Christology and Catholicism
The Development of Christology
From the beginning, the Church has been Christocentric. This means that Christ has the central place in the relationship between the world and God. Christ is viewed as the mediator between God and humankind, standing in the middle of Christian faith. Catholic spirituality works through Christ to the Father in the Holy Spirit. Thus, Christ is not separate from the Trinity, but one of its persons. Christ’s saving work founds the Church, which is his “body” and which works out Christ’s mediating action in the world. None of this has changed over the years. Out of the early scriptural formulations, Christology developed in ecclesial tradition.
The Catholic Church holds the position that Jesus is simultaneously truly human and truly divine. This is the doctrine of hypostatic union. This doctrine was worked out through the early years in ecumenical councils and eventually asserted as doctrine at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. These councils were spawned by the several heresies that rose early on and were combated by those who came to be recognized Catholic figures. One heresy was Docetism, which claimed that Jesus only appeared to have a body. Apollinarianism was not as extreme, but was likewise deemed heretical. It said that Christ’s mind was sinless and divine, although his body and soul were human. Both of these heresies were rejected because they presumed that God could not assume sinful flesh without compromising divinity. Monophysitism claimed that Jesus’s humanity and divinity were united in one nature. This was debated and rejected for the position that Christ was one divine person in two natures (human and divine). There were other heresies that denied the divinity of Christ in various ways, such as the Ebionites, the Arians, and the Nestorians (to mention just a few). Ultimately, the Catholic Church developed its position through the church councils in Nicaea, Ephesus, Chalcedon, and Constantinople that met to discuss biblical interpretation. These ecumenical councils established right doctrine for the Catholic Church, asserted through the creeds that came out of the councils.
This Christology is linked directly with salvation. The mission of Jesus Christ was not only the proclamation of salvation but the accomplishment of salvation on behalf of the believing Church. Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension, and second coming are crucial. Christ brings about salvation — the reconciliation of humanity and God — through a mysterious process that the Church mediates through the sacraments.
The Church Links Christ, the People, and the Magisterium
The Church is the communion of believers in Christ. People become members of the Church through incorporation into the “body of Christ” by baptism and the Eucharist. Here the Catholic Church emphasizes the sacraments, which unify the believer with the community and disperse grace. The Church’s origin goes back to the mystery of Christ, who founded it when the disciples established themselves together in a community of faith. It is based on God’s incarnation and is the sacramental continuation of that incarnation. The Church is where the incarnate Word resides in the world and where proclamation of the gospel takes place. It has a mission in the world, guided by the Holy Spirit. It is not only an institution, but also a place of mystical communion and liturgical worship. There is, in addition, the Church and many local churches. In the Catholic tradition, there is a priority of a uniform and exclusive church united under the pope. What is important is that only the Catholic Church exists without defects as the place where Christ subsists in it. It possesses the instruments needed, aside from proclamation and the sacraments, that allow it alone to fulfill the full nature of the Church on earth.
The ecclesial magisterium is an authority within church structure that preserves and interprets the elements of faith in a binding way. That means that it believes itself to have the power to pass on doctrines and truth claims within and to the whole community of Christians. This transmission began through apostolic succession and consensus. It works now through synods, councils, and decrees. Like the sacraments, which mediate grace for salvation, the magisterium mediates truth and correct doctrine to the Church. It is the infallible doctrinal authority. The pope is the highest person of the magisterium. According to Catholicism, he has the authority to dictate infallible dogma on points of faith and morals to the Church community. As such, the magisterium functions within the Church, making sure that its members perpetuate the correct teaching and understanding of Christ. The Church has this task of bearing God’s message of revelation through history to the faithful community. Its authority stands under God’s word but is answerable to no other source of revelation.
The Relation between Human Salvation and the Incarnation
The incarnation means that God assumed human reality in the form of Jesus Christ, the eternal Word, so that God could save humankind. This is perhaps the fundamental article of faith for Catholics. It comes essentially from John’s Gospel where it says that the Word became flesh and dwelled among humans. It encompasses both the actual act in which God became human and the lasting situation that follows from this incarnation. Without the condescension of Christ into the world, God’s incarnate presence to the world would not have taken place. Thus there would be no salvation.
The incarnation is essential to God’s redemptive work. One aspect of it is Christ’s uniqueness. The Catholic Church believes that only in Jesus Christ did such a union of divine and human take place. Another part of it is the role of Mary, a virgin who conceived by the Holy Spirit. This shows the Trinitarian work and is part of the way in which Christ achieved both natures fully. As a result, Jesus Christ is thought to have escaped original sin, which is passed down through birth. Lacking the normal depravity, he existed sinless. Because of this, his perfect nature was able to redeem human beings from sin. He freely chose to suffer and die in order later to achieve a mystical marriage with the Church that mediates this salvation to humans.
