Wednesday, 24 August 2011

NT Wright's critique of Edward Schillebeeckx's view of history and theology

One sometimes hear rumors in Dutch walkways that the English speaking world is not always taking Dutch scholarship very seriously. Well, when it comes to the work of Edward Schillebeeckx (the famous Dominican dogmatic theologian from Nijmegen where I'm busy with my PhD), at least NT Wright from St'Andrews takes him quite seriously.

Whenever I have time (which is not often!), I like to read how these two men differ when it comes to the relationship between history and theology. I've read quite a bit from both of them (though to be fair, a bit more of Wright, given my work on the resurrection, and my studies in Durham in 2009) and thought it worthwhile to quote a fairly long bit where Wright explains the background to Schillebeeckx's exegetical method (as he interprets it) and some critique:

"On 23 October 1953, Ernst Kasemann gave a now-famous lecture to a group of former Bultmann students on 'The Problem of the Historical Jesus', thereby beginning a significantly new phase, which quickly styled itself 'The New Quest for the Historical Jesus'. Kasemann, aware ... of the the dangers of idealism and docetism, insisted that if Jesus was not earthed in history then he might be pulled in any direction, might be made the hero of any theological or political programme ... without knowing who is was who died on the cross, he said, there would be no solid ground for upholding the gospel of the cross in all its sharpness ... However, this very definite theological agenda, for all its worth ... meant that the New Quest, ironically enough, did not represent a turning to history in the fullest sense ... The main productions of the New Quest are, in fact, of little lasting value.

One of the largest works from this period ... is that of the Dominican theologian Edward Schillebeeckx. His prodigious book on Jesus builds on the traditio-historical criticism whereby the synoptic gospels have been combed for evidence of this or that 'early Christian community', and between whose faith-statements glimpses of Jesus may emerge. Such an argument is necessarily both tortuous and tenuous, since different sets of traditio-historical critics will come out with different sets of answers. Schillebeeckx takes a position which is the mirror-image of Bultmann's: the resurrection accounts are stories of Jesus' lifetime, brought forwards. His eventual leap from a purely historical Jesus to the incarnate Son of God is based on little or nothing in the main part of the book itself. He seems to lend considerable tacit support to the notion that history and theology are two worlds which must be kept entirely separate. His book bravely attempts to combine the multiple hypotheses required to postulate both a divided 'Q community', as a key matrix of early traditions, and some sort of normative theological interpretation. But his work seems to me to have shown the barrenness of the New Quest in just as devastating, though not as readable, a way as Schweitzer's did in relation to the Old."

What, for Wright, did two hundred years of Questing between Reimarus and Schillebeeckx achieve?

"It put the historical Question firmly and irrevocably on the theological map, but without providing a definitive answer to it. Theologians cannot honestly ignore the questions of who Jesus was, whether he said and did roughly what we find in the gospels, the reasons for his death, and the reasons for the rise of Christianity ... But have the historians enabled either side, or indeed those in the middle, to get very far?"

Wright is not convinced and states:

".. at no point, I suggest, has the full impact of the historical evidence been allowed to influence very much the dogmatic conclusions reached; when it has, it is only perhaps as a concession ... I remain convinced that there is a good deal more to be said about the perceptions, worldviews and mindsets of first-century Jews that will have considerable importance, as yet unimagined, for systematic theology" (NT Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, Fortress Press: Minneapolis: 23-26).


Frederik Mulder said...

On p649 Schillebeeckx make the following statement after his thorough discussion about the Easter narratives: "The heart of the whole New Testament, as regards Jesus' resurrection and appearances, amounts to this: the conviction on the part of the Christian Church ... the conviction that Jesus has risen (the import of the Christian proclamation), is an assurance of faith that comes from God alone. As to the way in which the divine source of that assurance took a historical form (for there can be no question of any supernatural 'hocus pocus') discussion on exegetical grounds could be endless. But anyone who accepts the origin of this apostolic conviction as rooted in divine grace (and the New Testament affirmation of that divine origin was constantly stressed, earlier on, in the course of examining the 'Jesus appearances') stands on Christian ground. He cannot be dismissed as heretical; and then he can only be judged and, if necessary, criticized for his way of presenting the matter on a basis of historico-critical and anthropological arguments - but then as a brother in the same Christian faith", Edward Schillebeeckx, Jesus: An Experiment in Christology, Huber Hoskins, trans. New York: Crossroad, 1979).
I must admit that I find NT Wright's analysis and critique of Schillebeeckx quite compelling.

Thomas Louw said...

You have studied at Tuks and then studied under NT Wright.

I’m new to your blog so I would like to know: “What is your stance on NT Wright’s doctrine of salvation?”

Seeing that you do link to the likes of John Piper and Al Mohler, do not look favourably at his view.

Where will you align yourself?

Frederik Mulder said...

Hi Thomas,
Thanx for the important question. My personal view on justification comes closer to Schnelle. See this:

Best regards