Chapter 4
The Person of Jesus

In regard to the person of Jesus, Maritain, applying an idea developed in the two versions of his appendix on subsistence in The Degrees of Knowledge, had first followed the Thomist school that says there is one subsistence, that of the Word, in Christ, and there is but one existence of the Word which holds Christ’s human nature in existence while depriving it of its own existence. H. Diepen had complained that this "ecstasy of existence" forced the thought of St. Thomas, himself, and Maritain agreed with part of this criticism and modified his view of subsistence in the way I described in "Maritain's Evolving Doctrine on Subsistence" And so when he comes to apply this new view to the person of Jesus, he will maintain that there is a created existence of Jesus’ human nature, but this existence is only received by this human nature, but not exercised by it. And in this way he avoids saying that there are two persons, or supposits, in Jesus. Maritain writes that this human existence is secondary, "a simple temporal and created echo – in the human substance of Jesus – of His uncreated personal existence. It is received by a human nature without human subsistence, it is exercised by an uncreated supposit which pre-exists it and for whose existing as supposit, or personally (for its existing simpliciter), it in no way contributes."1 Maritain refines this view by asking on what grounds St. Thomas says, "The human nature of Christ has no subsistence of its own." Is it because the divine subsistence takes up the slack, as it were, left by the absence of the human subsistence, and thus does the job left undone of completing the human nature? No. Maritain would rather see that the "uncreated subsistence renders useless the human natures being perfected or completed by such a completion." This means that the divine subsistence does not perfect the human nature of Jesus, itself "and render it itself subsistent, it dispenses it from subsisting, or from being itself achieved and completed by that mode or state in which subsistence consists."2 This allows Maritain to preserve the oneness of the person of Jesus while giving his human nature a created existence.3

But if, as I have suggested, subsistence is no longer necessary in a deeper and more existential view of the relationship between essence and existence, will this deeper view dislocate our classical Christological understanding? I hope not, and I think there is a way to preserve the essentials of it.

Person in this classical tradition is not what we mean by personality today, and it is fair to say that Jesus had a human personality, for he was a true human being. But his human personality cannot be just like our own, which is completed and terminated so I am not a bird or a giraffe, or God, either. Jesus is the Word of God, the second person of the Trinity, and therefore his divine personality must somehow be integrated with his human personality lest we end up imagining that he had two personalities, a kind of split, or multiple personality. This is a more prosaic way of describing what Maritain and the metaphysical tradition that he is working out of was trying to grapple with. Today under the influence of a turn to the historical-critical method in theology and in the study of the Scriptures, as well as the rise of a psychological sense of the unconscious, this problem gets stated in a new and perhaps more acute way: "Past theology neglected to treat in concrete terms the human personality of Jesus, and thus accentuated his divinity. We need to redress the balance and see Jesus as a real live human being who lived in a particular time and place." But redressing the balance is always a difficult task, for we run the risk of losing our balance, and the challenge here is how to avoid obscuring the divinity of Jesus when we try to do more honor to his humanity. Jesus is a true human being, so he must have a genuine human personality with all that is essential to it. His human nature is not some puppet that his divine nature pulls the strings of. But Jesus’ human nature is not closed and terminated, as ours are, so that Jesus is just a human being. He is the Word of God, and the notion of subsistence is a way of expressing the unity of his personality despite his two natures.

But there may be another way of addressing this issue. A philosophical examination of evolution leads us to the central question of how higher beings, that is, more ontologically dense and complex beings, can arise from lower ones. A philosophical solution to this kind of biological emergence can be found in the notion of instrumental causality.4 Lower beings cannot lift themselves up by their boot straps, but must be energized from within by Existence, itself, so their effects are higher than what their natures alone are capable of.

But there is another aspect to this question of emergence. What happens to these lower elements that have come together to form a higher being? While they retain their distinctive natures, they also take on a new way of existing. Physical elements, for example, that go to make up an animal body retain their nature as elements, but now find a higher way of existing as parts of that living being. In the case of the human body an animal nature is united to a spiritual soul, and takes on special characteristics there. When we look into the eyes of a statue it is not the same as looking into the eyes of a dog or cat even though the same physical elements might exist in both. And to look into the eyes of an animal is not the same as to look into the eyes of a human being even though the same molecules may exist in both. Human eyes have a new way of existing, as does the whole human body with its knowledge and imagination and so forth, in virtue of being united with the human spirit. We can call this new way of existing a being or existence of union.

