There is nothing new under the sun: James Martin SJ and Christology 101

As part of our Lenten penance, we are listening to James Martin SJ’s Jesus: A Pilgrimage in the refectory at lunch. It has been not too bad, the bits I have heard; until today. So many blasts from the past: Jesus “discovering” his “call”, “embracing his vocation” as at the wedding feast at Cana. It was the same old tired Christology-from-below (to put it at its best) that triumphed in the 70s and 80s. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun.

But then it turned a great deal worse, in one brief phrase: Martin referred to Jesus as “a fully human person”. It is a sad indictment of the last 50 years or more of deficient catechetics that many will not see the problem. Jesus is a man, isn’t he?

Indeed Jesus is human. However, he is not a human person. He is a divine person with a human nature. The heresy of Nestorius (†450) was a rational attempt to reconcile the humanity of Christ with the awesomeness of his divinity. His sticking point was Mary; he objected to her being called Mother of God, because God, by definition eternal and the first principle of existence—the uncreated Creator— could obviously have no mother. So he decided that Jesus must be a union of two persons, one divine and one human. Mary was mother of the human person, but not of the divine. So she could be called Mother of Christ, but not Mother of God.

Far from being mere theological nitpicking, his theories provoked a crisis since the Church, in two ecumenical councils, condemned his rationalisation as heretical. Reason had led Nestorius down a blind alley. As so often happens with theological creativity, the Nestorian party could not accept this judgment by the Church and schism ensued, and with it bloodshed.

The orthodox Christian doctrine that resolves the tension that Nestorius failed to address successfully, is that in Jesus Christ is one divine person, ie the second Person of the Blessed Trinity, in whom are united a divine and a human nature, in what theologians call the hypostatic union. Hypostasis refers to the concrete reality and equilibrium that underlies what can be perceived and experienced. Thus the underlying reality of Jesus Christ is that he is a divine person in whom human and divine natures are united in perfect equilibrium and harmony.

While it is quite reasonable to conceive of Jesus in his earthly life as, in his human nature, developing in understanding and self-awareness, it is dangerous ground to start talking of him as a having a divine call or vocation that he comes to discover and to accept. Jesus had not a vocation in our sense of the word; he had a mission. He came to die, for us and for our salvation. The danger of thinking in terms of discovering and embracing a call and vocation from God is that God is put at a distance from Jesus, in a way that implicitly calls into question Jesus’ own identity with God. Yes, God was one of us in Jesus, but not just one of us.

Obviously this is complex territory, and no doubt arcane to many, even irrelevant to living a Christian life for some. Away with your theological hair-splitting! they might cry. Yet, unless we understand Christ properly we cannot follow him properly. We must know whom we are following in order that we might be able to follow him. Perfect knowledge is not necessary, but what we know must be true and accurate. If it isn’t we end up following the latest fad about him, or worse—we end up following ourselves.

At this point I stopped typing and sought for something useful to point to for those who find this incomprehensible and irrelevant. Frank Sheed (1897-1982), the Australian lay theologian and apologist who co-founded the publishers Sheed & Ward, quickly came to mind. For an accessible exposition of basic and sound Christology it is is still hard to beat Frank Sheed’s What Difference Does Jesus Make? (London, 1971), written just when dangerously misleading understandings of Christ were making it into Catholic bookshops. It bears some quotation here as a sort of summary of a proper approach to the issues Martin mishandles.  Sheed faces the issues and allows for the mystery and incomprehensibility without shying away from the need we have to say something about Jesus, and that this something must be true.

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Sheed writes of Jesus’ self-references as possessing the “unvarying element… of his assumption of something special in himself, something not in other men unless he gives it to them.” (p.19) “[Jesus] never speaks of apostles or anyone else as his equals. The authority he claims is total… Basic to his whole life was his certainty of a special relation to God.” (p.20) “Jesus was calling on men not only to believe in his message, as the Baptist did, but in himself, as the Baptist did not.” (p.48) “In the double sonship—of God, of Mary—lay the identity of Jesus. As the Son of Mary, he was fully man. As the Son of God he was—what? As both—what? His identity matters to us vitally, because as Paul went on to tell the Galatians, in Jesus’ sonship ‘we are redeemed’.” (p.156)

