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"The Self-Revelation of God's Reality in History": On the Final Chapter of Jesus of Nazareth | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | September 6, 2007

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"The burning bush is the Cross. The highest claim of revelation, the 'I am he,' and the Cross of Jesus are inseparably one. What we find here is not a metaphysical speculation, but the self-revelation of God's reality in the midst of history for us."-- Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth [1]

"The First Council of Nicea (325) summed up the result of this fierce debate over Jesus' Sonship in the word homooúsios, 'of the same substance'—the only philosophical term that was incorporated into the Creed. This philosophical term serves, however, to safeguard the reliability of the biblical term. It tells us that when Jesus' witnesses call him 'the Son,' this statement is not meant in a mythological or political sense... Rather, it is meant to be understood quite literally: Yes, in God himself there is an eternal dialogue between Father and Son, who are both truly one and the same God in the Holy Spirit." -- Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth [2]


Previously on Ignatius Insight, I have commented on the Foreword and on the discussion of the Temptations in the desert in Benedict XVI's explication of how he himself understands who Jesus is. Here I wish to say some things about the last chapter of the book Jesus of Nazareth, which is entitled, "Jesus Declares His Identity." Basically, as I understand it, the pope wanted to address the concern of whether he, aside from the fact that he is now pope, personally held what the Church teaches about Christ, namely that he is true God and true man. This explicit stating of what he maintains might seem like a surprising, even superfluous, enterprise. Isn't it unthinkable that a pope, of all people, would not hold that Jesus is the Word, the Son of God? But we live in an era of both sincerity and skepticism. We want to know whether what we do or claim outwardly is what we really hold inwardly, particularly a public figure like a pope. Benedict evidently wanted to be sure that no one doubts what he thinks and why it makes sense.

Pope Ratzinger specifically is not asking us, in this kind of a book, to agree with him on the basis of the evidence he presents, unless it is agreement on objective grounds that persuade us. If it is cogent, and we still decline to accept it, it becomes a moral question about our own integrity as a human being. In that case, our position has little to do with the arguments presented. But this book is neither a catechetical handbook nor a scientific treatise meant only for scholars, though it excludes neither. Here, the pope, while also basing himself on scientific and philosophical grounds, speaks in terms which most people can grasp.

What he holds about Jesus, he maintains, is what the disciples and the Church have held about him throughout the centuries. The answer to the question of who Jesus is, when spelled out, is the crucial question for any time and place, if Christ is what he says he is. God did become man in history; the Word was made flesh. If this account is true, obviously, we cannot understand either ourselves or the world without knowing this fact and knowing that it is credible.

Many people who make little or no effort to think through these matters excuse themselves from confronting ultimate things. They assume that no case can be made for the Catholic interpretation of them. Still others are afraid that the Church might have it exactly right but that would be a bit tough to take in terms of prestige or of how we choose to live. The history of scholarly and academic studies on this issue is quite familiar to the pope.

The pope knows and has assimilated scholarship on the question of Christ. He shows an amazing knowledge of the ways and byways of the academy. Almost every hypothesis imaginable has been postulated to prevent us from granting as true the philosophic persuasiveness of what this book essentially says. This same point was made by Chesterton in his book on his own conversion, The Thing. As Aristotle said, it increases our confidence in an argument if we know reasons and dimensions for the arguments usually presented against it. This pope knows the contrary arguments and their philosophic foundations. Catholicism is by no means a revelation that does not accurately know the alternatives to it and the grounds on which they are said to be based.


The pope begins by recalling that even in Christ's lifetime people tried to state in words what he was--who it was they were encountering on the roads of the Holy Land. Naturally, they primarily used terms from the Hebrew bible and tradition. "The effort to express the mystery of Jesus in titles that explained his mission, indeed, his essence, continued after Easter. Increasingly, three fundamental titles began to emerge, 'Christ' (Messiah), 'Kyrios' (Lord), and 'Son of God'" (319). The use of each of these titles has a history. Each indicates an aspect of Christ's own understanding of himself. The first title simply became Jesus' name. "He is completely one with his office; his task and his person are totally inseparable from each other." But "messiah" also had overtones that Christ was careful to counteract.

In the course of Old Testament development, the word Lord was a "paraphrase" for the divine name, Yahweh. To apply this name to Jesus was to "claim for him a communion of being with God himself; it identified him as the living God present among us" (320). Among the Jews, a man who, implicitly or explicitly, claimed that he was God blasphemed. Obviously, when someone made this claim, it would be remembered.

The term "Son" may just mean some closeness to God. But the term meant more than mere friendliness. Explaining this more basic meaning so the sameness and difference (between Jesus and the Father) were both accounted for demanded major effort from early thinkers who were believers. Basically, the term "Son" meant that "within God himself there is Father and Son, that the Son is truly equal to God, "true God from true God." Christ is not "made" but "begotten" in a way not external to God. The second citation above accurately used a philosophical term to state what was meant in scripture. This indicated the fact that revelation is directed to reason, and properly so. It said that the Father and the Son were of the same "substance." This phrase meant considerably more than mere closeness.

