Summer 1982, Vol. 34, No. 2, pp. 144-154.

Edward van Merrienboer:
      Christian Ministry in Light of Schillebeeckx's Theology of Grace

Only by striving to eliminate the human suffering of vast numbers in our world will we experience Jesus as Christ, as did Christians of New Testament times.

Brother van Merrienboer, O.P., is the promoter of justice and peace for the Dominican Order in North America and an adjunct faculty member of Aquinas Institute, St. Louis, Missouri.

AUTHENTIC spirituality leads Christians into ministry, or service. Those who minister in the contemporary world are confronted by many questions. The purpose of this article is to consider the insights, discussions, and conclusions about ministry in the modern world which Edward Schillebeeckx offers in his book Christ.(1) In the foreword to his first book, Jesus, Schillebeeckx states that his purpose in writing this system of theology is "to bridge the gap between academic theology and the concrete needs of the ordinary Christian . . . . "(2) But the very length of these recent books suggests that ordinary Christians will not have access to Schillebeeckx's ideas in solving their problems. Admittedly, this article will not be able to consider all Schillebeeckx's thoughts in his hefty volume Christ, but the selections here will be, it is hoped, a contribution to the author's original purpose. Certain weaknesses of Schillebeeckx's work will not be addressed in this article.(3)

Schillebeeckx argues that the starting point for Christians to understand Jesus' significance as Christ, that is, as Savior, must be human experience. The Dutch word for experience, ervaren, literally means "to travel in the country." It implies a firsthand experience and not knowledge by hearsay. This rich image invites some reflection on our part insofar as it is integral to Schillebeeckx's understanding of Christ in history. We are invited to imagine ourselves walking through the flowered fields of Holland, feeling the fresh wind from the North Sea and watching the graceful old windmills do their ballet in harmony with nature. These are some of the "walks in the country/'that Schillebeeckx knows -- but there are others as well: the industrial port of Rotterdam with its urban problems, the nagging problems of the Dutch government trying to untangle itself from its colonial history with many developing countries, a critical housing shortage.

In these ordinary experiences -- lovely ones and ugly ones -- Jesus reveals himself to us as the Christ, the Savior, in moments called grace. The Father has chosen Jesus to speak to us, through human experience, about salvation. Therefore, we must be in touch with our historical situation to encounter Jesus as Christ through grace.


His analysis of the world leads Schillebeeckx to conclude that our world is indeed wounded and in need of healing grace. The maldistribution of human resources within and between nations, the aggressive actions of financial technocrats to prescribe what is the material meaning or doctrine of salvation, and the reality that two-thirds of the world's population live in wretchedness are sobering experiences. Human suffering is most often the story of our world, and much of this story is produced by the fact that too many innocent people suffer from other people. Modern consciousness of excessive suffering finds expression in the global movement to achieve human rights; this movement is the form actions take against the evil operative in the world.

Schillebeeckx argues that the New Testament demands that Christians show critical solidarity with all who suffer. He illustrates at great length how New Testament Christians spoke about human ethics in their socio-historical circumstances because of their belief in Jesus as the Christ. This concern for ethical imperatives was a result of human suffering encountered in the historical situation and of reflection on the meaning of Jesus' life in relation to that suffering.

From his analysis of the crisis of our times and the gospel imperative to act, Schillebeeckx concludes that Christianity must accord "ethics a certain priority over the religious . . . . For ethics has the character of a really pressing urgency which cannot wait until there is unanimity among men over the ultimate questions of life" (658). While he does not explicitly define ethics as opposed to religion, I would conclude from his lengthy discussion of the political nature of ministry today that the liturgical and doctrinal concerns of ministry should take less of our energy in the face of the human crisis which is today's reality. This conclusion seems logical in light of the extent of human suffering today, and its consequences are radical for Christian ministry. The emphasis here is that human life is in such an impoverished condition that we cannot postpone answering the ethical demands which confront us until people have arrived at a unanimous view of human life's final significance, the sacraments' meaning, or the institutional arrangements within and among the churches. To place great emphasis on these questions would be to waste large amounts of energy on questions which thrive on abstraction. Christian ministry today cannot afford, if it ever could, to give itself to narrow endeavors of theological reflection which do not touch human suffering now.

Concretely, unless Christians are actively working for a more just world, that is, trying to address the most pressing questions of human suffering, there is little hope that Christians will experience Jesus as the Christ of the New Testament. It is in addressing questions of suffering that the New Testament serves as a model and as a norm for Christians. A religious attitude can, and should be, suspected of being a mere ideology if it is socially, politically, and personally neutral in the ethical sphere.

