Just over a year ago, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued a notification concerning certain elements in the theological works of the Salvadoran priest, Jon Sobrino, SJ. The substance of the complaints centered on Christology: the congregation found Sobrino’s teaching inadequate regarding the divinity of Jesus Christ, the Incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God, the self-consciousness of Jesus, and the salvific value of Jesus’ death.

Christology is not a trivial issue. Getting Jesus right is at the heart of Christian identity. But both the substance and the style of the congregation’s composition reveal a troubling tension in contemporary Catholic theology. On one side are those, like Sobrino, whose thought is forged with explicit attention to specific cultural contexts and who claim their teaching about Jesus is faithful to Scripture; on the other side are the ecclesiastical officers who also claim to interpret Jesus faithfully vis-à-vis Scripture, within the framework of the doctrinal tradition of the great councils and the popes.

It is not troubling that there should be criticism and response among theologians, or question and answer between theological teachers and representatives of the church’s magisterium. Such exchanges are part of the healthy functioning of the body of Christ, in which the different gifts are exercised as the Spirit gives direction. It is the theologian’s task to inquire critically into received teaching in light of culture and science; it is the magisterium’s task to test whether such critical inquiry stands within the creedal framework of the church and builds the body of Christ in faith and love. What is troubling is when a mutually informing conversation gives way to mutually excluding claims, and when the participants in the exchange do not seem to recognize that they are, quite literally, talking past each other.

I want to focus on one point of caution in the notification concerning Fr. Sobrino’s statements on the faith of Jesus in his book Jesus the Liberator: A Historical-Theological Reading of Jesus of Nazareth. Basing his observations on Hebrews 12:2, Sobrino writes that “Jesus was an extraordinary believer and had faith,” and that “with regard to faith, Jesus in his life is presented as a believer like ourselves.” “He is the model,” Sobrino asserts further, “the one on whom we have to keep our eyes fixed in order to live out our own faith.” In response, the congregation argues that Jesus’ “filial and messianic consciousness,” which is the “direct consequence of his ontology as Son of God made man,” makes it impossible for him to be “a believer like ourselves,” because if he were, then “he would not be able to be a true revealer showing us the face of the Father.”

I want to address the substance of this issue—the faith of Jesus Christ—and discuss why the expression of the issue by both Sobrino and the Vatican is unsatisfying. But I need to make a few preliminary points.


The Difficult Truth

The identity of Jesus Christ is a mystery in the proper sense of the term. Even when it is disclosed, it remains beyond human grasp: neither human reason nor human speech can adequately comprehend or express the truth that Paul states succinctly as “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19). Christians never had trouble professing “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor 12:3), or recognizing at the experiential level that the Holy Spirit at work among them came from the exalted Lord Jesus (2 Cor 3:17–18), or praying to God through Jesus Christ (Rom 16:27). From the beginning, believers also affirmed both that “God sent his son” and that Jesus was “born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal 4:4). The Nicene Creed was consistent with the earliest experiences and convictions concerning Jesus when it affirmed that the one who was “God from God” was also the one “born of the Virgin Mary” who “suffered under Pontius Pilate.”

And so the difficulty for the first Christians, as for us, lies not at the level of experience, profession, or prayer, but at the level of thought. The rule for prayer is the rule for faith (lex orandi lex credendi), but theology is more than faith: it is the attempt to assess critically and express what is prayed and believed. For those whose most basic convictions were monotheistic, the Christian claims about Jesus appeared dangerously close to polytheism. To affirm both divinity and humanity simultaneously doesn’t merely challenge the ordinary categories of thought; it confounds them. There was, however, no escaping the obligation to think—for the alternative was to admit that Christianity was no more than a superstition, as its opponents claimed, and that it had no place in the realm of the intellect.

