Editor’s Note: After the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a notification March 14 on some works of the liberation theologian Jon Sobrino, S.J., the editors wondered how we might inform our readers about the questions at stake. We concluded that the most useful approach would be to set the issues in the context of contemporary Christology, explaining what major theologians, Scripture scholars and schools of theology are saying regarding the six questions about Jesus to which the congregation drew attention in its notification: method, divinity/humanity, incarnation, the kingdom of God, Jesus’ self-consciousness and soteriology (explanations of how Jesus achieved our salvation). We have asked six theologians to explain what the tradition and their colleagues are saying today about the church’s confession of Jesus as Christ and Son of God.
Faith and the Poor
By Alejandro Garcia-Rivera
Recently I had the honor of listening to Metropolitan Kallistos Ware as he gave a talk on the Orthodox understanding of the Holy Spirit. During the question-and-answer session, a young Roman Catholic seminarian asked him what he thought of the recent Vatican notification on the works of Jon Sobrino, S.J. Bishop Ware smiled, thought for a minute and quoted this famous passage from St. John Chrysostom:
Would you see his altar?... This altar is composed of the very members of Christ, and the body of the Lord becomes an altar. This altar is more venerable even than the one which we now use. For it is…but a stone by nature; but become holy because it receives Christ’s body: but that is holy because it is itself Christ’s body…[which] you may see lying everywhere, in the alleys and in the marketplaces, and you may sacrifice upon it anytime…. When then you see a poor believer, believe that you are beholding an altar. When you see this one as a beggar, do not only refrain from insulting him, but actually give him honor, and if you witness someone else insulting him, stop him; prevent it.
Homily 20 on 2 Corinthians
Wisely Bishop Ware refused to elaborate on the quotation and left us to ponder its meaning. Its relevance to the Sobrino notification, however, has become more and more evident as I have studied the text by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The notification questions first the methodological presuppositions of Sobrino’s Christology. Father Sobrino emphasizes the social setting defined by the “church of the poor”; the notification identifies the proper context as the “faith of the Church.”
The C.D.F. apparently thinks Sobrino is playing fast and loose with the nature of the church. By identifying the church with the poor instead of with the faith, the C.D.F. warns that Sobrino’s Christ is being wrenched from his ecclesial matrix. What is feared, I suppose, is a Christ who emerges out of a social setting instead of a communion of faith. Such a Christ could be subject to political and ideological currents that have little interest in faith. Indeed, Sobrino’s method of taking the social context as the ecclesial matrix from which Christ emerges may lead to an unabashed theological pluralism where the one Lord can become a Christ of a thousand faces, each depending on its own social setting.
Such a scenario might be one reason this notification was issued. Sobrino’s method opens up a postmodern Pandora’s box of theological speculation. To ask if Jon Sobrino’s Christ is too postmodern is to ask if the C.D.F.’s primary concern is the role that truth plays in theological reflections. The notification, referring to Donum Veritatis, suggests as much: “Thus the truth revealed by God himself in Jesus Christ, and transmitted by the Church, constitutes the ultimate normative principle of theology.” Trust in the normative power of truth claims is at odds with the postmodern zeitgeist, which questions not simply the truthfulness of statements but truth itself. Such faith and the deep value it holds can legitimately be offended by the skepticism over normative claims so prevalent today. Does the notification assert that Sobrino’s Christology falls prey to such skepticism? There is reason to think so, namely, the concern for “the manner in which the author treats the major Councils of the early Church.” The notification lifts out this particular quote from Sobrino’s Christ the Liberator: “While these texts are useful theologically, besides being normative, they are also limited and even dangerous, as is widely recognized today.” While recognizing the limited character of dogmatic formulation, the notification insists that “there is no foundation for calling these formulas dangerous, since they are authentic interpretations of Revelation.”
Here the wisdom from the Orthodox tradition and the relevance of Chrysostom’s text become evident. The Orthodox warn against making dogmatic claims with too much confidence. While truth is behind all such claims, the ecclesial setting for truth is not objectivity but love. Truth is not simply about objectivity but also solidarity. And this is one of the lessons I learned from Chrysostom’s text. The Christ the church worships at its altar is also the Christ found at the altar of the world’s poor. In this sense both Sobrino and the C.D.F. appear to speak truthfully and accurately. Christ’s ecclesial matrix is the church that worships in faith. It is also the church of the poor. This is the famous both-and that marks the church as Catholic.
Having a both-and Christology is not the same as postmodern skepticism. It is the very nature of a faith that proclaims that God is one and three, that Jesus is human and divine. There is something more dangerous to the faith than a Christ who can only be grasped through multiple views; it is a view of truth as either-or.
