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The Three Pillars of Christology: Scripture-Tradition-Experience | Christoph Cardinal Schönborn | From God Sent His Son: A Contemporary Christology | Ignatius Insight

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Three pillars together support Christology: Scripture, tradition, and experience. The soundness of these three determines the soundness of Christology. Our first chapter is devoted to this trio and to their reliability.

I. The Three Pillars

The first pillar is Scripture. What we know (historically) about Jesus of Nazareth derives almost exclusively (apart from a few mentions in Pliny, Tacitus, or Jewish writings) from the New Testament, above all from the Gospels. These, in turn, are traditions about Jesus, about what he did and said. The entire canon of the New Testament is reviewed, assembled, and filtered tradition. Scripture and tradition are indivisible from the very beginning; Scripture is unthinkable without tradition; it is itself a "product" of tradition.

Because almost everything we know about Christ derives from the Holy Scripture, the question of the trustworthiness of the Gospels is thus of fundamental importance. For hundreds of years, no one questioned it. People were convinced that the Gospels reliably transmitted the experiences of the first witnesses of Jesus, of his disciples, his companions, those people who were eyewitnesses and who heard for themselves. Scripture is thus itself tradition, tradition for which there is written testimony, and it transmits concrete experiences of the people who were with Jesus.

And yet this tradition continues, as traditio apostolica, [1] as the handing on of the depositum fidei. It finds its particular expression in the great councils of the early Church, which unfolded and safeguarded the Christian confession of faith. The doctrinal tradition cannot of course be separated from the tradition of Christian living. Athanasius of Alexandria (d. 373) not only defended the divinity of Christ, he also wrote the life of Saint Anthony, in whom the whole power of the mystery of Christ shines forth.

The saints are "lived Christology". Not only Christology as taught, but Christology as celebrated is part of the tradition: the liturgy is a living wellspring of the tradition of the mystery of Christ. Not only is the story of Jesus read ever anew in the liturgy, it is also celebrated and, thus, present. Tradition is thus fidelity to this testimony about Jesus by the original witnesses (Scripture) at the same time as it is brought to life by the experience of discipleship, of Christian living. Tradition thus contains within it both Scripture and experience.

Finally, the living experience of the Lord as present and active is one of the foundations of Christology. Anthony heard the Gospel story of the wealthy young man one Sunday in Church, and he heard it as something that Jesus was saying to him right now: "Follow me!" (Jn 21:22). [2] In the encounter with Scripture, in hearing and entering Into what the New Testament witnesses are saying, its meaning, its beneficial value, its importance for salvation may be opened up. The experience of individuals, but also the shared experience of a whole people are part of the history of faith and, thus, part of Christology. Such experiences never take place in isolation but are always related to others—not just contemporary experiences, but also the experiences of generations before us. Liberation theology was an attempt to make the particular experience of the people productive for Christology. Christian experience can never be separated from Scripture and tradition.

Scripture, tradition, and experience are the pillars of Christology, by which we can be sure that even today we can talk about Christ, that we can truly preach him, the same person that the apostles knew, the man who was their teacher, whose words and actions they experienced directly and transmitted.

2. The Pillars Give Way

For hundreds of years this unity was seen and lived out without any problem. The current difficulties are all the more explosive. When one of these three pillars gives way, the whole of Christology—indeed, theology altogether—starts to totter. Today Christology must face the fact that in recent centuries—to be more precIse, sInce the Reformation—one pillar after another has given way. We will now briefly outline this process, which characterizes modern Christology. In doIng so, we will also be able to show, however, that in the struggle with the foundations of Christology, the living figure of the Lord also emerges with new clarity.








The first crack is the Reformation. It calls tradition into question and from there proceeds to the supposition that the original pure teaching, the "pure Gospel", has been adulterated, that "Rome", the papacy, the Catholic Church, has no longer preserved it in its pure form. It is therefore a matter of getting back to the original—this is the approach of Martin Luther (d. 1546)—bypassing tradition to go directly to the Bible. Scripture alone is valid; it is the only criterion—sola scriptura! Yet how shall we attain certainty about Scripture if the interpretations of it contradict each other? Hitherto tradition, understood as the transmission of living interpretation of Scripture, has been the hermeneutical means to this end. Luther puts an end to that. Yet who was to tell him what was consonant with Scriptures, "what", in his own words, "promotes Christ" ("Was Christum treibet")? As Gerhard Ebeling has shown, in Luther, sola experientia complements sola scriptura. Experience thus becomes the criterion of what promotes Christ. Scripture and experience enable Luther to attack the magistri and doctores, tradition and Scholastic theology. That is how the Reformation solves the hermeneutic problem, by reducing the three pillars of Christology to two. For Luther, "Scripture and experience" are "the two unanimous witnesses that may be trusted unconditionally". [3] His own experience is the sure starting point: "Sola . . . experientia facit theologum", [4] he says. It is established as equally certain that this experience of his agrees with Scripture, or is at least suitable for understanding Scripture in the correct sense. Scripture and experience safeguard the access to Christ. The third element, tradition, has become suspect.

