Schillebeeckx's piercing inquiry brought Jesus alive

This story appears in the Take and Read feature series. View the full series.
Jesus washes Peter's feet in a Giotto fresco from the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy. (Wikimedia Commons/©José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro)

Jesus washes Peter's feet in a Giotto fresco from the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy. (Wikimedia Commons/©José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro)

by Ormond Rush

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Editor's note: "Take and Read" is a weekly blog that features a different contributor's reflections on a specific book that changed their lives. Good books, as blog co-editors Congregation of St. Agnes Sr. Dianne Bergant and Michael Daley say, "can inspire, affirm, challenge, change, even disturb."

Jesus: An Experiment in Christology
by Edward Schillebeeckx
Seabury Press, 1979

Scripture was my favorite subject at the seminary. And in the late 1960s and the 1970s, our lecturers were all into the historical-critical method. I had a particular interest in what was then the flavor of the month, the so-called "search for the historical Jesus." No doubt I was hermeneutically naive about the limits of the historical-critical method and clearly too optimistic about being able to successfully get back into that "world behind the text."

But the prospect was then exciting. Jesus fascinated me. What was he like? It was a spiritual quest as much as an intellectual one. Also during those seminary days, a few of us did extra studies at the local University of Queensland. One was a biblical studies course I took in 1971. I well remember as provocative for me at the time a question posed as an essay topic: "What is the significance for contemporary theology of the quest for the historical Jesus?"

In my early years of pastoral ministry, after ordination in 1975, I continued to read anything Scripture-related, especially in Jesus studies. My young priest friends and I were idealistically determined to always "keep up our reading."

Soon, I was thirstily imbibing Hans Küng's On Being Christian. Fairly soon after, a translation of Dominican Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx's Jesus was published in 1979, originally written in the same year as Küng's, 1974. I was then living in a rural parish called Charters Towers, a dry and dusty former gold mining town inland from the coast of northeastern Australia.

In the evenings, I would plow through Schillebeeckx's Jesus, not an easy read. They must have been long evenings; it took me two months to read the 750-page tome. Perhaps triumphantly, on the inside cover of my copy I wrote in pencil: "finished 7 July 1980."

The book enthralled me with its portrait of Jesus and its proposals for reconstructing how his first disciples might have come to interpret him, a trajectory that begins before his death and then continues after his resurrection.

Addressing a Europe in a crisis of belief, Schillebeeckx wanted to present a Jesus that gave due respect to historical inquiry but with a view to the context of contemporary European believers and nonbelievers. As I look back 35 years later, it is probably the most influential book of my life, both spiritually and intellectually.

I soon became aware of the book's weaknesses. Not all scholarly reviews at the time were positive (though many were glowing). Soon after I had finished reading it, Scripture scholar Raymond Brown came to our diocese for a series of talks. I happened to be the diocesan media director. I thought it would be good to interview him for a local radio station, where I had a regular spot.

As I got to the end of the interview, I thought I'd squeeze in a question about the book (selfishly, for my own sake, not for the sake of an audience that really didn't need to hear about a Belgian-born Dutchman called Schillebeeckx). Brown surprised me by being critical. There were particular points of exegesis he disagreed with; parts of the book were overly speculative; and he believed that the book would have been better if Schillebeeckx had widened both the scope of the scholars he cited and those he asked to read the manuscript before publication.

Nevertheless, despite all the criticisms it received (along with the accolades), the book remains symbolic for me along, as Schillebeeckx would say, "the narrative" of my life.

I cannot here summarize all the fine details of his densely argued thesis. But two things remain important for me: The book brought Jesus alive for me, and it brought hermeneutics alive for me.

First, despite its thick scholarship, it stirred me with its fresh perspective on Jesus. In this regard, two chapters in particular still remain for me special jewels in the crown. In Part 2 on "the Gospel of Jesus Christ," the first chapter treats "Jesus' Message of Salvation" and the second chapter "Jesus' Manner of Life." They examine Jesus' fundamental focus, the reign of God, his parables, his practice of table fellowship, and his vision of God and God's vision for humanity: "Laughter, not crying is the deepest purpose that God wills" for humanity.

