On being a Christian

Written by Hans Küng Reviewed By Richard Bauckham

Hans Küng has written what he himself describes as ‘a kind of small “Summa” of the Christian faith’ (p. 20), an ambitious project which few modern theologians can parallel. It is of the greatest importance that theologians should be able to stand back from particular issues and attempt a comprehensive account of what Christianity essentially is, where the centre and the periphery of Christian theology lie, how Christianity can hold its own in the dialogue with its contemporary rivals, and what it means to be a Christian in the modern world. If Küng’s attempt is not entirely successful, he deserves our gratitude both for the attempt and for a large measure of success. He draws on the extraordinary range of learning in the various theological disciplines, he writes with infectious passion, and on issue after issue he throws a flood of light from which even those who most disagree with him cannot fail to benefit.

Though Küng intends, in his own way, complete loyalty to the Catholic Church, he does not write Catholic theology. Though I disagreed with him often enough, my disagreement was almost never the disagreement of a Protestant with a Catholic. His theology belongs to the ‘evangelical Catholicity’ or ‘Catholic evangelicity’ which he advocates (p. 503) as the form which Christian discipleship must take today. It is ecumenical in the best sense, not trying to pander to all tastes but bringing us all back to the source: ‘the cause of Jesus Christ’ (ibid.).

The two most notable general features of Küng’s account of Christian faith are his insistence that Jesus Christ himself is the distinguishing feature of Christianity and his conviction that modern man can be a Christian without surrendering his critical modern rationality or the aspirations and achievements of modern humanism. Together these set the agenda of the book. Jesus Christ himself must determine what Christianity is: not a Christ who is a mere cipher to be filled with any suitable modern content, but ‘the Christ who is identical with the real, historical Jesus of Nazareth’ (p. 409). Küng is convinced that the real features of the historical Jesus can be discerned through the critical study of the Gospels, and he sketches them in the fine central section of the book. If this sounds like nineteenth-century Liberal Protestantism (which Küng does sometimes resemble), it should be added that he does not set the historical Jesus against the message of Paul or the early church. Jesus of Nazareth, through cross and resurrection, became the Christ of faith who is rightly the content of the church’s Gospel. (It is interesting to compare this view of the distinguishing feature of Christianity with J. D. G. Dunn’s recent argument, in Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, that the principal element to the diverse forms of primitive Christianity represented in the New Testament is the identity between Jesus of Nazareth and the exalted Lord.) So, for Küng, ‘Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, finally authoritative, decisive, archetypal, is what makes Christianity what it really is’ (p. 174).

This Jesus is the true man, in whose faith and discipleship men become truly human. To be a Christian does not mean to be something in addition to being human, to be more than human. Being a Christian is being truly human. Christian faith—but only if properly understood—can therefore not only respond positively to the humanism of modern man, but also has resources to meet the paradoxical dehumanization of modern humanistic man’s world.

At least in intention, Küng is not testing Christianity by modernity but testing modernity by the standard of Jesus and letting modernity illumine the truth of Jesus. (In practice, as we shall see, the matter is not always so clear.) ‘A humanization of the Church was necessary and remains necessary, but on the one condition that there is no sellout of the Christian “substance”. The diamond is not to be thrown away, but polished and—if possible—made to sparkle’ (p. 37). Küng’s advocacy of the Gospel is really in the best tradition of confident but open-minded apologetic, which does not need either to grudge the ‘world’ its truth and goodness or to spare criticism of Christian and non-Christian alike in the light of Christ himself.

For all its merits, I think there are serious criticisms to be made of Küng’s theology. I limit my criticism here to three topics: some comments on Küng’s method, and two instances of the outworking of this method. (Interested readers may like to read further criticism—not all, in my view, entirely fair to Küng—in the following reviews: by G. H. Tavard, in Theological Studies 38 (1977), pp. 359–365; by E. L. Mascall, in SJT 31 (1978), pp. 173–178; and a critical article by R. Butterworth, in Heythrop Journ. 18 (1977), pp. 436–446.

