Lesson 9: Modern Trends in Christology
Hans Urs von Balthasar
Eschewing the transcendental subjective approach, von Balthasar affirms that the transcendent mystery is only available through the concrete. Christ is the "concrete analogy". The words and actions of Christ manifest the Being of God. Christ, this Being, is the both the icon of the Father (his divine nature) and in the image and likeness of God (his human nature). Von Balthasar develops a mission Christology: in Christ there is a full identity between the mission and the person. He is the one sent from the Father.
"In Jesus, the two [mission and person, or why someone is here and who someone is] are identical: this is what distinguishes him from other subjects who have thus been personalized by being given a mission (for example, the prophet). Jesus acts accordingly; he does not communicate a divine plan but speaks as the personal Word of God. In Christo, however, every man can cherish the hope of not remaining a merely individual conscious subject but of receiving personhood from God, becoming a person, with a mission that is likewise defined in Christo."
-- Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory: Vol. III Dramatis Personae: Persons in Christ, p. 220.
Von Balthasar has another trajectory to his Christology that is more problematic. His Christology focuses on the event of Holy Saturday, the Descent into Hell. Von Balthasar emphasizes that Christ's descent into hell is purely passive. Thus the creed's language, "and descended into hell", is wrong to make the verb active, in von Balthasar's view. Also, von Balthasar argues that Christ on the cross experiences the God-forsakenness of the damned. From this view of Christ on the cross, von Balthasar then posits negation and withholding of knowledge within the eternal Trinity. Von Balthasar's writings on these topics are very lengthy and erudite, but at times he expresses himself by bringing too great a division within the life of the Triune God.
Pope John Paul II, in his recent letter Novo Millenio Inuente, states that Jesus had hope on the cross -- thus that he did not experience the God-forsakenness of the damned. Also, when Jesus cries, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" this is the first line of Psalm 22. Psalm 22 begins with this lament but concludes with God's deliverance. Christ knows that God will deliver him from death, but only after he has finished his sacrifice on the cross. God's deliverance is Christ's resurrection. This way of reading Jesus' words on the cross makes better sense of what the passage means as well as how the Church has interpreted it over the ages.
Christ the Redeemer of Man: Pope John Paul II
Christ, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, makes man fully manifest to himself and brings to light his exalted vocation (Gaudium et spes 22). This is perhaps the passage most often quoted by the Pope in his official writings. Apart from Christ, man will misunderstand his deep vocation. Conversely, modern man has deep longings and desires which can only be filled by Christ. As the Pope writes in Veritatis splendor, Christ is the answer to all of man's questions.
"Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it. This, as has already been said, is why Christ the Redeemer 'fully reveals man to himself.' If we may use the expression, this is the human dimension of the mystery of the redemption. In this dimension man finds again the greatness, dignity and value that belong to his humanity. In the mystery of redemption man becomes newly 'expressed' and, in a way, is newly created. He is newly created! 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus' (Gal. 3:28). . . .
Jesus Christ is the stable principle and fixed center of the mission that God Himself has entrusted to man. We must all share in this mission and concentrate all our forces on it, since it is more necessary than ever for modern mankind. If this mission seems to encounter greater opposition nowadays than ever before, this shows that today it is more necessary than ever and, in spite of the opposition, more awaited than ever. . . .
The human person's dignity itself becomes part of the content of that proclamation, being included not necessarily in words but by an attitude towards it. This attitude seems to fit the special needs of our times. Since man's true freedom is not found in everything that the various systems and individuals see and propagate as freedom, the Church, because of her divine mission, becomes all the more the guardian of this freedom, which is the condition and basis for the human person's true dignity."
-- Pope John Paul II, Redemptor hominis (The Redeemer of Man), nos. 10-12.
A Fully Orthodox Christology: The Catechism of the Catholic Church
The Catechism begins its section on Jesus Christ by reflecting on the words of the Apostles Creed, "and in Jesus Christ, his Son, our Lord." In each case, the full divinity of Christ is emphasized.
"Jesus" means "God saves". Paragraph 432, "The name 'Jesus' signifies that the very name of God is present in the person of his Son, made man for the universal and definitive redemption from sins."
"Christ" means "the anointed one". The Catechism shows how this title belongs to the Davidic king as well as to other prophets and priests from the Old Testament. As Psalm 2 indicates, the Davidic king as the Lord's anointed was closely associated with God and was meant to mediate God's presence. Psalm 2 describes the kings of the earth gathering together to fight against "the Lord and his anointed". In the Old Testament the priests or prophets anoint the king; in the New Testament at his baptism, Jesus is anointed directly by God the Father who sends the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. Jesus thus is shown to be in continuity with the Old Testament anointing, but also to have surpassed them.
"Lord" in the Jewish usage of Jesus' time was used in place of the divine name which was considered too holy to be pronounced. Some people who encountered Jesus may have simply used the title "Lord" as a title of respectful address, in the manner of "Sir". But others clearly mean to say more when they confess Jesus as "Lord". Here it is a confession of his divinity as when Thomas the Apostle in the upper room says, "My Lord and my God" (John 20).
"Son of God" first is a designation for the Davidic kings in the Old Testament as well as sometimes angels, prophets, and others. When Jesus is acclaimed the Son of God he is clearly being placed in the tradition of the Davidic king. But the Catechism says that there is more to the title than simply that Jesus is a son of David. In Matthew 16 when Peter confesses Jesus as "the Christ, the Son of the living God", Jesus responds that "flesh and blood have not revealed this to you but my Father who is in heaven." In this way Jesus indicates that Peter is saying more than that Jesus is a human descendent of David who is claiming the throne of David. Peter's confession includes a meaning that Jesus is most perfectly the Son of God in a transcendent way: He is not only a son of God by grace, but the Son of God by nature.
Mysteries of Jesus' Public Life (CCC 535-570). Following in the tradition of St. Thomas's theological analysis of the life of Christ (vita Christi), the Catechism includes a sustained reflection on the mysteries of Jesus' public life. All that Jesus does is a mystery because present in every finite human action is the transcendent Person of the Son. These mysteries of the public life lay the foundation for the mystery of all mysteries, the Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Pope John Paul II has drawn upon this insight from the Catechism in his addition to the Rosary of the five new Luminous Mysteries.
CCC 430-455, 512-570
Write a two-page essay in which you describe how both von Balthasar and Pope John Paul II defend and explicate the orthodox teaching on Christ.
Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2000.
Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae. Available from the Daughters of St. Paul or at www.vatican.va.