The Figure of Jesus Christ in Contemporary Christianity – Part 6

The Figure of Jesus Christ in Contemporary Christianity - Part 6

The Figure of Jesus Christ in Contemporary Christianity – Part 6

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This chapter has up to this point been almost totally confined to Protestant and Anglican theologians. The reason is that until recently Roman Catholic studies of Christ were for the most part reiterations of the classical Christology of Chalcedon, and throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,Catholic theology held itself aloof from the ‘liberal’ tendencies manifesting themselves in Protestantism. As Karl Rahner has observed, textbooks of Catholic dogma published in 1950 were scarcely distinguishable from the textbooks of 1750, in spite of all the revolutionary changes that had taken place in the world of ideas in the two hundred years between them. But since the middle 1960s, that is to say, since the Second Vatican Council, new developments have appeared. During these years, it is also the case that the leadership in Christian theology has passed from Protestant to Roman Catholic thinkers. The traditional doctrines have not been abandoned, but fresh language and fresh emphases have brought a new intelligibility, and this has happened not least in the interpretation of the figure of Jesus Christ.Karl Rahner (1904–84) himself affords a good illustration of the new spirit animating Catholic reflection on the person of Christ. One of the strengths of his theology is that it rests upon a carefully elaborated anthropology (i.e.belief about the human being), and this attention which he pays to the constitution of the human being results in a corresponding importance attaching to the humanity of Christ, so that we see in Rahner the same tendency observed in many other theologians, namely, a desire to recapture the humanity of Christ, so often obscured in the past.

Rahner’s anthropology is contained mainly in two books of philosophicaltheology. One is Spirit in the World (1957) and in this book, the concept ofspirit is taken as the clue to what it means to be human, and spirit is understoodas the outreach towards the infinite. The human being is a finite creaturewho is nevertheless conscious of moving towards an infinite horizon. A furtherbook, Hearers of the Word (1969), claims that the human being has anopenness for revelation. The argument is that we are aware of ourselves asembarked on a limitless process of transcendence towards a spiritual infinite,and to be in this situation is to have the expectation of some revealing wordfrom that infinite.

The foregoing sketch of Rahner’s anthropology already suggests its significance for his christology. Rahner succinctly expresses the relation thus:christology is transcendent anthropology, anthropology is deficient Christology (Rahner 1961:164). His remarks on the relations between anthropology and christology are reminiscent of Schleiermacher (1768–1834), though not of course directly derived from him. Rahner reminds us too that a Christology which begins from Christ’s humanity has a precedent in the New Testament and should not be allowed to fade from view because of more sophisticated christologies based on the eternal Word or Logos (from John’s Gospel on)He asks:

Is the christology of the Acts of the Apostles, which begins from below, with the human experience of Jesus, merely primitive? Or has it something special to say to us which classical christology does not say with the same clarity?The more strictly incarnational idea of the coming of God into the creation is

discussed by Rahner in connection with the idea of evolution (Rahner 1978:178–203). Some of his views are similar to those of Teilhard de Chardin, discussed below. Rahner believes that God has, in the evolutionary process, been progressively communicating himself in and to the creation. Jesus Christ is the

climax of this process of communication, so that he has for Rahner a cosmic significance, again an idea with a New Testament pedigree, in Ephesians.

The wide variety to be found in post-Vatican II Catholic theology is obvious if we set alongside the christology of Rahner that of the Belgian Dominican,Edward Schillebeeckx (1914–). He too begins from the humanity of Jesus Christ, but not from a philosophical understanding of what humanity is and might become, rather from an attempt (in spite of everything!) to reconstruct the historical Jesus. In two massive volumes, the first called Jesus (1979) and the second Christ (1980), he searches through the New Testament material,and in particular tries to bring to light the earliest impressions of Jesus. This involves him in a difficult and precarious attempt to isolate the earliest strata of tradition in the New Testament. He attaches special importance to the hypothetical document known as Q(Quelle), alleged to lie behind Matthew and Luke, though it must be noted that New Testament experts are divided about the merits of Schillebeeckx’s findings. Jesus, he claims, is best described as a prophet, proclaiming the kingdom, giving evidence of its advent in healing sand exorcisms, and communicating its spirit in teaching and in table fellowship with both disciples and social outcasts. Already these hearers were undergoing in themselves something like a salvific experience through their fellowship with Jesus, so that even before the climactic events of crucifixion and resurrection, if we accept Schillebeeckx’s reconstruction, Jesus through his teaching and ministry was liberating his hearers from constricting ideas of God and of human community, and giving them a fuller vision of what human life can become.But even if we admit this, it is hard to admit Schillebeeckx’s claim that the idea of ‘prophet’ had all the weight that he ascribed to it and that the earlyperception of Jesus as prophet was already on the way to the classicalchristology. Schillebeeckx does respond to the need to ask who and what was the person crucified and resurrected, but he does not adequately treat crucifixion and resurrection themselves.The Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955) belonged to an earlier generation than that of Rahner and Schillebeeckx, but since he was not permitted to publish his work during his lifetime, it was only in the period of Vatican II and after that it became generally known. His most important book, The Phenomenon of Man (1959), appeared in the year of his death,and many other writings in the decade which followed.In his youth, Teilhard had become interested in the biological sciences and had been influenced by the philosophy of Henri Bergson, who had attacked the materialism of the nineteenth century and had argued for a creative principle at

work in evolution. Teilhard came to see evolution as a vast ordered process moving towards a goal. Some scientists criticized him for taking too simplistic a view of evolution by ignoring its apparently groping and tentative character,while some theologians questioned whether the immanent creative principle of

evolution as described by Teilhard could be rightly called ‘God’. Our concern is however not so much with the general merits or demerits of Teilhard’s philosophyas with his view of Jesus Christ. He sees Jesus Christ as the reflection back into the present of the future goal towards which evolution is moving. This is called by him the ‘omega-point’, which appears to mean all things gathered up in God,an idea which has its roots in the New Testament, especially Ephesians. This is the understanding of Christ as a cosmic figure, indeed the goal of the cosmic process. In Teilhard’s own words, ‘The exclusive task of the world is the physical incorporation of the faithful in the Christ who is of God’ (Teilhard de Chardin

