October/November 2013 - Vol. 70.

Jesus with disciples at Emmaus, by Rembrandt
The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood

by Joseph Ratzinger / Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI

The Basis of Christian Brotherhood: Faith
Christian brotherhood, unlike the purely secular brotherhood of Marxism, is, above all, brotherhood based on the common paternity of God. Unlike the impersonal Stoic idea of God the father and the vague paternal idea of the Enlightenment, the fatherhood of God is a fatherhood mediated by the Son and including brotherly union in the Son.

If, therefore, Christian brotherhood is to be vitally realized, both a vital knowledge of the fatherhood of God and a vital joining with Jesus Christ in a unity of grace are necessary.

The fatherhood of God gives Christian brotherhood its firm foundation. It is important here to understand fully the new knowledge that the Christian Faith has given us of God’s paternity. Mythical religion, Plato and the Stoics, and eighteenth-century deism all speak of God as a father. And yet it is something quite different when the Christian says “Our Father”. 

Early mythical thought conceived of the sky as the world-creating force which, together with Mother Earth, produced all the life of the world. In this naturalistic sense, then, the sky can be called the “father” of men.1 Greek philosophy spiritualized this idea without completely removing its basic assumption. In the eternal, transcendent idea of the good, Plato sees the father and the lord, but its quality as “person” remains in doubt, and there is no question of a personal relationship with the creatures of the world.2 With the Stoics the return to naturalism is quite clear. Their doctrine of the fatherhood of God depends on a reinterpretation in terms of natural philosophy of the old myth of hierosgamos (sacred marriage) of Zeus and Hera. Thus it remains ultimately a proposition of natural philosophy when man appears in Epictetus as idioshuiostoutheou (God’s own son).3 It certainly does not mean that he is seen in relation to a personal, caring and loving, angry and forgiving, paternal God. He is merely the culminating point of the cosmos, the one most filled by its sublime powers. 

The uncosmic, strictly personalist idea of Father, which gives to the paternity of God the seriousness of a true claim on us and to the fraternity of his children life and significance, is revealed only in the words of the Bible and is thus apparent only to the eyes of faith. Insight into the brotherhood of men is given ultimately only to him who has seen, in faith, the full paternity of God.

At the same time the concreteness of God, his personal relation to man, also undergoes an increasing spiritualization in the language of Scripture—an increasing spiritualization which does not, however, lead to increasing rarification (as is always the danger) but, on the contrary, serves to intensify the concreteness and the living reality of his fatherhood.

This God never becomes a God of the philosophers; he remains the living God, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob; more, he becomes the God of Jesus Christ and thus the God who has taken on our flesh and blood and our whole human nature. In Jesus Christ, God has not only spoken to men but has also finally and radically made it possible for them to speak to him; for in him God became man and, as man, finally stepped out of his totally different being and entered into the dialogic situation of all men. Jesus the man stands as such within the community of discourse which unites all men as beings of the same order. The man Jesus can be addressed by every man, but in him it is God who is addressed. Thus the question of how changeable man can address a totally different, unchangeable God is resolved. In Christ, God has taken a piece of this world’s time and of changeable creatureliness, drawn it to himself, and finally thrown open the door between himself and his creatures. 

In Christ, God has become God more concretely, more personally, and more “addressably”, “a partner of men”. We are better placed to understand the importance of this for the Christian conception of fatherhood and brotherhood if we consider more closely the biblical growth of the idea. We have already seen that the Old Testament distinguishes two kinds of divine paternity and, correspondingly, two kinds of human childhood: the sonship of all peoples because of creation; the sonship of Israel because of its election. The Old Testament expresses Israel’s priority by (among other things) calling Israel the “firstborn son of God” (Ex 4:22).

The kings of Israel
At the time of the kings an important development takes place in Israel’s understanding of itself. The king now became virtually the personification of all Israel; he represented, as it were, its “total person”. (Since the research work by Pedersen, this expression of Max Scheler’s can be used to describe Israelite thinking on this question.)4 Thus the name “the son of God” is transferred to the king (2 Sam 7:14; Ps 2:7; 89:27). He is the son of God in the sense described, inasmuch as he represents Israel, which has a special elective sonship in relation to God. When the idea of a king passed into the eschatological hope of salvation and the idea of the Messiah was formulated concretely, the title of sonship went with it and became an honorific designation for the king of the last times, the Messiah, as the fulfilled image of the true Israel. Exegesis of the last few decades has confirmed the view that nearly all the synoptic texts which call Jesus huios ton theou (Son of God) are not to be understood in the sense of a metaphysical statement about the eternal inner-trinitarian divine sonship of Jesus, but reproduce the messianic title of honor, designating him as the epitome of the true Israel.5 This accords with the fact that Jesus saw himself expressly as the founder of a new Israel already founded in his person—a conception that John expresses by having Jesus describe himself in two places in suggestive imagery as the new Jacob-Israel (Jn 1:51 [cf. Gen 28:12] and 4:6, 11-12)

The Bible calls itself "the Word of God". But it points beyond itself to the "Word of God", Jesus Christ. Every word in this book is part of His portrait. The words man can utter are not alive, but the Word God utters eternally is not only alive but divine. He calls Himself "the Son of God". Meeting Him is the point of the whole Bible (see Jn 5:3 9) and the whole point of our lives.

