Schillebeeckx on the Development of Doctrine

By Thompson, Daniel P. | Theological Studies, June 2001 | Go to article overview

Schillebeeckx on the Development of Doctrine


Thompson, Daniel P., Theological Studies


ON THE OCCASION OF HIS EIGHTIETH BIRTHDAY in 1994, the Belgian-born Dominican theologian Edward Schillebeeckx published a book of interviews and personal reflections aimed primarily at his fellow Dutch-language speakers. With the humorous yet challenging title Theologisch Testament: Notarieel nog niet verleden (loosely translated as Theological Last Will and Testament: Official Notice from Somebody Not Yet Gone) (Baarn, Netherlands: H. Nelissen, 1994), Schillebeeckx indeed served notice that despite his advanced years, he would continue to engage in new theological investigations, even as he also reflected on his over 50 years of scholarly work. Retired since 1983 from the chair of historical and dogmatic theology at the Catholic University of Nijmegen, Schillebeeckx has continued to reside there and to produce new works, including the conclusion to the so-called christological trilogy, Church: The Human Story of God (1990), and a work with Catharina Halkes, Mary: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (1993). Since then, although the pace of his research has slowed, he has honored the promise of his last will and testament, so to speak, and pursued work on a book about hermeneutics, and also a new work on the sacraments, soon to appear, with the tentative title Interrupted Story--Resistance, Engagement, Celebration: Sacraments as Metaphorical Celebrations. This work brings him back full circle to the theological topic with which he began his career and perhaps will offer a concrete example in his own thought of the theme of my essay, the development of doctrine.

Strictly speaking, Edward Schillebeeckx's treatment of the problem of the development of doctrine(1) is an outgrowth of a more fundamental concern of his thought: explaining the significance and abiding validity of belief in Jesus the Christ in the complex, pluralistic, and secularized modern world. In the face of critics' claims that he sells short or even jettisons the classic christological tradition, Schillebeeckx claims that making this tradition a living reality for the faithful today is the main purpose of his work. He writes:

Well, as far as I am concerned, Chalcedon is the norm that governs all of my theological studies; it is to this dogma that I wish to `lead by the hand' (manuducere) the Christians of our day who have their fill of books about the `death of God' and about Jesus being only a man, though a great prophet. If I regard Chalcedon as a dead letter, I would not have the courage or desire to write two books on Jesus which together come to over fourteen hundred pages.(2)

In order for Schillebeeckx to keep the letter of Chalcedon alive, so to speak, he not only delves into the historical events that led to the Church's confession of Jesus as Christ and Son of God but also explains how any such confession and resultant creed can still bear meaning for the believer now. This article will explore this branching theme from Schillebeeckx's Christology: his general theology of the development of doctrine. In order to do this, I will focus on three points: first, the epistemological and theological framework that shapes Schillebeeckx's thought, with particular reference to the underlying philosophy of historical change that he presents; second, his specific criteria for orthodoxy and apostolicity; third, his consequent understanding of the status of doctrinal language, made especially clear through his description of the factors that necessitate "breaks" in that language. The article will conclude with some comments about the radicalization of the question of "breaks" in doctrinal language raised, but not pursued by Schillebeeckx, in his discussion of the advent of postmodernity.

EPISTEMOLOGICAL AND THEOLOGICAL FRAMEWORK

As most of his readers are well aware, Schillebeeckx's thought defies easy summarization and systematization. I have argued elsewhere that the complex, eclectic, and occasionally bewildering nature of his theology is due to what I have termed the "non-antithetical, yet dialectical" nature of all his thinking. …

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