Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus by Norman Perrin
Norman Perrin is the Associate Professor of New Testament at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus and has published numerous articles and book reviews. Published by Harper & Row, New York and Evanston, 1967. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Dick and Sue Kendall and Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 5: The Significance of Knowledge of the Historical Jesus and His Teaching
Most books on the teaching of Jesus have simply assumed that the results of the historical-critical discussion of that teaching were significant to Christian faith. It is not only that the significance of Jesus in the cultural history of the world guarantees interest in the reconstruction of what he actually taught, as might be the case with, say, Socrates; but a significance over and beyond that is assumed, at any rate for Christians, because of the nature of Christian faith itself. So, for example, T. W. Manson claimed that ‘. . . if God did in fact speak to us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus it is vitally important to know as fully and as accurately as possible what sort of life and death and resurrection became the medium of divine revelation’, (T. W. Manson, ‘The Life of Jesus: Some Tendencies in Present-day Research’, The Background of the New Testament and its Eschatology, ed. W. D. Davies and D. Daube (Cambridge: University Press, 1954), p.221) and wrote a series of brilliant books on Jesus, and especially on his teaching. He assumed that the study of the teaching of Jesus ‘. . . has an independent interest of its own and a definite interest of its own and a definite task of its own, namely, that we use every resource we possess of knowledge, of historical imagination, and of religious insight to the one end of transporting ourselves back into the centre of the greatest crisis in the world’s history, to look as it were through the eyes of Jesus and to see God and man, heaven and earth, life and death, as he saw them, and to find, if we may, in that vision something which will satisfy the whole man in mind and heart and will’. (T. W. Manson, Teaching of Jesus, pp. 5f.)
Today both of these things would be questioned: it is no longer self-evident that the historical Jesus is, in fact, the central concern of Christian faith, and it may no longer be assumed that the major aspect of that faith is to follow the dictates, encouragements and challenges of the teaching of that Jesus.
To understand the true nature of our problem, we must set it in its historical perspective and explore the whole discussion of the ‘question of the historical Jesus’, especially the very vigorous discussion of the last ten or fifteen years, but also something of that which has been going on continually ever since the Enlightenment.
In one respect the question of the historical Jesus is as old as Christian faith itself, for Christian faith is, by definition, faith in Jesus Christ: there our problem begins. Jesus is the name of a historical figure: Jesus bar Joseph from Nazareth, whereas Christ is a transhistorical title: the one appointed by God for the salvation of mankind. Here lies our problem: How are these two things related to one another in the one person? In the ancient world this was already something of a difficult question to answer. The world of Hellenism could think readily enough of ‘divine men’, of ‘heavenly redeemers, but found it hard to think of these as also human. Hence, the rise of Docetism in which Jesus Christ was held to be only apparently human; in which, so to speak, the ‘Christ’ had swallowed up the ‘Jesus’. The world of ancient Judaism, on the other hand, could think of divinely inspired figures, of men anointed by God, but these were always strictly human figures, an influence which made itself felt in early Christianity and produced Ebionitism, a form of the faith in which Jesus Christ was entirely human, in which the Jesus had swallowed up the Christ. But the Christian Church branded both these opinions as heresies and characteristically maintained that Jesus Christ was both . . . and . . .: both human and divine, both historical and transhistorical.
Also characteristic of Christian faith is that unique literary form: the gospel. The gospels, and more particularly the synoptic gospels, are unique in their conscious combination of historical and transhistorical elements, to use our current jargon: in their combination of historical report and kerygmatic Christology. Religious literature in general tends either to be basically historical narrative, interwoven with elements of interpretation due to later insights, overlaid with legend, but consciously intended to be historical; or to be pure myth: a concept clothed in narrative form, and consciously only clothed in that form. The synoptic gospels, however, are both of these things at the same time -- we would claim consciously so -- and, as such, characteristic of the unique element in Christian faith.
The history of the discussion of the question of the historical Jesus is the history of a series of attempts to do justice to the unique characteristic of Christian faith. The problem comes into focus with the Enlightenment and the rise of the historical sciences, for here we have the establishment of the concept of history in what we may call its ‘modern sense’, i.e. as ‘what actually happened’, the ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen ist’. With this, the historical Jesus becomes the man Jesus, ‘as he actually was’, the Jesus who may be the subject of historical critical research, Jesus as he may be known as the result of that research.
The immediate consequence of this, so far as an understanding of the gospels and of Jesus was concerned, was the controversy between the English Deists and their opponents. The Deists characteristically claimed Jesus as an example of rational humanity and understood the gospels as historical, availing themselves of all kinds of rationalistic explanations of the various phenomena, such as apparent miracle, in them. Their opponents strenuously resisted this, arguing for the reality of the supernatural at the historical level and for the understanding of Jesus as a divine-human figure. This controversy now no longer concerns us in any detail; we must simply note that this is where our problem begins.
