Where do we find what Christians believe about Christ?

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Clearly we can know things certain things about Jesus of Nazareth in a historical sense, as no serious historian will tell you such a man never walked the earth; indeed the many TV specials that seem to crop up every other year or so claiming to portray the ‘real’ Jesus of history testify to the popularity of the man and the question of who he was. Yet such treatments usually don’t get us very close to what Christians believe about him. For as St. Paul says, these things are “spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14). No, we’re better off looking to the answer that emerges when Christ himself asks the question. At one particularly poignant moment in their time together, Jesus asked his disciples this very question: “‘Who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘blessed are you, Simon son of John! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.’” (Mt 16:15-17).

When looking for what Christians believe about Jesus Christ, there is of course no better place to begin than the Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament, where we have Jesus proclaimed not just as a young community organizer or revolutionary rabbi from an obscure place called Galilee, but as the Anointed One (Christ/Messiah), the Son of the living God. As I understand it, the Gospel stories mostly tell us who Jesus was (and has been and ever will be), and the Epistles are especially good at telling us how Jesus relates to our lives. The Bible believes both views are required – both the “who” and the “so what” of Jesus – because “the demons also believe, and tremble” (James 2:19). The demons might ‘believe’ in a sense, but they don’t really know Jesus. Indeed, only by exploring the ‘so what’ of Jesus so we come to know him; and to know him is to trust and love him.

We can learn quite a bit about Jesus by looking to the testimony of generations past who loved and knew the risen Christ. Probably the most concise summaries are found in the ancient creeds of the Church, especially the Nicene and Apostles Creeds, the roots of which go back to the earliest days of the Church’s life. Fuller fundamental reflections on the identity and ‘so what’ of Christ are found in the writings of best of the ancient church, most especially in the writings of ancient saints such as St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Irenaeus of Lyon, and perhaps best of all in the great work by St. Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation

But we need not look only to the past to find what we believe, for as these ancient Christians knew themselves, Christ is the God of the living, not of the dead (Mk 12:27). For Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8), and the same Holy Spirit that guided them into deeper love and knowledge of Jesus is the very same one that leads us to the know him today (John 16:13). To know what Christians believe about Jesus, and to love and know him for oneself, one simply has to pay attention on Sunday, where the ancient creeds and prayers of the Church are still said today by Christians of all colors and ages and shapes and sizes; where we not only remember and savor what we believe about Christ, but where we also meet the living Christ for ourselves in the sacrament of Holy Communion, and most of all within ourselves when we abide in his love: “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (Jn 14:20-21; see also Jn 15:1-11 and 1 Cor 3:16).

So the best way to learn what Christians believe about Christ is to meet him for oneself, to meet him and come to love him, whereby we come to know him as he is. And when we begin to grow in this loving knowledge, our eyes are opened and we begin to see and learn about Jesus in yet other ways, most notably in the poor, the afflicted, and the suffering; we learn much about our Lord by serving ‘the least of these’ (Mt 25:31f). And there’s also nothing quite like meeting Christ in a fellow Christian, a brother or sister who has applied themselves to the identity of Christ and joins us both in seeking Christ within and in the ‘least of these’, together becoming one in the Holy Spirit, “as he and the Father are one” (Jn 17:20-26).

Coming to know Christ not just as Jesus of Nazareth but as the Church knows him, as Christ, the Son of the living God, is a wonderful thing; but we only come to such knowledge of Jesus by the grace of God, that is, as a gift from God. As Christ taught the crowds, “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt 5:8). And our hearts are only made pure through the work of the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5; Ps 51:1-12). So let us all hear the words of Paul, praying on our behalf, and learn to pray this apostolic prayer for both ourselves and others:

I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses all knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph 3:14-19).


Who is the Holy Spirit?