Sheed continues that “[t]he orthodox Roman-Greek statement, defined at Chalcedon in 451, is that Christ was one Person, one self, one I, God the Son; in two natures—the nature of God which was his eternally, and the nature of man, spirit embodied or matter enspirited, conceived in time of a human mother… In other words, one person is acting and speaking on two levels, drawing on two sources of operation, two natures.” (pp. 158-9)

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Frank Sheed

Sheed goes on to admit and expound the difficulties this poses for human reasoning and how it ultimately lies beyond the boundaries of purely human knowledge. The divine gift of faith allows us to accept what God has revealed about himself, and himself in Christ, without needing the satisfaction of our purely human, and inexorably finite, understanding. While faith moves us beyond the need of fully-satisfied knowledge, it does not remove the desire for it. It is this desire that moves our understanding of divine revelation forward, if ever only by inches, and never to a conclusion. With this in mind, Sheed writes, “For full knowledge we must wait till we see Him. As John tells us in his First Epistle, ‘When he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is’.” (p.163)

So why does the personhood of Jesus Christ matter? Why is it important that he is a divine person and not a human one? I will suggest one explanation, not perfect but arising from my own desire to comprehend. It is the person who acts, not a nature. It is the person which is the “I” that speaks and does, that knows and chooses. If the person of Jesus Christ, his “I” is primordially human, then his acts are primordially human. His death on the cross would have had primordially only human value and effect. Which is to say, Jesus’ death would not have redeemed humanity. Self-redemption was, and is, beyond human nature, or human personhood. While redemption had to be enacted in truly human (but finite) flesh, to have effect for all humanity it had to be united to the Infinite One.

That is Jesus Christ, who came to die in human flesh and give it infinite value through his divine identity. In Christ God chose to make the sacrifice in human flesh that sets humanity free because it was beyond a human person to do this. The God-man Christ sacrificed himself for us, and thereby has enabled all human persons, should they choose, to make similar sacrifices that share in his infinitely valuable and redeeming sacrifice.

To this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 1 Peter 2:21

This following him in his steps in not only doing as he did, but also following where he has gone. That is the Christian life.

This is why Fr Martin, a religious writer of such prominence, needs to brush up his Christology; to follow Christ securely we must know him as he is, not as we fancy him to be. In the man Jesus the “I” is God, and his commandments and teachings are God’s, not man’s. Jesus can feel as we feel, but he teaches as God. What God has joined, let no man put asunder. Now where have we heard that before?

29 thoughts on “There is nothing new under the sun: James Martin SJ and Christology 101

  1. Reading James Martin, S.J. is a pretty harsh Lenten penance, Fr Hugh. Good luck to you.

    I tried to get through listening to his ‘Jesus’ last year after finding his ‘Jesuit guide to almost everything’ not too unbearable, but I couldn’t finish it. His condescending coolness creeped me out, and reminded me of the sort of cheesy intellectually-dishonest 90s Catholicism that put me off as an adolescent.

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    1. 😀 I must admit Fr Martin’s tone can annoy me, more so in other places than in this book, and that might colour my reactions more than I might immediately realise. However it can be honestly said that here I am reacting to what (I hope) is sloppy Christology in a book precisely about Jesus Christ! Christ’s humanity needs little defence these days; his divinity, on the other hand,… Pax!

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  2. Very interesting article Fr Hugh as I do enjoy some christological discussion a good hypostatic discussion. Thanks for this reflection from a follower of Fr Martin in fb though I confess I have not yet fully read one of his works.
    I was wondering whether Fr Martin’s discourse is influenced by a cultural style which points to his ‘American’ narrative manner. And as such, takes him down a road where he uses such way of talking about Jesus. Also, the thought occurred to me about what could we speculate on when meditating about Jesus’ early life when growing up (in terms if his human nature) from chilhood into manhood ……but that’s my imagination exploring this angle

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    1. Frank Sheed in the book I refer to, indeed takes up such questions as the growth in Jesus’ human knowledge and the extent of it. But that is not quite the same issue as Jesus’ self-awareness. It is complex, there is no doubt about it, and not a little mysterious. Which is why it is always better to remain firmly within revelation and dogmatic teaching when it comes to making big statements about Jesus.

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  3. Thank you for the helpful discussion and reference to Sheed. I’m going to read your post again later and follow up the book – useful to have a better understanding on what we actually believe especially since I live among Muslims – and Islam has that stumbling block in spades.