More important to us is the work of H. S. Reimarus (1694-1768), a professor of oriental languages at a Gymnasium in Hamburg, who, under the influence of the English Deists, wrote a four-thousand-page manuscript Apologie oder Schutzschrift für die vernünftiger Verehrer Gottes, a defense of the deistic approach to religion, which he refrained from publishing. G. E. Lessing (1729-81), a leading figure in the German Enlightenment, found the manuscript in the library at Wolfenbüttel, on his appointment there as librarian in 1770, and published parts of it as ‘Wolfenbüttel Fragments by an Unnamed Author’ between 1774 and 1778. There are seven of these fragments, and the two most important to our purpose are the sixth and seventh: ‘Ûber die Auferstehungsgeschichte’ (‘Concerning the Resurrection Story’) and ‘Vom Zwecke Jesu und seiner Jünger’ (‘On the purpose of Jesus and that of his Disciples’). In these Reimarus attempts a rationalistic reconstruction of the history of the beginnings of Christianity, in which Jesus is an unsuccessful political messianic pretender, and the disciples disappointed charlatans who, rather than go back to working for a living after Jesus’ failure, invent the whole of early Christian faith and steal the body of Jesus so as to have an empty tomb to support their story of resurrection. In this way, Reimarus seeks to discredit both the historical Jesus, an unsuccessful messianic pretender, and the Christ of the gospels, a product of the disciples’ fantasy, and so leave the way clear for a rational worship of God free from the delusion of a revealed religion.
The important thing about Reimarus, however, is not his conscious purpose, nor his reconstruction of earliest Christian history, but the way in which he is able to show, in instance after instance, that the gospel narratives may not be understood as historical accounts of actual events, but must be recognized as the product of conceptions arrived at subsequent to the events which they purport to narrate. True, Reimarus is a hostile historian, thinking in terms of delusion and fantasy, but he is none the less a brilliant historian, and his instinct is surer than his own conscious purpose. So he is able to take the first step on the way to understanding the essential nature of the gospels, by recognizing the determinative character of the influence of early Christian conceptions on the narratives. In one other respect also his instinct is sure: he interprets both the purpose of Jesus and that of his disciples in terms of Jewish messianic conceptions, and in this way puts his finger on eschatology as a key element in both the ministry of Jesus and the life of the early Church. In this he was to be shown to be absolutely correct, some two hundred years later!
Reimarus was a historian, but his work was published by a philosophically minded man of letters, Lessing, who thereafter found himself under attack from the orthodoxy of his day, especially that of Hauptpastor Goetze of the city of Hamburg. In the course of the subsequent controversy Lessing developed a viewpoint that later became very influential, namely, that faith cannot be grounded either on a book regarded as inspired or on facts regarded as historical. He himself regarded faith as dependent on reason and propounded his famous dictum: ‘Zufällige Geschichtswahrheiten können der Beweis von notwendigen Vernunftswahrheiten nie werden’ (The accidental truths of history can never become the necessary proofs of reason). With Glaube (faith) substituted for Vernunft (reason) this is a viewpoint widely accepted in our current discussion.
After Reimarus and Lessing, the next important figure in the discussion from our perspective is that stormy petrel, David Friedrich Strauss (1808-74). A theologian and philosopher, he arrived in Tübingen in 1832 to take up a post as Repetent (instructor) in the theological Stift (a hall of residence with instructional and tutorial facilities). As a philosopher he was an ardent Hegelian, and from his arrival he exercised for three semesters the traditional right of a theological Repetent to lecture on philosophy, lecturing enthusiastically and successfully as an apostle of Hegel. However, the philosophical faculty was less than enthusiastic about his success and forced him to give up his lectures. Stung by this, he shut himself up in the Repetentenzimmer and gave himself to a task he had had in mind since having heard Schleiermacher lecture on the Life of Christ in Berlin in 1831: the writing of a critical life of Christ. He worked in a combative spirit, and with the rapidity of genius, and in 1835 and 1836 published the first and second volumes respectively of his two-volume Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet, with a total of 1,476 pages of text.
The book made him famous and for ever closed all academic doors to him, for it was received with exclamations of horror, and there began a process of academic persecution which was to follow him all his life through. His subsequent life and work have been graphically described by Albert Schweitzer in his Quest of the Historical Jesus (pp. 68-120) and need not concern us. What must concern us is his contribution to our discussion: the introduction of the concept of myth into the consideration of the gospel narratives.