“Definitive” truth that is not loving can bring only despair to an already nihilistic world. Postmodernism thrives precisely because it sees the suffering of this world as having reached horrendous and senseless proportions. A church that is methodologically indifferent to senseless suffering is at odds with the methods of Jesus himself. Only a Jesus who belongs to a church that is not afraid to identify itself with the suffering of this world can have any rational claim on the world itself. In other words, the normative character of the truth of the church’s faith is protected, defended and nurtured by a praxis that will not regard as normative the senseless suffering of billions. The church has two altars. The C.D.F. points rightly to one; Sobrino points to the other.
Balancing Human and Divine
By Kevin Burke
Christology is a complex discipline. It requires an intricate balancing act among assertions perennially in tension with one another. One of my first theology teachers, Brian Daly, S.J., emphasized this point in a course tellingly entitled “The Christological Controversies.” He noted how every orthodox Christological claim tends toward one or another heresy and needs to be complemented by other claims. Moreover, this process of complementing and balancing involves more than rehearsing the facts of church doctrine, for the language of faith often explodes like a riot of color in a wild garden or a true poem. As such, Christology involves evocation. Its arguments turn on the subtlest of metaphors.
And the work is always unfinished. Theology itself has to grow to stay alive. Theologians betray their vocation if they simply repeat word-for-word definitions taken from Scripture or doctrine, as if formulas could contain faith or words exhaust mystery. Every age, every culture needs to find access to Jesus Christ from within its own distinctive language and worldview. But the future of theology does not undermine the importance of its past. Theological growth needs direction to remain authentically alive. It needs Scripture (the normative witness to apostolic faith) and the Christological dogmas formulated by the theologians of the early church.
However, the teachings of Scripture and tradition are not self-interpreting. For this reason, Christology is not only complex but dangerous. Even devout believers can lose their way in the thickets of Christological reasoning. Even clear and apparently unambiguous statements like “Christians believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ” need to be interpreted in relation to other statements. Taken in isolation, without reference to the full humanity of Jesus, this statement is misleading and potentially harmful. In contrast, the classic formula developed at the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451, affirms the full divinity and full humanity of the one person, Jesus Christ, “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” And even this profound and balanced definition is not the end of the matter, for inquiring minds want to know: How do we make sense of this?
In the effort to make sense of the language of faith, the choice of where to begin is crucial because it shapes the way we imagine Jesus. This, I believe, represents the key difference between the Christology of Jon Sobrino, S.J., and the logic of the Vatican notification that criticizes his work. The notification implies that theology should start “from above,” with the Nicene Creed’s affirmation of Jesus’ divinity (“one in being with the Father”). Sobrino, by contrast, begins “from below” where the synoptic Gospels begin, with Jesus as he appeared to his contemporaries (“Is this not the carpenter’s son?”). The one approach starts with doctrine. The other begins in history.
On the surface, starting from doctrine appears to be the strongest way to safeguard the faith. But throughout Christianity’s history, it is the return to Jesus that consistently protects theology from the greatest danger of all—the temptation to use its own logic to misrepresent God. Concern for this danger lies behind the commandment forbidding false images of God: God cannot be described by analogy to what we think a god ought to be like. For his part, Sobrino is wary of the assumption that “we already know what divinity is” when we apply the term to Jesus. Rather, Jesus reveals what divinity means. Starting with Jesus and moving from there to an interpretation of his being the eternal Word of God unmasks the temptation to manipulate his image (and thereby God’s image) for our own ends.
Furthermore, Sobrino begins with Jesus precisely to “make sense” of Christian faith in a world burdened by “senseless” suffering, especially the suffering that results from inhuman poverty and violent oppression. Starting with Jesus and his scandalous love for the poor provides the best way today to lead people to authentic faith in Jesus Christ. It empowers Christians to live as disciples of Jesus while confirming their claim to be advocates of a universal, integral justice. Finally, it provides a credible way of holding the tension between the divine and the human natures of Jesus. Sobrino directs the imagination to that which is most easily imaginable: Jesus as he appeared to his contemporaries. He then leads it beyond its normal limits, as theology must, in order to give a complete account of Christian hope.
The Vatican notification warns that Sobrino’s method might scandalize believers who are not sophisticated enough to follow his subtle theological ascent. If people begin by imagining Jesus in his humanity, they might remain there, with a “merely human” Jesus. Of course, a corresponding risk exists for those who start with the Nicene Creed and utilize a dogmatic imagination. This approach can lead simple believers into a heretically high Christology like Docetism, in which Jesus, the Son of God, only appears to be human.
