Some Fundamental Principles of Catholic Theology

Doug McManaman
Date: Fall, 2003
Reproduced with Permission

Theology and the Proclamation of the Kingdom of God

St. Anselm,a great theologian and philosopher of the 11th century, coined the phrase "fides quaerens intellectum" (faith seeking understanding). This is precisely what theology is: faith seeking understanding. As such, faith is the starting point of theology, in contrast to philosophy, which has as its starting point principles grasped by the natural light of reason. Thus, the articles of faith -- the truths revealed by God in Sacred Scripture -- are the first principles of the science of sacred theology. That is why in theology, the argument from authority is the strongest argument. In philosophy, however, the argument from authority is the weakest of all arguments. For example, to argue that "the soul is the substantial form of the body because Aristotle says so" is very weak.. But the theological argument that "in baptism we enter into Christ's death, because St. Paul says so in the sixth chapter of his letter to the Romans," is the strongest argument one can make in theology. For the authority we are appealing to is God, who is Truth; and Scripture is inspired by God (1 Tim 3, 16). Theology thus works from the top down (from principles revealed by God and held by faith), while philosophy works from the bottom up (from first principles grasped by the natural light of reason).

But philosophy is a necessary tool and a useful "handmaiden" of theology. If we do not understand the basics of human reasoning, we are bound to make all sorts of mistakes when doing theology, and as St. Thomas, quoting Aristotle, points out: "a slight initial error eventually grows to vast proportions" (On Being and Essence, Prologue). But the theological virtue of faith is the sine qua non of theology. If a person does not believe in the claims of Christ, if a person does not believe the essential message of Christ's proclamation of the kingdom, then it is not possible to do theology, understand it or appreciate it.

What is this message of Christ's proclamation of the kingdom of God? This is a good place to start. The first words out of Jesus' mouth at the start of his public ministry were "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mk 1, 15). Very early on Jesus points out that the kingdom of heaven belongs to "the poor in spirit" (Mt, 5, 3), that is, to those who recognize their utter need for God. And the very notion of the "kingdom of God" is at the heart of all his parables. The meaning of "kingdom of God" is not easy to contain in a simple definition, but let's begin with an analogy from the political sphere.

A kingdom has nations under its dominion, and it is ruled ultimately by a king. Israel achieved the status of a kingdom, and it was the hope of the Jews that the Messiah would raise Israel to the status of a kingdom once again, with other nations subjugated and under its rule. And so a kingdom is established over and against an already existing kingdom, for example the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, or Romans. Historically, kingdoms have been established through war. The victors are thereby delivered from subjugation, that is, from slavery to the order of the fallen kingdom.

From a reading of the New Testament Scriptures, it is very clear that Jesus came to establish a kingdom. Hence, he was at war. But who was his enemy? Contrary to the expectations of his disciples, Jesus did not come to re-establish the kingdom of Israel: "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" He answered them, "It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority" (Acts 1, 6). The disciples had a difficult time understanding this:

"From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,and be killed and on the third day be raised. Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, "God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you." He turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do" (Mt 16, 21-23).

In short, the Roman Empire was not Christ's enemy. It fell in the year 476 AD. Christ's enemy was far more ominous, and it was an enemy that man could not hope to defeat. Christ came to deliver man not from the slavery of a political regime, but from the slavery of sin and the dominion of death. Christ came to establish the kingdom of God over and against the kingdom of darkness. To understand this, we must return to one of the most important parts of Scripture, the allegorical account of the fall of man in the book of Genesis.

Angels and the Fall of Man

When reading the Scriptures, we must keep in mind that there is a distinction between an assertion and a proposition. What is asserted in Scripture is not always easy to discern, and neither is it something that can be fully explained from one angle alone. A Catholic relies on three sources in order to understand what is being asserted in Scripture, and these sources are historical tradition, the teaching office of the Church, and the entire context of the Scriptures themselves. Taking this allegory in Genesis literally inevitably misses the deeper theological meaning underlying it. From the point of view of historical tradition and the teaching office of the Church, the story of the fall of man was never proposed as a literal account, but an allegory that asserts a great deal about the fallen human condition.

