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Chapter 22: God’s Redemptive Work in Jesus’ Human Life

Question A: Does Jesus have a fundamental option?

1. It would seem that Jesus does not have a fundamental option. For the fundamental option of Christian life is the act of faith, as was explained (16‑G). But as the New Testament makes clear, in some way Jesus knew God to be his Father: He was aware “that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God” (Jn 13.3). Knowing he had no choice about being indissolubly linked with the Father, he could not make an act of faith and so, it seems, had no fundamental option.

2. Moreover, if Jesus had a fundamental option, it would seem that he could have refused to make the commitment he ought to have made. But that would have been sin, and Jesus could not sin. So again it appears that he had no fundamental option.

3. Yet Jesus did make a basic commitment by a free choice (see S.t., 3, q. 40). He obediently accepted death (see Phil 2.8). “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb 5.8). In doing so, he constituted himself the one mediator between God and humankind, for he gave himself for us (see 1 Tm 2.5–6). This giving presupposed a basic commitment.

4. Jesus could make a basic commitment without its being a fundamental option because the two are not exactly the same. Every commitment has certain characteristics (see 9‑E). It is a large choice which bears primarily upon existential goods, and it goes beyond any limited project to establish one in open-ended relationship with another individual or a group. A basic commitment is the most inclusive commitment a person makes. A morally mature person’s basic commitment organizes his or her entire life and in the case of a good person establishes, at least implicitly, a virtuous relationship with God and every human being of good will (see 8‑I).

5. Jesus is “like us in every respect except for sin” (DS 301/148, 554/290). Making a basic commitment need neither presuppose nor include any sin. At the time of his public life, Jesus was a mature individual who lived a well-ordered life. Therefore, to hold that Jesus did make a basic commitment raises no difficulty.

6. But Jesus’ basic commitment could not be a fundamental option as ours is. Our fundamental option is the act of faith. Faith is conversion from sin toward God and acceptance of the grace of adoption as children of God. “Fundamental option” connotes these features of our basic commitment of faith, and they are excluded from Jesus’ basic commitment.

7. Nevertheless, contrary to the argument proposed at the beginning of this question, Jesus as man did make a basic commitment bearing upon his relationship with the Father. True, his commitment cannot have been to accept his filial relationship, since for him this is a fact about which he, unlike us, has no choice at all (see Mt 11.25–27; Lk 10.21–22). But one who has made an act of faith still can and must choose whether to live up to it. Likewise, Jesus, although he made no act of faith, had a basic choice about how to live his human life.1 This life was not a given; his human heart was not predetermined to live it. For him really to live it required self-determination on his part: He humbled himself and became obedient (see Phil 2.8).

The basic choice which Jesus faced can be explained as follows. As a small child of four or five, his willing of the good of religion and other human goods would have been very much like that of a baptized Christian child being brought up in the faith. As yet there was no choice; the good of friendship with God the Father was willed by spontaneous willing. The difference in Jesus’ case was that he had not grown up knowing God only as “Lord” and “creator” but also, in a special way, as “my Father”—a familiar manner of thinking and speaking which Jesus significantly retained all his life.2

Reaching the age at which choices are made, Jesus, like a child raised in faith, made many good choices about many things, all in harmony with his spontaneous willing of friendship with the Father. At some point, generally around the time of puberty, many children experience a more or less conscious crisis of faith; either explicitly or implicitly they must choose whether they will keep their faith and live it. For Jesus, this commitment would have been similar to, yet not exactly the same as, a Christian child’s first free choice to live in faith. That Jesus did make such a commitment is expressed by the story of the finding in the temple (see Lk 2.49).3

8. Similarly, the objection based on sinlessness can easily be resolved. Since human nature admits of sin, as man Jesus could choose sinfully. But if Jesus had chosen sinfully, the sin would have been that of the Word, and God cannot sin. Therefore, Jesus not only in fact never committed a sin; he could not possibly have done so (see DS 291/—, 556/291).4 Still, as man Jesus deliberated in a human way; the alternatives to right choices did occur to him. He considered possibilities it would have been wrong for him to choose, recognized them as such, and rejected them for this reason. Therefore, although he did not sin, he “in every respect has been tempted as we are” (Heb 4.15). Thus, Jesus could and did make a basic commitment, clearly articulated in some of his choices, for example, his free acceptance of death, expressed by the evangelists: “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mk 14.36; cf. Mt 26.39; Lk 22.42).

The New Testament teaches that in some way Jesus was aware of God as his own Father.5 Jesus was aware “that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God” (Jn 13.3). How did he know this?

We ought to hold that the knowledge of Jesus as man which is relevant to his human choices and actions was not radically different from the knowledge of the great prophets and holy men, for Jesus is a man like us in all things save sin (see DS 310/148, 554/290). Wishing to insist upon Jesus’ divinity and give him the honor due him, many have attributed semidivine knowledge to Jesus as man. But one must take care to avoid the commingling of divine and human knowing, which faith forbids. Moreover, Jesus as man is more honored and the very point of the Incarnation of the Word better recognized if we attribute to him no more in the way of special gifts than faith requires. For then Jesus’ action is more clearly human, and he is more fulfilled and God more glorified in it.

