Schillebeeckx’s Christology Reviewed by John C. Haughey

Some time ago I found this site on the web.  I am unable to find its source now but it is an excellent tribute to Schillebeeckx:

Schillebeeckx’s Christology
By John C. Haughey

EDWARD SCHILLEBEECKX’s immense Christological project can be summed up simply. He wishes to establish the thesis that Maranatha Christology is the mother of all Christologies. He brings impressive erudition to his task. It is worth noting this in terms of sheer quantity: 674 pages of text and 61 pages of footnotes in his first tome Jesus, An Experiment in Christology (Seabury, 1979, $24.50); 852 pages of text and 59 pages of footnotes in his second tome, Christ, the Experience of Jesus as Lord (Seabury, 1980, $29.50); Interim Report on the Books Jesus and Christ (Seabury, 1981, $9.95), 143 pages of text and 8 pages of footnotes. For those who have not as yet delved into Schillebeeckx, it would be much easier to comprehend the scope and purpose of his task if one began with his third book, the Interim Report. (He is projecting still another tome on the subject of the Holy Spirit in the origins of Christology.) The Interim Report makes it clearer than the first two tomes that Schillebeeckx is not working from a complete Christology, as he calls it, but is working via an historical and genetic method toward a Christology. Hence, even in his second book he indicates that he is still in the foothills of Christology as we ordinarily conceive of it.


The best access into his intensely fertile mind is the issue of experience as the medium of God’s revelation. More particularly, Schillebeeckx focuses on Jesus’ own experience and the experience of Jesus’ first followers, both as individuals and after his death the primitive communities’ experience of his presence. Schillebeeckx trusts a revelation that can be located in human experience and, on the other hand, distrusts a revelation that loses touch with experience. Hence, he frequently uses the categories, “tradition of experience” and “living tradition.” So crucial is the category of experience for him that the reader, at least this reader, is led to wonder what Schillebeeckx’s own experience of Christ is. When he approaches the question of modern experience, he slips into the innocuous term “our” experience which

John C. Haughey, S.J., is a fellow of the WoodstockTheologicalCenter in Washington, D.C. He is the author of The Conspiracy of God (1973) and Should Anyone Say Forever?: On Making, Keeping, and Breaking Commitments (1975). He is also the editor of The Faith That Does Justice (1977), Theological Reflections on the Charismatic Revival (1978), and Personal Values in Public Policy (1979). Fr. Haughey has served as Chairman of the International Conference on World Religions and as an editor of the Jesuit weekly, America.

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gives more sociological and impersonal information than one wants after the emphasis on experience. (Unfortunately, somewhere along the line it has become as unheard of for systematic Christological theologians to “witness” to Christ as it has for witnesses to show any interest in systematic Christology.)

From the experience of being redeemed by what Jesus said to his disciples and did in their midst, a Christologizing process began. According to this Dutch professor of the history of theology of the University of Nijmegen, the first Christians pursued the question of who this person was, because through him they had begun to experience the saving power of God. “In my Jesus books I want to show that soteriology – the kingdom of God as salvation for man: the heart of Jesus’ preaching-precedes Christology in the order of the genesis of Christological knowledge.”1 As a consequence, the disciples wonder: Who is he and what is his relationship to God?

Not only does the early church seek to develop a Christology from soteriology, it develops a Christology into a soteriology. I think that one of the reasons why both readers and critics have a problem with the relationship between soteriology and Christology in Schillebeeckx is because he is delaying the necessary explanation of their linkage, which he sees as pneumatological, until he treats it in his third volume.2 One of the serious implications of not having a clearer relationship between these two is that we have tended to obscure the fact that Jesus and Jesus’ message were not concerned about his own identity but rather with God’s passionate interest in the well-being of humankind. But by their heavy concentration on Jesus’ own identity, Christians have allowed the kingdom which he preached to fall through the cracks, so to speak. Something was lost when the message of the messenger became a message about the messenger.

