Recapitulation as Theosis

Defining Terms Carefully

At an initial glance, the statement “Jesus is God” would appear to convey the same message as the sentence “Jesus is Divine,” however whether or not this is the case depends entirely on how one understands the words “God” and “Divine.” In this paper I want to argue for a distinction in definition between these words which turns the two statements into radically different claims, and then reflect on the history of Christology in light of this distinction. The distinction to be proposed is not a new or novel distinction, but one that often goes unnoticed and is not often talked about. The distinction will be shown to be a fundamental and non-trivial distinction with immediate and profound impact and implications for us.

Let’s start with the first statement, “Jesus is God”. There are two possible ways that a listener will understand this sentence when it is spoken to them: On the one hand, they may define “Jesus” according to a pre-conceived understanding of what “God” refers to. On the other hand, they may define “God” according to what they know about the life story of this person “Jesus”.

To elaborate on the first possibility: the one put in a position where they must make sense of the statement “Jesus is God” may already have some pre-suppositional understanding of what the word “God” refers to. They may for example believe that God is invisible, unembodied, immaterial, spiritual, eternal, non-composite, timeless, all powerful, pure actuality, infinite and all-encompassing consciousness, omniscient and so on. In this case, the statement “Jesus is God” will cause such a person quite some cognitive dissonance, as they struggle to make sense of how it could possibly be the case that a first century Jewish man could be God according to their pre-existing definition of what something identified as “God” must refer to.

The second way that one might understand the sentence is to come to it with a tabula rasa understanding of the word “God”, and then construct a definition of “God” on the basis of what is known about the story of Jesus of Nazareth. In this second way, there is not some other definition of God which Jesus must conform to; instead, Jesus himself is the definition of God.

The first approach is a basic summary of how Christology tended to operate as the Gospel encountered Jewish, Greek and Latin culture. The evangelists and missionaries would proclaim “Jesus is God”, and their listeners would attempt to understand this statement with reference to their traditional philosophical and religious ideas of what the word “God” refers to. This, as is well known, led to much heated controversy from day one of the church. Sophisticated thinkers and religious experts in the ancient world encountered the proclamation of Jesus as God and in many cases dismissed it as nonsensical and entirely incompatible with their existing understanding of God. As Paul says:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.1

The simple early believers tended to understand “Jesus is God” more in the second way: They simply took Jesus himself to be the definition of God, rather than requiring him to conform to some other, external theological, religious or philosophical definition. The early believers were content with the second approach, however no one who converted to Christianity in the ancient world was coming to faith without a prior cultural and religious context; Jews, Greeks, Arabs, Latins were all becoming Christian, but they never ceased to occupy the cultural and religious context which they started in. To become Christian did not mean abandoning one religion so as to join another: A Jewish Christian was still a Jew, with all that being a Jew implied, and a Greek Christian was still a Greek, with all that being Greek implied.

Given such a situation, an account was needed to explain the relationship of the simple proclamation that “Jesus is God” with the philosophical and religious frameworks that were current. As time went on, the converts to the Gospel started to include rigorous thinkers with fantastic intellects who were able to do just this. Rather than understanding “Jesus is God” in the second way where “Jesus” defines “God”, they took the definitions of the word “God” from the surrounding philosophies and showed how “Jesus is God” was compatible with those definitions.

The two most important instances of this phenomenon are with respect to Judaism and Hellenism. From day one of the church, “Jesus is God” was preached to the Jews. The Jewish definition of God at the time was based on the narratives and prophecies of the Jewish scriptures. “God” according to this definition was “The one who created the world; the one who created mankind and placed them in the garden of Eden; the one who rescued his people from slavery in Egypt.” and so on. The God of the Jews was the God who identifies himself as “Lord” and “Yahweh”, and was defined primarily by the narrative of scripture. As such, to preach “Jesus is God” to the Jews was understood to be a claim that the man Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem and crucified at Calvary, is the very same “Yahweh” who created the universe, gave the law to Moses, and sent the prophets to Israel. Some Jews signed up, but many found the claim shocking and incomprehensible.

In comparison, when “Jesus is God” was preached to those immersed in Greek culture, it was understood to mean “Jesus is timeless, immutable, disembodied, pure actuality.” The proclamation was therefore received as no less shocking and incomprehensible to the Greeks than it was received by the Jews.

