Edward Schillebeeckx (1914 - 2009)
This Roman Catholic theologian is remarkable for having explored
traditional concepts in the light of 20th century understanding on one hand, and
on the other having survived no fewer than three examinations into possible
heresy by the Vatican.
Schillebeeckx was born in Antwerp, one of 14 children. He became a member
of the Dominican order and was ordained in 1941. He taught dogmatic theology
and at one stage worked with Yves Congar. His theology emphasised historical
research and a return to biblical sources - in contrast with the prevailing
scholastic approach of his earlier life, which emphasised deduction from
dogmatic propositions. He published some 400 works in 14 languages, teaching
the history of theology at Nijmigen University for much of his active
Fairly typically for theologians of his time, Schillebeeckx attempted (as
a committed member of the Roman Catholic Church) to work out a satisfactory
statement of the relationship between the Church and the "world". Although
this distinction goes back to Paul's letters, it's one which has become
increasingly difficult to sustain in terms of right (the Church) and wrong
His writing nevertheless shows an incomplete grasp of the impact of
analytical thinking on the Western world. So, for example, in trying to make
sense of sacraments in general and the Eucharist in particular,
Schillebeeckx seems to have thought that inventing new terms would solve a
much deeper problem. Transubstantiation (the doctrine that when a priest
says certain words over bread and wine, these elements become the actual,
physical body and blood of Jesus) was replaced by terms like
"transignification" (consecration achieves a change of meaning) and
"transfinalisation" (consecration changes the purpose of the elements).
Similarly, he seems unaware that by the time his Jesus, An Experiment
in Christology was published in 1974, the word "paradigm" had already
taken on a meaning other than the one he gives it in the "Technical
Information" section of the book. I refer to the use of the term by Thomas
Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. For him a paradigm
... primal image, norm and criterion in accordance to which our earthly
life should be formed ...
as when in Greek philosophy
... the terrestrial is only a reflection of the true reality, present
in the celestial spheres ...
Schillebeeckx applies the term to the person of Jesus. In attempting to
explain in what sense Jesus is special, he seems to move away from a crude
scholastic rendition of incarnation. Rather than somehow being a miraculous
"God-in-man" person, he thinks that Jesus is more of an eschatological
prophet, the "parable of God and the paradigm of humanity" as he puts it.
When Jesus is called the paradigm of true humanity, this means that Jesus
has lived out in advance, before us, what we have to bring about in creative
fidelity and in circumstances different from those he himself knew.
Thus Jesus is the clearest possible revelation of God available to
humanity - and only in that sense is he a God-man. Schillebeeckx came up with
a miraculous man nevertheless, if only because he took far more of the
New Testament material as history than today seems valid.
The deeper problem was, of course, the impossibility for many today of
thinking of the universe as only part of a greater reality - as the
imperfect physical manifestation of a supernatural perfection. I suspect
that to have challenged the idea of the supernatural would have got
Schillebeeckx into dire trouble with the authorities.
Schillebeeckx displays true greatness (in terms of his time and
circumstances) when he considers how humanity knows God - that is, in
traditional Christian terms, the nature of revelation.
Reality does not consist in the passage of information between human and
divine realms through a process called revelation. The vehicle through which
knowledge of God comes is humanity itself - or rather, the total range of
perceptions and events in which humans participate. Schillebeeckx hedges his
bets somewhat by talking about how we are faced finally by a "mystery"
because revelation can't be completely captured by concepts and reason.
There is a dimension to revelation we can't grasp - though if that's true,
he doesn't explain how he knows it's there.
Revelation thus isn't simply experience. It "critiques" experience
dialectically through a complex perceptual and cognitive process which
transcends the human mind and will. It is more than words and propositions,
although it is "mediated" by language. How then is revelation grasped? Both by
reason and by "intuition", the latter apparently consisting of some sort of
sub-conscious process which we can't describe.
Although Schillebeeckx seems to be trying to have his cake and eat it, he
at least attempts to reconcile contemporary perception with tradition.
Intuition seems for him to be a process by which we reach conclusions
without being fully aware of how we get there. But a point often obscured is
to question whether or not intuitive conclusions should be tested by reason.
If an intuitive conclusion is clearly not reasonable, should it stand? If I
intuit that you are not telling the truth, should I try to find out if my
intuition is fact or fiction?
