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Chapter 21: God’s Redemptive Work: Covenant and Incarnation

Appendix 2: The personal unity of the life of the Word Incarnate

There remains a puzzle of considerable theological significance. The human life of Jesus is a creature among creatures. As such, like every creature it is referred to God the creator, who is a single principle of created realities. In other words, in one respect the humanity and human life of Jesus belong no more to the Word than to the Father and the Holy Spirit; yet only the Word is man, and, clearly, the revelatory life of Jesus somehow must be the personal life of the Word (see DS 535/284, 801/429).

It will not do to try to escape the puzzle by denying that as a creature the life of Jesus is the work of the Trinity. Scripture makes it clear that the Incarnation, including the whole life and destiny of Jesus, is the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is conceived by the power of the Spirit (see Lk 1.35); he acts by the power of the Spirit (see Mt 12.28); he is raised by the power of the Spirit (see Rom 1.4; 8.11). Jesus is Christ (Messiah; the anointed) because he has the Spirit (see Lk 4.21). At the same time, Jesus makes it clear that his work is not separable from his Father’s work as creator (see Jn 5.17). The Trinity is undivided in work, which is attributed now to one person and now to another.21

Still, the Gospels make it clear that Jesus regards himself as Son not only insofar as he is man, but also insofar as he is God, and thus make it clear that in a special sense he reveals as Son and primarily reveals the Father, while concomitantly revealing himself as Son and the Spirit as their common gift (see Mt 11.25–27; Lk 10.21–22; Jn 5.16–30; 7.14–18; 8.28–30, 54–55; 12.20–50; 14.1–14; and so on).22

This puzzle can be clarified to some extent if one bears in mind the distinction between creation and revelation. Everything depends upon God the creator. But among the things created, certain ones serve as the given component of a sign by which personal communication is carried out. Now, the life of Jesus as creature must be distinguished from this same life as revealing sign.

As creature, it proceeds from the Trinity, and in a way immediately from the Holy Spirit who, as it were, being the term of God’s inner life is nearest the beginning of his outward manifestation in creation.

But as revealing sign, Jesus’ life communicates God personally, as Scripture shows (see, e.g., Jn 14.6–11; 17.20–23). Only the unity of the personal relationship to the Father of the Word Incarnate according to both his natures makes it possible for him to communicate God personally by revealing the distinction and unity between himself and the Father. The unity of this personal relationship would be impossible if the life of Jesus as revealing sign—in which his human relationship with his Father is carried on—were not the personal life of the Word Incarnate. And so, in this respect, Jesus’ life, rather than proceeding from the Trinity, is the personal life of the Word, revealing the Father, and so both himself as Son and the Spirit, as distinct persons.

If one puts matters as I have just done, many questions are likely to be raised concerning the relationships between the creative causality of the Trinity, the revelatory work of the Word, and the human life of Jesus as man. But there is not much point in trying to speculate about these relationships. They are simply aspects of the action-dimensions of the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation, and we can no more understand the mysterious unity and complexity at the level of action than at the level of being. Just as “nature” cannot be said in the same sense of the divine and human natures, neither can “will” and “operation” have one sense said of principles of the life of Jesus considered as divine revelation and as human response. It is useless to try to speculate about divine realities in themselves, for we know God only insofar as we are related to him in creaturely dependence and in the relationship he establishes with us by revelation.

St. Thomas gives the most acceptable alternative to the solution sketched above to the problem of the personal unity of Jesus’ life. Holding with the faith of the Church that in Jesus there are both divine and human operations, he tries to explain the unity of Christ’s action by saying that “the divine nature uses the operation of the human nature as its own instrument in operation, and likewise the human nature shares in the operation of the divine nature, as an instrument shares in the operation of the principal actor.”23 This formulation seems somewhat appropriate for expressing the aspect in which the human life of Jesus ought to be attributed to the Word as the medium in and by which he reveals. But even here the formula can be misleading, and it is quite misleading if it is taken as a complete account of the situation. I will consider the latter of these two points first.

It is telling that Thomas says “the divine nature uses” rather than “the Word uses.” This sort of expression is seldom found in Thomas’ works. He very well knows that natures are principles by which actions are done, while persons act. In all strictness, the divine nature does not do anything; to say that it does is to use the word “nature” in a way which removes the only sense it has in its use in reference to God.

If Thomas had focused more sharply on the fact that the human life of Jesus is lived by the person who is the Word, according to the human nature which really is the humanity of the Word, he would have realized that the human life of Jesus not only must be considered an expression of his divinity but also a noninstrumental human response to God’s love. Toward the Father, the Incarnate Son lives the human life of Jesus as the Son of Man, who forms the children of Man into a redeeming community, the Church.

Even insofar as the Incarnate Word reveals the Father in the human life which is his as man, the human willing of Jesus is not in any ordinary sense a mere instrument of his divine willing.24 Thomas realized that “instrument” is said here in a special sense.25 For if the idea of instrument is pressed too far, two implications follow. First, the unity of the person of the Word would be denied. Since one’s own willing is not something one uses but something one does, if the human willing of Jesus is used by the Word, then it is not done by him, but by someone else—which faith forbids. Second, the full truth of the humanity of Jesus would be denied, since he would lack the freedom and responsibility of one who lives a morally significant human life as his own, not as someone else’s life.

Apart from these arguments, it is important to set aside an idea about instrumental causality Thomas probably never entertained, but which probably is in the minds of some who use this language today. People often imagine that a human person is really a thinking and choosing subject hidden somewhere inside the head. The person tends to be identified with consciousness, and consciousness is imagined to be hidden within. This picture is part of modern mind-body dualism. According to this view, one’s bodily performances already are instrumental to one’s real inner self. The body is imagined to be a tool.

In this context, to talk of the humanity of Jesus and its operations as instrumental to his divinity suggests that the Word is once more removed from the outward behavior of Jesus. One almost imagines that the Word is not man, but is only sending messages to the human self which proceeds somewhat like a hypnotized subject to execute them. Obviously, this view of the situation altogether deprives the Word of his human life.

How ought we to think of the relationship? No image can begin to convey it. I think the words which best express it are these: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us” (1 Jn 1.1–2). This clear and realistic language totally negates the very image I also wish to reject. For him who had touched Jesus, the Word is given us in his sensible body and outward behavior, which is no less God’s in being human and no less completely human in being God’s.

21. See Kasper, op. cit., 252–53.

22. See Louis Bouyer, The Eternal Son: A Theology of the Word and Christology (Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor, 1978), 414–19.

23. Summa theologiae, 3, q. 19, a. 1. On this point, cf. 3, q. 13, a. 2; q. 43, a. 2. Thomas also treats the unity of Jesus’ operation without using the language I criticize: S.c.g., 4, 36. On his conception of instrumentality: S.t., 3, q. 62, a. 1, ad 2; S.c.g., 2, 21; De veritate, q. 24, a. 1, ad 5. The essential truth of what Thomas wishes to say (spelled out most clearly, perhaps, in De veritate, q. 27, a. 4) is that the humanity of Christ is a true causal principle without being a per se cause of those effects Jesus is able to bring about precisely insofar as he is not only human but also divine.

24. Galot, Le Christ, Foi, et Contestation, 170–83, deals with the subject of this appendix in a way quite similar to that followed here; he expressly denies (177) that the human nature is instrumental.

25. See Colman E. O’Neill, O.P., “Christ’s Activity,” in St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, vol. 50, The One Mediator (3a 16–26), trans. Colman E. O’Neill, O.P. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), 234–36.