Our interests and Christ : the Christian existentialism of Helmut Rex
Clark, David Scott
This thesis assesses both the historical and ongoing contribution to theology in New Zealand of Helmut Rex. Born in 1913 and educated in Berlin, Rex joined the Confessing Church as a trainee pastor and soon came into conflict with the Nazis. After arriving in New Zealand as a refugee he taught courses in biblical languages, church history, literature and hermeneutics. Rex initially taught at Knox Theological College and later at the nearby University of Otago. In 1948 Rex secured an M.A. in philosophy at the University of Otago and in 1954 completed a doctorate in Pauline eschatology and ethics at Tubingen. His competence as a scholar and teacher was recognised with the establishment in 1953 of a professorial chair in church history for his benefit. Although plagued by ill-health, Rex lectured until he took early retirement in 1963. This study focuses predominantly on Rex's public lectures and publications and consequently leaves the majority of Rex's work in the field of biblical studies untouched. Five key characteristics, or leitmotifs, are uncovered in Rex's work. First, Rex places an emphasis on the need for ongoing reformation of the Christian faith. Second, he is concerned to be clear about just what we are actually able to assert about 'God and man'. Rex does this in order to move from a sure-footing towards those matters about which we would like to know. These are the subject of the third leitmotif in Rex's thought - 'matters of ultimate concern'. Fourth, Rex draws from a wide range of academic disciplines in order to construct a theology for 'modern man'. This approach has been called 'bricolage'. Finally, Rex's incisive analysis and quirky narrative style are seen to generate empathy in an audience in a manner that jars with his unexpected conclusions. This fifth characteristic, labelled 'cognitive dissonance', effects in an audience a re-appraisal of previously held convictions. Towards the end of Rex's teaching career he asserted that the theologian should have dual foci - 'Christ and our interests'. It is observed in this thesis that the Christian scriptures inform Rex's understanding of the 'Christ', and existentialist philosophy his understanding of 'our interests'. It is argued that the approach might better be labelled 'our interests and Christ' because existentialist anthropology is both its starting and its strong point. Investigation into Rex's papers reveals the benefit 'an sich' of study into the history of ideas. As Rex suggests, we study history primarily in order to understand ourselves. Rex's theology in particular is a record of an attempt to come to terms with the Christian faith in a secular environment. Rex was unusually sensitive to the ebb and flow of historical tides. Despite living in a period of unparalleled Church growth Rex maintained that the church was becoming less and less relevant. He was convinced that the Church needed to reform itself drastically. Rex was also responsive to new philosophical and theological movements. He was influential in the spread of existentialist ideas and gave early and considered assessment of the 'death of God' theologians. Although his concrete contributions were largely 'of their time', Rex's grapplings with new philosophical and theological trends in a time of increasing religious uncertainty offer direction for those wishing to express theological truth in today's environment. Towards the end of his teaching career Rex wrote papers addressing particular societal issues. His papers on race relations, homosexuality and alcoholism are illustrative of the way in which a sound theological framework coupled with a keen and sympathetic ear can shed new light on existing issues. Rex's most important impact was on his students and those who assembled to hear his public addresses. His embodiment of dedication to learning and earnest pursuit of the truth generated an impression few who encountered him would forget. Using a term coined by one of Rex's former pupils, this impact, as it is explored in this thesis, has been labelled 'the scandal of particularity'.
Advisor: McCormick, Gregory
Degree Name: Doctor of Philosophy
Degree Discipline: Theology and Religious Studies
Publisher: University of Otago
Research Type: Thesis