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Notification on the Book, 'Jesus Symbol of God'

by Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

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    Document Information

  • Description:
    This Notification by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith concerns the book "Jesus: Symbol of God." It warns that it makes affirmations that are contrary to a core doctrine — the divinity of Christ. The 1999 book was written by Father Roger Haight, an American Jesuit and professor of systematic theology at the Weston School of Theology, in Massachusetts. It was published by Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
  • Larger Work:
    L'Osservatore Romano
  • Pages: 8-9
  • Publisher & Date:
    Vatican, February 9, 2005

Introduction

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, after careful study, has judged that the book Jesus Symbol of God (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1999), by Father Roger Haight, S.J., contains serious doctrinal errors regarding certain fundamental truths of faith. It was therefore decided to publish this Notification in its regard, which concludes the relevant procedure for doctrinal examination.

After an initial evaluation by experts, it was decided to entrust the matter directly to the Author's Ordinary. On 14 February 2000, a series of Observations was sent to Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, General Superior of the Society of Jesus, with the request that he bring the errors in the book to the Author's attention, asking him to submit the necessary clarifications and corrections to the judgment of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (cf. Regulations for Doctrinal Examination, Ch. II).

The response of Father Roger Haight, S.J., submitted on 28 June 2000, failed to either clarify or correct the errors brought to his attention. For this reason, and in light of the book's considerable circulation, it was decided to proceed with a doctrinal examination (cf. Regulations for Doctrinal Examination, Ch. III), with particular attention given to the Author's theological method.

After an examination by the theological Consultors of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Ordinary Session of 13 February 2002 confirmed that Jesus Symbol of God contains erroneous assertions, the dissemination of which is of grave harm to the faithful. It was decided, therefore, to follow the procedure for an "examination in cases of urgency" (cf. Regulations for Doctrinal Examination, Ch. IV).

In this regard, in accordance with Art. 26 of the Regulations for Doctrinal Examination, on 22 July 2002 the General Superior of the Society of Jesus was sent a list of the book's erroneous positions and a general evaluation of its hermeneutical approach, asking him to request that Father Roger Haight, S.J., submit, within two canonical months, a clarification of his methodological approach and a correction, faithful to the teachings of the Church, of the errors contained in his book.

The Author's reply, submitted on 31 March 2003, was examined by the Ordinary Session of the Congregation on 8 October 2003. The literary form of this reply was such as to raise doubts about its authenticity, that is, if it was truly the personal response of Father Roger Haight, S.J.; he was therefore asked to submit a signed response.

A signed response was submitted on 7 January 2004. The Ordinary Session of the Congregation, on 5 May 2004, examined this response and reaffirmed the fact that the book Jesus Symbol of God contains statements contrary to truths of divine and Catholic faith that pertain to the first paragraph of the Professio fidei, concerning the pre-existence of the Word, the divinity of Jesus, the Trinity, the salvific value of the death of Jesus, the unicity and universality of the salvific mediation of Jesus and of the Church, and the Resurrection of Jesus. The negative critique included also the use of an inappropriate theological method. It was therefore deemed necessary to publish a Notification on the matter.

I. Theological method

In the Preface of his book Jesus Symbol of God, the Author explains that today theology must be done in dialogue with the postmodern world, but it also "must remain faithful to its originating revelation and consistent tradition" (p. xii), in the sense that the data of the faith constitute the norm and criteria for a theological hermeneutic. He also asserts that it is necessary to establish a "critical correlation" (cf. pp. 40-47) between these data and the modes and qualities of postmodern thought, characterized in part by a radical historical and pluralistic consciousness (cf. pp. 24, 330-334): "The tradition must be critically received into the present situation" (p. 46).

This "critical correlation", however, results, in fact, in a subordination of the content of faith to its plausibility and intelligibility in postmodern culture (cf. pp. 49-50, 127, 195, 241, 273-274, 278-282, 330-334). It is stated, for example, that because of the contemporary pluralistic consciousness, "one can no longer claim [...] Christianity as the superior religion, or Christ as the absolute center to which all other historical mediations are relative. [...] It is impossible in postmodern culture to think [...] that one religion can claim to inhabit the center into which all others are to be drawn" (p. 333).

