WHO DO YOU SAY I AM? Christology: What It Is & Why It Matters

Article excerpt

The biblical scene is well known. Jesus turns to his disciples and asks, "Who do people say that I am?" Various people reply, "John the Baptist" or "Elijah" or "one of the prophets." Then Jesus asks, "But who do you say that I am?" And Peter answers, "You are the Christ" (Mark 8:29).

Although this startling encounter first occurred two thousand years ago, the question remains with us. To every Christian of every era, the Lord Jesus asks: "But who do you say that I am?" And like Peter, we respond. Terminally ill, someone considers anew what she really believes about the suffering, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Or preparing to marry, a couple discuss how they see their marital lives in relation to the risen Lord. Or helping in a homeless shelter, someone senses that he is meeting Christ among the women, children, and men in the dining room. Jesus' question, "Who do you say I am?" has many correct answers, including: You are the crucified Messiah, the Christ of Cana, and the Son of Man among the poor.

Whenever we try to say who Jesus is for us, we engage in Christology. Christology is the attempt to understand the identity of Jesus as the Christ, as God's anointed one, as God's Son and the Second Person of the Trinity. We do not take up this question as spectators. Like Saint Peter or Martha (John 11:27), we are already deeply involved with the Lord Jesus. For us to reflect on Jesus' identity is simultaneously to describe Christ's relationship with us, with his disciples, and even with those who have never heard of him. What composes our belief in Jesus Christ is crucial to our individual lives and to the church's life. Therefore, the fuller our answers to the question of Jesus' identity, the fuller our lives as we face each day, care for one another, and participate in the Mass.

Christology is, of course, a technical term. It denotes an area of scholarly expertise that often seems hopelessly abstruse, even superfluous, to many believing Christians. Still, it is also a topic of current creativity and conflict in the church. As many Commonweal readers know, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has inquired into the orthodoxy of some Catholic theologians, most prominently the Jesuits Roger Haight and Jacques Dupuis. The specific works in question are Haight's Jesus Symbol of God (Orbis, 1999) and Dupuis's Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism (Orbis, 1997). Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and the CDF have expressed skepticism about the efforts of Haight and Dupuis to reconcile traditional Christological doctrine with pressing issues related to contemporary culture and non-Christian religions. I shall return to Haight and Dupuis, but first I want to sketch out the broader theological context of the discussion.

Christology from above and from below Recent decades have seen the emergence of two distinct ways of reflecting on the mystery of Jesus Christ. What is known as "Christology from above" begins with the Second Person of the Trinity, with the preexisting divine Word in relation to the Father and the Holy Spirit. This methodology then proceeds "downward" to the Incarnation, to the event in which the Word or Logos became man in Jesus Christ. Finally, this approach to Christology draws our attention to how the Word made flesh suffered and died for our sins, and then rose from the dead and returned to God's "right hand." This more traditional way of thinking about Jesus Christ is often called "high" Christology because of its emphasis on the divinity of Jesus Christ. Prominent examples of this approach can be found in Joseph Ratzinger's Introduction to Christianity (1968), The Person of Christ (1981) by Jean Galot, S.J., the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), and in the CDF's declaration, Dominus Iesus (September 5, 2000). A high Christology also pervades the writings of Romano Guardini and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

The other way of reflecting on the mystery of Jesus Christ is called "Christology from below. …