Monday, May 30, 2005

Catholic Christology

Walter Cardinal Kasper is President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. He was appointed to this post by John-Paul II, and reappointed by Benedict XVI.

In addition, he is President for the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.

Back when he was professor of dogmatic theology at Tubingen University, he wrote Jesus the Christ (Paulist Press 1985). My copy comes with glowing commendations by the late Karl Rahner and Bruce Vawter, a Catholic OT scholar.

Among other things, Kasper says the following:


We owe a second insight to modern form-criticism. It has shown that the gospels are not historical sources in the modern sense but are instead testimonials to the faith of the early churches. They are not primarily interested in the Jesus of history, but are concerned with the Christ who is present in proclamation, liturgy, and the whole life of the churches (32).

It is characteristic of the gospels to mix message and report. Obviously they have to face the problem of the mythization of history, but also that of the historicization of a myth (33).

Myth is the form of understanding proper to an out-of-date epoch of human history: the primitive era or childhood, of mankind (44).

These questions take us to the borderline between permissible and impermissible demythologization. Demythologization is permissible if it helps us to show Jesus Christ as the location of divine and human freedom (48).

The NT accounts of miracles are analogous to, or use themes familiar to us from other ancient sources. There are for example, rabbinic and hellenistic miracle stories of cures, expulsions of demons, raisings from the dead, quellings of storms, and so on. Numerous parallels exist in the case of Jesus’ contemporary, Apollonius of Tyana, and many healings are reported in particular from the sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidaurus.

In view of the parallels which remain, it is hardly possible to reject al of the rabbinical and Hellenistic miracle reports as unhistorical lies and deceit, while accepting the NT accounts at face value as historical.

A number of miracle stories turn out in the light of form criticism to be projections of the experiences of Easter back into the earthly life of Jesus, or anticipatory representations of the exalted Christ. Among these epiphany stories we should probably include the stilling of the storm, the transfiguration, Jesus’ walking on the lake, the feeding of the four (or five) thousand and the miraculous draught of fishes…It is the nature miracles which turn out to be secondary accretions to the original tradition.

The result of all this is that we must describe many of the gospel miracle stories as legendary. Legends of this sort should be examined less for their historical than for their theological content…To show that certain miracles cannot be ascribed to the earthly Jesus does not mean that they have no theological or kerygmatic significance. These non-historical miracle reports are statements of faith about the significance for salvation of the person and message of Jesus (90).


My primary purpose in quoting from Kasper is not to comment on the merits of his position. Rather, this serves to document the mainstream view of Scripture in modern Catholicism. Although Kasper was not a high-ranking prelate at the time he wrote this book, what he wrote was obviously no impediment to his ecclesiastical preferment.

Now, if these statements were made by a man of similar ecclesiastical standing in any other denomination--say, Lutheran or Episcopalian or Presbyterian or Baptist—everyone would grant that his particular denomination was on the liberal end of the theological spectrum.

But when a Catholic scholar and high-placed prelate like Kasper says the very same thing, conservative Catholics rush in to distance their church from this sort of teaching.

Having made my main point, I will offer a few comments on the substance of his claims. I can’t prove my point without quoting him, but having quoted him, I don’t wish to let his assertions go unchallenged.

1.Notice his implicit faith in the form criticism of Bultmann and Dibelius. It is important to remember that form criticism doesn’t bring any new or contrary evidence to the table. It isn’t based on any extracanonical data. Instead, it simply infers an oral prehistory to the gospels, and assumes that the putative life-situation was not the actual setting, but was supplied by the life-situation of the church.

Form criticism does nothing whatsoever to disprove the historicity of the gospels. Indeed, form criticism is impotent to disprove their historicity.

Form criticism can be of some use in literary analysis, but that’s about it.

2.Then you have the thoughtless antithesis between faith and fact.

i) Yes, the gospel writers were men of faith. Faith in what? Faith in whom? They were believers because they believed that something really happened. Their faith was an event-centered faith.

Why is it that highly intelligent men like Kasper are too obtuse to see such an elementary connection? Why do men like Kasper continue to parrot this psychologically implausible dichotomy between faith and fact?

ii) Notice that he doesn’t take his clue from the narrative viewpoint of the gospel-writers themselves. Luke, for one, is very much concerned with the Christ of history, as the history of the Christ intersects with Jewish and Greco-Roman history--while Matthew is deeply interested in Christ as the Omega-point of OT history.

