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The Christological Definitions and the Church's Faith Today

General Audience — April 13, 1988

Summarizing the Christological teaching of the ecumenical councils and of the Fathers, we perceived in the previous reflections the effort of the human mind to penetrate the mystery of the God-Man. We can discern therein the truth about the human and divine natures, their duality and union in the person of the Word, the properties and faculties of human nature and their perfect harmony and subordination to the dominion of the divine "I." The councils expressed that deepened understanding in concepts and terms taken from the current language. This was the natural expression of the common way of knowing and reasoning prior to the conceptualization introduced by any philosophical or theological school. Research, reflection and an attempt to perfect the mode of expression were not lacking in the Fathers. Nor would they be lacking in successive ages of the Church when the concepts and terms used in Christology—especially that of "person"—would be elucidated and clarified in a manner of incalculable value even for the progress of human thought. However, their meaning, when used to express revealed truth, was not connected with, nor conditioned by, particular authors or schools. It was that which could be gathered from the ordinary language of the lettered and even of the unlettered of every age, as can be seen from an analysis of the definitions which made use of them.

It is understandable that in recent times, when translating the data of revelation into a language corresponding to new philosophical or scientific concepts, some should have experienced difficulty in using and accepting that ancient terminology. This especially concerns the distinction between nature and person which is fundamental in the Christological tradition as also in the theology of the Trinity. Some adopt the positions of various modern schools which insist on a philosophy of language and on a hermeneutics dependent on the premises of relativism, subjectivism, existentialism, structuralism, etc. These people in particular are led to undervalue or even to reject the ancient concepts and terms, as influenced by scholasticism, formalism, staticism, non-historicity, etc., in such a way as to deem them unsuitable to express and communicate today the mystery of the living Christ.

What happened then? First of all, some became prisoners of a new form of scholasticism, persuaded by notions and terminologies linked to the new currents of philosophical and scientific thought, without bothering to compare them with the form expressing the common meaning and, it may be said, the universal understanding. Even today it remains indispensable for communicating with one another in thought and in life. In the second place there has been a transition, as was foreseeable, from the crisis opened up by the question of language, to the relativization of the Nicene and Chalcedonian dogma considered as a simple attempt at an historical interpretation which is dated, superseded, and can no longer be proposed to modern intelligence. This transition has been and is very risky and can lead to results which are difficult to reconcile with the data of revelation.

In the new terminology, one has arrived at the point of speaking of the existence of a "human person" in Jesus Christ. This is based on the phenomenological concept of personality provided by an ensemble of expressive moments of conscience and freedom, without sufficient consideration for the ontological subject which is at its origin. Or else the divine personality has been reduced to Jesus' self-awareness of the "divine" in himself, without truly understanding the Incarnation as the assuming of human nature by a transcendent and pre-existing divine "I." These concepts are reflected also in Marian dogma, and especially in that of Mary's divine motherhood, so linked by the councils to the Christological dogma. These concepts nearly always imply the negation of the distinction between nature and person, which, on the contrary, the councils had taken from the ordinary language of the people and elaborated theologically as the key to interpret the mystery of Christ.

These facts, here obviously scarcely touched upon, enable us to understand how delicate is the problem of the new language both for theology and catechesis. This is especially so when starting from the antecedent rejection of ancient categories (for example, those presented as "Hellenistic"). One ends up by being enmeshed in new categories—or in new words—in virtue of which even the substance of revealed truth is manipulated.

This is not to say that we are prohibited from continuing to investigate the mystery of the Incarnate Word, and to "seek more suitable ways to communicate Christian doctrine," according to the norms and spirit of the Second Vatican Council. Together with John XXIII, the Council strongly confirmed that "the deposit of faith or the truths are one thing, and the manner in which they are enunciated, in the same meaning and understanding, is another" [1] .

An approach must be made to the modern mentality, formed according to the criteria and methods of scientific knowledge. While doing this, one must bear in mind its tendencies toward research in the various fields of knowledge; its deeper aspiration toward a "beyond" which qualitatively surpasses all the limits of experimentation and calculation; and its frequent manifestations of the needs of a wisdom far more satisfying and stimulating than science. In this way the modern mentality is by no means impenetrable to the discourse on the "ultimate reasons" of life and their basis in God. Hence arises the possibility of a well-founded and sincere discourse on the Christ of the Gospels and of history. It should be formulated in the awareness of the mystery, and therefore in a stammering way, as it were, but not without the clarity of the concepts elaborated with the help of the Spirit by the councils and the Fathers, and handed down to us by the Church.

Christological catechesis must be faithful to this revealed and transmitted deposit. By studying and presenting the figure, teaching and works of the Christ of the Gospels, it will very well be able to indicate, precisely in this sphere of truth and life, the affirmation of the eternal pre-existence of the Word, the mystery of his "self-emptying" (cf. Phil 2:7), and his predestination and exaltation. This exaltation is the true end of the entire economy of salvation, and which combines with and in Christ the God-Man the whole of humanity and in a certain way the entire creation.

Such a catechesis should present the integral truth about Christ as Son and Word of God in the intimacy of the Trinity (another fundamental Christian dogma). He became incarnate for our salvation and thereby realized the greatest union conceivable and possible between the creature and the Creator, in the human being, and in the entire universe. Besides, this catechesis must not pass over the truth that Christ has his own ontological reality of humanity belonging to the divine Person, and also an intimate awareness of his divinity, and of the salvific mission assigned to him as man.

The truth will thus become apparent that in Jesus of Nazareth, in his interior experience and knowledge, there is the highest realization of the "personality" even in its value of sensus sui, of self-awareness as the basis and vital center of the entire interior and external activity, but affected within the infinitely superior sphere of the divine person of the Son.

There will likewise appear the truth about the Christ of history as a personage and particular fact (factum ex muliere, natum sub lege: Gal 4:4). Christ concretizes in himself the universal value of humanity conceived and created in God's "eternal counsel." The truth also appears about Christ as the total realization of the eternal plan expressed in the covenant and in the kingdom—of God and man—which we know from biblical prophecy and history. Christ is the eternal logos, the light and reason of all things (cf. Jn 1:4, 9 ff.). He became incarnate and present among men, in the midst of things, at the center of history. He did this in order to be—in accordance with the design of God the Father—the ontological head of the universe, the redeemer and savior of all humanity, who restores and sums up all things in heaven and on earth (cf. Phil 1:10).

We reflect on this mystery of God who assumed humanity in order to integrate, save and glorify it in the definitive communion of this glory. Far from temptations of every form of materialistic or panlogical monism, this new reflection loses nothing of its fascination and gives us a taste of its profound truth and beauty. But it must be enveloped and explained within the sphere of the Christology of the councils and of the Church. Thus it is given a new theological, philosophical and artistic expressions (cf. GS 62), in which the human spirit can acquire ever better what emerges from the infinite abyss of divine revelation.

[1]   GS 62; cf. John XXIII, Discourse at the opening of the Council, October 11, 1962: AAS 54, 1962, p. 792