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Kirchengeschichte: Allgemeines


Bedouelle, Guy


Die Geschichte der Kirche. Aus dem Französischen übers. von A. Hildebrandt.


Paderborn: Bonifatius 2000. 316 S., 16 Tafeln. 8 = AMATECA. Lehrbücher zur katholischen Theologie, 14. Pp. DM 68,-. ISBN 3-87088-878-4.


David J. Diephouse

This is one in a series of handbooks covering all facets of Roman Catholic theology (AMATECA = Associazione Manuali di Teologia Cattolica). Guy Bedouelle is a noted Dominican scholar in the Catholic theological faculty at Fribourg (Switzerland) and one of the editors of the series. He has set himself a formidable challenge: to provide, in less than 300 pages, an accessible and reasonably comprehensive guide to twenty centuries of church history. The church in question is the church of Rome, though B. devotes two chapters to concise discussions of Orthodoxy and Protestantism. Deploying a concept adapted from Arnold Toynbee's well-known study of civilization, B. organizes his account around eleven successive sets of internal and/or external challenges, the responses to which, he suggests, illuminate the trajectory of the church's historical development. The sequence begins and ends with variants of what Bedouelle terms the "challenge of universality", first confronted in the era of the Roman Empire and the ecumenical councils and posed in new forms by the globalization and cultural pluralism of the late twentieth century. Between these two chronological poles B. explores challenges to the church's mission and identity associated with, inter alia, the medieval feudal order, the emergence of secular thought, the main currents of early modern culture and polity - Renaissance, Reformation(s), absolutism, Enlightenment- and the various revolutions and ideologies of more recent times. The book opens with chapters on the Christian conception of time and the nature of church history as a discipline, and it concludes with the author's reflections on the theological meaning of church history. Appended to each chapter is a short list of recommended secondary works, primarily by Continental scholars, and important published sources. A selection of color plates provides images from art and architecture that reflect central themes in the text. The index contains the names of well over 1000 persons, though its usefulness as a reference tool might have been enhanced by the inclusion of subject entries and place names. B. writes with a clarity and grace that is ably reflected in Afra Hildebrandt's translation.

By its nature this is a work of synthesis, and specialists should have little difficulty identifying - and perhaps occasionally quarrelling with - specific traditions of interpretation on which B. draws. It is also an intentionally personal synthesis; B. himself describes it as both handbook and essay. The book touches only briefly on some issues, such as the construction of the canon, that presumably receive more extensive treatment in other volumes of the series. B.s declared perspective is primarily (though not exclusively) Eurocentric and, of course, Roman Catholic. His survey of Eastern Christianity accordingly pays special attention to the Uniate churches, and while his review of Protestantism includes a fine sketch of the twentieth century ecumenical movement, he shows less interest in such global phenomena as Pentecostalism than their size and influence might otherwise warrant.

More broadly, the substance of B.s historical survey could be seen as an argument by example for his understanding of church history as a discipline. On the sometimes vexed question of whether church history should properly be considered a preserve of theology or of history, a question raised perhaps most insistently among practitioners of recent church history, he predictably argues for the claims of a theological standpoint. He insists as well, however, on the need for unfettered research and critical analysis - tout comprendre, ce n'est pas tout pardonner- and endorses a (suitably cautious) use of methods and findings from the newer social and cultural history, e. g. the history of mentalities. For church historians, he suggests, theological and historical dimensions of the discipline will always be complementary - "getrennt, was das Vorgehen und die Methode betrifft, aber zusammengefügt im Verständnis" (13). The challenge is to perceive and make due allowance for a "coefficient of transcendence" (Paul VI) without falling prey to simplistic providentialism.

B.s own approach draws on a long and varied tradition of theological reflection. It is more Christocentric than trinitarian, appealing to the Incarnation as the source from which both historical and theological understanding must ultimately flow. God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ belongs to, but is not exhausted by, historical time; the plan of salvation finds fulfillment in but not exclusively through history. Church history is not in itself a direct mediator or carrier of salvation, but rather "lediglich der bevorzugte Ort, an dem sich das Heilsgeheimnis abspielt" (23, quoting Irénée Dalmais). By positing grace as the vital leaven of history, it also bears witness to the inherent tension between flesh and spirit in human experience, and hence to the larger eschatological framework toward which church history necessarily points and within which church history, in all its senses, is necessarily situated.

This implicitly sacramentalist conception of church history expresses itself in the general tone of B.s work as much as in specific details of interpretation, though it can be readily detected in the dialectic of challenge and renewal that permeates his entire account. It is tempting for a non-Catholic reader to suggest that B.s "essay" would be even richer had he chosen to test his theological perspective by integrating other expressions of Christianity more fully into that account; to some extent the book's title arguably raises as many questions as it answers. But this, of course, would be to tax the author for failing to produce a book he never intended to write. Within his chosen limits he has provided a valuable and often winsome introduction to the shape of the Christian tradition as seen through the history of its largest and most prominent institution.