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Who is Jesus?: The Catholic Understanding of Jesus Christ

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Since Christianity is the largest religion in the world, it would seem that most people in Western societies would know who Jesus is. However, we don't think this is usually true, even among countries that are traditionally Catholic. Why? First, in major Christian denominations and communions, teaching about Jesus (i.e. catechesis) is often inadequate, or downplayed. Second, it is a common practice today in many churches to gloss over difficult and controversial teachings about Jesus, emphasizing only those things about Jesus that cause little controversy. Third, the news media and many armchair scholars consider themselves experts about Jesus simply because they have read the Da Vinci Code, or seen a special about Jesus on the Discovery Channel. Unfortunately all of this means that even members of Christian churches know little about the Jesus, as Catholics and most Protestants understand him.

Jesus Christ, photographed by David Bennett

So here we are, to provide a historical and Catholic take on Jesus, teaching that generally we share especially with Orthodox Christians, but also with many Protestants. Is this article involved in the historical Jesus debate, or are we voters within the Jesus seminar? Will we be appearing on the History Channel soon? Hardly. While searches for the historical Jesus using the historical-critical method are perhaps noble endeavors (often telling us more about the historian than Jesus), we wish to discuss the Jesus Christ of faith and history, the one and the same Jesus the Church has worshiped for two thousand years. Historical methods, while useful, can never reveal the most important information about the Jesus we worship. This is on account of the limits of historical study. Academic historical study cannot tell us if Jesus was God (they can guess as to whether he claimed divinity). Historians and Scientists cannot empirically analyze the way in which Jesus was both Lord and servant, or how he was both God and man. Even those who knew Jesus personally had to ultimately decide to follow Jesus by faith. Thus, the Jesus we believe in is ultimately known through experience, symbol, worship, and prayer. We also know him through the Holy Scriptures, Church history, and other more rational means, but even these are rooted in worship, faith, and symbol. However, ultimately the Jesus we worship is above and beyond rational analysis, whether it is expressed in atheistic skepticism or fundamentalist apologetics. Let me repeat...The Jesus (and God) we know and worship is ultimately above rational inquiry, and this means that rational thought can never fully explain, let alone allow one to meet, the Jesus we know and worship. Keep this in mind as you read our brief primer on Jesus.

The Catholic Church bases its doctrines about Jesus on a variety of sources, including the Bible, as interpreted by the Church, and through Church Tradition. The Bible contains stories about the life and teaching of Jesus, and Church Tradition consists of the major creeds, Church councils, and teachings of the Catholic Magisterium about Jesus. These sources tell us that Jesus Christ is the Messiah (or Christ) of Israel, and God himself in the flesh. God the Son, the second person of the Blessed Trinity, became human in the historical, fully human figure of Jesus, which was the prime act of love by a loving God (John 1:1, Hebrews 1:8, Titus 2:13, Council of Nicaea 325 AD, Council of Constantinople 381 AD). This unity of divine and human natures in one person, Jesus Christ, is not something that we are able to fully explain scientifically. We accept the paradox, the mystery, and ultimately believe by faith that Jesus is fully human and fully God. Thus Catholics believe that Jesus is a single person, and that the human and divine in Jesus are fully and completely united, not divided in any way. When Jesus healed, both the human and divine nature in Jesus healed. When Jesus writhed in pain, God and human writhed in pain (Council of Chalcedon 451 AD). Is this shocking to the rational mind? For most of us, yes. The paradox of the God of the cosmos becoming human, and taking on all of our humanity (body odor, pain, suffering, and death included) is incomprehensible to the purely mechanistic mind, and certainly was in ancient times as well. Jesus also has two wills, human and divine, and they, like his two natures, are united as one, neither diminished (Sixth Ecumenical Council 680/681 AD).

All of this information about Jesus is not simply theological or philosophical speculation, since it relates to our salvation. Who Jesus is, and what he did, essentially determines whether or not he had the power to save us. Had Jesus not been God, he could not have saved us from our sins, for only God is able to give salvation. Jesus' death also played an important role in our salvation. According to the Catholic Catechism

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Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men (CCC 1992).