Christology wrestles with difficult questions. In-deed, its own use of reason can be dangerous. But not every danger can be addressed by authoritative pronouncements. More-over, while it may be prudent to warn believers about the possible dangers of Sobrino’s Christology, it seems equally necessary to call attention to corresponding dangers in Christologies that begin with Jesus’ divinity. At the very least it is a mistake to think that Christologies “from below” pose the only or the greatest danger to Christian faith.
By Robert P. Imbelli
Pressed to choose but one New Testament verse to recapitulate the Good News, the Gospel within the Gospel, one might opt for the climax of the Prologue of St. John (1:14):
And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.
The Word, the eternal Son of the Father, who precedes and “pre-contains” all creation, became part of created reality, entered into human history, lived a complete human life, became one of us—even unto death.
So stupendous is this mystery that already in the first century some demurred. Surely it was unseemly for the divine to enter into the muck of humanity, confined in a body, subject to the indignities and torments to which flesh is heir. So began the perennial Gnostic revulsion against the flesh, and especially against the flesh-taking of the Holy, Immortal One.
The First Letter of John stands at the origin of the ecclesial tradition of discernment of spirits. It reiterates with insistence: “Beloved, do not trust every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they belong to God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can know the Spirit of God: every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Messiah has come in the flesh belongs to God” (1 Jn 4:1-2). The incarnation of the Word is not adventitious to God’s saving action; it is the very heart of salvation.
The Letter to the Hebrews sealed the canonical New Testament’s incarnational conviction. “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to God who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Heb 5:7-9).
Almost 400 years later, the great Christological Council of Chalcedon articulates, in the language of its culture and time, this core discernment and persuasion of the New Testament. Jesus the Christ is “perfect [Greek teleion] in divinity, perfect in humanity, truly God and truly human, of a rational soul and body.” In a famous formulation the council confesses the one Lord Jesus Christ “in two natures with no confusion, no change, no division, no separation...the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being.” Here the mystery of the Incarnation is neither explained nor reduced, but confessed and celebrated. Chalcedon enunciates the “deep grammar” that governs the church’s preaching, catechesis and theological reflection.
Fast-forward 1,500 years. As part of the commemoration of the anniversary of Chalcedon, Karl Rahner, S.J., wrote an essay that stands at the origin of renewed Christological reflection in the Catholic tradition. The essay, in revised form, appears in the first volume of his Theological Investigations under the title “Current Problems in Christology.” In the context of the Catholic theological world of the 1950s, these sentences rang like a manifesto:
We shall never cease to return to this formula [of Chalcedon], because whenever it is necessary to say briefly what it is that we encounter in the ineffable truth which is our salvation, we shall always have recourse to its modest, sober clarity. But we shall only really have recourse to it (and this is not at all the same thing as simply repeating it), if it is not only our end but also our beginning.
Rahner lamented that there was far too much mere repetition of creedal formulae, rather than genuine appropriation of the council’s insight. Moreover, he also judged that some of what was said in standard textbooks and in popular preaching was, often inadvertently, not consonant with Chalcedon’s measured doctrine. In particular, Rahner discerned a “crypto-monophysitism” that emphasized the divinity of Christ to the virtual exclusion of his full humanity.
In retrospect, this article (published in German in 1954 and in English in 1961) anticipated the direction of much of post-Vatican II Christological reflection by Catholic theologians. It stressed the need to do full justice to the humanity of Jesus, to return anew to the canonical range of New Testament witness rather than relying, almost exclusively, on the Gospel of John. It advocated complementing a “Christology from above” with a “Christology from below,” one that takes with utmost seriousness “the human experience of Jesus.”
Rahner already anticipated that this commitment would entail not only a focus on the human nature of the Word in some abstract, timeless fashion, but a consideration of the “flesh-taking” in its concrete historical, religious and social setting. This commitment, supported and promoted by the experience and teaching of Vatican II, led to a profusion of works in Christology: from Hans Küng to Edward Schillebeeckx, from Hans Urs von Balthasar to Walter Kasper, from Jon Sobrino to Elizabeth Johnson. Though the works of these authors certainly differ among themselves, all would echo Rahner’s claim that Chalcedon marks not only an end, but also a beginning of the church’s never-ending reflection on the mystery of its Lord.