With particular regard to the validity of dogmatic, especially Christological formulations in a postmodern cultural and linguistic context, which is different from the one in which they were composed, the Author states that these formulations should not be ignored, but neither should they be uncritically repeated, "because they do not have the same meaning in our culture as they did when they were formulated [...]. Therefore, one has no choice but to engage the classical councils and to explicitly interpret them for our own period" (p. 16). This interpretation, however, does not in fact result in doctrinal proposals that convey the immutable meaning of the dogmas as understood by the faith of the Church, nor does it clarify their meaning, enhancing understanding. The Author's interpretation results instead in a reading that is not only different from but also contrary to the true meaning of the dogmas.

With specific reference to Christology, the Author states that, in order to transcend a "naive revelational positivism" (p. 173, n. 65), it should be set within the context of a "general theory of religion in terms of religious epistemology" (p. 188). A fundamental element of this theory is the symbol as a concrete historical medium: a created reality (for example, a person, an object or an event) that makes known and present another reality, such as the transcendent reality of God, which is at the same time part of and distinct from the medium itself, and to which the medium points (cf. pp. 196-198). Symbolic language, which is structurally poetic, imaginative and figurative (cf. pp. 177, 256), expresses and produces a certain experience of God (cf. p. 11), but does not provide objective information about God himself (cf. pp. 9, 210, 282, 471).

These methodological positions lead to a seriously reductive and misleading interpretation of the doctrines of the faith, resulting in erroneous propositions. In particular, the epistemological choice of the theory of symbol, as it is understood by the Author, undermines the basis of Christological dogma, which from the New Testament onwards proclaims that Jesus of Nazareth is the Person of the divine Son/Word who became man.'

II. The pre-existence of the Word

In accord with his hermeneutical approach, the Author does not accept that there is a basis for the doctrine of the pre-existence of the Word in the New Testament, not even in the prologue of the Gospel of St John (cf. pp. 155-178), where, he asserts, the Logos is to be understood in a purely metaphorical sense (cf. p. 177). Moreover, he regards the pronouncements of the Council of Nicaea as intending only to assert that "no less than God was and is present and at work in Jesus” (p. 284; cf. p. 438), maintaining that recourse to the symbol "Logos" is to be understood simply as taken for granted,' and therefore not the object of the definition, nor plausible in a postmodern culture (cf. pp. 281, 485). The Council of Nicaea, states the Author, "employs scripture in a way that is not acceptable today", that is, as providing "a source of directly representative information, like facts or objective data, about transcendent reality" (p. 279). The dogma of Nicaea does not teach, therefore, that the eternally pre-existent Son or Logos is consubstantial with and eternally begotten of the Father. The Author proposes "an incarnational christology in which the created human being or person Jesus of Nazareth is the concrete symbol expressing the presence in history of God as Logos" (p. 439).

This interpretation is not in accord with the dogma of Nicaea, which intentionally affirms, even contrary to the cultural vision of the time, the true pre-existence of the Son/Logos of the Father, who became man, in time, for the salvation of humanity.3

III. The divinity of Jesus

The Author's erroneous position on the pre-existence of the Son/Logos of God is consistent with his likewise erroneous understanding of the doctrine on the divinity of Jesus. It is true that he uses expressions such as "Jesus must be considered divine" (p. 283) and "Jesus Christ [...] must be true God" (p. 284). These statements must be understood, however, in light of his assertions regarding Jesus as a symbolic medium: Jesus is "a finite person" (p. 205), "a human person" (p. 296), "a human being like us" (p. 205; cf. p. 428). The formula "true man and true God" is therefore reinterpreted by the Author in the sense that "true man" means that Jesus is "a human being like all others" (p. 295), "a finite human being and creature" (p. 262); whereas "true God" means that the man Jesus, as a concrete symbol, is or mediates the saving presence of God in history (cf. pp. 262, 295): only in this sense is Jesus to be considered as "truly divine or consubstantial with the God" (p. 295). The "postmodern situation in christology", says the Author, "entails a change of viewpoint that leaves the Chalcedonian problematic behind" (p. 290), precisely in the sense that the hypostatic union, or "enhypostatic" union, would be understood as "the union of no less than God as Word with the human person Jesus" (p. 442).