The subsequent history of Christology has generally been a shift from understanding “Jesus is God” in the sense that “God is defined by Jesus” to understanding it as “Jesus conforms to the Greek/Hebrew/Latin definition of God”. Christology has thus been approached as the discipline which explains the relationship between the historical narrative of Jesus life and various pre-formed notions of Divinity which have been inherited and imported from the surrounding cultural and religious landscape.

Stephen John Wright, referring to the first way as “metaphysical theology” and referring to the second way as “non-metaphysical theology” summarised the difference thus:

Metaphysical theology thinks that we must discover God; non-metaphysical theology believes that this method will only result in the construction of idols. Any deity that lies at the end of the metaphysical path will be nothing more than our own projection of the god we set out to find.2

And so now, to return to the two sentences that started this paper, I would like to propose a way of understanding the two statements “Jesus is God” and “Jesus is Divine.” “Jesus is God” should always be taken in the second sense identified. That is to say, God is strictly and simply defined by the life story and person of Jesus, and nothing more. Whereas “Jesus is Divine” should be understood as a statement that Jesus conforms to external definitions of what it means to be divine, such as that of Catholic theology, Islamic theology, Indian Philosophy, Greek Philosophy and so on.

This has direct implications on what can and cannot be said. Firstly, the statement “Jesus is God” is a statement of unchanging fact. Jesus always was, always is, and always will be God. There is no other God than Jesus. Whereas the statement “Jesus is divine” does not necessarily always hold. If someone says “Jesus is divine”, the first question to be asked is “Which Jesus?” Because there are clearly real distinctions between Jesus as he was at Christmas, the Jesus of Good Friday, and Jesus when he emerged from the grave at Easter. Perhaps the Jesus of Easter may rightly be spoken of as “Divine” while it may be inappropriate to apply the adjective to the Jesus of Christmas. Which leads us to the second question that should be raised: “Jesus is Divine according to which definition of Divinity?”

To take just one historical example, according to classical Greek thought the crucial feature of divinity was impassibility. Therefore to say “Jesus is Divine” is to say “Jesus is impassible”. This immediately leads to theological conundrum: if Jesus was impassible, then what are we to make of his suffering on the cross? Paradoxes such as this multiply dramatically as we move further from the Jesus-event in time, and the different positions theologians have taken to understand and explain the issues have led to ever-deepening schism.

Static and Dynamic Christology

In almost every case, any given Christian tradition one might encounter today can be located under one of the following ecclesial and theological categories: Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, Nestorianism, Arianism, mainline Protestantism and Restorationism. In every one of these theological camps Christology is generally understood to be the study of and reflection on something which is fundamentally static. Which is to say that rather than being a study of the significance of the actual dynamic life that Jesus lived, Christology instead tends to be the study of how philosophical categories such as nature, essence, being and person are to be applied and related to Jesus. However, what tends to happen is that Jesus is treated as a static object for philosophical analysis under these categories, rather than as a living, breathing subject possessing a dynamic history and revealing a life story with many surprising twists and turns. As such, the official Christologies which have been received in the various traditions are themselves static and immutable, whereas a more accurate Christology should be dynamic; twisting and turning, growing and deepening just as the living Christ which it describes does.

The result of the proliferation of these static Christologies among the various traditions has been scandalous and constantly deepening schism. Those who affirm the council of Chalcedon insist that Jesus always and at all times is “one person with two natures”, both during his life and after his resurrection. Whereas those who follow Nestorianism are adamant that Jesus always and at all times was “two persons”, both before his resurrection and after. And those who follow Miaphysite theology insist that Jesus is a single person with a single nature and a single essence, and this is the case now, and always has been the case.

Adherents to each of these Christologies regularly find that their position often appears to run up against paradox and contradiction in areas where an alternate Christology simply has no issue. For example, if Jesus was the same person (ὑποστασις) as God (the λογος), then the temptation in the wilderness seems somewhat farcical because Jesus couldn’t have given in to the temptation even if he wanted to, and if he had, this would have meant that God would have sinned, which is nonsensical. Whereas none of this is a problem in a Nestorian Christology: under Nestorianism the human person of Jesus really could have sinned and if he did, it would have only been the man Jesus sinning, and not the divine person of God.

