Lesson 10: Christ as the Full Revelation of God

A Contemporary Thesis: Jesus as the Limited Revelation of God

Building on the work of Karl Rahner, many contemporary Catholic theologians have emphasized the limited character of Jesus' revelation of God. The argument can be simplified as follows. Being finite, limited, and conditioned historically, linguistically, and culturally are part of what it means to be human. Jesus was fully human. Therefore, Jesus' humanity must also be finite, limited and conditioned historically, linguistically, and culturally. One further step is required: since Jesus' humanity is thus limited, it can only communicate a limited truth about God.

Some examples. John Macquarrie speaks of Jesus' sinfulness and gives as an example his calling the Canaanite woman a dog who should not receive the bread of the children (Mt 15:22-28). According to this view, Jesus here evidences the racism that was common among Jews of the first century.

Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J., has argued that Jesus' maleness means that he cannot fully reveal the God who is neither male nor female. Again, the fact that Jesus' humanity is finite entails that he can only reveal a finite truth about God.

Roger Haight, S.J., in his recent book, Jesus: Symbol of God, extensively argues that all religious language must be understood in symbolic terms and not metaphysical (p. 297). He claims that the language of Nicaea and Chalcedon must be reinterpreted in our current cultural context. The early creeds, according to him, ignore the historical Jesus in favor of an abstracted metaphysical consideration of the person of Christ relying too much on the Johannine vision of Jesus. "The following propositions or statements can be taken as paraphrases of the content of the doctrine of Nicaea: the meaning of Nicaea is that no less than God was and is present and at work in Jesus. This means that the God encountered in Jesus for our salvation is truly God. And this statement of the divinity of Jesus implies a second statement about God: God is immanent in and personally present to human existence. This is how God is revealed to be in Jesus" (284).

These views of Christology fit neatly within Enlightenment trends. Christians can continue to speak of Jesus' divinity as long as they understand that this does not mean in any way that Jesus is identified as the Second Person of the Trinity, but simply that God is present in Jesus. This is largely 18th century deism -- the view that God cannot act in the world or be present in the world in any concrete, definite manner. God's action and presence are limited to a universal immanence, but the world as we know it exists as a closed system, cut off from God's direct action. To say that God is present in Jesus -- as Roger Haight explicitly says -- is simply to say that God is present to humanity.

As we have seen, however, what they deny here is exactly what was affirmed by the early creeds. Namely, Jesus is identified as the Second Person of the Trinity. The whole thrust to these authors fits the general thrust of liberal Christianity in modernity -- reinterpret Christian beliefs and practices so that they do not offend the prevailing beliefs of the age. Those who argue for this perspective will say in the first several centuries the Church inculturated the faith according to the presupposition of the prevailing Greek and Roman cultures. This, however, ignores the actual history in which at almost every point the heresies rejected by the orthodox Church fit more neatly with the prevailing cultural ethos. Orthodoxy insisted on the fundamental unity of the Person of Christ in two natures divine and human against every attempt to situate this mystery into current philosophical views about God and man.

The Person of Jesus is the Person of the Word

The cornerstone of the creedal teaching is that in the midst of the duality of natures, the Person of Jesus is one. The Second Person of the Trinity is the Person of Jesus Christ. The divine Person of the Word in the midst of history assumed a human nature and now subsists both as God and as man. As articulated by St. Cyril, taught by Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451), there is one Person in Jesus Christ and that one Person is the divine Person. As a consequence, there is no human person in Jesus. This does not deny any part of the full human nature possessed by Jesus Christ and encountered by his disciples and the Church after them. It is simply the affirmation that there cannot be a duality of persons as held by the Nestorian heresy.

Consider the difference between person and nature. Nature answers the question "What is it?". Person answers the question "Who is it?". If Jesus was walking down the road and asked Peter "What am I?", Peter would have had to say "you are God and man" in order to answer correctly. When Jesus asked Peter, "Who am I?", Peter answered "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God" (Mt 16:16). There is only one subject who can act in both natures.

