(On March 27, 2014, Fr. Felicisimo Martínez, OP, pronounced an excellent lecture on “Current Trends in Christology.” The conference was organized by the Faculty of Christian Studies of the University of Saint Joseph, Macau, and it was held in the evening at the main hall of the Seminary of Saint Joseph. The public lecture was attended by a large number of students and professors of said Faculty and University, and by men and women religious from different congregations and lay faithful. The speaker, Fr. Felicísimo is a Dominican priest from Prioro in Leon, Spain, who is currently teaching the Doctrine of God at the Macau Faculty of Christian Studies. He is a well-known lecturer and writer on Christology, religious life and dialogue – The Editor)
Years ago Initiation to Christology was a simple introduction to a whole treatise of Christology, a kind of previous summary of Christology. Nowadays initiation to Christology means something a little bit different: presenting the main current trends of actual Christology; developing those topics more relevant in today´s Christological reflection and investigation. Let us, then, present some of those most relevant trends (or “keys,” “claves” in Spanish) of today´s Christology.
FIRST: THE GROWING RELEVANCE OF THE HISTORICAL JESUS.
A crucial trend of or key to the renewal of Christology has been the emphasis on the historical Jesus. For the Christian community it is a great pleasure to see the interest and the growing relevance of the figure of Jesus of Nazareth, even beyond the borders of the Church. Machovec wrote: “If I had to live in a world that could forget Jesus message, I would not want to live.” This author was a Marxist and atheist. Another author, who was not Christian, E. Bloch wrote referring to Jesus: “Here is a good man with all capital letters, in every sense of the word, something that had never happened”. For the Church this growing interest for the person of Jesus is also a challenge and a responsibility, especially if we consider that the credit of the Church is not at the same rate of that of Jesus.
To the rediscovery of the historical Jesus contributed especially biblical studies, the renewal of exegesis. Exegesis has not changed Christian creed, but has helped to improve many interpretations of its articles. For a long time the historical Jesus had been covered by many dogmas. A literal interpretation of the evangelical texts forgot that these were not a simple report of news but mainly a catechesis. And therefore historical features of Jesus swelled too much. But, at the same time, paradoxically, the historical Jesus had no influence at all in Christian dogma. The historical Jesus served only as spiritual and moral exemplar or model, but hardly had an impact on theological reflection, on the formulation of Christian faith. “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried…”: this is the most direct reference to the historical Jesus in the Apostles’ Creed. Thanks to modern exegesis, the historical Jesus was released from the bonds of dogma, like the Gospel text was released from the literal reading.
After the first exegetical studies many other studies have uncovered the historic core or nucleus related to the person of Jesus beneath the evangelical catechesis or kerygma. Archeology, sociology, cultural anthropology, history… have come together to offer firm conclusions about the historical Jesus. Neither it is possible to write a biography of Jesus, as intended by the liberal theology, nor is it totally impossible to approach the historical Jesus. Moreover, the historical Jesus should never be negligible for Christian faith, as theologians like M. Kähler and R. Bultmann pretended. An impressive effort has been made to identify the historic core around the person of Jesus and about Christian origins.
Many Christians find disappointing the results of that research. It is understandable. They have been forced to give up many false securities that had fed their piety and spirituality, and perhaps their faith, for long time. Certainly the results are modest. However, we must recognize that these modest results of so enormous research are extraordinarily useful to Christology and therefore to Christian faith. The conclusions about the historical Jesus are not theological conclusions; but theology cannot honestly be done without considering these conclusions.
The historical Jesus is so important in Christology today that some authors consider the historical Jesus the starting point for Christology. Perhaps this statement is too strong and absolute. The core of the kerygma and the first confessions or professions of Christian faith was undoubtedly the Easter experience, confessing that he who had died on the Cross was resurrected by God. But it is clear that the memory of the historical Jesus was definitive for the disciples to identify the Risen Lord with the Crucified, to maintain the continuity between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith, to recognize Jesus of Nazareth in the Risen Lord.
This reference to the earthly Jesus puts realism in the faith of the apostolic community and in the faith of the “next generation” we are. This is exactly the value of the historical Jesus for Christology. If this reference to the story of Jesus and to the Jesus of history is missing, Christian faith would become a myth devoid of purpose, would miss base and could be reduced to a purely subjective experience, an exercise in self-suggestion, in the most negative sense of this term. If the Crucified disappears, the resurrection has no subject, God the Father has none to resurrect; if there was no historical Jesus, Easter experience is nothing but an illusion for the first disciples and we, the next generations, are relying on a false testimony. The discontinuity between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith cannot be affirmed at the expense of ignoring continuity. Any discontinuity between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith must have the statement that this is the same person in two different stages.
