Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on May 22, 2017.
I was sitting in the pew of Saint Lambert’s Catholic Church listening to our priest deliver the Gospel reading for the 4th Sunday of Easter—this is rare since I am usually out in the hallway with my finicky 1 year old!—when I noticed a strange verse in the reading. St. John quotes Jesus as saying, “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father (John 14:12 New American Bible). Throughout the rest of that Mass and every day since I have pondered Jesus’ meaning. Today I want to share some of my thoughts on how I interpreted this peculiar passage!
Greater in Quantity Not Quality
According to the dictionary, the word greater is defined as large in number, notable, highly significant, and distinguished to name a few definitions. I want to highlight the first definition—large in number. It makes senses for the works of Christians done in Jesus’ name to be larger than Christ’s miraculous deeds done on Earth simply because 33 years is significantly shorter than the over 2,000 years in Church history. It is also important to read verse 12 in context with the rest of the passage.
Immediately following Jesus’ odd statement in John 14:12, he talks about the sending of the Holy Spirit after he ascends to the Father. Jesus declared, ““If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate* to be with you always, 17 the Spirit of truth,* which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you (John 14:15-17 NAB). It is through cooperation with the Third Person of the Holy Trinity that Apostles and saints are graced through the ages to produce miraculous works.
Father, Son, Holy Spirit= Distinct but Equally God
God is ultimately above humanity’s total comprehension. St. Thomas says that man must have a certain type of agnosticism about the full knowledge of God. According to John Courtney Murray in The Problem of God, “In the end, our presence to him, which is real, is a presence to the unknown; ‘to him we are united as to one unknown,’ says Aquinas (p. 71). Because of this ineffable complete understanding of God, it makes sense that some peculiar and seemingly paradoxical passages in the Scriptures exist.
John may have struggled with how to properly describe the relationship of the Trinity. He might even have shared similar questions as myself. However, despite this struggle, as a Catholic I believe John to be a trustworthy firsthand witness to the teaching of Jesus.
John makes it crystal clear in his prologue to his Gospel that though the Persons of the Trinity as Distinct they are equally God. Knowing this religious truth, when I go back to read John 14:12 I know that Jesus cannot possibly mean the works done by the Holy Spirit as greater than His works since the Son and the Holy Spirit are equally God!
Now the feast of the Holy Trinity (my favorite liturgical feast 😊) is arriving soon and I hope to be sharing more of my thoughts and reflections on the mystery of the Holy Trinity leading up to that Sunday. Until then, I will leave you to ponder Jesus’ mysterious words again, “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father”.
May we all be grateful for the gifts of knowledge and understanding given to us by the Holy Spirit and pray for a deepening of these gifts especially as we draw nearer to the Feast of the Holy Trinity
As a person who graduated with a history major for my undergraduate degree, Saint Luke has always held a special place in my academic heart. Although Saint John’s Gospel starts with a beautiful and theological exposition, nothing truly compares to the how “the beloved physician” starts his Gospel!
Know your Audience
Luke dedicates his gospel to a person named Theophilus. Scholars hold that this name may be referring to a singular person or a general audience. The reason for believing the latter possibility is because the Greek word Theophilus translates to “lover of God”. Regardless of Luke’s intention, I found it interesting and significant that he adds this dedication. Along with the dedication, Luke gives us the purpose of his writing his account. Here is the exact text of his dedication to Theophilus:
Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received (Luke 1:1-4).
From the onset of his Gospel Luke provides his sources. Relying on eyewitness testimonies, Luke is likely a second-generation Christian who had some contact with the original Twelve Apostles.
Additionally, Luke seems to take careful time to sift through these sources utilizing both his reason and gift of the Holy Spirit which inspired him. Luke says, “it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past (1:3 Revised Standard Edition). What this means is that Luke carefully examined his sources like any reasonable historian.
Lastly, Luke tells Theophilus (us- as lovers of God) the purpose of his writing. Chapter one verse four the evangelist wrote, “That you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed” ( Revised Standard Edition). Interestingly enough, the Greek word katécheó translates to mean “informed” refers to teach. Katécheó forms the basis of the English word “catechize”. Catechesis was already happening between Jesus’ Ascension and the time of Luke!
