Kenneth Westby

One God Seminar

Streetsboro, Ohio

June 25, 2005



Jesus Symbol of God




This paper is a brief outline of my seminar presentation at the One God Seminars held in Streetsboro, Ohio, June 24-26. My focus is the thesis of an important book by Roger Haight S.J., Jesus Symbol of God  (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2002, 505 pages). Fr. Haight is a Jesuit priest and professor of historical and systematic theology at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, and is the author of numerous books including The Experience and Language of Grace and Dynamics of Theology.

            His scholarly command of the biblical and historical understanding of Christology is widely acknowledged. This towering work, however, has caused the Catholic Church to issue a harsh and official reaction against it (see Appendix A where I believe, having read his book thoroughly, many of his teachings are mischaracterized). He has been suspended from teaching theology and the uproar continues (see Appendix B & C).

            In his book he calls for a revision of the Trinity doctrine to make it more biblical and understandable. He attempts to, in a most respectful and scholarly spirit, clear away the intellectual fog that has surrounded this topic for centuries. Rather than Jesus being a “God,” he says Jesus is the “symbol” of God. The Trinity should be understood as God’s means of manifesting his salvation, not three “persons” or “Gods.” Symbols of God’s activity to save are seen in Word (Logos), Breath, Wind, Spirit, Light, etc., but there is only one symbol that is the composite image of God and his means of salvation for mankind—Jesus.


Specific Purpose:


To examine whether Haight’s thesis is correct. Is Jesus the symbol of God, i.e. God’s salvation? To consider how this concept relates or doesn’t relate to the traditional understanding of the Trinity?




Yahweh forbad all images or representations of himself (Ex 20:4). He was sovereign, transcendent, not normally visible or available to the senses. “I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God” (Is 44:6). There were no physical representations of Israel’s God: all shrines were imageless (Is 44:9-11).

            Nevertheless God could be seen in his actions. Yahweh interacted with human beings. He was personal and acted as a Savior on behalf of his people. The chief medium and more general category of the revelation of God is that he is a “God who Acts”; and a narrower notion, a “God who speaks.” Biblical theology is first and foremost a theology of recital, in which Biblical man confesses his faith by reciting the formative events of his history as the redemptive handiwork of God.[1]

            God’s presence and power was felt through history and could be pointed to by various symbols such as Word, Wind, Breath, Wisdom, Light, and Spirit. He said, “’Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gn 1:3). He breathed into man his breath and man lived. Wind and breath are unseen, but felt, invisible in itself but visible in its effects. Breath too is invisible energy and power; with it there is life, without it death. Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones that come to life by the power of God depicted as wind, breath, or spirit dramatizes the immanent, creative, life-giving energy of God present and working in the world (Ezk 37:1-14).[2]

            My colleague, the late Dr Charles V Dorothy, was fond of quoting from Dt 26:5-11, one of Israel’s earliest creeds. It is a creed reciting God’s acts of salvation.


Then you shall declare before the Lord your God:

My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, putting us to hard labor. Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an out stretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.


The list gets longer, of course, the longer God acts in history. Stephen, just before being stoned to death, gives a long version of God’s acts of salvation bringing events up to date to that time.  He caps the story with mention of Jesus, “the Righteous One,” whom the authorities had murdered. He closed his testimony with the startling vision of heaven opened and seeing “the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”


Look, I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. (Ac 7:55-56)


Jesus had been raised from the dead, exalted, glorified and seated next to his heavenly Father--vindicated by God before the Jews, Romans, and all mankind. Jesus had been saved by God and exalted to the highest place possible in the entire cosmos—right next to His Majesty, the Creator.

Steven’s vision mirrored that of Daniel’s great Messianic vision of the Son of Man being brought to the side of God—a parallel caught and one that infuriated those to whom Stephen spoke. They took up stones and began to kill him. Stephen’s last words were, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Steven knew that as Jesus had been saved by God and so might he. He directly addressed Jesus thus acknowledging that God had appointed him as his agent for the salvation of mankind—Jesus the Savior.

The Bible can be understood as the story of God’s dealings with mankind to save; to bring man into his image and into fellowship with him forever.

