Fr Aidan Nichols OP gives here the third talk in our series ‘Faith for Busy People’: ‘The Word made flesh: Jesus, God and Man’.
The title I have been given – The Word made flesh: Jesus, God and man – is sandwiched between those of the lectures which precede and follow it, viz., ‘In the fullness of time: waiting for a Saviour’ last week, and ‘How to hope for heaven’ next time. So I shall present my Christology by starting with Jewish expectation and finishing with a link to practicing for heaven. The word ‘Christ’ is absent from my title, but in fact it governs the word ‘Christology’ which is the special study of Jesus, God and man. Unlike the words ‘God’ and ‘man’, ‘Christ’ is an exclusively Jewish word, being the English form of the Greek version of the Hebrew title for an expected future mediator between God and humankind. Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled the hope of Israel for a person who would actualise the Old Testament promises of God, though he did so in a way none of the biblical writers had thought of: namely, by uniting in himself three very different sorts of prophecy about ‘He who cometh’. There were prophecies about a future triumphant king of David’s line. There were prophecies about a new form of God’s own presence and action. And there were prophecies about a suffering servant whom God would vindicate and exalt. The absolute originality of Jesus as a figure in history is that he not only claimed to be the synthesis of these three quite heterogeneous visions of the future by the seers of Israel. More than that, he showed he actually was that synthesis in and through the events of his life, death, and Resurrection. He proved that he was both God and man, just as, qua man, he demonstrated how he was both glorious King and self-sacrificing Servant. Jesus, God and man. Whatever may have been the case in some past epochs, not many people today, I think, are likely to question whether Jesus was genuinely human, though, with the aid of critical biblical scholarship they might wish to seek to pull to pieces my statement that he saw himself as the synthesis of the three versions of the hope of Israel I described – and in so doing, I should say, jettison the only plausible way of doing justice to the total impression he made on others, as reflected in the New Testament witness as a whole. But I must not let this become a rant against the so-called ‘Quest for the historical Jesus’ in the modern academic study of the Bible. What I wish to explain at this point is just why I shall be concentrating on the New Testament’s more specific conviction that Jesus was divine, that he was on the Uncreated side of the distinction between God and the world, and not just on the created side of that distinction. In the short time at my disposal I can hardly give more than some few biblical indications pertinent to affirmation of the divinity of Christ. I preface them by saying that as offered here they will only be conclusive for someone who, with the Catholic Church, regards the Gospels as not only the fruit of divine inspiration but as, historically speaking, substantially reliable reports – and, moreover, regards the other New Testament writings whose genre is not historical reportage (except for the Acts of the Apostles, the continuation of St Luke’s Gospel) as just as much the fruit of divine inspiration as the Gospels are. That a human being living in a corner of space-time was and is personally identical with the Creator of the world is something that, if true, we could only know if it were divinely revealed to us. To know that the divinity of Christ really was revealed to the first witnesses we need to have confidence in the reliability of the documents that transmit the revelation in question. Hence the importance of biblical inspiration and the substantial historicity of the Gospels. Since there isn’t time to do justice to the wealth of New Testament material relevant to the question of the divinity of Jesus, I will confine myself to two examples from each of two categories: so, four examples in all. The first category consists of evidence that the first disciples believed Jesus to be the Son of God in a metaphysical and not simply a moral or metaphorical sense. The second category will consist of evidence that Jesus knew himself to be on God’s side of the Uncreated/created distinction as well as on humanity’s side of that distinction. Taking evidence from the disciples’ reactions first, then: in St Matthew’s gospel which the earliest of the Fathers and ecclesiastical writers, along with a significant minority of modern scholars, regard as the first to be written, St Peter makes at Caesarea Philippi the confession that Jesus is not only the Messiah but the Son of the living God (16: 13-17). That ‘Son of the living God’ is not just an honorific way of referring to the Messiah, the coming triumphant King of David’s line, is made plain by the response of Jesus who tells Peter that only by revelation from the Father could he have known this, for flesh and blood could not have revealed it to him: this in contrast with a process that did not require divine revelation whereby other disciples had already inferred human messiahship from the signs or miracles Jesus was working– in St John’s Gospel these would include St Andrew, Nathanael, i. e. St Bartholomew, and St John himself 1: 41-43). My other example of early disciples attesting Jesus’ divinity is the hymn or hymnic passage included in St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians where the hymn-writer says that ‘at the Name of Jesus every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth and in the underworld, and every tongue proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord’(2: 9-11): Kyrios, the Greek name for Adonai, the Hebrew word, meaning ‘Lord’, substituted for the sacred and unutterable Name of the God of Israel. The whole passage applies to Jesus an oracle in the book of Isaiah where we read: ‘Before me every knee shall bow, by me every tongue shall swear’ (45: 23), and where the speaker in the oracle is, precisely, God. The equivalence between Jesus and God could hardly be stated Semitically in balder language. The first disciples, unlike the congregation in that neo-classical church behind Cambridge bus station, were certainly not Unitarians. Two examples now of Jesus’s own witness to his Godhead. In the trial scene before the Jewish authorities in St Matthew’s Gospel, the high priest invites Jesus to say whether he claims to be the Messiah and thus the ‘son of God’ in, evidently, that moral or metaphorical sense which was not in view at Caesarea Philippi. Jesus’s affirmative reply causes the high priest to tear his garments with a cry to those present of ‘You have heard the blasphemy’ (26: 