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Quo Vadis, Wojtyla?

Strictly speaking the book is not theological or even Christological so much as historical. It inquires into the hidden sources of the New Testament so as to reveal how faith in Jesus developed from primitive Palestinian Christianity to the time when the New Testament was compiled. “With the aid of Formgeschichte [the study of the historicity of biblical writings by studying their literary form] our aim is, among other things, to penetrate to the earliest layer of the pre-canonical tradition, in order thus to open the way to Jesus of Nazareth” (p. 744). When Schillebeeckx burrows back into what he calls the “incubatory history” of the Gospels and Epistles his methods are analogous to those of a philologist who reads through a palimpsest to its second level or of an art restorer who removes a fresco so as to find the underlying cartoon.

While this is a delicate process in itself, it is the more so in the light of the current Vatican mood on orthodoxy. But Schillebeeckx is convinced that scriptural scholarship and Christianity in general are living through a Copernican Revolution which makes the culture (if not the message) of the New Testament far stranger to modern man than Catholic scholars have generally admitted. If Christianity is neither to become “an historical relic” nor to appeal to “supernatural hocus-pocus,” its message must first be ferreted out historically by a critical study of the New Testament texts and then submitted to a searching hermeneutics, or reinterpretation, that Schillebeeckx believes might save the substance of Christian beliefs. He appeals to Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and begs not to be considered a heretic just because he tries to state the core of the Christian message in a new set of categories. “Are we therefore non-Christian or less Christian?” he asks, if we seek “to preserve a living faith which in this age…has relevance for man, his community and society…?”

Those who (for whatever reasons) fail to understand what is really going on will…utter their reproaches; for they have a fixed impression that the faith is being…eaten away from within….. I do not begrudge any believer the right to describe and live out his belief in accordance with old models of experience, culture and ideas. But this attitude isolates the Church’s faith from any future and divests it of any real missionary power to carry conviction with contemporaries for whom the gospel is—here and now—intended. [P. 582]

This kind of project is at least as old as Rudolf Bultmann’s effort to “demythologize” the New Testament with the aid of Heidegger’s existential categories. But Schillebeeckx, following more recent biblical scholarship, reverses Bultmann’s strategy. Whereas Bultmann maintained that hardly anything relevant for faith could be known about the Jesus of history and that instead the whole Christian phenomenon is to be found in the Gospel’s proclamation (kerygma) of the Christ of faith (“Jesus arose into the kerygma,” as he put it), Schillebeeckx asserts that “the New Testament…gives us substantial information about Jesus of Nazareth” and that this historical identification of Jesus “can then show us what exactly it was that very early Christianity understood by the affirmation: he is the Christ, the son of man, the Son of God, the Lord” (pp. 437, 440; cf. pp. 71 and 515).

The textual archaeology whereby Schillebeeckx uncovers the earliest layers of the life and meaning of Jesus is as complex as it is thorough, and any summary runs the risk of simplifying his efforts. Nonetheless, in an attempt to synthesize his thesis I shall comment on five levels of the developing history of the meaning of Jesus as Schillebeeckx presents it.

  1. Jesus himself: His own experience of God and of his mission.

  2. Peter and the Twelve: What happened between Jesus’ death and the emergence of faith among his disciples.

  3. The “source-tradition”: The content of the most primitive “theology of Jesus” in the earliest Christian communities (called “Q” for the German word Quelle, “source”) before stories of the resurrection, empty tomb and Easter appearances arose.

  4. The resurrection stories: How the Easter faith came to be expressed in terms of a “raising from the dead,” an empty tomb and Jesus’ appearances to the disciples.

  5. St. Paul and others: How the theology of Jesus, born in the earliest communities and eventually developed into the Synoptic Gospels, transformed itself into “Christology.”

  1. Jesus’ “Abba experience.” All scriptural scholars apart from fundamentalists agree that the Gospels are not objective records of chronological events so much as the result of an interplay between historical happenings and the interpretation of them by the earliest believers. The Gospels move in a “hermeneutical circle”: Jesus’ contemporaries on the one hand drew on their memories of his life when after Easter they interpreted the meaning of his exaltation and his expected return, while, on the other hand, their post-Easter faith shaped their interpretation of his historical life. “In other words,” Schillebeeckx writes, “these gospel stories of Jesus are themselves a hermeneusis [interpretation] of Jesus’ Parousia [or imminent second coming] and resurrection, while belief in the Parousia or in the resurrection was engendered by things remembered of the historical Jesus” (p. 401). In fact, there is no way out of this hermeneutical circle; the point, rather, is to enter into it in an adequate fashion.

