There have been many attempts throughout history to explain precisely Jesus' relationship to God. Sources for this task have always been limited; no biography of Jesus exists. Instead, the Christian Church must rely on the New Testament and later insights.

     The Church selected the writings now known as the New Testament, written in Greek, during its first three hundred years. Within the New Testament are the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. (The word "Gospel" means "Good News.") United in their Proclamation of Jesus as the Risen Lord and Christ, each Gospel provides a somewhat different portrait of Jesus' ministry and teachings; none was intended as a biography.

     In the New Testament Jesus is referred to by many different titles, among them "Son of Man," "Christ," "Lord," "Rabbi," and "Son of God." Each title had a particular meaning in Hebrew traditions.

      Son of Joseph of Nazareth acknowledges Jesus' full humanity, that he was one of them. At that time Lord was a title of deepest respect. Christ is the Greek rendition of the Hebrew "Messiah," which was reserved for God's expected "Anointed One." Rabbi, also a title of high respect, then meant "master" or "teacher." Son of God "...does not mean that some sort of metaphysical divinity is being ascribed to Jesus. In a Jewish context, it meant that like the kings of Israel Jesus was chosen for a unique role in history." [Fuller] However, in the context of Christ's resurrection, "Son of God" also implied an extraordinary relationship, the closest filial communion, with God - indeed the enfleshment of God's Word. After the biblical period, the early church furthered the theological understandings of "Son of God." Son of Man is an expression still debated among biblical scholars; it might refer to Jesus' humanity, his messianic role, and/or his special bond to God. These and other titles contribute to the New Testament portraits of Jesus primarily as they signify his acts. The Hebrew mind was not concerned with a philosophical analysis of Jesus' person, but with what God was doing through him as God's disclosed, creative purpose for humanity. Thus, the various New Testament titles of Jesus remain powerful signs of the acts of his ministry rather than exhaustive explanations of his essence.1

     The Christian Faith views Jesus the Christ as the Creator's intentions and purposes for humanity embodied "in the flesh." In this sense, he is "God's Word" sharing our humanity. Christ shows all people God's active love, including God's Will: the Summary of the Law (See Unit 5.).

     It is tempting to suppose that Jesus, Buddha, Confucius, and other great religious leaders are all embodiments of God's Will, but that overlooks the reality of their different, often significantly conflicting, teachings. For example, each leader uses the word "love," but the meaning of "love" changes significantly from teacher to teacher. It is wishful thinking to believe that all religious leaders offer the same basic teachings or point to the same God. They don't!

     Many elaborate interpretations of Jesus have been proposed as theologians try to be precise. Some have been excluded as being too one-sided, others as incomplete. The Christian Church as a whole has never chosen one elaborated view as the one, true and complete explanation of Jesus and his relationship to God.

     Whatever else Jesus was and is, he was fully human. He was born of a human mother, a Jew named Miriam (Mary). Some Christians read the New Testament passages about Mary's miraculous pregnancy (without sexual intercourse with Joseph) as folklore dramatizing the special quality and mission of Jesus. Others accept the passages literally and believe in the (biological) virgin birth of Jesus. In the Creeds, "born of the Virgin Mary" can mean "the young girl Mary" or "the biological-Virgin Mary."

     Christianity has consistently viewed Jesus as unique. His relationship with God was very special. In some sense Jesus was "divine." One interpretation of "divine" is that Jesus, as God's intentions for humanity expressed in a human being, was in a full relationship, complete harmony, total communion and fellowship with God. Another more elaborate interpretation is that God's Word, existing as one of three divine "persons" of the one God, entered Jesus, such that as an individual he had a "human nature" and a “divine nature.” The second interpretation is the more traditional or orthodox of the two mentioned here. However, the first (regarded as inadequate by traditionalists) is central to many Christians' beliefs. “Christology” – the study of the person and ministry of Jesus Christ remains a major theological topic, an indication that the final word on the subject has not yet been provided.

     From a historical perspective, we know that Jesus was born sometime between 2 and 8 B.C.! A change in the calendar during the Middle Ages resulted in the reckoning that Jesus was born sometime "before Christ!" His ministry lasted between one and three years; the length of time, too, is debated. He was executed for treason against Caesar, because he was convicted of claiming to be "King of the Jews." The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, authorized the execution; thus, we have the credal statement, “crucified under Pontius Pilate.”

     It appears that Jesus' commitment to active love was so total that he offended seriously the chief religious leadership of his people; political implications were exploited so that his execution was possible under Roman law. To blame all Jews for the Crucifixion makes no more sense than holding all Italians responsible – because Pilate was Roman!