The saving experience of God through Christ took place within an expectation of what God was about to do in and for Israel. The peculiar tone of Jewish hope that affected the milieu of Jesus had its beginnings with the Maccabean era (167 B.C.) through the disaster of Bar Kochba (135 A.D.). The literary form of Jewish expectation in this period of time is apocalyptic. Apocalyptic hope began to focus on an eschatological prophet who would preach repentence prior to the imminent catastrophe which would bring an end to this aeon. Those whose hearts heard the word of the prophet would repent and would be able to enter into the new aeon.

Enter John the Baptist. He proclaims a message which is both apocalyptic and non-apocalyptic. It is apocalyptic insofar as it is concerned about the imminent arrival of the definitive future with a

1 Interim Report on the Books Jesus and Christ (New York: Seabury, 1981), p. 71.
2 Schillebeeckx admits that he is still in the process of an opus “the contours of which I cannot see completely even now.” Interim, p. 90.

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particular emphasis on the judgment that this arrival will bring. It is not apocalyptic insofar as John the Baptist emphasizes the immediate ethical imperatives, starting with repentence, that are incumbent upon the individuals who hear God speaking to them in his preaching. John the Baptist skewers the nationalistic hubris of contemporary Israel which had its hopes on the imminent destruction of Israel’s foes, Israel’s worldwide vindication and domination, and finally a guaranteed salvation for those who were of the line and stock of Abraham.

Enter Jesus. He is examined first in terms of his experience of God. According to Schillebeeckx, his “Abba experience” generated both his self-understanding and his understanding of the kingdom of God which he preached. In contrast to John, Jesus’ imminent kingdom was gracious beyond measure. Its benignity and the Father’s compassion stirred and won the multitudes to whom Jesus preached his understanding of the kingdom. His experience of God was taken to be authentic and authoritative by many. The one whom Israel had awaited was seen to have come in the person of Jesus. Salvation was experienced in his words and deeds. He was the prophet of eschatological salvation. Jesus, as eschatological prophet, is the first of the designations which are attached to him. It is also the understanding Jesus began to develop of his own mission. Eschatological prophet is “the matrix of all other titles and creedal strands.”3 Schillebeeckx finds evidence of this in all four Gospels.

Schillebeeckx complains that most exegetes have overlooked the importance of the eschatological prophet, thinking that subsequent higher Christological titles such as Son and Lord could not emanate from such a lowly designation. By contrast, Schillebeeckx convincingly establishes the fact that such a description of Jesus is open to all subsequent Christologizing. Schillebeeckx roots the importance and interpretation of Jesus as the eschatological prophet in a number of different figures and texts. For example, he finds Deuteronomy 18:15 significant. “Behold I send my messenger before you … give heed to him and hearken to his voice, do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression; for my name is in him. But if you hearken attentively to his voice and do all that I say then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries. My messenger shall go before you.” Behind this text and at the headwaters of religious Judaism stands the figure of Moses. Schillebeeckx finds the comparison of Jesus with Moses throughout all four Gospels. Like Moses, Jesus is an intimate of the God he preaches. Like Moses he “speaks to God face to face, even mouth to mouth.”4 Since Jesus’ God is credible, what one does by way of response to this eschatological greater-than- Moses prophet is critical. If one responds positively, one will know the saving power of God. If one does not, the experience of salvation remains

3 Jesus, p. 479; also: pp. 480, 487-99; Interim, p.73.
4 Exodus 33:10; Numbers 12:8; cf. Christ pp. 309-21.

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foreign. Hence Jesus as eschatological prophet is central to all subsequent Christologizing, no matter how “high” it becomes.


Jesus, the eschatological prophet, was the bond that held together all four creedal tendencies, or models, as Schillebeeckx refers to them. All of these antedate the New Testament, but they are found in the New Testament. These are: 1) maranatha Christologies which confess Jesus as the one who is to come and the lord of the future; 2) a wonder-worker Christology which sees Jesus as good and doing good and as being reviled for his works of compassion; 3) wisdom Christologies which see Jesus as sent by God’s wisdom or as identified with wisdom itself proclaiming the mysteries of God’s salvation; 4) finally, all forms of Easter Christology in which the death and resurrection of Jesus occupy a central place. Schillebeeckx traces each of these credal tendencies to some aspect in the historical life of Jesus which helped to create the Christology. For example, Jesus proclaiming the coming kingdom developed into a maranatha Christology. Jesus, who went around Palestine doing good, develops into a wonder worker Christology. Jesus, who discloses the mysteries of God to man, develops into a wisdom Christology.

