that very fact also faithful to his heavenly Father, faithful even in the face of death. On earth as in heaven, in history as in eternity, he was perfectly Son-of-the-Father, Child-of-God.

Because of his fidelity, the Father raised him from the dead. In the resurrection the Father gave his human Son the glory that was his in eternity, the glory that could have been rightly his from the first moment of his human conception but was withheld according to divine wisdom. Through his human life and the power of God, in the resurrection Jesus became the first human being who in his humanity shared—insofar as is possible for a human being—in certain aspects of the divine nature. He did not become God; he always was God. Rather, his humanity was transformed. Now his human mind knew as God knows; his human heart loved as God loves. This human being was divinized.

Jesus' divinization introduced into human history a new possibility for human becoming. Before Jesus' resurrection, there was no divinized human being. Before then, who could say if human divinization was even possible? But divinization happened to Jesus. Then it is a human possibility. If it happened to one human being, it must be also possible—under certain circumstances—for other human beings. With Jesus' resurrection, a new possibility entered human history. This was Jesus' contribution to human salvation, and the Holy Spirit completes what is still needed. Through the Holy Spirit, a divine principle enters our own lives. In some way we become as Jesus was. In Christ we can now actualize the possibility of human divinization in our own lives. We, too, can live a life of fidelity to a divine lead within us and so attain a full share in divine life as the man Jesus did before us. Such attainment would be our ultimate salvation.

This is the picture that emerges in the chapters that follow. This is a picture of the same Jesus whom Christians have always loved and worshiped: Eternal Son of God, completely and fully human, raised to divine glory, Redeemer of the world.