We are all familiar with the story of the Fall, so there is no need to repeat it here. But the opening line speaks of "the serpent", which is "most cunning". One cannot enter into play with a serpent as one can play with a dog or cat. They are not capable of relating through play, and human beings seem to have a natural aversion to them. In this story, "the serpent" refers not to a literal animal, but to a personal being who is utterly devoid of play, one filled with a spirit of malice. For a person is an individual substance of a rational nature, but an animal, such as a lizard or snake, is not intelligent. The serpent in this story is intelligent and is a symbolic representation of a preternatural being. Let's focus for a moment on angels in order to more fully appreciate the very mission of Christ.

The word "preternatural" simply means "outside of nature". Man is the highest creature within the physical (natural) universe. He is the only creature in the universe who exists in the image andlikeness of God (Gn 1, 26), that is, in the image of knowledge and love (mind and heart). Every other living creature is governed not by reason, but by a more or less sophisticated internal sense, the estimative sense, otherwise known as instinct. But even though man is the highest creature in the physical (natural) hierarchy of being, he is the lowest being on the hierarchy of intellectual creatures. Scripture speaks of this preternatural realm, the angelic realm: For exaple, in Daniel we read: "I was still occupied with this prayer, when Gabriel, the one whom I had seen before in vision, came to me in rapid flight at the time of the evening sacrifice. He instructed me in these words: "Daniel, I have now come to give you understanding..." (Dn 9, 21-22). In Isaiah we read: "Then I said, "Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!" Then one of the seraphim flew to me, holding an ember which he had taken with tongs from the altar. He touched my mouth with it. "See," he said, "now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged" (Is 6, 5-7). In the New Testament we read: "the harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are the angels" (Mt 13, 39); "The Son of Man will send his angels" (Mt 13, 40); "Thus it will be at the end of the age. The angels will go out and separate the wicked from the righteous..." (Mt 13, 49); "For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father's glory..." (Mt 16, 27); "See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father (Mt 18, 10).

An angel is a pure spirit, an immaterial substance of a rational nature. A human person, on the other hand, is a material substance of a rational nature (a rational animal). French historian of philosophy Etienne Gilson calls man an "incarnated angel". As a pure intelligence, an angel is exceedingly more brilliant than the brightest human being. Human intelligence is historical and sluggish. As an example, consider that what students routinely do in math classes today took centuries for the most brilliant human intellects to discover, from Pythagoras to Descartes to Pascal to Russell. We look back and wonder why it took them so long. The reason is that the most brilliant among us are slow -- what does that say for the rest of us?

But the mind of an angel is not historical and sluggish, for it is not subject to time; for time is the measure of movement, and as such is linked with the mutability of material substance. And so even the choices that are made by an angel do not take place in time, but rather within an indivisible aevum (eviternity).1 An angel chooses at the instant of its creation whether or not it will orient its entire existence towards God, or orient itself in rebellion to the divine will. It must have this opportunity; for God, who is Love (1 Jn 4, 16), does not force anyone to love Him -- this is contrary to the nature of love. Since man exists in time, there is time to change his will, that is, to forfeit his friendship with God, or to finally choose friendship with God. The lives of some of the greatest saints tell of some of the most extraordinary conversions. But this is not so for an angel. The aevum is indivisible (unlike a minute, a second, or a split second), and the angel, whose choice is entirely free and enlightened, remains in his decision forever.

Now Scripture and tradition speak of an angel of the cherubim rank that fell through pride.2 The word "cherubim" means "fullness of knowledge". According to Pseudo-Dionysius, the cherubim are the most intelligent of angels: "the serpent was the most cunning animal that the Lord God had made" (Gn 3, 1). Jesus speaks of the fall of Lucifer in a way that seems to call attention to the instantaneous character of his choice: "I have observed Satan fall like lightening from the sky" (Lk 10, 18). But we get a glimpse of the nature of his fall through the story of the fall. Here the "serpent" attempts to draw the proto-parents of the human race into the very current of his prideful and lying spirit: "You certainly will not die! No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God who knows what is good and what is bad" (3, 5).

