Saturday, April 28, 2007

Is Jesus the Symbol of God?

What follows is a paper I wrote for my Christology class on the debate that took place in the pages of Commonweal over Cavadini's review of the book Jesus Symbol of God, by Roger Haight. The numbers in parenthesese are in-text citations to the page numbers of Cavadini's review. The numbers in brackets are references to the footnotes, which in this case will appear at the end of the paper. This paper hasn't been graded yet, so I don't know how good it is. I would appreciate any feedback.

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world....have mercy on us.

Pax Christi,
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Religious Symbolism and the Awesome Claim of Christianity
“When this poetic christology [of John’s Prologue] is interpreted according to its genre, it makes the human spirit soar with it. It brings to christology the power of sacrality; it recalls the awesome claim of Christian faith that it is God who is encountered in Jesus, in the flesh, so that God is truly revealed in him.”[1]
This, according to Roger Haight, is what makes the Christian faith so extraordinary: it makes the bold assertion that God is encountered and revealed in Jesus. In his book Jesus Symbol of God, Haight tells us, as the title indicates, that in revealing God to the people and in bringing to them a true encounter of God, Jesus is the symbol of God. But, what of the conciliar statements of the early Church, those that state that Jesus is God?[2] Are these two formulations the same? Do they both articulate the “awesome claim of Christianity”?

John Cavadini, in his review of Haight’s book for Commonweal, ultimately concludes that the language of symbol, as it is defined and utilized by Haight, is inadequate at effectively expressing the truth about Jesus Christ. “To call Jesus a ‘symbol’ is to rule out any way of saying that ‘Jesus is God’” (2). According to Cavadini, this makes Haight’s “awesome claim” not so awesome at all. “If Jesus is merely a symbol, I have no burning reason to invest the time and energy it takes to pass this faith on to children…I see no particularly urgent reason to take up my cross and follow a symbol (or even to teach for one)” (3-4).

In response to this review, many professional (and amateur) theologians wrote letters to Commonweal in defense of Haight and his use of symbol. Terrance W. Tilley writes, “I find that the reviewer seriously misreads Haight on ‘symbol’” (5). Peter A. Fitzpatrick thinks “John Cavadini really treats symbol as basically synonymous with sign, and this allows him to dismiss Haight’s book so summarily” (6). Franz Josef van Beeck is even so bold as to declare “nowhere does the magisterium teach: ‘Jesus is God’” (8).

As is readily apparent, the entire debate spawned by Cavadini’s review centers around Haight’s use of symbol as a category that adequately construes the truth of Jesus Christ as it was experienced by the early Church and by Christians still today. Has Haight truly been misread and misunderstood? Is his claim the claim of the early Church? The goal of this paper is to answer these questions by engaging the arguments presented in the debate, as well as Haight’s own explanation and use of symbol in his book Jesus Symbol of God.

In Terrance W. Tilley’s letter to the editor, he writes: “Cavadini thinks that Haight construes Jesus as merely a symbol of God that merely mediates God. This is misleading” (5). Is it? In many places, Haight says this very thing:
  • “Third, for Christianity, Jesus is the central mediation of God in history.”[3]
  • “Therefore, in a precise sense that is yet to be determined, Jesus is the mediation of God’s presence to Christianity.”[4]
  • “At this level Jesus begins to appear as a mediating symbol and a response to fundamental religious questions.”[5]
  • “Thus one can see…this formal genetic structure of Jesus being the historical mediation of God to human existence. Let this serve as a first formal characterization of the christological approach of this book.”[6]
It is clear from these statements that Haight sees Jesus as mediating God to the people. In order to circumvent the charge of “mere mediation,” Tilley goes on to assert that “Cavadini is wrong to say that a symbol ‘by definition mediates something else’” (6) and that the more profound symbolism that Avery Dulles proposes in Models of Revelation is what Haight has in mind (5-6).