Schillebeeckx’s key for unlocking the circle and sifting out the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith is what he calls Jesus’ “Abba experience,” the “source and soul of his message and conduct.” Jesus’ historically exceptional way of addressing God as “Abba” (“Father,” but as in the Italian papà) reveals his utter confidence in the benevolent nearness of a Father-God who will soon manifest Himself definitively in the world of men and triumph over evil. Jesus totally identified his own life with this imminent arrival of his Father, the “coming of the Kingdom of God.”

  1. Peter’s reassembling of the disciples after Jesus’ death. The central question is what happened between Jesus’ death and the birth of Christian faith in his followers some weeks or months later. The usual Christian answer is, of course, the resurrection, whether that be understood as an objective, perhaps empirically verifiable, historical event (as in fundamentalist interpretations) or merely as a subjective renewal of faith on the part of the disciples (as Bultmann and Willi Marxsen hold).15 Schillebeeckx chooses a middle path that preserves and modifies both interpretations. He locates the original Easter experience in a conversion process (subjective side) that led the disciples to see that Jesus was alive with God (objective side). The setting for this experience, he insists, was created by Peter’s reassembling of the disciples, probably in Galilee, after they had abandoned Jesus during his passion and death.

The “hard historical core of how they got reassembled” is, according to Schillebeeckx, the following: First, Peter had an experience of forgiveness of his cowardice and faithlessness in denying Jesus. Then he gathered the disciples together (and thus earned the title “the Rock”) and, in a setting of doubt and debate, recalled with them the life and Abba experience of Jesus. Then: “They all of a sudden ‘saw’ it” (p. 391): Jesus, abandoned and crucified, has been definitively endorsed by God: he is alive with his Father. This—and not some discovery of an empty tomb—is the “Christian experience of Jesus’ Easter presence” (p. 646); “…spiritual contact with Jesus, ruptured by death, has been restored: they can once more address each other in intimate, personal terms” (p. 345).

  1. The earliest expression of Easter faith: The question, of course, is, What did the disciples “see”? and Schillebeeckx’s answer is that in the literal sense of vision they saw nothing. They simply believed that Jesus is “the One who lives.” The most primitive expression of this faith by the Q-communities was that Jesus was the latter-day prophet and messianic judge who was “exalted” to God—without any mention of a resurrection. The language of a “raising from the dead” is not the “oldest and original interpretation factor,” in fact it is a “second thought” and “only one of the resources available” for expressing the victory of Jesus. Indeed, “the reality denoted by ‘Easter experience’ is independent both of the traditions centered around the Jerusalem tomb and of that of the appearances” (p. 397).

  2. How, then, did stories of Jesus’ “resurrection” and his “appearances” arise? Schillebeeckx follows scholars like F. NeyRinck and others who postulate that the early Palestinian Christians, following contemporary Jewish custom, carried on “a practice of venerating the tomb of Jesus at Jerusalem” (probably still containing his bones, although Schillebeeckx avoids declaring himself on the point). Out of this practice there arose the story of women finding the “empty” tomb a couple of days after Jesus’ death. But far from this story being a historical account, it is simply “an aetiological cult-legend…intended to shed light on the (at least) annual visit of the Jerusalem church to the tomb in order to honor the risen [exalted] One” (p. 336). The Gospel message, “He is not here; see the place where they laid him” simply means: Jesus is alive and should not be sought among the dead.

From this practice, in the “first few generations” of Christianity the language of a bodily raising from the dead began to take precedence over the language of “exaltation” as “the best way to make explicit an earlier spontaneous experience” (p. 396), for such language easily fit into the conceptual ambit of contemporary Judaism. Likewise, discussion of the “third day” on which Jesus was raised “tells us nothing about a chronological dating of the resurrection qua event (as, for instance, three days after Good Friday) or even of the ‘Easter appearances’; but it suggests everything about the eschatological, definitive, saving action of God vis-à-vis the crucified Jesus” (p. 532).

