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Living a spirituality of communion

30 November, 1999

Boethius defined ‘person’ as an individual, and that became theologically and socially dominant, whereas Augustine understood person as ‘relatio’ and Aquinas as ‘relatio subsistens’. Tom Norris thinks if we could return to thinking of the divine person as ‘relatio’ we could more easily return to a spirituality of communion.

163 pp. The Columba Press. To purchase this book online go to www.columba.ie



  1. On Revisiting Dei Verbum 
  2. The Law of the Trinity 
  3. Jesus Forsaken  
  4. The New Sociality  
  5. Towards a Trinitarian Ontology

Index of Proper Names 




There is a new stirring in the life of the church. A spirituality of communion is emerging. By ‘spirituality’ I mean a concrete way of realising or living out in the church the gospel revelation of the God of Jesus Christ. That gospel has inspired spiritualities of great depth and lasting fruitfulness, such as those of Benedict, Dominic, Francis, Ignatius, Teresa of Avila and Vincent de Paul, to name but a few. These spiritualities had, and continue to have, an impact on the life of the whole church, flowing as they do like streams of living water from the same fountainhead of the gospel. What is conspicuously absent, however, is a ‘spirituality of communion’ or unity.

What, precisely, is a ‘spirituality of communion’? A contemporary authority in the field answers in these terms: ‘In the history of Christian spirituality it was said: “Christ is in me, he lives in me,” and that is the perspective of individual spirituality, life in Christ. When it also was said: “Christ is present in my brothers”, this develops the perspective of works of charity, but it falls short of saying that if Christ is in me and Christ is in you, then Christ in me loves Christ in you and vice versa … which would involve a mutual giving and receiving (1). In a spirituality of communion, one goes towards heaven not only with others but also through and in others. If God comes down to earth through his Son made flesh, then we ascend towards heaven through Jesus present in each sister and brother for whom he died (1 Cor 8:11).

Now this absence is strange for many reasons. First, in St John’s gospel, the summit of the New Testament’s witness to divine revelation, the focus is on the very commandment that inspires communion through mutual love (13:34-35; 15:12). This commandment Jesus calls both ‘new’ and ‘his’. It is ‘new’ as expressive of the ‘new creation’ (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15), that ‘total newness Jesus brought by bringing himself who had been foretold’ (2). It is ‘his’ as essential to his mission from the Father (Jn 10:1). Of it he says something that is not said of anything else in the whole of scripture: ‘By this all will know that you are my disciples’ (13:35). Not only this, but at the zenith of his discourse at the supper in John, Jesus turns his command into prayer: ‘May they all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they be completely one so that the world will believe you have sent me’ (17:21).

This absence is strange for a further reason. Together with the paschal mystery of the Lord’s death and resurrection, the Blessed Trinity is the primary mystery of faith. Now the Trinity is a mystery of communion, communion between the co-eternal Persons in the Godhead. ‘One of the Three’ came to earth and became flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone. He came like a Divine Immigrant to bring the life of his Trinitarian homeland into history. ‘In that day you will know that the Father is in me and I am in you and you are in me’ (Jn 14:20). On the night before he suffered he prayed: ‘May they be so completely one that the world will believe you (Father) have sent me’ (Jn 17:21). Normally it is we who pray to the Father, but here the Son-made-flesh prays to the Father. In him we are One Person (Gal 3:28), so that, as Augustine reminds us, ‘If you see love, you see the Trinity’ (3).

The effects of failing to have a robust spirituality of communion or unity have been enormous. An Immanuel Kant could write in the eighteenth century: ‘The Trinity has got no relevance to practical living’ (4). In recent times, theologians of substance have contended that if the great doctrine were excised from the Creed it would make little or no difference to the spiritual lives of Christians (5)! The mystery of the Holy Trinity has been individualised and privatised, being discovered within the life of each individual believer, my way to the Father! This led an Italian theologian to wonder whether the God of Christians is, in practice, truly Christian (6). The most social of all revelations has become the most private of all spiritualities.

A further deleterious effect of failing to have a Trinitarian and communitarian spirituality was the increasing tension between the realms of religion and of everyday life. Faith and spirituality consisted in plunging into the mystery of the Trinity as located in oneself. However, the reality of one’s concrete existence in the world included life with others. It included education and learning, work and industry, medicine and politics, business and communications, in a word, all that goes to constitute much of our human lives. These two blocks gradually separated and became remote from each other. Of this separation Pope Paul VI wrote in 1975: ‘The separation of faith and culture is the greatest drama of our times’ (7).

The Lord, however, is the Lord of history. In the incarnation he even makes time become a dimension of divinity. He has promised to be with his church to the end of the ages (Mt 28:18; Mk 16:16). ‘The one who says this utters God’s final decision, in that he himself is that decision: a definitive decision passed on the whole of history, never to be surpassed. It is a presence, which accompanies the church not only from above, as it were from out of the timeless world, but which submerges itself eucharistically in every moment of time’ (8). This ‘eucharistic accompaniment’ is perhaps the secret of the church’s youthfulness by which she remembers the love of her youth when the paschal Christ made her his Bride.

That remembering, however, must inspire the church of the third millennium to venture ‘new deeds’ (Is 43:19) from out of the unspeakable riches of Christ (Eph 3:8). It is possible to trace that venture, as Vatican II dared to do. Following the biblical, liturgical, patristic and theological renewals of the first half of the last century, the Council opened up new vistas of understanding. Taking its cue from the Fathers, it defined the church as ‘a people made one from the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’ (9). The church is therefore a community modelled on, indeed participating in, the life of the blessed Trinity. Since this is the case, the Lord ‘teaches that the fundamental law of human perfection, and consequently of the transformation of the world, is the new commandment of love’ (10). The theme of unity permeates the texts of the Councils, and is the key to the fourfold dialogue sketched out in constitution and decree.

Twenty years later the Special Synod of Bishops of 1985 identified in communion the core category of the Council. When Pope John Paul II came to write his apostolic letter for the close of the Great Jubilee, he wrote these striking words: ‘To make the church the home and the school of communion: that is the great challenge facing us in the millennium which is now beginning, if we wish to be faithful to God’s plan and respond to the world’s deepest yearnings.’ Having stated what is necessary, the pope warns against rushing into ‘the action to be undertaken.’ That would be a mistake.

Instead, ‘we need to promote a spirituality of communion.’ It must become the ‘guiding principle’ of all education at all levels in the church. In a word, since the church is a communion, her greatest need is to live by a spirituality of communion. As if to put his meaning beyond all doubt, the pope defines what he means by a ‘spirituality of communion’. It ‘indicates above all the heart’s contemplation of the mystery of the Trinity dwelling in us … an ability to think of our brothers and sisters in faith within the profound unity of the Mystical Body, and therefore as “those who are part of me”. Without this spiritual path, all external structures of communion can only become mechanisms without a soul, “masks” of communion rather than its means of expression and growth’ (11).

This volume wishes to outline some key moments in a spirituality of unity. Since this unity comes from the mystery of the Trinity, it will be a Trinitarian exposition.

The first chapter addresses the constitution on divine revelation of the Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum. Its rhapsodic scriptural overture, drawn from the first verses of First John, is striking: ‘We announce the eternal life that was with the Father and has appeared to us … that our fellowship may be with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ’ (1 Jn 1:2, 3). The Council’s categories are not only those of substance and nature but also those of relationship, participation and fellowship. The pulse of the Council can be felt in its conviction that if the world could hear the message of revelation, ‘it would believe; by believing it would hope; and by hoping it would love.’ The impact of the gift of revelation is such that it transforms the human substance to make it capable of ‘trinitisation’: individually and collectively the revealing Christ and the sanctifying Spirit draw us. They draw us upwards towards life in the company of the Blessed Trinity (Phil 3:14), a life beginning already now but offering the hope of a still greater fulfilment (1 Jn 3:2), indeed, ‘the pledge of our inheritance’ (Eph 1:13) while they push us outwards towards the deep sea of an authentic unity. In proportion as we realise this view of things, which we trust is the correct one, we will want to live worthy of the resulting vocation (Eph 4:1). A gospel ‘art of loving’ begins to peep out, inviting us to ‘walk in love as Christ loved you, giving himself up in our place as a fragrant offering and a sacrifice to God’ (Eph 5:2).

This view of things can never be passed over as ‘high theology’. Neither can it be left high and dry as a fresh understanding of an integrating mystery of faith but without major repercussions for daily living. On the contrary, it becomes an invitation to live the Christian life and so discover the ‘life that is hidden with Christ in God’ (Col 3:3). Dogma has to translate into spirituality. Accordingly, the second chapter studies the new commandment, that commandment which the Johannine Jesus describes as both ‘his’ and ‘new’ (Jn 13:34; 15:12). What is most striking is the principle of mutuality at its core: love one another! The ‘new commandment’ brings the life of the Trinity down to earth, for this is how the eternal Persons live for each other and in each other in the bosom of the Godhead (Jn 1:18).