This interpretation of the divinity of Jesus is contrary to the faith of the Church that believes in Jesus Christ, eternal Son of God, who became man, as has been proclaimed repeatedly in various ecumenical councils and in the constant preaching of the Church.4

IV. The Holy Trinity

Coherent with his interpretation of the identity of Jesus Christ, the Author develops an erroneous Trinitarian doctrine. In his judgment the "later doctrines of an immanent Trinity [should] not be allowed to be read into New Testament teaching" (p. 474). These are to be considered as the outcome of a subsequent inculturation, which led to the hypostatization of the symbols "Logos" and "Spirit", that is to say, to considering them as "real entities" in God (cf. p. 481). As "religious symbols", "Logos" and "Spirit" represent two different historical, salvific mediations of the one God: one external, historical, in and through the symbol Jesus; the other internal, dynamic, accomplished by God's communication of self as Spirit (cf. p. 484). Such a view, which corresponds to the general theory of religious experience, leads the Author to abandon a correct understanding of the Trinity itself "that construes it as a description of a differentiated inner life of God” (p. 484). Consequently, he asserts that "notions of God as a community, ideas of hypostatizing the differentiations within God and calling them persons in such a way that they are in dialogical intercommunication with each other, militate against the first point of the doctrine itself" (p. 483), that is, "that God is single and one" (p. 482).

This interpretation of Trinitarian doctrine is erroneous and contrary to the faith regarding the oneness of God in the Trinity of Persons that the Church has proclaimed and confirmed in numerous and authoritative documents.'

V. The salvific value of the death of Jesus

In the book Jesus Symbol of God the Author asserts that "the prophetic interpretation" explains best the death of Jesus (cf. p. 86, n. 105). He also states that it is not necessary "that Jesus thought of himself as universal savior" (p. 211), and that the idea of the death of Jesus as "a sacrificial death, an atoning death, a redeeming death" is merely the result of a gradual interpretation by his followers in light of the Old Testament (cf. p. 85). It is also asserted that the traditional ecclesiastical language "of Jesus suffering for us, of being a sacrifice to God, of absorbing punishment for sin in our place, of being required to die to render satisfaction to God, hardly communicates meaningfully to our age" (p. 241). Such language is to be abandoned because "the images associated with this talk offend and even repulse postmodern sensibility and thereby form a barrier to a salutary appreciation of Jesus Christ" (p. 241).

The Author's position is in reality contrary to the doctrine of the Church, which has always held that Jesus intended his death to be for the sake of universal redemption. The Church sees in the New Testament references to salvation, in particular the words of the institution of the Eucharist, a norm of faith regarding the universal salvific value of the sacrifice of the Cross.6

VI. The unicity and universality of the salvific mediation of Jesus and of the Church

With regard to the universality of the salvific mission of Jesus, the Author states that Jesus is "normative" for Christians, but "non-constitutive" for other religious mediations (cf. p. 403). Moreover, he asserts that "God alone effects salvation and Jesus' universal mediation is not necessary" (p. 405); indeed, "God acts in the lives of human beings in a plurality of ways outside of Jesus and the Christian sphere" (p. 412). The Author insists on the necessity of moving beyond Christocentrism to theocentrism, which "cuts the necessity of binding God's salvation to Jesus of Nazareth alone" (p. 417). With regard to the universal mission of the Church, he maintains that is necessary to have "the ability to recognize other religions as mediators of God's salvation on a par with Christianity" (p. 415). Moreover, for the Author it "is impossible in post-modern culture to think that [...] one religion can claim to inhabit the center into which all others are to be drawn. These myths or metanarratives are simply gone" (p. 333).

This theological position fundamentally denies the universal salvific mission of Jesus Christ (cf. Acts 4:12; I Tm 2:4-6; Jn 14:6) and, as a consequence, the mission of the Church to announce and communicate the gift of Christ the Savior to all humanity (cf. Mt 28:19; Mk 16:15; Eph 3:8-11), both of which are given clear witness in the New Testament and have always been proclaimed as the faith of the Church, even in recent Documents.'

VII. The Resurrection of Jesus

The Author's presentation of the Resurrection of Jesus is guided by his understanding of theological and biblical language as "symbolic of experience that is historically mediated" (p. 131), as well as by the principle that "one should ordinarily not expect to have happened in the past what is presumed or proven impossible today" (p. 127). Understood in this way, the Resurrection is described as the affirmation that "Jesus is ontologically alive as an individual within the sphere of God [...], God's declaration that Jesus' life is a true revelation of God and an authentic human existence" (p. 151; cf. p. 124); it is a "transcendent reality that can only be appreciated by faith-hope" (p. 126). The disciples, after the death of Jesus, remembered and reflected upon his life and message, in particular his revelation of God as good, loving, concerned about human existence and saving. This remembering that "what God begins in love, because of the complete boundlessness of that love, continues to exist in that love, thus overcoming the power and finality of death" (p. 147) coupled with an initiative of God as Spirit, gradually gave birth to this new belief in the Resurrection, that is, that Jesus was alive and exalted within God's saving power (cf. p. 146). Moreover, according to the Author's interpretation, "the historicity of the empty tomb and appearance narratives is not essential to resurrection faith-hope" (p. 147, n. 54; cf. pp. 124, 134). Rather, these stories "are ways of expressing and teaching the content of a faith already formed" (p. 145).

