Why it matters who Jesus is
March 20th, 2017
By Bishop Robert Barron
I have been reading, with both profit and delight, Thomas Joseph White’s latest book, “The Incarnate Lord: A Thomistic Study in Christology.” Father White, one of the brightest of a new generation of Thomas interpreters, explores a range of topics in this text – the relationship between Jesus’ human and divine natures, whether the Lord experienced the beatific vision, the theological significance of Christ’s cry of anguish on the cross, his descent into hell, etc. But for the purposes of this article, I want to focus on a theme of particular significance in the theological and catechetical context today. Father White argues that the classical tradition of Christology, with its roots in the texts of the Gospels and the Epistles of Paul, understood Jesus ontologically, that is to say, in terms of his fundamental being or existential identity; whereas modern and contemporary Christology tends to understand Jesus psychologically or relationally. And though this distinction seems rather arcane, it has tremendous significance for our preaching, teaching and evangelizing.
In the famous scene at Caesarea-Philippi, Jesus turns to his apostles and asks, “Who do people say that I am?” He doesn’t ask what people are saying about his preaching or his miracle-working or his impact on the culture; he asks who they say he is. St. John’s Gospel commences with a magnificent assertion regarding, not the teaching of the Lord, but rather his being: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God … and the Word was made flesh and dwelled among us.” In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul writes, “Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not deem equality with God a thing to be grasped at,” implying thereby an ontological identity between Jesus and the God of Israel.
Following these prompts – and there are many others in the New Testament – the great theological tradition continued to speculate about the ontology of the founder. Councils from Nicea to Chalcedon formulated ever more precise articulations of the being, nature and person of Jesus, and the most significant theologians of the early centuries – Origen, Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, Augustine, etc. – tirelessly speculated about these same matters. This preoccupation with the being of Jesus signals, by the way, a major point of demarcation between Christianity and the other great religions of the world. Buddhists are massively interested in the teaching of the Buddha, but they are more or less indifferent to the ontology of the Buddha; no self-respecting Muslim worries about the existential makeup of Muhammad; and no Jew is preoccupied with the “being” of Moses or Abraham. Father White points out that the time-honored practice of ontological speculation regarding Jesus comes to a kind of climax with the meticulously nuanced teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas in the high Middle Ages.
However, commencing in the 18th century with the thought of Friedrich Schleiermacher, Christology took a decisive turn. Attempting to make the claims of the Christian faith more intelligible to a modern audience, Schleiermacher explained the Incarnation in terms of Jesus’ relationship to and awareness of God. Here is a particularly clear articulation of his position: “The Redeemer, then, is like all men in virtue of the identity of human nature, but distinguished from them all by the constant potency of his God-consciousness, which was a veritable existence of God in him.” Armies of theologians – both Protestant and Catholic – have raced down the Schleiermacher autobahn these past 200 years, adopting a “consciousness Christology” rather than an “ontological Christology.” I can testify that my theological training in the ‘70s and ‘80s was very much conditioned by this approach. Father White strenuously insists that this change represents a severe declension in Christian theology, and I think he’s right.
The abandonment of ontological approach has myriad negative consequences, but I will focus on just a few. First, it effectively turns Jesus into a type of super-saint, different perhaps in degree from other holy people, but not in kind. Hence, on this reading, it is not the least bit clear why Jesus is of any greater significance than other religious figures and founders. If he is a saint, even a great one, well, people can argue so is Confucius, so is the Buddha, so are the Sufi mystics and Hindu sages, and so in their own way are Socrates, Walt Whitman, and Albert Schweitzer. If Jesus mediates the divine to you, well and good, but why should you feel any particular obligation to propose him to someone else, who is perhaps more moved by a saintly person from another religious tradition? Indeed, if “God-consciousness” is the issue, who are we to say that Jesus’ was any wider or deeper than St. Francis’ or Mother Teresa’s? In a word, the motivation for real evangelization more or less dissipates when one navigates the Schleiermacher highway.
More fundamentally, when the stress is placed on Jesus’ human consciousness of God, the spiritual weight falls overwhelmingly on the side of immanence. What I mean is our quest for God, our search for the divine, and our growth in spiritual awareness become paramount, rather than what God has uniquely accomplished and established. When the church says that Jesus is God, she means that the divine life, through the graceful intervention of God, has become available to the world in an utterly unique manner. She furthermore means that she herself – in her preaching, her formal teaching, in her sacraments, and in her saints – is the privileged vehicle through which this life now flows into human hearts and into the culture. It is easy enough to see that the transition from an ontological Christology to a consciousness Christology has conduced toward all manner of relativism, subjectivism, indifferentism and the attenuation of evangelical zeal.
One of my constant themes when I was professor and rector at Mundelein Seminary was that ideas have consequences. I realize that much of what Father White discusses in his book can seem hopelessly abstract, but he is in fact putting his finger on a shift that has had a huge impact on the life of the postconciliar church.
Bishop Barron is the founder of the global media ministry Word on Fire and an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
From March 23, 2017 issue of Catholic San Francisco.