Aware, however, that, in the long history of the church, there has never been a spirituality of communion, one based that is on the mutual love shown in the revelation of Christ and specifically in living by the new commandment, this chapter offers an ‘exegesis’ of the new commandment, highlighting its meaning, its effects and its fruits. Finally, it underlines the eucharistic underpinnings of the commandment: for all of five chapters in St John’s gospel, the Paschal Christ discourses on how to translate the commandment of mutual love into daily existence in the Christian community. It is one thing to receive the Holy Eucharist: it is another thing entirely to live by the sacrament that makes the many into one body (1 Cor 10:17), coaxing them towards a new way of living for one another (1 Cor 13:1-12).

What is the measure of the mutuality of the love? As I have loved you (Jn 13:35; 15:12). Nothing less! Only when Christians perceive that Jesus delivered himself for us in a measure that is without measure (Jn 13:1) will they aspire to walk in love as Jesus loved them, giving himself up in their place as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (Eph 5:1)? Perhaps modern men and women find it more difficult than previous generations to find God in the vertical order: they first need to see him in the horizontal order. Karl Rahner rightly identifies in ‘horizontal-ism’ a summary of all heresies, a temptation to which post-ideological humankind is particularly prone (12). However, the measure of love required to live by the new commandment is both sourced in, and mirrored by, the Love that first loved us (1 Jn 4:19), and bled to death ‘for us’ and ‘for our salvation’. This third chapter sets out a selected sequence of moments in the history of the church when some of Christ’s greatest friends tried to respond to this love that first loved them. The result is a series of ‘plunges’ into the flow of the church’s life across the ages. We become aware of the vibrations of grace in history: is not history the theatre where we experience the riches of revelation?

In the light of the understanding of revelation presented in the opening chapter, and of the spirituality of communion unfolded in the subsequent chapters, must not Christians aim at a new sociality? The fourth chapter sets out to suggest this new ‘sociality of the gospel’. It cites an ongoing experiment in economics involving almost eight hundred businesses worldwide and inspired by the charism of unity of the Focolare Movement founded by Chiara Lubich. It begins with facts, not theories or aspirations. The ongoing experiment, then, is proof that an ‘economics of communion’ is not only possible today, but imperative. Living it, Christians will be able to show Christ to the world, Christ as a living Lord in their midst and in the middle of economic activity. For as long as the Word of mutual love, ‘the pearl of the gospel,’ (Pope John Paul II) remains only spiritual, the Word has not yet become flesh in our society and for the life of the world.

Such was the Christian revolution unleashed by the irruption of personified divine Love, the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost that the first Christians solved ‘the social problem’ overnight: ‘None of their members was ever in want’ (Acts 4:34). Can that have been intended only for the beginning of the church, a kind of showing of the authentic face of faith-life and Christian love-life, but confined to the beginnings? This view of church history has dominated for almost the duration of Christian history. But what about ‘the simultaneously social, historical and interior character of Christianity’? (de Lubac)

The last chapter sets out to propose an ontology, an understanding of being that seeks to reflect divine revelation, specifically, the revelation that at the core of Being there is communion, the ecstasy from self (13). If what remains in life and from life is not substance, as Aristotle claims, but love, as Jesus insists (Mt 25:30-45), is there not then a duty on believers to carry revealed insight into a responsible metaphysics? Since the Divine Persons are each identical with their relationships, must not relation come to the centre of this new ontology? This requires a revolution in our understanding of being. In the words of Walter Kasper, ‘The ultimate and highest reality is not substance but relation … The meaning of being is … in self-communicating love’ (14).

The chapter begins with three primordial relationships – those of child to mother, of husband and wife, and to the other. A brief phenomenology of these relationships manifests the liveliness of being as consisting in loving. In fact, ‘a thing is an identity in and through a manifold of manifestation or display or disclosure,’ and ‘each level of manifestation intensifies the identity of the thing’ (15). Being involves being-from-another, being-for-the-other and being-for-one-another. Exciting new categories begin to peep out, including relationality, reciprocity, mutual indwelling, self-emptying and unity. Above all, one realises with Chiara Lubich that ‘the important thing in love is to love’ (16). These categories suggest some building blocks for a trinitarian ontology.






The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum, enjoys special dignity as one of only four constitutions appearing among the sixteen documents promulgated by the Council (1). This status is enhanced further by the importance of the subject matter it deals with, as well as by the recognised theological excellence of the exposition. ‘Si jamais il y eu un concile de réforme, c’était bien celui là’, was how Karl Barth evaluated the Council within a few years of the conclusion of the great event (2). The almost four decades that have elapsed since then have verified the assessment of the great Swiss theologian. The Constitution, as the first formal statement from an Ecumenical Council on the subject of divine revelation, breaks new ground in many respects. This chapter will list these breakthroughs, but only by way of introduction to its central concern, which is in some elementary elaboration of motifs often only hinted at in the text of Dei Verbum. In conclusion, mention will be made of two seeming lacunae in the content of the text. But first a word about the ‘two languages’ that seem to be portrayed in the Constitution.

On reading Dei Verbum: two Languages
More than one author (3) has remarked on the fact that the text of Dei Verbum speaks two different languages when one compares it with the preceding conciliar statements of Trent and Vatican I.

The first language is trinitarian (revelation is distributed between the three divine Persons, each one having their own role, in other words, revelation as disclosed in the context of the ‘Economic Trinity’), communional (revelation as directed towards the eschatological communion, but also as about a humanity shaped in a trinitarian way), historical (revelation described as a process which starts from the beginnings of creation right up to its accomplishment in Jesus Christ, and prolonged, in a certain sense, in its transmission, giving shape to Christian history) (4).

There is also a second language found in the constitution. It is a language stressing creation/participation (in relation to our dependency on God and to the autonomy of creation), nature (in relation to the divine nature as capable of being participated in), truth (in relation to the inalienable qualities of the contents of revelation), and individual assent to the God who reveals.

Which of the two languages has priority? There is a consensus that it is the trinitarian, with its stress on communion, that takes precedence over the metaphysical. It is enough to cite a passage such as the following to indicate this dominance in the tone of the text: ‘In his goodness and wisdom, God chose to reveal himself and to make known to us the hidden purpose of his will (cf. Eph 1:9) by which through Christ, the Word made flesh, man has access to the Father in the Holy Spirit and comes to share in the divine nature (cf Eph 2:18; 2 Pet 1:4) (5). One notices at once that the movement of divine revelation begins in the heart of God, reaches out towards the human heart, in order to draw men and women into a life-giving communion with God the holy Trinity and with one another (6). Cor ad cor loquitur.

Ghislain Lafont notices that a whole new theological style emerged from the Council. That style is more communitarian in content and more dialogical in method than heretofore. It seems destined to exert an increasingly pervasive influence on all areas of the church’s life, in worship, doctrine, theology, pastoral life, missionary life and inculturation. It is little surprise, then, that Pope John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter plotting the first steps of the church into the new millennium, Novo Millennio Ineunte, should stress that the most pressing pastoral goal of the church, the goal most in harmony with the Second Vatican Council, is ‘to make the church the home and the school of communion: that is the great challenge facing us in the millennium which is now beginning, if we wish to be faithful to God’s plan and respond to the world’s deepest yearnings’ (7). If it is true – and Cardinal Newman contended that it is – that theology is the fundamental and regulating principle of the whole church system, then we have here a verification of Newman’s insight in the fact of the new theology of Dei Verbum already setting the agenda and the ‘style’ for the church in the millennium now beginning (8).

Naming the Key Breakthroughs
On the premise that theology is the fundamental and regulating principle of the whole church system, it has to follow that the various novelties mentioned, or even barely hinted at, in Dei Verbum are truly seminal for the future. And they are such not only for the area of revelation and fundamental theology, but also for all areas of the church’s life and mission in the third millennium.

Among these breakthroughs the following are detectable in Dei Verbum: revelation involves the interaction of ‘deeds and words having an inner unity’; the deed which is also the word is the mystery of the Cross, for ‘Jesus perfected revelation … especially through his death and glorious resurrection’; third, the event of divine revelation is inseparable from the search for the meaning of life that constitutes a constant of the world’s cultures, religions and philosophies, so that revelation necessarily involves an intersection between the human search for the Ground and the divine search for humankind; there is a renewed understanding of the relationship between philosophy and revelation; fifth, there is the role of the Holy Spirit in the economy of divine revelation as event and as gift, since ‘Jesus perfected revelation … through the final sending of the Holy Spirit’; and finally, there is the light shed by revelation as understood at the Council on the relationship between scripture, tradition and magisterium. Let us elaborate briefly on each of these themes.


Dei Verbum speaks of ‘the plan of salvation’ being ‘realised by deeds and words having an inner unity’ (10). Commentators have noted the sequence ‘deeds and words’ (11). They stress ‘that God reveals himself to mankind by deeds and words in close connection with one another; not simply by words, nor by words and deeds, but by deeds and words. There is a point in that order; the deeds come first, and the words interpreting the deeds come second’ (12).