As we all know, the Gospel of Mark is fascinated with the thaumaturgical ministry of Christ as an exorcist and wonder-worker—the sort of thing that Kasper finds quite incredible. But Mark is so impressed by this because he firmly believes that Jesus really did work wonders and cast out demons.

And then there is John. John is the most theologically “advanced” of the four. And yet, at the same time, John’s gospel has the greatest density of eyewitness detail. As the liberal Bishop Robinson once observed, “In fact John is at his most theological when he is most historical, and most historical when he is most theological,” Can we trust the New Testament? (Eerdmans 1977), 91.

For example, Kasper mentions the miracle of loaves and fishes, which he disbelieves. Yet this incident is reported in all four Gospels. John’s account is the most theological. At the same time, his account has the most historical background material.

Kasper doesn’t really listen to the text of Scripture. He comes to the Gospels with this form-critical predefinition of what they will say.

3.Then you have the extracanonical parallels.

i) Either miracles happen or they don’t. If they do, then you will naturally have similar stories of similar miracles. How many different ways are there to report a miraculous healing?

And by the same token, nothing more nearly resembles the story of a true miracle than the story of a false one.

See the eminently sensible comments by his fellow Roman Catholic, P. Benoit, Jesus & the Gospel (Herder & Herder 1973), 1:33-34.

ii) There is nothing in the Biblical worldview to preclude Jews and pagans from exhibiting or exercising paranormal powers. Miracles are attributed to such OT Jews as Moses, Elijah, and Elisha—as well as the Apostles.

And there is, indeed, a confrontation between miracle and magic in both the OT (Exod 7-8) and the NT (Acts 13:11).

iii) Conversely, it is striking that Kasper thinks we should sift the canonical sources, but does nothing at all to sift the extracanonical sources. What are our sources for Apollonius and Asclepius? What is their genre? When were they written? Before or after the NT? What is the interval of time between Asclepius or Apollonius and the earliest record of their life and deeds?

These are all essential and elementary questions. Yet Kasper doesn’t answer a one.

A reported miracle is no more or less credible than the report of the miracle, which is--in turn--no more or less credible than the reporter of the miracle.

iv) Yes, Apollonius was a 1C figure (d. c.96-98). But his biography dates to the early 3C (c.217). This is hardly a historical source on par with 1C biographies (the four Gospels) of a 1C figure (Jesus Christ) based on eyewitness observation or eyewitness testimony.

The issue is not the contemporeity of Jesus and Apollonius, but the contemporeity of the record in relation to the event. Is Kasper really too dense to appreciate the difference that makes?

If the parallels are more than coincidental, then that’s only because Philostratus is imitating the canonical Gospels. Given that this work was commissioned by the wife of Septimius Severus, there is no reason to assume that it was anything other than a piece of counter-Christian propaganda.

v) As to Asclepius, we don’t even know if he ever existed.

vi) Over and above that preliminary question, in what precise respect are the parallels truly parallel? One is struck by the disanalogies rather than analogies. As one scholar compares the two:

<< The patient purified himself or herself at the sacred fountain and offered a sacrifice…At night that person took bedclothes and after leaving a small gift for the god reposed on a pallet in the abaton (halls built for incubation). The person would dream that the god appeared.

The cures at the healing sanctuaries are in a totally different frame of reference from the healings by the spoken word or touch of Jesus recorded in the Gospels.

E. Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Eerdmans 2003), 225-26. >>

4.Finally, Kasper assumes that Scripture was not given as a whole, to be believed as a whole. He acts as though we are a liberty to dissemble it and throw away the parts we don’t want to believe in.

Now, this is not a consistent position for either a believer or unbeliever to assume. Each gospel is a narrative package and literary unit. Each Evangelist recorded what he thought was most important, and left out what he thought was less unimportant. (This applies to the OT as well.)

The finished product was never put together to be taken apart. It was never written to be dissected and excised—a verse here, a verse there; a story here, a story there—then stitched back together in a different arrangement with missing parts.

A consistent believer will accept the Bible as the Bible was actually given, while a consistent unbeliever will reject the Bible as given.

Only an utter fool supposes that you can deconstruct a book of the Bible, toss out whatever you’re not prepared to accept, and still imagine that you have a divine revelation in your hands. Kasper is like the idolater who uses half the log for firewood, then bows down to the other half as his god (cf. Isa 44:9-20).


  1. I first heard about the Kasper book in Ray Brown's Introduction to New Testament Christology. Brown thinks it's just great.

