De Lubac: Why Wasn’t Jesus Earlier?

When we’re talking about the practicalities of salvation, there are usually some common objections or questions that come up. For instance, people often ask – well, why didn’t Jesus appear earlier? And why pop up in some obscure little backwater Roman province? The implication is that people aren’t getting a fair shake if they don’t even have a chance to hear about Jesus – it just seems like a bit of a bad plan on God’s part. The responses to this usually come in two flavours. First, you get the idea of the implicit Christian – the group of people who might not have heard of Christianity or Judaism, but who are still in some meaningful sense oriented towards the infinite divine. They get a free pass into heaven, according to this theory. The second type of answer is a little more complicated, drawing on – almost an argument about human evolution. In his book Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, Cardinal Henri de Lubac argues that the world had to wait as long as it did because people just weren’t ready to hear or understand what Jesus meant. In Chapter VIII, he quotes Irenaeus: “God will bring [the human] gradually to perfection, like a mother who at first gives suck to her newborn child, and then as he grows bigger gives him the food that he needs.” He also suggests that “God bestows on each period what is suitable for it.”

And I think there’s a certain amount of intuitive sense in that idea. We see certain principles accepted over time, moving closer to the core of a culture in waves. Principles of equality, of human dignity – you know, you can point to women’s rights activists a couple hundred years back who held beliefs that are mainstream today, but it has legitimately taken two hundred years for the rest of the culture to get on board. There is this sense of cultural development – it’s slow, it’s intergenerational, but we grow and change. We can have conversations today at a level that wouldn’t be possible two hundred years ago, because there wouldn’t be enough common cultural ground. From there, I think we can understand the theory that Judaism needed to kick around for a bit before Jesus could enter the picture and communicate his identity in a meaningful way. You might agree, you might disagree – I don’t know that I’m convinced by it – but you can understand how someone comes to that conclusion.

I guess I’m inclined to be a little generous towards this idea, just because it appreciates the role of culture in shaping our ideas. I’m used to reading about fuckwit Protestants who put the Bible on this insane pedestal – you know there are people who try to follow a Biblical diet? That is, they only eat what people ate in the Bible – because it’s the Bible, and therefore every aspect of its context and cultural milieu should serve as the blueprint for our lives. It’s just silly. De Lubac’s approach emphasises that different times have different cultures and contexts, and that those different contexts influence the types of conversations and ideas that we’re open to. Plus, it resolves a bunch of other fun little details. Why does God seem so angry in the Old Testament? That’s just where those guys were up to. That was the information appropriate to their time and context – it was part of bringing them towards a higher, more perfect form. From that perspective, the Old Testament in general can be considered a work in progress, rather than the finished product. The same principles can be applied to any aspect of the Old Testament you want to overwrite – the slavery, for instance, or all the sacrifices, or the laws against homosexuality. “Like a good doctor he [God] adjusts his medicines to the patient’s condition, and his treatment is given in wisely ordered stages.”

That’s not to say that the Bible’s suddenly flawed or fallible – it rather becomes a more historical text, embedded in its time and requiring translation or recontextualising. The Old Testament is God’s Word to the Israelites at that time. It’s infallible in the sense that it was infallibly the best way for that community to understand God’s character. According to this argument, the purpose of the Scripture today is not for us to pick it up and apply it in a straightforward way to our lives, but to work through the historical context, to understand the cultural gap between ourselves and the people to whom the text was written, and then to try and see through that cultural translation towards the transcendent divine.

And there are some tensions that rise out of this approach. If the Old Testament needs to be translated, are we still preserving the continuity of the faith? Where do we look for an authoritative framework on the appropriate way to translate? Gay-affirming Christians will say that we need to move past the homophobic laws in the Old Testament, that they’re limited to that time – whereas homophobic Christians see those parts as eternal. At its core, that’s an issue about translation, about how we transfer the vision of God from their context into ours without doing damage to the true identity of the divine. How do we decide who wins that argument? Is it just down to public opinion? Political maneuvering? For Catholics, that’s an easy question – they can rely on the role of tradition, which we’ll get into next week – but in short, the idea is that the church has the authority to interpret God’s Word meaningfully in the present day. For Protestants, the road’s a little harder. Martin Luther wrote that Scripture is clear: he insisted that it was all incredibly plain and simple. The Catholic idea feels more true to how culture actually works – we do lose clarity on things over time. Our perspectives shift away from the people who came before us and their worldview becomes increasingly unfamiliar. De Lubac just notes that the cultures that produced the Bible weren’t exempt from that process either.

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