In addition, the historical Jesus allows us to put a great emphasis in the confession of faith in God’s incarnation. Jesus is more than a spiritual teacher, a moral model, a wonderful man … He is “the man who came from God” or the incarnation of God, the revelation of God in his humanity. This fact alone makes of the historical Jesus a new key to Christology.
SECOND: THE RECOVERY OF THE HUMANITY OF CHRIST.
Christology has always balanced between the two extremes of Christian confession: Jesus Christ is “true God and true man.” As usually happens to human beings- and we Christians are also human- it is not easy to balance between the extremes, to find the midpoint between the polarities. So we swing between the extremes. When Christian community wanted to defend the divinity of Christ has always been exposed to excess and to exaggerate, if one may say so, the divinity of Jesus. And when the community wanted to defend the humanity of Christ has always been exposed to excess and to exaggerate, if you can talk like that, the humanity of Jesus. At which point is the current Christology?
For the apostolic community it was difficult to prove and explain the divinity of the man Jesus of Nazareth, the Crucified they confessed as the Risen Lord. This difficulty stemmed mainly in the rigid Jewish monotheism. The Christian community, the community of the followers of Jesus, was born in a Jewish religious and cultural context in which monotheism was deeply rooted. “Listen, Israel: Yahweh our God is the only Yahweh” (Dt 6, 4). So it was very difficult for the Jews to accept a Trinity in God, and it was even more difficult to accept that a man could be at the same time God. In fact, in the trial that took the life of Jesus, the Jewish authorities argued that Jesus “made himself the Son of God” (Jn 19, 7). How can Christian community explain that confession of faith in the divinity of Jesus?
This question triggered a huge effort from the earliest Christian times, and it had already involved the Apostolic Fathers and the Apologists in the difficult task of confessing and explaining the divinity of Jesus. The debate lasted for centuries and led to the very famous Trinitarian and Christological disputes and the great Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon… The purpose of the Trinitarian and Christological debates was to clarify the identity of Jesus, according to Christian faith, and to defend their salvific significance for humanity. The result of these intense theological debates was an affirmation of the “divinity and humanity of Christ, the two natures in one person, without confusion or change, without division or separation”. Christ is “true God and true man, consubstantial with God and consubstantial with us.”
Once the Church was firm in the assertion of divinity, this aspect was very much strengthened both in theology and especially in Christian piety and spirituality, subduing the humanity of Christ. The effort that had gone into the claim of divinity was probably the reason for a dark, weak and short affirmation of humanity in Christ. This preeminence of the divinity of Jesus, forgetting his humanity, led to several heresies, which perverted Christian faith and Christian life. First, Docetism, which sees the humanity of Jesus as a mere appearance of humanity. In that case his life and, above all, his passion and his death would be a sort of theatrical performance. And secondly, Monophysitism, which actually only considers in Christ his divinity, so that the human condition is completely absorbed and diluted. It is the triumph of divine omnipotence over the weak or frail human freedom, of divine power over the kenosis and human weakness.
This kind of “Monophysitism” scores, over centuries, the spirituality and life of Christian community. Important theologians like K. Rahner, have repeatedly denounced this heretic deviation and its implications for Christian life and Christian spirituality. The Monophysitism highlights so much the divinity of Christ that his human condition virtually disappears. And so the mystery of Incarnation and its saving power are absolutely distorted. If only it is saved what is assumed, then humanity is unredeemed and hopeless. Jesus does not even help as an example of life, because He is God and we are simple human beings. There is, therefore, no comparison between Him and us, when it comes for us the challenge to face the trials of life, suffering and disease, temptation and failure, passion and death… This is the reaction of many Christians when Jesus is presented to them as a model of faithfulness, strength and patience … unto passion and death. “Yes, -people react- but He was God.”
