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from issue no. 12 - 2010

Man is not born son of God. He becomes so

The article which we republish can be summed up by the first two answers of St. Pius X's Major Catechism: "Are you a Christian? Yes, I am a Christian, by the grace of God. Why do you say: ‘By the grace of God’? I say: ‘By the grace of God’, because to be a Christian is a perfectly gratuitous gift of God, which we ourselves could not have merited"

by Ignace de la Potterie, S.J.

Masaccio's fresco <I>The Baptism of the Neophytes</I>, in the Brancacci Chapel of the Santa Maria del Carmine church, Florence

Masaccio's fresco The Baptism of the Neophytes, in the Brancacci Chapel of the Santa Maria del Carmine church, Florence

With Blessed Christmas, the Church has recently celebrated the birth in time of the Only Begotten eternal Son of God. With the Incarnation of the Son, according to one increasingly widespread theological school of thought, there automatically derives the immediate attribution of divine sonship to every man. The meaning is that every man, whether he knows it or not, whether he accepts it or not, already lives radically in Christ. According to this brand of theology, Christ is primarily the head of all creation, then head of the Church. Every man belongs to him even before man is touched and transformed by His Spirit.
The conception claims to find its approval in Saint Thomas Aquinas’ affirmation that “considering the generality of men, for all the time of the world, Christ is the head of all men but to differing degrees” (Summa theologica III, 8, 3), reproduced by the pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes of the last Council: “by His incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every man” (Number 22). But if the phrase “to differing degrees” were to be removed from the Summa theologica and “in some fashion” from Gaudium et spes, all the facts of the Catholic faith would not be respected. And in fact, it is the Council itself in its dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium (Number 13) that, keeping faith with Tradition, draws a clear distinction between the calling of all men to salvation and the ongoing belonging of believers to the communion of Jesus Christ – according to the method proper to all biblical revelation.
If, with the Incarnation of the Word, divine sonship were immediately attributed to every man, the mystery of the choice or election and thus faith, baptism and the Church would lose their constituent role for salvation: the Church’s mission in the world would be merely to raise the awareness of all men to this salvation already present in the profundity of every person. Every man, in short, by virtue of the Incarnation of the Word would automatically acquire “existence in Christ”, even unknowingly, and by virtue of his transcendence as human person, he would thus receive the salvific effects of the redemption worked by Jesus Christ. He would be an “anonymous Christian”.
As far back as 1933 Erik Peterson, the famous German exegete and convert to Catholicism from Lutheranism, explained in an essay Die Kirche aus Juden und Heiden (The Church composed of Jews and Gentiles) commentating on chapters 9-11 of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans that there could be no such thing as a type of Christianity reduced to the merely natural order; wherein, the effects of the redemption worked by Jesus Christ would be genetically transmitted, in a hereditary way, to every man according to the sole criterion of sharing human nature with the Incarnate Word. Divine sonship is not the automatic outcome guaranteed by belonging to humankind. Divine sonship is always a gratuitous gift of grace and cannot preclude grace bestowed gratuitously in baptism and recognized and embraced in the faith. A passage of Saint Leo the Great, read in the liturgy of Advent, is very precise in its clarification of the relationship between the Incarnation and baptism: “If He, who alone is free from sin, had not bonded our human nature to himself, all human nature would still be the prisoner of the devil’s yoke. We would not have been able to partake of his glorious victory if the victory had been won outside our nature. Because of this wondrous participation in our nature, he devised for us the sacrament of regeneration because, by virtue of the same Spirit by whom Christ was generated and born, we too who are born from the concupiscence of the flesh, may be born anew in a spiritual re-birth”. And Saint Augustine writes in De civitate Dei: “Nature corrupt by sin therefore generates the citizens of the earthly city, while the grace that frees nature from sin generates the citizens of the heavenly city. Thus the former are called vessels of wrath; the others are called vessels of mercy. We are also given a symbol of this in the two sons of Abraham. One, Ishmael, was born according to the flesh of the slave Agar. The other, Isaac, was born according to the promise of Sarah who was free. Both are of Abraham’s stock but a purely natural relationship allowed the first to be born while the promise which is the sign of grace bestowed the second son. The first case proves to be human behavior, while the second reveals the grace of God”.
We need only turn to the New Testament and the description Saint John, the beloved disciple, offers of divine sonship to show how such sonship is not an immediate and natural possession but always a gratuitous gift which the Lord extends to whomever he chooses, and which is embraced in the faith (“You have not chosen me, I have chosen you”, John 15, 16).
Three texts in John principally address the divine sonship promised by Jesus and experienced by the Christian: a verse of the Prologue (John 1, 12), on our power to become sons of God; the first part of the dialogue with Nicodemus (John 3, 1-8) describing all that the Holy Spirit fulfills in us to bring about our generation and our birth as sons of God, and finally, two passages of the first letter (I John 3, 6-9; 5, 18-19) depicting the spiritual and moral effects in the day-to-day life of the Christian when he lives his divine sonship, thus becoming “impeccable”. In the interests of our argument here, the first two of the above passages are significant above all.
In the Prologue (John 1, 12-14), John writes: “To those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those [that is] who believed in his name: [the name of him who] was born from God himself. Yes, the Word became flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory, the glory that he has from the Father as only Son of the Father, full of the grace of truth”.