As another example, if Jesus has only a single nature which is both human and divine (the position of the miaphysite churches), then doesn’t that mean he is some sort of tertia quid which is neither human in the same way that we are human nor fully divine in the same way that God is divine? If that is the case, then how can he stand in the place of mankind and represent us to God as our great high priest? But none of this is a problem for a Chalcedonean, or even an Arian Christology: Under Arianism, Jesus is fully human and not divine in any sense which would make him a fundamentally different thing to other humans.

So each Christology has greater explanatory power at some points of the Gospel narrative while running into problems at other points; where one Christology might do a better job of making sense of Christmas but stumble when it comes to Good Friday, another Christology might perfectly explain Good Friday while struggling to understand the Ascension. These many and various Christological positions appear fundamentally irreconcilable, and so the various Christian traditions stand in a relationship of schism with each other on the basis of their Chistological commitments.

This paper proposes that actually all of these Chistologies can be reconciled. The fundamental problem is that all of these Christologies are static and unchanging, just as they treat Jesus as being something entirely static; they do not allow for Christology to flow and develop dynamically just as the Jesus they aim to understand grew and developed in the course of living out his life, ministry, passion and resurrection.

The solution in this paper is to proposes a dynamic Christology; one that fluidly integrates the different Christologies such that each holds at different points of the Gospel narrative, and in such a way that each Christology naturally flows from one to the next just as each episode in the developing life of Christ dynamically flows from one to another. Such a Christological synthesis would have greater explanatory power than any of the Christologies taken in isolation.

Atonement, Theosis and Recapitulation

Insofar as Jesus Christ is the one who “makes atonement,” accounts of Christology and theories of atonement are intimately related. All theories of atonement cover the same ground, but give different emphasis to different aspects of the story. For example in the early church, “Ransom” theory was quite popular. Whereas in the second millennium the focus shifted to a more “Substitutionary” account. There has also always been a thread in the tradition called “Recapitulation”, which is the idea that Jesus made atonement by living a perfect and sinless life. This last emphasis is one which I would like to focus on.

When the word “atonement” is spoken, it often conjures up thoughts and images of blood being spilt and sacrifice being performed. This is in large part due to how the word is used in the old testament to describe the sacrifice performed by the High Priest on the festival of “Yom Kippur.” When thought of this way, the idea that “Jesus atones for us” tends to be primarily associated with his bloody passion and death on the cross. However the English word “Atonement” etymologically just means “to be at one,” and I would like to propose that this is a better angle from which to approach the issue. What is being made “at one” with what? The answer: Humanity is being made at-one with divinity, in the person of Jesus. Furthermore this is not something which happens at any particular point of the story of Jesus, but rather something which happens progressively and deepens as the story moves to its conclusion. At the beginning of the story, Jesus is a man in every way that I am a man; By the end of the story, after he has lived his perfect and obedient life, Jesus is still a man in every way that I am a man, but he is also fully divinised.

Just as Irenaeus illustrated his theory of recapitulation using the analogy of tying and untying a knot, I would like to illustrate my Christology and theory of Atonement by the analogy of a zipper. The slider of the zipper represents Jesus, while the two rows of teeth represent divinity and humanity. Each tooth corresponds to a metaphysical or ontological category such as “nature”, “essence”, “person”, “will”, “body” and so on. As the slider moves along the zip, it progressively “makes one” the two rows of teeth. This corresponds to Jesus living out his life story, and progressively “making one” humanity and divinity, one category at a time. By the time the slider has reached the end of the zip, all the human teeth have been joined to their corresponding divine teeth. Similarly, by the time that Jesus has been resurrected and ascended to the right hand of the father, all dimensions of his humanity have been united to the corresponding aspects of divinity.

What this would mean is that at the annunciation, Christology looks incredibly Nestorian/Antiochian. Jesus would have only a human nature, human essence, human prosopon, human will: He would not be divine in any sense which other men are not also divine. Perhaps it would be accurate to say that at this stage of the story, Jesus is “homoiousion” with the father3, rather than “homoousion” as per the Nicene creed. But then perhaps by the time we arrive at Christmas, the slider has moved a couple of teeth along the zipper, and it has become appropriate to speak of Jesus as having a divine essence, rather than merely a human one.4 Similarly, by the time we arrive at his baptism, perhaps we should understand the event as somehow the moment when Jesus’ “human” personality became one with the “divine” personality of the logos. This would do justice to the historical (and heretical) convictions surrounding Jesus being “adopted” as the son of God at his baptism in some sense. And one more hypothetical example: maybe the garden of Gethsemene was the episode where his human will “became one” with the divine will: before the garden he had two wills, as per Chalcedeon and Constantinople III, but after the garden he had a single divine/human will, as per Miaphysitism.

