Christology—The Last Fifty Years
Where was Christology, as developed not only by Roman Catholics but also by other Christians, heading when the Second Vatican Council closed on December 8, 1965? Any adequate stocktaking should take note of what was ending and what had already begun and would affect the future direction of Christology.
ENDINGS AND BEGINNINGS
The very influential Paul Tillich had died on October 22, 1965, but with the three volumes of his enduringly significant work, Systematic Theology (1951–1964), already published. Tillich’s Christology, like the rest of his theology, was shaped by a “method of correlation,” which presented the revealed truth of Christ as answering questions raised by the cultural situation. At its best this method is reflected in the “human questions and divine replies” approach of Vatican II’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra aetate 1) and more fully in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes 3, 4, 10, and 21). At its worst, by allowing the cultural situation to dominate, the method could produce a triumph of (supposed) relevance over (real and life-giving) orthodox faith in Christ.
Sickness prevented Karl Barth (1886–1968) from attending Vatican II as an observer, and he was to die with his major work, Church Dogmatics
(1932–), still unfinished. For Barth, human reason and philosophy cannot attain knowledge of God, which comes only through the gracious revelation given in Jesus Christ. Barth based his
high Christology and, indeed, all of his theology on the Word of God communicated in the Bible.1
Barth’s famous contemporary Rudolf Bultmann (1882–1976) had engaged with him in notable debates: for instance, over the historical status and nature of Christ’s resurrection. In general, Bultmann argued for an almost complete break between history and Christian faith, leaving only the bare fact of Christ crucified as necessary for faith. Present in the proclaimed word, Christ calls hearers to decide and accept in faith the radical demands of the Gospel.
Before Barth and Bultmann died, their influence had already begun to wane. Bultmann, as we have just seen, maintained that, beyond the sheer fact of Christ’s existence and death on a cross, historical conclusions cannot and should not affect, let alone support, faith in him. This was to isolate faith from history and rely on our direct experience of Jesus here and now. Many theologians and exegetes—in particular, Roman Catholic, Evangelical, and Orthodox scholars—had never accepted Bultmann’s veto, which his fellow Lutheran Ernst Käsemann and others among his former students challenged in the 1950s.
The year before Vatican II came to a close, two landmark books appeared in German, written by a pair of younger theologians, the Lutheran Wolfhart Pannenberg (d. 2014) and the Reformed Jürgen Moltmann (b. 1926). In Jesus: God and Man (German orig., 1964), Pannenberg, who had studied with Barth, outgrew him by appealing to critical rationality in defending the historicity of the resurrection and in taking over from the speculative idealism of G. W. F. Hegel such themes as the horizon of universal history and the notion of truth being found in the whole (that is to say, in the totality of history). The three volumes of Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology (German orig., 1988–1993) presented in fuller form the doctrines of God, creation, Christology, and so forth. But his 1964 work had permanently made its mark by arguing against Barth and Bultmann for a Christology “from below”—in the sense that critically established knowledge of the historical Jesus belongs essentially both to faith in him (as divine and human) and to systematic Christology. While historical conclusions can and should support faith, Pannenberg argued that faith has no privileged access to history and historical facts.
In Theology of Hope
(German orig., 1964), Moltmann moved beyond his earlier dependence on Barth. Inspired by Käsemann’s exposition of Paul’s apocalyptic eschatology—by Gerhard von Rad’s
theology of the Hebrew Scriptures, and by Ernst Bloch’s philosophy of hope—Moltmann rehabilitated future-oriented expectations and expounded the resurrection of Christ as the promise of God that should underpin—so he argued against Bultmann’s otherworldly individualism—a common commitment to transform human society in the light of the universal future of God’s kingdom. Moltmann’s work helped prepare the way for black Christology, liberation Christology, and feminist Christology. He was to take his own Christology further in such later works as The Crucified God
(German orig., 1972) and The Way of Jesus Christ
(German orig., 1989), the former highlighting the cross as God’s loving solidarity with those who suffer, and the latter presenting a messianic Christology. The Crucified God
proposed that, in the passion and death of Christ, the whole story of human suffering became the suffering of the triune God.