The pope affirms that he is mainly concerned in this book with the "earthy path and preaching" of Jesus, not the theological debates about him that came later. But these controversies need to be touched upon when necessary (321). Jesus seems to have preferred to call himself "the Son of Man." The pope keeps coming back to the fact that Christ never presented himself as a political messiah. Always in his speaking of himself, there is the shadow of the Cross, not political power. What about the words on the Cross?

The title Messiah, 'King of the Jews,' is placed over the Cross—publicly displayed before the whole world. And it is permissible to place it there—in the three languages of the world at the time—because now there is no longer any chance of its being misunderstood. The Cross is his throne, and as such, it gives the correct interpretation of this title (321).

As mentioned in my earlier discussion of the temptation in the desert in Jesus of Nazareth, much of what the pope says about politics in our time (and in Christ's time) is based on this understanding. Christ is not a political messiah. He is executed after a legal proceeding. Nor does the Church seek political power. What it seeks, in any existing political society, even the worst, is rather the honest, politically unimpeded freedom to state who this man, killed on the Cross, really was. It seeks the freedom to live according to his example, a freedom that does not threaten legitimate political authority.

Benedict traces the numerous times Jesus either uses or is referred to as the "Son of Man" in the New Testament, a title he "most frequently used to speak of himself." Benedict carefully separates three different ways this term is used in the New Testament. Again he finds that exegetes will interpret the statement that Jesus sometimes speaks of someone to come as if Jesus meant either that he was not divine or did not know that he was (323). Benedict merely says of this view that it does not explain the actual impact that Jesus did have in his own time on both his followers and enemies. If he merely was waiting for someone to come, no one would worry about him or seek to kill him (325).

The pope pays careful attention to the background of all these titles that are employed of Jesus. He wants to know just how Jesus used each of himself.

This identification of the Son of Man who judges the world with those who suffer in every way presupposes the judge's identity with the earthly Jesus and reveals the inner unity of Cross and glory, of earthly existence in lowliness and future authority to judge the world. The Son of Man is one person alone, and that person is Jesus. This identity shows us the way, shows us the criterion according to which our lives will one day be judged (328).

The pope comments on the scholars who want to separate the Son of Man from Jesus as if they were two different people. As in the rest the book, he shows that when taken in context, this identification is made by Jesus himself. "The individual texts have to be seen in context—they are not better understood in isolation" (330).

The pope is attentive to the fact that those who heard Jesus understood he was in fact making a divine claim for himself. This claim was scandalous to most hearers at the time. "This divine claim (Mk 2:10-12, concerning the paralytic) is what leads to the Passion. In that sense, what Jesus says about his authority points toward his suffering" (331). Jesus is executed because he was understood to claim divine authority. Pilate also could be made to fear for his civil position because this divine authority could supposedly undermine Roman political authority if he did not do something about Jesus, who, it was said, claimed to be a king.

The identification of Jesus with the Suffering Servant from Old Testament again makes the point that Jesus understands who he is. "The unity of suffering and 'exaltation,' of abasement and majesty, becomes visible. Service is the true form of rule and it gives us an insight into God's way of being Lord..." (332). The reason Jesus is sent into the world is redemption for our sins. Many ancients looked upon crucifixion as a sign of an unworthy, contemptible criminal. That the God-Man could be executed is, at first sight, unthinkable. Yet when it happened, there were already traditions hinting, as the Greeks said, that "man learns by suffering." Jesus suffers as a Lamb, something that also associates him both with the sacrifice of Isaac and the word heard by John the Baptist.

John Paul II was fond of saying that Christ reveals man to himself, that without Christ, we really do not know what we are. The "Son of Man" title in this sense seems deliberately designed to emphasize not the divine side of Christ but his human side, though we never forget that they belong together. "The enigmatic term 'Son of Man' presents us in concentrated form with all that is most original and distinctive about the figure of Jesus, his mission, and his being. He comes from God and he is God. But that is precisely what makes him—having assumed human nature—the bringer of true humanity" (334). Jesus "comes from God and hence establishes the true form of man's being." The true form of man's being is his self-awareness that he is not the ground of his own being. To explain himself to himself he needs an awareness of what "true humanity" might be like. Obviously, it is not something that, as we know it, excludes suffering. This latter truth always surprises, if not shocks us.