Thus, the thinking we call Christology was, from very early on, guided by two distinct imperatives: the desire to have the mystery that is Jesus respond to the demands of rationality; and the need to think about Jesus in a manner that corresponds to believers’ experience, profession, and prayer. Because experience, profession, and prayer receive normative expression in the writings of the New Testament, thinking about Jesus must find a basis in these texts.


Pendulum Swings

The measure of rationality in the first six centuries after Jesus was Greek philosophy, especially when pertaining to questions of being, or ontology. The language of this tradition was a splendid and supple instrument with which to express the mythic dimension of the Christian faith: that God entered into the frame of human existence and elevated it to a participation in God’s own life. And since challenges to the traditional faith were posed in terms of ontology—as was the case throughout the long Arian crisis—the language of orthodox defense that eventually found its way into the creeds also employed the same idiom. It does, however, have certain built-in limitations.

The first is that it is better at abstractions than at particulars, better at the level of “humanity” than at the level of a specific human life. The second is that it aligns only awkwardly with the language of the New Testament, which is more often narrative than ontological in character. For those schooled in a philosophical idiom, there was a natural tendency to privilege the parts of the New Testament that sounded like ontology—such as the “I am” language in the Gospel of John—and to reduce the complexity and diversity of the New Testament’s language about Jesus in service of a few, if essential, abstract assertions concerning divinity and humanity.

The centuries of Christological controversy leading up to the Council of Chalcedon in 451 showed how difficult it was to maintain an equal and simultaneous emphasis on both divinity and humanity. Theologians in Alexandria tended to emphasize divinity: their logos-sarx (“word-flesh”) Christology drew heavily on John’s Gospel and was driven by the conviction that only God can save humans. In its extreme form, this Christology became monophysitism (“one nature”), eliminating the full humanity of Jesus. Antiochean theologians, in contrast, tended to emphasize the humanity of Jesus: their logos-anthropos (“word-human”) Christology was driven by the conviction that only what was assumed by the divine could be saved. Christ must therefore be human in every respect apart from sin. In its extreme form, this Christology became Nestorianism, which minimized the force of the conviction that “God was in Christ.” Stimulated by the Tome of Pope Leo the Great in 449, which sought a compromise that respected the strength of both positions, the Council of Chalcedon two years later finally reached the formula that has defined all subsequent orthodox Christology: in Christ exists one person in two natures, both fully human and fully divine, without separation or mixture.

The Chalcedonian formula was successful both in its fidelity to the complex witness of the New Testament, and in its ability to define the limits of reflection without privileging one emphasis over another. It must be recognized, however, that in subsequent centuries much Christian piety, and the influence of Alexandrian theology, tended to favor the affirmation of Christ’s divinity over his full humanity. Although monophysitism had been condemned at Chalcedon, it continued to dominate some Eastern traditions, and despite its condemnation, remained the default form of “orthodoxy” for many Christians. A variant of monophysitism that is pertinent to the current issue, in fact, was called monotheletism (“one will”), which taught that there was only one divine “energy” or “will” at work in Christ—that he lacked a true human will. After a long and bitter struggle, this teaching was finally condemned by the Council of Constantinople in 680.

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.

Such assertions are dangerous to the degree that they suppress the full humanity of Jesus, making of him simply a docetic “god in human form.” It should be noted that the Vatican composition criticizes Fr. Sobrino for being insufficiently expansive in his use of this principle. Sobrino had defined the principle in this fashion: “the limited human is predicated of God, but the unlimited divine is not predicated of Jesus.” The Vatican responds that the principle works equally in both directions: “the human is predicated of God and the divine of man,” so that “in Christian terminology, it is possible to say that Jesus is God, who is creator and omnipotent.”

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. But much has changed.