Luke indicates that Mary conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, knew she was doing so, and was told that the child “to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” (Lk 1.35). The synoptic Gospels all indicate that at the very beginning of his career Jesus accepted baptism from John, and received heavenly confirmation of his status (see Mt 3.17; Mk 1.11; Lk 3.22). It also is possible that Jesus as man received nonverbal communication from the Father. That Jesus received divine information in such ways is in line with what the Old Testament tells us about the modes of divine revelation.6

With information received in the ways indicated, perhaps on many occasions throughout his earthly life, Jesus was in a position to be humanly aware of who he is and what he was to do. The Gospel narratives bear witness that Jesus knew the Scriptures thoroughly and used them constantly. His awareness, guided by basic information received by direct revelation, was enriched by this study. Thus, it seems unnecessary to suppose that as man Jesus had any mode of knowing in principle inaccessible to other men and women.

Nevertheless, since we do not know what God’s inner life is like, we cannot comprehend Jesus’ divine and human self-consciousness. Therefore, we cannot rule out the possibility that his human knowledge includes unique modes of access to reality, including God. Of course, these would have to be within the radical possibility of human nature. But we cannot tell whether human nature includes possibilities which are realized in this life in no one but Jesus.

However, we can be sure that Jesus’ human awareness did not include knowledge of future contingencies which would have precluded his living the life he lived. Knowledge of future contingencies which will be determined by one’s choices is impossible before one makes them, for such knowledge would leave one no choice to make. Therefore, because Jesus’ choices helped to determine a great deal of the future, he had to be humanly ignorant of a great deal of the future. Perhaps this explains how Jesus, contrasting his human awareness with the providential knowledge he shared as Word with the Father, could say of the coming end: “But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mk 13.32).

It is difficult for us, who firmly believe in the divinity of Jesus, to accept without qualification all the implications of his humanity. Jesus insofar as he is man is a creature among creatures; if he were not, then nothing in creation would be the Word—the Incarnation would not have occurred. St. Thomas endorses the correctness of this manner of speaking (S.t., 3, q. 16, a. 8; cf. aa. 1, 2, 6).

It is necessary to keep in mind that Jesus’ humanity is a concrete and actualized one, not anything less than the totality of the Lord Jesus save only his eternal reality as Word. There is a heresy, Docetism, according to which Jesus truly is God, but only apparently human. Walter Kasper, after discussing theological versions of this heresy, remarks:

  It would be wrong however, to see the temptation to Docetism merely in theology and to overlook its much more dangerous subliminal influence on faith and the life of the Church. In the history of Christian piety the figure of Jesus had often been so idealized and divinized that the average churchgoer tended to see him as a God walking on the earth, hidden behind the façade and costume of a human figure but with his divinity continually ‘blazing out’, while features which are part of the ‘banality’ of the human were suppressed. In principle we can scarcely say that the doctrine of the true humanity of Jesus and its meaning for salvation have been clearly marked in the consciousness of the average Christian. What is found there often amounts to a largely mythological and Docetist view of Jesus Christ.7

Kasper is right, and the tendency he is talking about explains the reluctance of many to accept the simple statement that Jesus as man is a creature among creatures. It also helps explain resistance to the thesis that Jesus as man had to make a basic commitment.

1. See Jean Galot, S.J., Who Is Christ? A Theology of Incarnation, trans. M. Angeline Bouchard (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1981), 376–84.

2. For the significance of Jesus’ use of “Abba,” see Joachim Jeremias, New Testament Theology: The Proclamation of Jesus (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971), 61–68. Note the conclusion (68): The use of this word “expresses the ultimate mystery of the mission of Jesus. He was conscious of being authorized to communicate God’s revelation, because God had made himself known to him as Father.”

3. The passage (Lk 2.41–52) about the finding in the temple has been identified as a biographical apophthegm—i.e., a narrative built around and emphasizing a particular saying. In this case, the saying is in v. 49. Thus, one should not naively consider the passage as a detailed report of an interesting event in Jesus’ childhood, but as the sacred writer’s expression of an important fact about Jesus’ life relevant to his mission, death, and resurrection. What it expresses is that Jesus did shape his life toward his Father’s service by a basic commitment. This being so, questions which could be raised about the details of the story, which might be taken to undermine its basic historicity, can be dismissed as irrelevant. See Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., The Gospel According to Luke, Anchor Bible, 28 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1981), 438–39.

4. See Galot, op. cit., 384–92, for a different approach and reference to some other views. Galot seems to me inconsistent insofar as he is realistic about temptation but does not wish to admit that Jesus had a choice between good and evil. Such a choice does not entail that Jesus could (without qualification) sin, but only that as man he could have sinned. On my view the absolute sinlessness of Jesus follows solely from the fact that the acting person is the Word.

5. For a critical, Catholic evaluation of the New Testament evidence of Jesus’ awareness of his own identity, see Jacques Guillet, S.J., The Consciousness of Jesus, trans. Edmond Bonin (New York: Newman Press, 1972), 43–46, 102–39, and 177–94.

6. For a generally similar treatment of Jesus’ human knowledge, including his knowledge of God, see Galot, op. cit., 336–75.

7. Walter Kasper, Jesus the Christ (London: Burns and Oates, 1976), 199.