First of all, in saying that a symbol “by definition mediates something else,” Cavadini is again simply using Haight’s own explanations:
  • “A symbol is that through which something other than itself is known. A symbol mediates awareness of something else.”[7]
  • “A symbol mediates something other than itself by drawing or leading beyond itself to a deeper or higher truth.”[8]
  • “A symbol may be understood as something that mediates something other than itself. A symbol makes present something else.”[9]
Of course, a symbol does many other things too.[10] But, what is important to note here is that, if a symbol mediates something other than itself, and Jesus mediates God, then it simply cannot follow from this that Jesus is God, regardless of how present God may be in Jesus. As Cavadini explains:
“I do not hide the possibility that for Haight ‘it is truly God that is encountered in Jesus’; my review even concedes the possibility that for Haight, Jesus the symbol ‘makes God absolutely and fully present.’ But do we have sufficient grounds for concluding, therefore, that Jesus is God?” (7)
The answer, of course, is no. A symbol cannot be that which it mediates if the thing being mediated is something other than the symbol doing the mediating.

As for Tilley’s reference to Models of Revelation, the symbolism of Dulles is of a different kind then that which is defined and utilized by Haight. Typically, Haight will say everything but “Jesus is God”[11] and, as we have already seen, his category of symbol actually precludes such a statement. But, Dulles’ language of symbol is such that it allows Jesus to actually be God.

The separation between the symbol and the thing symbolized (or between the medium and the thing mediated) that is present in Haight’s philosophy of symbol either does not exist in Dulles’ framework, or it is not so substantial as to prevent him from echoing the essence of the early conciliar statements. “In Christ…the manifestation and that which is manifested ontologically coincide. The man Jesus Christ is both the symbol and the incarnation of the eternal Logos, who communicates himself by becoming fully human without ceasing to be divine.”[12]

This is in virtue of Jesus being a presentative symbol. “Inasmuch as Jesus is the Incarnate Word, his humanity is something more than a representative symbol. Rather, it is a presentative symbol—one in which the God who is symbolized is present and operative, somewhat as a human person is present in the body and its gestures.”[13] He also quotes Rahner, who says, “The symbol is the reality, constituted by the thing symbolized as an inner moment of itself, which reveals and proclaims the thing symbolized, and is itself full of the thing symbolized, being its concrete form of existence.”[14] Cavadini is most likely aware of all of this, because in his own response to Tilley, he says, “the ideas Tilley cites from Dulles would indeed be reassuring if they were in Haight’s book; Haight seems actually to depart from Dulles, who says: ‘Symbols do not necessarily point to things strictly other than themselves’” (7).

The next critical response to Cavadini’s review is from Peter A. Fitzpatrick. His claim is that if Cavadini was only more familiar with Sandra Schneiders’ treatment of symbol than he would have given Haight a much more positive review. It is important then to review how Schneiders defines “symbol” and to determine if Cavadini betrays an ignorance of this view.

According to Fitzpatrick, “symbol” is defined by Schneiders as “a sensible reality which renders present to and involves a person objectively in a transforming experience of transcendent reality. Of the five elements of this definition, only the first is common to both sign and symbol” (6). Fitzpatrick thinks that once we understand a symbol in this way it is easier to see that Haight has given us more than “a merely human Jesus” (6). But has he? What is so extraordinary about saying that Jesus is a sensible reality which renders present to and involves a person objectively in a transforming experience of transcendent reality?