The deeds, then, seem to have a certain priority. As in everyday life, the actions of a person speak louder than his words, so too in salvation history. ‘The deeds wrought by God in the history of salvation manifest and confirm the teaching and reality signified by the words.’ The words follow upon the deeds and their function is also vital, since ‘they proclaim the deeds and clarify the mystery contained in them’ (13). This has a central hermeneutical importance. It shows why the single event of Cross and Resurrection is central to the New Testament whose inspired words then proclaim this multi-faceted event and clarify the mysteries contained in it. In some way, the very core of the Word to humankind then becomes the deed, indeed this Deed. One begins to understand St Paul’s programmatic statement to the Corinthians: ‘When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming the testimony of God in lofty words of wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus and him crucified’ (1 Cor 2:1-2, RSV). This Deed, where the eternal Word made flesh is silenced and becomes this Non-word, is the core of the Word (14)!

God manifests and communicates himself in the history of salvation by a combination of deeds and words. This is true to the point that, as Cardinal Newman saw, ‘Christianity is a history supernatural, and almost scenic: it tells us what its Author is, by telling us what he has done’ (15). This pattern of deed and word may be applied to the whole sweep of scripture. ‘After this mighty voice (of God) had grown continually louder through the centuries up to John, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, it finally assumed human form and after a long succession of modulations of teachings and miracles which were to show us that of all frightful things that most frightful had to be chosen by love, namely, death, it gave out a great cry and died’ (16). This event and this cry lie at the core of the Word as finally revealed.

Not all, however, have been willing to accept the role of deed and word in divine revelation, and less still in that order. Gerald O’Collins mentions those who refuse ‘to admit anything special about the events and experiences which constitute Heilsgeschichte or salvation history’ (17). These authors see little of intrinsic significance in these deeds and events, since ‘Heilsgeschichte and secular history are the same history: each from a different point of view is the story of God’s providential government of the nations’ (18). The significance of the deeds lies in the word: without the word they would have no special or revelatory meaning. But this raises the still more urgent question: ‘Why was this special prophetic and apostolic interpretation available for these historical experiences and events and not for those (of secular history)? Was there something about these historical experiences that both required and requires that theological reflection?’ (19) If the greatest deed in the whole history of Israel is the total paschal event of the passion, cross and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth who thereby becomes Christ and Lord (Acts 2:36), it is simply impossible to deny priority, and less still all significance, to the place of deeds and acts in the unfolding of revelation and salvation (20).


In the neogothic College Chapel of St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, there is a striking crucifixion in stained glass. In line with the well-documented medieval tradition in this field (21), the Crucified Christ is depicted in a vivid trinitarian ensemble. The artist portrays the Father holding the arms of the cross of his crucified Son, while the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove hovers between the Father and the crucified, no doubt as the sign of the emergence of the ‘new creation’ (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15) from the chaos of the passion culminating in this shocking finale. The insight of our medieval forefathers has come back with vigour.

This return of a solidly trinitarian setting for the crucifixion of the eternal Son is an essential presupposition for the understanding of the cry of abandonment in Mark and Matthew. Both highlight the cry of abandonment as the one ‘Word from the Cross’ which Jesus speaks, Eloi, Eloi,/Eli, Eli, lamma sabachtani. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Mk 15:34; Mt 27:46) (22). The history of the exegesis of the text shows that, apart from the early centuries of the church, this text was almost invariably interpreted as Jesus praying Psalm 21/22 (23). The consensus of contemporary exegesis reverses this view and sees in the text the revelation of Jesus’ actual experience of his own death. Jesus is not for the psalm, rather the psalm is for Jesus (Balthasar, Moltmann). The sense of the cry, in other words, is to be determined from the identity of the one who pronounces it, and he is the Son who only on the previous evening had called God ‘Abba’ (Mk 14:36), having announced throughout his whole ministry the arrival into history of the God who is love and who comes to make a new history with us.

It is understandable that this violent and harsh event, this scandalous and shocking termination of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, could not but embarrass Christians from the beginning and throughout the ages. They are called, after all, to ‘hear the Word of God with reverence’ and to ‘proclaim it confidently’, as the very opening words of Dei Verbum stress. But what do ‘reverence’ and ‘confidence’ mean in this context? And Mark seems to go out of his way to highlight the dread and horror of the disciples as Jesus turns from Caesarea-Philippi (8:27-33) towards Jerusalem repeatedly forecasting his passion (Mk 9; 10). The Old Testament in fact carried the principle, ‘One who has been hanged is accursed of God.’ (Deut 21:23)

Since the end of World War II, theologians (24) began to take this moment of the passion of Jesus seriously and as a revelation of the truth the revealing Christ wishes to make known about the invisible Father. This cry of Jesus is directed towards the God whom Jesus had called ‘Abba’ only several hours earlier. It must therefore articulate an event occurring between the Father and the Son, though an event brought on by Jesus’ executioners and, more precisely, by Jesus’ own experience of his ultimate encounter with them as the one who has come ‘to give his life as a ransom for many’ (10:45). What is the content of the cry? Pope John Paul II answers in these daring words:

One can say that these words are born at the level of that inseparable union of the Son with the Father, and are born because the Father ‘laid upon him the iniquity of us all’ (Is 53:6). They also foreshadow the words of St Paul: ‘For our sake the God made him to be sin who knew no sin’ (2 Cor 5:21). Together with this horrible weight, encompassing the entire evil of turning away from God which is contained in sin, Christ, through the divine depth of his filial union with God, perceives in a humanly inexpressible way this suffering, which is the separation, the rejection by the Father, the estrangement from God. But precisely through his suffering he accomplishes the redemption, and can say as he breathes his last, ‘It is finished’ (Jn 19: 29) (25).

Sinners are, by definition, without God, God-forsaken. The eternal Son coming on mission from the Father to bring them out of God-forsakenness and into communion with the Father (Eph 2:16-17), his ‘Abba’ (14:36), has loved them to the point of compromise. Because Jesus is God he is agape-love, but too much love makes him completely one with the beloved who are without his Father: he becomes God-forsaken with the God-forsaken. This outcome seems inevitable. He loses everything for love of his Abba and for love of us except love. Out of love for his Abba he wishes to give us his Abba as our Father, and has the appalling experience of experiencing him in that moment far from himself. ‘O all you who pass by, look and see if there is any suffering like unto mine’ (Lam 1:12).

In Jesus crucified and forsaken one catches a glimpse of the kind of God who is operating in the passion. He is the God ‘who to offer salvation to human beings, reaches them in their greatest distance from himself – whether it’s the distance everyone is individually responsible for, or that caused by the personal and social malice of others. It’s a distance which God has to experience himself, who, being Love, becomes one with us to the point of the cry on the cross’ (26). The extraordinary words of a document from the International Theological Commission immediately come to mind: ‘No matter how great be the sinner’s estrangement from God, it is not as deep as the sense of distance that the Son experiences vis-à-vis the Father in the kenotic emptying of himself (Phil 2:7), and in the anguish of “abandonment” (Mt 27:46) (27). Thinking of this fact Hans Urs von Balthasar writes:

We cannot emphasise strongly enough that this exegesis of God has no real analogue in the entire world of religion. Here God interprets his depths in suffering – that is, in a voluntary suffering, taking on himself the guilt of others; all the other ways travelled by man are such as entail the overcoming of suffering, the quest for the ‘happy life’, or immunity to the reversals of life. All this is comprehensible. These are the typically human notions in which wisdom consists. But God’s self-interpretation is in its foolishness ‘wiser than human wisdom’ (1 Cor 1:25) (28).

What Mark brings out in his gospel, Paul has already highlighted in his letters. Paul rejoices to quote the Deuteronomic text we have already cited in his Letter to the Galatians (29). However, he cites it with confidence, in fact, to highlight ‘the revelation of the glory of God shining on the face of his Son’ (2 Cor 4:6). Both as a former rabbi and as an apostle, he is aware of the scandalous impact of the fact. Nowhere does this shine out more than in his letters to the Christians of Corinth, particularly the first. There he encounters two mindsets that dismiss as illogical ‘the word of the Cross’ (1 Cor 1:18) which for him is the core of the kerygma (1 Cor 2:2) (30).

‘The Jews demand miracles and the Greeks look for wisdom.’ Ernst Käsemann identifies here what he terms two ‘egocentrisms’ (31) The first is the religious mode. It claims the right to determine in advance the manner in which God ought to show and reveal himself. Certain currents in the Judaism of Paul’s milieu are of this clear mindset. In that way, they arrogate to themselves the role of measuring the validity of whatever God should propose. Such an egocentrism is simply closed to the divine initiative. It has already set boundaries to what God ought to do, or even could do, in his search for wayward and ‘enslaved’ (Phil 2:7) humankind. And as to ‘the word of the cross’, they are scandalised by the very thought. It is ‘an obstacle they cannot get over’ (1 Cor 1:23).

The second egocentrism is of a philosophical kind. Paul associates it with those whom he calls ‘Greeks’. This is a philosophical egocentrism. It pretends to arrive at the final sense of existence and so also of the mystery of God with the sole energies of reason and speculation. God is to be found at the conclusion of a syllogism. In that way they arrogate to themselves the capacity and the right to measure the divine abyss with human intelligence. The intellect is the measure of the divine. From that perspective ‘the word of the Cross’ is simply madness (1 Cor 1:23).

