The Judicious Dr. Johnson
In the current Commonweal, Luke Timothy Johnson revisits the notification of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on aspects of the Christology of Jon Sobrino, S.J.
Johnson’s article, “Human and Divine: Did Jesus Have Faith?”, is a typical example of Johnson’s informed scholarship and openness to dialogue. In many ways his tone and the principles he enunciates remind me of those espoused by the Catholic Common Ground Initiative. He seeks to understand the legitimate concerns that animate different positions.
Such sympathetic reading does not prevent Johnson from taking a stand where he things the positions he discusses are inadequate. Thus, with regard the CDF, he doesn’t hesitate to state:
The CDF places itself in self-conscious continuity with the theological heritage of earlier centuries. It thinks of “faith” primarily in terms of “belief”-that is, as a cognitive more than a volitional response. It privileges ontological categories for expressing Christian confession. It favors traditional formulas that can be treated as axioms from which one can argue deductively. Its understanding of truth tends toward the propositional, and it is suspicious of theological wording that does not replicate the accepted propositions precisely. And although it pays lip service to the critical study of Scripture, its use of the Gospels is resolutely precritical. It reads the New Testament exclusively through the lens of developed doctrine, and uses the New Testament exclusively as a repository of support for doctrinal propositions. In a word, it continues as if nothing in the theological world had changed.
And, with regard Sobrino’s view, he writes:
the CDF can find a legitimate (if minor) complaint at Sobrino’s description of Jesus as “a believer like ourselves,” for Paul makes clear that it is through Jesus’ “yes” that we are empowered to say “yes” in obedient faith to God: “therefore, the Amen from us goes through him to God for glory” (2 Cor 1:20). For Paul and for Hebrews, it is not that Jesus “has faith just like ours,” but rather that, through the power of his spirit, we can “have faith like that of Jesus” (Rom 3:26). Jesus is the model of faith, but more than that, he is the “pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Heb 12:2), the unique Son who accomplished what we could not on our own, because he was fully defined by the words with which he came into the world: “I have come to do your will, O God” (Heb 10:7).
On one point, however, I think Johnson nods. Regarding the (admittedly) challenging dogmatic principle of the “communicatio idiomatum,” he says:
The residual power of monophysitism is found in the peculiar principle called communicatio idiomatum (“exchange of characteristics”), which serves to compromise the “unmixedness” of the two natures in Christ by asserting the legitimacy of ascribing the characteristics of one nature to the other. But while all would recognize the value of asserting that Mary is the “Mother of God”-the first and most important instance of the principle-it is, in fact, a principle that can be dangerous when used carelessly, as it would be, for example, if one asserted, without careful qualification, that God was born in Nazareth or that Jesus created heaven and earth. Is such language appropriate to the exuberance of prayer and piety? Yes. But sober theological discourse requires greater circumspection.
Though one may hear in various quarters that the principle asserts that one may ascribe “the characteristics of one nature to the other” (in Johnson’s words), this is a faulty understanding of the principle. Rather, it contends that one may ascribe the properties of each nature to the one ontological person who is both divine and human. But the natures remain distinct even in their hypostatic union — as Chalcedon insists.
There is much more matter for considered reflection in this fine article: the latest occasion for gratitude to the judicious Johnson.