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The False Christ of Fr. Richard Rohr

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In this episode, Trent examines the book “The Universal Christ” by Fr. Richard Rohr and how he distorts the true identity of Jesus Christ.


Narrator:

Welcome to the Council of Trent Podcast, a production of Catholic Answers.

Trent Horn:

Hey, everyone. Welcome to the Council of Trent Podcast. I’m your host Catholic Answers Apologist, Trent Horn. Today, we’re talking about Father Richard Rohr, a frustrating Franciscan fryer, alliterations always nice, whose book, The Universal Christ, can be found at retreat centers all over the country even though the Jesus you find in it is a counterfeit Christ. Before I get into that though, please like this video, subscribe to our channel, and remember that your support at trenthornpodcast.com is what makes the Council of Trent possible. You get access to my confirmation and New Testament study series, fancy mugs, great stuff. Check it out at trendhornpodcast.com.

All right, so Father Rohr wrote the book The Universal Christ a few years ago. That’s what I’m going to focus on in today’s episode. Even though I know he has all their kinds of wacky stuff out there, I will save that probably for a future episode. And yeah, I’m frustrated that the bishops have not been more forthright with Father Rohr. Thankfully, though, at least what I saw in my Kindle copy of the book, Universal Christ does not have an imprimatur or official approval from any bishop. That’s good because in The Universal Christ, there are some theological doozies we can call them. But let’s get started.

One of the central themes of Father Rohr’s book is that people have lost sight of Christ, and they have to distinguish Christ from Jesus in order to fully connect with a personal and transcendent God. Father Rohr puts it this way, “A merely personal God becomes tribal and sentimental, and a merely universal God never leaves the realm of abstract theory and philosophical principles. But when we learn to put them together, Jesus and Christ give us a God who is both personal and universal.”

Now, if you know basic theology, this should sound strange to you because Jesus is the name given to the divine person who is born of Mary, and Christ is a title given to that same person that means Anointed One. It’s like saying Francis and the Pope teach us about God. It’s either a bizarre redundancy or a division that makes two persons out of one person. Indeed, that seems to be the heresy the Father Rohr is pushing explicitly or implicitly throughout The Universal Christ. This can be seen in passages where Father Rohr speaks as if Jesus and Christ are two separate people like when he says, “Jesus and Christ are both the cliff notes read on reality,” and, “Jesus and Christ give us a God who is both personal and universal.”

Astoundingly, even though the word Christ is mentioned over 400 times in The Universal Christ, Father Rohr only spends a few paragraphs explaining what the word Christ means. The catechism tells us the title Christ means Anointed One, Messiah. Jesus is the Christ. “For God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He was the one who is to come, the object of the hope of Israel.” In The Universal Christ, the term Anointed One is only mentioned three times, and the word Messiah is only mentioned once. And in those descriptions, the Anointed One is not Jesus. It’s everything else in creation. Father Rohr puts it this way, “The Christ mystery anoints all physical matter with eternal purpose from the very beginning. We should not be surprised that the word we translate from the Greek as Christ comes from the Hebrew word Mashiach meaning the Anointed One or Messiah. He reveals that all is anointed. We all know reverence because it softens our gaze. Any object that calls forth respect or reverence is the Christ or the Anointed One for us at that moment.”

Now, all created things are good because God made them. God made the world and it’s good, but not everything is God’s anointed. That title belongs to those who received God’s anointing like in the Old Testament with Israel’s kings or those today who’ve received the Sacrament of Confirmation to be anointed with oil and the sacrament Christ gave us. Of course, Christ himself is the perfect Anointed One, the Messiah who ushers in the kingdom of God. When Father Rohr tries to make everything God’s anointed, he slides into the era of pantheism that all is God. But before we get to that heresy about creation, we have to wade through the heresy that we can find throughout Father Rohr’s book that has plagued the church since the apostolic age.

You see, in the second century, gnostic heretics divided the Redeemer into a human Jesus who later receives the Divine Christ. Now, Saint Irenaeus exposed these errors and many others in a five-volume work appropriately titled Against Heresies. What Irenaeus said of the gnostics who tried to divide Jesus and Christ into separate realities could just as easily apply to Father Rohr. He writes, “The gospel, therefore, knew no other son of man but Him who was of Mary, who also suffered, and no Christ who flew away from Jesus before the passion. But Him who was born, it knew as Jesus Christ the son of God, and that this same suffered and rose again as John the disciple of the Lord verifies, saying, ‘But these are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God, and that believing you might have eternal life in His name,’ foreseeing these blasphemous systems which divide the Lord as far as lies in their power, saying that he was formed of two different substances.” End quote.

