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Scholastic concepts tend to become almost eternal concepts - Interview with Prof. Edward Schillebeeckx o.p.

Last December, I interviewed Prof. Edward Schillebeeckx o.p., at his home in Nijmegen, in the Netherlands. Prof. Schillebeeckx has been ordinary professor of Systematic Theology and the history of theology at the Catholic University of Nijmegen until 1983. He is known for two early works on St.Thomas' sacramental theology (Sacramentele Heilseconomie 1952, Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter With God 1958) and for a number of books and articles, many of which are translated. Besides all this, he is known for his involvement in the proceedings of the Second Vatican Council. Although he does not consider himself a Thomist, his roots are unmistakably thomistic.
Can you tell me something about your own education and especially how you were introduced to the theology of St. Thomas?

For three years I attended Philosophy courses from Prof. De Petter, who himself was a thomist. During these years, however, we did not actually read texts of Thomas. In the four years of Theology courses during the first years of the war, we did in fact read Thomas, though completely unhistorically. For instance, we only read the Summa Theologiae and never one of his other works. We simply read articles without concerning much about context, and most of the time our interpretation of the Summa was hallmarked by the thought of Cajetan (16th century commentator of St. Thomas, EL). The historical background of the texts we read was never considered. In these years, I protested against this way of reading Aquinas. Later, when I taught Thomas myself at the Dominican Studium Generale in Louvain, I offered a historical reading of Thomas' theology, taking into consideration the patristic sources of St. Thomas, and the 'Magistri' of the 12th Century. In these years I began to realise that the most important decisions in the history of theology were made in the twelfth and not in the thirteenth century.
During the war I had already been in contact with Father Chenu o.p., who taught at the 'Ecoles des Hautes Etudes' in Paris. So I went to Paris to work on a dissertation on faith and culture. I was, however, called back to Louvain in order to teach dogmatic theology. In the following years I did not work on my dissertation. In 1952 I published De sacramentele heilseconomie, which was the result of two courses on the sacraments taught in Louvain. It was only until after it was published that I offered it as possible thesis to Le Saulchoir, where it was accepted.

In his De sacramentele Heilseconomie Schillebeeckx takes into consideration the entire patristic and medieval background of Aquinas sacramental theology. Some 600 pages long, he himself judges it too long for a dissertation. His second book on Aquinas sacramental theology, Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God is of a more moderate size.

This little book on Christ I went all the way to Holy Scripture, via the patristic sources to the texts of Thomas. Thus the texts of Aquinas were read from a completely different perspective. This time I took in consideration both Holy Scripture and patristic sources.

Eventually you stopped writing explicitly thomistic works. Why was that?

On the 26th of January, 1958, I came to Nijmegen, although at first my superiors in Louvain did not want to let me go. The shift came in 1965 in Nijmegen, when I discovered hermeneutics. In a short period of time I read all I could find about hermeneutics. This changed the way I did theology.
Once, someone asked me the question as to what is hermeneutics. I explained him using the words of Thomas: "omnia quae recipiuntur recepta sunt secundum modum recipientis" (all that is received is received according to the mode of the one who receives, EL).
Even after this turning point Thomas kept playing an important role in my work, from now on, however, more as a kind of touchstone; someone you cannot ignore, and who keeps you from making stupid mistakes. I find that every theologian should know one great theologian from the past through and through. This may be St. Thomas, but can also be Athanasius, Augustine or another great theologian.

What do you think of the Thomas Instituut?

I find the Thomas Instituut splendid! In a quite short time the Institute produced nine excellent publications and activated also in other Universities in the Netherlands a critical, historical and systematic study of Aquinas themes that are pertinent nowadays and cannot be neglected in our contemporary theology, which is more open also to critically analysed modern and postmodern human experiences.
But at the same time Thomas may not have the last word: the slogan Magister dixit is not compatible with open and free research, even when it is done for the sake of the Church. In general, the post-thomistic scholastic theology is not enough related to human experiences. Therefore their concepts tend to become almost eternal concepts.
What Thomas says should be reflected upon against the background of its historial context, and with careful attention to what has happened in the Church and its theology until our day. Much has happened in 700 years in our world, its societal structures and the mentality of humankind. Above all, biblical exegesis has assumed critical-historical, scientific and varied range of literary methods, that in various way have changed the biblical interpretation of Sacra Pagina, which was fundamental for Thomas theology and even, to a certain extent, identified with sacra doctrina.

What did you learn from St. Thomas?

The most important thing I learned from St. Thomas is the fact that this world has its own order or regularity. It is ruled by its own laws. "Gratia supponit naturam, gratia elevat naturam." According to St. Thomas creation is fundamentally good, and its goodness can not be extinct by sin. Sin is younger than the goodness of creation. This insight opens our eyes for the autonomy of the creature. Even in reconciliation and in salvation the autonomy of man plays its proper role. The fact that this world is ruled by its own laws applies for ethics as well. Aquinas teaches a dignified human existence secundum rationem. To achieve this, he constantly re-thinks Aristotle in a Christian way. Doing this, St. Thomas proves himself to have a great hermeneutic consciousness.
I would not turn to St. Thomas for dealing with the problem of God. For that, the age in which Aquinas lived and worked differs too much from our times. For instance, there is a huge difference between post-modern negative theology and the negative theology St. Thomas uses. Post-modern negative theology is idolatry of the darkness. Keeping silent itself is made an idol. St. Thomass silence is different. Only when knowing a great deal about God, all images can be shattered. Aquinas negative theology is based upon a positive conception of God; a conception of God, however, that cannot be (fully) grasped in concepts.

Can you tell us something about your current project, your book on sacraments?

In this book on sacraments, I take the same point of departure as Martien Brinkman in his Schepping en Sacrament, namely Creation. It wil not be a conventional book about the seven sacraments. For instance, I begin with the liturgy of Sunday. I plan to end each chapter with a homily I once gave.
The main point I wish to make is that sacraments are metaphorical actions. A lot has been written on metaphors understood cognitively, but little has been done on metaphorical actions. At this moment, I have done all the research and the writing. I have about 600 pages, that need to be edited and reduced to about 300 or 400 pages.

Eric Luijten