Gerhard LOHFINK. No Irrelevant Jesus: On Jesus and the Church Today. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014. pp. 330. $34.95 hc. ISBN 978-0-8146-8264-7. Reviewed by Jason BERMENDER, Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI 53233
Gerhard Lohfink’s work, No Irrelevant Jesus, seeks to make Jesus and His Church relevant in the contemporary culture that reduces Jesus and Christianity to one religion that is equal to all others. The book is a collection of essays from oral presentations that Lohfink made during the past several years that he later realized centered around the theme of making Jesus and/or His Church relevant today. For this reason, there are sparse endnotes and no bibliography but this does not mean the book is not well researched. To the contrary, his work exhibits a mastery over the material that he has sought to understand throughout his life and it shares many theological themes found in his other work Jesus of Nazareth.
The first eight chapters address Jesus’s relevancy in the world today and one of the important themes in the book is Christ’s teaching that the reign of God comes now. Lohfink challenges Herbert Braun’s interpretation that such teachings did not intend to convey information about the end of time but rather hold people to accountability so they are not left outside of the kingdom. Such interpretations are shown by Lohfink to be a diminishment of Jesus’s message that makes Him irrelevant today because they make the imminent expectation of the end ahistorical. He argues that although God’s reign is not fully realized, this does not to nullify Jesus’s teaching but both aspects should be held in tandem because God’s salvation is offered to us today and not in a distant future (16).
Lohfink does not demarcate the chapters of his book into groups but chapters ten through eighteen appear to me to discuss the interior nature of the Church that includes the sacramental life. After demonstrating that apostolic tradition and the ministerial offices have their foundation in the biblical texts, Lohfink provides an essay about what makes the Church new in the modern era and says that it does not come from the Church accommodating itself to society. Rather, her newness comes from her memory of the past, especially the paschal mystery, that is made present and from God acting in His people today. Lohfink says that a true miracle illustrating God’s action today is the community of the people of God who are united in faith (158). This is another important theme for Lohfink that also permeates the book because the Church, as the eschatological Israel, is the actualization of the reign of God today. Each of the local churches provides a network of love that visibly attracts others to join God’s people (72).
Chapters nineteen through twenty-five seem to focus more on external elements of the Church such as fasting and its place among other religions in the world. Lohfink engages the contemporary notion that all religions are of equal validity by answering the question of what distinguishes the Judaeo-Christian religion from others. He comes up with three arguments to show the uniqueness of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. The first is that Christianity does not divinize the world like other religions and this de-divinization allows for the development of culture and the natural sciences. The second distinction is that Christianity preaches that we cannot save ourselves but depend on God for redemption. The third difference is that Christianity believes redemption enters into history culminating in Jesus Christ so that salvation is present to us now (259). This salvation forms and is found in the living communities of God’s grace where the reign of God is being realized (260).
Lohfink speaks of Jesus gathering peoples together by abolishing their unhealthy boundaries and reconciling them together into a community that practices a fraternal love which attracts others into the community (111-13, 72). While I agree with this general principle, it is also true that in practice there can be unfortunate discord within the community as exemplified in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Lohfink’s emphasis that God’s reign is now being lived out in the eschatological Israel hinders an understanding that even in the Church God’s reign is not fully actualized. He does acknowledge that members of the Church have made mistakes but does not speak of the “not yet” aspect of the Church in detail so that the reader may have an idealized understanding of the Church. Despite what I perceive to be a neglect of one aspect of the reign of God within the Church, Lohfink’s work succeeds in making Jesus relevant to society today especially since he engages current modes of thought, such as syncretism and self-redemption, that are prevalent today and shows the superiority of the initiation of the reign of God by Jesus Christ to contemporary non-Christian notions of religion.