The Very Bad Christology of Fr. James Martin, S.J.

Eamonn Clark

No doubt most readers will be aware of the furor surrounding Jesuit Fr. James Martin’s latest book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. Since the issues with the book have been beaten to death – though not to a definitive conclusion – they will not be treated here. An item which has gone nearly undetected by comparison, though perhaps deserving much more treatment than his very bad book, is the very bad Christology which Fr. Martin has been publicly espousing recently.

This past Holy Week, Fr. Martin preached on the 7 Last Words of Christ prior to the Good Friday liturgy at the Cathedral of St. Matthew in Washington D.C. The Archdiocese reported as follows:

The sixth phrase, “It has ended; it is finished,” is usually interpreted by scholars to be the fulfillment of God’s will, said Father Martin, but he suggested that it can also be interpreted as a resignation, with Jesus saying, “I have done all I can do.” He may have wondered whether the apostles would carry on His work after He died, and be unsure if the great project of His ministry was coming to an end, Father Martin explained. But even if Jesus didn’t yet know how His project would continue, “The Father had other plans,” Father Martin said.

Further on:

Lastly, Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Father Martin said his favorite theological question to think about is whether Jesus knew what was going to happen on Easter Sunday before He died. While the answer to the question is a mystery, “the one thing we do know,” said Father Martin, is “He desires only to do the Father’s will,” and in the Garden of Gethsemane, He reached the “ultimate decision point.”

Anyone who has read the Gospels will at this point be reaching for an explanation. Doesn’t Christ speak many, many times about His Resurrection and what will happen after He leaves the Apostles? Doesn’t He show He has foreknowledge in other instances as well? Yes, but it is not for no reason that Fr. Martin has taken his position. He has seen a true difficulty and is attempting to resolve it.

LifeSiteNews ran an article which originally commented on the content of the Good Friday talk (although it has since been edited). Fr. Martin decided to attempt to defend himself in the combox.

He is fully human. With a fully human consciousness. (Which means he would have had knowledge only of what a human person could know.) And fully divine. With a fully divine consciousness. (Which means he would have had the knowledge of the Father.) It’s a great mystery of how those two natures participated together. But to imply that I was denying his divinity is absurd. Feel free to read “Jesus” and “Seven Last Words.”

I don’t want to be too hard on Fr. Martin’s comment, as it was only in a combox, but there is a lot to investigate here. Why does he say “consciousness” and not “nature,” or “intellect,” or “hypostasis”? “Consciousness” is very vague and could lend itself to various interpretations. Also, why does Fr. Martin use the phrase “human person” and then make a contradistinction with “the Father”? Surely, he would admit that Christ is not a human person, but a Divine Person (the Son, not the Father) with a human nature, yes?

Now let’s add one more piece to this puzzle.

Fr. Martin recently took to Twitter (on August 20th, 2017) to explain the interaction between Christ and the Canaanite woman (Mt. 15: 21-28, Mk. 7: 24-29), which was the Gospel reading of the day:

Gospel: Today we see Jesus’ human and divine natures: he learns from the woman that his ministry extends to all, and he heals her daughter.

And then later that day, after receiving numerous rebukes from people who did not agree that Jesus learned about the scope of His salvific mission – the very purpose of His existence – from a mere creature, Fr. Martin responded with:

The most popular heresy in the Catholic Twitterverse is Docetism. It betrays a fundamental fear of any indication that Jesus was fully human

Seeing as Fr. Martin here uses the “h-word” as a defense against people who disagreed with his exegesis, do we not have the right to examine what he is saying in as serious a way as he treats the matter of an accusation of heresy?

But it was an exchange with Massimo Faggioli, a well-respected church historian, during which Mr. Douthat randomly tweeted “Own your heresy,” which sent things over the edge…

Calling [a theologian] a “heretic” is like calling a journalist a plagiarist.  These aren’t funny punchlines to be taken lightly.  They are attacks on one’s faith, and for theologians possible career-enders…

I’m disgusted with the facile use of words like “heresy” and “schism” and “apostate,” passing itself off as defenses of the faith.

All this from the same piece – and these are just some highlights.

Seeing as Fr. Martin is not tolerant of the lax use of these words, even in Twitter fights, shall we investigate what is at stake in his recent comments?

The Council of Ephesus proclaimed Mary as “theotokos,” or “God-bearer” – the Mother of God. This was defined against the doctrine associated with Nestorius (whose relationship with the doctrine is actually quite complicated), which was that Christ was both a human person and a Divine Person loosely united together. This meant that there are really two separate beings or “whos” in Christ: Jesus the human person, and the Person of the Son. Nestorianism was condemned again 20 years later at the Council of Chalcedon. In short, Nestorianism is definitely a heresy, and no Catholic can argue otherwise.