     Various Christians have understood the meaning of Jesus' suffering and death in different ways. “Atonement (‘at-onement,’ a sixteenth century coinage) is the reconciliation of sinners with God, especially through the cross, as communicated through the gospel and sacraments. The cross is proclaimed as somehow resolving the human predicament; but the predicament and its resolution can be understood in quite different ways.”2 Here are some interpretations of the Crucifixion, a few of which (e.g., statements h, j and l) are related to formulations of doctrines of Atonement.

a. Mankind is shown that Jesus was totally loyal to God even though his loyalty resulted in his conviction for treason, in torture, and in death.

b. The Cross is an example of the extent to which human beings can hate a non-conforming, loving person.

c. Jesus' death puts our sufferings into perspective; few others will ever have to undergo such an ordeal.

d. The Cross shows us how far God lets humans use their freedom.

e. The Cross expresses and reveals the power, hatefulness, and worst consequences of humanity's broken relationships with God and each other: killing the Innocent.

f. The Cross is a symbol that Jesus asks nothing of us that he has not demonstrated.

g. Jesus' death was the point where the world's alienation from God came into focus and showed both its reality and power.

h. Jesus sacrificed himself; he offered himself fully to God. He gave himself for his fellow human beings so that he could represent to them the reality of their separation from God; he also represented to God the human condition: the capacity to love as he “lived love” and the reality of evil as evil was done to him.

i. The Cross is humanity's "no" to God.

j. Jesus' sacrifice of his life is the oblation (offering) of a perfect life that we cannot offer. Alone he has fulfilled the intention of God for human life, and God accepts the offering of that life. Our imperfect offerings are now acceptable when joined with his one perfect sacrifice.

k. Jesus died "for us and for all persons" in the sense that all humanity is affected by his total self-offering, and all people are called to believe, to trust, his word.

l. Because of long-standing human sinfulness, the very fabric of the universe had become corrupted; the sacrifice of Christ to God brought about redemption (restoration) of all created reality.

     The Resurrection of Jesus, which Christians specially celebrate each Easter Day, has also been interpreted in more than one way, as an actual, literal event just as described in the New Testament, or as a poetic symbol of the Disciples' inner sense of joy and victory - their response to Jesus' teachings and personality.

     Either way, the Resurrection means that the Cross is not the end; God's Will of love is ultimately victorious for all who confess Jesus as "God's Word." Every human life, even those who endure harsh suffering (represented by Good Friday), may enter into the joy of Easter as the over-all perspective of living, if they are part of the Easter fellowship of Christians.

     Other meanings of the Resurrection for various Christians include:

a. The Resurrection is a point of transition for human history: a new order of life based on love (not rules, procedures, or ceremonies) and based on being part of a joyous, loving fellowship, the Church, (not being alone or part of a lesser fellowship) has been established.

b. God has placed his seal of approval on Jesus' life and ministry; death did not silence Jesus' life or teachings.

c. The Resurrection is God's confirmation of Jesus as his Messiah. With a new meaning, Jesus is viewed as the awaited Messiah, one who brings to humanity deliverance from hardness of heart, one whose focus on love can liberate all of life, including the political.

d. Everlasting life, begun as individuals enter the New Easter Covenant focusing on Love, continues beyond death. One's transfigured personality survives death, which like birth is an entrance to another realm of existence.

e. Without Easter, the story of Jesus would be a dismal failure; as a mere footnote at most, history would mention an unbelieved and unbelievable executed rabbi living and teaching love!

     Easter is in a sense celebrated whenever Christians gather for worship. It is a time to worship God in the name of "God the Son" – often phrased “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” By doing so, its members recall and celebrate the meanings of Christianity for their lives, realign their lives toward the true God and his Will, and proclaim the trustworthiness of the Creator-Shepherd of his sheep.

1R. Fuller, "Jesus Christ" in The Oxford Companion to the Bible (1993), p. 361. Other sources include R. A. Norris, Understanding the Faith of the Church (1979), pp. 159f.; O. C. Thomas, Introduction to Theology (1983), pp. 155 & 171; The Cambridge Companion to the Bible (1997), pp. 460 & 539; "Son of God" in The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (rv. ed., 1996), pp. 1051ff.

