Friday, November 28, 2008

On Christology

This Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, and Thanksgiving has passed, so I suppose we're just about at the beginning of the Christmas season - whether your definition is religious or commercial. In that spirit, I'll share some writing I've done on a subject relevant to the season: the historical understanding of Christ. The following is a mixture of excerpts from a focused, somewhat technical discussion of Christology, which I've abridged, edited, and mixed in with some clarifying passages for simplicity's (and readability's) sake. 

As Christmas approaches and Christians celebrate the historical event of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the concern is naturally with the historical aspects of Christ's life - and so perhaps history is worth considering in more detail. 

The events of Jesus’ life were not recorded in great detail by 1st-century historians; they were recorded in evangelical testaments by early believers. Some prominent Christian thinkers, observing this dearth of historical evidence, have concluded that history is unnecessary to understand Christ.  

One of the most prominent proponents of this approach was Martin Kähler, who developed a searing criticism of the historical approach to Christology in The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ. Kähler’s attack on the historical approach is both academic and theological. First, he argues that the existing historical record of Christ’s actions is scant, and its validity falls well below the standards of any professional historian. More important, though, is his theological assertion about the validity of history as such in understanding Christ. The Bible, Kähler says, eludes normal historical understanding, and any attempt to read it as history will be futile: 

The Life-of-Jesus movement is completely in the right insofar as it sets the Bible against an abstract dogmatism. It becomes illegitimate as soon as it begins to rend and dissect the Bible without having acquired a clear understanding of the special nature of the problem and the peculiar significance of Scripture for such understanding.[1]

The problem, Kähler says, lies primarily within the interpretation of historical facts by believers who want to verify the events of the Bible through history. By following Jesus’ every step and action, the believer “is most certainly heading up a blind alley” in which the only possible outcome is a portrait based on conjecture and personal bias.[2] What was meant as an empirical, objective approach becomes pseudohistorical and highly subjective. The "secondary effects" approach advocated by Kähler claims that the Jesus of personal faith experience is the historical Jesus. 

The real Christ, that is, the Christ who has exercised an influence in history, with whom millions have communed in childlike faith, and with whom the great witnesses of faith have been in communion – while striving, apprehending, triumphing, and proclaiming – this real Christ is the Christ who is preached. The Christ who is preached, however, is precisely the Christ of faith. He is the Jesus whom the eyes of faith behold at every step he takes and through every syllable he utters – the Jesus whose image we impress upon our minds because we both would and do commune with him, our risen, living Lord.[3] 

This is not a criticism to be dismissed lightly - it undermines the very basis of the historical approach as both academically illegitimate and spiritually suspect. It says that anyone who tries to construct an "objective" Jesus will end up constructing a subjective Jesus. This casts doubt on our ability to use history at all.  

But it has not escaped criticism, and rightly so: Kähler’s error, at its most basic level, was his confusion over the role of the historical approach. It cannot replace faith, but it must groundfaith. The Christian encounter with God through prayer, religious joy, love, or any other medium is not self-proving; it reveals nothing about its foundations and whether those foundations were at one point historical realities. Because Christianity is fundamentally concerned with the actual incarnation of God in human form at a particular time and place in the world, it cannot dismiss the real dilemma presented by the notion that such an event never took place. Wolfhart Pannenberg recognized the approach's limitations and concluded: 

“Christology is concerned, therefore, not only with unfolding the Christian community’s confession of Christ, but above all with grounding it in the activity and fate of Jesus in the past. The confession of Christ cannot be pre-supposed already and simply interpreted.”[4]

Christ's call is a life-changing and radical call to total spiritual and existential renewal. It is only natural that humanity, when encountered with such a call, should be interested in knowing whether the quest is based on anything more than suspect historical claims and possibly delusional experiences. A perfect portrait of Jesus, his life, his deeds, and his meaning will probably never be constructed from historical study, but Christians would abandon a significant path to knowledge of Christ by rejecting entirely the study of his history. 

Though there are risks involved in any historical study of Christ, there are greater risks involved in removing Christ from history altogether. The disassociation of Christ from objective historical context has been proven effective for some very ugly historical movements.  

No approach, of course, is perfect. And the essence of Kähler's point is correct: even if one could prove, beyond any doubt, the historical facts of Christ's life, what would it mean? How could it bring anyone to faith? The one thing we know about faith is that it is a deeply personal, almost ineffable inner transformation. It simply does not speak the language of rationality or simple causality - and it could never be inspired by the knowledge of historical facts. That is simply not how the process works. Bob Dylan was pretty bizarre during his Christian period, but he did capture at least one essential truth: "ye shall be changed." And it's not going to happen because of history. 

And yet we must continue to pursue history. History is not a way of proving faith, but it can help Christians ground their faith in legitimate questions about who their Savior was, what he did, and how he reacted to the world in which he lived. The historical approach, despite its uncertainty, difficulty, and risk, is absolutely necessary. The risks of complacency, subjectivity, and an artificial gulf between theology and history are far greater. 


[1] Martin Kähler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ, trans. Carl E. Bratten, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964), 46. 

[2] Ibid., 47-48. 

[3] Ibid., 66. Emphasis in original. 

[4] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus – God and Man, trans. Lewis L. Wilkins and Duane A. Priebe, (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1968), 28. 

1 comment:

Hoya in Doha said...

follow-up post on visions of the historical jesus?

or failing that (if not a point of expertise), implications of this approach?

does this invalidate certain personal, subjective interpretations?

should we not take the Gospels as gospel?