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Denise Lardner CarmodyOctober 13, 2003
Who Is Jesus?by By Thomas P. RauschThe Liturgical Press. 208p $23.95

If you are looking for a concise and clear introduction to Christology, look no further. Like the fine teacher he must be (as professor of theological studies and department chair at Loyola Marymount, Los Angeles), Thomas P. Rausch, S.J., uses the work of many scholars to wrestle with the question Who is Jesus? The insights of Edward Schillebeeckx and John P. Meier, Ben Witherington and N. T. Wright, Raymond Brown and Elizabeth Johnson, Brian McDermott and Roger Haight (among others) support, contradict and nuance one another as Rausch weaves their scholarly opinions into a persuasive narrative.

In the book’s Introduction, Rausch efficiently lays out the reasons why Christology must be rooted both in history and faith, Scripture and tradition. Chapter One focuses on what we learn from the three quests for the historical Jesus, measuring the positive legacy of the 200 years of research, while explaining why the historical Jesus is essential to, but not sufficient for, an adequate Christology. In fewer than 20 pages, Rausch clarifies the methodological basis of modern critical scholarship. Seldom have I seen this done with the precision and simplicity he employs.

The next two chapters offer us knowledge of Jesus’ Jewish background and the movement that Jesus created. The messianic hopes, the longings expressed through the Wisdom and apocalyptic traditions, the Essenes’ eschatological fervor, the political aspirations of the Zealots and the clash of Pharisee and Sadducee over belief in the resurrection help set the stage upon which Jesus instructs his followers. Carefully, Rausch opens for us the way Jesus gathered his disciples into a family dedicated, as he was, to hearing and doing the word of God.

Throughout the book, Rausch makes accessible to us a wide range of scholarly sources. He mines mainstream scholarship, while showing awareness of the extremes. He frequently refers to the works of evangelicalsperhaps reflecting his strong and deep ecumenical bias. While bringing the reader knowledge of the latest academic research, Rausch also calls on biblical experts, whose works date from nearly every decade of the 20th century.

Chapter Five, The Preaching and Ministry of Jesus, is an example of how such breadth of scholarship yields rich results. Skillfully, the author exposes three strands of Jesus’ preachinghis sayings, his parables and his use of the image of the kingdom of God. Then, as a grace note, he probes the role of miracles in Jesus’ ministry, saying: The core of the miracle tradition cannot be denied. Jesus healed the sick and performed exorcisms. If the miracles of Jesus do not compel faith, they presuppose it. It is that openness to the transcendent God at the heart of faith that enables the one healed to recognize God working in and through the ministry of Jesus.

For me, the sixth and seventh chapters are the high points of the book. Entitled respectively The Death of Jesus and God Raised Him from the Dead, they invite us to consider these pivotal points of the Christian faith historically, theologically and personally. Why did Jesus die? What did Jesus understand about his death? Did Jesus see his death as salvific? Is the resurrection of Jesus a historical event? What did the early Christians make of Jesus’ death and resurrection? What should we make of them? These are a few of the questions considered.

By now, we have appropriated enough of the historical-critical methodology to appreciate the delicacy with which theologians approach such matters. More important, Rausch has given us the confidence we need to weigh their findings for ourselves. This, I believe, is one of the gifts that good works on Christology offer, as well as one of the most difficult to achieve for a general audience.

The New Testament displays a variety of Christologies: Jesus is Lord, Son of God, pre-existent Wisdom, Suffering Servant, Son of Man, Messiah. The stories of Jesus shared by the early Christian communities and preserved in the New Testament are vivid, reflecting their passionate Easter faith. Still, they are far from univocal in answering the question Who is Jesus? In the following chapter, New Testament Christologies, Rausch sketches the context and likely intentions of those first followers as they pray and live their way to insight about this Jesus of Nazareth.

Stories move our hearts, but they can also stimulate our minds to ask further questions. Chapter Nine, From the New Testament to Chalcedon, traces some of the often-stormy attempts to speak about Jesus in language drawn from Greek philosophy more than from biblical imagery. Is Jesus human? Divine? If both, how? Here the author’s knowledge of classical philosophy stands him (and us) in good stead. He argues that as the different theological schools debated the Christological questions, Christian theology did more than merely use Greek philosophical terms to express Christian beliefs more precisely. Christian theology also transformed the Greek understanding of reality. No longer would the really real be seen as impersonal, for example. While not denying the influence of Hellenistic thought, Rausch writes: Christianity rejected completely the Hellenistic idea of a transcendent divinity able to interact with the world only through intermediaries. Instead, it taught that in the human person of Jesus God was indeed present and active in the world. Thus God’s revelation in Jesus is not just self-revelation, but self-communion; God is both transcendent and immanent.

The final two chapters can be labeled bonusesdividends paid to the reader who has persevered in grappling with the question of Jesus’ identity as seen through the ages. In Sin and Salvation and A Contemporary Approach to Soteriology, Rausch deals with the meaning of (original) sin and the price of salvation. First, he gives us an overview of sin and salvation in Scripture (Genesis, Paul, the Gospels) and tradition (East and Westfrom the fathers to the reformers to Trent). Sufficient for the chapter is the breadth achieved.

If Chapter Ten uncovers the plethora of images and metaphors explaining salvation, it also confirms St. Anselm’s interpretation (that is, Jesus Christ died for our sins, satisfying God’s justice and restoring the order of creation) as the most enduring. Still, Anselm does not have the final word.

Chapter Eleven opens the question that bedevils anyone who considers the implications of Anselm’s theory of satisfaction: What kind of a God demands the crucifixion of his Son as payment for our sins? The reality of sinoriginal and personalis fairly evident to most Christians. Rausch does a good job in parsing sin’s mystery, separating out mythological, historical and metaphysical expressions. The result is an interpretation of original sin that neither denies the disorder that divides the human heart nor renders human nature intrinsically corrupt. The harder problem is: can the truth of salvation through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus be expressed without violating our sense of God’s goodness? A soteriology that Rausch feels is both orthodox and compatible with contemporary sensibilities sees Christ’s life, death and resurrection as embodying and giving to us the love that constitutes the Trinity and enables us to share in the divine life.

One caution: reading Who Is Jesus? will tempt you to read Rausch’s sources, a daunting task. I’m beginning with N. T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God.

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