Clearly, the climax of God’s mighty acts to save is manifested with his begetting of Jesus in the womb of a human woman, Mary. Thus was launched the greatest of Yahweh’s saving acts toward his creation. This was not “just” another miraculous intervention like the parting of the Red Sea or Joshua’s Long Day. It was quantum!

            The Jesus Event forever changed the recital of God’s Saving Acts, his magnalia dei. The new storyline, Torah-Christ story, became The Message, The Gospel, The Good News of the Sovereign Rule of God—the Kingdom of God.

Jesus became the central symbol for understanding and knowing God. Jesus himself can be considered a parable of God. When asked about what God is really like, the Christian can respond that God is like Jesus. Jesus became the first and only “shrine to God.” All other shrines in Israel were imageless. Now there was an image—Jesus, Son of God. He was the perfect image of his heavenly Father, Yahweh. No other image or person is fit to represent God.

            Now God, through the image of his son, could be touched, beheld, embraced, savored in the most ideal and personal circumstances. Like Adam and Eve who experienced God in a unique and personal way, mankind experienced God in his son, Jesus, the true Adam or Son of Man. Jesus could say, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9). Paul said Jesus was “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15); “Christ, who is the image of God” (2Co 4:4).

            Haight makes a convincing case from the history that the reason for the doctrine of the Trinity was to handle the problem of Christology. The Trinity was not conceived to explain the nature of God in some new or more profound way. To the contrary, the Trinity doctrine was developed to explain Jesus the Christ; to settle a major controversy over the nature of Christ. Was he divine? An angel? A “created” being, that is a man? A God? A preexistent being? A preexistent God? etc. He also suggests that it didn’t do the job it was intended to do, nor did it make God more understandable and near his people. He advises that “one must reformulate the doctrine”[3]

            Haight regards Jesus of Nazareth as fully human, a normal man, “God, who created Jesus, calls this human being back into God’s own life” (by raising him from the dead).[4]


“The comparison with Adam makes it clear that Jesus is a human being. This is not a pre-existence Christology, but a two-stage Christology in which the one compared with Adam is Jesus of Nazareth who went to his death in obedience, was raised and exalted, and is now the one who determines humanity into the end-time. Jesus Christ, the human being, was the vehicle of God’s action of love for human kind (Rom 5:8), and now Jesus Christ is risen and exalted with God.”[5]


            Rather than a “Christology from above” (Christ coming down to earth from heaven), he suggests a “Christology from below” (Jesus the man exalted by God to become Lord and Savior).  The way he would revise the Trinity is to say the “structure of the Christian faith is trinitarian,[6]” not that “God” is Trinitarian. God’s salvation proceeds from himself to mankind through the gift of his firstborn Son, and by his Spirit (Father, Son, and Spirit). “The Spirit is God as Spirit.”

            In Matthew’s gospel the disciples are commissioned to baptize the nations “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mat 28:19). “This collection of terms can be said to represent the fundamental structure of Christian faith, because it is the narrative structure of Christian faith’s experience of God’ salvation in history. The event of salvation for the Christian is precisely God saving, first through creation and providence, and then through the Son, Jesus, and in God as Spirit active anew in the community.”[7]

            Haight admits that the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is not understandable. He further remarks, “The theology and doctrine of the trinity have intrinsic problems of intelligibility and credibility of their own that are being addressed with vigor today.”[8] His book is a major step in that debate.




Jesus embodied all the great symbols or personifications of God: Wisdom, Logos, Light, Truth, and Spirit. As such he became the great symbol of God, “The man of God’s own choosing.” He became the perfect man, the perfect image of his Father, and the complete revelation of God to mankind. Haight expresses the thought:


God’s presence to Jesus must be regarded as a presence within his humanity. By this I mean that the divine in Jesus does not appear over and above Jesus’ being a human being, but rather precisely within the way Jesus was human, the way he lived and taught. Jesus’ divinity was not added on top of his humanity, nor was his humanity an abstract human nature added on to or assumed by his divinity. The divine is not apparent in Jesus in any recognizable way, because it does not subsist in him apart or separate from the integrally human life that Jesus lived. Once again, he was a human being, and one must begin to understand the presence of God to him and within him beginning with this premise of integral human existence. In terms of the theory of symbol, the finite, created integrity of human existence must be preserved in Jesus.”[9]


            We have been called, as was Jesus, to take on the divine nature (2Pet 1:4). We are called to live a life of love and obedience to God, and of service to others, as Jesus did. If we follow his example as he followed his heavenly Father, we shall be raised from the dead like he was raised. We shall be exalted and glorified by God as he was. And we shall rule with him in his Father’s Kingdom and have fellowship with God for eternity. Truly, Jesus is the most beautiful, inspiring, and powerful symbol of God.