Haight’s own definition is very similar to this, and he states that his Christology is constructed in a way that is specifically meant to accommodate the religious pluralism that exists in our post-modern world.[15] In other words, it is not meant to be extraordinary at all, in the sense of making claims about Jesus that would separate him or make him distinct from the mediations of God that exist in the other world religions. In fact, that is Cavadini’s main point of contention:
“My point was carefully controlled, namely, that one particular definition of symbol (Haight’s), used in one particular way (of Jesus, to explain the central Christian claim about him), ends up making Jesus ‘merely a symbol’ because the definition cannot adequately distinguish Jesus, whom the grammar of Christian faith calls ‘God,’ from any other symbol of God, living or inanimate, in Christianity or any other religion…” (9).
Cavadini knows full well what Haight (and incidently Schneiders) believes about the nature of symbol. His point is that it doesn’t matter. Under Haight’s paradigm, the only distinctive quality of Jesus is that he happens to be the object of Christian worship and not Jewish, Islamic, or Buddhist worship. Christians have their mediation of God, but Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists have theirs too.[16] If Jesus is not God at a true and ontological level then he is in fact merely human and Christianity is no different from the other world religions.

Finally, there is perhaps the most striking response to Cavadini, that of Franz Josef van Beek, S.J. Here is the crux of his letter to the editor:
“Whatever a Christian says about Christ is essentially specified by the profession of an inextricable and mutual bond between Jesus Christ and the Living God. Accordingly, nowhere does the magisterium teach: ‘Jesus is God’; no Catholic theologian can afford to reduce what the creed says to something a little more manageable for debate” (8).
Haight, while not quite so blunt, essentially says the same thing. According to him, the councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon do not say, “Jesus is God.” Such a formulation is, after all, indicative of metaphysical modes of thought particular to the early Church. What Haight is after is the existential truth that lies behind such formulations. He asserts that the material content that is expressed or mediated by the words “Jesus is God” is much more nuanced than what is derived from a literal interpretation of the phrase.

After outlining the principles and logic of his interpretation of these councils, Haight tells us what they really mean. When Nicaea states that Jesus Christ is “from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father…”[17] what this really means is that “God was and is present and at work in Jesus. This means that the God encountered in Jesus for our salvation is truly God.”[18] Furthermore, “Nicaea cannot represent a movement of thought from the nature of God to the divine character of Jesus.”[19] When Chalcedon states that Jesus Christ is “the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity…consubstantial with the Father as regards his divinity, and the same consubstantial with us as regards his humanity,”[20] this is actually an articulation of three truths:
  • Within and through the fully human existence of Jesus of Nazareth, no less than God is present and active for human salvation.
  • The formula of two natures in one person and the description of one who, although his is truly divine or consubstantial with God is also truly human and consubstantial with us, recovers Jesus as a human being.
  • These two points together express the dialectical structure of Jesus as a historical symbol of God’s salvation of humankind.[21]

According to Haight, “the doctrine of the two natures corresponds to the dialectical structure of Jesus as symbol of God.”[22] You can expect similar conciliar statements to be similarly interpreted. The key question is this: Has Haight adequately presented the meaning intended by the conciliar fathers?

This leads us back to the beginning, back to the “awesome claim of Christianity.” Haight asserts that it can only be this: Jesus is the symbol of God. He is afraid that if we say that Jesus is God, or make Jesus the object of faith, then we will be denying or at least diminishing the fact that Jesus was a real human being.[23] Of course, Haight is also interested in upholding the utterly mysterious and other-wordly transcendence of God.[24] Furthermore, in his interest to accommodate our religiously pluralistic society, he finds it necessary to avoid any claims about Jesus that create division among men, who already suffer from oppressive and restrictive sociopolitical structures all over the world.[25] Finally, as a theologian, it is imperative to him that the apostolic experience of Jesus Christ be communicated to a post-modern audience.[26] Metaphysical formulations and slavishly literal interpretations of Scripture simply do not work anymore. Haight is convinced that calling Jesus “the symbol of God” is the only way to address all of these concerns and still be faithful to the tradition of the Church.

But, as we have seen, the implications of this category of symbol when applied to Jesus are simply too great to be accepted. Ultimately, they deny the true claim of Christianity, the very “grammar of Christianity” (9), the wonderful and inexhaustible mystery for which thousands of saints have suffered and died: Jesus is God. We can always quibble with words, and with how Scripture passages and conciliar statements should be interpreted. But, there is simply no debating the witness of a man’s life, with how his actions illustrate what he believes to be true.