The key to the meaning of this text lies in the symbolism of the "tree of knowledge of good and evil". Of course, Scripture is not referring to a literal tree, but rather to the possibility of a particular experience. Consider that childhood is characterized by dependency. A child depends upon adults, especially his parents, to teach him what is good from what is bad. Adulthood, on the contrary, is characterized by independence. The temptation to taste of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil is an ingenious and colorful way of representing the temptation to taste independence from God, that is, to be one's own god. In other words, as God is the measure of what is true and good, and as man is measured by the true and the good, this temptation seeks to reverse this order, by flipping it on its head, so to speak. This is precisely the sin of pride, the rejection of our status as children, dependent upon God and measured by something larger than ourselves. The proto-parents of the human race chose to succumb to this temptation, that is, they chose to be their own god.

What the circumstances surrounding this radical decision were, we can't even speculate. What is asserted through Scripture is that the first parents made a free and radical decision that would affect each of their offspring -- since everything we do affects our offspring -- , and the offspring of the first parents is the human race itself.

The three effects of this radical decision correspond to the loss of the three preternatural gifts that belonged to man in the state of Original Justice (bodily immortality, infused knowledge of God, and freedom from concupiscence). The human person was meant to live forever bodily, but death entered the world through sin (Rm 5, 12): "...he must not be allowed to put out his hand to take fruit from the tree of life also, and thus eat of it and live forever" (Gn 3, 22). And so, "from dust you came and to dust you shall return" (Gn 3, 19).

In the state of Original Justice, man had an infused knowledge of God, which was lost through sin. The account of the Fall reveals that as a result, man is no longer at ease in God's presence, that is, in the presence of holiness: "When they heard the sound of the Lord God moving about in the garden at the breezy time of the day, the man and his wife hid themselves from the Lord God among the trees of the garden" (Gn 3, 8). In other words, man can no longer correctly interpret God's advances. Thus, man lacks wisdom; for sin blinds the intellect. Hence, the second effect of original sin, the dulling of the mind.

Finally, original sin has brought it about that what is humanly good to do is now difficult: "in pain shall you bring forth children...By the sweat of your face shall you get bread to eat" (Gn 3, 16-19). Thus, the third effect of original sin, traditionally referred to as concupiscence, is an inclination to sin, a tendency to selfishness. That is why virtue is difficult and vice is easy. It is easier to be unjust than it is to be just, and it is easier to be cowardly than it is to be brave. It is easier to be self-indulgent than it is to be temperate, and it is easier to be proud than it is to be humble. It is easier to be imprudent than it is to be prudent, and since prudence is the mother of the virtues, vice is easier than virtue.

Everybody is aware of the truth of this, for we readily see this disorder within ourselves. But God did not create man this way any more than Toyota designs cars to veer off the road with ease. This is a defect of human nature, a quasi-natural flaw that, according to divine revelation, has its roots in this historical act. It is difficult to appreciate the gravity of this first sin when we consider it merely from an intellectual point of view. Perhaps we get a deeper sense of its seriousness when we consider how twisted this world really is. But even here, at this point, not everyone can see the twisted nature of the world in which we live. Vice blinds the mind. But this moral woundedness and emotional twisting has led to terrible injustice and suffering. Consider the amount of suffering with which history is filled. One day's newspaper is almost too much for most of us to handle in one sitting. It shouldn't take a great deal of research to recognize that there is something terribly wrong with the human situation, that is, that there is something terribly wrong with human beings.

But the most important text in chapter three of Genesis begins at verse 15:

Because you have done this, you shall be banned from all the animals and from all the wild creatures; on your belly shall you crawl, and dust shall you eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel.