Jesus Christ: the Full Revelation of God

Orthodox Christology does not affirm the view that the finite Jesus is the infinite God, although this is precisely the view that modern liberal theologians criticize. Orthodox Christology always maintains with great care the utter distinction between the infinite and the finite. The creeds are exactly the means for maintaining this distinction and almost every heresy tries to confuse and mix together the infinite and the finite. Even the contemporary views that pride themselves on being philosophically sophisticated deny the distinction by basically reducing the infinite to the finite by overemphasizing the immanence of the infinite in the finite. The creeds distinguish between the infinite character of the divine nature and the finite character of Jesus' human nature, but they also affirm that through the finite human nature of Jesus, one comes to know the divine Person of the Word. The infinite is revealed through the finite because in the one unique instance of Jesus Christ the infinite is united with the finite in the one Person. The Church has sufficient philosophical and theological sophistication to know that this is a miracle and that the conjunction of the divine and human in Christ cannot be explained in human language and concepts since all of our language and concepts are derived from our experience of earthly existence. Although human language can express truths about God in an analogical fashion, God's manner of existence (how he is exists) is beyond our comprehension. This means that the creeds affirm that when I come to know the man Jesus, I come to know the Person of the Word. There is no one else whom I can come to know in Jesus.

Jesus: Human Knowledge and the Beatific Vision

Since Jesus' natures and the activities of those natures are distinct, there are two intellects in Jesus. His divine intellect operates in a divine manner. His human intellect operates in a human manner. Nonetheless this does not mean that his human intellect operates just as do our human intellects. In virtue of the sinless character of Jesus and his personal union in the Word, his intellect has greater perfection. We can distinguish three levels to Jesus' human knowledge.

First, Jesus possessed acquired human knowledge. His intellect learned through the mediation of the senses. He would have learned Aramaic from his mother Mary and his guardian father Joseph. He did not spring forth from the womb speaking Chinese and modern English. He would have learned the ways of his people and brought this knowledge to bear in his formulation of parables. See the Catechism of the Catholic Church on this.

Second, Jesus possessed infused human knowledge. His human intellect was enlightened by the divine Word so that he had miraculous knowledge. For instance, he knew what his disciples and his enemies were thinking. He also knew that Nathanael was sitting under the fig tree without physically seeing him there. His infused knowledge would have included a knowledge of the Scriptures. Moreover, everything pertaining to his mission was given to him. Perfect knowledge of the Mosaic Law, its completion in the New Law, knowledge of the Father, knowledge of the future destruction of Jerusalem (accomplished one generation, roughly forty years, after his crucifixion).

Third, Jesus possessed the vision of God. His human intellect was perfected by the attainment of the purpose of every human being -- to see God and to love him. This vision is often described as the beatific vision since the intellectual vision of God overflows into the love of God which bring the human creature into ultimate happiness, or beatitude.

Many contemporary theologians criticize this view of Jesus possessing the beatific vision. They will say that this is a naive view of Jesus as knowing the plans for the atomic bomb as a toddler. The vision of God, however, is nonconceptual. Since it is the vision of the divine essence which is one, it cannot be broken down into individual concepts such as plans for the A-bomb or the internet. The vision of the divine essence includes every individual concept, but not in the manner of individual concepts as is the human manner of knowledge. Jesus' possession of the vision of God thus would not lead to the view of Jesus walking around like an infinite encyclopaedia. In fact, as we just noted, the vision of God is on a different level -- a divine level -- than our conceptual knowledge. Thus, although Jesus possessed the vision of God, his human intellect still required infused knowledge. This infused knowledge was conceptual, that is, broken down into distinct concepts about his mission and his encounters in the world. In other words, to express what he knew by beatific vision in a manner accessible to the human mode of knowing, Christ needed both acquired knowledge and infused conceptual knowledge.

As the conformity of his human intellect with his divine intellect, Christ's vision of God enables his words and deeds to express the divine wisdom for all creatures. Just as St. Teresa of Avila's experience of moments of contemplative union shaped her words and deeds, so also, in a higher way, Christ's experiential knowledge of his Father in beatific vision illumined and governed his mission.

Reading Assignment

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "Dominus Iesus" available at www.vatican.va.

Writing Assignment

Write a two-page essay in which you respond to the following questions. How can the finite man Jesus be the fullness of divine revelation? How can the finite Roman Catholic Church transmit the fullness of divine revelation. Include reference to the way in which "Dominus Iesus" shows the interdependence of claims for the uniqueness of Christ and claims for the uniqueness of the Church?

Suggested Reading

Matthew Levering, Christ's Fulfillment of Torah and Temple: Salvation According to St. Thomas Aquinas. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002.


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