I put forward these ideas loosely, as I haven’t had enough time to rigorously assign philosophical categories to different episodes in the story of Christ. However my guiding conviction is that each episode in the story corresponds to the “atonement” and “divinisation” of some aspect of humanity. So to just list off a couple of theories about how this potentially could work: Christmas may perhaps be the divinisation of the human essence, whilst his baptism may correspond to the atonement and divinisation of human personhood; The transfiguration may have been the moment of atonement and divinisation of the human soul and form; Good Friday might have been the divinisation of his nature while Gethsemene was the divinisation and atonement of mind and will.

A few implications of this progressive and theosis-based understanding of atonement are worth pointing out. Firstly, there are certain points of the story where the Islamic conviction that “Jesus was just a prophet” actually holds true, while there are other points of the story where the Christian conviction that “Jesus was divine” are also true. At no point does Jesus cease to be human in this understanding, which reflects an understanding of “divinity” which inherently includes everything that falls under “humanity.” In other words, a divine nature just is a miaphysis of what are traditionally understood to be divine and human attributes. Time and space prevent me, but this is an idea worth exploring further, as it has implications for the reconciliation of Chalcedonean, Nestorian, Coptic Miaphysite and Eutychian Monophysite Christologies.

Liturgical and Eucharistic Christology

I include this section as a suggestion for further thought and development of the previously outlined ideas. Our theories of what happen during the mass are actually intimately related to our understanding of the person of Jesus. There is therefore an intimate link between Christological understandings and Eucharistic theology. Different moments in the liturgy correspond to different moments in the Jesus narrative. For this reason, it is possible to learn about Christology by studying what happens during the liturgy, and looking at how the bread and the wine are understood to be the body and blood of Christ. The liturgy progressively makes the bread and the wine become the body of blood of Christ, with certain key moments in the liturgy corresponding to certain key moments in this change. But so too, Christs entire life was a liturgy in which he as a simple man (just as the bread of the mass begins as simple bread) progressively becomes divinised (just as the bread becomes divinised). There are certain moments of the mass which are understood to be decisive for this change to occur, just as there are certain episodes in the life of Christ which are understood to be decisive in his journey of theosis and recapitulation.

Furthermore, the way in which the Eucharist is said to be truly the body and blood of Jesus corresponds to various Christological convictions about the way that Jesus was fully man and fully God.

Luther’s theology of real presence has to do with the Chalcedonian doctrine of the two natures of Christ. That is, just as Christ is completely human and completely divine in his personal (hypostatic) union, so is the Eucharist completely the body and blood of Christ and completely bread and wine at the same time.5

As a preliminary example, the Catholic insistence that the bread and wine only appear to be bread and wine but are actually/substantially purely divine would correspond to the heretical christology of Docetism. Similarly, the eastern understanding of when the relevant change takes place is that it takes place at the Epiclesis, whereas the western understanding is that the change takes place at the words of institution. Perhaps both positions are correct but with respect to different categories, for example the Epiclesis may perhaps change the bread into Christ with respect to essence while the words of institution may change the bread into Christ with respect to nature. This would accord well with the progressive, theosis-based recapitulation account of the atonement I have proposed.

Here to propose a loose and unrefined interpretation: The Gloria is the moment when the bread essentially becomes God, as it corresponds to Christmas, when Jesus becomes homoousion with the father. The Epiclesis corresponds to Christs baptism in the Jordan when he becomes one in person with the divine Logos, and therefore is the moment when the bread and wine become identifiable as Christ himself. And then the words of institution perhaps correspond to the death on the cross, and are thus the moment where the bread and the wine take on a divine nature, just as this is the moment when Jesus nature becomes divine. Finally the last Gospel corresponds to Jesus’ teaching ministry after his resurrection, which perhaps corresponds to the work of the spirit to divinise us. Again, I fire all of this haphazardly from the waist merely as a suggestion which most certainly requires further refinement.6

