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Between Apocalypse and Eschaton: History and Eternity in Henri de Lubac (Joseph S. Flipper)

Flipper book

[Joseph S. Flipper previews his new book, Between Apocalypse and Eschaton: History and Eternity in Henri de Lubac (Fortress, 2015)] 

As a PhD student just starting my dissertation research I happened to meet the department chair of the theology department at a major Catholic university (my interlocutor and his university will remain anonymous). When he asked about my dissertation, I told him that I was researching Henri de Lubac. In a condescending voice he replied, “I didn’t realize anyone was still studying him.” I sheepishly responded, “Well, yes. Yes they are.”

At almost twenty-five years after his death, Henri de Lubac, SJ (1896-1991) remains a figure at the center of a debate over Catholic identity. A member of the Jesuit order, de Lubac taught philosophical and historical theology in Lyon, France. In the 1940s, he formed part of the spiritual resistance to Nazism, and was hunted by the French Vichy government. During this time, he produced a major volume on humanist atheism. By the 1950s he was considered a radical—in part due to a work entitled Surnaturel (The Supernatural)—and he was banned from teaching for several years. He was a theological advisor at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and had a hand in the development of key documents on revelation (Dei Verbum) and on the church (Gaudium et Spes). The interpretation of the Council and its reception are still highly contested since they signal the core identity of Catholicism today. De Lubac’s theological writings remain critical to understanding the relationship between the church and the world.

De Lubac still draws controversy. Recently, Catholic theologians of the Thomistic tradition—Matthew Bernard Mulcahy, OP, Lawrence Feingold, and Christopher Malloy—have produced significant critiques of de Lubac’s theology of grace. Moreover, de Lubac’s writings have become important beyond the borders of Roman Catholicism. John Milbank depends on de Lubac to articulate a Christian ontology. Hans Boersma has engaged de Lubac to recover a sacramental Christian vision. Bryan Hollon produced a valuable book on the political implications of de Lubac’s theological vision.

The difficulty with de Lubac, which is also one of his virtues, is that he is not easy. He lacks clear methodology. His writings are not limited to a particular subject or theme (he wrote books on patristic theology, revelation, ecclesiology, biblical exegesis, humanist atheism, Teilhard de Chardin, Charles Péguy, Joachim of Fiore, and Origen of Alexandria). His theological vision is organic, but it lacks systematic development. My new book, Between Apocalypse and Eschaton: History and Eternity in Henri de Lubac, responds to a need to articulate the coherence and unity of de Lubac’s work. I argue that his theological project is driven by a vision of history and its ultimate consummation in eternity, a vision that drove his idiosyncratic research and his political interventions.

One of the key problems that I address is a tendency to interpret de Lubac’s theology as the expression of an ontology indebted to Neoplatonism. De Lubac was inspired by the early church fathers and distanced himself from Neoscholasticism, the form of theology dominant in Catholic seminaries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His book, Surnaturel (1946), criticized a Scholastic theory of “pure nature,” that is, a theory of the completeness and autonomy of the created order apart from divine grace. Many interpreters of de Lubac see in Sunaturel a confusion of the divine and human orders, and even see it as his philosophical foundation. One of my goals has been to undermine this basic premise that de Lubac embraced Platonism and that he failed to distinguish between nature and grace.

For this, I turn to the Bible as the core of de Lubac’s theological reflection, particularly the interpretation of the Bible generated in the early Church. Spiritual interpretation of scripture, according to de Lubac, contained a theological interpretation of history. It contained a view of the world, the relationship between events in history, and their relationship to a final consummation. I argue that the spiritual interpretation of scripture, especially that of Origen, forms the basis for de Lubac’s understanding of the historical economy of salvation. For the early church, God’s intervention into history makes history fecund, “bestows on it a ‘religious consecration’” (Henri de Lubac, “On an Old Distich”), and gives it an “ontological density” (Henri de Lubac, Catholicism). De Lubac’s reflections on the historical economy of salvation suggest that the core of the Christian reflection in the early church was profoundly anti-Platonist because it provided human historical existence with a dignity and meaning Platonism never could. In de Lubac’s reflections on the exegesis of scripture, the major structure of his thinking is revealed and the various facets of his sacramental thinking, mysticism, and understanding of the supernatural are expressed.

De Lubac was a theologian struggling for a new vocabulary. He recognized the limitations of the Neoscholastic tradition in which he was formed, but never fully developed alternative categories of thinking to replace it or correct it. Indeed, this remains the situation of Catholic theology today. The hole left by the decline of Neoscholasticism has never been entirely filled. De Lubac was at the center of a movement that attempted to bridge the philosophical thinking of Neoscholasticism with the historical categories formed in the early centuries of the church. La Nouvelle théologie movement was precisely an attempt to renew theology and address the needs of modern Christians by recoverying a broader theological tradition, one in which existential and historical thinking had greater amplitude.

De Lubac’s recovery of a theology of history was not unique to him. Gaston Fessard, Jean Daniélou, Joseph Huby, and Henri-Marie Féret all sought all sought to respond to the dangers of their time through a reading of the biblical text. This reading—especially of the book of Revelation—received intense focus during and following World War II. They asked, “How does the sacred history of persecution and triumph relate to our own historical experience of German occupation and liberation?” This question concerns the relationship between the sacred history and our own time, and the relationship between our own time and the consummation of all things. It is the essential question. And how we respond affects everything else.

De Lubac does not provide concrete responses to the contemporary crises of global poverty, to the plight of sixty-million refugees, or to environmental degradation, arguably the most pressing issue of our age. He does, however, provide an approach to human historical existence that helps us to recognize its intimate place in the divine economy. His compelling vision of human history and its consummation, which I outline in Between Apocalypse and Eschaton, is the reason de Lubac remains relevant to an increasingly ecumenical audience.


Joseph S. Flipper is assistant professor of theology at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky.

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