The term "Son of God" presented a more particular problem. In ancient political usage, it was a theological-political term. It was a way to divinize a king or emperor so that he would not be subject to revolution. He would have added awe and authority. Thus, paying careful attention to how Jesus uses the word "Son" of himself reveals that "this King rules from the Cross, and does so in an entirely new way.... The term 'son of God' is now detached from the sphere of political power and becomes an expression of a special oneness with God that is displayed in the Cross and Resurrection" (338). Benedict notes with special attention the Roman divinization of Augustus Caesar, who rules when Christ is born. If Christ's title was the "Son of God," he would not want it to be understood in quite the same way that the Roman emperors and their subjects understood it.

The risen Christ, not the emperor, is the true "Son of God." "Because of the title 'Son of God,' then, the fundamentally apolitical Christian faith, which does not demand political power but acknowledges the legitimate authority (cf. Rom 13:1-7); inevitably collides with the total claim made by the imperial political power," the pope writes. "Indeed, it will always come into conflict with totalitarian political regimes and will be driven into the situation of martyrdom--into communion with the Crucified, who reigns solely from the wood of the Cross" (339). One needs to read this passage carefully.

Robert Royal's book, Catholic Martyrs in the Twentieth Century is a testimony to what the pope writes here. Benedict's abiding theme is that political power is legitimate but limited. Christ's mission in this world is not political. Political regimes that claim absolute power will clash with Christ or his followers. Christ, not unlike Socrates, suffered death rather than to affirm anything other than the truth, especially the truth about himself. On the other hand, the practice of the virtues--Christian and natural--will assist any polity to be more what it should be in this world.

We also note in scripture that Jesus often communes with his Father. Christ's prayer is another way to see something of how Jesus understood himself. How to account for this way of praying other than that he is of the same substance? "Truly to know God presupposes communion with him, it presupposes oneness of being with him. In this sense, what the Lord himself now proclaims in prayer is identical with what we hear in the concluding words of the prologue of John's Gospel... 'No one has ever seen God; it is the only Son, who is nearest to the Father's heart, who has made him known" (Jn 1:18) (340). The unity of divine knowledge indicates a unity in the divine being.

"The will of the Son is one with the will of the Father. This is, in fact, a motif that constantly recurs throughout the Gospels" (341). Christ is not sent to do his own will. He prays that the Father's will be done. "Jesus' prayer is different from the prayer of a creature: It is the dialogue of love within God himself—the dialogue that God is" (344). Romano Guardini, for whom Benedict had a great admiration, in his book, The Humanity of Christ, remarked that Jesus never prayed to the Father in the same way that he asked us to pray. He always spoke to "my Father"; we were to address God as "Our Father." Christ always goes apart to pray to the Father. It is always a direct dialogue with the Father, as Benedict says.


The pope next examines the meaning of the so-called "I am" passages in both the Old and New Testament, passages that have become so central in Christian philosophical thinking, both ancient and modern. [3] "The key point remains: This God designates himself simply as the 'I am.' He just is, without any qualification. And that also means, of course, that he is always there—for human beings, yesterday today, and tomorrow" (347). In his Regensburg Lecture, Benedict took considerable pains to show how this famous "I am" passage from Exodus was already an indication of certain truths in philosophy. When Jesus also uses this phrase of himself, it cannot but indicate a certain unity of truth in being, divine and human. The origin of what is reveals itself in the "I am." "When Jesus says 'I am he,' he is taking up this story and referring it to himself. He is indicating his oneness. In him, the mystery of the one God is personally present: 'I and the Father are one'" (348). That this affirmation is possible, that it is an intelligible statement, is what the Trinity and the Incarnation of the Word are about.

Benedict shows how the divine experience that Moses witnessed, in which God revealed his name to him, reappears in Christ. "The burning bush is the Cross. The highest claim of revelation, the 'I am he' and the Cross of Jesus are inseparably one. What we find here is not metaphysical speculation, but the self-revelation of God's reality in the midst of history for us" (349). This passage is not a rejection of metaphysics or metaphysical speculation that follows from esse. Gods' reality was revealed to Moses under the name "I am." It was a self-revelation, that is, not something that Moses concocted. Again on the Cross this same "I am" is revealed now with the fuller understanding of God's inner life, the distinction of persons who are of the same substance. The second revelation is also "in history"; it takes place as an event that happened to the Man-God at a definite time and place. It really happened in this way, on a Cross. Who was suffering was really God, the Word made flesh.

But are not these both, Moses and Christ, past events? Why might they concern us in the now? "Jesus' 'I am' stands in contrast to the world of birth and death, the world of coming into being and passing away" (350). In so far as Jesus is the Word in his person, he is not bound by time. This understanding has important implications for our understanding of the Eucharist, the "memorial" of Christ's death. This is why there is only one Mass ever in history. "Do this in commemoration of me" makes us present at his supper, death, and resurrection, because he is present.