The Author's interpretation leads to a position which is incompatible with the Church's doctrine. It is advanced on the basis of erroneous assumptions, and not on the witness of the New Testament, according to which the appearances of the Risen Lord and the empty tomb are the foundation of the faith of the disciples in the Resurrection of Christ, and not vice versa.

Conclusion

In publishing this Notification, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is obliged to declare that the above-mentioned assertions contained in the book Jesus Symbol of God by Father Roger Haight, S.J., are judged to be serious doctrinal errors contrary to the divine and catholic faith of the Church. As a consequence, until such, time as his positions are corrected to be, in complete conformity with the doctrine of the Church, the Author may not teach Catholic theology.

The Supreme Pontiff John Paul II, at the Audience granted to the under-signed Cardinal Prefect, approved this Notification, adopted in the Ordinary Session of this Congregation, and ordered it to be published.

Rome, from the Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 13 December 2004, the Memorial of Saint Lucy, Virgin and Martyr.

JOSEPH Card. RATZINGER
Prefect

ANGELO AMATO, S.D.B.
Titular Archbishop of Sila
Secretary

1 Cf. Concilium Nicaenum, Professio fidei: DH 125; Concilium Chalcedonense, Professio fidei: DH 301, 302; Concilium Constantinopolitanum II, Canones: DH 424, 426.

2 The Author speaks of the "hypostatization" and of the "hypostasis" of the Logos and of the Spirit, which he understands as referring to how, in the language of the Hellenistic Church, these two biblical metaphors had subsequently become real entities (cf. p. 475).

3 Cf. Concilium Nicaenum, Professio fidei: DH 125. The Nicene confession, confirmed at other ecumenical councils (cf. Concilium Constantinopolitanum I, Professio fidei: DH 150; Concilium Chalcedonense, Professio fidei: DH 301, 302), constitutes the foundation of the professions of faith of all the different Christian denominations.

4 Cf. Concilium Nicaenum, Professio fidei: DH 125; Concilium Constantinopolitanum I, Professio fidei: DH 150; Concilium Chalcedonense, Professio fidei: DH 301, 302.

5 Cf. Concilium Constantinopolitanum I, Professio fidei: DH 150; Quicumque: DH 75; Synodus Toletana XI, Professio fidei: DH 525-532; Synodus Toletana XVI, Professio fidei: DH 568-573; Concilium Lateranense IV, Professio fidei: DH 803-805; Concilium Florentinum, Decretum pro lacobitis: DH 1330-1331; Concilium Vaticanum II, Const. Dogm. Lumen Gentium, nn. 2-4.

6 Cf. Concilium Nicaenum, Professio fidei: DH 125; Concilium Tridentinurn, Decretum de lustificatione: DH 1522, 1523; De Poenitentia: DH 1690; De Sacrificio Missae: DH 1740; Concilium Vaticanum II, Const. Dogm. Lumen Gentium, rm. 3, 5, 9; Const. Pastor. Gaudium et Spes, n. 22; Ioannes Paulus II, Litt. Encycl. Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 12.

7 Cf. Innocentius XI, Const. Cum Occasione, n. 5: DH 2005; Sanctum Officium, Decr. Errores Iansenistaruni, n. 4: DH 2304; Concilium Vaticanum II, Const. Dogm. Lumen Gentium, n. 8; Const. Pastor. Gaudium et Spes, n. 22; Decr. Ad Gentes, n. 3; Ioannes Paulus II, Litt. Encycl. Redemptoris Missio, nn. 4-6; Congregatio pro Doctrina Fidei; Decl. Dominus Jesus, rm. 13-15. With regard to the universality of the mission of the Church, cf. Lumen Gentium, nn. 13, 17; Ad Gentes, n. 7; Redemptoris Missio, no. 9-11; Dominus Jesus, nn. 20-22.

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