The Changed Situation

Two factors in particular have changed the context for Christology today. The first is the development of diverse discourses concerning humans. The categories of Greek philosophy are largely neglected by contemporary theologians, and I regard this as an unfortunate deprivation, since the language of ontology addresses with distinct authority the mythic dimension of Christianity—the drama of the human and the divine at its most profound and essential level. The development of other discourses useful for conversation about Jesus is, however, positive. The emergence of critical historiography since the Enlightenment enables us to focus on the particulars of human experience and action in the past—including those that related to Jesus—and not simply on the abstractions of being and essence. Within philosophy, several idioms, notably that of phenomenology (embraced by John Paul II himself), help us engage the specifics of human experience in the world. Among the social sciences, psychology, sociology and anthropology have had a dramatic impact on our understanding of what it means to be human, not only in the present but in the past, and in other cultures as well. And the study of literature has allowed an appreciation for the multiple ways in which texts give meaning: how the actions of characters in narratives can disclose the structures of existence; how discourses use rhetoric to shape arguments in which each part depends on all the other parts; and how truth can be expressed more powerfully through metaphor than through proposition. It is safe to say that our understanding of what it means to be a human being in this world has been significantly enhanced by these new ways of seeing and speaking.

The second factor is a changed way of reading Scripture. Here again, the development of historical consciousness is important. With respect to theology, I continue to believe that the so-called quest for the historical Jesus has not, as a whole, turned out to be the right direction for Christology, and would agree that the embrace of the historical-Jesus approach by some forms of theology—including several liberation theologians—has indeed led, however inadvertently, to a reduction of the mystery of Jesus in the New Testament. In any case, the historical Jesus is not the most significant contribution of a historical-critical perspective. More important is the way that historical analysis has enabled a more complex appreciation first of the process by which New Testament compositions came into existence, and second of their character as witnesses and interpretations of the mystery that is Jesus Christ. We have come to understand that the Gospels are far from straightforward records of Jesus’ sayings and deeds. They are, rather, literary compositions that feature genuine memories of Jesus selected and shaped by communities believing in him as the raised and powerfully present Lord, and given specific form by the literary and religious intentions of the evangelists.

In this light, we now recognize that each of the synoptic Gospels is as theologically sophisticated and profound as John, just as we recognize that John has the same mixture of fact and interpretation as the Synoptics. We have come to appreciate the diversity in the Gospel accounts not as a scandal that must be eliminated by means of either historical reduction or theological harmonization, but as a Spirit-guided set of portraits that invite contemplation of the person whose identity could not be captured by any single rendering. And we have begun to realize that a responsible reading of the Gospels—or any of the New Testament witnesses—cannot bypass careful attention to their literary and rhetorical shaping. To claim the support of Scripture without doing the hard work of exegesis is, from this perspective, presumptuous.

Because Scripture is perceived as a living and dynamic set of witnesses through which God’s Holy Spirit not only spoke in and to the past, but also speaks prophetically in and to the present, the theologian’s relation to Scripture has also been fundamentally reconceived. The writings of the Old and New Testaments are no longer regarded simply as a repository of oracles that provide support for doctrinal propositions, but as an arena for discovery, new insight, and fresh challenge. The more a theologian is also an exegete, the more he can learn from Scripture beyond the fairly narrow range of doctrine. For the sort of theology practiced by the CDF, the truth is already adequately stated in dogmatic propositions, and Scripture’s role is to provide support; for the sort of theology practiced by many others today, the reading of Scripture comes first. In some cases, unfortunately, this fresh reading of Scripture can lead to a simplistic dismissal of tradition. In the ideal, however, it leads to an honest and positive engagement with traditional teaching. The decisive question is whether the reading of the New Testament today can lead present-day believers into a deeper and perhaps even richer understanding of the mystery of Christ.


