“Many deceivers . . . will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh” (2 John 7). Ever since St. John wrote these words, Christianity has contended with the heresy known as Docetism, which denies or downplays Christ’s full humanity. This heresy strikes at the very core of Christian belief in the Incarnation, that God truly became human. That God, in the second Person of the Holy Trinity, substantially and not merely accidentally or temporarily joined himself to a common human body and soul.
We Catholics honor the wondrous beauty of this core Christian doctrine when at every Sunday Mass we bow when reciting the words of the Creed “and became man.” As John’s term “flesh” (sarx) denotes, Docetism, the denial of Christ’s full manhood, typically focuses on the bodily side of Christ’s humanity.
One recent form of Docetism (or semi-Docetism) is a denial or soft-pedaling of Christ’s male sexuality. “Christ became a human being, not a man,” one might hear. “The maleness of Jesus has no theological significance.” Certain feminist theologians have long feared that giving weight to Jesus’s maleness “collapses the totality of Christ into the human man Jesus,” to quote one of them, thereby undermining St. Paul’s claim that “there is neither male nor female” in Christ (Gal. 3:28).
A better guide to follow on these matters, as on the more general issue of Christ’s full humanity, is St. Thomas Aquinas, who feared not to address the subject of Christ’s male sexuality. He followed the axiom known as the “soteriological principle,” so seminal in the thought of the ancient Church Fathers as they endeavored to affirm Christ’s full humanity. In its popular form, the soteriological principle goes, “What was not assumed was not healed or saved.”
For the whole of human nature to be saved, we might say, Christ had to take on the whole of human nature—he had to take on everything essential pertaining to our humanity. As the ancient Church author Origen put it, “man would not have been saved entirely if Christ hadn’t clothed himself in man entirely” (Discussion with Heraclitus, 7). The biblical foundation for this to which Aquinas points appears in Hebrews 2:14-17: “[Christ] partook of the same nature as the children of flesh and blood . . . and had to be made like his brethren in all things natural.”
Thomas Aquinas knows that the “whole” of human nature includes sexuality, that sexual design is essential to our humanity. “Sex is natural to man,” he writes, even affirming that it marks a tantum bonum, “a great good indeed” (Summa Theologiae I.98.1), since it issues directly from the creative handiwork of God, as Genesis 1:27 implies: “male and female he created them.”
For this reason, St. Thomas has little difficulty affirming the necessity of Christ assuming a particular sex. Echoing the soteriological principle, he writes in his Commentary on the Sentences:
Christ came to restore [or redeem] human nature by his very assumption; and for this reason it was necessary that he assume everything following upon human nature, namely, all the properties and parts of human nature, among which is sex; and therefore it was proper for him to assume a particular sex (In III Sent., d. 12, q. 3, a. 1, qa. 1, sol. 1).
In order to be fully human, Christ had to be a man or a woman. Historically, we know of course that he was a man: “Behold [Mary], you shall conceive in your womb and bear a son,” says the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:31), where son means biological male, a fact that the circumcision of this same son, recounted in Luke 2:21, plainly confirms.
Aware as well that Christ opted for a life of virginity, that virtue defined by the perpetual renunciation of all sexual pleasure, Aquinas quickly adds in the same Sentence commentary passage: “He assumed a sex not in order to use it but for the perfection of nature.”
“For the perfection of nature.” Elsewhere Thomas explains what he means by this. Sexual design owes to the animal-like, bodily side of human nature: “(Sexuality) is natural to man by reason of his animal life . . . as our bodily organs clearly attest” (ST I.98.2). We are linked to the animal kingdom by virtue of our bodies, and where there is animal nature, there is binary sexual difference. Sex pertains neither to God nor the angels because neither possesses a body.
Aquinas does not mean to suggest that we can reduce sex wholly to the embodied, animal-like (and thus biological) structure of human nature. Since the human person is a body-spirit unity, the biological dimension of our nature, inclusive of our sexuality, is vitally integrated in a spiritual nature. Nonetheless, sex arises primordially from our embodied, biological structuring. Evidence for this is provided by the fact that the genetic karyotypes of XX for females and XY for males account for our having a sexed nature in the first place.
Sexual difference, maleness or femaleness, is written into our very biological design in that it is encoded in the nucleus of each and every cell of our bodies. Emerging research in the field of neurobiology, which has uncovered crucial structural differences between the male brain and the female brain, indicates just how biologically extensive our sexed design is, to the point of biologically determined male-specific and female-specific behavior (see Leonard Sax’s Why Gender Matters for a good overview of these findings).
So, when St. Thomas says “for the perfection of nature,” he means “for the sake of owning all that is essential and integral to human nature.” This includes a sex, either the male sex or female sex, since sex marks an essential attribute of animal nature, and animal nature is integral to human nature. In a word, no sexuality, no humanity. Jesus is no generality, he is not “humanity,” as is no human being. To say Christ was a human being but not a man is in reality to say he was no human being at all (Docetism). The same would hold for the Virgin Mary, if one were to maintain that she was a human being, but not a woman. To underscore Jesus’s maleness is to affirm his real humanity.
We should note that maleness and femaleness, even if essential to human nature, do not constitute distinct species. If this were the case, the feminist charge would hold true: Christ the man would not have saved women. But men and women, no matter the distinct differences between them, remain members of the same human species. So, the salvation accomplished by Christ the man extends to the whole of the human race, men and women alike. In this sense, there is “neither male nor female” in Christ.
Since salvation is accomplished historically (whence “salvation history”), it is accomplished in and through particular events and persons. In the case of the Incarnation, all Christ’s particulars (his maleness, his Jewishness, etc.) subsist in a divine Person who, as God, transcends all particulars and all limits of time and place. The effects of what God the Son accomplished as a male individual extend to everyone.
A final note. To insist that Christ was a man is to say nothing negative about women, nor certainly to push for the superiority of the male sex. It is merely to affirm the Incarnation, that God became human, and to be human one must be either a man or a woman. The simple historical fact is that Christ was a man, a male individual, who accordingly possessed a male-structured nature just as the Virgin Mary was a woman, a female individual, who possessed a female-structured nature.