Faced by these two egocentrisms, Paul proposes with formidable rhetoric and insight the crucified Christ as ‘the power and the wisdom of God’ (1 Cor 1:24). It is Jesus crucified and only he who is the true measure and revealer of who God is. Jesus crucified is the ‘demystifier’ – to use the word which ‘the masters of suspicion’ like Marx, Nietzsche and Freud applied to religion – of that attitude which would measure God by setting itself up as the norm of what is appropriate for God to do or even to be. Of course there is a way to approach God also from reason. Paul, in fact, champions that approach in Romans (1:20; 2:14-15, 17-18), as he had done while in Athens (Acts 17:23f) (32). Philosophy, however, is not capable of capturing ‘the crucifixion of Christ’ (1 Cor 1:17). Jesus crucified and forsaken challenges radically all Philosophy and all other religion. As Pope John Paul writes in Fides et Ratio, ‘Man cannot grasp how death could be the source of life and love; yet to reveal the mystery of his saving plan God has chosen precisely that which reason considers “foolishness” and a “scandal” (23)’.


Gerald O’Collins notices that there are significant texts on revelation in the corpus of Vatican II outside of Dei Verbum (33). A good case in point is the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. In the former we read what has become an axiom in Catholic theology since the Council, ‘Only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light’ (22). Pope John Paul returns to this text in Fides et Ratio and comments: ‘Seen in any other terms, the mystery of personal existence remains an insoluble riddle. Where might the human being seek the answer to dramatic questions such as pain, the suffering of the innocent and death, if not in the light streaming from the mystery of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection?’ (12). Divine revelation reveals God to Man, and man to himself. Now this deserves a little unpacking in the interests of clarity.

The history of salvation witnesses two searches at the core of its drama. The first is the search of man for the ultimate origin or purpose of life. This search is identified in the ‘the search from below’, if that is the appropriate way, to speak of it: ‘… all the nations might seek God and, by feeling their way towards him, succeed in finding him’ (Acts 17:27). Cardinal Newman described this, as well as the religions that result, as ‘the Dispensation of Paganism’. It is the

vague and uncertain family of religious truths, originally from God, but sojourning without the sanction of miracle, or a definite home, as pilgrims up and down the world, and discernible and separable from the corrupt legends with which they are mixed.

It has to follow that there is

nothing unreasonable in the notion that there may have been heathen poets and sages, or sibyls again, in a certain sense divinely illuminated, and organs through whom religious and moral truth was conveyed (34).

Newman’s thinking here is deeply indebted to the early philosophers and theologians of the church, especially those from Alexandria like Clement, Origen and Dionysius. They enabled him to understand that Dispensation of Paganism by which ‘nature was a parable: scripture was an allegory: pagan literature, philosophy, and mythology, properly understood, were but a preparation for the gospel. The Greek poets and sages were in a certain sense prophets’ (35). He came to understand that the God who is sought after in the plethora of pagan philosophers and myths does nothing in vain. It followed that ‘when Providence would make a Revelation, he does not begin anew, but uses the existing system … Thus the great characteristic of revelation is addition, substitution’ (36). Newman gives new currency to the Augustinian claim that God has given some revelation to devout pagans (37).

Pope John Paul, in Fides et Ratio, stresses that

a cursory glance at ancient history shows clearly how in different parts of the world, with their different cultures, there arise at the same time the fundamental questions which pervade life: Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life? These are the questions which we find in the sacred writings of Israel, as also in the Veda and the Avesta; we find them in the writings of Confucius and Lao-Tze, and in the preaching of Tirthankara and Buddha; they appear in the poetry of Homer and in the tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles, as they do in the philosophical writings of Plato and Aristotle (1).

To see the many texts of the ancient religions and philosophies as expressions of the search of humankind for answers to the ‘fundamental questions pervading life is to point to the principle of intelligibility inherent in all these religions. The truth is that ‘men look to the various religions for answers to those profound mysteries of the human condition which, today even as in olden times, deeply stir the human heart’ (38). Perhaps a little streamlining of the various answers may underline the nature of that search.

Here it may be helpful to speak in terms of different ‘ways’ opened up by the various religions. First, there is the Way of the primitive religions. At the heart of this way lies the search for communion with the more lasting parts of the cosmos. This search, however, has certain definite characteristics, including polytheism and mythology. There are the many ‘gods’ and each corresponds to basic needs such as the need for security, for protection, for fertility and so forth. These ‘gods’ are inevitably made in the image of the people who seek their patronage or specific blessing. This accounts for the anthropocentrism of this way. In mythology one reads the story of the struggle between good and evil, as for example in the Egyptian poem, The Dispute of a man, who contemplates suicide, with his Soul (39), and the struggle between death and life, as in the Epic of Gilgamesh. In Ireland we have the extraordinary fact of the ancient neolithic tumulus of Newgrange which is a cry captured and frozen in stone of the human search for communion with the lasting parts of the cosmos (40).

Next, there is the way of philosophy and of the great religions. In the millennium before the Christian era there is a special breakthrough in two forms, that of Greek philosophy and the great religions. This way places man’s hope in reason as the tension towards the Ground of all reality, the Alpha. The greatness of this tradition is that it purified man’s religious desire to seek the true God and pointed out the way to succeed in that seeking. There cannot be many ‘gods’, in fact only One and this One is not like any of the many things around us. To reach him, in fact, we have to tend towards him with seriousness of purpose and with the help of masters and the right spiritual technique. The search here ascends from below and requires the negation of the self, the world and of things. All this means that the human, the starting point, is denied at the very outset. And the world and creation are denied: they cannot exist because the one exists!

The people of Israel, however, made a great discovery through the gracious kindness of Providence: it is not we who seek God, it is rather God who seeks us out (Deut 7:7-9). The history of Israel witnesses to this tremendous fact: the God of Abraham sought the deepest communion with the children of Abraham, and through them with the whole of humanity (Gen 12:3). ‘When Israel was a child I loved him … I led them with reins of kindness, with the leading strings of love … They will have to go back to Egypt, Assyria must be their king.'(Hos 11:1, 4, 5). Israel knew in her bones that it was Yahweh who sought her out. However, her historic discovery was that she found it almost impossible to live in the great realm opened up over that time by exodus, repeated covenant, prophets and liturgy (41). This revelation of deep-seated spiritual debility required a movement towards the future to an age to be ushered in by a Messiah and a Suffering Servant, as Second Isaiah stresses. The decisive weighting of Yahweh’s design ‘which stands for ever’ (Ps 33:11) is transposed into the future. The fullness of Yahweh’s gift is located beyond the present and can only be inaugurated at a time to be decided by Yahweh and through the agency of the Messiah and the mysterious Suffering Servant who, as Yahweh’s comfort to his people (Is 40:1f), will ‘do a new thing’ (Is 43:19). The notion of the future time, the messianic time, is thus central in Israel. As a result, ‘the pathos of Judaism is immense; it permeates all world history. Judaic expectations became secularised, not only in Marxism which forgets the basic covenant and acknowledges only prophetic movements, but also in the ideology of technical progress that fascinates all’ (42).

There are, then, the ways of the ancient religions, of the great religions, and of philosophy. These three begin from below and reach upwards towards the Answer. Then there is the way of Israel which is the way of Judaic futurism and hope. The first set is vertical in orientation, the way of Israel is descending and horizontal. It seems that these two simply cannot meet. However, ‘what is irreconcilable in the world (the vertical and the horizontal) forms a cross, an empty cross that cannot be occupied by anyone. Jesus Christ alone can fill this empty space, because he is the fulfilment both of pagan human longing and of Jewish hopeful faith’ (43). Here the human search from below, in its many different modalities and incarnations in the history of religion and philosophy, effectively meets the divine descending search of Yahweh for Israel and humanity. The result is Christ who, according to the scriptures, is ‘The Word made flesh.’ In the striking words of T.S. Eliot, ‘here the impossible union of spheres of existence is actual’ (44).

That intersection far exceeds the wildest imaginings of the human mind. Who could have ever imagined that the eternal Word himself should have left heaven and made himself one with a creature? (Phil 2:6-8). Fides et Ratio picks up the theme: ‘In the incarnation of the Son of God we see forged the enduring and definitive synthesis which the human mind of itself could not even have imagined: the Eternal enters time, the Whole lies hidden in the part, God takes on a human face (12)’ (45). As a result, ‘participation in divine nature is not merely an aspiration, a continuation of the movement we experience within. Now it is a reality completed through the participation of transcendent divinity in human nature’ (46).