In the present situation of Catholic theology, at least in its university setting, I think few would contend, as Rahner did 50 years ago, that there flows “an undercurrent of monophysitism.” The acknowledgement of the humanity of Jesus, of his immersion in the Jewish religious-cultural world of his time, has become an indisputable given (see Elizabeth Johnson, Consider Jesus; N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God; Gerald O’Collins, Christology: a Biblical, Historical, and Systematic Study of Jesus). New archeological findings continue to “flesh out” the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth (see James H. Charlesworth, ed., Jesus and Archeology, Eerdmans, 2006). The present danger may lie, rather, in an inclination to present a Jesus who is fully, but only, human: a “Christology from below” that never quite manages to get off the ground. The church’s foundational faith in the incarnation of the only Son risks being reduced to a vague avowal of the divine inspiration of one who is a provocative prophet. Indeed, some even hint that the church’s dogmatic tradition distorts the reality of the first-century Jewish figure.
I read the recent notification of the C.D.F. on some writings of Father Jon Sobrino as a call to accountability to the grammar of Chalcedon, even as theologians probe new insights and forge new language. In the spirit of 1 John, it offers guidelines for discernment. I do not think Karl Rahner would object in principle to this admonition, though he might differ, of course, with regard to the congregation’s specific findings.
The challenge before us all, not only theologians, but preachers and parents, artists and educators, is to rekindle in our day and place the Christic imagination: to appropriate and extend Vatican II’s confident confession that Jesus is “the light of the nations” (Lumen Gentium, No. 1), that he is “the mediator and fullness of all revelation” (Dei Verbum, No. 2) and that the Holy Spirit offers to everyone “the possibility of being associated with Christ’s paschal mystery” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 22).
In pursuing this inexhaustible blessing and mission, we can do no better than take as a sure guide the Letter to the Hebrews, which so forthrightly celebrates the humanity of the Lord. For it also, with equal boldness, proclaims his unsurpassable uniqueness (Heb 1:1-2):
In times past, God spoke in partial and diverse ways to our ancestors through the prophets, but in these, the days of fulfillment, God has spoken to us through a Son, whom he has made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe.
Jesus and the Kingdom of God
By John R. Donahue
The kingdom of God assumes a central place in the notification on the works of Jon Sobrino, S.J., as it does in contemporary New Testament scholarship. A wide spectrum of New Testament scholars of all denominations significantly agrees that the central theme of the public proclamation of Jesus was the arrival of God’s powerful reign. Beyond this consensus is a virtual storm of scholarly discussion and debate. The kingdom is a major topic in three recent scholarly tomes: Jesus: A Marginal Jew, Vol. 2, by John P. Meier (reviewed in America,4/8/95); Jesus and the Victory of God, by N. T. Wright (Am. 3/8/97); and Jesus Remembered, by James D. G. Dunn (Am. 12/3/03).
The Greek term itself, basileia tou theou (literally, “kingdom of God”), expresses the power of God active in the ministry of Jesus, but it also implies a spatial or local dimension, as in “United Kingdom.” The expression is a tensive symbol, evoking a host of associations rather than a single referent. The proclamation has a clear eschatological dimension—the final and definitive rule of God is at hand.
A host of problems accompany interpretation of this proclamation. There are three principal groups of sayings. The first stresses the presence of the kingdom; the second, its future coming; the third, its demands on people who wish to accept or enter it. A seemingly endless debate centers on which sayings are closest to the actual statements of Jesus (his ipsissima vox). Advocates of the presence of the kingdom interpret Jesus primarily as a prophet of reform (John Dominic Crossan), while the future sayings form the basis of interpreting Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher (Albert Schweitzer). Current exegesis leans toward some version of the thesis of Joachim Jeremias, that Jesus proclaims God’s reign as already at work in his ministry, while anticipating its fullest realization in the future.
Evidence for both positions is ample. Jesus inaugurates his public ministry by proclaiming that the kingdom of God is at hand and summoning people to reform and renewal (metanoia, Mk 1:16-17). Jesus also proclaims that the kingdom is “among you” (Lk 17:21), not “within you,” a translation that spawns many inaccurate appropriations. His mighty works of healing, confrontation with demons and his power over nature are the signs of God’s power now at work in his life and teaching. The kingdom is “of God,” both as gift and challenge; despite common parlance, nowhere does the New Testament speak of “building the kingdom of God.” For his part, Jesus speaks often of the kingdom in parables drawn from the ordinary lives of his hearers. Human experience is the path toward the transcendent.