Experience is, in the end, the measure of right teaching, says
Schillebeeckx. It is "concrete" and as such may contradict Christian theory
and doctrine. Schillebeeckx seems to be saying that "orthopraxis" rather
than orthodoxy is what matters. Right belief must be practical. History is
concrete and therefore human injustice and suffering must be actively faced
up to. It isn't enough just to hold right beliefs. One must do the right as
well. The implication is that right action supersedes right belief.
He writes: " 'Being human for the other' is a task as it were sketched into
the structure of our 'human constitution'". This is true even when experience
"contrasts" with the doctrinal ideal human life (what Schillebeeckx calls the
humanum). So for him experience is the strongest and deepest form of
revelation even though it may be in "contrast" with dogma. "Contrast
experiences" are expressed most definitively by the life of Jesus, who did good
but came to a violent end.
The Vatican questioned this approach from the point of view that certain
Christian truths have to be maintained out of revealed (therefore true)
dogma rather than from changing, situational "experience". So, for example,
the resurrection of Jesus is a doctrinal fact of history and is not based,
as Schillebeeckx would maintain, upon the experience of the disciples. He
Apart from faith-motivated experience, it is not possible to speak
meaningfully about Jesus' resurrection ...
and somehow got away with it.
Schillebeeckx went further: he held that the premises of ideology must
always be tested by experience from a stance of what he calls "critical
negativity". This is an essential activity if the na�ve premises of ideology
are to be kept in balance with reality. Our "contrast experiences" give us a
clearer view of the world and drive us towards justice. The
humanum on the other hand will not be realised until the day when Jesus
comes to complete the creation.
Does God work in his creation? Does he have a providential presence?
Schillebeeckx seems unable to take his view of experience as the vehicle of
revelation to what seems to me to be its logical conclusion. True, God uses
creation, human experience and history to be "present" to us. Creation is
not a barrier between us and heaven but a means through which God is with
Creation is an adequate but not comprehensive vehicle for divinity.
Schillebeeckx does not explain, however, in what way God's presence in a
suffering world is primary. If God does intervene in creation, why does God
need to work through our experience? Or does God intervene to give us the
experiences we need? Or perhaps God gives us specific experiences as a way
of teaching us something?
It seems to me that Schillebeeckx attempts to bypass Roman Catholic
ideology with his heavy dependence upon human experience as a means of
revelation. But he does not face up fully to the implications of his emphasis.
Revelation, because (even in his rendering) it breaks into the physical system
which is the universe, destroys the fundamentals of history.
If doctrine is revealed truth from a supernatural reality (God), then
surely it must be absolutely true? One response might be that our main task
is to understand the truth - though we might fail to fully grasp it. But if
absolute truth is beyond the grasp of even one person, then surely it fails
as an effective communication from God? Is there only one proper formulation
of such truth, as in the creeds for example? Can subsidiary formulations
such as the Catechism be called "true" if they use other words? Can revealed
truth, once stated, be changed?
Another response is that we can fully grasp absolute revealed truth, and
that our main task is to apply it properly in our lives. We might fail to do
so - but that's our fault, not God's and we rightly pay a penalty for
failure. If this is correct, then isn't it right that those who can live out
the revelation adequately should bring defaulters to book? From this
follows, I think, the entire machinery of Church discipline from mild
penance to (at least logically if not actually) heresy trials and perhaps
even the Inquisition.
Having said that, however, it is clear that Schillebeeckx's intention was
not to support any claim by the Church to possess absolute knowledge. The
Church's claim to be the body of the elect should be questioned. If such a
religious claim is made, it can be valid only in the context of "the universal
election of all humankind".
If not, threat, danger and violence toward people of a different faith
are inherent to the self-understanding of being elected of individuals,
peoples and communities of faith. Christian-religious imperialism should be
radically condemned for humane reasons. 
To sum up: Schillebeeckx offered for his time a step away from the
stultifying, dependence-creating stance of the Roman Catholic Church. What
surprises me is that he got away with it, becoming a popular and widely-read
author. But it has been the task of others, not constantly threatened by
official sanction, to work out where the road he walked is going
 In an interview with Die Presse in 1997
In Memoriam by Erik Borgman