Conclusion

Jesus Christ is understood to be simultaneously fully man and fully God, therefore Christology is simply an account of how it is that theology and anthropology are in actual fact exactly the same discipline approached on the one hand “from above” and on the other hand “from below”; Theology is nothing but perfected, purified and glorified anthropology, and conversely anthropology is nothing but theology filtered through the kenosis of divine emptying and self-limitation. They are both the study of exactly the same subject, namely, the perichoretic simplicity that is the ground and essence of all realities and which unifies all being, as it has coalesced into the singular pantheistic unity of the creator and his creation. In turn this perfect oneness of cosmos and God which just is the ontology of all things both created and divine, has been progressively revealed, manifested, and realised in the historical narrative of Jesus Christ, and continues to be revealed, manifested and realised today via the many and various Eucharistic liturgies celebrated throughout the Christian world. It is by means of the movements of both the Jesus narrative and the liturgical reenactments of this narrative that Christology is able to construct its account of how God has become man and how that same man has become God.

Therefore Christology is a comprehensive summary of the story of Jesus as well as the dynamic atonement between creation and creator which is revealed in this story. The story begins with a protology that is entirely anthropological, and then progressively ascends towards a climactic eschatology which is purely theological. It is the story of how Jesus, who at the beginning of his worldly existence was just like every other man in all respects but imperfection, made atonement for all mankind, by means of a synergistic theosis which progressively enveloped him more and more completely, and gradually encompassed him more and more totally, to the point where come the conclusion of the story, Jesus was truly and fully at-one with divinity in all possible respects; by the conclusion of the tale there was no longer any distinction or separation remaining between Jesus and God; they are at-one in person, in essence, in substance, in nature, in will, in body, in spirit, in mind, in intellect, in being, and in any other ontological category which theologians and philosophers may care to deploy in their analysis. So Jesus begins the narrative being one with man in every possible way but sin; and by the end of the narrative, he has achieved at-one-ment with God in every possible way.

Appendix

Christological Position

Corresponding Eucharistic Position

Nestorianism and Chalcedon

(Christ as two distinct substances or natures)

Lutheran Consubstantiation

(The Eucharist is two distinct substances or natures)

Docetism and Monophysitism

(Christ only “appeared” to be man)

Catholic Transubstantiation

(The Eucharist only “appears” to be bread)

Miaphysitism

(Christ is fully God and fully Man)

Eastern Orthodox Consubstantiation

(The bread is fully Christ)

Adoptionism (at Baptism)

0

Adoptionism (at the Crucifixion)

0

Adoptionism (at Incarnation)

Eucharistic change at the presentation of the gifts

Islamic

(Christ was “Just a man/Prophet”)

Zwinglism

(The Eucharist is “just a symbol”)

Relativism

(Christ is only God for those who believe)

Calvinism

(Christ is only really present to those who have faith)

Bibliography

Bradshaw, Paul F., and Johnson, Maxwell E.. The Eucharistic Liturgies : Their Evolution and Interpretation. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2012. Accessed June 12, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Jenson, Robert W.. Theology as Revisionary Metaphysics : Essays on God and Creation. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2014. Accessed June 14, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Murphy, Francesca Aran and Troy A. Stefano. The Oxford Handbook of Christology. First ed. Oxford, United Kingdom;New York, NY;: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Pugh, Ben. Atonement Theories: A Way through the Maze. Eugene, Oregon: CASCADE Books, 2014;2015;.

Spence, Alan. Christology: A Guide for the Perplexed. London;New York;: T & T Clark, 2008;2009;2015;.

11 Cor 1:22-25 (RSVCE)

2Jenson, Robert W.. Theology as Revisionary Metaphysics : Essays on God and Creation, edited by Stephen John Wright, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/unda/detail.action?docID=4534559.
Created from unda on 2020-06-14 11:09:55.

3As per Arianism

4In other words, to say that Jesus is homoousion with the father.

5Bradshaw, Paul F., and Maxwell E. Johnson. The Eucharistic Liturgies : Their Evolution and Interpretation, Liturgical Press, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/unda/detail.action?docID=4659051.
Created from unda on 2020-06-12 04:58:44.

6See Appendix for a proposed table of correspondences between different Christological positions and Eucharistic theologies

The Nicene Creed According To English Language Latin Rite Catholicism

I believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead
and his kingdom will have no end.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.

