If you read magisterial documents written in the last fifty years, you’ll occasionally run across a statement that talks about man being revealed to himself.
Sometimes, the statement will say that God reveals man to himself.
Other times, it will say that Christ reveals man to himself.
What do these statements mean?
Two types of revelation
We’re familiar with the idea of divine revelation—that God discloses or reveals certain things to us.
Normally, we think about God using revelation to tell us things about himself—e.g., that he is a Trinity, that he loves us, that he has a plan for our lives, that he wants us to do and not do certain things.
But these statements of the magisterium are talking about something else. They are talking about times when God reveals not just the truth about him but the truth about us.
This use of revelation could be thought of as God holding up a mirror to us to show us what we are like.
How does this happen?
This is something that happens in many ways.
Sometimes it occurs directly, such as when God tells us that he made us or that we will one day give an account for our actions, both good and bad. Both of those are important facts about us that are stated in Scripture.
Other times, the truth about man is revealed more indirectly. This happens, for example, in Jesus’ parables, where he tells us stories that illustrate spiritual truths about man that aren’t stated directly.
Since God gives us his revelation for our benefit, almost everything he reveals to us can be thought of as showing us truths both about God and about ourselves.
It happens in a special way in the person of Christ, the God-man.
- As God, he reveals to us truths about God.
- And as perfect man, he reveals truths about man, providing us an exemplar of what man is supposed to be.
Where did this phrase come from?
You might wonder where the “God/Christ reveals man to himself” statements like we find in Church documents came from.
It seems that they are of rather recent origin, which is not surprising. They have the same kind of poetic phrasing that is found in many recent Church documents.
A bit of checking reveals lots of examples this sort of phrase on the Vatican website, all in documents of the past fifty years.
A search of other resources, such as those on New Advent or in Verbum Bible Software, does not reveal the phrase coming up in older documents—just in the recent ones.
John Paul II?
Although Pope Benedict XVI did use the phrase (in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, no. 75), the overwhelming number of usages are in documents belonging to John Paul II.
There is only a single document I’ve found that uses the phrase that predates his reign as pope.
That document is the Second Vatican Council’s pastoral constitution on the Church and the modern world—Gaudium et Spes (no. 22).
Is this were John Paul II picked up the phrase?
Maybe. But maybe it’s the other way around, because John Paul II was one of the drafters of Gaudium et Spes, as his biography on the Vatican website reveals.
It may be that John Paul II was the one who came up with the phrase, used it in the draft of Gaudium et Spes that he worked on, and then continued to use it throughout his pontificate.
An ancient parallel
Even if John Paul II was the one who introduced the phrase into modern documents, it represents a sound insight, and one that was noted in the past.
In fact, there is a parallel statement in the New Testament itself.
Here’s what James says about God’s revelation—or word—to man:
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.
For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who observes his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like [Jas. 1:22-24].
James compares a person who does not obey God’s word to a person who looks in a mirror and then forgets what he looks like.
In other words: God’s revelation holds a mirror up to us that shows us what we are like. It reveals to us the truth about ourselves.
And, just like we ought to remember what a mirror reveals about us, so we ought to remember what God’s word reveals about us—and put it into action.
So we can be happy
This leads to a final insight about God’s word, and specifically the moral commandments we find in it.
A lot of people today can think of Christian morality as “legalistic”—as glorifying rules for their own sake.
But this is not the case. The purpose of God’s moral law is not to impose rules for the sake of imposing rules. Its purpose is to make us happy.
The rules God gives us are for our good, because they are based on our human nature, and we will be happier if we act in accordance with our nature.
We may not always see that. For example, we can be like little children who don’t want to take a nap. They may pout and protest and view naptime as an injustice—as a rule imposed for no reason.
But the truth is that they need that nap and will be happier in the long run if they take it.
In the same way, we will be happier in the long run if we accept that God’s revelation and his law reveal to us the truth about ourselves—and if we put them into action.