(a) Method. Perhaps the most Protestant aspect of Küng is his radical appeal to Scripture as the norm by which to criticize the theological tradition and the teaching of the Church’s magisterium. Welcome as this must be, I find myself in the odd position, as a Protestant, of finding this Catholic’s attitude to tradition too negative. Rarely does the theological tradition even seem to provide positive guidance for Küng; when he is not exposing its departure from the New Testament norm, he is frequently engaged in finding its time-conditioned expressions of the Gospel quite misleading for today. Even the development of christological and trinitarian doctrine in the patristic church fares badly: it represents a hellenization of the Gospel which, while inevitable in its time, needs radical re-expression today. What makes this negative view of tradition somewhat suspect is that Küng usually seems to think that in these cases the biblical way of thinking (e.g. functional Christology) coincides with what is appropriate for modern ways of thought. Sometimes this may be quite valid. But other aspects of biblical ways of thinking (e.g. apocalyptic) must, according to Küng, be demythologized for modern man. It looks as though the criticism of tradition by the biblical norm is using the biblical norm selectively and presupposes a prior criticism of the biblical message by the standard of modern critical rationality. What Küng has failed to see is that the theological tradition can function positively to force on our attention real aspects of the biblical message which do not appeal to our modern minds but are nonetheless valid. Scripture is the norm and must criticize tradition, but tradition can also help us to criticize our modernity by the scriptural norm.

Küng’s appeal to Scripture is really an appeal to the original Christian message, to ‘the human testimonies of divine revelation’ (p. 466). The Evangelical, I think, will want to question whether Küng’s rather ‘low’ doctrine of Scripture (pp. 463–467) can really justify the normative status he gives it. There are difficult questions here which are not solved simply by the apparently self-evident (Protestant!) notion that the original version of Christianity is the true one.

Küng—so critical in other respects—is curiously uncritical in his acceptance of conclusions in New Testament scholarship which would be widely questioned outside Germany: that the Fourth Gospel is worthless as evidence for the historical Jesus, that only the undoubtedly authentic Pauline letters are Paul’s, and so on. This is perhaps excusable in a systematic theologian who has to rely on the New Testament specialists. More serious are the verdicts in which ‘historical criticism’ and ‘natural science’ combine to discredit the ‘miraculous’ in the New Testament: the Gospel miracles, the empty tomb, the virgin birth. Here we see the extent to which Küng’s reading of the Bible is controlled by a modern rationality which is insufficiently exposed to criticism itself.

(b) The ‘miraculous’. On this question, as so often, Küng is countering a ‘traditional’ view: miracle as supernatural intervention contravening the laws of nature. His objection is fair enough (though perhaps not fair to the tradition). It is inadequate to think of God intervening sporadically in the world from outside. But, although he points out how the Gospel miracles are signs of the coming Kingdom, Küng is unable really to recover a biblical viewpoint here because his thinking, like Bultmann’s, is decisively governed by the ‘modern scientific world-view’, according to which laws of nature are not broken. God’s action in this world must therefore be constrained within the limits of the possibilities of nature as modern science understands them.

How significant this issue is becomes apparent in Küng’s discussion of Jesus’ resurrection, whose reality as transcendence of death he clearly affirms. Resurrection certainly goes beyond the scientifically known possibilities of nature. ‘It is the hidden, unimagineable, new act of the Creator, of him who calls into existence the things that are not. And therefore—though not a supernatural “intervention” contrary to the laws of nature—it is a genuine gift and a true miracle’ (p. 359). But why does it not contravene the laws of nature? Because, for Küng, it is not an event in this world, in our time and our space, or even in another time and another space, but in ‘God’s dimensions’. The whole discussion of resurrection (pp. 356–361), Christ’s and ours, is dominated by this need to keep the new creation from impinging on the old. The result is that the terms in which Küng affirms transcendence of death leave in considerable obscurity the question of whether ‘eternal life’ means real personal existence for human individuals.

