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  • Christology in Context:Review Essay of Thomas Joseph White, O.P., The Incarnate Lord*
  • Guy Mansini O.S.B.

Catholic Christology in the Twentieth Century

From the restoration of scholasticism in the nineteenth century to the 1960s, Catholic Christology was a happy house unto itself. The person, natures, faculties, grace, knowledge, and work of Christ were expounded from Scripture, illuminated by the Fathers, and understood with St. Thomas (or maybe Scotus). There were happy in-house and never-to-be-concluded conversations: why the complete and perfect humanity of Jesus does not make a created person, whether we ought we to impute one or two acts of existence to the hypostasis sunthetos of Christ, whether the impeccability of Christ is intrinsic or extrinsic, and so on. There was an important recovery of patristic and medieval soteriology, a soteriology antecedent to the pressures exerted on the theology of the atonement by late medieval and then subsequent Lutheran and Calvinist pictures of a Christ who bears the punishment his Father metes out to him in our place. But the conversation was not without innovation inspired by modern philosophy and psychology. There were questions on the relation of the human consciousness of Christ to his person, about the psychological unity of Christ, and concerning whether one or two psychological egos are to be recognized in him. Notwithstanding such engagements with modernity, it was more important to know something about [End Page 1271] St. Margaret Mary Alacoque than about Albert Schweitzer because it was more important to justify devotion to the sacred humanity of Jesus than to consider the quest for that humanity historically known. Modernism (and magisterial suppression of Modernism) significantly retarded the critical reception of historical critical New Testament studies. As to engagements with non-Catholic Christians, it was more important to know something about the great monophysite patriarch Severus of Antioch than about the genus maiestaticum, but the first only for historical reasons, not because one was going to talk to present day Armenians, while the second could be safely ignored altogether, since one was concerned with neither historical nor contemporary Lutheran understandings of the communication of idioms.

The restoration reached a sort of climax in which old things were both developed and newly perfected, such as at the Gregorian University in Bernard Lonergan’s De Verbo Incarnato (1964), surefooted methodologically, stunning in its conceptual clarity and rigor, orderly in its marshalling of Scriptural and patristic proof, and brilliant in its systematic understanding of the hypostatic union, the consciousness and knowledge of Christ, and the work of Christ according to the “Law of the Cross.”

The destruction of this house was the work especially of Karl Rahner, S.J., and Hans Urs von Balthasar, beginning in the fifties and continuing for twenty years after the Second Vatican Council, as volume after volume of the Theological Investigations appeared in German (1954–1984), crowned with Foundations of Christian Faith (German, 1976) and matched by volume after volume of The Glory of the Lord (German, 1961–1969) and the Theo-Drama (German, 1973–1983). The dismantling was not direct, but the joint message was that it was no longer important to maintain the house. Of course, they had many helpers in what was commonly understood at the time to be a necessary work of theological liberation and maturation: despite their own metaphysical commitments and attention to dogma, Rahner and Balthasar were a sort of bridge to a more complete liberation from scholasticism (which meant at least some attachment to classical ontology) so as to enter into Enlightenment maturity (an historicism that told us why a dogmatic formula that formerly was useful was meaningless today).

Rahner re-conceived Christology as the uttermost limit of a transcendentally constructed theological anthropology, a framework hospitable to almost whatever the New Testament scholars told us about Jesus of Nazareth. Balthasar, on the other hand, was a much [End Page 1272] more serious reader of the New Testament than Rahner. And he did not subject dogma to the acid of Enlightenment historicism, as even the later Rahner was wont to do. But in the vast project he embarked on of subsuming the whole of Western philosophy and theology into...


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