“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God” (John 3:2)
As Nicodemus was soon to learn, “rabbi” or “teacher” did not sufficiently express all that Jesus was. But neither was it inaccurate. Jesus called “disciples,” whose Latin etymology from discere—“to learn”—aptly captures the Greek mathētēs and the Hebrew equivalents talmîd and limmûd, which also come from verbs meaning “to learn.” A disciple was a follower or an adherent of his master precisely by learning from the teacher.
More than once, Jesus’ hearers “were astonished” by his teaching, which he proposed with an apparently overwhelming authority (Matt 7:28–29; Mark 1:22, 27). And, more than once, they wondered how he came by his unique wisdom. Once during the Feast of Booths, the Judeans “marveled, saying, ‘How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?’” (John 7:15; cf. Matt 13:54; Mark 6:2). Jesus’ answer is arresting: “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me” (John7:16).
In the upper room on the eve of his Passion, which would constitute his supreme act of teaching, Jesus once again asserted his unmatched magisterial authority to his disciples: “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am” (John 13:13). Not long after, he again denied that he was the origin of his teaching: “And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me”(John 14:24b). The primordial font of Christ’s word and of the revelation it brings to fulfillment is the bosom of the eternal Father (John 1:18).
God’s word springs forth to us from the depths of eternal Trinitarian communion, and it comes to us through the temporal missions of the Son and the Spirit. “These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you,” Jesus tells his disciples. “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:25–26). Our very reception of the Trinitarian word is thus Trinitarian. The Holy Spirit preserves the word of Jesus, whole and entire, in the apostolic communion of the Church, so that we too can hear and believe “the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). The life Christ’s word offers us is nothing less than a share in the ineffable Trinitarian communion from whence it sprang. “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23). We hereby glimpse the utter centrality of the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 234). Christian teaching is Trinitarian in origin, Trinitarian in communication and reception, and Trinitarian in finality. It arises from Trinitarian communion and draws us into Trinitarian communion.
The Trinitarian stamp of divine teaching should inform our approach to the task of theology, that is, the search for deeper understanding of divinely revealed truths. Theological study is undertaken aright when it is animated by loving gratitude for the gift of supernatural truths that spring from the Father’s heart, far beyond our natural ken. Theology depends on the lifegiving grace of the Holy Spirit who gives us “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16). It is hard work, but it is joyful work. If good theologians like to “order” things—and they do—it is not due to an obsessive impulse to domesticate or sterilize. Good theologians are less like cold, disinterested vivisectionists and more like bright-eyed children arranging and displaying a collection of treasures the better to observe and cherish them, and the better to invite others to observe and cherish them, too. Naturally, the revealed truths with which theologians contend are far more precious than childish trinkets. They do not merely afford us amusement or exercise our intellects. They are a matter of eternal life and death (see John 12:44–50). But in the face of Christ’s astonishing divine wisdom, we do well to retain the readiness to marvel and gape with the humility of children and the receptive docility of a learner.