To combat this heresy, Christians began referring to the Blessed Virgin Mary as Theotokos or God-bearer, in order to emphasize that the human Jesus and the Divine Son were the same person. Saint Gregory of Nazianzus said, “Whoever does not accept Holy Mary as the mother of God has no relation with the Godhead.” However, a century later, the Nestorian heretics took up Gregory’s challenge. They rejected Theotokos for Christotokos, Christ-bearer. They believe that Jesus Christ and God the Son were really two separate persons, a believe that was formally condemned at the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon in the fifth century. Now, Father Rohr does refer to Mary being given the title Mother of God, and he even says she is invariably offering us Jesus, God incarnated into vulnerability and nakedness.

But then Father Rohr contradicts himself in other parts of his book when he separates Jesus from the divine Christ as if they’re two different people. Here’s what he says. “The full Christian leap of faith is trusting that Jesus together with Christ gave us one human but fully accurate window into the eternal now that we call God. This is a leap of faith that many believe they have made when they say Jesus is God. But strictly speaking, those words are not theologically correct. Christ is God, and Jesus is the Christ’s historical manifestation in time.” Well, if saying Jesus is God is incorrect, somebody should probably tell Saint Paul who said in his letter to the Philippians that, “Christ Jesus was in the form of God, and God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow.”

Father Rohr goes on and on throughout the book, ascribing divine praise to Christ but leaving behind the human Jesus. He even undermines the appropriateness of worshiping Jesus’s God. He writes this, “You have to trust the messenger before you can trust the message, and that seems to be the Jesus Christ strategy. Too often we have substituted the messenger for the message. As a result, we spent a great deal of time worshiping the messenger and trying to get other people to do the same. He did ask us several times to follow Him and never once to worship Him.” End quote. The Him, of course, here is Jesus. But guess what? This is what Muslims say about Jesus. They say Jesus was a prophet. He’s just a messenger that wants us to worship God. But in the Gospels, Jesus receives divine worship, and He does not reject it. This is remarkable because the New Testament describes other creatures being worshiped as God who either rightly reject the worship or wrongly accept it.

For example, Paul and Barnabas rejected the Athenians’ worship of them in Acts 14. And the angel in Revelation 22:8 rejected Saint John’s divine worship of him, saying, “You must not do that. I am a fellow servant with you.” In contrast, when the crowds declared that King Herod, that was the grandson of Herod The Great who tried to kill baby Jesus, had the voice of a God and not a man. Acts 12:23 tells us, “An angel of the Lord smote him because he did not give God the glory.” But Matthew 14:33 says that after Jesus walked on water, those in the boat worshiped Him, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.” And in John 20:28, Thomas calls Jesus my Lord and my God. This worship of the human Jesus was accepted without negative consequences because it was appropriate since Jesus is God incarnate. So even though Jesus never says something like, “I am God, worship me,” actions speak louder than words. So it becomes obvious Jesus wants us to worship Him, just as his apostles and disciples worshiped Him.

Father Rohr also claims that quote, “Numerous scriptures make it very clear that this Christ has existed from the beginning.” He cites John, Colossians, and Ephesians as primary sources. “So the Christ cannot be coterminous with Jesus.” But John I speaks of the word preexisting, and it refers in verse 18 to Jesus Christ. “For John, the Word and Jesus Christ are the same person who dwelt among us.” Likewise, Colossians and Ephesians refer to Jesus Christ, and they don’t say that Christ preexisted apart from Jesus. Now, it’s true that prior to the incarnation, God the Son did not have a human nature, but the person we call Jesus Christ, who assumed a human nature in time, and the person of the Son, who is eternally begotten by the Father, are the same person who has existed for all eternity. That’s why Jesus could say in John 17:5, “Father glorify thou me in thy own presence with the glory which I had with thee before the world was made.”

