Jesus of History and Christ of Faith

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Inspired by the Enlightenment, Hermann Samuel Reimarus (d. 1768) a professor of Oriental languages at the university of Hamburg, had written a critical study of the New Testament, which came to be known as the “Wolfenbuttel Fragments” (He took the pseudonym Wolfenbuttel). In this work he presented the separation of the historical Jesus and the Christ of the Church. Jesus was a moral teacher not given to mysterious matters of faith. He was completely this-worldly in his intentions, preaching a kingdom of God that was political, public and historical. Because the kingdom failed to materialize, the apostles, to save matters, developed the doctrine of a spiritual kingdom that was not of this world. This work was to motivate and stir up many German theologians at the time.

Influenced by Hegel’s idealistic philosophy, David Friedrich Strauss published an extensive life of Jesus.[1] Strauss introduced a split between Jesus as we know him through public verifiable means (arriving at the “historical core”), and Christ as the product of human reason or cultural ideals or interior faith-conviction. Jesus as known by history was true but not meaningful, while the Christ-myth was profoundly meaningful through rationally, not historically, grounded.

Friedrich Schleiermacher sought to root Christian faith in human consciousness. Unlike Strauss, however, he did not root it in human reason a an idealising faculty, but in human consciousness in its immediate awareness of absolute dependence. Jesus is known as the Christ through Christian’s recognition of the effect of Christ on conscious life.[2]

For Albert Schweitzer, Jesus was a thoroughly alien figure of two thousand years ago who preached an impending final cataclysm – the eschatological woes – through which God’s reign would be inaugurated. Jesus taught at best an interim ethic for the brief period preceding the end of the age, but he was in no way a liberal, moralizing teacher who would fit comfortably into the nineteenth-century scheme of things. The reign of God would come about by God’s powerful act and not the cumulative efforts of well-meaning human beings.[3]

In 1892, Martin Kahler published The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ.[4] He distinguished between historisch (historical) and geschichtlich (historic) and sought to rescue Christ from the toils of empirical, historical research and restore him to the preaching of the Church where alone, he believed, the authentic, historic, Christ could be encountered in a saving way. The historicity (Geschichtlichkeit) of Christ consisted in his availability for encounter in faith, and the reconstruction of a Jesus of history did not create a personal presence who could do anyone any good, certainly not for everlasting life.

Johannes Weiss (d. 1914) argued that eschatology (i.e., awareness of, and concern about, the end of history) pervades the New Testament writings and that this eschatology is completely futuristic or “consisitent”, a proposal which had the effect for him and many of his contemporaries of making those writings very alien documents, and certainly contributed to the demise of liberal Protestant theology.[5]

Wihlelm Wrede (d. 1906) proposed the famous “messianic secret” as a way of understanding Mark and the other Gospels. Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah and his disciples did not think he was such during the earthly ministry. In order to balance this with the early Church’s faith in Jesus as the Messiah, Mark and the other evangelists, portrayed Jesus as regularly commanding his disciples to silence about his true identity during his earthly ministry.[6]

In his great work Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth refused to base faith on human reason or human experiences.[7] Faith alone is saving, and faith is the work of Jesus Christ in the Spirit in the hearts of those to be justified, i.e., those who will share in Christ’s righteousness. Barth’s work represents a profoundly Christocentric theology.

Rudolf Bultman, a major 20th century historian of early Christianity, made us of the early philosophical writings of Martin Heidegger to develop an existentialist understanding of Christian faith.[8] For him, the preached Christ of the cross is to be distinguished from the historical Jesus, since the former alone is the one who is full of saving power for those who are obedient in faith to him. He considered the historical Jesus to be part of Jewish history. For him the historical Jesus research was not theologically relevant. Bultmann urged a full-scale program of demythologisation of the good news, so that the true scandal of the preached Cross would not be obscured by the preaching of an outmoded conception of the world of the 1st century after Christ. Both Barth and Bultmann, even though they disagree on a lot of issues, agree that seeking to base faith on historical research is only an effort to save oneself by one’s own means rather than seeking salvation through faith in the grace of God’s Word alone: sole fide, sola gratia, solus Christus (by faith alone and grace alone and Christ alone saves us).

