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

Question F: How are the divine and human aspects of Jesus’ actions related?

1. Jesus does many things, such as the miracles performed in his own name, which cannot be attributed to him only as God or only as man, but must be said to be done by him who is God and man precisely insofar as he is one person in both natures. It may not be said that Jesus lacks either a human or a divine nature, that these natures are homogenized or commingled into one, that either nature is changed, or that the two are divided or separated. Similarly, it may not be said that Jesus lacks either a human or a divine will or willing, that these capacities and operations are commingled or collapsed into one, that either power or actuation is changed by their unity in him, or that they are divided or separated (see DS 556–57/291–92). Therefore, the problem is: How can we understand the acts of Jesus—for example, the raising of Lazarus from the dead (see Jn 11.1–44)—of which clearly it must be said that they are done by him insofar as he is one person in two natures?

Some Greek-speaking Christians of the seventh century tried to answer this question by saying that the actions of Jesus are simply divine-human actions, not actions in which the divine and human remain distinct. This attempt to merge the two natures of Jesus at the level of operation blurred the distinction between his divinity and humanity. Therefore, it was strongly condemned, first by the Council of the Lateran in 649 and later by the Third Council of Constantinople. Although not an ecumenical council, the teaching of the Council of the Lateran, convened by Pope Martin I, became recognized as having great authority. This council rejected the attempt to merge Jesus’ divine and human wills and their willing by saying: “If anyone, following the wicked heretics, foolishly takes the human-divine operation, which the Greeks call theandric, as one operation and does not profess in accord with the holy Fathers that it is twofold, that is, divine and human; or if he professes that the very neologism divine-human which has been established designates one operation but does not indicate the wonderful and glorious union of both operations: let such a one be condemned” (DS 515/268; translation amended).

A generation later, the Third Council of Constantinople enlarged on the matter. It insisted that Jesus has two wills and actuations of will, not divided, changed, separated, or commingled. The two wills are not opposed, but his human will is compliant and obedient to his divine will: “For it was necessary for the human will to move itself, but in obedience to the divine will, as the great wisdom of Athanasius has taught; because just as his human nature is said to be and is the human nature of God the Word, so too the natural will of his human nature is said to be and is God the Word’s very own, as he himself says: ‘I have come down from heaven not to do my own will, but the will of the Father who sent me’ (Jn 6.38)” (DS 556/291).

The humanity of Jesus as a whole is not annulled by being assumed, so neither is his will. It follows that there are in him two actuations of will, since each nature does what is proper to itself. This position is necessary since otherwise what is created would be absorbed into the divine or the divine degraded to the level of creatures. Both miracles and sufferings belong to the same person:

In every way possible, therefore, we uphold our denial both of commingling and of division and in this concise utterance we may express the entire matter: We believe that one of the Holy Trinity who, after the Incarnation, is our Lord Jesus Christ, is our true God; and we assert that both his natures clearly appear in his one hypostasis. In it throughout the whole ordered conduct of his life he gave evidence of both his miracles and his sufferings, not just in appearance, but in actuality. The difference of natures within the same person is recognized by the fact that each nature, in communion with the other nature, wills and carries out what is proper to itself. Accordingly, we hold that there are two natural wills and operations concurring in harmony for the salvation of the human race. (DS 558/292; translation amended)

Thus, while the Council rejects a unity of actuations, it also rejects separation, and maintains evidence of both human and divine natures and actuations in the whole life of Jesus.

2. Certainly Jesus’ actions, such as the raising of Lazarus, are unified as actions. But the willing which is the heart of the action is twofold, and the work and its effect are both human and divine. The problem is to clarify this complexity.

3. To begin with, the distinct actuation of both the divine and human wills in Jesus, upon which the Church’s teaching insists, necessarily follows if the Incarnate Word really lives a life. Will is only a capacity for willing; a will without its appropriate willing would be null. Of course, it is equally necessary to maintain the real unity of Jesus in “the whole ordered conduct of his life” (DS 558/292), for otherwise one would have to suppose that the Incarnation is incomplete, as if it took place only at certain moments or in certain aspects of him and his life. It seems to follow that one should not suppose certain acts of the Incarnate Word to be human and others divine; all are both.