So Father Rohr is simply wrong when he says the following, “My personal belief is that Jesus’ own human mind knew His full divine identity only after His resurrection.” Jesus did grow in knowledge that could only be acquired by human experience like his carpentry skills, but Jesus did not grow in His understanding of his divine nature. The catechism makes this clear in paragraph 470 where it says this, “By its union to the divine wisdom in the person of the word incarnate, Christ enjoyed in His human knowledge the fullness of understanding of the eternal plans He had come to reveal.” Father Rohr also divides the person of Jesus in his chapter on the Eucharist where he comments on Jesus saying of the Passover bread, “This is my body,” or when Jesus tells the crowds, “My flesh is true food.” Father Rohr says, “I have come to realize that in offering His body, Jesus is precisely giving us His full bodily humanity more than his spiritualized divinity. He is giving us His full Jesus Christ self, that wonderful symbiosis of divinity and humanity.”

Father Rohr also opens the door to pantheism by saying, “A true believer is eating what he or she is afraid to see and afraid to accept. The universe is the body of God, both in its essence and in its suffering.” And, “We are not just humans having a God experience. The Eucharist tells us that in some mysterious way, we are God having a human experience.” Give me a break. The term symbiosis makes it seem like Christ’s human and divine natures are two entirely different entities that just mutually benefit each other like how a clownfish and a sea anemone have a symbiotic relationship. Once again, we’re creeping into the Nestorian heresy that divides Christ into two persons, the human Jesus and the divine Christ.

That’s why in the midst of Nestorian heresy, the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon authoritatively taught the following. “We confess that one and the same Christ, Lord and only begotten son, is to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation. The distinction between the natures was never abolished by their union, but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one person.” Also, the Eucharist does not prioritize Christ’s physical body over His spiritual divinity. It makes the whole Christ substantially present. That’s why the catechism quoting the Council of Trent says that, “In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist, the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.”

Father Rohr also rejects the concept that the Eucharist is a representation of Christ’s sacrifice to atone for sins because he doesn’t believe in Christ being a sacrifice for sins. In a review from Mel Gibson’s 2004 film, The Passion of the Christ, Father Rohr said, “Jesus did not have to die to make God love us. He was paying no debt. He was changing no divine mind. Jesus was only given to change our mind about the nature of God.” There is a G.K. Cheston quote that sums all this up well. “The whole truth is generally the ally of virtue. A half-truth is always the ally of some vice.” Father Rohr is full of half-truths. He’s right, Jesus did not have to die to make God love us because God sent His son to die for us because He already loved us. That’s what John 3:16 says. But the crucifixion did affect God in that it broke down the dividing wall between sinful humanity and an all-holy God.

Now, once again, it didn’t literally change God because God is immutable. He’s pure actuality. God does not change, but it didn’t merely change an attitude in us towards God. It changed our relationship with God. It made it possible for us to be fully united to God. The catechism says the following, “By His obedience unto death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering servant who makes Himself an offering for sin when He bore the sin of many and who shall make many to be accounted righteous for He shall bear their iniquities. Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father.” One of the reasons Father Rohr divides Jesus from Christ is because he doesn’t believe the incarnation is a unique event in salvation history. Instead, he’s obsessed with the idea that Christ first became incarnate when God created the world, and then God became incarnate again when He became the man, Jesus of Nazareth.

Father Rohr puts it this way, “This self-disclosure of whomever you call God,” great, “into physical creation was the first incarnation, the general term for any infleshment of spirit, long before the personal second incarnation that Christians believe happened with Jesus. To put this idea in Franciscan language, creation is the first Bible, and it existed for 13.7 billion years before the second Bible was written.” Once again, we have to pick up the half-truths before we dump the falsehoods. The universe is a kind of general revelation. It is a kind of Bible that tells us an all-powerful God made the world. That’s why Saint Paul says, “Ever since the creation of the world, His invisible nature, namely His eternal power and deity has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” Romans 1:20.

But just as a painter’s existence is revealed without him becoming the work of art he made, God is revealed through creation without God becoming a part of creation. This is against Rohr’s mere assertion that God loves things by becoming them. Since God is personal, He can’t become incarnate in a non-rational substance like a tree. God sustains the tree’s existence. He gives it being. He’s aware of everything about the tree, but he’s not the tree itself. God transcends creation. He’s omnipresent in the universe, but that is not incarnation. And to call it incarnation, either drains that term of all meaning or leads you to pantheism where God and the universe are the same kind of being, or panentheism where God is just the soul of the universe. God only became part of the created order when He assumed a human nature. That’s why the incarnation is a glorious mystery. It’s not just a lackluster sequel to the first incarnation.