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  4. If Jesus were only a human person then that would explain why so many Jesuits seem to have no trouble dismissing His teaching as no longer relevant to modern man who knows so much better.

    If He were only a human person then why not put the words of a pope above the words of Christ?

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  5. Catholics educated by the nuns in the Catholic grade schools In the 1940’s and 1950’s would certainly see the error in Fr.Martin’s statement that JESUS was a human person. Drilled in the Baltimore catechism and formed in Catholic practice, they had an advantage over many younger Catholics. Isn’t it fair to say that the birthright (at least partially) of a significant number of Catholics has been stolen from them?

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    1. There is no doubt that one of the great failures in the wake of the Council has been in catechetics and religious education. Moralizing stories and colouring books do not cut the mustard for kids older than 5 or 6. Pax!

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  6. I try to avoid the “ponderings” of Father Martin. His modernist, left leaning writings are disturbing. There are so many wonderful books available. Have you had the opportunity to read The Coming of God by Maria Boulding OSB? The book explores the ways in which God comes to us and teaches us how to pray. She was a biblical scholar and uses scripture to unfold the fact that Jesus is a divine person with a human nature.

    Thank you for the article.

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  7. How then is a human nature expressed other than in a human person? To say that Jesus was not a human person is to deny the fullness of his humanity.

    And if Jesus is fully human, then he must have learnt as humans learn, and discerned his mission in life through the means humans discern. To say otherwise is again deny the fullness of his humanity.

    And if he was not fully human, then he is not the redeemer of humanity.

    Of course, I am not suggesting Fr. Martin has it all nailed down. The mystery of the Incarnation cannot be contained in words. But if we only have the Alexandrian model you offer, it is as incomplete as the Antiochene model that you cite out of Martin’s work.

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    1. I am sorry but this is precisely what the councils of the early Church discussed and settled.

      So let me say out the outside that the fact that Jesus Christ was a divine person does not deny the fullness of his human NATURE. This is not the place for me to do it, but you need to read up on the difference between nature and person.

      Nor do I cut out the Antiochene Christology from below that you revere. However an orthodox Antiochene Christology acknowledges the divine personhood of God, as it must.

      The problem with your objection is that we are left with either (1) Nestorianism, with Jesus having two persons within him, making him a freak not a mystery; or (2) makes him a man who becomes God, which is impossible. The Godhead can assume and assimilate the human nature it has created; finite human nature cannot assume to itself the infinite personhood of God its creator. This is not to rule out the divinisation of man that will become complete in heaven, when our humanity shares in the divine life to the fullness of our created capacity.

      Orthodox Christian dogma holds, against the Arians, that the Word (which became flesh) existed from all time, being God. In created time and space the Word took on created human flesh. To say that the eternal is not the centre of Christ’s personhood but rather the finite creatureliness, is simply untenable on theological and philosophical grounds.

      The fact that Christ was a divine person does not diminish his human experience nor his sharing in the limitations of our humanity. But he did not share in humanity’s sinfulness. Does this “deny the fullness of his humanity” since all humans, save our Lady, and she only by grace, are sinners?

      You would have to say No. Why? Because sin is not something essential to human nature but a corruption of it.

      In other words, our experience of being human is not the full story, nor even an adequate story, of what the essence of humanity is. God knows human nature fully having created it. In taking it on himself he did not cease to be fully God. Given the infiniteness of God and the finiteness of humanity, the divine personhood of Christ must be the primordial identity of Christ. It does not diminish his human nature at all; in fact, it perfects it.

      I will not go any further to defend the orthodox, long-established teaching of the Church. Even orthodox Protestants accept it. Even the Jacobites have come to see their objections were on the level of language not reality.

      Please read some Sheed, or some other Christologist with an Imprimatur, or The Catechism of the Catholic Church, to discover the fullness of the truth about Christ, the God-man.

      Pax.

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      1. I’m familiar with the Patristics thank you very much, and some of the assumptions in that literature on personhood and nature. On the same basis, I will pass on your directions for reading for the time being – given my research is on Christology I’d regard myself as sufficiently familiar with enough of the material to be going on with.

        If we are throwing around accusations of the classical heresies, your exposition is frankly close to docetism or monophysitism. You are left with a divine person who only appears as human. Or worse, you are left with a God who is not transcendent, for the attributes of the Creator are left so close to those of the creation that bearing the latter prevents the bearing of the former.