The Enlightenment breaks the next pillar. The sola scriptura also becomes questionable. From Hermann Samuel Reimarus (d. 1768) onward, radical historical biblical criticism puts Scripture on the side of tradition, which falsifies and retouches. [5] Scripture, too, conceals, falsifies, and covers up the original, which it is now necessary to ascertain by historical criticism: the Bible is subjected to merciless criticism. Little of the certainty that Luther believed he found in Scripture now remains. With Friedrich Schleiermacher (d. 1834) and Rudolf Bultmann (d. 1976), theology withdraws to the final sure pillar, that of experience, and abandons Scripture to historical criticism. For Bultmann it is not historical certainty concerning Jesus that is important but the existential effect.

With psychology, especially with Sigmund Freud, but even as early as Ludwig Feuerbach (d. 1872), religious experience likewise becomes problematical. It is exposed as a projection of human needs and, thus, as illusion, which basically is concealing something else that can now be laid bare: man's secret desires, which can be discovered as the real content behind these projections. Behind the religious projections stand, in reality, other needs, sublimations, and projections.

What can Christology build upon, then? If tradition can no longer be trusted, because it is seen to be merely a retouching with the tints of dogma that obscures the original simple figure of Jesus; if Scripture itself comes under the suspicion of already being tradition, which distorts the original Jesus; if, finally, personal experience is subject to the suspicion of creating the figure of a savior and redeemer from the projection of the person's own desires—what foundation is still sound? Upon what can Christology still be built?

ENDNOTES:

[1] This concept is used by Vatican II in the Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, no. 8.

[2] Athanasius of Alexandria, Vita Antonii (SC 400). The story of the conversion of Anthony was also a decisive milestone on the path leading Saint Augustine to faith. Augustine, Confessions 8, 6, 14-15 (CC Ser. Lat. 27:121-23).

[3] G. Ebeling, "Die Klage über das Erfahrungsdefizit in der Theologie als Frage nach ihrer Sache", in Wort und Glaube, vol. 3: Beiträge zur Fundamentaltheologie, Soteriologie und Ekklesiologie (Tübingen, 1975), p. 12.

[4] WATR I; 16, 13 (no. 46, of 1531). For further references, see Ebeling, "Die Klage über das Erfahrungsdeflzit", p. 10.

[5] A. Schweitzer, Die Geschichte der Leben-Jesu Forschung, 5th ed. (Tübingen, 1933); trans. by W. Montgomery as The Quest of the Historical Jesus (Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 2005).



Related Ignatius Insight Articles and Excerpts:

Jesus In the Gospel of Luke | Excerpt from Jesus, The Divine Physician: Encountering Christ in the Gospel of Luke | Christoph Cardinal Schönborn
A Shepherd Like No Other | Excerpt from Behold, God's Son! Encountering Christ in the Gospel of Mark | Christoph Cardinal Schönborn
Encountering Christ in the Gospel | Excerpt from My Jesus | Christoph Cardinal Schönborn
The Church Is the Goal of All Things | Excerpt from Loving The Church | Christoph Cardinal Schönborn
Excerpts from Chance or Purpose? | Christoph Cardinal Schönborn
Reincarnation: The Answer of Faith | Excerpt from From Death to Life: The Christian Journey | Christoph Cardinal Schönborn
The Truth of the Resurrection | Excerpts from Introduction to Christianity | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Seeing Jesus in the Gospel of John | Excerpts from On The Way to Jesus Christ | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
The Challenge of Jesus of Nazareth | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Divinity of Christ | Peter Kreeft
Jesus Is Catholic | Hans Urs von Balthasar
The Religion of Jesus | Blessed Columba Marmion | From Christ, The Ideal of the Priest



Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, O.P., (born 1945) the Archbishop of Vienna, Austria, is a highly regarded author, teacher, and theologian.

He was a student of Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) and with him was co-editor of the monumental Catechism of the Catholic Church. He studied theology and philosophy in Bornheim-Walberberg, Vienna, and Paris. He was ordained a Dominican priest by Cardinal Franz König in December 1970 in Vienna, and later studied in Regensburg. From 1975 he was professor at Freiburg im Uechtland. In 1980, he became a member of the international theological commission of the Holy See, and in 1987 he became editorial secretary for the Catechism. He speaks six languages and has written numerous books.

Several of his books have been translated and published by Ignatius Press; see his Ignatius Insight author page for a complete listing.



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