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Karl-Heinz Menke {*}

Jesus Christ, Son of God and True Man. Theological Impulses


From the periodical of the Catholic Academy in Bavaria
'zur debatte', 5/2009 P. 24-26
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


"You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth!" (Ex 20.4; Deut 5.8). This Old Testament prohibition of images for a long time continued to have an effect also in Christianity, although God in the person of Jesus Christ had got an unparalleled graphicness. But Christ is a person, not a picture captured on canvas. As a person, he is the revelation of the invisible God. But how are we, who are living two thousand years later, to portray God's revelation in Christ? Only under the guise of the Eucharistic bread? Only through the symbol of the cross? Or also by images presenting Christ as a certain human being?

In summing up, one can describe the attempted solution of the early church as follows: A plethora of images of Christ used at the same time was to prevent the identification with only one image and thus the commitment to one individual image. By means of stylisation the icons of the Eastern Churches suppress from the start the impression of a realistic picture. Added lettering refers to the difference between the image and the reality that is only indicated by the picture. The example of the icons therefore makes clear that Christ's image does not make God available; on the contrary, it is calling for a personal relationship with the One who is depicted.


(1) "He is the Image of the Invisible God." (Col 1.15)

Islam's ban on images evoked in the 8th century the controversy on the question whether it is allowed to put Christ, if he is truly God and therefore "indefinable" [unumschreibbar], into a "defining" picture and led in 787 to the last of the great Christological Councils, namely the Second Council of Nicaea. The special issue of the possibility to depict Christ had become the centre of all theological debates. John of Damascus ( 749), the indisputably greatest theologian of the 8th century tells us why. From the viewpoint of the Bible matter is something quite different than in the Greek philosophy. From the standpoint of Neo-Platonism matter is really the opposite of the Divine, of the quintessential One. The Greek philosophy can therefore not think that a creature qua creature is the revelation of the Divine; to say nothing of what the Christian faith expresses with the dogma of God's Incarnation. John of Damascus knows the Old Testament ban on images. But he also knows that this prohibition is not based on the Greek debasement of all finite and material beings but on the reverence for the transcendence of the Creator. In a speech against the contemporary iconoclasts he literally remarks, "Of old, God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was never depicted. Now, however, when God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, (Bar. 3.38) I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter."

In the view of the great theologian, the monk Theodore of Studion ( 826) one misses the core of the Christian creed, if one teaches that the "definable" [umschreibbare] and therefore depictable human nature of Christ became "indefinable" because of its hypostatic union with "indefinable" divine nature. For Christ's true humanity [Menschsein] is not the disguise of his true deity, but its revelation. The adoption of the human nature by the person of the eternal Logos does not mean some kind of dominance of the qualities of the divine nature of the Saviour over the qualities of his human nature, quite the contrary, in the human existence of the Saviour the person of the Logos becomes visible. Theodor of Studion clothes his Christology in the motto, "The Indefinable becomes definable." That means, "The person of the eternal Word becomes, by assuming flesh, moving force and source of a human being in its distinctive individuality. [...] His divine person becomes visible just in the characteristic features that mark Jesus out as this particular human being. The paradox of Incarnation is that the divine person of the eternal Word has become "definable" in the individual, personal features of Jesus."

Joseph Ratzinger expressed this fact in his "Introduction to Christianity" in this way, "Jesus has really interpreted God, has brought Him out, or, as John's first letter says more drastically, he has allowed us to look at and to touch Him, and so He whom nobody has seen is now open to our touch in history." And in his "Jesus Book" the Pope shows that every scene in the life of Jesus, all his parables, each line of the Sermon on the Mount, even every detail of his life, suffering and dying is, in the truest sense of the word, self-revelation of God.



This does in no way mean that Jesus' humanity is identical with his divinity. For God is (in the sense of an equals sign) not a creature and a creature (in the sense of an equals sign) is not God. The one who believes this has ceased to think when he started to believe. Although we got into the habit of speaking - e.g. in the context of Christmas - of "God becoming man" [Mensch-Werdung], we should always be aware of the non-authenticity of such a manner of speaking. For one cannot in the same way as about us say about God that He becomes something or somebody.

The God proclaimed by the Bible does not change into a human being, as e.g. the Zeus of the Homeric epics changes into a bull or the prince of Grimm's fairy tale into a frog. Then his humanity would be the larva, the disguise, even the concealment of his divinity. Then he would cease to be God for the time of his Incarnation. Then Christ's humanity would not be the revelation of God, but quite the opposite. No, God does not cease to be God in the event of Incarnation. And he does also not hide his divinity under the mantle of only a seeming humanity. On the contrary, the humanity of Jesus as such is God's revelation of Himself.


