The Essential Key to Christian Theology:
BOTH/AND,  not either/or
by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.


Consider the following proposition as a key to understanding the proper Christian approach to theology, especially but not only for Catholics:

The best Christian answer to any theological question is always "both/and," rather than "either/or."

At first glance, this proposal might seem ridiculous or contradictory. Isn't God absolute? Isn't there just one truth, as opposed to error?  Indeed, this proposal does not imply that a statement and its direct negation are both true ("A is B" and "A is not B").  It would obviously be false to claim, for example, that "God is Love" and "God is not Love," or "Jesus is divine" and "Jesus is not divine." Moreover, this proposal does not apply to questions that are merely historical or factual: In what year was Paul born? What was the name of Peter's wife? How many people lived in Jerusalem?

However, consider these analogies: every coin has both a heads and a tails side; every battery has both a positive and a negative terminal; the earth has both a North Pole and a South Pole; every life has both joys and sorrows; every person has both strengths and weaknesses; every proposal has both advantages and drawbacks. So also there are always (at least) two "sides" or "poles" to the best Christian answer to any theological question. These opposite poles may seem far apart and difficult to hold together. It is often difficult to understand and balance both sides of a complex issue, just as we can't easily see both sides of a coin at the same time (without a mirror, at least!). Yet the "opposite" sides are seldom really "contradictions," even if there may be some strong "tensions" between them.

For example, Christians believe that Jesus is both God and human. To a non-Christian, this might seem ridiculous. Even for a Christian, it is hard to understand or explain. How can anything or anyone be both divine and human? Or how can God be both transcendent and immanent? Or how can the Bible be both the Word of God and human literature? Can both creation and evolution be true somehow? Can both science and religion be reconciled? The Catholic answer to all these questions is YES, both the one side and its opposite not only can, but must be held together in tension, even if they seem to be contradictory, in order to understand the whole truth, the whole of the complex reality.

As early Christians were trying to understand the nature of Jesus and define other theological issues, they usually rejected the opinions (later called "heresies") of those who went too far to one side or the other: for example, those who said Jesus was human, but not fully divine (adoptionists), as well as those who believed he was fully divine, but only appeared to be human (docetists).

On some of these issues, all Christians (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox) today agree: God is transcendent/immanent, Jesus is divine/human, etc. On other important issues, however, some Christians maintain that only one side is true, but not the other. The 16th-century Protestant Reformers emphasized five "solas" (Latin word for "only"): sola scriptura (authority in "Scripture Alone," not also tradition); sola gratia (salvation by "Grace Alone," not also good works); sola fide (justification by "Faith Alone," not also merit); solus Christus (redemption by the saving death of "Christ Alone," not also human action); and solo Dei gloria (live for the "Glory of God Alone," not also ourselves or the world). Catholicism of the 16th century certainly neglected some of these important truths (not always in theory, but at least in practice) and focused too much on their opposite poles (e.g., too much emphasis on tradition, to the neglect of scripture; too much reliance on external works, to the neglect of interior faith, etc.). Yet the Protestants' efforts at reform sometimes moved them too far in the other direction.

Rather than overemphasizing one pole and neglecting the other, the challenge in Christian theology is always to hold the two poles together, to maintain a proper balance between both seemingly opposite sides of the truth. Another way of phrasing the "catholic" ("all-encompassing" or "universal") position would be to say, "Not Only..., But Also..." Here is a list of only some theological issues and the best Christian answers, which include both poles:

God is both Transcendent (beyond) and Immanent (within)
God is both One Divine Nature and Three Divine Persons (Trinity)
God is both Almighty Creator and Loving Father
Jesus is both Fully Human and Fully Divine
Jesus is both Son of Mary and Son of God
Jesus is both Messiah of the Jews and Savior of All Nations
Mary is both Mother of God and Mother of (the human) Jesus
The Christian religion is based on both Scripture and Tradition
The Bible is both Word of God (divinely inspired) and Authored by Humans (language limitations)
The Bible contains both Eternal Truths and Contingent Materials
The Bible must be both Read Literally (as literature) and Interpreted Spiritually (for theology & ethics)
The Bible should be both Meditated Prayerfully and Studied Academically
The Bible is both used by Individuals and Proclaimed in Churches/Communities
The Bible contains both one unified Core Message and a diversity of Particular Theologies
The Christian Bible contains both Old Testament and New Testament
All four Gospels are both historical/biographical and spiritual/theological
The origins of the Church go back to both Jesus and the Apostles
The most influential Apostle was both Peter and Paul
The early Church included both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians
The Church is both a Divine Mystery and a Human Institution
The Church is both One Universal "Body of Christ" and Many Particular Local Communities
The Church is both Holy (God's Spirit with us) and Imperfect (in need of ongoing reform)
The Church needs both Traditionalists who Preserve and Visionaries who Innovate
The Eucharist is both the Sacrifice of Christ and a Community Meal of Thanksgiving
The Mass includes both Liturgy of the Word (Scripture) and Liturgy of the Eucharist (Communion)
Jesus is considered to be both High Priest (offering himself) and Sacrificial Victim (dying on the cross)
Christ's priesthood is the basis of both the Priesthood of All Believers and the Ministerial Priesthood
Human nature is both Good (created in God's image) and Sinful (in need of forgiveness)
Humans can encounter God through both Prayer (meditation, contemplation) and Action (work, service)
The focus of our lives can be on both the Present World (living rightly) and the World to Come (going to heaven)
The Greatest Commandment is both to Love God and to Love All (neighbors, enemies, self!)
We can receive forgiveness of our sins both directly from God (in prayer) and through the Church's Ministers (sacraments)
As human beings we are both Individual Persons and Social Beings in families & communities
As human beings we are both Free to make our own choices and Obliged to choose what is good/right
To live ethically, we must follow both our own Conscience and official Church Teachings
We are formed and influenced by both Nature (heredity/genetics) and Nurture (environment/society)
To be saved we must both Believe (have faith) and Put Faith into Practice (do good works)
Our salvation is a result of both God's Grace (a free gift) and Our Cooperation (accepting the gift)
Faith is both a Gift from God to Us and a Human Response to God
Faith is both Trusting Relationship with God/Jesus and Obedient Assent to Doctrinal Truths
We can know God through both Faith and Reason
Our religious lives embrace both Theology (the mind) and Spirituality (the heart)
The practice of religion includes both Faith (personal belief) and Justice (social action)
Prayer includes both Speaking to God (vocal prayer) and Listening to God (contemplative prayer)
Our world can be understood through both Religion and Science
The world's origin can by explained by  both Divine Creation and Natural Evolution
Our relationship to the Earth involves both Caring for the Environment and Using the World's Resources
God's Reign, as preached by Jesus, is both a Present Reality and awaiting Future Fulfillment
Physical death is both the End of Mortal life and a transition to New/Immortal life
We respond to loved ones' death with both Mourning for our/their loss and Rejoicing in their new life with God
Life after death can be thought of as both Resurrection of the Body and Immortality of the Soul
The End of the World may both Come Soon and Be Far Off
The Risen Jesus is both Present, still with us (cf. Matt 28) and Ascended, but coming back again (cf. Luke 24)
On Judgement Day God will be both Merciful and Just
The Final Judgement will be both Individual / Particular and General / Universal
Christian Theology embraces both the Via Positiva (what we can know) and the Via Negativa (what we cannot know)