Here we are given a sense of the fall of Satan (on your belly shall you crawl) and the alienation which he suffers (you shall be banned from...). The Evil One feeds on death (dust), that is, he has lost the life of divine grace, which is the proper effect of sin. But most importantly, this text reveals a conflict, a tension that will exist between "the woman" and "the serpent". The woman in this text cannot be the first woman, for her heart is in line with that of the serpent; for she listened to him. There will come a woman whose heart will not belong to darkness, a woman whose offspring will strike at the head of the serpent. The image of a foot crusing the head while the serpent strikes at his heel suggests a victory. But where there is victory, there was war, and where there is war, there is an aggressor and a defender. Typically the aggressor is unjust, but in this case the aggressor attempts to reclaim what was rightfully his in the first place. This war is between the serpent and its offspring (all those who choose to belong to darkness) and the offspring of "the woman". And so there is a sense in which, according to biblical thinking, the world -- prescinding from the redemption of Christ -- belongs to the Evil One, who is referred to by John as "the ruler of this world" (Jn 12, 31; 16, 11; Rev 12, 9-13; Lk 4, 6).

Christians believe that Jesus is the offspring of "the woman"; for on two occasions he refers to his own mother as "woman". Fist, at the wedding in Cana: "When the wine ran short, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine." And Jesus said to her, "Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come" (Jn 2, 3-4). Secondly, on Calvary: "When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, "Woman, behold, your son." Then he said to the disciple, "Behold, your mother" (Jn 19, 26-27). It is the fruit of her womb that is being grafted back onto the tree, the wood of the cross, the new tree of life, and this is his victory over the one who has the power of death; for he has come to "destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life" (Heb 2, 14; 1 Jn 3, 8). He came to substitute the kingdom of his Father for that of darkness (See 1 Co 15, 24-28): "He delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins" (Col 1, 13).

And the gospels present Jesus' public life as a battle against "the ruler of this world of darkness". The battle begins in the desert where for the first time since Paradise, "the Son of Adam, the Son of God" (Lk 3, 38) finds himelf face to face with the devil. And the miracles of Christ are precisely signs that the kingdom of darkness has come to an end (Lk 10, 13-20). For sin brought death, but Jesus raises both Lazarus and Jairus's daughter (Mk 5, 21; Jn 11, 1-44) and himself conquers death in his resurrection. From henceforth he holds the keys to death and the netherworld (Rev 1, 18). As biblical scholar Xavier Leon Dufour writes, the struggle "reaches its paroxysm at the hour of the passion. Luke consciously links the passion to the temptation (Lk 4, 13; 22, 53), and John underlines the role of Satan in it (Jn 13, 2. 27; 14, 30; cf Lk 22, 3. 31) only to proclaim his final defeat".3

This is precisely the good news of the kingdom of God: deliverance from the slavery of sin and from the power of death is ours in the Person of Christ. The message of the gospel is thus a message of hope; for it is a message of salvation. The proclamation of the kingdom of God is not the proclamation of a moral doctrine, but the proclamation of a victory, a victory over the kingdom of despair and its ruler, and the establishment of the reign of hope and the throne of a new king.

Redemption and the Virtue of Religion

Original sin is a state in which each human person is born, a state that was created by an original and free decision. Each member of the human community is born without the supernatural life of divine grace. Man (Adam) is no longer in "God's favor" (grace), for he has separated himself from God. Thus he no longer shares in the life of God. And grace is precisely a sharing in the divine life. Man has a share in his own life naturally, but the life of God is supra-nature, and thereis nothing that man can do to achieve the life of grace; for it would require that he exceed the capacity of his nature. To do that by virtue of the principles of his nature is contradictory. And there is nothing he can do to merit grace, for it is not even possible for him to merit existence in the natural order. Moreover, it is only through grace that man can rise above his inclination to sin and selfishness. So how is man to acquire a sharing in the divine life, which he lost through sin? How is man to repair or make reparation for what he has done? In short, how can he do justice for his own sin?

