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.
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)
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?