(2) True God and True Man: Without Confusion and Without Division

The Council contributing more than any others to clarify the most important Christological question, the Council of Chalkedon (451) says: Jesus Christ is true God and true man - without confusion, but also without division, without separation.

Why - many people ask - is it so important that Christ was both, without making concessions?

I want to answer this all too understandable question with two counter-questions:

(a) What would it mean, if Jesus Christ was true God but not true man?

(b) What would it mean, if Jesus Christ was true man but not true God?


(a) The Gnostics of all shades and periods hold the view that Jesus Christ was only true God, but not true man. They speak of his humanity as a dress with which he had veiled his divinity. In their view, his death was not the transition of a human being - in everything equal to us except sin - into the communion with God but simply the removing of his human-like cover. From the Gnostic point of view Christ's humanity was only the vehicle, only the instrumental medium of the instruction for self-salvation. From the Gnostic point of view, we also gain the communion with God, if we detach ourselves from this world. A Gnostically interpreted Christ becomes the demand to remove this earthly life as far as possible - if not in the literal sense, then at least mentally in a withdrawal from the world and privatist "piety" hostile towards the body.

Where Jesus' humanity is regarded only as an external means and tool of God, you can no longer answer the question: what has Christ done two thousand years ago for all people of all times - i.e. for me, too? He appears as a messenger of God who has taught us how one can go a good path or detach oneself from this world and its temptations - self-redemption teaching instead of soteriology!

Imagine: Somewhere in a pedestrian precinct somebody with a microphone in his hand would ask you unprepared the question, "What has Christ done for you two thousand years ago?" - He is not just an example that we should emulate. He is not only a wisdom teacher or philosopher. It is your and my Redeemer. Hence the question: What has HE done for you two thousand years ago?

The answer of our creed formulas to this question is: He has transformed the physical death. For since Easter the physical death is no longer the real symbol of sin, i.e. for all that cannot have communion with the one and only God of sanctity and life (= JHWH). As is well known, during the Babylonian exile Israel has adopted the picture of the shadow existence in the so-called Sheol for the existence of sinners post mortem. In any case, the Old Testament distinguishes between the physical death and the actual death of separation from God (Sheol). Since Easter the physical death which we all undergo is no longer the gateway into Sheol, on the contrary, it is the gateway to JHWH, whom Christ calls "Abba" or "father".

But, we are allowed to continue asking critically: Why and how was a human being - in all equal to us except for sin - able to transform once and for all - i.e. for all of us - the physical death, the gateway into Sheol into the way to God the Father?


(b) This question is almost identical to the fundamental question No. 2 already formulated above: What if Jesus Christ was true man, but not true God? For the sole reason that Jesus as a true human being had at the same time a relationship with God the Father, as no human being is able to establish or produce it on its own initiative, he was able to defeat the actual death, the separation from God the Father by suffering the physical death. We all know the superficially paradoxical formulation of the Easter prefaces and Easter songs: "In death (meaning the physical death) Jesus Christ defeated death (that is the separation from God)."

Jesus was not first a human person fathered by Josef and born by Mary, in order later - e.g. at his baptism in the Jordan or in the event of Resurrection - to be elevated to the "Son of God". It is generally impossible that a person becomes a different person. For that reason alone Christ was not first a human person, in order to become later a divine person. It is the unanimous testimony of the whole tradition (of all, even the oldest creed formulas and especially of the Council of Ephesus that calls Mary "Theotokos" [Gottesgebärerin]) that Jesus was from the beginning divine person. That means: He had from the beginning as true human being - already in the womb of his mother Maria - exactly the same relationship with God the Father as the inner-Trinitarian Son. It therefore becomes clear:

  • Only under the pre-condition that God himself is not a monolithic Self but the relation between Self and Thou, between Father and Son, and only under the further pre-condition that he is able by the Holy Spirit to communicate this relationship which He is also to the outside, one can consistently think that a creature, that the man Jesus is the relation of the eternal Logos to the Father (i.e. the Second Divine Person) (!).
  • Jesus was able to transform [umqualifizieren] the symbol of sin, the physical death (cf. Rom 6.23) as real symbol of separation from God into a real symbol of access to God (cf. 1 Cor 15,54-56; Jn 14:6 b) for that reason alone that he as true man was related to the Father in a way transcending everything feasible by human beings.