        In modern English, and thus as one would expect in the Martin book you referred to – written for a popular audience as it is, neither ‘person’ nor ‘nature’ are directly mappable to the concepts that the Fathers were describing. For a start, the English words are not, and never have been, directly equivalent to the Greek ones (that fallacy belongs to a particular school of translation, but that is a different issue), nor do we work within the philosophical framework that allows the words to have the words that meaning. In other words, what it means to be a person to a 21st century audience is not the same as it was to a 4th or 5th century one. To say today that Christ was not a human person is to say Christ was not a human.

        I am not prepared to uncritically accept either the Antiochene or the Alexandrian Christologies – both are attempting to express the mystery in a limited human way, in a philosophical and linguistic framework we do not share. Both captured something of that truth, but not all of it – nor could they hope to do so.

        Yes, it is by the action of God that the Son becomes incarnate – by the initiative of the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit, the Son ’emptied himself’ and was born as a man (Phil 2:7). But the resulting “God-man” is still a man. The eternal Word did not simply take on humanity as a cloak (docetism that way lies), but truly and completely becomes a man.

        This “God-man” is born amidst human sin. For ‘what he did not assume, he did not redeem’ (Gregory of Nazianzus, Irenaeus), instead God made ‘him to be sin who knew no sin’ (2 Cor 5:21). Christ knew the sinfulness within human nature, and ‘was tempted in every way’ (Heb 4:15). He took the very nature of fallen Adam, to become the new Adam that can lead us from sin.

        Is Christianity only expressible in the philosophical language of the ancients? If so, then it is entirely incomprehensible to the world of today, and can convey nothing of the eternal truth of God’s self-revelation in Christ. Alternatively, we could try to stop being so defensive about the precise formulations we have used in the past where we have lost the frameworks they belong in, and seek to understand the meaning behind them so that we can express them in a language and style that speaks to the modern audience. We’d not exactly be the first to do so: it is what motivates Thomas’ Summa just as much as it applies to the more recent attempts of the theologians of the 20th century you are so opposed to. I’ll accept that some do so with greater or lesser success, but they engage in the necessary task, that mere repetition of old formulae does not.

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      2. It is a mystery beyond adequate human expression, which is why we must stick to what has been revealed in and through the Church. Christ has guaranteed its teaching and not any one individual’s “insights”, which are always subject to the Church’s discernment and judgment.

        If you feel so confident in yourself as to need no further reading and to deny the Church’s dogmatic teaching that Christ is a divine person, then that is your affair. If you have something better than “old formulae” that still satisfies the revealed truth then do share it. You bandy about your own accusations of Docetism, by which you actually accuse the Church of Docetism since my position is nothing but the Church’s. Neither she nor I deny the fullness of Christ’s humanity; we deny that this equates to human personhood in Christ. You deride old formulae, but in doing so you rehash old arguments that have been settled, and so their rehashing serves no real purpose other than to express your doubts about Church teaching.

        Whatever happens, this blog upholds Church teaching. Ultimately theology must be backed by authority. Newman was eloquent on this. When we start choosing our own authorities we have become Protestant. That has been a real and popular choice. Fr Martin professes to be Catholic so as a Catholic priest teaching in the Church’s name he must make clear where he moved from Church teaching into personal opinion. He has a certain right to his own opinion, but integrity demands he make clear where it departs from his Church’s teaching.

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  8. But one does not express the teaching of the Church by reciting definitions when the terms used in those definitions no longer mean what they meant to the composers of those formulae. In fact, you say something that is most definitely different – the meaning a statement conveys is determined by the words, and combinations of words it contains, not by some arbitrary assignation of meaning to it. The theologian is, and always has been, engaged in the essential task of hermeneutics – hermeneutics of the Scriptures, of the teachings of the Fathers, and yes even of magisterial or dogmatic decrees of the Church.

    Your position is no more than your interpretation of the teaching of the Church. You are applying a hermeneutic. You must be for you do not cite the entirety of everything that has ever been said on the topic. That the language and approach you take is conservative does not guarantee fidelity to the content of the dogma. It is in fact especially prone to the error of losing sight of the changes to the meanings of the concepts cited.

    At no point do I deny that Christ is a divine person – using person either in the sense of the classical formulations or the modern usage of the word. But I will to continue to assert that that does not exclude that he is also a human person. In the modern usage of ‘person’ that is tautologous with the statement that Christ is an individual with a human nature.

