The Vision of Dominican Theological Education

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Augustine Di Noia
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Archbishop Augustine Di Noia, O.P., Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, gave the following homily at Vespers yesterday, during commencement of Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies. 

Graduates, faculty, students and friends, brothers and sisters all in Christ. “Son though he was, Christ learned obedience from what he suffered.” Learned? Obedience? Suffering? How can such things be attributed to the Son of God? Inevitably, this passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews would be at the center of the great christological debates that occupied the attention of bishops and theologians in the early Church. Theodoret of Cyr devoted a whole book just to the interpretation of the fifth chapter of Hebrews from which this passage is drawn. Eventually, as you know, in 451 the Council of Chalcedon affirmed the distinction of Christ’s human and divine natures even as they are united in his person. This resolution came about largely because of the famous letter to the council sent by Pope St. Leo the Great — known traditionally as Leo’s Tome — in which he laid down rules for speaking about the person and natures of Christ. One could say things about the person of Christ that could not be said about the natures. Thus, Jesus is God, but human nature is not divine. Christ, not his divine nature, learned obedience through suffering. And so on. No wonder the Fathers acclaimed Pope Leo’s letter with such enthusiasm. “In Leo,” they declared, “Peter has spoken.”

But this immensely important clarification of christological language and doctrine was in service of something even greater, the message of salvation itself, here deftly summarized in our passage from Hebrews: “Son though he was, Christ learned obedience from what he suffered; and when perfected, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, designated by God as high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.”

In his commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, St. Thomas remarks that, while the other letters of St. Paul treat of the grace of the New Testament either “as it regards the whole Mystical Body of the Church” or “as it pertains to the principal members of the Church,” this epistle “treats of the excellence of Christ…, of grace insofar as it regards the Head, that is Christ…from whom life flows into the whole body” (Prologue 4, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, trans. C.Baer, p. 6) The epistle does this through an extended and elaborate theological argument tracing the exquisite web of typology and prefiguration without which the Paschal Mystery — the mystery of the passion, death and resurrection of Christ — would in effect be unintelligible. Jesus of Nazareth, “delivered to us as Christ and Lord,” is identified as the prefigured saving High Priest so that, according to Pope Leo (not in the Tome but in a sermon) “what had been foretold through so many ages by numerous signs, numerous words and numerous mysteries would not be open to doubt in these days of the gospel. That way, the birth of the Savior — which was to exceed all wonders and the whole measure of human intelligence — would engender in us a faith all the more steadfast, the more often and the earlier it had been proclaimed beforehand” (Sermon 23, 4, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture NT X: Hebrews, eds. E.M. Heen & P.D.W. Krey, 76).

Dear graduates, as the Pontifical Faculty prepares to confer upon you well-earned degrees in Sacred Theology, allow me to suggest that the pattern of reflection and argument manifest in the Epistle to the Hebrews is in many ways replicated in the Dominican theological education you have received. You learned to view the mysteries of the Catholic faith as a complex and interrelated whole that reflects the infinite and inexhaustible richness of the Divine Truth itself — or, as one could justly say, Himself. No facet of this mystery — whether it fall in what we have come to call moral theology or in dogmatic theology — can be understood apart from the whole “mystery of great compassion” (1 Tim 3:16).

The Epistle to the Hebrews is remarkable for the way that it deploys all the riches of the Scripture to show, in effect, why the Son had to learn obedience through suffering. Listen to St. Leo again: “Our origin, corrupted right after its start, needed to be reborn with new beginnings. A victim had to be offered for reconciliation, a victim that was at one and the same time related to our race and foreign to our defilement. In this way alone could the plan of God — wherein it pleased him that the sin of the world should be wiped away through the birth and passion of Jesus Christ — in this way alone could the plan of God be of any avail for the times of every generation” (Sermon 23, 3, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture NT X: Hebrews, eds. E.M. Heen & P.D.W. Krey, p. 76).

The mystery of our salvation is endlessly intelligible because it draws us into the inexhaustibly intelligible mystery of God. Dominican theological education trains us to see all the elements of this mystery in their interconnected unity, and never to field solutions to individual problems that threaten the coherence and truth of the whole or any part of it. As you are awarded these degrees today, realize that they mark just a stage — a milestone certainly — but a stage nonetheless in your continuing pursuit of divine wisdom. Your teachers, who have been happy to certify that you are ready to move on, would be the first to acknowledge this. These degrees also entitle you to act as teachers of sacred theology. Train your students in the obedience to the truth which you have learned from Christ our Redeemer who, “son though he was, learned obedience from what he suffered; and when perfected, …became the source of salvation for all who obey him.”

Fr. Kevin Gabriel Gillen, O.P.