2E. Teselle, “Atonement” in A New Handbook of Christian Theology (1992), pp. 41-43.

from Context: Martin E. Marty on Religion and Culture
May 2006, Part B
Volume 38, Number 5

How Jesus saves

Explicit theology from Mary Catherine Hilkert, O.P., professor of theology at Notre Dame and president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, on 92-year-old Belgian theologian Edward Schillebeeckx ("shilla-bex"), who, among other books, followed up his 767-page Jesus (Crossroad) with the 925-page Christ (Herder & Herder): "In sketching the story of Jesus that the disciples experienced as God's offer of salvation, Schillebeeckx forged an inseparable link between the Good News that Jesus handed on in his prophetic preaching of the reign of God (with particular focus on the parables, beatitudes, and words of forgiveness), his liberating lifestyle (evident in his exorcisms, healing, gathering a community of disciples, and especially in his table-companionship with sinners and outcasts), and his relationships (culminating in the 'Abba experience' of unique intimacy with God that constituted the 'secret and source' of Jesus' life and preaching)."

Hilkert comments that "because his theological reading of the story of Jesus was rooted in historical reconstruction of his life and praxis, Schillebeeckx argued that the death of Jesus was, from that perspective, neither saving nor good news. Rather, it was the execution of God's faithful and innocent eschatological prophet. In a world of senseless evil and suffering, Schillebeeckx did not want his readers to forget that the crucifixion of Jesus was a 'historical fiasco,' the apparent victory of human injustice and sin, and an event in which God remained silent. While the execution of Jesus was absurd and meaningless in itself, Schillebeeckx admitted that to say that we are saved 'despite the death of Jesus' does not say enough. The saving grace to be discovered in this ultimate 'negative contrast experience' is to be found in Jesus' resistance to evil, by refusing to turn his back on his mission of proclaiming the reign of God, his fidelity to Abba in the darkness even unto death, and his embrace of solidarity with all those who suffer. Thus Schillebeeckx concludes that Jesus, empowered by the Spirit, took an event that was in itself absurd and meaningless, and filled it with God's own meaning and love. The 'unbroken communion' between Jesus and Abba was the saving power of love triumphing over evil and death, breaking its power.

"Schillebeeckx's retelling of the story of Jesus concludes with his analysis of the Easter experience of the first disciples. In a move questioned by many exegetes, Schillebeeckx describes the Resurrection appearance accounts as narrative expressions of disclosure experiences of conversion. Using the male disciples as his paradigm (and drawing on the conversion of the apostle Paul in the Acts of the Apostles to help interpret the synoptic narratives), Schillebeeckx argues that the disciples, who had abandoned Jesus and scattered at the time of his death, subsequently had a profound experience of being forgiven, re-gathered, and commissioned to proclaim the Good News of Jesus' Resurrection.

"In response to the critics who interpreted his theology of Resurrection as limited to the subjective experience of the disciples or as a confirmation of Jesus' earthly life and ministry, Schillebeeckx included additional clarifications of his position in the final section of Jesus. There he stressed that Jesus' 'personal-cum-bodily Resurrection preceded any faith-motivated experience [of the disciples].' Further, he emphasized that their Easter experience was a radically new one that took place after Jesus' death and included the crucified-and-risen-one's sending of the Spirit upon his disciples, thus founding the church. Schillebeeckx notes that this experience of the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus gave rise to plural creedal strands, Christological titles, and biblical narratives, as the earliest Christian communities attempted to understand and express their experience of Jesus as 'decisive and definitive salvation from God.' "

That is explicit theology, and radical.

--Theology Today, October 2005

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     To conclude this unit, please read the section below from “An Outline of the Faith.”

God the Son

Q. What do we mean when we say that Jesus is the only Son of God?
A. We mean that Jesus is the only perfect image of the Father, and shows us the nature of God.

Q. What is the nature of God revealed in Jesus?
A. God is love.

Q. What do we mean when we say that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and became incarnate from the Virgin Mary?
A. We mean that by God's own act, his divine Son received our human nature from the Virgin Mary, his mother.

Q. Why did he take our human nature?
A. The divine Son became human, so that in him human beings might be adopted as children of God, and be made heirs of God's kingdom.

Q. What is the great importance of Jesus' suffering and death?
A. By his obedience, even to suffering and death, Jesus made the offering which we could not make; in him we are freed from the power of sin and reconciled to God.

Q. What is the significance of Jesus' resurrection?
A. By his resurrection, Jesus overcame death and opened for us the way of eternal life.

Q. What do we mean when we say that he descended to the dead?
A. We mean that he went to the departed and offered them also the benefits of redemption.

Q. What do we mean when we say that he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father?
A. We mean that Jesus took our human nature into heaven where he now reigns with the Father and intercedes for us.

Q. How can we share in his victory over sin, suffering, and death?
A. We share in his victory when we are baptized into the New Covenant and become living members of Christ.