Article A








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Issue Date:  February 18, 2005

Vatican denounces Fr. Roger Haight's book, bars him from teaching


In a strongly worded “notification,” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal agency, has denounced the book Jesus: Symbol of God by Jesuit Fr. Roger Haight as containing “grave doctrinal errors against the divine and Catholic doctrine of the church.”

In consequence, Haight, an American, has been prohibited from teaching Catholic theology “until his positions have been corrected so as to be in full conformity with the doctrine of the church.”

Haight was notified of a review of his work by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2000, and shortly thereafter the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education ordered him suspended from the Jesuit-run Weston School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass. Currently he is teaching as adjunct professor at the Union Theological Seminary in New York.

Haight has described Jesus: Symbol of God as an attempt to express traditional doctrines about Christ and salvation in a language appropriate to postmodern culture. Some reviewers have found it an exciting new Christological approach, while others say that Haight goes too far in jettisoning or reinterpreting core doctrines.

The “notification” presents seven criticisms of the book:

  • Theological method: Haight, the notification says, “subordinates the contents of the faith to their plausibility and intelligibility in postmodern culture.”
  • The preexistence of the Word: The notification asserts that Haight’s book undercuts the doctrine that Christ existed as the divine Word of God prior to his incarnation as Jesus of Nazareth, a position, the notification said, that “ran counter to the cultural horizon” of the ancient world.
  • The divinity of Jesus: The notification asserts that Haight’s book presents Jesus as a human being who “symbolized” or “mediated” the saving presence of God, as opposed to being truly divine and truly human.
  • The Holy Trinity: Haight, according to the notification, interpreted the Son of God and the Holy Spirit as two different “mediations” of God, and to think that they are different “persons” would compromise the oneness of God. That position, the notification says, contradicts the faith of the church.
  • The saving value of the death of Jesus: Haight, the notification contends, suggests that “to affirm … that Jesus accepted to suffer punishment for our sins, or to die to satisfy the justice of God, does not make sense in the world of today.” That position, the congregation held, is unacceptable.
  • The oneness and universality of the saving mediation of Jesus and the church: Haight, according to the notification, holds that Jesus is “normative” for Christians but not “constitutive” for followers of other religions, and that it is not necessary to believe that God saves only through Jesus. He proposes a shift from Christocentrism to theocentrism, arguing that “it’s impossible in a postmodern culture to think … that one religion can insist on being the center to which all the others have to be brought back.” Such arguments, the notification asserts, contradict the church’s traditional faith in Christ as the lone and universal savior of humanity.
  • The resurrection of Jesus: On the principle that “it should not be supposed that something happened in the past that would be impossible today,” Haight proposes, according to the notification, that belief in an empty tomb and post-resurrection appearances of Jesus are not essential to the faith. Again, the notification asserts, such a position contradicts church doctrine.

Though the notification asserts that Haight’s book contains “grave doctrinal errors,” it does not use the word “heresy.” It also does not prevent Haight from publishing. Because Haight is currently at a non-Catholic institution, the teaching prohibition in the “notification” is expected to have little practical effect.

As opposed to the 2001 “notification” from the doctrinal congregation about Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis, who died in December 2004, this time the response from the Jesuit order has been muted. Whereas the head of the order, Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, put up a spirited defense of Dupuis, the Jesuits indicated he would have no statement on the outcome of the Haight investigation.

Sources told NCR that Jesus: Symbol of God sold something over 10,000 copies in hardback and paperback form.

In September 2003, NCR spoke with Haight about the Vatican investigation, asking if he saw any legitimacy to their concerns.

