Declaration on Hans Küng's Being a Christian

Author: German Episcopal Conference


German Episcopal Conference

On 17 February 1975 the German Episcopal Conference issued a declaration concerning the conclusion of the doctrinal process of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the books TheChurch and Infallible? A question, by Prof. Hans Küng. In that declaration the bishops also took a stand on the book Being a Christian which had just come out. With reference to the general directives on the normative significance of the tradition of the Church, the declaration said: "If Prof. Küng does not want to keep in mind as the premises of his theological work the norms of faith of the Church set forth in these principles, there cannot but be conflicts with the Magisterium of the Church. Therefore also Prof. Küng's clarifications on single positions, however necessary they may be, remain insufficient. Thus also in Prof. Küng's new book Being a Christian (Munich 1974), the theological commitment and pastoral purpose of which must be recognized, there is a series of affirmations which are not in agreement with the above-mentioned principles (See in particular: Christology, the doctrine on the Trinity, the Theology of the Church and of Sacraments, Mary's position in the history of salvation)".

Specialist theology has entered the discussion (See the numerous individual articles and the collection "Diskussion über Hans Küngs 'Christ sein’", Mainz 1976). Cardinal Julius Döpfner, then President of the German Episcopal Conference, urged, up to the last hours before his sudden death, a clarification of these considerations, especially with regard to the Person and work of Jesus Christ. In dialogue with representatives of the German Episcopal Conference, Prof. Küng was therefore insistently requested to make the necessary additions and corrections in his above-mentioned book. He has not complied with these requests, even if he has held out hopes of possible explanations to be included in a later work.

In a very detailed letter addressed to Prof. Küng in April 1977, the President of the German Episcopal Conference asked him precise questions with regard to various affirmations. Until now Prof. Küng has not substantially replied to these questions—even after repeated insistent invitations addressed to him in subsequent letters.

The book Being a Christian continues to be diffused without variations and it is translated into other languages without variations. Since this book presents itself as a "little Summa" (p. 14) of the Christian faith and is also considered and used by some people as a textbook of Catholic doctrine, the German Episcopal Conference finds itself in the necessity of taking up a stand about it again. It would not do so if it did not consider it an obligation with regard to the faith of believers. In fact, Küng's Being a Christian has contributed considerably to creating distressing doubts of faith—as has often been testified.

With this Declaration we do not intend to judge what Prof. Küng personally believes or does not believe. Nor are we referring to what Prof. Küng has written in preceding books or will write in the future. We are referring on the contrary to the book Being a Christian, even ifit has as its premise the theological thought and the method of work adopted in preceding works. The German bishops have already taken up a stand on the latter in the above-mentioned Declaration.

Even if Being a Christian isconsidered a "little Summa",it does not deal with everything that is an indispensable part of the Catholic faith, for example, the seven Sacraments and their significance for Christian life. The question must also be raised if what has been dealt with has been treated in conformity with the faith: without counting what has been presented in an insufficient way, such as the doctrine on the Trinity, the Magisterium of the Church, the doctrine on the Sacraments and on Mary. The theological method practised by Prof. Küng, mentioned, though briefly, in the Declaration of 17-2-1975, has as its consequence a break with the tradition of Catholic doctrine and faith with regard to important problems. The theological method of work, disregarding the tradition of faith of the Church, and the use of passages from Holy Scripture chosen in a very arbitrary way, lead to an impoverishment of the content of the faith. Thereby we are not questioning the positive part of Prof. Küng's contribution. But be does not present to the reader the complete Christ, nor his action of salvation in all its fullness. It is not sufficient to affirm generically one's faithfulness to the indispensable contents of the faith. The latter must be clearly expressed and explained in their content.

Jesus Christ, true man and true God

Disregarding the theological method and the above-mentioned truths of faith—for the position of the Church see the Declarations of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith and precisely Mysterium Ecclesiae of 24-7-1973 and the Declaration of 2-2-1975—it is desired here to draw attention to the unilateral lessening and insufficiency of the doctrine on Jesus Christ, on which particular stress must be laid as the foundation of Christian faith (see 1 Cor 3, 11). The divinity of Christ is neglected in the book. But Jesus of Nazareth, if he is a real man, is also a real God. The two affirmations cannot be subjected to abbreviation, one cannot be reduced to the other, they are both necessary. Jesus, in fact, could not do what he does if he were not what he is: the eternal and uncreated Son of God, God like the Father, one substance with the Father, bound in the incarnation in personal unity with the man Jesus.