First of all in this passage of the Prologue, it is important to note the use of the verb become, about which commentaries say little or nothing. But it is precisely this choice of word that proves what John means by divine sonship: we become sons of God, but is not so ab initio by the sole virtue of our own human nature. Divine sonship is not a factor acquired a priori, a static possession, implicit in one’s own natural birth. Man becomes the son of God – as Jesus says in the dialogue with Nicodemus – when man is “generated from above”, that is when man is “generated by water and Spirit”. And this happens when an event, baptism and faith, introduces us to a new dynamic of being, sets a new dynamism within our lives. This treasure, recognized and embraced in the faith, makes all of life a journeying, a progressing, always preceded and accompanied by those same facts of grace worked by the Lord that come back and take our hearts by surprise, thus nourishing faith. In short, divine sonship is not some metaphysical mark branded onto the destiny of every man, whether he knows it or not, whether he wants it or not. It is, rather, a gift that man recognizes and embraces in the faith, one that makes such appeal to our freedom that God himself, according to that stupendous image of Saint Bernard, timorously awaited Mary’s “Yes”.
The other key word in the Prologue passage is power. It too does not mean a possession but a dynamism. Man does not become son of God in any automatic way, by the law of nature, but by faith. The faith is the power given to become sons of God: not some vague, anonymous faith, or mere religious yearning common to all men at least at some time of their lives, but the faith of one “who believes in His name”. This is a recurring expression in Saint John: true faith consists in “believing in the Name of God’s only Son” (3, 18). There follows that our sonship can but be participation in the Sonship of Him who was manifest among us as “the only Son from the Father”. This power to become sons of God, this faith surges, remains and grows in the same way as the faith of the first disciples. It is precisely what happened to the first disciples that remains for ever the paradigmatic experience of how man becomes son of God. For, the same Presence, that stirred faith in the first ones to be chosen continues to work in the here and now so that it amazes and still awakens faith today in the hearts of the men given to him by the Father (cf John 17, 2).
The dialogue with Nicodemus is the longest and most explicit passage on the theme of divine sonship. Of the various aspects discussed here, the main accent should fall on the insistence on the action of the Holy Spirit in the experience of divine sonship. Jesus explains to Nicodemus: “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born through water and the Spirit” (John 3, 5). So, only someone who is born of the Spirit in faith and baptism (indicated by Jesus in this passage with the sign of water) may have access to becoming “son in the Son”.
Even the theories reducing divine sonship to some kind of automatism, as if it were a mark of acquired dominion branded upon every man by God, often indicate the Spirit as the worker of this operation. According to these theories, men are the owners by nature of divine sonship, independently of faith, baptism and their own free acceptance; this, for no other reason than that the Spirit, in unlimited freedom, applies the fruits of redemption to everyone, whether he knows it or not, wants it or not.
It is none other than the Gospel of John that testifies that the Holy Spirit is not a separate and independent entity at work in the intimate secrecy of consciences by means of action parallel to the action of Jesus Christ Son of God.
The whole mission of the Holy Spirit in the history of salvation could be expressed in the words of Saint Basil, read in the liturgy of Christmastide: “Just as the Father makes himself visible in the Son, so the Son makes himself present in the Spirit”. And Basil adds that we learned this from what Jesus said to the Samaritan woman: “‘We must worship in Spirit and Truth’ (John 4, 23), obviously defining himself as ‘Truth’”.
Suffice to read the promises that Jesus himself makes to the disciples in John’s Gospel regarding the Paraclete. The Spirit “will teach” reminding them of all that Jesus said (14, 26); “he will be the witness” to Jesus (15, 26); “he will not be speaking of his own accord but will say only what he has been told” (16, 13). The Holy Spirit, then, is not an arbitrary entity: it has a clear though mysterious intent (“The Spirit blows where it pleases”, John 3, 8), it works certain things which are always in relation to the mission and teaching of Jesus. Since the Spirit is “the Spirit of truth” (15, 26; 16, 13), what other truth would the Spirit make known to us if not the truth of him who said: “I am the truth” (14, 6)? The Spirit leads the Christian to Jesus Christ, to the whole truth (16, 13), helps him to uncover more and more the mystery of Jesus Christ and to dwell in his memory. One passage of the dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium could be said to summarize our point: “Christ, having been lifted up from the earth has drawn all to Himself. Rising from the dead He sent His life-giving Spirit upon His disciples and through Him has established His Body which is the Church as the universal sacrament of salvation. Sitting at the right hand of the Father, He is continually active in the world that He might lead men to the Church and through it join them to Himself and that He might make them partakers of His glorious life by nourishing them with His own Body and Blood” (Number 48).
If man is not born son of God but becomes so, there naturally follows that this cannot be the platform for presumption or condemnation in regard to others. As John Paul II reminded us in his encyclical Redemptoris missio, “the faith we have received” is a “gift from Above by no merit of our own”.
The experience of sonship, rather, is totally full only of gratitude, for the unmerited gift, and of hope in regard to others. Therefore, it is not a question of judging disbelievers, those far away from us in faith, or even those who might appear to be adversaries. One reason is that each one of them could encounter the Christian fact when he least expects it. As Charles Péguy wrote in a commentary on a verse by Corneille, “God touches hearts when we least expect it. It is the same formula as the bite, it is the formula of the attack, of the blow, of the penetration of grace. But it also implies that whoever thinks about it, whoever has a habit of thinking about it, who is covered by the stratum of habit is also the one who is less exposed and, so to speak, offers less possibility for approach”.
This gratitude judges no one. Rather, it is magnanimous and compassionate even in the presence of error and sin. This is what happened to Saint Francis Xavier, the beloved disciple Ignatius of Loyola sent out to evangelize the Far East. In the presence of even the most torpid of the pagans’ sins, Francis Xavier was astounded that in the absence of faith, the sacraments and filial prayer they did not commit an even graver variety. He wrote in a letter from Cochin to his companions in 1552: “I do not wonder at the sins between male and female bonzi even though sins they are and in great quantity. Rather, I wonder that they don’t commit more of them...”.

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