However, in addition to Christ's sacrificial death, as mentioned above, other realities are involved in our redemption. In a way, who Jesus was and everything he did played a part of our redemption: his incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension. Part of our redemption is becoming more and more like God, called "theosis" in the Eastern Churches. This process of redemption and reconciliation to God is call "the atonement."

Jesus in Tomb, photographed by David Bennett

Jesus was born of the virgin Mary, and the Catholic consensus (i.e. the views of the Eastern and Western historical churches) is that Mary remained a virgin her entire life. Her child, the frail God-Baby grew up to be a great teacher, healer, and wonder-worker. Jesus taught high ethical standards and offered a revolutionary interpretation of the Jewish law. He taught among those in society that others scorned. Catholics believe that Jesus is the Word of God, i.e. the Logos. Logos has many meanings in the Greek language, but basically the term means that Jesus is the ration, wisdom, and revealer of God. Thus, since the Logos became flesh (John 1:1, 1:14), we understand that Jesus' actions and teachings fully reveal and reflect God's will. Jesus is also King, Servant, Savior (one who saves/rescues us), Lamb, Priest, Sacrifice, Lord, Prince of Peace, Judge, Creator, Redeemer, Light, Teacher (Rabbi), Friend, etc. The symbols used for Jesus are varied and beautifully paradoxical. Jesus, Catholics believe, is alive today, and was crucified, died, and was raised again to life. Jesus is Risen! Jesus went to his Father 40 days after his Resurrection, in a process called the Ascension, bringing humanity to the Godhead. Jesus is many other things too! Check out our Basics of Catholic Christian Belief Page for other information about the nature of Jesus. This article is meant as a basic summary of who Jesus is, and we suggest exploring the topic more deeply. Probably the most accurate way to learn about the person and actions of Jesus is to look to the sources of Catholic Teaching. The first place to start is in the New Testament, particularly the four Gospels. While all of the New Testament is helpful in understanding how early Christians viewed the risen Lord, the four gospels recount Jesus' life and teachings. However, Church Tradition is also important to understanding who Jesus is. The Scriptures and Tradition represent the collective witness of the Church, the body of Christ, and are not at odds with one another. The creeds and Church Teaching tell us even more about the person of Jesus, and guide us in interpreting the New Testament in the correct manner.

In this article, I have tried to emphasize the importance of faith and worship in understanding the nature of Jesus, and the limits of historical-critical study when trying to understand the deeper spiritual realities about Jesus' nature. I have done this because in modern Western culture, the dominant way to approach the study of Jesus is highly rationalistic. This is not the way the early Fathers or medieval writers approached the study of Jesus, and, from a Catholic perspective, a purely academic approach to Jesus, when used alone, is deficient. Below are a few important guidelines that I believe are important when exploring the person of Jesus from a Catholic perspective. Mind you, for those schooled in the historical-critical method, such principles may seem overly "spiritual," but I am speaking here to faithful Christians, primarily Catholics.

1.) Doctrine about Jesus must always be connected to the Church's teachings, worship, prayer, and ethics. In other words, theology without prayer is dead. The best theological lesson is the worship of the Church, e.g. the Mass or Eucharist, where we partake of the body and blood of Christ. It is important that our beliefs about Jesus come from our actual knowing Jesus, i.e. our experience of him both collectively (as a Church) and individually. Our belief about Jesus is communal, and reflects the common experience of those who know and have known Jesus, as not to be hijacked by a few people or by the trends of an era. From an ancient and Catholic perspective, so-called objective, scholarly studies of Jesus miss the point, because they are done outside of a relationship with the Risen Lord.

2.) Belief in Jesus must lead us to follow his example, or doctrine is just a mental exercise, no different than memorizing facts about any other historical figure. Jesus calls us to follow him, not simply memorize facts about him, although knowing facts about Jesus is important too.