  2. For those interested, here's a lecture given by Pope Benedict XVI in 1988, on the crisis among exegetes.

    At this point the question arises, how could Dibelius's and Bultmann's essential categories for judgment — that is, the pure form, the opposition between apocalyptic and eschatology and so on — present such evidence to them, that they believed they had at their disposal the perfect instrument for gaining a knowledge of history? Why, even today in large part, is this system of thought taken without question and applied? Since then, most of it has simply become an academic commonplace, which precedes individual analysis and appears to be legitimized almost automatically by application. But what about the founders of the method? Certainly, Dibelius and Bultmann already stood in a tradition. Mention has already been made of their dependence on Gunkel and Bousset. But what was their dominant idea? With this question, the self-critique of the historical method passes over to a self-criticism of historical reason, without which our analysis would get stuck in superficialities.

    In the first place, one can note that in the history-of-religions school, the model of evolution was applied to the analysis of biblical texts. This was an effort to bring the methods and models of the natural sciences to bear on the study of history. Bultmann laid hold of this notion in a more general way and thus attributed to the so-called scientific worldview a kind of dogmatic character. Thus, for example, for him the nonhistoricity of the miracle stories was no question whatever anymore. The only thing one needed to do yet was to explain how these miracle stories came about. On one hand the introduction of the scientific worldview was indeterminate and not well thought out. On the other hand, it offered an absolute rule for distinguishing between what could have been and what had to be explained only by development. To this latter category belonged everything which is not met with in common daily experience.21There could only have been what now is. For everything else, therefore, historical processes are invented, whose reconstruction became the particular challenge of exegesis.


    Thus the word should not be submitted to just any kind of enthusiasm. Rather, preparation is required to open us up to the inner dynamism of the word. This is possible only when there is a certain "sym-pathia" or understanding, a readiness to learn something new, to allow oneself to be taken along a new road. It is not the closed hand which is required, but the opened eye.

    Thus the exegete should not approach the text with a ready-made philosophy, nor in accordance with the dictates of a so-called modern or "scientific" worldview, which determines in advance what may or may not be. He may not exclude a priori that (almighty) God could speak in human words in the world, He may not exclude that God himself could enter into and work in human history, however improbable such a thing might at first appear.

    He must be ready to learn from the extraordinary. He must be ready to accept that the truly original may occur in history, something which cannot be derived from precedents, but which opens up out of itself.27 He may not deny to humanity the ability to be responsive beyond the categories of pure reason, and to reach beyond ourselves towards the open and endless truth of being.

  3. Jason,

    But it is highly unlikely that Ratzinger will remove Kasper from his lofty position as the Church's chief spokesman for dialogue with non-Cathlolics.

    JP II apparently didn't have a problem with Kasper's nuttiness.

  4. Thanks, Jason. Your quotation doesn't negate anything I said:
    i) Kasper may not be as radical as Bultmann, but he is still operating with many of the same assumptions and methods. And his terms and emphases are straight out of Bultmann and Dibelius, viz., the classification of the Gospel narratives into "miracle stories" and "legends," the sitz-im-leben supplied, not by the putative setting, but the liturgical, kerygmatic life-situation of the church, &c.
    ii) What Ratzinger says is perfectly consistent with what Kasper says. Ratzinger says that the exegete must be open to the possibility of the miraculous. Kasper doesn't deny this. He affirms a few of the Gospel miracles. But, for Kasper, the Gospel witness is entirely up for grabs. What we believe or disbelieve is ultimately a form-critical judgement call.

    BTW,, Kasper was a protege of Hans Kung!

    iii) When I go over to:

    I find the following:

    Cardinal Kasper retains his position as President of the Pontification Council for Promoting X'n Unity.

    He resigned that position on the day that JP2 died. (It was JP2 who appointed him to tha position in the first place).

    I assume it's customary for certain high-ranking papal appointees to resign when the Pope dies. This allows the new Pope to choose who he wants to fill those slots.

    He was "confirmed" in that position two days after Ratzinger was elected Pope.

    I take that to mean that Benedict XVI reappointed him to the post. So you can see how Benedict XVI interprets his own words by the way he applies them in the case of Cardinal Kasper.

  5. Your quotation doesn't negate anything I said

    It wasn't meant to. It's just a useful lecture, for those interested in things like textual criticism and what not (as I'm sure many of your readers are).

    Pax et Bonum.

  6. ***QUOTE***

    KASPER, Walter (1933-

    Episcopate. Elected bishop of Rottenberg-Stuttgart, April 4, 1989; confirmed by Pope John Paul II, April 17, 1989. Consecrated, June 17, 1989, Rottenburg, by Oskar Saier, archbishop of Freiburg im Brisgau. Co-president of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity, 1994. Secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, March 16, 1999. Resigned the pastoral government of the diocese, May 31, 1999.