Speaking of Faith

Such observations concerning the development of diverse discourses and an exegetically based theological inquiry are immediately pertinent to the matter at issue between Jon Sobrino and the CDF—the faith of Jesus Christ. The emergence of different ways of speaking about human beings has revealed ever more sharply the inevitable limitations of any single mode of discourse, including the ontological. Yet diverse discourses can add positive knowledge as well. What ontology cannot do, for example, psychology may be able to do; what psychology cannot get at, anthropology may be able to reach, and so on. There are ways of measuring the adequacy of each discourse’s epistemology within its own range or competency: mathematical truths can be tested mathematically, but not literarily; moral truths can be tested by the rules of ethics but not by those of economics. Similarly, epistemologies cannot make (or deny) truth claims that lie within the realm of another discourse. I cannot appeal to the law of noncontradiction to deny the existence of literary metaphor; you cannot legitimately claim that a libretto is beautiful on the basis of the morality of its theme.

The CDF appears to recognize these simple principles. Its notification admits that “it is necessary to recognize the limited character of dogmatic formulations, which do not express nor are able to express everything contained in the mystery of faith, and must be interpreted in light of Sacred Scripture and tradition.” Notably lacking, however, is any recognition of the contribution made to theological understanding by diverse contemporary discourses. And indeed, the CDF rejects Sobrino’s statements concerning Jesus’ faith precisely on the basis of such dogmatic formulations. “The filial and messianic consciousness of Jesus is the direct consequence of his ontology as Son of God made man,” argues the CDF, and continues: “Jesus, the Incarnate Son of God, enjoys an intimate and immediate knowledge of his Father, a ‘vision’ that certainly goes beyond the vision of faith. The hypostatic union and Jesus’ mission of revelation and redemption require the vision of the Father and the knowledge of his plan of salvation.”

In terms of respecting the limits of discourses, the CDF’s statement has three further problems. First is a way of making problematic inferences with undue confidence. According to the CDF, since Jesus is “true God and true Man,” it follows necessarily that he enjoy the beatific vision from the start. Yet, since it is not given to us humans to actually know what that vision is, deductions ought to be cautious rather than confident. In proceeding from the beatific vision to “filial consciousness” to the “knowledge of the plan of salvation,” the CDF shifts from ontology to psychology without a pause, moving directly from the “hypostatic union” to what it “requires” in terms of the content of Jesus’ consciousness. But it is a large leap from a sense of filial relationship, or even the vision of the Father, to the human Jesus “knowing the plan of salvation.”

Compounding the problem, the CDF refers only to those passages in the Gospels that might support this inference, ignoring passages that do not support the proposition that Jesus’ filial relationship with the Father led directly to his full and conscious awareness of the “plan of salvation.” And finally, the implicit monophysitism in the CDF’s position deprives Jesus of any real human psychology, against the clear teaching of the church that his full humanity includes a soul. In answer to the question “What was in Jesus’ mind?” the CDF allows only “What was in God’s mind.” But this is a category error of the first order, in which the technical ontological category of “person” (prosopon) is made to function as a psychological-moral category of “person.”

On the other side, the CDF is certainly justified in objecting to Sobrino’s language concerning the ontological categories used by the great councils, specifically his characterization of them as “useful theologically,” but also “limited and even dangerous.” The CDF properly took exception to “dangerous.” And indeed, Sobrino would have done better to give enthusiastic support to what ontological language can and does say about the mystery of Christ, and then, rather than dismiss it as “dangerous,” suggest how other discourses and their epistemologies can enrich our appreciation for that element (the full humanity of Jesus) that the ontological language has most difficulty expressing.

The dispute concerning the faith of Jesus also reveals, on both sides, the consequences of insufficient exegetical engagement with Scripture. As we have seen, the CDF rejects Sobrino’s understanding of Jesus as the model of faith (an understanding based on his reading of Hebrews) by appealing to the “consciousness of Jesus” that follows necessarily from the hypostatic union. Jesus could not be a “believer like us” because, unlike us, he had direct knowledge of God. It is obvious that the CDF regards faith as a cognitive state, identifying it totally with “belief.” But even if its argument on the point of belief is correct—that the Son of God could not “believe in God” in the way other humans do—the response is completely beside the point in the matter of the “faith of Jesus Christ.”