Fortunately, a special key of recent Christology has been the recovery of the humanity of Christ or the insistence on the relevance of his humanity. Christian creed never ceased to confess the humanity in Christ. But perhaps the theology had not dared to draw practical consequences of that confession, of the confession of faith in the mystery of the incarnation of God. Christology does not become Christian life until it descends from the heights of metaphysic speculation into the arena of everyday life of believers. This is what recent Christology has sought: drawing practical conclusions from that statement of Christ’s humanity. The incarnation of God not only means that God assumed human nature in the abstract; it means and implies that God took in Jesus of Nazareth the human condition, the historical condition of human beings, with all its consequences, except sin, that is not human but inhuman, not part of human condition. Difficult task to convince people that sin is something inhuman! Ninety nine percent of the believers continue thinking that sin is part of the true human nature.
This Christology recent effort to strengthen the humanity of Christ has given back special interest to some features of the life of Jesus with vital importance for Christian faith and life. For example : the place of his limitations and suffering, the question of his knowledge and ignorance and its impact on the fulfillment of his mission, the place of temptation throughout his life and, mainly, at the end his life (“If you are the Son of God …”), the faith of Jesus as a real exercise of filial trust and confidence in his Father throughout his life and in the midst of trial; the dramatic reality of his passion and his death as the supreme test for his faith and his incorruptible faithfulness.
The recovery of the humanity in Christ has profound implications for the understanding of Christianity. Based on the incarnation of God, Christian faith invites all the churches to assess positively this creation and human history, as they have been assumed by God when his Son has been incarnated and has assumed the human condition in all dimensions but sin. The mystery of the Incarnation invites Christian community to be fully engaged in the fight for the dignity of human beings and the full humanization of individuals and peoples. Faith in the Incarnation invites churches to consider, according to the will of God, all that is truly human and humane, wherever it comes from. Humanity is true sacrament of God. Moreover, the human condition of Jesus allows Christian spirituality to recover a familiar face of God and to contemplate in Jesus an example for our discipleship and imitation. You can only follow and imitate God, if he is incarnated and humanized.
THIRD: SALVATION BY LOVE AND FIDELITY; LIFE, PASSION AND DEATH OF CHRIST.
Christology was always concerned about the matter of salvation of mankind. This has always been considered as the main reason and purpose of the incarnation of God in our history. This was also the purpose of the Christological and Trinitarian debates in old days: defending the saving work of Christ, since, according to the universal principle of Christian theology, “only what is assumed is just saved”. But those debates reached such level of metaphysical speculation, that Christology itself was many times locked in Hellenic philosophy. And from that moment on a metaphysic and ontological orientation prevailed in Christian dogma. Medieval theology, with Anselm to the head, and after centuries Reformed theology made a remarkable effort to recover soteriology or to adjust and combine Christology and soteriology. That’s why special relevance was given to so called “functional Christology”. Modern theology, more sensitive to history, has given priority to this functional and soteriological orientation of Christology.
In this direction there have been some important contributions of contemporary Christology.
First, special salvific value has been recognized to all stages of the history of Jesus. Very often the salvation of mankind had been associated, especially and almost exclusively, to the passion and death of Jesus. This position was proper of a theological orientation too sacrificial and too prone to associate salvation with mere suffering and sacrifice. Current Christology has undergone a profound change in orientation. The salvific value is not necessarily associated with suffering and sacrifice; it is mostly associated with love and faithfulness. So, modern Christology has underlined the salvific value of all moments and all mysteries of the history of Jesus. The incarnation of God is already an expression of God’s love for mankind; God lovingly took flesh, human condition, history of mankind … in the flesh of Jesus. All the mysteries of Jesus’ life are an expression of God´s love, of his faithfulness to mankind. All those mysteries have saving and healing power, as well as his passion and death, and his resurrection. All those moments have theological depth; those moments represent true interventions of God in human history, with saving purpose. God wanted to save humanity from within and from below. This is the meaning of the Incarnation. This is the meaning of the history of Jesus Christ.
Second, the current Christology has made a special effort to reinterpret the salvific value of the passion and death of Jesus. Christology has been forced to rethink the theology of the Lord’s passion and death, especially in two points.