Schillebeeckx stands with those who insist that theory must flow from practice. Precisely in living the New Testament do Christians have an experience of Jesus as Christ to proclaim to the world. Our faith is a practical faith in that it does something in our human history. In other words, our faith is not limited to hoping for "pie in the sky" but is involved in getting "pie on the table."


Schillebeeckx sees human suffering as an integral aspect of human life, but its impact is not limited to the physical. Human suffering causes people to reflect and question the significance of faith in God. In human suffering a person is moved toward God or far away from him. But no matter what a particular person's faith solution is in regard to suffering, human suffering remains a problem even for the person who believes in God, because at the heart of that belief is the conviction of God's mercy.

Schillebeeckx explores all the religious explanations of human suffering that we find in the major socioreligious movements in our world. He concludes that the Christian explanation offers the best insight because it places the responsibility for suffering where it belongs: human suffering is rooted in human sinfulness. Schillebeeckx rejects the notion of God as the source of human suffering by his "permissive will." He writes that "God's permissive will has no theoretical meaning as an explanation: it simply describes the dead end of human thinking when it is confronted with the incomprehensible history of human suffering" (699). God is not a scapegoat in our search for the cause of suffering; we are the cause because we are sinful. The God revealed by Jesus Christ, according to Schillebeeckx, is not only not the source of suffering by his permissive will but stands against suffering in all its manifestations. God's universal will is concerned only with the good (700).

This theology of human suffering calls Christians to reject any form of ministry which communicates to those who suffer that these experiences are all in the plan of God. The challenge is not to accept these evils, in which we all participate through our sinfulness: it is to act against them. When confronted with evil, Christians must be willing to locate the origin of it within themselves. By taking this responsibility for evil, humanity has a true basis for transformation of the world, because then authentic conversion is possible. The evils in the world are the results of our evil, our evil wills, not of some scapegoat like Marxism or capitalism.

This approach to the cause of human suffering naturally leads people to react with such a question as: "How am I responsible for the evil of the world? I try to lead a decent life. You're laying a great burden of guilt on me!" Schillebeeckx offers a balanced response to this objection. An imperative for him is that Christians maintain an awareness of their integral involvement in the evil of the world but also their integral involvement in its goodness. This insight makes us realize that we can and must do good, although there is always a need to analyze our efforts to transform those sinful aspects which continue because of our human weakness.

This awareness of weakness should help Christians avoid dogmatism. We must be willing to rethink our ministerial approaches in a spirit of conversion. Adjustment and change in our ministerial approaches characterize the integration of conversion into our ministerial mentality. Because we acknowledge our human limits, we can accept the need to adjust when we become aware of how a project which was perceived as good sometimes hurts people. The exclusive control of ministry by male members of the clergy is, in my opinion, an example of how conversion must change our ministerial approach, because many members of the church suffer from this arrangement. Part of the irony of sinfulness is that even those committed to healing can be sources of suffering.


In his lengthy treatment of the meaning of Christian salvation today (744 f.), Schillebeeckx covers four major questions which relate to ministry: (1) Can we understand Christian salvation in individualistic terms? (2) What is the relationship between "history" and "salvation history"? (3) How in fact is salvation by God experienced today? (4) What is the role of Jesus as the Christ in salvation? What follows is an attempt to summarize his insights in response to these four questions and to suggest areas in ministry which need to be considered further.

For Schillebeeckx, the Christian who asserts that the gospel is merely a matter of the heart or a private affair has missed the quite obvious point that Jesus preached to a people. Jesus had to consider these people as they were influenced by the social structures into which they were born and in which they became adults and lived their daily lives. Flight from this social dimension of human experience is in fact a flight into the status quo. Schillebeeckx writes that "for Christians, affirmation of another's personhood, readiness to identify oneself with another and affirm his own subjectivity, is from the start a readiness to make the economic, political and social world habitable for humanity" (745).

Christian salvation defined in terms of a totally individualistic inwardness is one extreme; the other is a purely humanitarian description of salvation. A transcendent mystery is involved in social liberation because social liberation is an integral ingredient of God's salvation. Our religious concepts of wholeness and liberation, on the other hand, imply secular concepts, though these concepts change in the course of history. In our situation today, liberation is understood as having a political dimension. A critical challenge for today's Christians is, therefore, the relationship between the reign of God mentioned in The New Testament and political action in the world.