If we compare these exegetical findings with our dogmatic acknowledgment of the divine sonship of Jesus, we can say that Christ is the fulfillment of what Israel only foreshadowed. He is truly the “Son”. Thus he is ultimately the true and real Israel because he possesses the highest distinction of Israel, the sonship of God, in an infinitely more real way than was the case with the old People of God. At the same time, the fact that he has himself become a man, “Israel”, shows that he does not regard his divine sonship as something reserved only for himself: the meaning of the Incarnation is rather to make what is his available to all. Man can be “in Christ”, enter into him, and become one with him; and whoever is in Jesus Christ shares his sonship and is able to say with him, “Abba”, “my father”.6

The new Israel, which is composed of all the faithful, is no longer a son merely because of the choosing and summoning call of God, the ultimate concrete form of which is the Torah; she is a “son in the son” (Eckhart); she is a son through being planted in the innate Son of the Father (Jn 1:18), with whom we are one single body, one single “seed of Abraham”. “You are all one in Christ Jesus”, Paul emphasizes in Galatians 3:28, after (in 3:16) he had emphasized that the promise given to Abraham did not refer to many, but only to one man, Christ Jesus, with whom, however, we are united in the unity of a single man. Thus the ideas of fatherhood-sonship-brotherhood acquire a completely new ring, the ring of reality. Behind the word “father” there stands the fact of our true childhood in Christ Jesus (Gal 4:6; Rom 8:15f.). 

What is new about the New Testament statements concerning the Father is not a new psychological atmosphere, nor a new subjective intensity, nor a new idea, but the new fact created by Christ. The mood of trusting love and pure devotion may be found in late Jewish prayers or in the texts of the Hermes mystery cult.7 But in these it is ultimately only a question of atmosphere. What is expressed by them is valuable and profound and can be largely taken over by the Christian. But it acquires in Christianity a new meaning by being founded firmly on fact—the fact of our real embodiment in Christ, which includes our becoming truly sons. What is true of the ideas of “fatherhood” and “sonship” is no less true of “brotherhood”. This is the fundamental dogmatic basis for the brotherliness of Christians among one another; for this brotherliness is founded on our being incorporated in Christ Jesus, in the uniqueness of a new man. 

Like the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of Christians in the Lord is raised—through the Christ-event—above the realm of ideas to the dignity of true actuality. We also find here the concrete realization and the constant source of Christian brotherliness. It rests on the fact of our being embodied in Christ. The act that does this for us is baptism (which is renewed in penance). The celebration of the Eucharist is the constant reestablishment of our bodily unity with the Lord and with one another. But with this idea we are already on the way toward realizing Christian brotherhood concretely, and that we shall pursue later on. Summing up what we have said so far, we can assert that Christian brotherhood differs from all other brotherhoods that transcend the sphere of blood brotherhood precisely in its character as real and actual. This is grasped in faith and acquired through the sacraments.

From these dogmatic conclusions we can deduce the Christian attitudes which are able to provide the basis for an ethos of true brotherhood. In general terms, these consist, as we have seen, in the conscious spiritual acceptance of the fatherhood of God and union with the life of Christ. We shall now endeavor to explore these two relationships a little further.

Social dimension of faith
Christian brotherhood is ultimately founded on the faith that gives us our assurance of our real sonship in relation to the heavenly Father and of our brotherhood among one another. But here it is necessary to emphasize the social dimension of faith more than is generally done. To take only one example: when theologians today interpret the opening words of the Our Father, they usually restrict themselves to an analysis of the word “father”, and this is in tune with our contemporary religious awareness. But a theologian such as Cyprian, on the other hand, chose to give special attention to the word “our”.8 In fact this word does have great importance, for only one man has the right to say “my Father” to God, and that is Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son. All other men must say “our Father”, for the Father is God for us only so long as we are part of the community of his children. For “me” he becomes a Father only through my being in the “we” of his children. 