(3) The Father's Omnipotence does not Differ from the Crucified Son's Omnipotence

Jesus is infinitely more than a prophet, because he does not only interpret the will of the Father but "as the One who is resting at the heart of the Father" he is allowed to say of himself, "I and the Father are one." (Jn 10.30). And: "He that sees me sees the Father also." (Jn 14.9 b). And: "No man comes to the Father, but by me." (Jn 14.6). Pope Benedict XVI interprets Jn 1.18 by comparison with Ex 33,18-22. There the request of Moses, "Show me, Lord, thy glory!" (Ex 33.18) gets the answer: "You cannot see my face. [...] You shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen." (Ex 33,20-22). Jesus, on the other hand, comes from the direct contact with the Father, from the dialogue "face to face" - from the vision of the One who is resting at the Father's heart."

Since Jesus, unlike Moses, has not only told essential things about God the Father but is the Word of the Father, he is personally (hypostatic) the same Son who is for ever the self-expression of the Father, i.e. the Logos. In other words, Jesus lived in space and time (as a true man) the same relationship to God the Father which the Son is within the Trinity.

If we ask how the man Jesus, who is subjected to the laws of time, reveals the relationship of the eternal Son resp. Logos with the eternal Father, it is first obvious: His relationship with the father is anything but an escape from this world into abstract spheres of trancendence. On the contrary, His relationship with the Father is realized in concrete terms, is Incarnation, and is Kenosis. His relationship with the Father describes a movement from top to bottom. "He descended" - we say in the Creed. As the One who descends he is One with the Father - in this way and only like this. As the One who descends he is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

The Gnostics of all shades and periods have declared Jesus Christ to be an idea the outer shell of which was the body, humanity, and being-in-the-world. They described the true, actual Christianity as the detachment from this shell, as detachment from everything earthly and concrete, as way into pure spirituality.

But Jesus Christ is the opposite to this abstraction: already his birth somewhere in a cowshed before the gates of Bethlehem, already his cradle in the form of a manger, then his thirty years long walk through the daily life of a simple craftsman - all that is a continual descent. After he had left Nazareth he also descends - down to the Jordan where John is baptizing. This is, by the way, purely geologically considered the deepest point of the earth's surface, about three hundred meters below sea level. Low point yet in another sense: People who there descend from the neighbourhood, especially from the nearby Jerusalem, let themselves be dived under, make themselves small, profess to be sinners. And the One who does not need this at all joins their rank and file (Mt 3,13-17; Mk 1,9-11; Lk 3.21 et sequ.). Pope Benedict writes, "He begins his work by going to the place of the sinners. He begins it with the anticipation of the Cross. [...] Baptism means accepting death for the sins of mankind. The icon of Jesus' baptism shows the water as a liquid grave, in the shape of a dark cave. [...] Jesus' descent down into the liquid grave, in this inferno that completely surrounds him is thus the anticipation of the descent into the underworld!' And as Jesus was exposed to the sinners, so also to the tempter. His answer to the temptations of power (Mt 4.1-11; Mk 1.12 f; Lk 4.1-13) is the obedience to the will of the Father. Temporarily he gets applause. People run after him and want to make him king. His disciples hope to make a career upward. But he descends and sees the one who is right at the bottom. The blind Bartimaeus, for example, before the gate of Jericho (Mt 20,29-34; Mk 10,46-52; Lk 18,35-43), or the adulteress who is to be stoned for her sin (Jn 8,1-11), or the despised customs officer Zacchaeus (Mt 9.9-13; Mk 2.13 f; Lk 5.27 f). He climbs up a tree because he was so small. And immediately Jesus sees him, him of all people. Come on, he says, descend! If you want to see something of me, you are to climb down and not to climb up. This is a lesson that is difficult to learn, not only for Zacchaeus, even more so for Peter. The night before his arrest, Jesus makes it clear to him what he means, but Peter does not want to admit that his lord and master does not ascend but descends, that his lord and master works as slave. He is ashamed of him. But Jesus is not ashamed when he washes the feet of his disciples (Jn 13.1-10). And then he says: Take and eat, this is my body! (Mk 14.24; f Mt 26.27, Lk 22.20, 1 Cor 11.25). He wants to be for others the bread that they eat. And shortly afterwards he is hanging between heaven and earth, nailed on the Cross. And it becomes macabre. For then he who all his life descended is invited to descend (Mt 27.39 f; Mk 15.31 f; Lk 23.37): If you can, climb down, won't you!, one shouts to him. He descended to the hell, we say in the creed. And with the word hell we mean the opposite to way: namely imprisonment that blocks every path, every way out, every possibility, and every future.