The first one concerns the relationship of the passion and death of Jesus with his life. It was common in the classical theology to establish a direct relationship between the passion and death of Jesus and the will of God the Father. The death of Christ was the result of a decree of God Father. An unfortunate interpretation of Saint Anselm famous argument led to theology and spirituality to these extremes conclusions: the passion and death of Jesus is the infinite sacrifice that the Father demanded from his Son in order to pay the infinite debt owed by mankind because of sin, infinite offense to God. Thus, the passion and death of Jesus have primarily a sacrificial character, and are seen as a kind of punishment inflicted to his son by his own Father. This sometimes led to believe that the God of Jesus is a cruel and unjust God, which vents his anger on an Innocent, adding injustice upon injustice. And it made Christian salvation to be defined as a “redemption”, a commercial act, a legal deed of sale between God and the devil, rather than as an act of God’s love for humanity.
Current Christology has rather located the passion and death of Jesus in relation to his life, and has presented them as the “logical” consequence of a faithful life. Neither the Father nor the Son wanted Jesus´ death, but it came obliquely, as unintended consequence of the faithful life of the Son. Therefore, the passion and death of Jesus is not a mere accident; they are the fulfillment of a life given or offered in fidelity. Therefore, the salvific value of the passion and death of Jesus is to be found in what they have of faithfulness and love.
This is the second point that characterizes the current Christology or soteriology: to place the salvific value of the death and passion in what they have of love and fidelity, not simply in what they have of suffering and sacrifice. Undoubtedly, the passion and death of Jesus were with much suffering and sacrifice. It would be false to any Christology to sweeten the passion and death of Jesus. But it is not the same suffering as a goal sought that suffering as an unwanted cost of love and fidelity. It is not the amount of pain and sacrifice in the tragic end of Jesus what gives salvific value to his passion and death. What gives salvific value is what is in them of surrendered life, fidelity and consummate love. That gives them all the revealing and saving power. This simple statement forced the Church to reinterpret and redirect all Christian asceticism and mysticism, all Christian life. Christian ideal is not resignation, denial, pain, death. The ultimate ideal of Christianity is affirmation, joy, life. Yes, the passion and death of Jesus made it clear that neither joy nor life…, neither fidelity nor love can happen without delivering one’s life … sometimes even until blood shedding.
The most impressive result of this new interpretation of the passion and death of Jesus, is that it has revealed to us a God crucified. In Jesus, God identified himself with the human condition as far as to become himself a victim. Waiver of power, omnipotence, and annihilated completely, down to the lower depths of humanity. God confronts injustice with love and faithfulness. In the Cross of Christ God faces the mundane power with love; renouncing violence conjures her. So the current Christology recognizes in the Cross of Christ one God who committed himself with the victims becoming victim himself. This Christology does not renounce to watch the scandal of evil, injustice, Cross … But, faith in the Crucified God opens a window of hope for the victims. If God has chosen them, God will do justice to them. And so we approach at the gates of the Easter experience, of faith in the resurrection, which is the very core of Christian life and the event that illuminates Christology.
And the current Christology has gone further. It not only attributed salvific value to life, passion and death of Jesus. It has also regained the salvific dimension of the resurrection. But this point deserves a separate chapter.
FOURTH: THE SALVIFIC AND THEOLOGICAL DIMENSION OF THE RESURRECTION OF JESUS: GOD DOES JUSTICE JUSTIFYING.
The resurrection is the central mystery of Christian faith. It is certainly a matter of faith; it is not easy to share and dialogue about this topic with people who do not share Christian faith. Christology should be very much aware of that. It is not the same to talk about the Crucified Jesus than to talk about the Risen Lord. But this does not mean that the resurrection of Jesus Christ does not contain a message that Christianity can and must offer to mankind. First, it is an essential article of Christian creed: the history of following of Jesus had begun around the historical Jesus, but it was consolidated only around the Eastern experience of the disciples. The Eastern experience is the definitive starting point for Christian history.
Jesus resurrection is a central mystery of Christian faith. But it has been subject to various interpretations along the history of theology.
Very often Christian theology has been too inclined to a materialist or physicalist interpretation of the resurrection. This interpretation complicates Christian faith and above all empties resurrection of his true theological meaning. Resurrection is not a physical or historical fact belonging to this stage of history; it is a meta-historical fact that belongs to another trans historic stadium, to another dimension of reality. So the current Christology insists that it is a real fact and objective, that affects the person of Jesus, not just a mere subjective experience of the disciples. But at the same time it also insists that it is a meta-historical and eschatological event. So many questions that have been made concerning the resurrection of the dead like: what happened to the corpse, if we will be resurrected older or younger, when and where we will be resurrected so far, if…. etc. … have no any meaning at all. These are questions asked from our space-time categories. If we understand the resurrection in a materialistic an physical way, we will be subject to a new death, as the Gospel story of Lazarus , who returned to this life wrapped up in his own shroud. This is not to be really resurrected.
