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The Historical Jesus and the Question of Religious Authority.

Behind the historical Jesus debate, there lurks a deep crisis of religious authority.

By Gregory W. Dawes
Senior Lecture in Religious Studies
University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand     

    As I noted in a recent article on this website, our own age has witnessed a proliferation of books on the subject of the historical Jesus. Many of these books are of considerable interest, as works of first-century history. But practically none of these studies grapples with the issue which underlies this debate, an issue which was very familiar to the thinkers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For the historical Jesus question is merely the most obvious expression of a deeper shift in religious attitudes, expressed in the subtitle to my most recent book, The Historical Jesus Question: The Challenge of History to Religious Authority. Behind the historical Jesus debate, there lurks a rarely discussed crisis of religious authority. My book attempts to highlight that crisis.

    It is hard to know why this matter is so studiously ignored by New Testament scholars. It may be because the field of biblical studies has in recent decades become increasingly autonomous. It no longer sees itself as part of the wider field of Christian theology. More than 20 years ago, James Barr delivered an inaugural lecture on the subject "Does biblical study still belong to theology?" There would be all the more reason to pose that question today. Alternatively, this neglect may be due to the fact that New Testament scholars are unaware of the historic shifts in human thinking which underlie the emergence of their own discipline. Before about 1650, no one in Christian Europe could have thought of asking about "the historical Jesus." This is not only because our modern discipline of history had not yet developed. It is also because to ask about the historical Jesus is to suggest that the figure who emerges from historical research may be different from "the Christ of faith," the figure in whom Christians have believed for almost two millennia. To make this suggestion was to call into question, not just the authority of the Church (which the Protestant Reformers had done all too successfully), but the authority of the Bible itself.

    This questioning of biblical authority first occurred, in a widespread and influential way, in the seventeenth century. Many factors contributed to this process. One thinks, for instance, of the new astronomy of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) and of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), which undermined the marriage between Ptolemaic astronomy and Christian faith that had served medieval Christians so well. (When the late medieval poet Dante Alighieri refers to God as "the love that moves the sun and other stars," he is not just using a pretty metaphor; he speaking quite literally of the moving force of the cosmos, in terms drawn from Aristotelian physics.) One thinks, also, of the voyages of discovery, which opened up the intellectual world of educated Europeans and made them aware of other ancient cultures, each with their venerable religious traditions. (Indeed, our modern notion of "a religion" only seems to emerge at about this time.) In any case, during the seventeenth century a critical change occurred. The theologian Hans Frei has described this change as "the great reversal." At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the biblical story still formed the framework into which could be fitted (with a little ingenuity) the whole of human knowledge, both sacred and secular. By the end of the seventeenth century, the framework of human knowledge was provided by secular disciplines — the natural sciences and history — and the Bible had to find its place within this sometimes hostile environment. 

    This great reversal had at least three notable consequences. Firstly, Christianity came to be seen as merely one religion among others. Its status as the product of a divine revelation could no longer be assumed, given the existence of other ancient religious traditions making comparable claims to authority. Secondly, the message of Christianity came to be seen as the product of a particular time and place. Just as other religions were clearly the work of human beings, who wove together a set of beliefs from elements found in their cultural environment, so Christianity too could be seen as the product of a particular human history. Thirdly, the Bible's account of the origins of Christianity lost its taken-for-granted status. Since the Bible had now to find its place within a framework of knowledge derived from elsewhere, that knowledge could be used to judge the accuracy of the biblical narrative. These developments found expression in the work of Benedict Spinoza (1632–77), whose Tractatus theologico-politicus lays down the programme for a historical interpretation of the Bible, a programme which has endured to our own day.

    Many eighteenth and nineteenth-century thinkers were well aware of the magnitude of this change. David Friedrich Strauss, for example, the author of the famous Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835), at first tried to redeem the significance of the Christian story by reinterpreting it in terms of the philosophy of G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831). This allowed him to see the Christian story as an allegory of the gradual "incarnation" of Mind, which was the way in which Hegel interpreted history as a whole. However, after becoming disillusioned with Hegelianism, and after reading the work of Charles Darwin (1809–82), Strauss realized that history could no longer be interpreted in this purposeful manner. The result was Strauss's open and forthright abandonment of the Christian faith. By way of contrast, the philosopher and theologian Ernst Troeltsch (1865–1923), while distancing himself from Hegel's philosophy, still believed that human history could be understood as the gradual self-revelation of the divine Spirit. In this context, he tried to defend Christianity in the context of other religions as the highest product of the human spirit to have emerged to date. However, in his later years Troeltsch was unsure about the universality of this claim. Perhaps Christianity could claim authority only for the peoples of the Mediterranean and European worlds, whose histories were the matrix out of which it had arisen.

