My Favourite Theologian: Edward Schillebeeckx O.P.

Edward Schillebeeckx O.P. (1914-2009)

Ross Jesmont

What does Christianity have to say to a world shaped by suffering and a western context increasingly defined by secularism? These two questions created the impetus behind the thought of Edward Schillebeeckx O.P., a Belgian born Roman Catholic theologian. Schillebeeckx argued that although the task of theology is to speak of God, all theological language is shaped by its time and context. Therefore, the task of theologians is to translate the gospel into language which is understandable to contemporary audiences.

A defining feature of Schillebeeckx theology is his argument that, in order to be taken seriously, Christians must be open to the world. In his work, Schillebeeckx balanced his concern for the world with scholarly attempts to recapture the central message of the gospel - the truth that God in Jesus is reconciling the world - through critical studies of scripture and Church tradition. In connecting the truths of tradition with the concerns of the present, Schillebeeckx stressed the importance of salvation, a theological term which he broadly defined as ‘whenever the good is furthered and evil is defeated.’ On the basis of this definition, Schillebeeckx emphasized orthopraxis (correct-action) over orthodoxy (correct-belief). The central task for Christians is to follow Jesus’ example in making salvation known by working to transform injustices.

In line with this action focus, Schillebeeckx developed another important concept: ‘experiences of negative contrast.’ He argued that all of humanity shares a common sense that the world is not as it should be, a point clearly reflected by the existence of suffering. Yet, contained within this negative reaction to the world, there is also a positive desire to transform the world into how it should be. It is this desire, he argued, which Christians understand as the influence of God in creation. Shaped by this belief, Christians recognize that they are making the gospel known whenever and wherever they join with others in transforming suffering and injustice.

Although Schillebeeckx’s writings amount to a significant number of volumes, one of his last works, Church: The Human Story of God, offers an accessible summary of many of his ideas.

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Part of this series was also published in issue 151 of Movement magazine, the Community issue. Movement magazine is distributed free to SCM members and supporters, and you can request a copy here.