The reason why is disclosed in a close reading of the New Testament. In Greek, the words pistis (“faith”) and pisteuein (“to have faith”) lie behind the English translations “belief” and “faith.” In English, furthermore, “belief” has a definite cognitive denotation, as in, “I believe there is a God.” The New Testament certainly can use the pistis cognates in this fashion (see, James 2:19 and Heb 11:6: “anyone who approaches God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him”). This is how the CDF understands the claim that the human Jesus had faith. The New Testament’s predominant usage for pistis and pisteuein, however, is less cognitive than dispositional—less an intellectual assent than the commitment of the heart, less a matter of the mind than of the will. Faith is the complete response of human freedom to God, involving trust, obedience, and endurance.

There is no question that several New Testament writings ascribe pistis in this sense to Jesus. As Sobrino—and the entire history of Christian spirituality—recognized, the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of Jesus’ human faith in terms of his obedience to God (3:1–6; 5:8–9; 12:1–3), although it requires a close analysis of the letter as a whole to bring out the full force of this ascription. The best recent work on Galatians and Romans, furthermore, has made the case that the “faith of Jesus Christ”-understood precisely as obedience-is an essential element of Paul’s argument in these letters (see Rom 1:5; 3:21–26; 5:12–21; 16:26; Gal 2:16–21). And although the term pistis is not used, interpreters have long recognized that Jesus’ prayer to his Father in the garden is the perfect expression of such faithful obedience (Mark 14:36).

Such scriptural evidence accords perfectly with Chalcedon’s insistence that in the one person (prosopon in Greek, persona in Latin) of Jesus Christ there are two natures (physis or natura), and with the Council of Constantinople’s condemnation of monotheletism—for if Jesus had no human volition, no genuine human freedom, then he could not have responded to the Father in the obedience we call faith. Paul declares in 2 Cor 1:19–20, “The Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was proclaimed to you by us, Silvanus and Timothy and me, was not ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ but ‘yes’ has been in him. For however many are the promises of God, their Yes is in him.” Paul’s compressed language suggests that Jesus Christ is at one and the same time God’s “yes” to humans and the human response of “yes” to God.

Here 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).


Simple Lessons

My hope is that there may be something else to be learned in the disagreement between Fr. Sobrino and the CDF. If criticism and debate are not only inevitable but in fact positive elements of Christological discussion within the church—and I believe they are, whether among theologians as teachers or between theologians and the magisterium—then perhaps the character of such exchanges would be improved if all parties observed some straightforward rules: (1) Begin with the premise of good faith and reasonable intelligence among all participants; (2) recognize the legitimate diversity of discourses for thinking and speaking about Christ and learn something about the internal logic of those discourses; (3) stay within the boundaries of the discourse one has chosen, and announce when another discourse is engaged; and (4) don’t commit the fallacy of epistemological imperialism by seeking to nullify another discourse from within one’s own, but rather recognize and respect the several discourses of Scripture and of tradition as distinct and requiring equally energetic engagement and exegesis.

Observing such rules will require all participants in Christological debates to show generosity of spirit, conceptual clarity, and a disposition sufficiently docile to learn from those who speak in a mode different from their own. Rather than automatically adopting the role of judge and seeking to silence a conclusion reached within a different discourse (“you can’t talk that way about Jesus”), participants in such discussions will need to adopt the role of learner and ask instead what that conclusion might mean for the discourse within which they are working (“What would it mean if I were to take that way of talking about Jesus seriously?”). Such flexibility and forbearance aren’t always easy in debates about our deepest beliefs. If practiced, though, they may help school us all in the modesty appropriate to those who dare to speak of the mystery that defies all our definitions and surpasses all we can imagine.


Read more: Letters, February 29, 2008

Related: The Sobrino File, by J. Matthew Ashley and William P. Loewe

Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor.


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Published in the 2008-01-31 issue: View Contents
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