Emile Mersch, who coined the phrase "entity of union" in regard to the humanity of Jesus, saw his humanity elevated and transformed by its union with the Word. It is truly a human nature, so Jesus is a true human being, but it is a human nature raised to a new intensity of being by this union. This union does not destroy human nature, as would be the case if we try to unite a human being with a stone or dog or tree. But since it is united with God who is the very source of Existence, then there can be no opposition between the existence of this human nature and Existence, itself. Mersch makes good use of this idea in exploring the social dimension of the Incarnation in which the natural unity of the human race finds a richer way of being in Jesus. Indeed, we can see the human nature, or form, of Jesus, as a superform, or supernature, while remaining a human nature. It radiates out its energy and draws the whole human race to itself. In this way it is analogous to the radiating power of forms that appear in nature, itself, and can be examined in terms of nonlocality, morphic resonance and synchronicity. The human nature of Jesus, intensified in this manner, far from cutting itself off from us as if Jesus is no longer a human being like us, in fact brings him closer to us. We can use this same idea of the entity of union in order to shed some light on the question of subsistence in Jesus.

Jesus has a complete human nature which has its own existence, but this human nature, in virtue of its union with the Word, takes on a higher way of existence. The human personality of Jesus, seen from an ontological point of view, is transparent to his divinity so it does not close and terminate itself like ours do, but lives a higher life because of that union. Its very way of existing takes on another character that does not alter what it means to be a human being, but intensifies it. Its own existence is no longer its highest principle by which it exists and operates, but it is literally the human nature of the Word.

This kind of approach actually dovetails very well with an idea that Maritain appears to have developed for the first time in the second version of his appendix on subsistence. There he makes a distinction between the two states in which Jesus’ human nature existed during his earthly life, a distinction that opens up a powerful way in which to shed light on the question of how Jesus can be a true human being, and at the same time the Word of God, and be aware in his humanity of being the Word. Maritain does this by drawing on the idea of the spiritual unconscious, and picturing Jesus’ human nature united to his divine nature, but in two different forms. In the innermost depths of his spiritual unconscious this union gives birth, as it must, to a direct vision of the Word so that in this depth beyond all concepts Jesus knows that he is the very Word of God. But this solar knowledge, this vision of the Word, cannot enter into his normal human consciousness directly. So Jesus grows in his human nature in age and wisdom and grace, and in some mysterious fashion in his ability to articulate his self-identity and communicate it to others. These two awarenesses come together at his death so that what Maritain calls a translucent partition separating these two dimensions of the human nature of Jesus is finally swept away by the fullness of light that already existed in the depths of Jesus’ spiritual unconscious. With this kind of ontological Christology in hand, we have an overall context in which a more historically oriented Christology could pursue the question of whether we can find in the Gospels evidence of Jesus’ growth in his human conceptual understanding of his deepest identity, and in his articulation of that identity.

There is another way to look at this whole matter. When we encounter Jesus in faith and love, we are drawn into the mysterious depths of his personality where he is the Word of God. It is as if we are looking into his eyes and see in their depths a mysterious fire flashing, a fire, we can imagine, that the Eastern Christian icon painters strove by prayer to capture in their art. This fiery depths in the human soul of Jesus attracts us, but this attraction, itself, and its pursuit, is already a gift of grace that is beginning to transform our hearts into the likeness of Jesus so that like can be known by like. We see in his eyes the entity of union where the body and soul of a true human being is transformed and intensified by being united with the Word.

This kind of approach to the person of Jesus opens the door to a deeper understanding of God as the Trinity. To encounter the Word of God in Jesus is to encounter the Trinity, and the Trinity reveals to us that Existence, itself, is a personal communion of love, a communion that we are being called in Christ to enter into. If, as the theologians of the past used to say, all creation is a work ad extra, that is common to God and not to be attributed to one or another of the persons of the Trinity, our incorporation into Christ by way of the Incarnation, and the Incarnation, itself, is a work ad intra for Jesus’ deepest center is the person of the Word who is in relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

An analogy can help us understand Existence as a loving communion, a person. Let’s imagine I love my beloved so deeply that I give all that I am and have to her, and she returns that love with all she possesses. My giving, no matter how total, does not impoverish me, but enriches me, and if a child is born of that love, it does not take away from it, but adds to it. Clearly, on the plane of human love my being is distinct of those I love even though my love transforms me into them, and creates a mysterious and beautiful intersubjectivity, or communion of love. In God, God’s very Being is love, and a communion of love where all is possessed in common, and the Incarnation is the highest human expression of that love, and a call for us to enter into it.

There seems to be no serious obstacle, then, to eliminate the idea of subsistence within a truly existential metaphysics, and use in its place in regard to the person of Jesus the idea of an entity of union.5



  1. The Degrees of Knowledge, p. 442.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Etienne Gilson, for his part, could not conceive the need for a created existence. He felt that if the human nature of Jesus had an esse distinct from that of the divine person, it would be another being. He couldn’t see how a single being could have two existences. Prouvost, …tienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain, Deux approches de l’Ítre, Correspondance (1923-1971). p. 241-3.
  4. See Can Christians Still Believe? chapter 2.
  5. See more on Mersch’s entity of union in Mind Aflame.

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