This is certainly a great mystery. But it is necessary to give one's adherence to it and to affirm it, otherwise the doctrine of salvation as fruit of the salvific action of Jesus of Nazareth, would be seriously challenged; otherwise the Gospel, the Good News of our salvation in Jesus Christ, in whom God united himself deeply with mankind, could no longer be expressed or announced in its essential content. The occasional affirmation that Jesus was the Son of God, is not sufficient to define Christ, because, for example, also the grace of salvation leads to being sons: "In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith" (Gal 3, 26). Thus according to God's word we too can and must call God our Father.

Our profession of faith expresses clearly and unmistakably who Jesus is. The Creed of the Mass says: "I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, born of the Father before time began: God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, one in substance with the Father; through him all things were made. For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit and became a man". And in the Apostles Creed we say: "and in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord". This, too, is a clear profession of the divinity of Jesus Christ because the term "only begotten" professes the identity of substance in the sense of the Holy Trinity. It follows, therefore, that Jesus as Christ could not be our Lord as he is, if Jesus the man were not one thing with the Son of God so that in him God himself and his salvific power are present and efficacious.

In Being a Christian there is a series of honorary titles, of names, which are particularly significant with regard to Jesus Christ. Jesus often becomes God's "representative" ("Schwalter"). But if this may also be valid to a certain extent, it is not sufficient to define the reality of Christ. "God's representative" has often been used to define Moses and the Prophets who lived before Christ and also the Apostles and the envoys of the Church who lived afterwards. But all the representatives refer to the Messiah who is to come or has come. So Paul can write: "For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake" (2 Cor 4, 5). In the Gospel of John Jesus says of himself: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me" (Jn 14, 6). And indicating the Eucharist, in the discourse on the bread of life, he says: "I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh... He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day... As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me" (Jn 6, 51, 54, 57). These words would be completely incomprehensible if Jesus, unlike all the other representatives of God, were not himself God, the eternal uncreated Son of God. Owing to Christ's request, with regard to the points mentioned, we are also told: "After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him" (Jn 6, 66): but Jesus Christ is not the Son since and because he is God's representative, but he is God's representative because he is the Son of God. It cannot be understood in what sense and on what condition Jesus would be God's representative if he were not also the one and uncreated Son of God.

God gave himself to us in Jesus of Nazareth

No one can think that all this is a question of words; it is a question, on the contrary, of the fact that Jesus Christ is not only a teacher and model for us but also the Saviour and eternal life itself, if we are united with him in fullness of faith. Innumerable persons bore witness to their faith in God with their life and their death; the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of "a cloud of witnesses", "of whom the world was not worthy" (Heb 12, 1; 11, 38).But all these, despite all their sufferings and their death, could not save us. Jesus Christ, on the contrary, with his life, his sufferings and his death, saved us because he was not only a real man, but also the real Son of God, sent by the heavenly Father for our salvation. We read in the first Letter of Peter: "you know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot" (1 Pet 1, 18-19). Therefore we pray with full right: "Lord Jesus Christ, we pray to you and bless you becauseyou redeemed the world with your holy cross". It is not just any suffering that saves us, but only the suffering and the death of God made man who united once and for all with all men, who has in himself this force of redemption. If the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth—true man and true God—is not expressed and kept with unmistakable clarity, then a reductive deformation of the Gospel is inevitable. In fact the substance of the Gospel as message of salvation is that God loves us, loves every man even if a sinner, even us as sinners. "While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly... But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life" (Rom 5, 6, 8-10).