And most importantly of all, Jesus' own intimate experience of the God he prayed to as Abba: "The source of this message and praxis, demolishing an oppressive notion of God, was his Abba experience, without which the picture of the historical Jesus is drastically marred, his message emasculated and his concrete praxis (though still meaningful and inspiring) is robbed of the meaning he himself gave to it."

Jesus is our window into God, our entry into God. Lapidary phrases from the book still ring out in my classes: Jesus' human story is "the story of God," "the parable of God himself," " 'God translated' for us"; he is the "mystic and exegete of God."

Second, the book brought hermeneutics alive for me. The sheer boldness of his project excited me. In a deliberate "Christology from below," he was attempting to trace the genesis of Christian belief in Jesus Christ by reconstructing the hermeneutical process that gave rise to the Gospels.

Beginning with the pre-Easter disciples and how they might have interpreted Jesus, he goes on to show how this remained, post-Resurrection, the basis of a fuller yet continuous interpretation of him. Working back from the final New Testament formulations, he proposes interpretive frameworks that might well have been operating for those who first witnessed Jesus, his way of life, his actions and teachings. That he was the final prophet, sent by God, was a key initial interpretation.

The hermeneutical principles that guide the Jesus volume would all be summed up in the introductory section of Schillebeeckx's sequel: Christ: The Experience of Jesus as Lord. This serves, as Schillebeeckx once said, as a conclusion to the first volume. Here he talks more explicitly and more expansively about hermeneutics.

He proposes two major theses that capture what the Jesus volume had set out to demonstrate. There is no divine revelation without human experience, and all human experience is already interpretation. While divine revelation cannot be reduced to human experience of it, revelation can only ever be mediated through such interpretive experience. What we have in the four Gospels are the results of a long interpretive process, grounded in the reality of Jesus of Nazareth. No one portrait says it all, because he was interpreted differently. But each captures the same Jesus faithfully.

I followed Schillebeeckx as his thought developed in later years, with his hermeneutics, for example, embracing critical theory. But the Jesus book remained symbolic for me.

When I was asked by the bishops of my state in 1987 to study at the Gregorian University in Rome for a licentiate in fundamental theology, my hermeneutical turn kept spinning. For my minor dissertation, I chose to write on the theological methodology of Francis Schüssler Fiorenza. There, a name kept cropping up, Hans Robert Jauss, with his notion of reception hermeneutics.

It was Jauss' hermeneutics that later became the focus of my doctoral studies, also at the Gregorian. For Jauss, there are three elements that make for effective communication of meaning: the one wishing to communicate; the actual articulation of the communication in words or action; and the ones who are receiving that communication. All three are important. But this third in the triad was particularly significant for Jauss: the receiver.

Much of this I had come to know through Schillebeeckx, but already the need to tweak his hermeneutic was a little clearer to me. However, I continued to learn from him through his ever-developing thought, which always would challenge my own limited horizons.

Recently reading over Schillebeeckx's Jesus again, I realized that in that first reading back in 1980 were being sown the seeds of a book I would come to write three decades later, The Eyes of Faith: The Sense of the Faithful and the Church's Reception of Revelation. In its central section, it attempts to show how the New Testament faith interpretation process in the early church that Schillebeeckx had explored is for us the paradigmatic example of what came to be called the sensus fidei ("sense of the faith") of Christian individuals (like Luke) and the sensus fidelium of a whole community (like Luke's community, and the wider circle of Christian communities) at work in the early church.

For the cover of the book, I deliberately chose a Giotto fresco from the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy, with Jesus in the middle washing Peter's feet, surrounded by disciples with those piercing Giottoesque almond eyes looking down at him inquiringly: Who is this Jesus who makes God's salvation so tangible? The image well captures Schillebeeckx's own piercing inquiry in his book.

But Jesus is not just about Jesus. It is as much about those who first interpreted him. And the divine authority the church acknowledges for their witness to Jesus authorizes us to imitate them in an ongoing inquiry of faith, with our own sensus fidei. But that is another issue, for an emerging synodal church.

I've been thinking, as I look now at my heavily annotated and underlined copy of Jesus: When you take up a book and read, you never know where it could lead you, long after you've finished it the first time.

[Ormond Rush, a priest of the Townsville, Australia, diocese, is an associate professor and reader teaching theology at Australian Catholic University, Brisbane.]

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