A view which splits Christ into two persons – not merely two natures – could account for several puzzling items. (After all, heresy usually makes matters simpler than they really are.) How is it, for instance, that a woman could really be “the mother of God” if Christ is fully human and is being born according to His humanity by which He is her son? Are His divinity and humanity the same? Of course not (although Eutyches, condemned at Chalcedon, tried something like that solution to this problem). Nestorius could easily explain this – Jesus the human person was born, God the Son was not, even though He was united with Jesus. A similar solution might be given to the problem of the death of Christ. How can God the Son die? The Nestorian answer is that, in every sense, He did not. There is no need for the complex subtleties of the communicatio idiomatum on this account.

Some kind of Nestorian Christology could also explain a strange verse in Scripture which is, frankly, very confusing and frequently misunderstood. It is Mark 13: 32, where Christ speaks of His return: “But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of Heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” (Matthew 24: 36 is identical, although many ancient Matthean manuscripts lack “nor the Son,” for what it’s worth.)

How to explain this? Certainly, we would not say that the Person of the Son does not know “the day nor the hour,” as He is God in the same sense the Father is God. Could the Gospel writers be suggesting that there are future contingent things that Jesus “the Son (of Man?)” just does not know as a human being and needs to learn, even if God the Son knows them as God? What else would account for this strange utterance of the Lord? Perhaps Fr. Martin’s comments are not so off-base…

Fortunately, this exact issue was settled a long, long time ago, in the year 600 A.D. to be precise. There had been folks – the “Agnoetae” – who picked up on exactly this verse and ran with it. They suggested that Jesus, in His humanity, did not possess the fullness of knowledge He possibly could, as if God the Son had held back some secrets. Pope St. Gregory the Great thought this to be problematic and weighed in on the matter (Denzinger 248). Shall we go through the text?

(But) concerning that which has been written: That neither the Son, nor the angels know the day and the hour [cf. Mark 13:32], indeed, your holiness has perceived rightly, that since it most certainly should be referred not to the same son according to that which is the head, but according to his body which we are . . . . He [Augustine] also says . . . that this can be understood of the same son, because omnipotent God sometimes speaks in a human way, as he said to Abraham: Now I know that thou fearest God [Gen. 22:12], not because God then knew that He was feared, but because at that time He caused Abraham to know that he feared God. For, just as we say a day is happy not because the day itself is happy, but because it makes us happy, so the omnipotent Son says He does not know the day which He causes not to be known, not because He himself is ignorant of it, but because He does not permit it to be known at all. Thus also the Father alone is said to know, because the Son (being) consubstantial with Him, on account of His nature, by which He is above the angels, has knowledge of that, of which the angels are unaware.

Gregory suggests that perhaps Christ is speaking figuratively, just as we figuratively attribute some characteristic to a thing on account of that thing causing that characteristic in us. His non-Scriptural example is a “happy day,” which is happy because it makes us happy. On this account, Christ “does not know” because he does not make us know. Christ attributes the knowledge to the Father, since God the Father does have the knowledge, but since God the Son is consubstantial with the Father, this would also mean God the Son has the knowledge. Basically, Christ is condescending to the disciples’ poor understanding of His nature – they don’t know him as God the Son, consubstantial with the Father. (cf. Mark 10: 18, Luke 18: 19 – “Why do you call me good? None is good but God alone.”)

 Thus, also, this can be the more precisely understood because the Only-begotten having been incarnate, and made perfect man for us, in His human nature indeed did know the day and the hour of judgment, but nevertheless He did not know this from His human nature. Therefore, that which in (nature) itself He knew, He did not know from that very (nature), because God-made-man knew the day and hour of the judgment through the power of His Godhead. . . . Thus, the knowledge which He did not have on account of the nature of His humanity – by reason of which, like the angels, He was a creature – this He denied that He, like the angels, who are creatures, had. Therefore (as) God and man He knows the day and the hour of judgment; but on this account, because God is man.

Here, Gregory gives a better explanation. He says that Christ knew “the day and the hour” in both His human and Divine natures, but He did not know from His human nature. This account would lead a reader (or listener) to understand that “the day and the hour” are not able to be known by natural inference. In other words, “flesh and blood will not reveal this to you” (cf. Mt. 16: 17). Also, as with the first explanation, Christ is speaking to the disciples according to their present understanding of His nature (and in this case His knowledge specifically) – they think He has a human knowledge derived from human learning, sometimes supplemented by Divine inspiration such as the prophets had. They do not yet have a full Christology – that must wait until Pentecost. Of course, we must be careful to avoid an implication of dishonesty in Christ’s words. Rather, He uses a rhetorical device which simply allows the truth to remain obscure.