God's love for us, therefore, is not just an opinion. God's love is not an inert love, but an active love. In his love, God not only does something for us, but gives himself for us, sending to us and for us his only eternal Son so that we may regain lost eternal life in him. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him" (Jn 3, 16-17). Abraham who was ready to offer his only son Isaac is only a pale image of the heavenly Father's action. In fact the angel from heaven said to Abraham: "Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him" (Gen 22, 12). But the heavenly Father did not stop. He gave his only Son, his beloved one, and thereby he gave himself for us. It is not our task to ask if God could have saved men also in another way. But the fact that God gives himself for us unreservedly is the unmistakable and fundamental reason that in Christianity it is a question of God himself and of us. In fact in the incarnation of the Son of God this is what happens: God concludes his covenant with us once and for all. In fact the covenant in Jesus Christ is the new, last and eternal covenant. This also means that through Christ man does not fulfil himself by taking refuge in himself and for himself, but only by uniting in the depths of his heart with Christ and, in Christ, with the Father.

This gift of himself made by the Father by sending his Son is assumed and carried on without limitations or conditions by the Son incarnate in Jesus. Even if in the garden of olives, during the agony, be asked to be spared, the cup is not taken from him, but he accepted sufferings and death. Jesus, therefore, assumed the Father's love on himself, offering himself for us completely to the will of the Heavenly Father. "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (Jn 15, 13).

It must therefore be thought that the unconditional gift of himself unto death on the cross does not mean that Jesus lost himself and the meaning of his own life; on the contrary with his unconditional offer to the heavenly Father for sinners, he reaches complete fulfilment of himself. His words on the cross, "It is accomplished" (Jn 19, 30), do not mean only the end of his sufferings, but that he has finished, completed his mission. It is said in the Letter to the Hebrews: "Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek" (5, 8-9). The resurrection is then the certain sign that the offering of himself was not his downfall but the cause of his glorification in eternity. "Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil 2, 9-11).

All this has a very deep significance for our faith and for the understanding of Christian life and duty. Here it becomes clear, in short, that in Christian life it is a question of love and that in love it is a question of ourselves, of our availability and of the offer of ourselves to Jesus Christ and to the Father. Since God loved us unconditionally first and loves us in Christ with the gift of himself, therefore love of God and of one's neighbour becomes the first commandment. "On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets" (Mt 22, 40). Therefore "faith works through love" (Gal 5, 6). The death of Christ is the only sacrifice in the new covenant; it takes place in Holy Mass so that deep participation in Mass implies the unconditional gift of oneself to God as accomplishment of the first and principal commandment. But like Christ, also the Christian reaches his fulfilment before God and in God by means of the offer of himself to Christ and in Christ to the Father.

Love of God and of one's neighbour must be reflected in behaviour. "He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him" (Jn 14, 21). Love, therefore, does not replace action; on the other hand actions are not a substitute for love, but love becomes manifest in actions. Love does not end with action, it lasts beyond action. "Love never ends" (1 Cor 13, 8). It is not possible to do good without loving. To take refuge behind action without making oneself available, without offering oneself in love, would be legalism but not love, it would not be an answer to love of God who not only did something for us, but gave himself in the incarnation of his Son for us.

All this is not sufficiently highlighted in the book Being a Christian. Certainly Jesus of Nazareth is God's representative with us and for us. But it is not made clear that by sending the Son the Father showed himself as Love. The Scripture says: "God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him" (1 Jn 4, 8-9). In the last chapter of Being a Christian,which comprises about 100 pages, under the title "Praxis", the subject of the commandment of love, even if it is mentioned, is not dealt with specifically. But that we are all questioned by Christ like Peter: "Do you love me?" (Jn 21, 15) is not given rightful consideration in a "little Summa" of Christian existence as Being a Christian wishes to be. Therefore we cannot consider this presentation sufficient. God's salvific action in Jesus Christ undergoes a minimising from which we must dissociate ourselves.