St. Luke is unique among the gospels in that his writing is the only one that specifically details his sources and authorial aim. I firmly believe that one of the reasons for the Lucan text to be included in the New Testament canon was to appeal to people who rely first and foremost on reason. People like myself crave a rationale basis for various ideas. I love St. Luke’s gospel because of its faith-filled content and intellectual appeal. I hope to discuss Luke second work, the Acts of the Apostles—especially in celebration of this Easter season!
Within the initial pages of his monograph on Christology, the emeritus pope delineates his aim in writing as simply to unite the Jesus of history with the Christ of faith (xiv). In a post-Enlightenment world, a seemingly ubiquity of scholars appear to be employing an exclusive use of historical-critical methods on the biblical texts in terms of answering the questions of faith. Not denying the usefulness of such methods, the German pope states, “The historical-critical method−let me repeat− is an indispensable tool, given the structure of Christian faith” (xvi). But it is important to understand the arena by which such a tool should be used, namely− in conjunction with and adherence to Magisterial teaching. The underlying presupposition of Benedict XVI’s Christology is a trust in the Gospels. I will later demonstrate how the retired pope maintains this stance throughout his prose.
Baptism of Jesus
Embarking on his journey toward an authentic portrait of Jesus, the former Tübingen professor presents a lucid and biblical approach to Christology in his book. Benedict XVI’s first chapter outlines the Baptism of Jesus. Here he stresses the importance of Jesus’ inaugurating his public ministry by wading in the place of sinners (p. 18). Moreover, the pope mentions the symbolism of the baptismal waters− as a sign of death and re-birth. Succinctly put by Ratzinger, “Jesus’ Baptism anticipated his death on the Cross, and the heavenly voice proclaimed an anticipation of the Resurrection” (p.23). This linkage to the Paschal Mystery is the cipher by which Benedict XVI situates the Baptism of the Lord. It is here he dismisses any liberal exegetical view that reduces this event to a mere vocational experience (pp. 23-24).
Temptation in the Desert
The second chapter in his book concerns the Temptation of Jesus. In the following pages, the German pope discusses the three temptations in depth. He compares the similarities and differences in the Matthean and Lucan accounts. Perhaps the most salient point to be taken from this section regards the second diabolical enticement. According to Benedict XVI, the Devil tries to use the Bible as a tool to tempt mankind. “The whole conversation of the second conversation of the second temptation takes the form of a dispute between two Bible scholars,” purports the pope (p. 35). Ultimately, what one can garner from this chapter is that the pope’s Christology admits to Jesus being submitted to the devil’s test like all mankind, but never succumbing to it due to his perfect obedience to the Father.
Jesus the New Moses
The following three chapters relate primarily to the content of Jesus’ teaching. With regards to the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, Benedict XVI charts various interpretations and tries to harmonize any “seemingly divergent” flow of the content of the Kingdom of God to Christ (pp. 48-49). His section on the Sermon on the Mount is rich in detail and quantitatively the pope’s second longest chapter. Here he portrays Jesus as the New Moses and describes the Beatitudes as “a sort of veiled interior biography of Jesus” (p. 74 ). Subsequently, the German pope spends some time on the Lord’s Prayer and systematically goes through the structure of the “Our Father”. Maintaining the tradition from Nicaea, Benedict XVI affirms Jesus is “Son in the strict sense− he is of one substance with the Father” (p. 138).
In chapters six and seven, Ratzinger focuses on the ecclesial structure Christ had in mind when he chose the Twelve and gives an erudite rendition of Jesus’ three most famous parables. Being the lengthiest and arguably the most sublime chapter of his monograph, Benedict XVI’s eighth chapter spends nearly seventy pages portraying the principal images in John’s Gospel. He candidly refutes any scholarship, in particular Bultmann’s, that attaches a Gnostic cipher to the Johannine text (p. 228). With careful acumen, the former pontiff lists the key passages and meanings of the images of water, vine and wine, and bread within the Fourth Gospel. He also gave an especially detailed account on the motif of shepherds and showed how Jesus is the prime Good Shepherd (pp. 275-284).
Who Exactly is Jesus?