The saints and the fathers of the early Church did not die for a symbol. Such an idea had no place in their Christology.[27] Men don’t give latria worship to a symbol either. Men give their worship and their lives to their God. The saints, martyrs, and council Fathers of the early Church gave these gifts unequivocally to Jesus Christ, that same man who walked with the apostles during his lifetime and appeared to them after his death.

Their veneration of the sites of his Passion, and their devotion to the various wounds he incurred and to the very face of Jesus shows their belief in his humanity. Their prayers to him, their predication of Godly attributes to him, and their adoration of him in the Holy Eucharist witness to their belief in his true divinity. For almost 1,500 years Christians in the East have prayed “the Jesus Prayer”: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.[28] All of this makes it more readily apparent that, when Paul speaks of “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ”[29] and when the Council of Nicaea refers to Jesus as “God from God, light from light, true God from true God,”[30] they mean what they say and they say what they mean.
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[1] Roger Haight, Jesus Symbol of God (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005), 178.
[2] Jesus Christ is “true God from true God” (Council of Nicaea), “perfect God and perfect man” (Council of Ephesus), “the same truly God and truly man” (Council of Chalcedon), “true God, one of the holy Trinity” (Third Council of Constantinople). All conciliar statements are taken from Norman P. Tanner, ed., Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, vol. 1, Nicaea I to Lateran V (Washington, DC: Sheed & Ward and Georgetown University Press, 1990).
[3] Haight, Symbol of God, 7.
[4] Ibid., 14.
[5] Ibid., 86.
[6] Ibid., 40.
[7] Ibid., 8.
[8] Ibid., 11.
[9] Ibid., 197.
[10] Haight lists six characteristics of the religious symbol: it demands participation, it mediates meaning by activating the mind, it participates in and points to transcendence, it reveals the essence of human existence, is multivalent in its structure, and has a dialectical character. Ibid., 200-201.
[11] “God is encountered in Jesus; God is revealed in Jesus; God is like Jesus; the wisdom of God is made manifest in Jesus; Jesus is the wisdom of God.” Ibid., 173.
[12] Avery Dulles, Models of Revelation (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1983), 158.
[13] Avery Dulles, “The Symbolic Structure of Revelation,” Theological Studies 41 (1980): 68.
[14] Karl Rahner, “The Theology of the Symbol,” Theological Investigations 4 (1966): 251, quoted in Dulles, Models of Revelation, 157.
[15] Haight, Symbol of God, 206.
[16] “The primary mediation of God’s presence and salvation for Christianity is the person of Jesus of Nazareth. But the fundamental mediation of God’s salvific presence in other religions need not be a person…Religions other than Christianity truly and really mediate God’s presence…” Ibid., 415-416.
[17] Tanner, Decrees, 5.
[18] Haight, Symbol of God, 284.
[19] Ibid., 282.
[20] Tanner, Decrees, 86.
[21] Haight, Symbol of God, 295.
[22] Ibid., 205.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Ibid., 114-115, 199.
[25] Ibid., 397-398.
[26] Ibid., 58-59.
[27] “The idea of Christ as symbol is not a part of classical Christology.” Dulles, Models of Revelation, 156.
[28] “The history of the Jesus Prayer goes back, as far as we know, to the early sixth century, with Diadochos, who taught that repetition of the prayer leads to inner stillness. Even earlier John Cassian recommended this type of prayer. In the fourth century Egypt, in Nitria, short ‘arrow’ prayers were practiced.” Albert S. Rossi, “Saying the Jesus Prayer,” St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary [Internet]; available from; accessed 19 April 2007.
[29] Tit. 2:13 RSV (Revised Standard Version).
[30] Tanner, Decrees, 5.