It was also frequent an apologetic interpretation of the resurrection. Appealing to all kinds of arguments theologians have tried to prove the fact of the resurrection of Christ. But that is not an empirical fact, it cannot be subjected to empirical testing and scientific demonstration. It can only be object of faith, even if it is a faith based on personal experience and on the testimony of other believers. There were eyewitnesses of the life, passion and death of Jesus. There were no eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. Only there were and continue to be witnesses of the Risen Lord.
But the failure of apologetics consisted not only in trying to prove “scientifically” the fact of the resurrection of Christ. Maybe it was not minor fault to reduce the resurrection to his apologetic dimension and deprive her of her deeply theological dimension. The emphasis in this apologetic dimension made the resurrection of Christ a mere argument to prove that Jesus was God and that his message was a divine message. In this sense, the resurrection says much about the person of Jesus and his mission, but says almost nothing about the God of Jesus and the theological and soteriological significance of Christ’s resurrection.
Current Christology has recovered this double dimension of the resurrection: both the theological dimension and soteriological or saving dimension.
The statement about the resurrection of Christ is ultimately a theological statement; it is a statement about God who raised him. The latest exegesis insists on the use of the passive form in the New Testament texts about the resurrection: “Jesus was resurrected” “He was resurrected, exalted, raised up by God and placed at the right hand of the Father” “God raised him up, exalted, lifted …”. It’s like saying that the subject agent of resurrection is God Himself, and therefore to affirm the resurrection is to say that the God of Jesus is the God of life. This is the theological dimension of the resurrection: it reveals God. The God of Jesus is the God of life, who returns dead to life, who makes life triumph upon death. Resurrecting Jesus God Father says Jesus was right; confirms his life; does justice to him; definitively he was no wrong in his preaching and in his mission. He did not fail. Thus understood, the resurrection is more than an apologetic argument about a dead person who came back to life. It is a theological statement about God who gives life and makes life triumph definitively over death. In the resurrection of Jesus the most brilliant, powerful and loving face of God Father is revealed to us.
Accordingly with this theological interpretation of the resurrection, modern Christology also emphasizes its salvific dimension. Soteriology should be not more exclusively connected with the merits of passion and death of Jesus and with the merits of mankind. Indeed, salvation of mankind is not only or even primarily about God’s response to merit acquired by Jesus Christ and by other human beings. God saves graciously; God takes the initiative to save by pure love. God saves doing justice to triumph, not doing merits to succeed. For God cannot allow injustice and death to triumph. He would be no more God and his project would fail completely. Resurrecting Jesus God exercises the final saving act: doing justice to the victims, justifies them, and makes life triumph over death, to make it clear that God is the God of life and to make it clear that what he wants for all men and women is fullness of life.
This salvific dimension of resurrection has today special meaning for a humanity very much needed for justice, for a lasting and definitive justice. The cries of the victims of yesterday and today will not stop until justice is done, both to the dead and to the living ones. That’s the extraordinary message of our faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and our hope in the resurrection of the dead. It is not an exercise in alienation, which leads to irresponsibility. It is a real commitment to justice, which gives meaning to human history. Mankind will be only fully humanized when all victims have been humanized, when justice has been done to them, when they have been raised from their humiliation. In this sense, the resurrection of Jesus, who is an iconic victim, is a promise of meaning and salvation for all mankind.
Then it is not a surprise that the current Christology has found in the cries of the victims a fundamental key for theological reflection. Doing theology, thinking of God, regardless of the scandal of evil, puts us on the edge of cynicism. Doing Christology, thinking of Jesus Christ, regardless of the drama of historical injustice and the plight of the victims, renders Christology meaningless and discredits the Gospel of Jesus. Therefore, faith in resurrection must be, ultimately, faith in God of life that does justice justifying, not punishing. It implies a deep trust that in the end justice will triumph over injustice, so that humanization of the victims will result in humanization of the executioners. Faith in the resurrection is the confidence that human history will end well for everyone, not by a simple naive optimism, but by the grace of a God who loves his creation and will bring it to perfection.
Felicísimo Martínez, O.P.
Faculty of Christian Studies
University of Saint Joseph
Macau, March 2014