“They’re saying that one has to attend to the tradition, to the community,” he said. “I try to do that in what I write. I proceed very, very carefully and responsibly to address issues that cannot go unaddressed.”

Haight insisted that this work is a service to the church.

“My fear is that educated Catholics will walk if there isn’t space for an open attitude to other religions,” he said.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, February 18, 2005


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Article B


Statement of the Board of Directors,
The Catholic Theological Society of America

With Respect to the Notification Issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith concerning the book, Jesus: Symbol of God, by Rev. Roger Haight, S.J. and Prohibiting Fr. Haight from Teaching Catholic Theology

As members of the Board of Directors of the Catholic Theological Society of America, we wish to express our profound distress at the actions taken by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith against the Rev. Roger Haight, S.J., a former President of the Catholic Theological Society of America. As Fr. Haight’s colleagues, we wish to publicly affirm that he is a person of the highest character as well as a respected theologian and teacher who pursues his theological vocation as a service to the Church.

We fully affirm the ecclesial responsibilities of the theologian and the intrinsically ecclesial character of theology as these have been articulated in the “Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian,” issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1990. We likewise affirm the responsibility of the Magisterium to make authoritative judgments concerning theological conformity to Catholic doctrine.

As Catholic theologians, we acknowledge our collective responsibility to engage each other critically in the light of divine revelation as this has been defined by the Magisterium. We encourage this process of mutual correction, which is the ordinary way in which theological arguments are evaluated, clarified, corrected, and, if necessary, rejected.

Fr. Haight’s book Jesus: Symbol of God has done a great service in framing crucial questions that need to be addressed today. He has welcomed critique and dialogue about his own work. Since the time that his book appeared, the theological community has been in the process of engaging in a lively debate over the strengths and weaknesses of his speculative proposals. Indeed, an open forum on Fr. Haight's book was held at the Catholic Theological Society's Annual Convention in 2002, where he willingly and graciously explained his views and responded to his colleagues' critical observations. In many ways, the theological community has been engaging in precisely the kind of internal debate and mutual correction that has been encouraged by the Magisterium. Ironically, rather than promote greater criticism of the book, the Congregation’s intervention will most likely discourage debates over the book, effectively stifling further criticism and undermining our ability as Catholic theologians to openly critique our colleagues. In short, the Congregation’s intervention in this case gravely threatens the very process of serious, systematic, internal criticism which the Congregation and the bishops have long been encouraging among theologians. While this process of internal critique can never replace the proper teaching and disciplinary roles of the Magisterium, the intervention of the Magisterium should be a last resort, reserved for situations where this process has clearly failed.

We seriously question, moreover, whether the procedures established for investigating a theologian's work--as articulated in the 1997 “Regulations for the Examination of Doctrine” from the Congregation--do in fact afford a theologian an adequate "opportunity to clear up possible misunderstandings of his or her thought" as the 1990 Instruction requires. Moreover, we note that the Instruction states that any official judgment that is rendered by the Magisterium concerns not the person of the theologian, but only his or her publicly espoused intellectual positions (#37). Thus we are dismayed that the action taken regarding Fr. Haight moves beyond a judgment on some of his theological positions to the prohibition from teaching Catholic theology. This act unavoidably implies a negative judgment upon a theologian's personal integrity and responsibility.

We must also call attention to the important distinction between theology and catechesis as this was articulated in the Holy Father’s 1979 Apostolic Exhortation, “ Catechesi Tradendae.” In that document, the Holy Father reminds us of the intrinsic relationship between theology and catechesis while, at the same time, warning against the danger that catechesis will “transform itself into theological research or scientific exegesis” (#21)—and, presumably, the danger that the reverse will also occur. Of its nature, theology has a speculative dimension. This is recognized in the Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae, which affirms that:

Bishops should encourage the creative work of theologians. They serve the Church through research done in a way that respects theological method. They seek to understand better, further develop and more effectively communicate the meaning of Christian Revelation as transmitted in Scripture and Tradition and in the Church's Magisterium. They also investigate the ways in which theology can shed light on specific questions raised by contemporary culture (#29).