Father Rohr’s emphasis on creation being a kind of incarnation, it diminishes the unique role Jesus plays in our salvation. If Christ is in everything, then why bother seeking Christ in a church that has moral rules I disagree with? That Father Rohr’s argument leads dangerously close to pantheism is seen when he asks questions like, “What if Christ is another name for everything in its fullness?” Or, when Father Rohr says, “The first incarnation was the moment described in Genesis I when God joined in unity with the physical universe and became the light inside of everything. The second incarnation flowed out of the first, out of God’s loving union with physical creation. Through the act of creation, God manifested the eternally outflowing divine presence into the physical and material world.” But the catechism says creation does not emanate from God. And the Fourth Lateran Council infallibly taught God creates all things from nothing. God breathed life into Adam, but He spoke Adam’s entire universe into existence. He did not have to be mystically joined to it.

Father Rohr defends this view by citing Colossians 3:11, which says, “Christ is all and in all.” But in that passage, Paul is saying that everyone is capable of receiving Christ in spite of social division. He says, “Do not lie to one another. Seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator, here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, freeman, but Christ is all and in all.” In other words, Christ is present in all people because they’re made in His image, and Christ died for them. But Father Rohr’s God is not a perfectly just God who mercifully saves us from sin if we merely accept His offer of salvation. His God is more like a non-threatening life force who if we just saw Him in the sunset, would cause us to work harder to stop evil-doers like corporations.

Seriously, this is what he says. “‘Evil is not just individual nastiness. Our battle is not against human forces, but the sovereignties and powers that originate in the darkness, the spirits of evil in the air.’ Ephesians 6:12. We now see that these systems, corporations, nation, states, institutions have a life of their own.” It’s astounding that Father Rohr misses that Saint Paul is talking about demonic forces or spirits of evil that tempt people to sin. Instead, Father Rohr says that, “Whatever stands in the way of a conscious contact between the spiritual and the material in human life, only that is truly evil.” Well, it’s not hard to imagine how many sins could be justified under this definition because the sinner says, “Well, this behavior isn’t hurting my conscious contact with the spiritual.” And even if they were sins under Father Rohr’s view, sin for him is just a problem in this life because God will save everyone.

Father Rohr says, “Hell and Christ cannot coexist. We must see Jesus as triumphing over hell and emptying it out.” Father Rohr also says that, “Paul never once talks about our notion of hell.” Even though II Thessalonians 1:9 says of those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, “These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His might.” Now, Father Rohr probably doubts Saint Paul wrote II Thessalonians, but I wonder if he doubts that what is said in II Thessalonians is inspired scripture.

Ultimately, The Universal Christ is a dangerous book because it contains many half-truths about God, Christ, and creation, and they confuse people into accepting falsehoods like that Christ is just as incarnate in the universe as He was in Bethlehem, or that the cosmic Christ is different and more important than the human Jesus, or that Christ has done away with hell. Even though in Matthew 25, Jesus specifically warns people that those who fail to love their neighbor will, “Go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” It’s a recipe for people to follow their own false Christ instead of the true Christ.

Finally, I want to comment on a passage at the beginning of Father Rohr’s book that absolutely irked me. This is what he said, “Especially as we begin, you must allow some of the words in this book to remain partially mysterious, at least for a while. I know this can be dissatisfying and unsettling to our egoic mind, which wants to be in control every step of the way. Yet, this is precisely the contemplative way of reading and listening, and thus being drawn forward into a much larger field.” Allowing things to remain a mystery is fine if you’re contemplating the inexhaustible mysteries of God Himself.

But if you’re just trying to tell someone what you mean by a term or what you believe about a theological doctrine, then saying, “Well, that’s a mystery you’re going to have to ignore right now what I’m saying,” that’s a cop-out. It’s an easy way to avoid the criticism that your words lead to heresy or are indeed heresy. Because you can always say, “It’s not heretical. You just didn’t understand what I was saying because nobody can understand it.” Well, look, if you want to challenge what the church has authoritatively taught, just admit it and face your critics head-on and explain your case. And if you do that, I guarantee the truth will ultimately win out.

Well, that’s all I have for you guys today. I hope that this episode was helpful. If you would like more on distorted views related to Jesus, what I said about Father Rohr is not in my original book, Counterfeit Christ, so maybe I’ll add it in a second edition, but I have a lot of other material on false views of Jesus that people have in there. So definitely check that out, Counterfeit Christ, and support us at trenthornpodcast.com. Thank you all so much, and I hope you have a very blessed day.

Narrator:

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