Religion: New Debate over Jesus' Divinity

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Germany's Hans Küng again challenges the Vatican

The belief that Jesus Christ was both "true God and true man" has been the bedrock of Catholic orthodoxy for more than 15 centuries. Yet over the past decade some Roman Catholic theologians have been at odds with the church hierarchy about this dogma. They argue that orthodox theology is too static and abstract and has overemphasized Jesus' divinity to the point where he has been stripped of his full humanity. One of the most outspoken advocates of this school of thought is Priest-Theologian Hans Küng, 49, of the University of Tübingen, Germany. Küng, who has previously struggled with the Vatican on other issues, has been accused by his country's bishops of disseminating dangerous views about Christ. Last week, after three years of futile negotiations, Küng issued his latest response to the bishops' charges.

This is not merely the conflict of one celebrity priest against the hierarchy, for Küng is part of an international group of theologians who are demanding that the Catholic Church take a bold new look at Christology (the theological interpretation of Christ). Influenced by liberal Protestants, these theologians are saying things about Christ's nature that only years ago would never have been uttered publicly by priests in good standing. Though these theologians still profess belief that Christ is divine, conservative opponents maintain that in the New Christology, Christ is not as divine as he used to be.

At first the case was pressed in abstruse books of theology and all but inaccessible journals. Angry arguments were muffled behind closed clerical doors in The Netherlands, Germany and Rome. But in 1974 the debate became more general with the publication of Küng's Christ Sein (English edition: On Being a Christian; Doubleday; 1976), which quickly became Germany's bestselling religious book in a quarter-century.

In the book, Küng reinterpreted the dogmas that were hammered out by the church's early ecumenical councils to counter prevalent heresies that threatened to split the church. Those councils insisted that Jesus was really a man, not some sort of divine apparition. But they also asserted that he was the Son of God, part of the eternal Godhead. The first two councils crafted the Nicene Creed, which was formulated by A.D. 381 and has been recited at every Sunday Mass since the llth century: Jesus is "eternally begotten of the Father ... true God from true God ... one in Being with the Father." The Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) refined this further, decreeing that Jesus Christ had two natures, divine and human, which were merged without confusion or change in one Person of the Trinity.

Küng wrote that nothing should be "deducted" from these ancient dogmas so long as they fit modern scholars' understanding of the New Testament. But he argued that the dogmas must be "transferred to the mental climate of our own time." Küng's own paraphrase of the dogmas: God "was present, at work, speaking, acting and definitively revealing himself in Jesus. The ancient statements that the Son "preexisted" with the Father from eternity were meant merely to substantiate God's unique "call, offer and claim made known in and with Jesus."

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