It has always been the faith of the Church that man simply cannot restore what he has taken. In other words, man cannot save himself.

It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone rich to enter the kingdom of God." They were more astonished than ever, saying to one another, "in that case, who can be saved?" Jesus gazed at them and said, "By human resources it is impossible, but not for God: because for God everything is possible (Mk 10, 25-27)

It is this impossibility that I would like to focus on for a while, in order to more fully appreciate the fittingness of the Incarnation, and I will do so by considering this from an angle that was made popular by St. Anselm in the eleventh century, but which has been and continues to be widely misunderstood.

Recall that justice is the virtue by which we render to another his due. But there are situations in which we cannot fully satisfy the debt that is owing. Such situations call for special virtues allied with justice. For example, we cannot fully satisfy the debt we owe our parents. To keep this as simple as possible, consider the parents who bring up their children diligently and generously. How can such parents be repaid for the good that they do for their children and for civilization? The virtue that responds to this situation is piety, the virtue by which we render due honor to our parents. Consider also the debt we owe to the civil community as a whole. We are the beneficiaries of the labour of hundreds of thousands of people. We couldn't begin to satisfy the debt we owe to these unknown benefactors. But patriotism is the virtue that responds to this particular situation, the virtue by which we render due honor and worship to our country.

Now, everything we have and are is nothing less than sheer gift; for God is the First Cause of all that is. Whatever is, whether a thought, an act of the will, or a carbon atom, is caused ultimately by God (He Who Is). We cannot fully render to God our debt to Him for the purely gratuitous gift of human existence, which is a communication of His goodness in which we were made to share. The virtue of religion is that part of justice that responds to this situation in which every person finds himself. In other words, there is a natural duty to be religious (not only a supernatural duty rooted in baptism). Being religious is not an option alongside others, to be chosen according to one's personal inclination or preference. It is a duty, the most serious demand of justice, to attempt as far as one is able to render to God what is His due.

The most basic response to gift is to receive it with thanks. But a truly thankful person will choose to repay the gift as much as it is in his power to do so. The natural virtue of religion (the most perfect part of justice) disposes us to make God the very center of our lives. There is nothing we do not owe God, for we owe Him everything, and every attempt at repayment presupposes the gift that we are attempting to repay. In other words, if I am to attempt to render God thanks by acts of worship, prayer, and almsgiving, etc., I must "exist" and be preserved in existence in order to do so. That preservation is itself gift. Hence, gift is always prior to every one of our attempts at a thankful response to it.

But when we commit an offense against someone, we create a debt in regards to the offended party. Justice is the full rendering of that debt. And sin creates a debt in regards to God that is over and above the natural debt already owing Him. If we cannot fully render the latter, how can we hope to satisfy the former? Sin creates a debt, in other words, that infinitely exceeds our power to satisfy. Hence, man cannot make up for sin. Man cannot save himself. Or, what amounts to the same thing, man cannot justify himself.

Only God can satisfy this debt that infinitely exceeds our capacity to satisfy it because God is omnipotent, that is, God is not limited by potentiality. He is existentially infinite. But God is the offended party, and so it is not encumbant upon Him to make satisfaction for sin any more than a victim of fraud ought to make up for the fraud committed against him.

The Trinity and the Incarnation of the Son

The New testament reveals that Christ is precisely God's solution to this impossible situation: "for all things are possible for God" (Mk 10, 27). Let me explain. Jesus reveals God as Trinity. Priorto the coming of Christ, God was not understood to be triune. But the New Testament speaks of this Trinity of Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God is three Persons, but one Nature. Now, we know that God's nature is "to be", and so there is one God, not three Gods. But mysteriously, this one divine being is a Trinity of Persons. The first Person of the Trinity is the Father, the Second Person of the Trinity is the Son, and the third Person of the Trinity is the Holy Spirit.