Schillebeeckx introduces the topic of the relationship of history to salvation history by a poetic reflection on the biblical story of Jacob and Esau (Gen. 32: 24-31) (762-64). In this biblical narrative we find one of the central points of Schillebeeckx's theology of salvation -- that is, we experience salvation through others. Jacob is quoted: "For truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God, with such favor have you received me" (33:10). It is through persons who are sharing, caring, and loving that we experience the salvation of God. Here Schillebeeckx seems very close to his Thomist roots by developing the theme that the supernatural is built through the natural order.

The integral connection between human wholeness and salvation is clear but not always as constant as we would hope, because our human nature is flawed by sin. All efforts toward human liberation are essentially partial, non-universal, and transitory. For complete wholeness and liberation, people need God with them in their struggle. In no way does Schillebeeckx belittle efforts toward liberation which do not carry a Christian label, but he maintains the essential role of God even in these efforts.

Claims of total self-liberation will, in reality, produce alienation within human history. Nor can authentic liberation be achieved without taking into account the suffering of others. Schillebeeckx calls for greater humility from social movements which claim to be able to achieve total and universal liberation through a totally human project. Here we must face the historical fact that human suffering has remained firm in our experience in spite of our attempts at emancipation. Total liberation requires God, although it is through humanity that this grace from God will be mediated.

The fact that God's salvation is mediated through humanity moves Schillebeeckx to consider how faith interacts with the political concerns of our time. Some critics of the book say that he has devoted too much attention to social and political liberation and not enough to the mystical liberation of humanity.3 His response to this criticism is to deny the way in which political liberation is contrasted with mystical liberation. Salvation is a person's wholeness, and making one whole includes both sociopolitical and mystical dimensions; the two cannot be opposed to each other.

Yet, Schillebeeckx affirms that the political aspect of human liberation requires careful discernment, as do other aspects of Christian salvation. First, he notes that there is a de facto pluralism among Christians regarding political policies, because any particular political policy may offer too narrow a range of options for Christians. The overall political programs of a party, even one that calls itself Christian, cannot be equated with the New Testament ethical imperative. In this discussion Schillebeeckx is, of course, strongly influenced by his experience of Christian Democratic parties in Europe. He notes that the history of these parties demonstrates that all kinds of non-Christian factors enter into their programs, sometimes because only by assimilating these factors could they maintain themselves in a given country. Never can we expect a political program to be the gospel program in the full sense of always having the gospel as its guide in policy-making. The best that Christians can expect is that, on many or even the majority of issues, one politician or party may reflect Christian ethics in the policies proposed. This point is especially relevant to Christians in the United States, since we are now confronted in the political field with Christians who claim that their program is the sole Christian option.

Schillebeeckx sees limits as to how far formal religion can have a specific effect in politics. Clearly, religion cannot take the ultimate option of silence in politics, because that option is a political act in favor of the status quo. But the question still remains: What action can the churches take and when?

His answer is that the religious contribution must be both specifically religious and practically effective in the world. For example, churches must speak on the world arms buildup from the perspective of protection of human life itself, but they must also apply themselves to finding nonviolent ways to resolve the great international conflicts which in fact exist. These two principles guide the churches who must, at the same moment, transcend the political and support those who are concerned for people and the structures which make truly human life possible. These principles act as a safeguard to insure that all political action of the churches is rooted in a radical desire to be of God's loving service and not to promote their own selfish agendas.

As a minimum contribution, religion must articulate the principles by which a Christian can choose a political program. Schillebeeckx considers Vatican Council II's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World as a source of these Christian principles. In general, Christianity is essentially concerned with the liberation of all people. In particular, the gospel demands that Christians be advocates of the poor, of those without rights, and of those who have no representatives in politics. "A political party which gives concrete expression to this aim in its program will therefore be one of the first possible choices for Christians" (785). Conceding that this is rather general, Schillebeeckx insists that this does provide the first orientation for the Christian who must vote. Rarely, however, will Christians find themselves in a situation where one party is exclusively on one side of these values or the other -- though there are historical examples of this -- but in most cases these values will be mixed between the political parties. The aim in this situation is to determine which party gives priority in its program to the poor and disenfranchised.