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    1. “But I will to continue to assert that that does not exclude that he is also a human person. In the modern usage of ‘person’ that is tautologous with the statement that Christ is an individual with a human nature.”

      So you will use words that have a settled meaning in a way contrary to that settled meaning, with your own personal meaning for them. A recipe for confusion and poor theology.

      Theology done outside the Church is little more than religious studies, which is not my subject. Good luck with your theory.

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      1. They may have (actually I’d suggest ‘may have had’ but, I’m not sure I care too much about the tense there) a settled meaning in dogmatic theology (though given every systematician since (and probably before) John the Divine has needed to contribute to the discussion, I’m not sure it really ever was settled).

        I have no difficulty with the contents of Christological dogma. However, it is a question of how it must be expressed to make sense today. The question is always ‘how do we communicate (i.e. so we are understood) the Gospel today?’.

        Fortunately, none of us live in a world that is solely composed on historical dogmatic works. We live in the present, with all that goes with it. Which includes the development of language and meaning.

        Which brings us back to Martin’s book. In English, the word ‘person’ does not mean what you say it means.

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  9. Based on your description and Amazon’s, Martin is providing a non-technical introduction for a non-specialist audience. Hence we should expect Martin to use normal language. I repeat again that in normal language, Jesus was a human person. Whilst we do need a technical language, we need to communicate in a language that is understood. In that sense to say other than that Jesus was a human person is not communicating,

    It would make as much sense to say Jesus has a human isnalf but is not a dfervs (or any other random keyboard combinations one wishes).

    I’m not sure I’d count an article that begins with a sentence where almost every word is jargon as a good explanation of anything at all. (‘The’ is probably used normally, I suppose). I understand it, but I have a small collection of theology degrees, and hundreds of books on the topic. Unless you speak the technical language of Christianity, phrases like ‘the fullness of divinity and the fullness of humanity’ are gobbledegook.

    I repeat my chief thesis throughout this discussion: we need to express this in language that people will understand. To say that Christ was a human person – provided that is not, in its context, a statement that he is not thereby divine – is a perfectly reasonable, and perfectly orthodox thing to say.

    In contrast, I would have more difficulty with the statement ‘Christ has/had a human person’ (again, tense beside the point here) – then nature would be more appropriate.

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    1. Strange – I have been teaching the orthodox dogma of the Church for 30 years and I have never had anybody who failed to understand the concepts of “person” and “nature” once it was explained to them how the Church understands and uses the terms. Even children manage to grasp the concepts.

      Rather than looking for problems in your putative changes of meaning in the terms, perhaps your time may be more profitably spent in learning how to explain the meanings in the same sense and understanding that the Church has always used them. Every other academic discipline has its own “technical language” and uses conventions in meanings as sensible people realize that if you have to redefine every term from first principles every time a new pair of ears engages in the dialogue, then it is a colossal waste of time and genuine progress is inevitably thwarted.

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    2. On the use of language, please remember the instruction of Pope Paul VI in his 1965 encyclical Mysterium Fidei:
      24. And so the rule of language which the Church has established through the long labor of centuries, with the help of the Holy Spirit, and which she has confirmed with the authority of the Councils, and which has more than once been the watchword and banner of orthodox faith, is to be religiously preserved, and no one may presume to change it at his own pleasure or under the pretext of new knowledge. Who would ever tolerate that the dogmatic formulas used by the ecumenical councils for the mysteries of the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation be judged as no longer appropriate for men of our times, and let others be rashly substituted for them?

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  10. Without wanting to depress us further, I note that Pope Francis in a recent sermon (that I cannot now locate it for a link) said, literally ‘Jesus was a human person – just you or me’. And so far, I have seen no comment on that. Perhaps we are all getitng blasé…

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    1. I’m so sorry: I see three further mistakes – my own hubris to try to type so late in the evening! 🙂
      The whole comment should read:
      Without wanting to depress us further, I note that Pope Francis in a recent sermon (that I cannot now locate for a link) said, literally, ‘Jesus was a human person – just like you or me’. And so far, I have seen no comment on that. Perhaps we are all getting blasé…

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  11. One of the many little ironies in the Church today seems to me to be the virtual side lining of Mary as embarrassing popular piety, whilst constantly emphasizing Jesus the Man. Where would Jesus the Man be without Mary the Mother one wonders?

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