From the Humanity of Christ to the Jesus of History: A Paradigm Shift in Catholic Christology

By Galvin, John P. | Theological Studies, June 1994 | Go to article overview

From the Humanity of Christ to the Jesus of History: A Paradigm Shift in Catholic Christology


Galvin, John P., Theological Studies


During the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, a period in which Catholic dogmatic Christology typically restricted its attention to the content and implications of the doctrine of the early ecumenical councils,(1) many prominent Catholic theologians urged increased emphasis on the humanity of Christ as a means of overcoming excessive stress on Christ's divinity and of presenting Christ as a model for Christian life. Thus Karl Adam warned in 1939 of "the danger of divinizing Jesus' human nature,"(2) and sought in several widely read books to provide a fuller portrayal of Christ's human traits, with copious citation of the Gospels and considerable reliance on psychological considerations.(3) In a similar vein, Romano Guardini, while recognizing that we cannot penetrate the heart of Christ's personality, endeavored to portray concretely the reality of his earthly existence through psychological analysis of his human characteristics.(4)

Other theologians accented similar themes from different perspectives. Emile Mersch, seeking Christological underpinning for his effort to develop a comprehensive theology of the Mystical Body, concentrated speculatively on the perfection of Christ's human nature by the Incarnation.(5) Bernhard Welte offered stimulating reflections on Chalcedon's teaching that Christ is homoousios with us as well as with the Father.(6) Finally, Karl Rahner's influential programmatic essay on "Current Problems in Christology,"(7) like Welte's initially published in commemoration of the 1500th anniversary of the Council of Chalcedon, lamented the hidden monophysitism of much Catholic theology and piety--orthodox in its verbal affirmation of the Chalcedonian dogma of Christ's two complete natures, yet nonetheless inclined to abbreviate the full reality of his humanity--and recommended both intensified theological reflection on the relationship of Christ's humanity to his divinity and renewed dogmatic attention to the mysteries of Christ's life. While these authors varied widely in their specific approaches to Christology, they were motivated by many common concerns and shared the convictions that theologians had unduly neglected the humanity of Christ in recent centuries and that Christian life in general and Catholic theology in particular would be enriched by enhanced attention to this important topic.

An initial fruit of the proposed accentuation of the integrity of Christ's humanity may be found in the extensive debate among dogmatic theologians in the 1950s and early 1960s on the scope of Christ's human knowledge--a discussion which also provides a clear illustration of the framework within which Christological questions were posed and addressed within Catholic dogmatics at that time.(8) The chief arguments raised by such authors as Engelbert Gutwenger and Karl Rahner in favor of recognizing limitations in Christ's human knowledge were speculative in nature, appealing to the finitude of his human intellect, though the compatibility of their position with modern developments in exegesis of the Gospels was also noted as a point in their favor.(9) As this example suggests, even the more innovative Catholic dogmatic theology of this period not only affirmed the dogma of Chalcedon but also took the terminology of that council--one person, two natures--as the reference point for its own further reflections on Christological topics. It was not without reason that Alois Grillmeier's thorough survey of contemporary Catholic Christology, originally published in 1957, was largely concerned with speculative questions about the hypostatic union.(10)

Apart from texts in the field of fundamental theology, which studied Jesus in relation to the foundation of faith,(11) such orientation on Chalcedon prevailed in Catholic Christology until about 1970. It is still evident in the venturesome Dutch Christology of the mid to late 1960s, which accented the humanity of Christ far more strongly than did its predecessors; even Piet Schoonenberg's The Christ, a controversial work originally published in 1969, reflects the same pattern, for though Schoonenberg reversed traditional positions on a number of issues, he remained committed to the standard set of questions. …

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