    By way of reaction, the dialectical theologians of the early and mid-twentieth century found ways of trying to shelter Christian faith from the cold winds of historical relativity. Karl Barth (1886–1968) did so by drawing from his own Calvinist tradition resources which enabled him to distinguish sharply between the "history" which was the scene of divine revelation and the "history" which was accessible to the historian. In this context, he could declare Christian faith to be entirely other than "a religion" in the modern sense. Rather than a product of human history, Christian faith could be seen as a response to a divine revelation, a revelation which did not need to be subjected to historical scrutiny. If one asked, "What evidence is there that Christian faith is indeed a response to divine revelation?", Barth's reply was that the authority of the Bible is "self-authenticating." While John Calvin (1509–64) had pointed not just to "the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit" but also to "external evidences" for biblical authority, Barth swept the external evidences away, insisting that the Bible be subjected to no criteria outside of its own. Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976) achieved a similar result, drawing not only on Lutheran theology but on the neo-Kantian and existentialist philosophies of his time. These enabled Bultmann to dismiss historical knowledge as merely "objectifying" knowledge. It is a false and misleading form of knowledge, insofar as it tries to understand human existence "objectively," in a way which ignores my involvement as a subject in that which I am attempting to understand. Such knowledge merely enables me to escape the demand for decision and commitment which I encounter in my lived experience. Religion, on the other hand, deals not with "facts" which can be understood objectively; it deals with the realm of decision and commitment, a realm inaccessible to objectifying knowledge.

    Barth and Bultmann were major thinkers, who recognised the enormity of the crisis facing Christian faith by the radical ways in which they tried to respond to it. But many of their followers came to see their responses as inadequate. Barth's bold defiance of historical relativity was bought at the price of an act of faith which seemed to be, in the end, entirely arbitrary. It is true that, once one learned (as Barth said) to think "from God out," the challenge of history disappeared. But what grounds could be offered for embracing this biblical perspective? Having rejected Calvin's appeal to "external evidences," Barth was left with no publicly accessible grounds at all. At this point, Christian theology seemed destined for the ghetto. Bultmann's thought was at first sight more open to philosophical scrutiny, but it too ran into irresolvable contradictions. Christian faith could not in the end divorce itself from the merely "objectifying" knowledge of the historian, if it was to be true to its traditional claim that God had become incarnate in human history. Indeed, it was one of Bultmann's former students, Ernst Käsemann, who in 1953 reintroduced the question of history into the theological debate. That question has been taken up with some vigour in our own time by Wolfhart Pannenberg (b.1928).

    Insofar as all these thinkers are dealing with the questions first raised in the seventeenth century, they may be regarded as forming a single research tradition, although unlike a scientific research tradition, it deals with conceptual rather than empirical matters. The question with which my book ends is a simple one, but one rarely asked by either biblical scholars or theologians. At what point should one judge that this particular research tradition ought to be abandoned, that it has failed to achieve its object and is unlikely to make further progress? In the history of science, there are moments which grand research traditions were rightly abandoned. The most famous, as we have seen, occurred in the seventeenth century, when all attempts to shore up the tottering framework of Ptolemaic astronomy were finally shown to have been in vain. At what point should one make a similar judgment about this tradition of Christian theology? 

    Philosophers of science argue that a research tradition is still "alive," that it is making progress, when it is able to resolve an increasing number of problems without creating further problems or anomalies. Is this true of the tradition I have outlined? It appears not. The dialectical theologians attempted to reverse the pattern of thought established by thinkers such as Troeltsch, which they saw as incompatible with Christian faith. But the problems raised by the "great reversal" of the seventeenth century could not be so easily evaded. The theology of Pannenberg at the beginning of the twenty-first century effectively brings us back to the position occupied by Troeltsch at the beginning of the twentieth, with (I would argue) no greater degree of success. If this represents a progressive research tradition, then one is entitled to ask what a degenerating tradition would look like. The most obvious conclusion would seem to be a simple one. Christian theology has been unable to survive the intellectual challenges raised by the onset of modernity. Like any decision to abandon a major research tradition, this is, of course, a matter of judgment. There will no doubt be many whose judgment will be different from mine, but I will be interested to see on what grounds they feel able to disagree.

Gregory W. Dawes is a Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.