Hans Küng Breaking Through

Written by Hermann Häring Reviewed By Gerald Bray

Hans Küng is by any standard one of the more notorious of contemporary theologians. As a doctoral student he endeavoured to prove that Protestants and Catholics need not regard justification by faith as a divisive issue.

Later, in the wake of Vatican II, he pushed his own (Catholic) church to the limit by accepting a form of sola Scriptura, by demanding a modern approach to critical questions of theology and exegesis, and finally by calling into question the doctrine of papal infallibility. It was this last bit of daring which finally forced Rome to act, and in December 1979 he was deprived of his status as a Catholic theologian. Naturally that only made him seem to be a martyr in the eyes of most academics, and although the Roman church has stood by its decision, Küng himself has gone on to carve out a remarkable career on the border between the church and the world.

Hermann Häring’s lengthy study of Küng’s theological pilgrimage is a defence of his former teacher and a plea for his rehabilitation as a recognised Catholic theologian. What this amounts to is a plea for liberal Catholicism to be accepted as the post-Vatican II norm. The famous agreement between the Catholic Küng and the Protestant Karl Barth on justification was based on a shared liberalism, not on the traditional teaching of either side in this debate, so it can hardly be regarded as a ‘historic agreement’ between the two forms of Christianity. Both men are universalists, which immediately sets them apart from any kind of orthodoxy, whether Protestant or Catholic. Protestants will sympathise with Küng’s questioning of papal infallibility, but as that is clearly Catholic teaching, the Roman church is fully within its rights to insist on conformity from one of its licensed theologians. Complaints of unfairness and persecution are misguided, a point which Häring obviously finds hard to accept.

Küng himself has gradually moved out of the Christian world, which has come to seem very restrictive to him, and into a kind of transcendental humanism. This is made clear by the second book, which is a declaration on global responsibilities put together by him and endorsed by a wide selection of prominent politicians and others. His argument is that human rights also entail responsibilities, a dimension that has sometimes been lost sight of in recent years. He pleads for a balance between the two, and it is difficult not to agree with his aims. Unfortunately, Christians have to insist that apart from Christ, the goals which Küng is aiming for will never be realised. Indeed, even if everyone on earth were a Christian, the legacy of Adam’s sin would still be with us. This is not a popular message, and we cannot expect the impressive gallery of world leaders assembled here to approve of it, but it is the truth. Noble aims and good intentions are all very well, but only repentance and regeneration in Christ can bring them to pass. Here, orthodox Christians speak a different language to that of Küng, and we must part company with him. On this issue. Evangelicals are closer to the pope than we are to Barthian Catholics, which leaves us with divided sympathies when we read books like these. Küng may be a long way from John Paul II in his outlook, but in another way he is just as far from Evangelicals, a point which emerges clearly in both of these books.

Gerald Bray

Gerald Bray is research professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, where he teaches history and doctrine. He is a minister in the Church of England and the editor of the Anglican theological journal Churchman.