The Christian prayer to the Father “is not the call of a soul that knows nothing outside God and itself”,9 but is bound to the community of brothers. Together with these brothers we make up the one Christ, in whom and through whom alone we are able to say “Father”, because only through Christ and in Christ are we his “children”. Thus, strictly speaking, we should not say that Christ taught men to call God “Father”, but rather that it was he who taught them to say “Our Father”—and the “Our” is no less important than the “Father”, for it locates faith and prayer, assigning them their christological component. When we see this, Harnack’s view10 that the “Son” does not form part of the gospel proclaimed by Christ is shown to be obviously false. Its place is firmly fixed in the word “our” and, in a logically developing kerygma, could not fail to emerge as the social dimension of faith. It is important that this social dimension should once more be brought to the consciousness of the faithful, that Christian belief in God the Father should be shown necessarily to involve the affirmation of our brothers, the brotherhood of all Christians.

Living faith in the spirit of the Our Father will necessarily lead to a new relationship to God and to our fellow man, whom we recognize as our brother. Toward God it includes the attitudes of trust and of love. God has accepted us as his children in Christ Jesus and has thus become our Father; he is the absolutely faithful and dependable God who has remained true to his covenant in spite of the sin of men—indeed, has been moved by this sin and faithlessness to an even greater outpouring of grace and forgiveness. He is the exact opposite of the Homeric “father of the gods and of men”. That god was a domineering and unpredictable despot—not despite his fatherhood, but precisely because of it: there is a despotic quality in the Greek idea of fatherhood.11 And yet this despotic father was not himself the highest power, for above, or beside him, stood moira (fate) and themis (the law of the cosmos), against which even he could do nothing.12 Against this background the biblical idea of fatherhood acquires its true greatness. For this God is the ultimate power, power itself, Pantocrator, and, at the same time, the most reliable, unfailing fidelity. Both these qualities are able to move man to an ultimate, unshakable trust that is love and worship in one.

A second attitude which faith produces in us is in relation to our fellow men. One might call it, with Dietrich von Hildebrand, “the true loss of oneself”.13 To become a Christian means to become incorporated in the Son, in Christ, so that we become “sons in the Son”...

The ethic of Christ is essentially an ethic of the body of Christ. Inevitably, therefore, it means losing one’s own ego and becoming one in brotherhood with all those who are in Christ. As an ethic of true self-loss, it necessarily includes the brotherhood of all Christians.


1  See G. Schrenk’s article on pater (father) in TheologischesWorterhuchzumneuen Testament, ed. V. G. Kittel, V, 951f. 
2 See the texts quoted in ibid., 954. 
3 Diss., I, 19, 9; Schrenk, 955, 28. 
4 J. Pedersen, Israel: Its Life and Culture, I—II (London, 1946). 
5  See, for example, O. Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament (London, 1959), 275-305. Concerning the disputed interpretation of Mk 14:61, see the controversy between Blinzler and Stauffer in Hochland, 49 (1956-1957): 563-68. 
6  According to Quell, 984f. Abba is, in fact, an expression that a child would use, almost like “daddy”. In any case it expresses the reality of the new child-father relationship. 
7 Schrenk, 957ff. 
8 De dom. or., 8, CSEL, III, 1 (Hartel), 271f.; see Ratzinger, Volk und HausGottes, 99. 
9  Ratzinger, ibid. 
10  A. von Harnack, What is Christianity? 5th ed. (London, 1958), 95ff. 
11  Schrenk, 952f. 12 Ibid., 952f. See also Schmid, Matthaus, 126. 
13  D. von Hildebrand, Die Umgestaltung in Christus (Einsiedeln, 1950), 326-38. 14 The axiom “assumpsitnaturam”, Sermones de tempore, VI, 2, 57, in Meister Eckhart, LateinischeWerke, IV (ed. Benz-Decker-Koch [Stuttgart, 1956]), 56f. The quoted text from the 47th German sermon, 158, 1-3, can be found on p. 57, n. 1, together with a large number of further parallel texts. See also for the whole, Ratzinger, Volk und HausGottes, 234ff. (esp. 235). 

[Excerpt from The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood, from Part Two “The Basis of Christian Brotherhood: Faith,” by Joseph Ratzinger / Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, First English edition © 1966 Sheed and Ward, New York. Second English edition published in 1993 by Ignatius Press, San Francisco. Used with permission.]
See related articles:
Joseph Ratzinger (Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI), for many years a renowned theologian, scripture scholar, and university professor, before becoming an archbishop, cardinal, and now emeritus pope of the Roman Catholic Church, was born in Bavaria, Germany in 1927. He was ordained priest in 1951. He became Archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977. 

When he was elected pope on April 19, 2005, he took the name Benedict XVI, in honor of St. Benedict of Nursia, the founder of Western monasticism. He said that “with his life and work St Benedict exercised a fundamental influence on the development of European civilization and culture” and helped Europe to emerge from the "dark night of history" that followed the fall of the Roman Empire.

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