According to Schillebeeckx, something has to be underneath all of these Christologies, which unites them and which even now can explain both the person and the subsequent interpretations of the phenomenon of Jesus. “For me this is Jesus, the eschatological prophet.”5

Schillebeeckx sees an immediate link between Jesus identifying himself as eschatological prophet and the parousia kerygma which began immediately after his death. The parousia kerygma emphasized the coming of the kingdom. What was to come and what his lips preached were still to come. The earliest form of this kerygma is found in the “Q tradition.” The passage from a parousia kerygma to a resurrection Christology is a movement from concentration on the kingdom to a concentration on the person of Jesus. The deeper, earlier layer of the tradition is the mother of all Christianity.


It would be valuable to take some of these stages of development apart. Schillebeeckx contends that the disciples underwent a much deeper conversion after the death of Jesus. This contention is at the heart of Schillebeeckx’s reconstruction. They experienced themselves being forgiven for deserting Jesus, they recommitted themselves to him and to his cause after his death, and they did both of these things because they sensed his presence. That he was present to them by reason of a resurrection was not their first interpretation; rather, they experienced only that he was present to them. Schillebeeckx argues: “For the

5 Interim, p. 70.

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Q community, the crucified one is the saviour and judge of the world Soon to return, but even now actively present in the preaching of the Christian prophets; in other words, for them Jesus has evidently been taken up to God. How? This is nowhere dwelt upon. Their Easter experience is the enthusiastic one of the Lord actively present in their community and soon to come: a maranatha experience.”6

Schillebeeckx makes the interesting observation that apocalyptic traditions could not have suggested Jesus’ resurrection to the minds of his disciples. Apocalyptic did conceive of resurrection, but it was a general resurrection in the final days. Rather than apocalyptic (which is the usual explanation), the idea that Jesus rose from the dead was suggested to these first Christians by reflection upon his ministry, his teaching, and his identification with the kingdom of God. These communities awaited and proclaimed the same kingdom that Jesus had preached. But now they added the dimension that with the coming of the kingdom, Jesus too would come this time as judge and Son of Man. They thereby personalized the imminent rule of God: Jesus will dispense mercy and judgment in that day. One of the ways in which they did this was to link the Son of Man to the historical Jesus who is now in a heavenly condition. For example, Jesus exclaims: “Everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God” (Lk. 12:8; this is from the Q material).

There seem to be three distinct but not necessarily successive moments in the earliest materials that in turn find their way into the New Testament. The first two of these moments are developments within the Q material itself, and the third is Mark’s further emendations beyond the Q materials. In the earliest Q materials, the heavenly Jesus seems to be operative in the present community. This is seen as individuals responding to his words preached by that community, words about Jesus, and Jesus’ own words. Later developments within the Q materials, which apparently are added in the Hellenistic/ Jewish phase of the Q community, manifest a much greater interest in every facet of the earthly life of Jesus. A salvific function is obviously being attached to the words and deeds of the earthly Jesus. In neither of these two phases of the Q community is there an explicit resurrection proclamation, but when it comes from other material, it is easily absorbed into the Q material because the heavenly Jesus is seen as present and operative in the Q community.

The third moment in this early Christology, however, the Marcan moment, does not assume an operative presence in the community of the heavenly Christ who is now with God. Marcan Christology depends on the memory of Jesus and on his coming again. Its key dogmatic difference from the two moments found in the Q material is its transfer of Jesus’ exaltation to the future parousia rather than to a presently exalted Christ. Schillebeeckx claims, for example, that the messianic

6 Jesus, p. 396.

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secret in Mark is more interested in denying a validity to what he calls “power Christologies” that were developing in the Christian communities than the more obvious reason for messianic secret as it is traditionally understood. Any form of Christology that has power operative now is inappropriate since Jesus is absent, not present, for Mark. He has concealed himself in heaven, and power will irrupt when he comes again in glory. The community is now in an orphaned state. According to Schillebeeckx, the notion that Jesus would come again in power was historically prior to the idea that Jesus rose from the dead corporeally.