Clearly the New Testament has no such inhibitions about affirming that God’s new creation—heralded by Jesus’ miracles, begun in his resurrection—takes place within this space and time. Küng’s rule that the new creation may not break the laws of nature in this universe creates a quite artificial distinction between aspects of new creation (e.g. the work of the Spirit) which take place in this world and those (e.g. Jesus’ resurrection) which do not. New Testament eschatology not only does not make that distinction, but cannot incorporate it without serious distortion.

What Küng has not done is to think through consistently the implications of biblical eschatology: that in Jesus God begins to do something new which transcends the ordinary possibilities of nature and history. This need not be thought of as intervention from outside, but it means that God’s activity in the world is not all of a piece. His work of new creation goes beyond the laws of the old creation. The ‘miraculous’ needs to be understood as the eschatologically new.

Now Küng has not consistently rejected this biblical eschatology, or demythologized it as radically as Bultmann did. Unlike Bultmann he seems to hold that eschatology does relate to a real temporal future ahead of our history (pp. 223f.). But he has only been able to appropriate biblical eschatology piecemeal and inconsistently because he has not even asked whether it may throw doubt on the final adequacy of the ‘scientific world-view’. His treatment of the ‘miraculous’ is a wholly superficial application of a form of modern rationalism whose premises Küng does not share.

(c) Christology. The weaknesses of Küng’s Christology seem again to derive from his characteristic method: the odd combination of an ultra-Protestant insistence on the original Christian message with a neglect of those aspects of the original message which do not immediately seem to make modern sense. Two features of Küng’s Christology call for comment here: (i) It is a purely functional Christology. ‘God encounters us, manifests himself in the work and person of Jesus’ (p. 444). The patristic development of the two nature Christology was justified because (only because) ‘God and man are truly involved in the story of Jesus Christ’ (p. 449, cf. Küng’s exposition of the meaning of ‘truly God’, on that page). Küng will not say that Jesus ‘is’ (personally identical with) God. This refusal to go beyond functional language in Christology seems a kind of naive biblicism. Of course it is true that New Testament Christological language is primarily (not entirely) functional. The question is whether this functional Christology, once reflective questions about it are asked, requires also an essential Christology to back it up. Once the questions are asked which demand an essential Christology there can be no return to a naive functional Christology which has not yet asked those questions. Moreover, Küng holds that the maturer fruits of Christological reflection within the New Testament—preexistence, incarnation, meditation in creation—belong to mythological ways of thought which we must discard. Again it seems that the way the biblical norm is being applied is controlled by modern rationality: purely functional Christology seems to be more credible today than incarnational Christology (though why this should be so is obscure).

(ii) Küng’s Christology has little place for the personal activity of Jesus since Easter. I am not sure to what extent this is a consequence of his functional Christology, but it is certainly true that it makes a purely functional Christology more tolerable than it might be. If Jesus is the living Lord who even now mediates the Christian’s relationship to God, a purely functional Christology comes close to idolatry. If Jesus is primarily a figure of the past, through whom God acted in the world, functional Christology is more plausible. I do not want to deny that Küng believes that ‘Jesus is alive today’ (Mascall doubts this, but cf. pp. 376, 380, 384), but when he spells out the significance of this it seems to be that the person of Jesus (not just his teaching) ‘remains permanently valid’ (p. 384), ‘the living embodiment of his cause’ (p. 545). That Jesus will come as judge means that he is the standard of human existence (pp. 392–396). Oddly, Küng says that man ‘may await in the joy and composure of the ancient Christian Maranatha (“Our Lord, Come”) his encounter and that of all men with God’ (p. 396)—not with Jesus, which Maranatha really meant. Nor does Küng seem ever to speak of a living personal relationship with Jesus in the present. Is that mythological too?

Richard Bauckham

Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of St. Andrews