65). This cannot be because Jesus said yes to the question as posed (claiming to be the future triumphant king of David’s line might be a mistake but it could hardly be a blasphemy). What was blasphemous was the rider Jesus added: ‘and you will see the son of man (meaning, himself) sitting at the right Hand of the Power’ (26: 64), for ‘the Power’ was another reverential paraphrase for the unspeakable divine Name, and the ‘sitting at the right hand’ was an assertion of equality with God. My second and therefore final example of Jesus witnessing to his own divinity is also taken from St Matthew, and it is the claim that ‘no one knows the Son [that is, himself], except the Father just as no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him’ (11: 27). Here Jesus not only claims that the mystery of his own identity is something hidden in the divine knowledge. He also claims that, reciprocally, the identity of God can only be known through him. This is not a claim or set of claims that makes any sense unless he is implicitly affirming that he shares the life or being of God himself. How, then, did the Church the apostles left behind go on to produce Christological doctrine on the basis of the Scriptural witness? It was the great contribution of the Church Fathers and the first seven Councils of the Church, those we recognize together with the Eastern Orthodox, to have answered for us two very basic questions. How does the divinity of Christ square with the monotheism of Israel, which monotheism is also a postulate of good philosophy, when it puts forward the proposition that there is only one God? And how is the assertion of Christ’s divinity compatible with the testimony of the New Testament that Jesus was at the same time just one of us, a man (albeit with a unique human role, comprising within itself the tasks of glorious King and self-sacrificing Servant, both of which were necessary if the hope of Israel was to be fulfilled in his person). We can state the contribution of the Seven Councils succinctly in their proper sequence. The First Council of Nicaea 325 taught that in his divinity Jesus Christ is consubstantial with the Father, that is, the Father generates him by communicating to him his own substance, the unique divine nature. The First Council of Constantinople 381 by affirming the divinity of the Holy Spirit which the Son sent from the Father at Pentecost tacitly taught the equality of the Son with the Father since only One who is God exactly as the Father is God can be at the source of sending into the world another divine person, namely the Holy Spirit. The Council of Ephesus 431 by asserting that blessed Mary is the Mother of God, taught that the example of human nature which came to be in her womb has as its personal subject this same divine Son who is co-equal with the Father. The Council of Chalcedon 451 added that the two natures, the divinity affirmed at Nicaea I and the humanity affirmed at Ephesus, are united in the single person of the Saviour without either confusion or separation. They are not commingled but neither are they in any way disjoined. The Second Council of Constantinople 553 added that this single person spoken of at Chalcedon is not the result of the coming to be of the divinity and humanity in the union between them in Mary’s womb but is the selfsame eternally existing divine Son affirmed at Nicaea I. The Third Council of Constantinople 681 made it clear that in Christ, a divine will and a human will are both present, simultaneously co-energising in the unity of his single personhood. The Second Council of Nicaea, 787, taught that because the single divine person is operative in the human nature of the Word, showing itself in his human action, it follows that visual images of Jesus, either in himself as in a portrait or as engaged in action, as in narrative art, can be worshipped as images of God himself. That, in a nutshell, is the Christology of the Church. How does it affect us as creatures who are (so the first talk of this series indicate)d, fallen but seeking a solution to our condition? This requires me to repeat a word I used a moment ago without particularly drawing your attention to it: it is the word ‘Saviour’. If we consult the Liturgy, the Fathers, and the classical theologians the content of the Gospel, the Good News, the message carried by the Church is not in doubt. It runs: the Father has a plan for adopting human beings as his sons and daughters and this plan will mean their liberation from all ills and their establishment in the highest possible good. He has carried out that plan through his natural Son, his Beloved from all eternity, sending him into the world in our human nature for our salvation. That salvation, seen negatively, is our rescue from a condition of alienation from God through a sacrifice commensurate (and more than commensurate) in value with the disvalue of the wrongs our race has done. So it means forgiveness and reconciliation with God. The same salvation, seen positively, is our entry into the intimacy of the divine life as adopted brothers and sisters of the Father’s Only-Begotten. So it means eternal life and deification. In itself, salvation ‘eventualised’, actually happened, in the mysteries of the God-man’s death and Resurrection. In his Paschal Mystery he realized the two roles the prophets had predicted, as suffering Servant in his death, as glorious King in his Resurrection, and he did so with the maximal effect for others that was possible owing to the fact that he was personally God, energizing in the divine nature as well as in our own. In his Crucifixion the Servant made sacrifice for us as sinful creatures. In his Resurrection and Ascension the King opened the way for us as creatures made for God into the new realm his Eastertide triumph brought into being. Our personal project follows from this. Thanks to the help of the Holy Spirit who comes to us from the Father through the Son, we can conform our lives to him in his Paschal sacrifice and triumph, conform them with everything such ‘conformity’ entails in the divine plan – grace-enabled virtues (above all faith, hope and charity), membership of his Mystical Body the Church through Baptism and the Holy Eucharist, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit to give us even now touches of our heavenly future. To relate what ‘conformity to Christ’ entails I should have to rehearse for you, in fact, much if not most of the contents of the Catechism: which is why catechesis – being well-instructed in the faith – is so important for us. Without knowing what the divine plan for human living entails, we do not know how to realise in practice proper orientation to our own intended destiny. But that is where the next speaker should take over, next week.