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In his 2008 address to young people at World Youth Day, Pope Benedict XVI suggested that the Holy Spirit is “in some ways the neglected person of the Blessed Trinity,” adding that a clear understanding of the Spirit “almost seems beyond our grasp.” One can certainly understand the reasoning behind the pontiff’s theological “hot take”: Father and Son are relational terms that are easily understood; the language that the Scriptures ascribe to the Spirit’s person and work varies considerably (wind, breath, fire, water, tongues, etc.); and it remains difficult to sketch a systematic account of that which is called “Spirit.” It’s easy to see how one could get lost in the theological weeds with discussions on the Spirit.

But this is not to suggest that the Church has been silent on the issue altogether. Rather, the Christian archive is replete with substantial reflections on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, some of the more significant contributions being St. Basil’s De Spiritu Sancto, St. Augustine’s De Trinitae, and of course the Athanasian Creed (a topic covered in this post: http://edod.org/theology-matters/what-is-the-athanasian-creed/).[i]

Our own Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer, 1979 answers the question—“Who is the Holy Spirit?”—with the concise but wonderfully dense answer—“The Holy Spirit is the Third Person of the Trinity, God at work in the world and in the Church even now” (p. 852). This succinct definition summarizes what the Church has said about the Spirit’s work ad intra and ad extra, i.e. how the Spirit relates to the Father and the Son within the LORD’s self, and how the Spirit relates to creation. First, it’s important to note, as I’m sure other blog posts on the topic have done, that the Spirit is not called “third” in order to designate a lesser status for the Spirit. Rather, the Holy Spirit is “consubstantial, co-equal, and co-eternal with, the Father and the Son, and in the fullest sense God.”[ii] The Spirit is the LORD, just as the Father is the LORD and is the LORD.

Second, the Catechism’s definition helpfully associates who the Spirit is with what the Spirit does—“God at work in the world.” The Catechism is thoroughly Augustinian in this regard, as Augustine highlighted several key insights into the relatedness of the Spirit’s person and work. In both his study on the First Epistle of John and the Trinity (De Trinitate), Augustine contends that the Holy Spirit is abiding love itself. While it is certainly the case that John’s words “God is love” refer to Godhead as a whole, Augustine suggests that it also represents a “particular characteristic of the Holy Spirit.”[iii] In his study of 1 John 4:16 (“whoever abides in love remains in God and God in him”), he further expounds on this pneumatological delight: It is the Spirit that makes us “remain in God and God in us; yet it is love that effects this. The Spirit therefore is God as love!”[iv]

 Another way in which the person of the Spirit spills over into, and is intimately connected with, the work of the Spirit is notion of the Spirit as unity. His reasoning goes something like this: The two words “holy” and “spirit” denote the divinity of God, which is shared by the Father and the Son, i.e. their communion. Since, therefore, the distinctive characteristic of the Holy Spirit is to be what is shared between the Father and the Son, it can be said that the Spirit’s particular quality is unity.[v] It is this “Spirit as unity” about which St. Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 12: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” It is by the Spirit that Christians are united to one another and to Christ.

Finally, Augustine suggests that the Gospel of John reveals the Holy Spirit as “God’s gift” in Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman.[vi] Jesus tells the woman that he will give living water which will result in eternal life.[vii] Several chapters later, the Gospel tells us that this living water is actually the Spirit, whom Jesus was to send after his ascension.[viii] Augustine therefore concludes that the Holy Spirit is the LORD sharing the LORD’s Self with us as gift.[ix]

These characteristics of the Spirit, elucidated by Augustine—Spirit as love, Spirit as unity, Spirit as gift—remind us that God is at work in the world, so that the world would be reconciled to Him, and that we might be “knit together in love.”[x]



[i] I would commend them all to your study, dear reader, as they will doubtless enrich your theology and vivify your worship.

[ii] The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (3 rev. ed.), ed. F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingston, Oxford University Press, 2005.

[iii] “VIGIL WITH THE YOUNG PEOPLE: ADDRESS OF HIS HOLINESS BENEDICT” XVI,” http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/speeches/2008/july/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20080719_vigil.html

[iv] De Trinitate, 15.17.31

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.; De Trinitate, 15, 18, 32

[vii] John 4:4-26

[viii] John 7:39.

[ix] Vigil.

[x] Colossians 2:2

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Priests from throughout the diocese explore religious topics with depth and nuance.