  1. Egads, did Franz Josef van Beeck actually say that “nowhere does the magisterium teach: ‘Jesus is God’” What does he think the homoousion means? This is so embarrassing. It's hard to believe that a Catholic theologian could write such nonsense.

  2. BTW, Cavadini's review of Haight can be found here

  3. Pontificator...........yup, he said it. I couldn't believe it when I read it, but perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise. Contemporary Christology thinks it's too "ignorant" to say "Jesus is God." "Educated" people know better than to say something so antiquated and metaphysical.


    Thanks for the link, bro.

    Pax Christi,

  4. Well, maybe it's true that the magesterium has never stated the exact phrase "Jesus is God." Talk about a technicality. Maybe the Pope's next encyclical should be titled exactly that. :)

    I didn't have time to read the whole thing, but this part was interesting:

    He is afraid that if we say that Jesus is God, or make Jesus the object of faith, then we will be denying or at least diminishing the fact that Jesus was a real human being.

    Seems like this is a common misconception that often comes up in debates about Mary. Some people cannot imagine a human as anything other than a sinner under Adam's curse. They equate sinlessness with divinity, so they think if Mary was sinless, then she was also divine; since she is human and not divine, she must be a sinner. The same logic applied to Jesus suggests that if Jesus is divine, then he couldn't be human.

    Hmm... so this is apparently the same old debate from the Council of Nicea, which gave us "true God from true God ... one in being with the Father," which is about a explicit as saying "Jesus is God."

  5. 2nd Peter 1:1: Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ

    Perhaps though, Jesus could be thought of as both icon and prototype? The humanity of Jesus as a perfect image of the deity of Jesus, and visa-versa. But if Haight isn't meaning something like this (and I havent read the book) then he is begining to sound like a liberal Episcopalian :)

    Bryan @ THEOdyssey

  6. Perhaps you could at least learn to spell Cavadini's name right--and Jacon: it's magisterium!

  7. Anon,

    Perhaps you could at least learn to spell Jason's name right ;)

    Better still, perhaps you could step out from behind your anonymity and actually engage the arguments that were made in the paper.

  8. At least I got that "Jesus is God" part right... that's one class I can snooze through in seminary.

  9. Oh no, please pay attention! It's much more complicated than you might think. Christology is the most important class you will ever take. EVER.

  10. Figured you'd would assume I was kidding :)

  11. "Accordingly, nowhere does the magisterium teach: "Jesus is God"; no Catholic theologian can afford to reduce what the creed says to something a little more manageable for purposes of debate."

    For the proper context, please see

  12. Unfortunately, the context does not save that statement, and Cavidini responds to it adroitly when he says:

    If "true God from true God" is not sufficient (though I'm not sure why it would not be), there is the formula of Chalcedon ("Our Lord Jesus Christ is true God and true man"), Leo's Tome, ("Who is true God, and the same is true man"), and the Sixth Ecumenical Council ("Our Lord Jesus Christ is true God, our God, One of the Holy Trinity"). There are other authorities as well, but these should suffice.

    Is it "unworthy of a Catholic theologian to write 'mere symbol'"? Only if in an unqualified, absolute way. My point was carefully controlled, namely, that one particular definition of symbol (Haight's), used in one particular way (of Jesus, to explain the central Christian claim about him), ends up making Jesus "merely a symbol" because the definition cannot adequately distinguish Jesus, whom the grammar of Christian faith calls "God," from any other symbol of God, living or inanimate, in Christianity or any other religion, and in fact succeeds only in separating "Jesus" from "God."

    As for the charge of rationalism, my review explicitly defends the way in which faith should restructure the categories of reason, and in particular defends mysteries which Haight's Christology sets aside (the mystery of the Theotokos, and of God's suffering as a human being in time), but which the traditional formulas are meant to preserve.

    I will be happy to debate the claims of my review in more detail with Father van Beeck when he has read the book that elicited them.

    Cavadini's sentiments are my own.

    Pax Christi,


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