The approach we have adopted here in reading the texts has perhaps opened the way for a better understanding of the relationship between revelation and philosophy, and between faith and reason. For our method follows both the order of history and the order reached by specific differentiations of consciousness. It follows, firstly, the order of history in suggesting the sequence of primitive or compact cultures, the great religions, philosophy, and Israel. In the compact cultures the divine, the human and the cosmic are all consubstantial as it were. The great religions distinguish the divine from all the rest as the first / last, the beyond / ground. The sequence concludes with the emergence of philosophy in Greece and divine revelation in Israel. It follows, secondly, the order of differentiations of consciousness which seeks to understand this sequence as a set of definite noetic and spiritual ‘outbursts’. Man emerges as the one who in the whole of the cosmos is aware of himself as a tension towards the ground of all being (philosophy), while in Israel he discovers himself as someone ‘to whom the invisible God out of the abundance of his love speaks as to a friend (cf Ex 33:11)’ (47). Israel makes the collective and historical experience of being the one addressed, called and approached by the very Ground of Being who smiles on her as a parent smiles on a child.

The specificity and richness of the revelational differentiations now come into full view. In the Old Testament, God calls and blesses Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their children for ever (Gen 12:1-3; Is 6:8-13). Man is made in this God’s image and likeness (Gen 1:26), Israel is the People of God, and the whole world is his good creation. With the advance of this God’s dialogue of love with Israel (see Jer 31:3), a dialogue expressing his search for the whole of humankind, there are new and astounding ‘leaps in being’. The dialogue between this God and man becomes union when the Word becomes flesh, crossing the ontological abyss separating the infinite and the finite. The People of Israel become the Body of Christ, and creation is resurrected with the Risen Christ (Rom 8:22-5) to become ‘the new creation’
(2 Cor 5:17, Gal 6:15). David Walsh puts the matter in these terms:

The witness of Christ is not just a gain of intellectual clarity; it is the firm welding together of a structure that had only flimsily cohered up to that time and ever since. The most difficult and the deepest mystery of our existence now has definition. It is not eliminated nor even reduced, but its central structure is now confirmed. Confronted with the agonising problem of evil and suffering in existence, of the contradiction between the imperative of virtue and the persistent failure of achievement, we can be assured that their resolution has already taken place (48).

In the earliest Christian times the unity of revelation, theology and philosophy was the norm. A vivid instance is Justin Martyr, a professional philosopher who became a Christian in the middle of the second century. The principal reason for his embracing the Christian faith was that he found in revelation not an alternative to philosophy but its genuine fulfilment. Christianity for Justin was ‘the only true and profitable philosophy’ (49). According to Eric Voegelin, Justin is convinced that ‘gospel and philosophy do not face the believer with a choice of alternatives, nor are they complementary aspects of truth which the thinker would have to weld into the complete truth; in his conception, the Logos of the gospel is rather the same Word of the same God as the logos spermatikos of philosophy, but at a later state of its manifestation in history’ (50). His view is typical for the early centuries.

It was precisely this unity that allowed the Fathers of the church to detect in the cultures of the nations the ‘seeds of the Word’. This opened the way for an inculturation of the gospel that led to a new flowering of the culture being evangelised, as its particular logoi spermatikoi germinated in the encounter with revelation. Christ gathered up all the truths scattered up and down the world by introducing himself. However, he did so while also ‘bringing a total newness by bringing himself’ (51), as St Irenaeus stresses. This means that ‘[i]n practice … one has to recognise, and make intelligible, the presence of Christ in a Babylonian hymn, or a Taoist speculation, or a Platonic dialogue’ (52) while, at the same time, highlighting the arrival through the incarnation and the paschal mystery of the omnis novitas. This novitas in fact is ‘the love (agape) of Christ which is beyond all knowing’ (Eph 3:18). Even as it is communicated it becomes more mysterious.

A fascinating corroboration of this fact is to be found in the earliest Christian art. Original research shows that ‘in its earliest beginnings Christian art arose out of the quest for the true philosophy’, a fact that dashes the idea that the relationship between faith and philosophy is quite abstract. ‘It was philosophy which enabled the first plastic expressions of the faith: … the shepherd, the orans and the philosopher.’ The philosopher image represents the true person of wisdom, the one who is the ‘prototype of the homo christianus who has received the revelation of the true paradise through the gospel.’ Besides, ‘the figure of the philosopher now becomes the image of Christ himself.’ For Christ alone has the answer to the universal problem of death. And the most penetrating question, the question piercing the side of each and every man and woman, is precisely the question of death. ‘Philosophy, the search for meaning in the face of death, is now represented as the search for Christ’: he is the ‘one philosopher who gives an effectual answer by changing death and, therefore, changing life itself’ (53).


The place of the Holy Spirit in divine revelation is acknowledged indeed. On no less than twenty-three occasions he is mentioned in the text of Dei Verbum. Still, his place is less substantial than it might have been. The text is more Christocentric in content and, as such, is in line with the general tenor of Latin pneumatology.

Now this seems to be a great pity. Even a cursory glance at the central events of the two Testaments is enough to highlight the pervasive and determining role played by the Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament ‘he had spoken through the Prophets’ (55). It was the same Holy Spirit who had brought about the incarnation of the eternal Word in Mary (Lk 1:35). And when Mary’s Son had risen from the dead and had shown that it was necessary (dei) for the Messiah to suffer and so enter his glory (Lk 24:26), he warned the disciples to stay in the city ‘until he sent down upon them what the Father has promised’ (Lk 24:49), namely, the Holy Spirit. Finally, Luke recounts the irruption of the Holy Spirit when, at Pentecost, he floods the minds and hearts of the disciples. He brings about in them the inhabitation of the crucified and risen One, a kind of communitarian incarnation of Christ in a fashion analagous to his original, substantial incarnation in Mary. This rapid and illustrative listing of the ‘wonders of the Holy Spirit’ is sufficient to highlight the relative weakness of pneumatology in the text of Dei Verbum.

As Dei Verbum stresses, Christ the Lord is the one in whom the full revelation of the supreme God is brought to completion (cf 2 Cor 1:20; 3:16; 4:6). However, it is important to realise that the Spirit is not a second interpretation of God, but rather the perfection of the first and only interpretation, ‘since he will not be speaking as from himself but will only say what he has learnt; and he will tell you of the things to come. He will glorify me, since all he tells you will be taken from what is mine. Everything the Father has is mine; that is why I said: “All he tells you will be taken from what is mine” (Jn 16:13-15)’ (56).

In that way it is legitimate to see in the Holy Spirit the principle of reception of divine revelation.

While the Holy Spirit is not the ‘second interpretation of God’ – ‘it is the only Son who is nearest the Father’s heart who has made him known (exegesato)’ (Jn 1:18) – he is the finisher and polisher of divine revelation with regard to us. His is ‘that divine influence, which has the fullness of Christ’s grace to purify us, has also the power of Christ’s blood to justify’ (57). Far from replacing the Son made flesh ‘who is in himself both the mediator and the fullness of all revelation’ (Dei Verbum 2), the Holy Spirit serves to place him in human hearts and to enliven him in human lives. A metaphor from the theatre suggests itself. Just as the dramatic action on the stage tends to draw the spectators on to the stage, so does the Holy Spirit manifest the action of the Son to us the spectators who are then drawn into the action. That is why the Holy Spirit is the key to revelation as a divine and human drama.

An eminent orthodox bishop, Ignatios of Latakia, sums up the matter with refreshing brevity. He wrote:

Without the Holy Spirit, God is far away,
Christ stays in the past,
the Gospel is a dead letter,
the Church is simply an organisation,
authority a matter of dominion,
mission a matter of propaganda,
the liturgy no more than an evocation,
Christian living a slave morality.

But in the Holy Spirit:

the cosmos is resurrected and groans with
birth-pangs of the Kingdom,
the risen Christ is there,
the Gospel is the power of life,
the Church shows forth the life of the Trinity,
authority is a liberating service,
mission is a Pentecost,
the liturgy is both memorial and anticipation,
human action is deified (58).

In the earliest inculturation of the gospel outside of Palestine, that is, in the culture of Greece and Rome, there was at hand the understanding of logos, as we have seen in the case of Justin Martyr. The Greek culture provided an understanding of the human subject as logos, ‘as the one in whom the absolute comes into expression as word … In Greek culture we are confronted with the absolute and, through the logos, reflect on it.’ It is easy to see why the first cultural area which divine Revelation penetrated was that which had made the logos its own. However, ‘the categories of Greek culture did not allow for a reflection on the Spirit (’59). The end result of this absence was that the role of the Holy Spirit, so powerfully highlighted in the very gospel that highlights both the incarnate Logos and the sheer centrality of ‘the Spirit’ who alone ‘leads into the complete truth’ and ‘brings everything to mind’ (Jn 16:13; 14:26), was not thought through. This failure easily led to the absolutisation of the subject as logos. This process has now reached a stage in European culture where the subject places himself over against the God of the incarnate Logos because that culture has not understood the truth that ‘the human subject in Christ is invited to accomplish a journey in Christ’ (60). It is the Holy Spirit who shows the many directions of that journey and the Lebensraum which it opens for each person, for society and for the whole of human history.