Let's focus on the Second Person of the Trinity for a moment. Consider the first creation story. God said: "Let there be light, and there was light...God said, "Let there be a dome in the it happened...God said, "Let the water under the sky be gathered it happened...God said: "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness..." In other words, all things came to be through God's spoken word. Everything has being simply by virtue of the fact that God knows it and wills it into existence. God is not measured by the real, but is the measure of "what is".

The gospel of John focuses on this point of creation. He writes: "In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God, and the Word was God" (Jn 1, 1). In other words, this Word (Logos) who is God is also distinct from God (with God). And "through him all things came to be. Not one thing came to be without him" (Jn 1, 3). This parallels the first chapter of Genesis in which God says "Let there be..." The Word, who was "in the beginning" is the Son, the only Son of the Father, and the Word entered, unrecognized, into the darkness of this world:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it...He came to what was his own, but his own did not accept him...And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father's only Son, full of grace and truth" (Jn 1, 5; 11-14).

Hence, Jesus is the Person of the Son. He is not two Persons, but one Person. But this one Person has two natures: one divine (the Word was with God and the Word was God), and one human (and the Word became flesh). In other words, Jesus is God-man. He is the Father's spoken Word uttered in history. And so everything that the Father can say about Himself is spoken in the Person of Jesus (Logos).4

It is this "becoming flesh" that is God's solution to the impossibility of man's self-justification. As man, Jesus can step forward on behalf of the entire human community (on behalf of Adam) and offer a sacrifice of reparation for the sin which infinitely exceeds man's ability to satisfy, but which is encumbant upon man to do so. As God the Son, his sacrifice has an infinite value. For he chose to offer his blood, and for the Jews the life was in the blood: "Since the life of the living body is in its blood, I have made you put it on the altar, so that atonement may thereby be made for your own lives, because it is the blood, as the seat of life, that makes atonement" (Lv 17, 11-12). Jesus came to offer his life, to make atonement, that is, to reconcile the world to Himself: "There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!" (Lk 12, 50). His life (blood) is the life of the Person of the Son. Because the Son is divine, his offering alone can cancel the debt of sin; for it is a sacrifice whose value is limitless. His offering is an act of atonement, an act of justification, in short, an act of re-creation.

The sacrifice of the cross is the perfect fulfillment of the requirement of justice. It is the perfect act of religion offered to the Father on our behalf. The cross is our justification, because it is the perfect act of justice:

But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. How much more then, since we are now justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath. Indeed, if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, once reconciled, will we be saved by his life (Rm 5, 8-10).

It is not that the Father had to punish mankind for sin, and so He punished Christ who substitutes himself for us. Such a misunderstanding, which was and is very prevalent, is rooted in a narrowing of the idea of justice to that kind which is restitution. Christ came not to receive a just punishment from God, but to be the fullness of justice for our sake. He is the perfection of that part of justice that is the virtue of religion, and so in Him we have the forgiveness of sins. His act is a sacrifice whose effect embraces the entire span of human history, because it is the sacrifice of the eternal Person of the Son. And so it is in Him that all human persons find the life of grace. And so it is true to say that there is only one place and one moment in history where the debt man owes to God is fully paid, and that was on Calvary in the early first century; and because it is the sacrifice of the Son who is eternal, it is an act that endures throughout history.5

The resurrection was the Father's acceptance of Christ's offering of Himself on our behalf. His was an acceptable sacrifice. And the resurrection is precisely the good news of the gospel. The Greek word "evangelion" is a term that was used exclusively in connection with extraordinarily good news, in particular the good news of a military victory, or the birth of a king. In Christ we have both. His death is his victory over sin, and his resurrection is his victory over death: "the life who was the light of the world" entered into death, transforming it into life. Death no longer has the final word over our lives. The Word has the final word over our lives, and how happy are those who will hear in the end: "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Mt 25, 34).

Next Page: The Gratuitous Nature of the Redemption
1, 2, 3