Given the actions taken against Fr. Haight, we are concerned that the Congregation’s Notification elides the traditional distinction between theology and catechesis in a way that threatens the proper function of both in their service to the Church. We thus express our concern for the ramifications that this action may have for the future of the Catholic theological vocation.


Roberto S. Goizueta, Ph.D.
Boston College
Chestnut Hill, MA

Mary Catherine Hilkert, O.P., Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame
Notre Dame, IN

Daniel Finn, Ph.D.
St. John's University
Collegeville, MN
Vice President

M. Theresa Moser, R.S.C.J., Ph.D.
University of San Francisco
San Francisco, CA

Roger McGrath, Ph.D.
Somerdale, NJ

M. Shawn Copeland, Ph.D.
Boston College
Chestnut Hill, MA
Past President

Mary E. Hines, Ph.D.
Emmanuel College
Boston, MA

Leo Lefebure, Ph.D.
Fordham University
Bronx, NY

Bryan Massingale, S.T.D.
Marquette University
Milwaukee, WI

John Thiel, Ph.D.
Fairfield University
Fairfield, CT





Article C


From the: Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church (

Inquisition Continues (Sun Feb 13, 2005 9:30 am)

Fr.Roger Haight's JESUS: SYMBOL OF GOD

Cardinal Ratzinger's Inquisition type condemnation of the work of Fr. Roger Haight, S.J. has the unintended consequences of bringing this superb book to our attention. ARCC Board member Fr. Tom Doyle, O.P. speaks for those among us who have written on Catholicism, "I love it. The wizards at the CDF don't get it. When they read something they don't understand they condemn it thus making sure the book becomes a best seller. If they condemned phone books everyone would buy them. I think I'll start sending my stuff straight over there and by-pass the snitches who send their anonymous notes and letters. Maybe I too can get condemned for supporting Christianity and then become a best selling author and get rich. Haight follows in a great tradition. In all seriousness however, I am amazed that in this age, when the ineffectiveness of authoritarian systems is acknowledged by a majority, the CDF still presumes that it can treat adult, believing Catholics, lay, clergy and religious, as if they were impressionable and non-thinking infants. The action against Roger Haight is itself the most duplicitous form of dissent......dissent from the ideals of Vatican II; dissent from the concept of freedom of conscience but above all, dissent from the fundamental Christian concept of charity."

A quick survey of reader reviews in the website is very instructive. One enthusiastic reviewer notes, "Once in a while a masterful book comes along in the field of Christology ... this is one of those books! ... Haight's grasp of the field is incomparable. This work is truly on the cutting edge as it brings catholic tradition into dialogue with postmodern realities. Haight seems destined to ask the difficult questions and one worries that this penchant may well find him in 'hot water' with those short-sighted minds who claim the prerogative of preserving Roman Catholic doctrine in the curial halls of Vatican City."

Another reviewer writes, "Overall, Haight has given us a well conceived and thoughtful Christology. He has not intended it to be the final answer. Theologians of all denominations can and should engage in unfettered debate of the individual issues he raises. In this, Haight does well in keeping ecumenical considerations in mind." Clearly, Haight reaches out to non-Catholics and non-Christians in the grand Jesuit tradition"

The Catholic Magisterium would earn the respect of the Christian community if it were to stop violating the dialogic principles embodied in Right No. 20. of ARCC's Charter of Rights that "Catholic teachers of theology have a right to responsible academic freedom. The acceptability of their teaching is to be judged in dialogue with their peers, keeping in mind the legitimacy of responsible dissent and pluralism of belief. (Canon Laws 212:1, C. 218, C. 750, C. 752, C. 754, C. 279:1, C. 810, C. 812)."

This heavy-handedness of the Vatican seems to illustrate clearly that the Vatican methods have not changed in 30 years condemning what the People of God judge to be a significant contribution to the understanding of our faith. Roger Haight has joined the ranks of Hans Kung, Schillebeeckx, Murray and many other outstanding theologians who, we suggest, will be read and remembered long after Cardinal Ratzinger is forgotten.



[1] Haight, note 4, p 90

[2] P 90-91

[3] P 468

[4] P 147, p 486, p 296

[5] P 157

[6] P 484

[7] P 475

[8] P 468

[9] P 293