Perhaps one of the most significant breakthroughs of the conciliar text consists in its going beyond the post-Tridentine polemic between the Catholic Church and the Reformers with respect to the ‘sources of revelation’. That polemic involved the conflict between the Protestant sola scriptura and sola fides, on the one hand, and the Catholic combination of scripture, tradition and magisterium, on the other. On the Catholic side, the language of ‘sources of revelation’ gained the ascendancy.

Underlying this gigantic struggle was an understanding of scripture that was somewhat naïve and reductionist. The scriptures are not merely a written, albeit inspired, norm for the church’s faith. They are much more than this. Besides, ‘Scripture alone was a principle that allowed revelation to be measured by the recipient, and not by the revealer’ (61). Tradition for its part is more than the living collection of oral teaching set in the living context of the church’s liturgical life and abiding task of catechising for initiation and nurturing in the faith. It is so rich and subtle and varied that it will manifest itself in many channels at the prompting of the Holy Spirit and in harmony with the historical and cultural needs of the church on her pilgrimage through history (62).

One of the glories of Dei Verbum is its vivid awareness of the need to go beyond the unsatisfactory formulations forged in the context of Counter-Reformation theology. Chapter two of the Constitution is clearly preoccupied with the effort to produce definitions of scripture, tradition and magisterium as functions of divine revelation and ‘of the one sacred deposit of the word of God, which is committed to the church’ (Dei Verbum, 10). The Council defines sacred scripture as ‘the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit.’ It continues in the next breath, ‘To the successors of the apostles, sacred tradition hands on in its full purity God’s word, which was entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit’ (Dei Verbum, 9). Since the rubric, ‘the word of God’ is a synonym for divine revelation in Dei Verbum, one may see here the concern of the Council fathers to define scripture and tradition in a way that was more patristic, more catholic and more historical, and, by the same token, less polemical. In this perspective, scripture, tradition and magisterium are not primarily sources of divine revelation but its very media, its carriers.

The debate at the Council was much concerned to arrive at a more theologically accurate description of these media of divine revelation. An outstanding and insightful contribution to that debate was made, shortly before the promulgation of Dei Verbum, by the Melkite archbishop, Neophytes Edelby (63). The archbishop concentrates on certain key elements in the total process of the transmission of revelation. As a first principle, ‘one cannot separate the mission of the Holy Spirit from the mission of the incarnate Word’ in the interpretation of scripture. This means, second, that scripture ‘is the witness of the Holy Spirit to Christ’ and being such a witness demands that scripture be seen as a prophetic and liturgical witness to Christ. ‘Through this witness of the Holy Spirit, the saving plan (‘economy’) of the Word reveals the Father’, and scripture becomes a ‘certain consecration of salvation history.’ It must follow that the Holy Spirit bends down over the deeds constituting salvation history and renders these deeds contemporaneous with the church in all her ages.

This means that the Holy Spirit is an epiclesis over salvation history. Such an epiclesis renders the events of that history alive and present. This throws up the idea of tradition and the fact of tradition. In that way the Holy Spirit bears witness to the total event of Jesus Christ ‘who is in himself both the mediator and the fullness of all revelation.’ (2) The Holy Spirit witnesses to it in the pages of scripture and keeps it alive in the manifold channels and manifestations of tradition. This understanding of Dei Verbum allows for a much more vivid and theological grasp of the place of scripture and tradition in the total divine economy of revelation. That revelation is incomplete without its embodiment and expression in these media (64), which are intelligible only in the light of the mission of the Holy Spirit and the mission of the Eternal Word. And what of the magisterium? The same principle of the double mission obtains, for ‘the Spirit is the Spirit of the body of Christ. Tradition, therefore, should be regarded and lived above all in the light of the sacrament of apostolicity – that is to say, the episcopate’ (65). This grounds the teaching task of the successors of Peter and the Twelve.

Two Lacunae
In the light of such a fine articulation of divine revelation, which, in the words of Cardinal Newman, is ‘the initial and essential idea of Christianity’ (66), Dei Verbum can be seen to deserve richly the accolade accorded to it by Karl Barth. However, the text overlooks two areas that seem to be eminently deserving of at least a mention. The first of these areas is the need to employ the transcendental of ‘beauty’ and not only those of ‘truth’ and ‘goodness’. Secondly, there is the necessity of approaching reality with trinitarian eyes. This requires the elaboration of a trinitarian ontology. Such an ontology would highlight the originality of revelation. In stressing the centrality of the Trinitarian mystery, it opens up the various colours of reality, what the tradition calls the transcendentals of being: it will not be enough to employ exclusively the categories of the true and the good. In highlighting the originality of the ontology implicit in revelation, it could have pre-empted the tendency of modern culture not to look to the gospel for inspiration or even dialogue. These areas can be associated, respectively, with the names of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Klaus Hemmerle.

a. Revelation as Theological Aesthetics, Drama, and Logic: von Balthasar
The thrust of Dei Verbum is such that a number of definitions of divine revelation either stand out or else insinuate themselves. Thus, revelation is the communication of ‘the truth, both about God and about the salvation of humankind’ (2). This notion of revelation adopts the category of truth, and enjoys a certain ascendancy in the history of theology. Divine revelation provides the great truths of the faith, its principles. This language of divine revelation as truth is prominent in Dei Verbum (see 5; and 6, ‘truths’). The language of the ‘good’ is also there or implied. ‘God is with us to deliver us from the darkness of sin and death, and to raise us up to eternal life’ (4). What is absent, however, is the language of beauty, or its revealed equivalent, glory.

Now this is a glaring omission. From beginning to end the scriptures of both Testaments are shot through with the language of kabhod and doxa (glory) (67). From the heights of Sinai where God lets all his glory pass by Moses (Ex 34), through the call of Isaiah (Is 6) to the incarnation of the Son in the flesh of Mary (Jn 1:14), revelation has as its sustaining and expanding content the manifestation of the glory of the God of Moses, the prophets and of Jesus Christ. ‘We saw his glory, the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father, full of grace and of truth’ (Jn 1:14). God shows himself as beauty in the face of his crucified and risen Son, and interprets that face to us by the Holy Spirit (see 2 Cor 4:6).

Christian revelation is something that is done by God showing us Christ. He who used to be ‘in the form of God’ (Phil 2:6) appears in Christ on the stage of the world in the form of man in ‘the condition of a slave’, and in the golden words of St Augustine, ‘turning us slaves into children by being born from you, Father, and by serving you’ (68). The root of this showing is in the ever-greater love of the Trinity (see Eph 3:19). Christ is the Gestalt of God, a word that has affinities with Hopkins’ notion of ‘inscape’. It means that Christ is the ‘form’, ‘figure’, ‘shape’ of God. He is the Father’s consubstantial self-portrait. The idea maybe clarified with the help of an analogy borrowed from the world of painting.

In Christian Faith the captivating force (the ‘subjective evidence’) of the artwork which is Christ takes hold of our imaginative powers; we enter into the ‘painterly world’ which this discloses and, entranced by what we see, we come to contemplate the glory or sovereign love of God in Christ (the ‘objective evidence’) as manifested in the concrete events of his life, death and resurrection. So entering his glory we become absorbed by it, but this very absorption sends us out into the world in sacrificial love like that of Jesus (69).

Von Balthasar has dedicated two of the six volumes of the Theological Aesthetics to representatives of the two Christian millennia who elaborated epoch-making theologies by perceiving the revealed glory of trinitarian, crucified and glorified love. The constant factor in all these theologies is the perception of Christian revelation as the inbreaking of divine glory into human history. The God who shows himself as Absolute Love, pours himself forth as absolute Good, and in that way definitively utters the absolute Truth. God shows himself as the absolute Beauty, gives himself as the absolute Good, and speaks himself as the absolute Truth (70). Christianity begins to stand forth as a threefold of theological aesthetic, theological dramatic, and theological logic. For this reason ‘Christianity is destroyed if it lets itself be reduced to transcendental presuppositions of a man’s self-understanding whether in thought or in life, in knowledge or in action’ (71). It is also destroyed if it lets itself be reduced to being an answer to the search of history or the goal of the elan of the world. Christ in fact is the answer that questions all answers, the omega point that wildly exceeds ‘all that we could dare ask or imagine’ (Eph 3:20). He lets his glory be seen and the result is that the eyes of our hearts are healed (St Augustine), and enabled both to believe ‘into Christ’ (Jn 2:11; see 11:40; 19:37; 1 Jn 1:1-3) and to be drawn into communion with the Father of the incarnate Son (Jn 14: 6-7; 1 Jn 1:2-3).