The penultimate and final chapters represent decisive events in Jesus’ life. Marking Peter’s Confession as a pivotal act in the Gospels, Benedict XVI shows that previously people were simply guessing at Jesus’ identity (i.e. Elijah or John the Baptist) and interpret him solely in terms of the past (p. 292-293). Furthermore, it is at the Transfiguration that Peter recognizes that the messianic times have begun (p. 315). Lastly, the emeritus pope focuses on the two appellations by which Jesus referred to himself as− “Son of Man” and “Son”. He covers these titles by providing Old Testament context and delineation of New Testament sayings for the “Son of Man” and juxtaposed the ancient political referent of “Son” with Jesus’ meaning of the term (pp. 336-345).
Review of Benedict’s Analysis
Standing in lieu of the recent bifurcation of the Christ of faith from the historical Jesus, Benedict XVI’s Christology opposes this approach. His goal in writing this book was to portray Jesus in light of his communion with the Father. Benedict XVI constructed this book in the context of Scripture. I found that the German pope achieved this objective and can give a copious amount of evidence to support it.
Firstly, Benedict XVI does a masterful job of showing Jesus’ awareness of the Old Testament and how a proper understanding of God’s events in Israel’s history is fulfilled by Christ. He shows that Jesus perfects and encapsulates the tripartite Old Testament offices of priest, prophet, and king. Furthermore, the pontiff in his chapter on Beatitudes portrays Jesus’ recapitulation and perfection on the Mosaic Law.
Dovetailing from the prior point, the pope also provides implicit critiques to the one-handed nature of modern scholarship regarding Christology. He goes on to refute the possibility of the Bible being viewed in an exclusively historical way. The word of God is not limited to the space-time continuum of history. Because of this, “The saints are the true interpreters of Holy Scriptures,” the German theologian asserts (p. 78). One learns about Christ not only through academics, but an active living of the faith. A mere horizontal gaze at Jesus leads to a type of cynicism regarding his Sermon on the Mount teaching. In stark contrast to Nietzsche seeing Christ’s attitude toward the poor as a religion of resentment and envy, the emeritus pontiff rightly understands this novel teaching as God’s revelation of himself descending in love (95-97).
Interpreting Jesus’ Parables
Within the chapter on parables, Benedict XVI talks of the ever-present struggle in interpreting Christ’s parabolic messages. Once again he overtly points to the limits of historical-critical exegesis and says, “[it] cannot give us any definitive information” (184). After presenting his view to properly interpret Jesus’ words, his argument culminates by stating the hermeneutic of unlocking the parables is the Cross.
Ultimately, for Benedict, Jesus’ messages are a portent of the Paschal Mystery (p. 191). In his outline of the parable of the Good Samaritan, the former theology professor gives a laconic layout of various interpretations of Luke 15:11-32, and goes on to show an implicit Christology can be gleaned from the text through “attention to the historical context” (p. 207). This is because Jesus himself is a revelation of the Father.
Christology of B16
Along with his amicable refutations of modern scholarship, it is reading Benedict XVI’s final chapter that one can truly appreciate his contribution to Christology. Here he provides a meticulous delineation of occurrences and frequencies of the appellations Jesus attributes to himself− Son of Man and Son. With the former title, he shows its connection to the Old Testament (book of Daniel) and the latter portrays the relationship Jesus had to God. In fact, Benedict XVI shows that Mark’s Gospel alone uses this designation fourteen times and with the exception of Stephen in Acts 7:56, all references of “Son of Man” come from Jesus’ lips (pp. 321-322).
As an authentic Nicene theologian the German pope points out “Only the Son truly ‘knows’ the Father…Truly to know God presupposes communion with him [as Son]” (p. 340). Benedict XVI further fleshes out the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father in his outline of the Johannine “I AM” sayings in his concluding pages.
Finally, in brief fashion he shows how Nicaea’s term homoousios was not a Hellenistic infiltration of the faith or a jettisoning of biblical authority, but provided a stable foundation for theology and ultimately Christology (p. 355).
In sum, I found Jesus of Nazareth to be a well-written and digestible read for both lay and scholar alike. Benedict XVI remained steadfast in his goal to portray Jesus from the Bible while using historical science to augment his points. This work is a hailing back to patristic Christology which trusted the Gospels and did not separate faith from history. Finally, he provided a salubrious and professional critique to the modern approach to Christology and any student of Catholic theology should be sure to check this monograph out.