In 1953 Ernst Kasemann, a former student of Bultmann, argued against Bultmann that the historical Jesus was indeed significant, and that too on several counts. First, the Kerygma (faith proclamation of the New Testament) contains internal reference to the pre-Easter Jesus as the one who stands at the centre of the once-and-for-all eschatological event of salvation, and thus historical research into that figure is required by the nature of the Kerygma itself. Second, a principal way which the Church can protect itself against the recurrent temptation to Docetism (i.e., the view that Christ only “seemed” to be human) is to anchor its preaching in the life and ministry of the pre-Easter Jesus insofar as he is recoverable by historical-critical means. Third, by not exploring what we can indeed know about the Jesus of then, we allow Christ to become a kind of blank screen onto which Christians and others can project their own desires and attitudes and values, without any “objective” challenge from that figure of the past who was not even kind of person with every kind of intention but rather a single individual who did and said specific things with specific intentions within a particular and unrepeated historical era.

Kasemann’s views enabled a whole effort at reclaiming the historical Jesus research for theology. It was seen that research cannot have the function of legitimating the Kerygma of the Church’s faith, but that it can protect the Church’s proclamation from distortion. Moreover, the inclusion of historical data in the theological study of Jesus Christ bears witness in its own way to the particularity of Christ and Christianity and to the fact, all-important for Christian faith, that God’s salvation has come and does come to history through history.

Hans-Georg Gadamer made an important contribution to the debate in showing the connection between historical research and hermeneutics (theory of interpretation). For him, interpretation involves a critically conscious melding of the horizons of text and interpreter.[9] For Paul Ricoeur, the main concern of the interpreter is not to discover the intention of the author hidden behind the text. Rather, the interpreter needs to become sensitively attuned to the world opened up in front of the text as a set of patterns of being-in-the-world which he or she is invited critically and compassionately to experiment with. Interpretation is like a conversation that involves give-and-take between text and interpreter, each contribution of a partner affecting both the other partner and the conversation as such.

Edward Schillebeeckx in his important work Jesus: An Experiment in Christology makes historical research an integral part of the Christological task, and does so with impressive detail. Historical study cannot prove the truth of the faith; on this point he is very clear. But he stresses the claim of the pre-Easter Jesus, his manner of life and ministry, as that to which the disciples return in memory, after Jesus’ death, under the impulse of grace and the experience of forgiveness. There is the strongest desire on this theologian’s part to rob nothing from the historical Jesus in favour of a revelatory event after his life and ministry which would allegedly supply what was hitherto missing, namely, revelation and its convincing power.

Wolfhart Pannenberg is a protestant theologian who has given history a privileged role in his Christology. Not only does he[10] incorporate the results of historical criticism into his portrayal of Christ, particularly with regard to Jesus’ claims and implicit self-understanding, but he develops a philosophy of history and hermeneutics that sees historians as anticipating an all-inclusive totality within which the details make sense. Pannenberg maintains that the end of history and its anticipated totality have occurred as an event that is both within history and beyond, therefore embracing history. This event was the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, an event which occurred within the apocalyptic horizon of understanding and which was the pre-happening of the end of history in a way that was already-and-not-yet.

[1] D.F. Strauss, The Christ of Faith and the Jesus of History: A Critique of Schleiermacher’s Life of Jesus, ed. L. Keck (Philadelphia, 1977).

[2] F. Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, ed. H.R. Macintosh and J.S. Stewart (New York, 1963).

[3] A. Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical: A Critical Study of its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede, trans. W. Montgomery (New York, 1964).

[4] M. Kahler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ, trans. C. Braatan (Philadelphia, 1964).

[5] J. Weiss, Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God, ed. R.H. Hiers and D.L. Holland (Philadelphia, 1971).

[6] W. Wrede, The Messianic Secret, trans. J. Greig (Cambridge, 1971).

[7] K. Barth, Church Dogmatics vol. I: The Doctrine of the Word of God, Part 2, ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance (Edinburgh, 1975), 187-227.

[8] R. Bultmann, Existence and Faith: Shorter Writings of Rudolf Bultmann, ed. S. Ogden (Cleveland, 1968).

[9] H.-G. Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. And G. Barden and J. Cumming (New York, 1986), 267-274.

[10] W. Pannenberg, “The Revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth,” Theology as History, ed. J. Robinson and J. Cobb (New York, 1967).

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