The Old Testament carried a particularly severe prohibition against the making of idols (Ex 20: 4-5; Lev 19:4; Hos 8:6; Deut 4:35; 6:4). With the advance of revelation it was increasingly clear why it did so: men and women could make God only in their own image and likeness. Only God himself could manifest himself. He had to be his own exegete (72). In the words of a contemporary philosopher, ‘The incarnation of divine order within reality can never be adequately manifested by the imperfect, creaturely struggle for realisation. Only God himself can reveal the meaning of his order within time’ (73). It is God himself who, revealing himself as glory, shows that ‘the theological object provides the conditions of possibility for its knowledge’ (74). Here ultimately is the reason why von Balthasar focuses on the revealed cipher of glory, which correlates with beauty. This permits him to propose a genuinely ‘theological theology’ as a solid alternative to a merely anthropological unpacking of divine revelation (75).

b. Towards a Trinitarian Ontology: Hemmerle
The implications of revelation for metaphysics are striking. And they must be so if divine revelation is to be perceived in its pristine freshness and have cultural significance. Since ‘God is love’ (1 Jn 4:8, 16), a new metaphysics has to evolve. This metaphysics has to incorporate the revealed principle that Being at its summit is love, indeed trinitarian love. Henri de Lubac makes the point with vigour: ‘The mystery of the Trinity has opened to us a totally new perspective: the ground of being is communio’ (76). In the fourth century this was clear to a thinker such as Gregory Nazianzen when he wrote: ‘Unity having from all eternity arrived by motion at Duality, found its rest in Trinity. This is what we mean by Father and Son and Holy Ghost’ (77). Here one notices the event of the Trinity as the core of what is specifically Christian. In the following century, St Augustine would have liked to develop his De trinitate in strictly interpersonal terms. He suggests the explosive potential of Christian revelation for our understanding of Being at all its echelons when he wrote, ‘If you see charity, you see the Trinity’ (78). The God of Jesus Christ is not a One who wants to substitute the Many. Rather, he wishes ‘to lead the many to the Trinity. Jesus has opened out for us the One of the Trinity’ (79). Bonaventure in his time designed the whole of his theological enterprise under the rubric of the Trinity (80). Pascal saw this vividly in the sixteenth century when
he wrote: ‘A plurality that cannot be integrated into unity is chaos; unity unrelated to plurality is tyranny’ (81). These great figures, however, are exceptions proving that the revolutionary meaning of revelation has not been drawn out in the received theological and philosophical tradition.

Now here we are face-to-face with both a deficit and a drama. The deficit consists in the absence of an ontology responsive to a revelation whose core insight is that the summit of reality is a Tri-unity. Klaus Hemmerle describes this deficit vividly in his Theses zu einer trinitarischen Ontologie: ‘The basic concern of an ontology which would set out from what is specifically Christian can no longer be the question, what remains and what changes? This question may not be omitted, but it is a question that can no longer constitute an indisputable point of departure. For if the enterprise of thought is grounded exclusively on that which remains, one begins from an isolated point of departure and with the desire of defending one’s own positions and one’s own purposes’ (82). In a word, the basic Christian revelation and experience simply demands ‘a new understanding of Being’ (83).

Christian revelation shows that God is Trinity, and that each of the Divine Persons is in the Others and for the Others, as the Fathers expressed so clearly with their idea of perichoresis. Christian revelation, furthermore, stresses the axiom that only the person who loses his life for the gospel (Mk 8:35) and for others (Mt 25:30-45) will find it.

It is difficult to exaggerate the revolutionary impact of the simple affirmation that only love lasts. For if what lasts is love, then the centre of gravity shifts from the self to the other, and both movement (not in the Aristotelian sense) and relationship (relatio, no longer understood as a category, as the most insignificant accident of Being) go to the centre of the stage. Movement and relationship, however, do not constitute a new principle from which everything could again be derived by means of an isolated deduction. Only one thing remains, participation in that movement which love (Agape) itself is. This movement is the very rhythm of Being. It is the rhythm of that giving which gives itself (84).

The deficit in ontology, however, is the key to an historical drama that continues to unfold in the West. That drama may be detected in the atomisation of Christian society, and in the conviction widespread even among Christians that the revelation of God as Trinity has nothing to do with personal living or the building up of society in solidarity. It is enough to think of the notion of the human person that holds sway in order to see the truth of Hemmerle’s diagnosis and the need for an antidote. That notion was formulated by Boethius, and has become theologically and socially dominant. The person is an individual, a ‘naturae rationales individua substantia’, and not also a capacity crying out for communion and relationship (85). Yet Augustine had understood a divine Person as relatio, and Aquinas as relatio subsistens. Perhaps it is the dominance of person as individual over person as relation that is the real reason for the slowness with which the Council’s emphasis on communion is being received in the church.

This chapter set out to revisit the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on revelation. It did so, however, with a very definite purpose in view. Having studied the ‘two languages’ operative in the text in order to highlight the new ‘style’ of life now emerging in the church, it listed five major breakthroughs in the text of the first two chapters of Dei Verbum. It then went on to propose some elaboration of each of those areas. In a concluding section it mentioned two omissions in the text, the one theological and the other philosophical in character. Christian revelation consists above all in the glory-beauty of trinitarian, crucified and glorified Love shown and offered to humankind as our very Lebensraum already here and now (1 Jn 3:2). Such a disclosure of ‘the love of Christ which is beyond all knowledge’ (Eph 3:19) must transform our understanding of reality and inspire the elaboration of a trinitarian ontology as the ‘handmaid of Catholic theology’. That is why we shall have to return to this topic in our fourth chapter where we shall suggest a first sketch of some of the components of such an ontology.

Perhaps the last word should be had by that unknown genius of the early second century when writing to his friend, Diognetus: his elegant words catch the melody that crosses the two millennia of theological reflection on divine revelation.

It is not an earthly discovery that has been entrusted to the Christians. The thing they guard so jealously is no product of mortal thinking, and what has been committed to them is no stewardship of human mysteries. The Almighty himself, the Creator of the Universe, the God whom no eye can discern, has sent down his very own Truth from heaven, his own holy and incomprehensible Word, to plant it among men and ground it in their hearts (86).







  1. Chiara Lubich, Essential Writings, London 2007, 28 quoting a letter from Jesus Castellano OCD; italics added. This point is also made by Cardinal Montini (later Pope Paul VI), Discorsi sulla Madonna e sui santi (1955-1962), Milan 1965, 499-500, and by Karl Rahner, ‘The Spirituality of the Church of the Future’ in Theological Investigations, volume 20, New York 1981,150-152.
  2. St Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, IV, 34, 1.
  3. St Augustine, De Trinitate, VIII, 8, 12.
  4. Immanuel Kant, Il conflitto delle facolte, Genoa 1953, 47.
  5. It is enough to mention Hans Urs von Balthasar and Karl Rahner as examples.
  6. Bruno Forte, La Trinità, Milano 1983, 11.
  7. Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, 20.
  8. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Elucidations, I, London 1975, 75.
  9. Lumen Gentium, 4.
  10. Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes, 37.
  11. Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, 43.
  12. Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, vol 14, London 1976, 295-310.
  13. Henri de Lubac, La Foi chrétienne, Paris 1970, 13-14.
  14. Walter Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, London 1984, 156.
  15. St Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, IV, 34.
  16. Henri de Lubac, Theology in History, San Francisco 1996, 49; see n 4.