I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins
and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Infallible Assurance Of Universal Salvation in Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans

RSVCE Romans 8:28-39:

We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

“For thy sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Article Review – The Challenge of Jesus of Nazareth For Theologians

Summary of Article

Kereszty opens by describing Pope Benedict’s book as an expression of the pontiffs personal opinion, rather than an exercise of the magisterium.1 He goes on to describe the intellectual climate in which the book has been written and released, namely, the prevailing view which has infiltrated the ranks of both academics and laypeople that “the Jesus of history” is a different person to “the Christ of faith”.2

Kereszty describes Pope Benedict in his book as being comparable to Augustine in his writings: The book is more of an expression of his personal devotion rather than a strict exegesis or theological treatise.3 Kereszty goes on to make the point that earlier in the history of the church, theologians were equally as much pastors and ascetics/mystics as they were trained theologians, whereas today people tend to specialise into only one of these domains at a time, resulting in segregation and isolation of the theologians of the church from the pastors of the church.4

Kereszty mentions how Pope Benedict aims to show through his book that, contrary to popular opinion, the historical Jesus is the same person as “the Christ of Faith” portrayed in the New Testament scriptures.5

Kereszty goes on to comment on how the scientific method of historical criticism is often approached as if it is an infallible key to penetrating to the truth of the scriptures, and yet in practice it always leads to “a continual discussion of tradition and redaction history that never comes to rest”.6

In his book Pope Benedict avoids reducing Jesus merely to simple human archetypes – for example prophet, preacher and teacher – but he also avoids getting completely bogged down in an abstract theological account of Christ.7 As an example, instead of talking about Jesus in light of the theological doctrine of the Chalcedonean Hypostatic union, he emphasises the personal relationship between Jesus the man and God the father, stating that communion with the Father was the true center of his personality”.8

Academic Comment

Kereszty’s article, and the book about Jesus written by Pope Benedict which Kereszty is reviewing, are the product of a fundamental tension that has arisen in the modern era between two different epistemologies, where an epistemology is defined asA theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity”.9

On the one hand there is the classical Christian understanding which is most fully developed in Catholicism and described using the analogy of a three legged stool. The three legs represent the written scriptures, the lived tradition(s), and the interpretive authority exercised by the institutional hierarchy of the Church. Scripture, tradition and magisterium are together presented as a complete solution which can be used to determine one’s beliefs about what is true and establish what are the most important aspects of reality.10

On the other hand, there is the modern scientific method, which is an epistemological approach developed during the enlightenment in direct response to the traditional dogmatically-based Christian understanding.11 At it’s most extreme, this approach becomes a sort of radical scepticism which completely denies that personal testimony carries any epistemological weight, and proposes that nothing should be accounted worthy of belief by someone unless they have directly observed it for themselves.12

In practice, most people hold to some combination of these two alternatives. Atheists who lean more towards the scientific approach nevertheless still depend on the testimony and authority of professional scientists when choosing what to believe, and Christians who submit to a more dogmatic framework nevertheless still think for themselves and shape their beliefs by examining evidence and argument.

When the dogmatic approach is taken to the extreme, it results in a sort of fundamentalism in which a person has entirely forfeited their right and responsibility to exercise critical thinking and make independent judgements. When the scientific approach is taken to the extreme, it leads to epistemological paralysis wherein a person is unable to trust any testimony whatsoever (including their own) and they get bogged down in a radical scepticism in which they can’t be certain of anything.

The true epistemology must lie somewhere between these two extremes, respecting scientific evidence and historical analysis, but also simultaneously taking into account the testimony of tradition, scripture and institutional authority. This is what Pope Benedict aims to do in his book: he aims to demonstrate that the Christ of the classical Catholic epistemology is the same Christ as the Jesus that we discover through scientific and historical analysis.13 In other words, Pope Benedict aims to show that the depiction of Christ that we have received via tradition in the New Testament is the real Christ, miracles and all, and that there is not another “historical Jesus” hiding behind the Jesus that we discover in the pages of scripture.14 Pope Benedict does an excellent job at this, but whether he ultimately succeeds is something that must necessarily be left up to the judgement of the individual.