Finally, we have a startlingly aggressive condemnation of Agnoetism from Gregory:

But the fact is certainly manifest that whoever is not a Nestorian, can in no wise be an Agnoeta. For with what purpose can he, who confesses that the Wisdom itself of God is incarnate say that there is anything which the Wisdom of God does not know? It is written: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . All things were made by him [John 1:13]. If all, without doubt also the day of judgment and the hour. Who, therefore, is so foolish as to presume to assert that the Word of the Father made that which He does not know? It is written also: Jesus knowing that the Father gave him all things into his hands [John 13:3]. If all things, surely both the day of judgment and the hour. Who, therefore, is so stupid as to say that the Son has received in His hands that of which He is unaware?

Gregory draws out an implicit Nestorianism in the Agnoetist doctrine. If there is really one being and Person, Jesus Christ, the incarnate Person of the Son, with two distinct natures united in that one subsistent being, then the knowledge of the Son must overflow into the knowledge of the human intellect due to the unity of subsistence which obtains. That knowledge would of course be gradually bestowed according to the natural capacity of the human faculties of Christ, which is why Luke can say, “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” (Luke 2: 52) As an infant, the human Jesus really did not know “the day and the hour,” but once His natural capacity to receive this knowledge grew, it immediately accessed that knowledge (cf. CCC #472).

The Catechism also has something to say about Agnoetism, though it does not condemn it by name (#473-474)… The letter from Pope St. Gregory the Great is also cited in the footnotes:

But at the same time, this truly human knowledge of God’s Son expressed the divine life of his person. “The human nature of God’s Son, not by itself but by its union with the Word, knew and showed forth in itself everything that pertains to God.” Such is first of all the case with the intimate and immediate knowledge that the Son of God made man has of his Father. The Son in his human knowledge also showed the divine penetration he had into the secret thoughts of human hearts. By its union to the divine wisdom in the person of the Word incarnate, Christ enjoyed in his human knowledge the fullness of understanding of the eternal plans he had come to reveal. What he admitted to not knowing in this area, he elsewhere declared himself not sent to reveal.

Here we have a fine summary of everything wrong with Fr. Martin’s Christology. There is clarity of language, first of all, and there is also an affirmation of the fullness of Christ’s human knowledge due to His human nature’s union to the Person of the Son. This human knowledge consists, then, not only in what a human being could know from experience and study. It also contains, as far as is possible for Christ’s human nature, all that God the Son knows, including the secrets of human hearts, the meaning and extent of His own visible mission (contra Fr. Martin’s exegesis of the interaction with the Canaanite woman), all that pertains to the truth of God and His laws and His Scriptures, the “day and the hour” (contra the original application of Agnoetism), that He would rise from the dead and successfully send out the Apostles (contra Fr. Martin’s Good Friday sermon), and all other future contingent events. While a Jesus who walks by faith and not by sight is more relatable, that is not the Christ of reality.

What can we say of our Jesuit? I too, like Fr. Martin, am concerned with the rash use of words like “heresy.” (I suggest that a general resurgence in the use of the classical terminology of theological censures is appropriate, and I will apply some of that language here.) In the strictest sense, Agnoetism seems not to be heretical (hæretica), as it does not immediately contradict a divinely revealed and defined dogma (like Nestorianism itself does), but it is erroneous (erronea) or next to error (errori proxima), as the truth it contradicts is immediately or at least eventually deduced from a defined dogma (contra Nestorius) and a certainly known natural truth (that Christ’s unglorified human nature was capable of knowing “the day and the hour,” and such like particular things). An Agnoetist must either deny what is clear from the dogma defined against Nestorius, or he must deny the natural truth about the possibility of Christ’s human knowledge. For this reason, it is not strictly appropriate to call an Agnoetist a heretic, even though it is difficult to conceive that what is being denied is the naturally certain truth. (Gregory of course thought Nestorianism was much more likely to be the root.)

I do think, however, that Fr. Martin has made it clear that he is indeed an Agnoetist.

I would certainly welcome a response from him denying this accusation and explaining his position with more clarity than he has done in the texts I have quoted.

We need to pray for our high-profile priests. Clerics who gain fame live a constant high-wire act even more than the average parish priest. If the downfall of Fr. Corapi has any lesson for celebrity priests, of whom Fr. Martin is the contemporary paradigmatic example, it is this: a priestly ministry which is more about conferences, books, and special events than it is about the sacraments and other characteristically priestly acts is in big trouble. Recall then-Father Corapi’s very sad words when he announced he would be leaving priestly ministry…

I didn’t do very much of that [sacramental work] quite honestly in the twenty years that I did minister . . . 90 percent of what I did in the past did not require ordination. Speaking through social communication—radio, TV, so forth—that’s not ministry, strictly speaking. My particular mission was speaking, writing, and teaching—not so much in the sacraments, but outside of them, in conjunction with them. So what I’m going to be doing in the future is pretty much the same thing.

I do not know if these words ring true with Fr. Martin, but I do sincerely hope he goes “back to basics” to avoid a similarly disastrous end. That might mean sacrificing some of the limelight – or all of it.

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Main image: a fresco in Santa Maria Maggiore (Rome), a papal basilica built in honor of the Council of Ephesus (source: