Choose    [ PDF Version ]     [ RTF Version ]     [ EBook Version ]    for saving the document.

The Formulation of the Church's Faith in Christ

General Audience — March 2, 1988

Faith is the human response to divine revelation. The catechesis on Jesus Christ which we are developing in the current series of reflections refers to the creeds, especially the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. Through them the Church expresses and professes the faith which from the beginning was formulated within her as a response to God's revelation in Jesus Christ. Throughout this series of reflections, we have had recourse to the word of revelation to extract the truth revealed in it about Christ himself. Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah announced in the old covenant. The Messiah, the Christ—true man (the Son of Man)—is in his own person Son of God, true God. This truth about him emerges from the ensemble of his words and deeds, which culminate definitively in the paschal event of his death on the cross and his resurrection.

This living complex of the data of God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ meets with the response of faith, first on the part of those who were the direct witnesses of the Messiah's life and teaching, those who have seen and heard and have touched with their hands the corporeal reality of the Word of life (cf. 1 Jn 1:1), and later in the generations of believers in Christ who followed in succession in the community of the Church. How was the Church's faith in Jesus Christ first formed? We wish to devote the following reflections to this problem. We shall especially seek to see how this faith was formed and expressed at the very beginning of the Church, in the course of the first centuries. They had a particular importance for the formation of the Church's faith, because they represent the first development of the living Tradition which comes from the apostles.

All the written testimonies on this subject date from after Christ's ascension into heaven. Certainly they reflect firsthand knowledge of the definitive events of Christ's death on the cross and resurrection. At the same time, however, those written testimonies cover the whole of Jesus' life and activity, beginning with his birth and infancy. Moreover, those documents provide evidence that the faith of the apostles and that of the earliest Church community was already formed in the prepaschal stage of Christ's life and ministry, and was manifested with definitive power after Pentecost.

A particularly significant expression of this fact is found in Peter's reply to the question which Jesus one day asked the apostles in the neighborhood of Caesarea Philippi, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" He later asked, "Who do you say that I am?" (Mt 16:13, 15). Peter replied, "You are the Christ (i.e., the Messiah), the Son of the living God" (Mt 16:16). This is the reply recorded by Matthew. The other Synoptics speak of the Christ (cf. Mk 8:29) or of the Christ of God (cf. Lk 9:20). These expressions correspond to John's words, "You are the Holy One of God" (Jn 6:69). The reply in Matthew is more complete: Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, that is, the Messiah, the Son of God.

The same expression of this original faith of the Church is found in the first words of Mark's Gospel, "The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (Mk 1:1). It is well known that the evangelist was closely linked to Peter. Later we find the same faith in the entire teaching of the Apostle Paul, who from the time of his conversion "proclaimed in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God" (Acts 9:20). Later in many of his letters he expressed the same faith in different ways (cf. Gal 4:4; Rom 1:3-4; Col 1:15-18; Phil 2:6-11; also Heb 1:1-4). It can therefore be said that the princes of the apostles, Peter and Paul, stand at the origin of this faith of the Church.

Moreover, the Apostle John, author of the last Gospel, concluded it with the famous words in which he stated that it was written "that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name" (Jn 20:31). "Whoever acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God remains in him and he in God" (1 Jn 4:15). His authoritative voice informs us what was believed and professed about Jesus Christ in the primitive Church.

Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God. This is the fundamental truth of faith in Christ (the Messiah), held by the apostles on the basis of their Master's words and deeds in the prepaschal period. After the resurrection, the faith was more deeply consolidated and expressed in the written testimonies.

It is a significant fact that the confession, "Truly this was the Son of God" (Mt 27:54) was uttered at the foot of the cross by the Roman centurion who was a pagan (cf. Mk 15:39). In that supreme hour what a mystery of grace and of divine inspiration was at work in the minds of both Israelites and pagans.

After the resurrection one of the apostles, Thomas, made a confession which referred still more directly to the divinity of Christ. He who was unwilling to believe in the resurrection, on seeing the risen one before him, exclaimed, "My Lord and my God!" (Jn 20:28). In this exclamation not only is the "my God" significant, but also the "my Lord." For already in the Old Testament tradition, "Lord" (kyrios) also meant "God." In fact, every time we meet in the Bible the unnamaeble proper name of God, Yahweh, it is substituted with Adonai, equivalent to "my Lord." Therefore for Thomas also, Christ is "Lord," that is, God.

In the light of these multiple apostolic testimonies, the words spoken by Peter on the day of Pentecost to the crowd gathered around the apostles acquire their full meaning, "God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified" (Acts 2:36). In other words, Jesus of Nazareth, true man, who as such suffered death on a cross, is not only the expected Messiah, but also "the Lord" (kyrios), and therefore true God.

"Jesus is Lord...the Lord...the Lord Jesus." This confession resounded on the lips of the first martyr Stephen while he was being stoned to death (cf. Acts 7:59-60). It is a confession which appears frequently in Paul's preaching, as is evident from many passages of his letters (cf. 1 Cor 12:3; Rom 10:9; 1 Cor 16:22-23; 8:6; 10:21; 1 Thess 1:8; 4:15; 2 Cor 3:18).

In the First Letter to the Corinthians (12:3) the Apostle stated; "Jesus is Lord," and no one can say this "except by the Holy Spirit." Previously Peter, after his confession of faith at Caesarea, heard Jesus say to him, "Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father" (Mt 16:17). Jesus had already observed, "No one knows the Son except the Father..." (cf. Mt 11:27). Only the Spirit of Truth can bear him adequate witness (cf. Jn 15:26).

We can therefore say that at the beginning of the Church, faith in Christ was expressed in the words, "Son of God" and "Lord" (that is, kyrios-adonai). It is faith in the divinity of the Son of Man. In this full sense, he and only he is the "Savior," namely, the author and giver of salvation which God alone has power to grant. This salvation consists not only in liberation from sin, but also in the gift of a new life, of a participation in the life of God himself. In this sense "there is salvation in none other," according to the words of the Apostle Peter in his initial preaching (Acts 4:12).

The same faith is found in many other texts of apostolic times, as in Acts (e.g., 5:31; 13:23); in the Pauline letters (Rom 10:9-13; Eph 5:23; Phil 3:20 f.; 1 Tim 1:1; 2:3-4; 4:10; 2 Tim 1:10; Titus 1:3 f.; 2:13; 3:6), in Peter's letters (1 Pet 1:11; 2 Pet 2:20; 3:18), of John (1 Jn 4:14), and also Jude (25). There is also a place for it in the infancy Gospel (cf. Mt 1:21; Lk 2:11).

We can conclude that Jesus of Nazareth, who habitually called himself "Son of Man," is the Christ (the Messiah), that he is the Son of God, the Lord (kyrios), the Savior. This is the faith of the apostles upon which the Church has been built from the beginning.

The Church has guarded this faith with the greatest love and veneration. She has transmitted it to new generations of disciples and followers of Christ under the direction of the Spirit of Truth. She has taught and defended this truth, seeking in every age not only to safeguard in its integrity its essential, revealed content, but also to investigate it constantly and to expound it according to the needs and possibilities of people. This is the task that she has been called upon to carry out until the time of the final coming of her Savior and Lord.