Strauss’s concept of myth has been very influential among New Testament scholars. He uses myth in the sense of a narrative giving expression to religious concepts, whether derived from Judaism or Hellenism, from the Old Testament or Christian experience. His methodology in his book is to discuss the gospel narratives in sequence, thoroughly and carefully, and he is able to show that such myth is a major factor in the narratives. His discussion is such as thoroughly to discredit both the supernaturalistic approach to the gospel narratives, i.e. the understanding of them as historical as they stand, and the rationalistic approach, i.e. the understanding of them as historical after the miraculous element in them has been explained away. Having shown that the gospels are essentially purveyors of a Christ myth, Strauss concludes his work with a last chapter in which he presents Jesus as a religious genius who achieves in himself the unity with the Father which, as unity between God and man, is the goal of the religious development of humanity. Humanity will learn from this example presented in a form it can grasp. This is Hegelian idealism applied to Christology, and its relationship to the critical work on the gospels is that the destructive effect of that criticism clears the ground, so to speak, for the planting of this Hegelian seed. The apostle of Hegel is refusing to be silenced!
The long-term effectiveness of Strauss’s work, however, has not been in terms of a growth of a Hegelian-Strauss Christology, but in terms of a growth of understanding of the gospels as myth and saga. Reimarus taught us to see the gospels as products of the conceptions of earliest Christianity; Strauss opened our eyes to the form in which these conceptions are clothed, the form, above all, of myth.
Before continuing to review the discussion as it has been carried on within Protestant theological circles, we may perhaps be permitted a brief excursus into the realm of Roman Catholic biblical scholarship, for Strauss’s book produced an immediate reaction from a Roman Catholic New Testament professor in which what has come to be, to the best of our knowledge, the standard Roman Catholic viewpoint, was developed. We are referring to J. E. Kuhn, Das Leben Jesu, wissenschaftlich bearbeitet, published in 1838.
Kuhn argues that the Enlightenment view of history is inadequate, and inappropriate to the gospels, but whereas Strauss turned to the concept of myth to explain the phenomena of the gospels, Kuhn argues that there are two kinds of history: history and sacred history. History is concerned with cause and effect; its characteristic question is: ‘Whence?’ Sacred history, on the other hand, is concerned with end and purpose; its characteristic question is: ‘Whither?’ So we have, we may say, an anthropocentric view of history on the one hand and a theocentric view on the other. The gospels represent the second view of history. They are not concerned with the ordinary history of Jesus bar Joseph from Nazareth, but with the sacred history of Jesus the Messiah of God, and to this end they select and present material from the tradition available to them. So the transhistorical elements in their stories are not to be understood as myth, but as the means whereby the sacred-historical aspects of the story are revealed within the history itself. Kuhn reaches the point of recognizing the gospels as kerygma, i.e. as proclamations of Jesus the Messiah in his significance for faith; but whereas the later Protestant view was that the kerygmatic element was in the service of a post-Easter view of Jesus as risen Lord, read back into the narratives by the later community, Kuhn’s view is that this element was present in the tradition from the very beginning, part of the gospel before the gospels, part of the message of the apostles from the very first days, part of the very fabric of the ministry of Jesus itself.
A hundred years ahead of its time in many ways, Kuhn’s book represents a view that has maintained itself in Roman Catholic circles. So, for example, the Roman Catholic reaction to form criticism has always been extremely cautious, emphasizing the limits that must be set to this kind of enquiry, and the authority and reliability of the apostles as ‘eyewitnesses and ministers of the word’. Even when recognizing the fact that the Church has modified the tradition of the ministry of Jesus, the tendency is always to insist that the tradition is basically historical, and the modification and reinterpretation was made necessary by the changing circumstances (for example, to apply the teaching on marriage and divorce in Mark 10 to Roman marital conditions), and that it does not do violence to the original. We would have two criticisms of this view: (1) form criticism is bursting the bounds here set to it, and is showing that gospel narratives and sayings can be purely and entirely products of the early Church; and (2) the view involves an unnecessary capitulation to the very view of history it sets out to controvert, since it seems to agree that there must be a ‘something actually happened’ quality to the gospel myths for them to be ‘true’. But there are signs that we may be approaching a meeting of minds here, because the recently published Roman Catholic Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche has articles on ‘Jesus Christus’ and ‘Leben-Jesu-Forschung’ which come very near to what might have been written by a contemporary Protestant scholar such as Conzelmann or Bornkamm.