  1. See Norman P. Tanner SJ, ed. Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, vol II, London and Washington DC, 1990, for the text of the Constitution in Latin and English translation, 971-81: this will be our English translation except where otherwise indicated; for a forty-page bibliography, see Gerald O’Collins SJ, Retrieving Fundamental Theology. The Three Styles of f Contemporary Theology, London 1993, 187-217.
  2. Karl Barth, Vatican II: La révélation divine, Paris 1968, 522.
  3. See Ghislain Lafont, ‘La Constitution Dei Verbum et ses precedents conciliares’, in Nouvelle Revue Théologique, 110(1988), 58-73; Breandán Leahy, ‘Revelation and Faith’, in Bede McGregor OP and Thomas Norris (eds), Evangelizing for the Third Millennium. The Maynooth Conference on the New Catechism, May 1996, Dublin 1997, 64-84.
  4. Breandán Leahy, op. cit., 65-66.
  5. The English translation of Dei Verbum here is from the standard text of Walter M. Abbott SJ, The Documents of Vatican II, London and Dublin 1966.
  6. See comments of Joseph Ratzinger, in Herbert Vorgrimler, Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, vol  II, New York 1969, 171f.
  7. Novo Millennio Ineunte, 43.
  8. John Henry Newman, Preface to the Third Edition of the Via Media, London 1891, xlvii. Paul Avis writes, ‘If we knew where we were with revelation, everything else would fall into place’, in his review of Gerald O’Collins, op. cit., in The Tablet, 29 April 1995, 543.
  9. Here we follow the translation of Walter M. Abbott SJ, op. cit.
  10. Dei Verbum, n 3, ‘… gestis verbisque intrinsice inter se connexis.
  11. St John’s gospel corroborates the same theology of revelation. Jesus’ whole ministry is lived out under the pressure of ‘the hour’. (2:4; 7:30; 8:30; 12:23, 27; 13:1; 17:1) All the events, from the first ‘sign’ of Cana, where ‘He let his glory be seen’ (2:11), to the great discourse culminating in the high priestly prayer, are measured in terms of their increasing proximity to ‘the hour’. (12:23, 27; 13:1, 32; 17:5; 19:27)
  12. B. C. Butler, ‘The Vatican Council on Divine Revelation’, in The Clergy Review, 150 (1965), 660.
  13. Dei Verbum, n 3.
  14. H.U. von Balthasar, ‘Centre of the Word in what is not a Word’, The Glory of the Lord, Edinburgh 1989, vol VII, 77-89.
  15. J. H. Newman, Discussions and Arguments, London 1872, 296.
  16. Nicholas of Cusa, Excitationes, 1, 3, as quoted in H. U. von Balthasar, Man in History. A Theological Study, London 1968, 282.
  17. Fundamental Theology, 75.
  18. Stephen Neill, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1961, London 1964, 264.
  19. G. O’Collins SJ, ibid., 75.
  20. Of course, O’Collins is right to see the possible source of this rejection of the primatial role of deeds in divine revelation in ‘their puzzlement about what could possibly be meant by “acts of God”,’ ibid., 76f. 
  21. See Helen M. Roe, ‘Illustrations of the Holy Trinity in Ireland’, in Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 109 (1979), 101-50.
  22. John does not refer to the forsakenness. However, one notices that his account of the passion is accompanied by references to Psalm 22 (21); see Ignace de la Potterie SJ, The Hour of Jesus. The Passion and the Resurrection of Jesus according to John: Text and Spirit, London 1989, passim.
  23. Gerard Rossé, The Cry of Jesus on the Cross. A Biblical and Theological Study, New York 1990.
  24. G. K. Chesterton anticipates this new development in The Everlasting Man: ‘For one annihilating instant an abyss that is not for our thoughts had opened even in the unity of the absolute; and God had been forsaken of God’, New York 1955, 212.
  25. Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris, 18.
  26. Giuseppe M. Zanghí, ‘Towards a Theology of Jesus Forsaken’, in Being One, 5 (1996), 56
  27. ‘Select Questions in Christology’, in International Theological Commission, 1979, S. 4, 8; see also Romano Guardini, Der Herr, Freiburg 1985, 475.
  28. ‘God is his own Exegete’, in Communio, 7 (1980), 284.
  29. Gal 3:13.
  30. See M. Hengel, Crucifixion in the ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross, Philadephia 1977; The Atonement: a Study of the Origins of the Doctrine of the New Testament, London 1981.
  31. E. Käsemann, ‘Il valore salvifico della morte di Gesù in Paolo’ in his Prospettive paoline, Brescia 1972; see also Piero Coda, Evento pasquale, Trinita e storia, Roma 1984, passim.
  32. See Thomas Finan, ‘The Desired of all Nations’, in Thomas Finan and Vincent Twomey (eds), Studies in Patristic Christology, Dublin 1998, 1-22.
  33. Retrieving Fundamental Theology, 63-78.
  34. John Henry Newman, The Arians of the Fourth Century, 80-1, 82.
  35. Idem., Apologia pro vita sua, London 1864, 27.
  36. Idem., Essays Critical and Historical, 11, 194-5.
  37. See St Augustine, De peccatorum meritis et remissions, II, xi, 16: PL, 44, col. 161; De perfectione justitiae hominis, xix, 42: PL, 44, col. 315; De unico baptismo contra Petilianum, I, 26-27: PL, 43, cols. 609-10.
  38. Nostra Aetate, 1.
  39. For the text and commentary see Eric Voegelin, Published Essays 1966-1985, Louisiana 1990, 58-60; 66-68; 91-93.
  40. See Brendan M. Purcell, The Drama of Humanity, Frankfurt am Main 1996, chapter two on ‘Newgrange after the dawn of Humanity’, 56-74.
  41. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Herrlichkeit. Alter Bund, Einsiedeln 1967,383-4.
  42. Hans Urs von Balthasar, ‘Theology and Aesthetic’, in Communio VIII, 1 (1981), 69. The author read this paper on the occasion of his receiving the honorary doctorate at the Catholic University of America in September 1980.
  43. Ibid., 70.
  44. T. S. Eliot, The Four Quartets, Dry Salvages, V.
  45. See also John Paul II, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 10.
  46. David Walsh, Guarded by Mystery. Meaning in a Postmodern Age, Washington DC 1999, 93.
  47. Dei Verbum, 2.
  48. David Walsh, ibid., 92.
  49. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 8, 1.
  50. Eric Voegelin, ‘The Gospel and Culture’, in Published Essays 1966-1985, Baton Rouge and London 1990, 173; see also T. Finan, op. cit., n 3.
  51. St Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, as quoted by Hans Urs von Balthasar in The Glory of the Lord, vol II, Edinburgh 1984, 85.
  52. Eric Voegelin, ibid., 294.
  53. J. Ratzinger, The Nature and Mission of Theology, San Francisco, 1995, 13-14.
  54. Dei Verbum 2, Abbott translation.
  55. First Council of Constantinople, The Creed, in Norman P. Tanner SJ, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, vol I, London and Georgetown 1990, 24.
  56. Hans Urs von Balthasar, ‘God is his own exegete’, in Communio, XIII, 4 (1986), 285.
  57. John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, V, London
  58. Metropolitan Ignatius of Latakia, Main Theme Address in The Uppsala Report 1968 (Official Report of the Fourth Assembly of the World Council of Churches, Uppsala, July 4-20, 1968), Geneva 1969, 298; as quoted in Leon Joseph Suenens, A New Pentecost?, London 1975, 19-20.
  59. Giuseppe M. Zanghí, ‘A Reflection on Postmodernity’, in Being One, 7 (1998), 81, 82.
  60. Ibid., 82.
  61. H. D. Weidner, Introduction to John Henry Newman’s, The Via Media of the Anglican Church, Oxford 1990, xxxiv.
  62. See John Henry Newman, On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, in J. Guitton, The Church and the Laity, New York 1964, 73.
  63. See Acta Synodalia Sacrosancti ConciIii Oecumenici Vaticani Secundi, vol 3, part 3, Vatican 1974, 306-8. The text is available in English translation in G. O’Collins SJ, Retrieving Fundamental Theology, London 1993, 174-7; see Thomas J. McGovern, ‘The Edelby Intervention at Vatican II’, in ITQ, 64 (1999), 245-64.
  64. See Karl Ratner, Divine Inspiration, Freiburg 1966, passim.
  65. G. O’Collins SJ, ibid., 176.
  66. J. H. Newman, Preface to the Third Edition of the Via Media, London 1877, x1vii.
  67. See Z. Alszegy and M. Flick, ‘Gloria Dei’, in Gregorianum, 36 (1955), 361-90.
  68. St Augustine, Confessions, x, 43: ‘faciens faciens nos de servis filios de te (Patre) nascendo, tibi serviendo.’ (Translation my own).
  69. Aidan Nichols OP, Scribe of the Kingdom, 11, London 1994, 26.
  70. See Hans Urs von Balthasar, Epilog, Einsiedeln 1988, passim.
  71. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone the way of Revelation, New York 1968, 43.
  72. Idem, ‘God is his own Exegete’, in Communio, XIII, 4 (1986), 280-6.
  73. David Walsh, The Third Millennium: Reflections on Faith and Reason, Washington DC, 1999, 126.
  74. John O’Donnell, Hans Urs von Balthasar, London 1992, 21.
  75. Klaus Hemmerle, Thesen zu einer trinitarischen Ontologie, in Ausgewählten Schriften, Band 2, Freiburg-Basel-Wien 1996,124-161. 
  76. Henri de Lubac, La Foi chrétienne, Paris 1970, 14.
  77. Gregory Nazianzen, The Third Theological Oration, 2, in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol VII, Grand Rapids and Michigan 1974, 301.
  78. St Augustine, De Trinitate, ‘Imo vero vides Trinitatem, si caritatem vides’, VIII, 8, 12: PL 42, 958; see also VIII, 10.
  79. Giuseppe Zanghí ‘A Reflection on Postmodernity’, in Being One, 7 (1998), 83.
  80. St Bonaventure, De triplici via, c2 s3 n8, Opera Omnia. Tomus VIII. Quaracchi 1898, 9f; and the commentary-article by Hanspeter Heinz, ‘Dreifaltige Liebe-Gekreuzigte Liebe’, in Wissenschaft und Weisheit, (1984), 12-22. In this context it is fascinating to read Bonaventure’s definition of the Church, ‘Ecclesia enim mutuo se diligens est’, Hexaemeron, I 4.
  81. Pascal, Pensées, ed, Chevalier,809: as quoted in Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Office of Peter and the Structure Church, San Francisco 21.
  82. Klaus Hemmerle, Thesen zu einer trinitarischen Ontologie, 140: translation my own.
  83. Klaus Kienzler, ‘Zu den Anfangen einer “trinitarischen Ontologie”‘ in Der dreieine Gott und die eine Menscheit, Freiburg-Basel-Wien 1989, 45.
  84. Hemmerle, ibid., 141.
  85. Boethius, Liber de persona et duabus naturis, 3: PL 64, 1343. This definition initiated the progressive abandonment of the relational dimension of personality, ‘così centrale nella nozione trinitaria di persona’, Luis F. Ladaria, Antropologia Teologica, Asti 1998, 15.
  86. The Epistle to Diognetus, 7, in Maxwell Staniforth (ed), Early Christian Writers, London 1968, 178.

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