The encounter with God after the incarnation alters. God has established an integral relationship to the historical and material world. Humans encounter this relationship in the Church with its words, sacraments, and grace. In other words, the fact of the incarnation means that the physical world or human flesh in history no longer separates one from God, but ties one to God more strongly. The incarnation opened what was previously enslaved to guilt and sin onto a new path of hope and forgiveness. It does this because the incarnation makes possible the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and his resurrection. Without the incarnation, there is no payment for sin and no salvation. The incarnation means the historical achievement of God’s act which redeems, frees, and rescues. It is clear that the Catholic notion of salvation through incarnation and its result is closely linked with historical reality. God establishes a saving presence in the world — the Church, which is based on Christ’s mysterious saving act. It establishes as well a new moral order in the world that is dedicated to easing suffering and death. The Church is the sacrament of salvation in Christ for the world, but its sacraments of baptism and Eucharist are effective administers of grace and universal salvation to all who wish only because they are founded on the incarnation.
The Historical Jesus and the Third Quest
The historical Jesus of Nazareth is important in contemporary Catholic tradition. There is not an exclusive focus on the risen Christ, but attention to finding out information pertaining to the historical person of Jesus. This portrait is reconstructed by applying historical-critical methods of research to texts. It is possible that the earthly Jesus will remain elusive forever due to the inadequacy of source material, but some things may be known. These are important for integrating the notion of Christ’s full humanity into Catholic theology. They speak concretely about how God has incarnated God’s presence into the world.
The original quest for the historical Jesus came to an end with Albert Schweitzer’s critique of Jesus as an eschatological prophet of the world’s imminent end. After this, a new quest arose that sought to place Jesus outside and in conflict with his historical setting. In the present day, still ongoing, the Third Quest seeks again to discern the historical Jesus. The search is more optimistic about what can be known. It highlights the Jewish context of Jesus, attempting to make sense of Jesus as a Jew rather than as a Christian. It uses the same types of source, form, and redaction criticisms from the earlier searches. The biblical text is subject to analysis from the perspective of literary criticism. On the other hand, it adds comparisons with Greco-Roman sources as well to find similarities between Jesus and philosophical movements. The methods, sources, and traditions used for this search have expanded beyond the biblical texts. Scholars like Borg, Crossan, Meier, and Sanders reach into Torah or into Gnostic and other extracanonical traditions such as Greek novels to draw comparisons and contrasts. The range is comprehensive, from Greco-Roman sources to Jewish and other Mediterranean sources. Often the picture of Jesus that emerges is a construction based on social-scientific and literary trends.
There have been some important findings. For one, Jesus is understood more politically, proclaiming the Kingdom of God as a sociopolitical critique of his Palestinian context. This has given rise to important movements such as Liberation Theology in Catholicism. Another area of research has shown how Jesus fits the typical patterns of Jewish monotheistic piety. Furthermore, notions of the Messiah in Second Temple Judaism have been uncovered that point toward its prevalence and contestation. It is not necessarily clear that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah according to the Third Quest, but more likely that he fits the image of prophet, charismatic healer, magician, or wandering sage. Nor is it certain whether he was apocalyptic or not. In other words, the Third Quest has produced through examination of ancient sociology, anthropology, and textual criticism multiple possible versions of who Jesus might have been or what he might have looked like.
The Place of Tradition and Scripture in Catholic Faith
Scripture is the written revelation of God to humankind. Its books of divine origin come out of the faith of the early church, and, since their early transmission, function as the norm for faith. Catholicism asserts scripture as the highest authority for knowledge of God. The Church established a canonical collection of scripture. These are taken along with Jesus Christ and God’s word in the Eucharist. In terms of interpretation, dogma was created to preserve the uniform and authoritative meaning of scripture. Not only the development of specialized theological terms, but also the development of various interpretive methods (the various “senses” of scripture, not just the literal, such as the allegorical and anagogical) have grown up over the centuries to enable a full understanding for the scripture. However, interpretation is bound to the ecclesial rule of faith to prevent subjective and individualistic readings.
This introduces the important aspect of tradition. At the council of Trent during the Reformation, the ecclesial magisterium proclaimed that Scripture cannot be interpreted against Church teaching as handed down through tradition. What this means is that traditional interpretations are valid, while non-traditional interpretations (such as some of those of the Reformers) are not. Catholicism relies more on tradition against individual interpretations that use only references to other Scripture as a guide. Later Vatican councils have confirmed that the ecclesial magisterium is the norm of Scripture, not vice versa. In other words, to protect tradition against Scriptural attack, Scripture is subordinated to the magisterium. This ensures that the Church has control over biblical interpretation. Yet Vatican II returned to place the highest authority in Scripture over the magisterium.
What is important is that the Catholic Church is concerned to preserve continuity with the past through a tradition of faith and its transmission. Without such continuity, the ecclesial identity is questioned along with the historical message of revelation, salvation, and community. Tradition is likewise a defense against heresy. The canon, rules of faith, creeds, papal decrees, and dogmas are vital in the preservation of Church identity. In addition, the Fathers of the Church are considered authorities. Throughout history, the Church has maintained its commitment to the veneration of and reverence for unwritten traditions in addition to the written. Without tradition, there is no universally valid body of faith and teaching to commit oneself to, and therefore no way for God to continue revealing himself in human history. At the same time, tradition and scripture mutually condition one another. They are not contradictory. Both are valid for the whole church and are meaningful expressions of the traditional apostolic faith.