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Born Before All Time? The Dispute over Christ's Origin.

This magisterial study of the theme of the preexistence of Jesus Christ, accepted as Kuschel's Habilitationsschrift in 1989, is enthusiastically introduced in a Foreword by Hans Kung. Kuschel now teaches theology at the University of Tubingen.

K. examines the scriptural foundations of the credal doctrine "born of the Father before all time." His aim is to criticize doctrine on the basis of Scripture, "to hear the biblical message in an undistorted form and to translate the dogmatic statements afresh in the light of Scripture" (503). Several premises account for the genesis of this study. One is the gap that exists between present-day systematic theology on the preexistence of Jesus Christ and the data of biblical exegesis with its attendant historical consciousness. Another is the ambiguity of the doctrine and lack of plausibility of various ways in which it is presented.

The outline is simple and massive. K.'s Introduction shows that the question of the preexistence of Jesus Christ involves basic human concerns about God. In Christian doctrine, however, the application of a concrete, historical imagination to Jesus of Nazareth inevitably calls into question the traditional understandings underlying the doctrine of the Trinity.

In Part 1, K. defines the state of the question with regard to Jesus' pre-existence in more precise theological terms through an analysis and comparison of the positions of Harnack, Barth, and Bultmann. The historian, the dogmatician, and the existentialist exegete all contribute valuable dimensions on preexistence that must be held in mutual critical tension. This section is a brilliant analysis of the historical positions and symbolic significance of these theologians who set the tone of 20th-century theology.

Part 2 consists in over 200 pages summarizing and interpreting the exegetical data on preexistence in the Bible. It deals with wisdom theology and the apocalyptic notion of the Son of Man in Jewish writings and then analyses chronologically the strata of tradition and the major pertinent texts in the New Testament. K. has consulted a large spectrum of German- and English-speaking scholars and has aimed for positions that represent a consensus. He is economical and clear in his interweaving social, political, and cultural considerations with literary and genre criticism. His most important methodological move at this juncture is to retrieve the experience within the symbolic language by a functional analysis, i.e. to interpret the point of biblical expressions by an analysis of the crisis and question to which they responded.

In Part 3, K. returns to present-day systematic theology and considers the work of Pannenberg, Rahner, Jungel, Moltmann, Kasper, Kung, and Schillebeeckx. Each of these theologians, despite his contributions, in various degrees and at different points is found wanting in the light of biblical exegesis. This is the central point of the study, to bring to bear in a critical way the results of biblical study on systematic theology. K. himself, however, is closer to Kung and Schillebeeckx: less determined by patristic formulations of doctrine, more inclined to work from critically analyzed scriptural data. Finally, in his Epilogue, K. proposes some constructive answers to some of the questions his historical study has raised.

This book is exceptionally well written and contains along the way crisp summaries of the ground gained in the detailed exposition. Rich in historically conscious theological reflection, its central thesis is something like this: the confession of the preexistence of Jesus Christ stems from the Easter experience that he is alive and with God, and it looks "back" from there. What preexistence means is that this Jesus Christ is also of God; he has his origin in God from the beginning so that Jesus Christ is the revelation of God as God really is. The various expressions of the NT--virgin birth, mission or sending, kenosis, incarnation, mediation at creation--all are united in this one basic experiential truth. The idea of preexistence is always presented in poetic, hymnic language, or in the apocalyptic language of visionary dreams. Preexistence is never dwelt upon as a doctrine in its own right or in a speculative manner as having an independent status. It is, as it were, a supporting or ancillary idea.

But is or was Jesus really preexistent? What exactly is K.'s position on the phrase in the Creed, "born of the Father before all time"? Granted one cannot respond to the question of Jesus' preexistence with a simple "yes" or "no," still K. could have been much clearer in his response than he actually is. In the course of his lucid and insightful analyses of Scripture and 20th-century theologians K. develops some useful and penetrating distinctions which, in the end, he fails to bring to bear in his own constructive position.

For example, K. is sometimes very careful with the names Jesus, Christ, and Jesus Christ. At one point he argues that Scripture will not bear more than the idea of a preexistent Logos asarkos. After all, how can one imagine a real preexistent and eternal Jesus of Nazareth as distinct from an ideal existence in God's intention? And yet in his final reflections K. offends one of his own rules, that the primary referent of Christological language is the Jesus of history, and he uses language that seems to endorse a preexistence of Jesus.

In sum, at certain points K.'s own position is not as clear as is its general direction. K. displays no method of systematic theology of his own; his systematic theology consists in commentary on what other systematic theologians have said. The strength of this book lies less in methodical, theological argumentation, or constructive, systematic synthesis, and more in its thorough, positive, historical analyses. This contribution, however, is real, substantial, significant, and essential.
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Author:Haight, Roger
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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