We are time and again tempted to think God differently from this Jesus - as if God as such was almighty, whereas Jesus - at least on the cross - is the opposite, namely powerless. No, God has revealed himself in him, in this one and only man. He who sees him sees the Father. The Father is not differently omnipotent as the Crucified. Benedict XVI therefore notes: Just on the Cross "Jesus becomes recognizable as Son of God, his oneness with the Father. The Cross is the true "height". It is the height of the love "unto the end" (Jn 13.1); on the Cross Jesus is at the "height" of God who is love. There you can "recognize" him, can realize that "I am who I am". The burning thorn-bush is the Cross. The highest revelation claim, the "I am who I am" and the Cross of Christ are inseparable."



Not under the influence of Greek philosophy but by their knowledge of the Old Testament Writings all New Testament authors emphasize the identity of Jesus' action with the action of JHWH. They show that Jesus does what according to the testimony of the Old Testament writings JHWH alone is able to do: He forgives sins (Mat 1.21; Mk 2,1-12). He brings the dead back to life (Mk 5.41 f; Lk 7.14; Jn 11.43 f). He has power over all forces of nature (Mk 4,35-41; 6,45-52). And he is called "the sole Saviour" (Acts 4.12), "the Lord of all people" (Rom 10.12), "the Lord of glory" (1 Cor 2.8), "the First and the Last" (Rev 1.17; 22.13) and last but not least, "the true God" (Jn 20.28; 1 Jn 5.20). Of course, simultaneously to profess one's faith in the true deity of Christ and in the monotheism of Israel is only consistent on condition that the "Abba-relationship" lived by Jesus is identical with the relation of the eternal Logos to the Father. In other words: Jesus' "unity" [Eins-sein] with the "Father" (= JHWH), has the Christian doctrine on Trinity as pre-condition.

The God of Israel is the Trinitarian love that identifies with the crucified Christ. Or put another way: The Omnipotence professed in the Christian creed describes itself in Jesus Christ, the Crucified. That's why Christianity's universal claim to truth can and must only gain acceptance in the form of a defenceless love that hopes for everything but does not force anything.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam take equally as their starting-point that the uniqueness of God corresponds to the uniqueness of truth; that there cannot be several truths side by side and that the truth that founds every reality is revealed in the finiteness of world and history. However, in the three Abrahamitic religions the revelation is differently explained.

It is a huge difference whether a person or a book is called the way, the truth and the life for all people of all time. Truth that is identified with a book is always in danger to be mistaken for the wording. Truth that is a person is missed just where someone identifies it with Scriptures, with certain phrases, definitions or interpretations.


(4) The Recognizability of the Son in Jesus

The historical-critical exegesis has widely found acceptance with its demand to call the Redeemer before the event of his resurrection the man "Jesus" and only in the light of his resurrection also "Christ". Behind this demand the supposition is hidden that before Easter nobody could recognize that Jesus was the Christ. That all four Gospels assert the opposite is, as the exegetes see it, due to the fact that the evangelists have put their post-Easter view into the mouth of the pre-Easter Jesus. In this context one should pay attention to the indisputable statement of the Heidelberg exegete Klaus Berger that there is in the entire New Testament not a single passage that proves Jesus' recognizability as Christ only on the basis of trans-historical events after Easter.

If Jesus before Easter had not been recognizable as the Christ the decisive act of God's self-revelation had not happened in the thirty-three years of Jesus' life but post mortem by appearances and inspirations. If God the Father had other possibilities apart from those which became visible in the life and death of Jesus, then he had not imparted everything to his Son, then this Son could not say, "He that sees me sees the Father."

In the view of the Freiburg professor of fundamental theology Hans Jürgen Verweyen the fact can hardly be overestimated theologically that St Mark puts the words, "Truly, this was the Son of God!" (Mk 15.39) into the mouth of the pagan captain under the cross. For the oldest Gospel, which according to the conviction of all Christian confessions is inspired and therefore authentic, declares - by means of the example of a man that did not belong to the circle of the apostles or disciples of Jesus - the possibility to be aware of a relationship that is stronger than the power of death: not only because of the apparitions of the Risen One, but just where Jesus - superficially seen - seems to have failed and to be destroyed. Of course, it is an experience that moves the captain rather existentially than intellectually. However, the crucial thing is that in the evangelist Mark's view the Easter event was not the Father's work on Jesus without Jesus, but an action that was an at least also empirically perceptible action together with Jesus.