5. From a “theology of Jesus” to a “Christology.” The earliest interpretations of the meaning of Jesus as the Christ were not “ontological” but “functional”: they were concerned not with who or what Jesus was but with what he was meant to do, namely, usher in God’s definitive presence to man. Hence all of the titles attributed to Jesus by his earliest followers, whether latterday prophet or Davidic messiah (not in the nationalistic sense, however) or “Son of Man,” did not explain Jesus’ identity per se, but only his identification with God’s saving action. These, Schillebeeckx says, are “first-order assertions” about Jesus.

But as Christianity developed it had to ask who Jesus himself was (the “ontological” question) as the one in whom man’s salvation is achieved. This led to the relatively less important “second-order assertions” about the identity of Jesus, which St. Paul and later St. John developed. This matter points to the tricky question (for which Schillebeeckx was called to Rome) about the divinity of Jesus.

Along with orthodox Catholic theology he opposes the “Docetist” idea that Jesus was “a mundane god, masquerading in human form,” but unlike traditional theologians he regrets that “Christology from above”—Jesus, the God made man of the Gospel of Saint John—has dominated Christian thought from the early councils of Nicea and Ephesus onward. He prefers to revive “the possibilities inherent in the synoptic model” of a “Christology from below” (Jesus the man, exalted to the status of Son of God).

Schillebeeckx believes that today the Church should “present Jesus as first and foremost a question catalyzing what are the problems of our most deeply human, personal and social life” (p. 637). He is willing to go so far as to say that “In his humanity Jesus is so intimately ‘of the Father’ that by virtue of this very intimacy he is ‘Son of God”’ (p. 658). Or, without the inverted commas: “Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified-and-risen One, is the Son of God in the fashion of an actual and contingent human being” (p. 668). But that much having been said, “it is high time…for keeping silent in reverence and adoration….”

Whether Schillebeeckx’s position (and Küng holds substantially the same belief) is enough to satisfy the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and Pope John Paul II remains to be seen. Wojtyla’s own intellectual forte is neither scriptural exegesis nor systematic theology, for which he seems to rely on conservative advisers, but moral philosophy. Although he is the first pope to be markedly influenced by the works of the German phenomenologist Max Scheler (1874-1928), his intuitions on issues of personal morality—witness his stand on birth control—tend to be very traditional and Thomistic. No doubt an important factor in the Pope’s decision will be the outcome of the synod of Dutch bishops which by papal command will be held in Rome beginning on January 14, 1980—a kind of episcopal Canossa. During his interrogation last December Schillebeeckx was confronted by his nemesis Jean Galot, the French priest who had openly denounced him, with the charge, “Nowhere in your book do I find that Jesus is the Son of God,” and Schillebeeckx replied, “That is your opinion.”

Nonetheless, in a private conversation with me on the last day of Schillebeeckx’s inquisition, Galot delivered himself of the opinion that there is already enough to condemn the Dutch theologian in a short interview which Schillebeeckx gave just before coming to Rome. 16 On the other side of the fence, Galot’s colleague at Rome’s Gregorian University, Rev. Gerald O’Collins, S.J., author of The Easter Jesus and other works in Christology, adjudges Schillebeeckx “entirely orthodox” on the questions of the divinity and resurrection of Jesus. Doctores scinduntur, as Horace once wrote: “The scholars are divided.” The point, however, is that Galot votes in the Sacred Congregation and O’Collins does not.

It is fairly clear in what direction Pope John Paul II is leading the Church, but it remains an open question how far (and how many of) the faithful will follow him. Theologians may end up choosing the path of inner emigration in matters of faith and morals, just as many of the laity have done in the matter of birth control and premarital sex. In any case the old days of Roma locuta est, causa finita est, “Rome has spoken, the case is closed,” may be over. The Pope might do well to ponder the perhaps apocryphal exchange between Louis XVI and his valet on the morning after the taking of the Bastille. “This is a revolt!” the king said. “No, Sire,” replied his valet, “it is a revolution.”

January 2, 1980

  1. 15

    See Willi Marxsen, The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (London and Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1970).

  2. 16

    Edward Schillebeeckx, “Un diverso modo di pensare tra me e ‘i teologi romani,” Il Regno-Attualità, no. 20 (1979), pp. 439-441.

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