From the Humanity of Christ to the Historical Jesus

By Loewe, William P. | Theological Studies, June 2000 | Go to article overview

From the Humanity of Christ to the Historical Jesus


Loewe, William P., Theological Studies


THE RAPID COLLAPSE and near disappearance of neo-Scholastic manual theology after Vatican II left Roman Catholic theologians with a massive task of reconstruction. The upshot has been, in the eyes of some, a period of creative ferment, while others look askance at a chaotic pluralism that in their view threatens the very substance of the faith. Within Christology, at least, enough clarity and unity of direction have emerged to allow John P. Galvin to speak of a paradigm shift.(1) Previously, the basic terms framing the problematic of the standard neo-Scholastic christological treatise were drawn from the dogmatic definition of the Council of Chalcedon. One sought first the intelligibility of the unity of Christ's two natures in his one person, and one then proceeded to elucidate the impact on his humanity that had been assumed by the divine person. That entire problematic, Galvin observed, has been subsumed and relocated of late within a new one, one now framed in terms of the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith.

Galvin rightly claimed paradigmatic significance for this shift. To cite Karl Rahner's imagery, a high, descending approach to Christology has been ceding place to a low, ascending approach.(2) Instead of taking as one's starting point the second person of the Trinity, the newer Christologies commonly begin with some consideration of Jesus' earthly career and destiny, and then proceed to reconstruct and rearticulate his religious significance. This approach involves them in a genetic analysis of the christological tradition from its origins in Jesus' ministry, execution, and Resurrection through the formation of the New Testament and onward.(3) Within this genetic context, the dogmas of Nicea and Chalcedon are relocated as moments within an ongoing tradition, enormously significant moments, but by no means the end of the process. Thus the paradigm shift: Christology is no longer simply commentary on Chalcedon. Rather, the newer Christologies seek to recapitulate the entire tradition, beginning from Jesus' ministry, with a view finally toward mediating the significance of that tradition in the contemporary context, one often characterized as postmodern and distinguished by such concerns as race and gender, social and economic justice, ecology, cosmology, and the relationship of Christianity to Judaism and to other living faiths.

This shift began as a corrective movement within the former paradigm. Sparked by a recognition of the docetic and monophysitistic tendencies fostered by the standard neo-Scholastic manuals,(4) there began a movement of recovering the full humanity of Jesus. In its initial phase that corrective movement drew on exegetical resources to retrieve from the New Testament portraits of Christ previously neglected features of his humanity, particularly limitations on his human knowledge.(5) Contemporary philosophical developments were brought into play in order to reconcile those features with Christ's divine status.(6) But when, in the early 1970s, Christology began to draw upon the recruits of research on the historical Jesus,(7) the boundaries within which this corrective endeavor was carried on began to burst, giving way to the new paradigm noted by Galvin. Not infrequently, one may note further, the newer Christologies, operating from what Galvin terms "the reorientation of theological interest on the historical Jesus,"(8) arrive as well at thoroughly revisionist interpretations of the dogma of the divinity of Christ.(9)

This paradigm shift is readily documented. Galvin cited well-known works by Schillebeeckx, Kasper, Kung, and McDermott, to which a large number of others could be added. In an article emblematic of this development, Monika Hellwig devoted her contribution to the 50th anniversary volume of Theological Studies to the "Re-emergence of the Human, Critical, Public Jesus," a topic suggested by "a new wave of interest in grounding Christology more intensively, extensively, and attentively in the full human and historical reality of Jesus. …

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