Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Q. On the Feast of Jesus’ Baptism, I heard about the theory that the event was simply a "vocational experience," during which Christ first became aware of his mission – somewhat like the "vocational experiences" suddenly occurring in the lives of various geniuses or leaders down through the centuries. Is this theory compatible with the Biblical texts?

A. Theology means, from the Greek, "discourse (λόγος) about God (θεός)." Theology, therefore, necessarily begins with God’s word, what the great French theologian Cardinal Yves Congar, called, the "donné" (the "given"). Theologizing doesn’t begin with psychology, or educational theory, or sociology. It must begin with the Bible as read within the Church.

Applying this fundamental norm to the suggestion that the Baptism of Christ was only or primarily a "vocational" moment in Jesus’ human development cannot be squared with what the Bible as read within the Church tells us.

Pope Benedict XVI makes this point quite explicitly in his best-selling book, Jesus of Nazareth:

"A broad current of liberal scholarship has interpreted Jesus’ Baptism as a vocational experience. After having led a perfectly normal life in the province of Galilee, at the moment of his Baptism he is said to have had an earth-shattering experience. It was then, we are told, that he became aware of his special relationship to God and his religious mission … But none of this can be found in the texts." (Chap. I; ital. added)

Pope Benedict, in explaining the Baptism event, identifies three aspects. The first "is the image of heaven torn open: Heaven stands open above Jesus. His communion of will with the Father, his fulfillment of ‘all righteousness,’ opens heaven, which is essentially the place where God’s will is perfectly fulfilled."

Secondly, the Holy Father writes, there is "the proclamation of Jesus’ mission by God, by the Father." This proclamation interprets not only what Jesus does, but also who he is: "the beloved Son on whom God’s good pleasure rests."

Thirdly, the mystery of the Blessed Trinity begins to appear during the Baptism, even though, Pope Benedict explains, "its depths can be fully revealed only when Jesus’ journey is complete." Thus the Father’s voice is heard, and the Holy Spirit’s appearance is symbolized by the sign of a dove. The image of the dove, the Pope comments, "may be a reminiscence of what the creation account says about the Spirit brooding over the waters." (Gen 1:2)

At any rate, it would be a mistake to try to interpret the Baptism of the Lord merely on the basis of a human theory derived from, say, psychology or sociology. The Biblical texts abound in information, and our knowledge about Christ must always begin and end with the Bible as read within the Church.

Read the pertinent texts; study them; probe them. "Jesus stands above our psychologizing," insists Pope Benedict, citing theologian Romano Guardini. Christ is not like a human genius. He is not merely "an individual who lived long ago and so would be separated from us by an unbridgeable gulf. Instead, he stands before us as the ‘beloved Son.’"

Which is to say that Jesus of Nazareth transcends essentially any and every member of the human race. He is a divine Person who assumed a human nature so that he might suffer, die and rise for us, to enable us to regain eternal life. This we know from the Bible as read within the Church. Sacred Scripture remains our certain and ultimate guide to Christ – not human theory, no matter how sophisticated.