The author concludes his reflection on the political dimensions of Christian salvation with a sobering discussion of the location of the churches in relationship to politics. He raises the thorny question of the credibility of the churches when in fact many have become integral participants in bourgeois society. He notes that these churches can survive economically only if they seek protection from the institutions of bourgeois society and are specifically dependent on the future of late capitalism. The actual consequence of this intimate relationship is that it prevents these churches from speaking a liberating word at a time of crisis. "In order to be able to present their message, they have to keep quiet about this message," Schillebeeckx notes with irony (789). As painful as it is to admit, most of the churches are in this position and are at a loss as to how to move themselves out of this morass. This problem, in my opinion, is the greatest issue facing those who minister to the middle and upper classes, because it is so difficult to speak words of conversion when the implications are so concrete. The absence of prophetic action among these sections of the church means that conversion is not part of the message preached to those who have, even when so many who have not cry out for economic liberation. The most tragic aspect of this crisis is that many Christians engaged in ministry or service are blind to the fact that they are thoroughly integrated into bourgeois society. The churches, Schillebeeckx believes, must give priority to finding a solution to this crisis; otherwise we are in danger that we will not be agents of Christian salvation.


Schillebeeckx does not understand the Jesus Christ of New Testament history as acting on a well-defined concept of final salvation. Jesus does offer us a life commensurate with the reign of God. "He saw a distant vision of final, perfect, and universal salvation -- the Kingdom of God -- in and through his own fragmentary actions, which were historical and thus limited, going around doing good through healing, liberating from demonic powers, and reconciliation" (791). From this example of Jesus we are assured that doing good in our historical situation is practically anticipating the salvation to come. This anticipatory salvation is incomplete because of our historical limitations, but it does have a permanent validity in relationship to final salvation. All actions for good are placed within the context of final salvation through Jesus Christ.

This final salvation is taking shape in what people on earth are achieving for their sisters and brothers in love. Jesus is the revelation of what is possible with God as we go about doing good. God's creative mercy gives an unexpected character to the future. The risen Jesus is the witness of this creative mercy to Christians.

During his life, Jesus viewed the suffering of others as his task and took it on as a personal responsibility. His death resulted from the fact that his power to do good was in conflict with his opponents who were doing evil. In Jesus' resurrection it becomes evident that he was in fact good and innocent before his death. The claims of his opponents that he was evil are discredited. The author terms the resurrection a "divine corrective of the negativity' in human experiences of suffering and death. Christians now know victory over death, which is the last enemy and source of our powerlessness. Now we are able to understand human experience, especially human suffering, in the context of divine hope which produces "unshakeable freedom and boldness in the face of the power of this world" (800). Christian belief in the resurrection becomes a fundamental protest against the violation of personal freedom. This faith gives a totally new significance to all human history. We cannot speak any longer of individualistic salvation, because no one is whole as long as oppression and misery prevail. As Jesus took on human suffering as his own, so Christians take on the suffering of the world, but with a clear hope from the resurrected Jesus that victory is theirs (801).

Jesus is our "mediated immediacy" in the mystery of salvation. This expression of Schillebeeckx indicates how he views the relationship between the mystical and the political aspects of Christian belief in God. The experience of God involves prayer and liturgy, which enable us to transcend persons and societies who suffer, while we work through political action to change those situations causing the suffering. Christians who enter the area of politics can combine a contemplative attitude with actions for liberation in a way that persons of no faith cannot. Christ's death and resurrection illustrate for Christians that any attempt to liberate people from suffering has a value, even if it is not observable in the material world. "The important thing is loving service" (833). Love that takes the side of another person is an affirmation of the creative love of God. This is the source of power for Christians whose faith is rooted in the experience of Jesus as the Christ.

Schillebeeckx's meditation on the experience of God's grace leads me to conclude that through grace we are capable of coming to a modern understanding of the simultaneous mystical and political dimensions of Christian ministry. All the questions associated with the Christian ministry of liberation are not answered in Schillebeeckx's volume Christ, but we can expect his third volume to continue to probe these questions. In this book he has faced the problem of human suffering directly and has left us with a sense of hope because of our faith in Jesus who is the Christ. Schillebeeckx closes this book with a prayer of praise which captures his spirit in this work:

Rejoice and do not be dismayed,
for God to whom we pray,
is closer than our closest friends
and in our midst today. (840)

  1. Christ: The Experience of Jesus as Lord (New York: Seabury Press, 1980). Page references to this work will be in parentheses in the text.
  2. Jesus: An Experiment in Christology (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), p. 5.
  3. Edward Schillebeeckx, Interim Report on the Books Jesus and Christ (New York: Seabury Press, 1981), p. 105.