Everything in Christianity depends on the fact that God has expressed himself in the thirty-three years of life of an individual human being in such a way that one can say nothing about God what cannot be said also about Jesus of Nazareth. And from it follows: Even about the omnipotence of the Father in heaven one cannot speak otherwise than about the power of Jesus Christ. God the Father is not powerful other than the Crucified, to whom the scribes shout, "Come down, if you're the Messiah. Climb down if you are what you want to be!". (Mk 15.31 et seq.) No, he cannot descend, to be precise, he cannot do it because the Trinitarian God asserts himself by no other means than those of defenceless love. The Trinitarian God is unconditional love. The Trinitarian God wanted a creation that is really - and not only apparently - destined to freedom. And that's why Jesus, who personally reveals this Trinitarian God, cannot revoke the freedom of those who torture and kill him.

A God who can do nothing, who allows to be nailed on the Cross? A powerless God? Is this not the end of every meaningful faith and hope, of every meaningful prayer and pleading? - Yes certainly! However, only under the condition that the crucifying hatred was stronger than the defenceless love of the Crucified. Only under the condition that Jesus' love, nailed on the cross, was destroyed.

When Christianity on Good Friday in the hour of Jesus' death is called upon to kiss a cross, then not just any cross; this would be perverse; no, the cross of Jesus, whose love has not prevented the cross and has nevertheless defeated it. Christians proclaim something outrageous by venerating the Cross. For they profess their faith in a God who is not different from Jesus Christ, namely the Crucified. They profess their faith in a God who rather prefers to be crucified than to achieve something by force; but who can just in this way - in the way of defenceless love - transfigure, transform, and therefore defeat also my cross.

It is no coincidence that the sign of the cross became the quintessential representation of Christ and the sign of Christians. It is by no means an accident that Christians put the cross not only in their churches, but also on roofs, towers and mountain peaks. If Good Friday was God's hiding under his opposite, then instead of the sign of the cross the V-sign for "Victory" would be the appropriate logo of Christianity. If the Easter event was the Fathers subsequent work on the dead Jesus - on him, without him instead of together with him - then just the Cross event would not be revelation but concealment of God. But the pagan centurion under the cross, into whose mouth the evangelist Mark puts the words, "Truly, this man was the Son of God." (Mk 15.39), understands how inseparable the action of the divine Father is from the action of Jesus Christ. Jesus remains also in the hour in which he - as a true man - suffers the physical death, the real symbol of the separation of any sense, of any hope, in short, of God - in the complaining, reproachful, but praying relationship with the Father. His physical death is therefore, as the Easter preface formulates, the victory over the actual death of separation from God, caused by sin. Or in other words: In his death Jesus has broken the nexus produced by sin between physical death and the actual death (separation from God). He is since then the way to the Father for everybody who "lets him in" his life and death, similarly concrete as the Jews let in the Torah.

Those who let themselves be blessed with the sign of the cross or cross themselves entitle their lives to the belief that the crucified love is stronger than all the other powers. Those who by the sign of the cross profess their faith in Jesus Christ do not only remember Christ, but in the Holy Spirit they let themselves be included in his crucified love.

Strictly speaking, the so-called festival of the Holy Spirit is by no means an own festival beside the Christ festival. For the Church celebrates for fifty days the Christ festival; and the fiftieth day of the Christ festival is Pentecost. For the Holy Spirit is not the second self-revelation of God in addition to that in Jesus Christ, but enables it in a twofold way: That the Father is wholly in the Son and the Son completely in the Father and the one person does not neutralize the difference of the other person, and that God as the Son can be in such a way in Jesus that he as true man can live the relationship of the eternal Son with the Father, that is the phenomenon of the Holy Spirit. But not only that, also the corresponding "being in" [In-Sein] (the corresponding "dwelling in") of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ in each believer.

The mission of the Holy Spirit is not something beside the event of Incarnation, but really its increase (1 Cor 15.44 f, 2 Cor 3:17 f). For the movement of the Trinitarian God from top to bottom only culminates in the fact that Christ does not give himself away without the giving away of those who receive him. Through the mission of the Holy Spirit sinners become sons, the recipients become agents of Jesus Christ. Those who let themselves be grasped by Christ in the Holy Spirit are changing the world through the same pro-existence (Phil 2,3-5; Rom 15,1-3), which has proved to be powerful just for the reason that it was powerless in the opinion of the world. Resurrection, exaltation and mission of the Holy Spirit of the crucified Redeemer are not powerful triumphs but the opposite: the permanent presence of that pierced love which does not force anything and is just in this way stronger than death.


    {*} Prof. Dr. Karl-Heinz Menke, professor of dogmatic theology and propaedeutic at the University of Bonn


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