If we are to understand and interpret Vatican II and its aftermath, we need to recall ressourcement
theology, which developed from the late nineteenth century and expressed itself in the biblical movement, the liturgical renewal, the ecumenical movement, the patristic renewal, and the revival of Thomism. This theology aimed at retrieving ancient, life-giving sources for reflection that had been ignored over the centuries. Some of the leaders in ressourcement
theology (e.g., Yves Congar, Jean Daniélou, Henri de Lubac, and Karl Rahner) became periti,
or expert consultants, at the Council and worked closely with the bishops in producing the conciliar texts.2
In the years before the Council opened, Rahner (1904–1984) developed fresh thinking in Christology through lecturing and writing on such topics as (a) Christ’s human knowledge and self-consciousness, (b) his resurrection, (c) the enduring importance (as “not an end but a beginning,” or, more exactly, as “an end and
a beginning”) of the Council of Chalcedon’s teaching on Christ’s one person and two natures, (d) Christ’s redeeming work and the followers of non-Christian religions, (e) the significance of evolutionary views for Christology,3
and (f) Christ as the
symbol of God. The early volumes of Rahner’s Theological Investigations
(German orig., 1954–1984) gather together articles that record developments in Rahner’s christological thought. His mature christological synthesis would come in the monumental Foundations of Christian Faith
(German orig., 1976).
Rahner’s work embodied at least five significant changes in modern Christology: (a) the shift from a static to an existentialist and
evolutionary interpretation of human existence; (b) the shift from focusing principally, or even exclusively, on the ontological question (who and what is Jesus in himself) and only secondarily (at best) reckoning with what he has done for us; (c) the shift from (at best) considering Christ’s resurrection from a merely apologetical point of view to exploring its dogmatic or doctrinal significance; (d) the shift from ignoring those who do not share Christian faith to reflecting on how the saving grace of Christ reaches and affects them;4
and (e) a shift to new philosophical thinking and language.
Apropos of (e), where the preconciliar, Roman Catholic manualist Christology (and theology, in general) borrowed its concepts from a barren and artificially clear neo-scholasticism, Rahner took up the transcendental Thomism of Joseph Maréchal and, even more, the existentialist philosophy of Martin Heidegger, with whom he had studied. Rahner signaled a shift in Christology to a philosophical pluralism, in which different theologians would draw on analytic philosophy,5
various forms of existentialism and idealism, feminist philosophies, classical Indian philosophy, other Asian philosophies, some Marxist conceptuality, phenomenology, postmodern thought, updated forms of classical Aristotelianism, and so forth.
Rahner himself argued that human beings and their questioning reveal a drive that leads them beyond themselves towards the Absolute. This led him to develop a Christology of human self-transcendence. He interpreted the incarnation not only as the divine self-communication in the person of the Son but also as the limit case of what is possible for humanity in its dynamic openness to the Absolute. This is not to reduce Christology to anthropology, as has been sometimes alleged. Rahner never wavered in holding the incarnation to be the free self-communication of God.
Unlike Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905–1988) played no part in the proceedings of the Second Vatican Council, but, like Rahner, he was already developing, even before the Council opened in 1962, theological and christological themes that were to bear fruit for decades to come.6
As regards particular questions, von Balthasar interpreted Christ’s “descent into hell” as utter alienation from God, and (like Rahner) broke with a long tradition by accepting that, during his earthly life, Christ exercised faith. Von Balthasar’s central contribution came in the seven volumes of The Glory of the Lord
(German orig., 1961–1969), for which Love Alone
(German orig., 1963) served
as an introduction. Here he presented the priority of beauty, understanding the glory of the beautiful God to be the central reality of biblical revelation and to enjoy a certain precedence over truth and goodness. It is through beauty, which inspires our love, that we come to know and accept what is true and good. Von Balthasar gave Christology a thoroughgoing Trinitarian focus, as did some others (e.g., Moltmann), albeit from a different theological perspective.