Future expectation is also strong. Disciples are to pray that the kingdom will come, just as they pray for God’s will to be be done on earth as in heaven (Mt 6:10). Other sayings of Jesus reflect Jewish apocalyptic thought, with its emphasis on the end of the world, when the exalted Son of Man will reign as king to judge evildoers and restore justice to the elect (the sheep and the goats, Mt 25:31-46). According to Paul, eschatological fulfillment of the reign of God will come when at the end time the risen Jesus will hand over his kingdom to “his God and Father” (1 Cor 15:24).
The radical challenge of the kingdom is crystallized in a series of sayings on conditions for “entering” the kingdom. Rather than scandalize a child or commit other sins, one should be willing to enter the kingdom of God blind (Mk 9:47). Those who wish to enter the kingdom should be powerless like children (Mt 19:14); riches provide an overwhelming obstacle to entering (Mt 19:23-25). Disciples who seek the prestige of sitting at the right hand of Jesus in the kingdom are urged instead to become servants and slaves (Mt 20:21-25).
The powerful reign of God is not otherworldly, but embodied in history. Its arrival brings special hope to the poor, the suffering and the marginal. When Jesus calls the poor happy because “the kingdom of God is yours” (Lk 6:26), he is declaring that God’s reign is on their behalf. After the rich young man fails to heed Jesus’ call to give his wealth to the poor, Jesus comments to his disciples about the young man’s reluctance, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mk 10:23).
Jesus’ personal consciousness of the reign of God constitutes an enduring problem. Though, apart from John 18, Jesus never refers to “his kingdom” and does not accept the title “king,” he has a unique relationship to God’s reign. For decades scholars have called attention to Origen’s description of Jesus as autobasileia (literally “himself the kingdom”). Recent magisterial statements have frequently appealed to this text. While reflecting on Matt 18:23-35, Origen says that “king” refers to the Son of God. He goes on to ask: Since Jesus is “wisdom itself” (autosophia), “justice itself” (autodikaiosyne) and “truth itself” (autoasphaleia), is he not also autobasileia “the kingdom itself” (In Mt. Hom., 14:7)?
Origen prefers the spiritual sense over the literal, and his commentary is allegorical and Christological. The phrase “the kingdom itself,” therefore, is a theological expression on the trajectory that leads to the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon. It is an interpretation, rather than a description of the historical Jesus.
By William Thompson-Uberuaga
Regard for Jesus’ human identity and consciousness is not new. Luke 2:52 tells us that Jesus grew in wisdom. The Gospels attest to threshold moments in which Jesus’ consciousness unfolds, such as his baptism (which brings a heightened awareness of his relationship with his Father and his mission, tutored by John the Baptist), his desert experience (when he confronts his “demons” and readies himself for the struggles to come), his anointing by the Spirit (bestowing the gift of bringing good news to the poor), his transfiguration (opening up further depths of his particular person and mission) and his struggle in Gethsemane (about the will of God for him unto death).
In the second century Irenaeus wrote that the Son established a genuine communion with us through passing “through every stage of life” (Against Heresies). Still, early church councils found that they had to defend Jesus’ authentic human soul, intellect, will and vital energy against some who would deny them, so counterintuitive did it seem that God would come among us as a human being.
Since the connection between persons and their consciousnesses is an intimate one, it is reasonable to think that any special qualities of personhood would also shape one’s consciousness. Such thinking brings special challenges to our understanding of Jesus the Christ. His person, according to Christian doctrine, possesses two natures, divine and human. The communion between Jesus’ divinity and humanity, as a true communion, would entail an exchange of attributes between the two: God truly sharing the human condition. All of this is attested to by Scripture and taught by church councils. But does his divine identity and nature affect Jesus’ human consciousness? If so, in what way(s) can this happen without tampering with an integral human nature and human mind, and so risk being inconsistent with the doctrines of Chalcedon and Constantinople III?
The question is difficult and brings us to one of the fault lines among theologians today. We might argue a case deductively, based on a view of how God would act. God would never do anything to harm Jesus’ consciousness, we might say, but rather would create it and sustain it. That position uses the theological principle that God as the creator always enhances rather than curtails creation. We cannot do much without general principles like that from which to make deductions.
But we reach a limit here. For how well do we know who God is and how God should act? Some early heretics thought they knew God’s being well enough to argue that it would be inappropriate for Jesus to have a truly human intellect and will, because that would diminish the sovereignty of his divine nature, giving too much independence to his humanity. This sounded reasonable. Yet the church, following Scripture, could not accept such a view. The Word truly became human in Jesus, and being human entails the presence of a fully functioning human intellect and will. Apparently God was trying to reveal to us a different view of who he is and how he acts.
Other theologians take an inductive approach, led by the witness of revelation. Scripture teaches that Jesus was sinless (Heb 4:15