One particularly interesting way Pope Benedict shows that the “historical” Christ and the “traditional” Christ are the same is when he discusses why there is such a drastic difference in the presentation of Jesus between the synoptic gospels and the Johannine literature. The usual explanation is that the synoptic gospels were written earlier, and therefore represent a more accurate and humanised picture of Jesus, with less miracles and a “lower” Christology, whereas the Johannine literature was written later after myths and legends had accrued and developed, and thus is less “historical” and more “theological”:

John’s Gospel is different: Instead of parables, we hear extended discourses built around images, and the main theater of Jesus’ activity shifts from Galilee to Jerusalem. These differences caused modern critical scholarship to deny the historicity of the text—with the exception of the Passion narrative and a few details—and to regard it as a later theological reconstruction. It was said to express a highly developed Christology, but not to constitute a reliable source for knowledge of the historical Jesus. The radically late datings of John’s Gospel to which this view gave rise have had to be abandoned because papyri from Egypt dating back to the beginning of the second century have been discovered; this made it clear that the Gospel must have been written in the first century, if only during the closing years. Denial of the Gospel’s historical character, however, continued unabated.15

Pope Benedict instead proposes the radical idea that the higher Christology presented in Johns gospel can be accounted for by the fact that the author of this gospel was closer to the historical Jesus, and therefore Johns gospel is equally as historical as the synoptic gospels but represents an “insiders perspective” into who Jesus “really was”, whereas the synoptic gospels are written more from the perspective of an outsider who doesn’t immediately know what to make of Jesus, and has to judge on the basis of his external life and teaching:

… there are grounds for the conjecture “that the Johannine school carried on the style of thinking and teaching that before Easter set the tone of Jesus’ internal didactic discourses with Peter, James, and John (as well as with the whole group of the Twelve)…While the Synoptic tradition reflects the way in which the apostles and their disciples spoke about Jesus as they were teaching on Church missions or in Church communities, the Johannine circle took this instruction as the basis and premise for further thinking about, and discussion of, the mystery of revelation, of God’s self-disclosure in ‘the Son’”.16

Pope Benedict’s “Jesus of Nazareth” trilogy is a brilliant contribution to the dialogue over who Jesus really was and a wonderful example of intellectual humility and charity. As he discusses the figure and significance of Christ, rather than dismissing the scientific approach or distancing himself from the traditional approach, Pope Benedict successfully does justice to both. His trilogy should be taken into consideration by all future commentators on the issue.

Bibliography

Kereszty, Roch. “The Challenge of Jesus of Nazareth For Theologians” Communio 34, (Fall 2007): 454-474. http://www.communio-icr.com/files/kereszty34-3.pdf

Second Vatican Council. “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, 18 November, 1965,” in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, edited by Austin Flannery. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1975.

Bristow, William. “Enlightenment.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, Fall 2017. Article published August 20, 2010; last modified August 29, 2017. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/enlightenment/.

Comesaña, Juan and Klein, Peter. "Skepticism." In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, Winter 2019. Article published December 8, 2001; last modified December 5, 2019. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/Skepticism/.
Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration. 1st ed. United States: Doubleday, 2007.
Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection. 1st ed. United States: Doubleday, 2011.
Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. 1st ed. United States: Doubleday, 2012.

1Roch Kereszty, “The Challenge of Jesus of Nazareth For Theologians” Communio 34, (Fall 2007): 454. http://www.communio-icr.com/files/kereszty34-3.pdf

2Kereszty, “The Challenge of Jesus of Nazareth For Theologians” 455

3Kereszty, “The Challenge of Jesus of Nazareth For Theologians” 456

4Kereszty, “The Challenge of Jesus of Nazareth For Theologians” 457

5Kereszty, “The Challenge of Jesus of Nazareth For Theologians” 458-459

6Kereszty, “The Challenge of Jesus of Nazareth For Theologians” 459

7Kereszty, “The Challenge of Jesus of Nazareth For Theologians” 472

8Kereszty, “The Challenge of Jesus of Nazareth For Theologians” 473

9Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, s.v. “epistemology,” accessed May 4, 2020, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/epistemology.

10Second Vatican Council, “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, 21 November, 1964,” in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1975), sec. 10 (hereafter cited as DV).

11William Bristow,Enlightenment.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (Stanford University, Fall 2017), https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/enlightenment/.

12Juan Comesaña and Peter Klein, “Skepticism,” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (Stanford University, Winter 2019), https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/skepticism/.

13Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (United States: Doubleday, 2007), xxi

14Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, xxi.

15Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, 218

16Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, 227