The Three Pillars of Christology: Scripture-Tradition-Experience | Christoph Cardinal Schönborn | From "God Sent His Son" | Ignatius
The Three Pillars of Christology: Scripture-Tradition-Experience | Christoph Cardinal Schönborn | From
God Sent His Son: A Contemporary Christology | Ignatius Insight
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
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,
 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).  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".
 His own experience is the sure starting point: "Sola . . .
experientia facit theologum",
 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.  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
 This concept is used by Vatican II in the Constitution on Divine
Revelation, Dei Verbum, no.
 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).
 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.
 WATR I; 16, 13 (no. 46, of 1531). For further references, see Ebeling,
"Die Klage über das Erfahrungsdeflzit", p. 10.
 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).
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| 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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