1964:318). It would be hard to imagine a more exalted christology than this. At the same time, Teilhard is far from any docetic or Gnostic attitude. On the contrary,he has a quite astonishing reverence for the material and the potentialities of the material, without parallel since the days of John of Damascus (eighth century)and the controversies over icons. When one has in mind the astounding potentialities of matter—energy, then Teilhard’s vision of the whole universe as the body of Christ, that is, of the Logos which is the principle of its order and unity, does not seem quite so sweepingly imperialistic as it might at first sight.But his theories stand in need of rigorous sifting and revision, due to the fact that,as he was unable to publish in his lifetime, he did not get the scholarly criticism that would normally have been due to him.



The foregoing survey of christological thinking in the second half of the twentieth century reinforces the comment of Küng quoted near the beginning of the chapter: ‘The christological debate that has persisted since the dawn of the modern age has not yet been resolved.’ We are in a time of pluralism,when long-established ways of understanding the figure of Jesus Christ seem to have become worn out, and no one new statement has taken their place.Yet amid the pluralism we can discern some trends which keep recurring.Now that the change of direction signalled by neo-orthodoxy no longer exercises the powerful influence that it had a generation or so ago, ideas which first appeared in the immediate post-Enlightenment period and throughout the nineteenth century are appearing again. When his influence

was at its strongest, Karl Barth remarked that it had become apparent that Ritschlianism had been only an episode. Today, a few decades further on, it looks as if Barthianism too was only an episode. Yet one would have to say that even if some of the ideas of the pre-Barthian period are returning, they have been chastened by the discussions which were provoked by the theological renascence under Barth. We shall briefly consider some of the current trends.


The historical question

In the nineteenth century, writers about Jesus Christ were much concerned about reconstructing his history, disentangled from the theological and mythological ideas that had grown up around him. This ‘quest of the historical Jesus’, which aimed at showing his genuine humanity, was severely criticized

by Albert Schweitzer and others (Schweitzer 1954). Many of the theologians discussed in this chapter were therefore very skeptical about the need or even the possibility of getting reliable information about the Jesus of history—this would be true of Bultmann, Gogarten, Barth, Tillich, though in different

ways. But we have seen that as early as 1947 Baillie was calling for a new and more affirmative attitude to the historical questions. Soon after, ErnstKäsemann and other disciples of Bultmann launched a ‘new quest’ of the historical Jesus. This ‘new quest’, like the contemporaneous ‘new hermeneutic’,never really came to much and the historical question is one that still needs investigation—and still receives it, from both Christian and Jewish scholars and others. Among contemporary writers, Pannenberg and Schillebeeckx take history very seriously as a medium of revelation, but they are aware of the dangers of slipping back into the old quest.


The humanity of Jesus Christ

The traditional christology attributed to Jesus Christ both a human nature and a divine nature. In post-Enlightenment thought, for instance in Schleiermacher, a strong emphasis was laid on his human nature, which had hitherto been obscured by the excessive stress on his divinity. During the period of neo-orthodoxy, the true humanity of Christ was again in danger of being obscured. But since the 1960s, the stress has again been on the humanity, and the humanity has usually been the starting point for christological reflection, as may be seen in Rahner, Schillebeeckx,Pannenberg, Robinson and others. These recent thinkers have made use of contemporary philosophical anthropology which have claimed that there is no fixed human ‘nature’ and that the human person is a being in process oftranscendence.


The divinity of Jesus Christ

If formerly the stress on the divinity of Christ obscured his humanity, the new interest in his humanity now threatens to obscure his divinity. The idea of ‘incarnation’ has been subjected to criticism (Hick 1977), though it hasalso had restatements. It is difficult to see how Christianity could survive without its divine claim for Christ, which is deeply entrenched in theology and liturgy. The trend today is not to think of divinity as an additional‘nature’ somehow added to Christ’s humanity or of his humanity as a‘nature’ assumed by his divinity, but rather that a transcendent humanity fully images God, to the extent that is possible under the conditions offinitude.



A question which is not new but is receiving new prominence is that of the relation of Jesus Christ to other ‘Savior-figures’ such as Confucius,Muhammad, Krishna, Buddha et al. Is Christ the only or even the ultimate revelation of God or do some parts of the human race find salvation through one of these other figures? Or, more speculatively, if, as we may think nowadays, there may be many intelligent or spiritual races of creatures in distant parts of the universe, do they too have their saviors,their messengers from God or even their incarnations of God? The New Testament itself gives no completely unambiguous answer to such questions, and even so central a theologian as St Thomas Aquinas speculated on the possibility of a plurality of incarnations. This is a problem that will have to engage the christology of the future, and although numerous articles and books are already being written on the

subject, there are many difficult questions to be settled. For instance, is there a plurality of rationalities, of moralities, of spiritualities? Or is thereon universal Logos who is manifested (though perhaps in varying degrees of clarity) in the many savior-figures? It seems that there are still unfinished tasks for christology.


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