4. Chapter twenty-two will consider the human aspect of Jesus’ life. As a man, he makes a commitment to the human good of friendship with God, discerns his unique human vocation with respect to this good, and lives out this vocation. His whole life is a well-integrated system of human acts. But the divine will of the Incarnate Word can hardly have remained inoperative with respect to anything he did humanly, whether the performing of miracles or the accepting of sufferings. Thus, the whole life of the Lord Jesus was both divine and human at the same time. How, then, are these distinguished, as the teaching of faith requires?

5. This question can be answered as follows. Insofar as he is God, Jesus reveals the Father in the medium of his human nature and life as man.18 Insofar as he is man, the Word responds to the Father in a manner appropriate to a man in perfect communion with God.19 In other words, Jesus’ life has the character of a revelatory sign because it proceeds not only from the Incarnate Word’s human willing but also from his divine willing, and it has the character of a human response to God revealing because it proceeds not only from the Word Incarnate’s divine willing but also from his human willing.

6. These two distinct aspects of the life of the Word are not separated. Included in the revelation of God in Jesus is the appropriate human response to God revealing; part of what God wishes to communicate to us is how we ought to relate to him. At the same time, Jesus as man knew his life to be a medium of revelation and intentionally conducted it as such.20 Part of what he wished to accomplish in his human response to God was to make himself a transparent medium of God’s revelation, so that his human brothers and sisters could join in his response.

With respect to the life of Jesus as a medium of revelation, Vatican II teaches: “The Word made flesh, sent as ‘a man to men,’ ‘speaks the words of God’ (Jn 3.34), and completes the work of salvation which his Father gave him to do (cf. Jn 5.36; 17.4). For this reason Jesus—to see whom is to see the Father (Jn 14.9)—perfected revelation by fulfilling it through his whole work of making himself present and manifesting himself: through his words and deeds, his signs and wonders, but especially through his death and glorious resurrection from the dead and final sending of the Spirit of truth. Moreover, he confirmed with divine testimony what revelation proclaimed: that God is with us to free us from the darkness of sin and death, and to raise us up to life eternal” (DV 4; translation amended).

Revelation is personal communication. Human persons communicate by listening as well as speaking, undergoing as well as doing. This is also true of God, above all of God revealing in Jesus. Therefore, God is revealed in the medium of Jesus’ total humanity, in its every actuation, expression, and undergoing. Likewise, precisely because God reveals in and through Jesus’ human life, nothing appears in Jesus which is not part of his human life—his divinity never blazes forth—although his human life often does manifest more than human power and bring about supernatural effects, as when he performs miracles in his own name, forgives sins, institutes the Eucharist, and so on.

18. Karl Barth and certain other Protestant theologians have developed the position that there is an intrinsic, necessary relationship between Jesus’ divinity and the revelatory character of his life, death, and resurrection. Although not worked out in a way entirely consistent with Catholic faith, this theological insight seems correct in substance and extremely important. See Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus: God and Man, trans. Lewis L. Wilkins and Duane A. Priebe, 2d ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), 127–41.

19. Current erroneous Christologies undermine the revelatory value of the life of Jesus for they deny it to be the human life of the divine Word. In reaction, Galot, Who is Christ?, 319–35; Le Christ, Foi, et Contestation, 197, denies that Jesus behaves as a man toward God; in doing so, he undermines the value of the life of Jesus as revelatory—as formative and exemplary for the Christian community. In affirming that Jesus is both true God and true man, Catholic faith denies the meaningfulness of such an either/or. A valuable, recent work which treats in a fully faithful way all of the principal questions of Christology: Lucas F. Mateo-Seco et al., eds., Cristo, Hijo de Dios y Redentor del hombre: III simposio internacional de Teología de la Universidad de Navarra (Pamplona, Spain: EUNSA, 1982).

20. See Joachim Jeremias, New Testament Theology: The Proclamation of Jesus (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971), 42–75, for an exegesis of relevant texts concerning the mission of Jesus to reveal the Father and his human awareness and commitment to this mission.