In developing the resurrection moment in his genetic evolution of Christology, Schillebeeckx is true to the importance which he attaches to experience and is anxious to keep together the disciples’ experience of Jesus’ presence in their midst and what happened to Jesus himself-his rising from the dead. In other words, he is not interested in focusing the mystery of the resurrection simply on Jesus himself, but wants to keep it ensconced in the experience of the saving presence of Christ in the midst of his followers. The appearances of the risen Christ, which Schillebeeckx contends come later in the development, put into words the conversion experience that the disciples had undergone in and through the presence of the risen Jesus.

With respect to these appearances, however, “it is not a question of concomitant visual phenomena; at most they are an emotional sign of what really overwhelmed the disciples: the experience of Jesus’ new saving presence in the midst of his own people on earth. The coming together again of the disciples who were scattered after Jesus’ death is the fruit of the new presence of the now glorified Jesus.”7 Hence, the cognitive, experiential, and emotional dimensions of the disciples’ experience come together to explain the appearances of Jesus. Schillebeeckx says that his intention in treating the appearances this way “was to relieve this visual element of the deep dogmatic significance which some people attach to it, namely of being the foundation of the whole of the Christian faith.8

A weak point in his whole development is the hypothesis of a conversion on the part of the disciples after the death of Jesus. In his new book, Schillebeeckx admits this is a deduction, rather than something he can textually prove.

Pressed by exegetes for his handling of the process, Schillebeeckx takes to more obscure ground, by explaining that he is not talking about one homogeneous development within the Christian community but is talking about many different developments coming from different corners of Palestine. He would say that for some early Christian traditions, belief in the resurrection of Jesus is a starting point of the whole development of their Christology, whereas in other traditions, the

7 Interim, p. 81.
8 Interim, p. 82.

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conviction of one who is to come is the starting point of the development. He furthermore claims that even in the first creedal tendency (in the maranatha Christology) the resurrection is implied “but it was not explicitly presupposed.”9 While the innocent reader of the first volumes probably thought that that is a chronological account, Schillebeeckx’s further explanations indicate that one is reading a coalescence of many different traditions, making it difficult if not impossible to establish chronological sequences.

If we take Schillebeeckx’s original intention, which was “to bridge the gap between academic theology and the concrete needs of the ordinary Christian” (Foreword), we would have to give Schillebeeckx low marks. In saying this, however, I could not give the books low marks. The problem is in the fecundity of his mind and the immensity of the data which he brings to bear on the reader. Within any one excursus, one can get lost, so overwhelming is the amount of data that Schillebeeckx has researched. We are in his debt for having researched so much, of course, but “the concrete needs of the ordinary Christian” have a hard time being met with the amount of data here. Each tree is so interesting, one might never get a fix on the forest.

I didn’t fully understand what Schillebeeckx thought his role was or what he thought the role of Christology was until near the end of the first volume. It would be worth noting here that he does not think that theology’s task is the creation of new Christological models but the gathering together of “elements which may lead to a new, authentic disclosure experience or source experience.”10 Such an experience evokes models, he claims. The model that Schillebeeckx’s Jesus evokes is one of kingdom/orthopraxis in view of coming kingdom/companionship with Jesus and his brothers and sisters in the Christian community while awaiting this gracious kingdom.

In order to appreciate this model, one has to concur with Schillebeeckx’s observations about the limitations of the Johannine model which were behind the decisions of the definitive councils of Nicea and Chalcedon. These constituted only one option of many. That option individualized Christology considerably by its concern about the person and nature of Jesus and its inability to integrate its concern about the person of Jesus with the eschatological, historical, soteriological, and political implications of the message Jesus presented. Schillebeeckx makes that message intrinsic to the identity of Jesus. As a consequence, he delivers to the reader a degree of freedom and a political responsibility for both living and proclaiming this gracious imminent kingdom that other Christologies have been less successful in doing. Until and unless the message of the kingdom is intrinsic to one’s Christology, the possibilities are great that we find ourselves admiring “a divine Ikon” and thereby making a new ideology out of Christology itself.11

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9 Interim, p. 85; Jesus, p. 396.
10 Jesus, p. 571; cf. also Christ, pp. 30-62.
11 Jesus, p. 671.


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