The list could go on and on, but I hope you get the point. Just as every coin has two sides, so the Catholic response to any theological question is not satisfied with either/or choices, with answers that consider only one side. An authentic Catholic-Christian theology always attempts to understand both sides of a reality in all its complexity, and tries to avoid overemphasizing one side while neglecting the other, which leads not only to distortions of the truth but also to unfortunate consequences in practice.

Of course, not everything is best described in complementary pairs, but may also involve triads or more complex combinations. Here is a short list of some triads or "threes" that are important in the Christian religion:

God is One, but also Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
God has three primary roles: Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier
Jesus is anointed in three roles: Priest, Prophet, and King
The Hebrew Bible has three parts: Torah/Law Nevi'im/Prophets and Khetuvim/Writings
Three foundational patriarchs of Israel: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
Three core disciples of Jesus: Peter, James, and John
Three sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist
Three aspects of human nature: body, soul, and spirit
Three traditional modes of prayer: oratio, meditatio, and contemplatio
Three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love
The communion of saints includes past, present, and future
The love commandment includes love of   God, others, and oneself

Just as groups of four occur frequently in ancient and popular culture (four seasons: spring, summer, fall, winter; four directions: N, S, E, W; four elements: earth, wind, water, fire), some of the most important aspects of biblical and post-biblical Christianity come in groups of four:

Four main sections of the Christian Old Testament: Pentateuch / Law Historical Books Wisdom Books Prophetic Books
Four main sections of the Christian New Testament: Gospels Acts Letters/Epistles Apocalypse
Four rivers in Paradise (Genesis 2:10-14): Pishon Gihon Tigris Euphrates
Four mothers of the 12 Tribes of Israel: Leah Rachel Zilpah Bilhah
Four major Prophets in the Old Testament: Isaiah Jeremiah Ezekiel Daniel
Four Evangelists and Gospels in the New Testament: Matthew Mark Luke John
Four living creatures (Ezekiel 1:1-14 & Revelation 4:7): Human Lion Ox Eagle
Four types of soil in the sower/seed pabable (Mark 4): trodden path rocky soil choking weeds good/rich soil
Four pairs of beatitudes & woes in Luke 6: poor/rich hungry/filled weeping/laughing reviled/honored
Four horsemen & plagues in the Apocalypse (Rev 6:1-8): white: pestilence red: war black: famine pale green: death
Four cardinal virtues (post-biblical): prudence justice fortitude temperance
Four "notes" describing the Church: one holy catholic apostolic
Four main types of prayer (A.C.T.S.): Adoration/praise Contrition/penance Thanksgiving/gratitude Supplication/petition
Four main parts to the Mass: Entrance Rites Liturgy of the Word Liturgy of the Eucharist Concluding Rites
Four ways Jesus is present during the Mass: Assembly (body) Presider (head) Word (Scripture) Eucharist (Communion)

Finally, since the reality of life is often much more complex, one could easily compile much longer lists of attributes, qualities, parts, or other items that describe a certain reality. One need only think of the periodic table of elements in chemistry, or the types of sports competed at the olympics, or the names of all states or provinces within a particular country, and so forth. The Bible contains some significant lists illustrating the greater complexity of certain aspects of divine truth and human life:

 

If you have suggestions for additions to any of the above,
please email me at fjust--at--calprov.org  (replacing --at-- with the @ symbol).


Return to the Homepage of Felix Just, S.J.

Electronic New Testament Educational Resources

This page last updated on October 31, 2012
Copyright © 2004--2012