A witness is a person who calls attention to something other than himself, one who is called upon to give—or to be—evidence of something. He gives—or is—witness. All true religious witness is an exteriorization of inner commitment; it transmits truth to others in a living way. A witness is a person totally given to God and his fellow men. There are three elements in this Christian witness: message, signs to convince, divine helps to awaken and draw others to God.
Christ. "The faithful and true witness" to the Father is Christ (Rv 3.14). He is the great Witness. He came into the world precisely "to bear witness to the truth" (Jn 18.37), which He had received from the Father (Jn 8.26), to call attention not to Himself, but to the Father. And since He is God the Son as well as man, the witness He gives must be identical with that of the Father. All three elements of Christian witness are obviously verified in Christ.
Apostles, Primary Witnesses to Christ. john the baptist "came as a witness, to bear witness concerning the light" (Jn 1.7), and he represents all witnesses who preceded Christ. But Jesus specifically asks His apostles to be His witnesses even to the ends of the earth (Acts 1.8). They are the special eye-and ear-witnesses to Christ, testifying to the historical and saving events (Jn3.11; 1 Jn 1.1–5; Lk 24.48). The primary object of their testimony was the resurrection of christ (Acts 1.22; 4.33), but this soon broadened to include the whole earthly life of Jesus—particularly His passion, death, and Resurrection, and its effects on man: conversion, forgiveness of sin, and judgment (Acts 5.31; 10.42).
Message, convincing signs, and grace are evident in apostolic witness. The Apostle paul, for example, is a totally committed man. The commitment is expressed with the enthusiasm characteristic of him. His faithfulness, love, contagious conviction, and compelling words are elements of his witness to Christ, as is, finally, his martyrdom. The Greek word for martyr, μάρτυς, from which the English is derived, means witness. A martyr is a witness to Christ and the faith even to death (cf. Acts 22.20).
Church as Witness to Christ. What is true of the Apostles as primary witnesses to Christ, is true of the church as the permanent witness. Its mission is to continue Christ and His saving work in the world. It must not only preach the gospel, then, but bear convincing witness to it. It is for this reason that the signs of its divine origin will always be evident in the Church (despite any failures of its members). And God by His graces and internal helps adapts these signs to the individual recipient (cf. H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer 3013–14).
Individual Witness to the Faith. The committed Christian finds God and His truth present and meaningful to his whole life. He lives the Christian message, in order to possess it authentically. And in living it, he is thereby a witness, for witness is but the necessary overflow and externalization of true commitment to the faith. Normally, Christian truth must make itself known through a Christian person: message, convincing signs, and grace must come in dependency upon individuals. "You shall be my witnesses" is applied not only to the Apostles, but to every Christian. God is not restricted. Yet just as the signs of credibility are not separable from the first Witness who is Christ, and just as they are not separable from the permanent witness which is the Church, so they usually are not separable from the individual Christian witness.
Thus the role of the witness is to realize a presence within himself and to transmit a call. Witnessing to Christ is so important that it constitutes the Christian's primary vocation. His first calling is to live and transmit Christ, through his second calling or role in life. The special Sacrament of Christian witness is confirmation. And because this demands the full commitment of a person, Confirmation is also the Sacrament of Christian maturity. The Holy Spirit offers to make a person a strong, docile, committed believer. Witnessing is first of all a question of what one is, rather than what one does. To be a Christian wholly given to Christ is, by that very fact, to bear eloquent witness to the faith. This is to let one's light shine among men. Christianity needs witnesses. It has to be "caught" rather than taught. And it is normally caught only from someone already "caught up" by it.
See Also: profession of faith; confession of faith.
Bibliography: "Zeugnis," Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65); suppl., Das Zweite Vatikanische Konzil: Dokumente und kommentare, ed. h. s. brechter et al., pt. 1 (1966) v.10. n. brox, h. fries, ed., Handbuch theologischer Grundbegriffe, 2 v. (Munich 1962–63) 2:903–911. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, translated and adapted by l. hartman (New York, 1963) 2591–94. j. mouroux, I Believe, tr. m. turner (New York 1959). d. grasso, "The Catechist as Witness," Worship 38 (1964) 157–164. w. yeomans, "You Shall Be My Witnesses," Way 4 (1964) 24–32.
[w. f. dewan]