In his book Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith, Bishop Robert Barron makes the following statement: “Christian faith centers on who Jesus is and not what he said.” Having thus given Jesus’ teachings a position of lesser standing than his identity, Bishop Barron immediately qualifies his statement; “I would be loath to give the impression that the teachings of Jesus are a matter of indifference to Christians.” He then goes on to describe the impact Jesus’ words have had on people, institutions, and nations throughout history. This passage is written with such conviction and eloquence that Barron’s readers might wonder how he could consider Jesus’ teachings to be less than central to Christian faith.
He cites the creeds as support for his statement, and indeed in the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds Jesus has no words whatsoever. After becoming man he is crucified. There is no mention of the Good News, of the disciples whom he taught, or of his miraculous healings. The creeds support Bishop Barron’s assertion that it is Jesus’ identity as Son of God and Savior that constitutes the very heart of Christianity. Jesus’ moral teachings take second place.
The devaluing of Jesus’ words, relative to his identity, has a long history in the Church, going back as far as Jesus himself. In Luke (6:46), Jesus expresses frustration with his disciples. “Why do you call me Lord, Lord,” he asks, “but not do what I command?” In other words, why do you acknowledge my identity as Son of God and not comply with my teachings? In his examination of the development of the creeds, Scott Hahn writes that the Apostles expressed little interest in elaborating on Jesus’ teachings; “It is a curious fact that the Apostles, for the most part, skip over Jesus’ moral instruction and miracles and fast-forward to the events of the last weeks of his earthly ministry.” Even St. Paul can be counted among those for whom Jesus’ teachings are of less significance than who he is. “When I came to you, brothers, proclaiming the mystery of God, I did not come with sublimity of words or wisdom. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:1-2).
The view that Jesus’ words can somehow be separated from his identity and subsequently reduced in significance is likely to have unfortunate consequences, because it may breed the very indifference to Jesus’ teachings that Bishop Barron believes doesn’t exist. Christians of course worship Jesus as Redeemer and Savior. We who wear the cross understand that the crucifixion and resurrection have made possible the forgiveness of our sins. Having thus been forgiven, however, we may tend to regard Jesus’ teachings as an unnecessary adornment; memorable and inspiring perhaps, but not to be taken seriously. We need not concern ourselves too much with Jesus’ admonitions that we must seek first the Kingdom of God, that we must lose our life in order that we may gain it, or that we must love God with all our heart and strength and our neighbor as ourselves. We are saved, and that is what Christian faith centers on – not on what Jesus said.
One way to address this problem is to view Jesus’ identity and teachings as a single entity, best captured in the phrase Word Made Flesh: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). According to the Catechism (CCC 73), “The Son is his Father’s definitive Word.” God revealed Himself not simply in the being and personhood of Jesus, but in all of Jesus’ words, actions, healings, and miracles. After Peter, James, and John witness Jesus’ transfiguration (Luke 9:35 and parallels), God speaks to them. In a voice from a cloud, He simultaneously emphasizes Jesus’ identity and his words; “This is my Chosen Son; Listen to him.”
Yes, we are forgiven. But we are forgiven by a God who teaches, and this forgiveness and these teachings, this Son of God and his words, shouldn’t be viewed as separate and unequal. They are one and the same, and together they are central to Christian faith.
Scripture quotations are from the New American Bible, Revised.
Robert Barron (2011). Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith.
Scott Hahn (2016). The Creed: Professing the Faith Through the Ages.