Minimising exposition of the reality of salvation

Since God's action of salvation in Jesus Christ is presented in lessening terms, it is almost inevitable that also the fruit of redemption in Jesus Christ is similarly lessened. The fruit of redemption is a mystery. This does not mean that nothing precise is known about it; the mystery means, on the contrary, that the grace of redemption binds us more closely to Jesus Christ than is possible with anyone else, binds us so closely that .it surpasses every force and every idea of ours. This relationship is expressed in the parable of the vine and the branches, in the qualification of Christ as head, of the Church as his body, of individual men as the members of his body. This is expressed in more than one hundred points of the New Testament where it is affirmed that we are in Christ and that Christ is in us. Only because of this similarity with Christ, which does not take place without our incorporation in him, can we call God with the name of Father because, precisely in the redemption, Jesus made us his brothers and sisters. "But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying 'Abba! Father!' So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir" (Gal 4, 4-7). And in the second Letter of Peter we read: "By which (= his divine power) he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature" (1, 4).

Owing to this relationship with Christ effected by God, we take part in his destiny, in his death which is the consequence of sin but which we can cause to become the offering of our lives and therefore of ourselves. But we take part also with him in the resurrection. "Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven... For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality" (1 Cor 15, 49, 53). Therefore the bond of grace with Christ is the foundation of our hope. No event, in fact, can diminish or destroy this union of salvation with Jesus Christ; only we can do so with mortal sin. No event will be able to separate us from Christ (see Rom 8, 38 ff.): this is the reason for our hope which exceeds any other reason.

In Holy Mass when the water is mixed with the wine we pray: "By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity". Against this Prof. Küng asks the question: "But does there still exist a reasonable man today who wishes to become God?" (p. 433). Only with sorrow can one read such a thing. Who thinks or where is it taught that in redemption man ceases to be a man because he has become God? In the incarnation the Son of God does not cease to be God, and in redemption man does not cease to be man. He has not become God, but participates in the eternal life that has been bestowed on him, in the life and therefore in the bliss of God, the sign and substance of which is resurrection from the dead, guarantee of participation in the eternal and blessed life of God. This, too, is a mystery; it goes beyond our capacity of understanding, but must be proclaimed in any case if we do not wish to mutilate the Catholic faith. The presentation of the reality of salvation, of the fruit of redemption in Jesus Christ, undergoes a deforming minimising in the book Being a Christian.

Therefore the Bishops, because of their duty of bearing witness and defending the true faith, must point out and declare that the book Being a Christian,in the points dealt with here for the sake of example, cannot be considered an adequate presentation of the Catholic faith.

In addition to the necessary complementary rectification there is also need of a different theological method. The many quotations from Holy Scripture and from the official Magisterium of the Church must be introduced entirely, without minimising. This cannot be seen as a superfluous complication of Christian faith. Jesus Christ is true man and true God. This is the essential content of our faith, This double reality gives rise to an alternative, that of a one-sided or even exclusive Christology, only if one starts either "from the bottom"—the humanity of Christ—or "from the top"—the divinity of Christ;but notif attention is centred on Christ the man-God. The two aspects must and can be expressed and used together; for a presentation of Christ and of being a Christian the Bishops must insist on this.

The double affirmation, Jesus of Nazareth is true God and true man, is the essential declaration of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325, which condemned the erroneous doctrine of Arius according to whom the Son of God was the highest creature. (See in this connection the Declaration of the German Bishops of 24-9-1975 on the Nicene profession of faith in Christ, on the occasion of the 1650th anniversary of the Council.)

The identification with the content of faith formulated in the Council of Nicaea does not harm ecumenical relations. In fact, the testimony of this ecumenical Council is a common heritage of faith for Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants; it is precisely the basis for a prompt action of unity of all Christians. If this common basis is questioned or merely left not clear, then ecumenism is deprived of a solid and fundamental support. A unity in authentic formation could, then, no longer be recognized in continuity with the origins of Christianity.

The Bishops wish, however, also to leave no doubt that they look attentively to the specific task of theologians and are grateful for the authentic assistance given by theologians for deeper study of the Christian faith in our time. We all have at heart a renewal of the Church that will start from her origin, Jesus Christ. For this very reason it is impossible to renounce clear profession of the mystery of his Person and its complete presentation.

While respecting the legitimate requirements of Prof. Küng, the Bishops stress the necessity of professing in its integrity the faith of Christ and everything derived from it, in the conviction that the complete faith of Christ is more worthy of credibility than a reduced faith even if the former contains and expresses mysteries; because "God's mysteries are more worthy of faith than man's solutions".  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
16 February 1978, page 6

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