    Cardinalate. Created cardinal deacon in the consistory of February 21, 2001; received the red biretta and the deaconry of Ognissanti in Via Appia Nuova, February 21, 2001. President of the Pontifical Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity, March 3, 2001. Attended the X Ordinary Assembly of the World Synod of Bishops, Vatican City, September 30 to October 27, 2001. Participated in the conclave of April 18 to 19, 2005. Reappointed as president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, April 21, 2005.


    So, Jason, is he or is he not a representative voice for the contemporary Catholic view of Scripture? And do you share the papacy's favorable estimate of Kasper?

  7. So, Jason, is he or is he not a representative voice for the contemporary Catholic view of Scripture? And do you share the papacy's favorable estimate of Kasper?

    First, no, Cardinal Kaspar does not represent Catholic doctrine. This is not to say he is right or wrong. But his work as a private theologian is just that, his work.

    The "Catholic" view of Scripture is not to be confused with biblical theology. The theology of the Church, and the theology if individual theologians, are distinct but closely related fields. Pope Benedict XVI explains in his book "The Nature and Mission of Theology":

    "Everyone is free--within the framework of the responsibility of conscience before the truth--to think whatever this responsibility permits him to think or say. But not everyone is free to assert that what he says represents Catholic theology. Here there is a sort of 'trademark,' a historical identity which the Magisterium is called to defend."

    Second, I am not a Scripture scholar, and I do not play one online. I am not qualified to discuss technical questions of textual criticism.

    As for my views of Cardinal Kaspar, they are irrelevant. Good or bad, right or wrong, he is a Bishop. There is nothing I can do about that. Pope Leo XIII notes in his Encyclical Letter "Sapientiae Christianae" that lay people will encounter Bishops who are "rightly judged to have deserved censure." Nevertheless, it is not our job to usurp the authority given by God to his Apostles and their successors. His work as a theologian will stand or fall based on its own merits.

    God bless.

  8. Jason,

    So far as I know, there is no magesterial document that says "Jesus performed all the miracles the Gospels say he performed" (or the opposite, or somewhere in the middle). So, the question is whether or not Kasper's views are contrary to Catholic teaching.

    In the absense of any official teaching, it is reasonable to believe that JP and Benedict have appointed people whose views are in line with what they believe the church has taught.

    The issue is not "textual criticism" (which I agree is extremely complex) but the question of the inspiration and accuracy of the Scripture.

    In addition, doesn't Kasper have a unique responsibility in that he has the obligation to present the views of the faith to unbelievers? Doesn't he have the obligation to present the views of, say, the salvation of the Jews, with extreme precision since he is the Vatican's chief spokesman concerning dialogue with them?

  9. Jason,

    So far as I know, there is no magesterial document that says "Jesus performed all the miracles the Gospels say he performed" (or the opposite, or somewhere in the middle). So, the question is whether or not Kasper's views are contrary to Catholic teaching.

    In the absense of any official teaching, it is reasonable to believe that JP and Benedict have appointed people whose views are in line with what they believe the church has taught.

    The issue is not "textual criticism" (which I agree is extremely complex) but the question of the inspiration and accuracy of the Scripture.

    In addition, doesn't Kasper have a unique responsibility in that he must present the views of the faith to unbelievers? Doesn't he have the obligation to tell the Jews with extreme precision what they must do to be saved since he is the Vatican's chief spokesman concerning dialogue with them?

  10. Steve,

    I agree that any answer I give in response to Kaspar's words will hinge on the Catholic doctrine of inspiration and inerrancy. If a particular view errs against this fundamental doctrine, then a specific condemnation would be redundant.

    However, I'm not going to go over Catholic doctrine here, because I know it will be an endless discussion that gets nowhere. Which is why I chose not to address Kaspar in the first place.

    Neither will I address the other questions you raise, because you have raised them many times before on other blogs, and (as I've told you before) I see no way to discuss anything related to Catholicism with you in a fruitful manner.

    I will simply say that an appointment by a Bishop does not make his views Catholic doctrine. An unchaste, murdering Bishop in the hayday of episcopal corruption did not make their sins acceptable in Catholic theology, and neither does episcopal error do so today.

    God bless.

  11. Jason,

    Are Kasper's views contrary to Catholic doctrine?

  12. Steve,

    They may be. He wouldn't be the first theologian to err doctrinally.

    I say "may" because I have not examined his actual words myself. I don't have his book, and I can't examine the fuller context.