Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Will the Dutch and South Africans take seriously NT Wright's critique of Schillebeeckx's view of history and theology?

            I friend informed me recently that some scholars at an influential reformed theology department in South Africa still relies heavily on Edward Schillebeeckx's view of history, faith and theology.  One wonders whether such scholars have ever considered looking at NT Wright's interesting critique of Schillebeeckx in this regard? I have blogged about it some time ago but given the fact that the particular blogpost was read more than 400 times, I thought it appropriate to expand it here a bit further.

One of the basic critiques levelled against Schillebeeckx by Wright is the idea that history, faith and theology are different worlds which must be kept entirely separate. I recently read sections of Schillebeeckx's The Understanding of Faith. Interpretation and Criticism in his Collected Works (2011, T & T Clark) and found possible evidence of this in a phrase like this: "Historically, the figure of the man Jesus is ambiguous. Every revelatory manifestation of God in and through the human element, even in Jesus' humanity, is infinitely inadequate to God himself, who is revealed in it" (vol. V, 44).

Wright gives a useful historical 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).


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