Early in his career, von Balthasar had won his ecumenical spurs by a fine work on the theology of Barth (German orig., 1951). But his enduring contribution to Christology came not through developing a Barthian-style Christology of the Word but through championing a more spiritual and worshipping approach. This followed, or at least resembled, some notable Orthodox theologians and writers (e.g., Fyodor Dostoevsky) by putting the beautiful Christ at the center.7
THE SEVENTIES AND EIGHTIES
If asked to name the
outstanding contribution to Christology from the 1970s, many would pick Jesus the Christ
(German orig., 1974) by Walter Kasper (b. 1933).8
This work brilliantly synthesized biblical, traditional, and philosophical material. Like Pannenberg, it gave adequate attention to the resurrection of Christ and relevant material from his public ministry—unlike manualist Christology that could be one-sidedly and nonhistorically engrossed with the incarnation as such. Kasper’s Christology exemplified (a) a shift in Christology (and theology, in general) from an uncritical to a critical reading of the Scriptures and, in particular, of the New Testament and the Gospels. When handling his biblical sources, Kasper, like most Catholic theologians in the post-Vatican II situation, drew on both Protestant scholars like Käsemann and Catholic authors like Rudolf Schnackenburg. Not only at the scriptural level but also in general, Christology had become thoroughly ecumenical. (b) Where many manualists, when citing the fathers of the church, lifted proof texts from a widely used and frequently reprinted anthology—Marie Joseph Rouët de Journel, Enchiridion patristicum9
—Kasper quoted and referenced directly Athanasius, Augustine, Irenaeus, Maximus the Confessor, Tertullian, and other ancient authors. The patristic renewal enriched this Christology. (c) Finally, strands of German idealism, coming from J. G. Fichte and F. W. Schelling as well as from Hegel, helped shape the
conceptuality and arguments of Kasper. He aimed to illustrate how a particular history has universal relevance: Jesus is
the Christ. In carrying through his project, Kasper exemplified what Bernard Lonergan called the shift from classical to historical consciousness.
A certain political consciousness helped trigger a largely Latin American movement, which was inspired by the Exodus, prophetic calls for justice, and Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom. Liberation theology struck deep roots wherever unjust structures, economic dependence, and political domination oppressed great masses of poor people. Its better exponents included Juan Luis Segundo (1925–1996), Jon Sobrino (b. 1938), and, above all, Gustavo Gutiérrez (b. 1928), whose A Theology of Liberation (Spanish orig., 1972) signaled the start of the movement.
From Christology at the Crossroads (Spanish orig., 1976) and Jesus in Latin America (Spanish orig., 1982) down to a book dedicated to eight murdered friends, Jesus the Liberator (Spanish orig., 1991), and beyond, Sobrino has proved in Christology the leading voice of liberation theology. Viewing from the standpoint of the victims who Christ is and what he does, Sobrino calls for a transformation of society and a life of service based on the ideals of justice, peace, and human solidarity. Such liberation Christology embodies a spirituality of active discipleship.
One feature of the seventies and eighties was the increasing help that Christology received from biblical scholars: for instance, from Raymond Brown (1928–1998), James Dunn (b. 1939), Martin Hengel (1926–2009), Geza Vermes (1924–2013), and others. Let us see some of the details.
Author of Jesus: God and Man (1967) and coeditor of the widely read Jerome Biblical Commentary (1968; rev. ed., 1990), Brown contributed much to theological development through these works and through such books as The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus (1973), The Birth of the Messiah (1977; rev. ed., 1993), and Exegesis and Church Doctrine (1985). He would continue to offer biblical help to Christology through the two volumes of The Death of the Messiah (1994) and An Introduction to New Testament Christology (1994). Brown was also one of the leading exegetes who “blew the whistle” on the somewhat ill-conceived use of scriptural material in Edward Schillebeeckx’ work in Christology, Jesus (Dutch orig., 1974).
Dunn’s thesis director, C. D. F. Moule, had provided well-based guidance with The Origin of Christology
(1977), as he did with an earlier work that he edited, The Significance of the Message of the Resurrection for Faith in Jesus Christ
(1968). Dunn himself produced a landmark book with Christology in the Making
(1980; new ed., 1989); it has been extensively used by teachers and students of Christology.
A leading German exegete, Hengel published work...