If this presence of the "I am" is so in the Crucified Lord now made present to us, ought we not seek not just to know it, but to respond in awe? After all, God as such lacks nothing. We can "do" nothing for God except what we do to our brothers, in which what we do for them is done also to Christ. "In the end, man needs just one thing, in which everything else is included: but he must first delve beyond his superficial wishes and longings in order to learn to recognize what it is that he truly needs and truly wants. He needs God. And so we now realize what ultimately lies behind all" (353-54). The pope is here very much like Augustine, one of his admitted heroes. What do we truly need and want? We are to settle for nothing less than what is, than the "I am" that is its foundation and source of vitality. Delving beyond superficial "longings and wishes," we surely seek the "one thing" that needs to be made present. What the pope is saying throughout this book is simply: "It is present."

The dimensions of "what" and "who" is present are what this book is about. "We have found three terms in which Jesus at once conceals and reveals the mystery of his person: 'Son of Man,' 'Son,' 'I am he'," Benedict writes. "All three of these terms demonstrate how deeply rooted he is in the Word of God, Israel's Bible, the Old Testament. And yet all three terms receive their full meaning only in him; but it is as if they had been waiting for him" (354). Each of these words that Christ uses of himself has a long background. They have a definite meaning. They have been waiting for a fuller explication.

When Christ uses each for himself, his usage can only be understood if he is God, of one being or substance with the Father and the Holy Spirit. To understand how this understanding is not somehow contradictory or unbelievable (and we do need to know why) is what the pope does in his book. Christ is man. He is God. He is a divine person. He suffers and dies. He is raised again. He is obedient to the Father. All things are created in the Word, which He is. He has sacrificed himself in obedience once for all. The same sacrifice is still present in the eternity which is proper to the risen Lord.

Recalling the passage cited in the beginning, Benedict in a final passage explains what is at stake. In this understanding, the faith is not being "Hellenized," as many Reformation thinkers thought, when it seeks an accurate word that will be "stable"--that will contain a precise meaning that is aware of how easy it is to misunderstand the reality of the Incarnation--yet which states as clearly as possible the truth of the Godhead.

The First Council of Nicea (325 A. D.) adopted the word consubstantial (in Greek, homooúsios). This term did not Hellenize the faith or burden it with an alien philosophy. On the contrary, it captured in a stable formula exactly what had emerged as incomparably new and different in Jesus' way of speaking with the Father. In the Nicene Creed, the Church joins Peter in confessing to Jesus ever anew: 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God' (Mt 16:16) (355).

These are the last words of this, the first half and volume of the Holy Father's prospective complete book on Jesus of Nazareth.

This ending of Benedict, this telling us the who and the what of Jesus, is more than significant. What emerged is new and incomparably different. When Jesus spoke to his Father, he spoke to him within the "dialogue" that is the Trinity. The Nicene Creed is something that we say together every Sunday. Credo in unum Deum... We cannot properly say "we" believe unless we say "I believe." That is the importance of knowing what we believe and that we believe is not based in silliness, myth, or purely humanist terms.

Rather the pope specifically associates each of us with Peter, and implicitly with himself, Benedict, in Peter's confession: "You are the Christ the Son of the living God." This is the great revolution that defines what we are. Jesus of Nazareth, about whom we read in Scripture and know in the Church and in the Sacraments, is the Word made flesh. "I am" is also in the world in the Son of God. He was crucified, died, was buried, and rose again. This is what the words and records about him indicate to us.

"I and the Father are one."
"God from God, Light from Light."
"In God himself there is an eternal dialogue."
"The self-revelation of God is in the midst of history."
Blessed be He.


[1] Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 349.

[2] Ibid., 320.

[3] It is always well with this reference to recall such books as Gilson's Unity of Philosophical Experience or Robert Sokolowski's The God of Faith and Reason.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Pages, Articles, and Book Excerpts:

Author Page for Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
"God Is The Issue" | The Temptation in the Desert and the Kingdoms of This World | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
God Made Visible: On the Foreword to Benedict XVI's Jesus of Nazareth | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Further reflections on Benedict's "Jesus of Nazareth" | Various Authors
Pope Benedict XVI, Regensburg, and Islam | Essays and Commentary
A Shepherd Like No Other | Excerpt from Behold, God's Son! | Christoph Cardinal Schönborn
Encountering Christ in the Gospel | Excerpt from My Jesus | Christoph Cardinal Schönborn
Seeing Jesus in the Gospel of John | Excerpts from On The Way to Jesus Christ | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
A Jesus Worth Dying For | A Review of On The Way to Jesus Christ | Justin Nickelsen
The Divinity of Christ | Peter Kreeft
Jesus Is Catholic | Hans Urs von Balthasar
The Religion of Jesus | Blessed Columba Marmion | From Christ, The Ideal of the Priest

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning. His most recent books are The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture.

Read more of his essays on his website.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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