3.) Jesus is ultimately known symbolically and by faith and worship, in light of Scripture and Church Teaching. I am not suggesting there is no value in historical study or learning facts, because there is great value in these things, and the Catholic Church emphasizes them both. This is why I emphasize that when we worship and know Jesus, it is always in light of what the Church and Scriptures tell us about Jesus. However, when I speak of "knowing Jesus" I mean having a relationship with Him. Remember, we can have a relationship with someone that we cannot fully understand, and we will never fully understand the mysteries of God and Christ. After all, the rational mind cannot comprehend a resurrected man who is 100% God and 100% human, nor can it make sense of a priest who is also a sacrifice. We know Jesus through worship, prayer, and symbol (Eucharist the Bible, and other sacraments included). Again, I am not denying the historicity of Jesus, or the importance of historical inquiry; I am saying that even those who knew Jesus while he walked the earth had to take a leap of faith to accept who he was. Even had we been around Jesus with cameras and microscopes, we could neither have proven nor disproved the ancient Church's assertions about Jesus rationally or scientifically. If you wish to understand who Jesus is and meet Him, you must worship him. Stop by a Catholic Mass, listen prayerfully to the words of the liturgy, and participate fully in the rituals and prayers (Although out of respect, do not take communion unless you are permitted. Only Catholics and some Orthodox Christians, in a state of grace, may commune in the Catholic Church). In other words, dive into the service. You will get to know Jesus and certainly learn a thing or two about Him in the process. Then, continuing to worship regularly, immerse yourself in the scriptures, and in the ancient writers of the Church. Take some classes, and continue praying and worshipping the risen Lord. If you are not Catholic, there are classes you can take that will allow you to become a member. These steps will give you the best picture of who Jesus is.

Before I finish, let me address a few possible concerns. Some might ask: "is what you state Gnosticism, Docetism, or Fideism?" The answer is no. I affirm the full humanity and historicity of Jesus, as well as the rationality of the Christian faith. I am simply pointing out the limits of historical inquiry (limits most who use this method gladly acknowledge), and the importance of prayer and worship in knowing Jesus. Notice I said that we cannot ultimately know Jesus through rational thought, but that does not diminish the importance of historical inquiry, scriptural study, and rational thought in understanding Jesus. Basically, I believe that to divide prayer and worship from theology produces bad theology and is contrary to early Christian experience. In fact if this article emphasizes anything, it should be that Jesus is primarily known through the worship of the Church, and that theology and all Christian disciplines should be undertaken in the context of prayer, through the lens of Catholic Teaching.

Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of God,
have mercy on me, a sinner

Jesus Christ FAQ

1. What does it mean that Jesus is the Son of God and Son of Man?
Jesus is called both Son of God and Son of Man in the Bible. Son of God may mean two different things. First, upon hearing the phrase "son of God," Jews would have identified Jesus with the king of Israel, who was adopted as Son of God (see Psalm 2). Greeks would have taken the phrase to mean Jesus shared the same nature as God. Both meanings are true: Jesus is king and God. "Son of Man" has two meanings as well. Jews would have picked up a reference to the godlike "son of man" figure in the book of Daniel. Greeks may have taken the phrase to mean Jesus was simply human. Both are true.

2. What do other groups believe about Jesus?
First, all traditional Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants can affirm most of what I have written above about Jesus. Most Christians are able to affirm the contents of the Nicene Creed and Apostle's Creed. However, there are other religious groups, some identifying as Christian, that disagree with the classical definition of Jesus I have provided. Here is a brief summary:
Atheists/Agnostics: a good man; possibly a legend
Jehovah's Witnesses: a created angel; the archangel Michael to be exact
Jews: a good man and teacher
Mormons: a god (the Father is another god)
Muslims: a virgin-born prophet
Progressive Christians / Unitarians: a good man and social revolutionary

3. When was Jesus born and when did he die?
Jesus was likely born between 6-4 BC, and not 1 AD as traditionally calculated. The original calculation was off by a few years. As to the original day, we cannot be sure. However, the Church celebrates his birth on December 25th and there are good reasons why he may actually have been born on that day. Jesus lived to be 33 years old, therefore he died around 27-29 AD. He died on a Friday, which is now celebrated as "Good Friday."

4. Was Jesus married?
Despite what is suggested in popular media, the earliest records of Jesus' life do not mention this, and no canonical book entertains the idea. The Church has always held that Jesus was unmarried.

5. Do You Have More Information About Christian Creeds?
Yes we do. So far we have the following resources:
The Nicene Creed: Ancient Symbol of the Catholic Faith
The Creeds: Why Do We Need Creeds?
The Creeds: Why Do We Need Creeds (E-Book, with full text of major creeds)

Last updated 12-02-2007

Ancient and Future Catholics