After this brief excursus, let us return to the discussion on Protestant theology. As was to be expected, the work of Reimarus and Strauss produced extensive reactions, including the next major development to concern us: the rise of the liberal Life of Christ research (Leben-Jesu-Forschung). Liberal critical scholarship, coming into full flower at the time of Strauss and thereafter, was not prepared to accept a rendering of the gospel texts into a Christ myth and then the dissolution of that myth into a speculative Christology. Rather, it sought a kernel of history in the narratives, which would stand the test of criticism and could become the basis for faith. Quite typically, H. Weinel regarded Strauss as having two fundamental weaknesses. Although he accepted the synoptic account of Jesus’ teaching as largely authentic, he made no attempt to construct a picture of Jesus from that teaching, and, although he quite properly criticized the element of myth in the gospels, he then went on to replace that dogmatic mythology of the Church with a conceptual mythology of his own. ‘We should not concern ourselves with conceptions and allegories, when we have the opportunity to find a historical person, the one who has had the greatest influence in the world. And since the one to whom we are drawing near was a religious genius, we should learn to understand and experience religion from him.’ (H. Weinel, Jesus im neunzehnten Jahrhundert [Tübingen: J.C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1904], p.44.) This epitomizes the concern of liberal scholarship, namely, to establish by historical-critical methodology the authentic teaching of Jesus and the historical core of the gospel narratives concerning his life, to recapture the person mirrored in that teaching and revealed in that life, to accept that person and that teaching as the concern and object of faith, and to seek to imitate him and to learn from him. It was knowledge of the historical Jesus, the reassurance of this human historical personality within the gospel story, which constrained men to say ‘Jesus is Lord.’ (So D. M. Baillie, a contemporary representative of the liberal position, God Was in Christ [London: Faber and Faber, and New York: Scribner’s 1948], p. 52.) Liberal scholarship, therefore, accepted the full burden of historical critical scholarship without hesitation and without reserve, believing that the historical core of the gospel narratives, when reached, would reveal Jesus as he actually was, and that he would then be revealed as worthy of all honor, respect and imitation, revealed as the founder of a faith which consisted in following him and his teaching closely and purposefully.
This liberal position on the question of our knowledge of the historical Jesus and the relationship of that knowledge to Christian faith is too well known to need further elaboration, so let us turn at once to the combination of theological and critical considerations and external historical circumstances which led to its downfall in Germany. As we consider this, however, we must be conscious that a downfall in Germany does not necessarily mean a collapse elsewhere, and that, as a matter of fact, the position was maintained in Britain and America for another fifty years, and still is so maintained, although now only to a very limited extent. So our concern is not only with the history of its fall in Germany, but also with the factors revealed in that history which, we would claim, are also valid factors in the British or American situations.
The first thing to be mentioned in this connection is always Albert Schweitzer’s brilliant and excitingly written Von Reimarus zu Wrede (ET The Quest of the Historical Jesus), a history of the liberal Life of Christ research which is now generally recognized as having been also its funeral oration (Bornkamm). The core of Schweitzer’s argument is that the liberal quest of the historical Jesus was not historical enough. Instead of following through with their historical research to the end, the liberal scholars always stopped at a point at which they were able to present a Jesus who was, in fact, an image of the scholar himself; or of the scholar’s ideals. To use a British image: a Cromwell without warts! If the research is carried through to the end, however, we find a Jesus who was an apocalyptic fanaticist. Disappointed in his expectation of the irruption of God into the world’s history to bring that history to an end in the very year he began his ministry, this Jesus was deluded enough to attempt to force the hand of God by his own sufferings, which he conceived to be the ‘messianic woes’ which would prove to be the beginning of the End. This historical Jesus is necessarily a stranger and a foreigner to us and to our time, and the recognition of this fact sets us free to follow the dictates in our own consciences of the spirit of Christ released into the world by the death of the historical Jesus.
The significance of Schweitzer’s work as a long-term contribution to the discussion is that he succeeded in his demonstration of the fact that the liberals had failed to reach the historical Jesus, that they had, indeed, tended to read their ideals into this figure, and that they had spectacularly missed the eschatology. Subsequent attempts to carry on the ‘quest’ in the sense of reaching a historical Jesus who would be the concern of faith have had to make strenuous attempts to guard themselves against the weaknesses which Schweitzer had inexorably exposed. (The most important example of this is J. Jeremias, The Problem of the Historical Jesus [ET by N. Perrin of Das Problem des historischen Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964], pp. 15-20.) But it is questionable whether it is, in fact, possible to avoid the ultimate weakness: the tendency to find a Christ of a liberal or personal faith when in theory one is seeking the historical Jesus. Even if steps are taken to avoid psychologizing, to give due emphasis to the eschatology, etc., the fundamental weakness remains the fact that the deliberate elevation of a historically reconstructed figure to the central concern of faith must inevitably lead to the confusion of two quite separate functions: the reconstruction of a historical figure and what we shall call the construction of a faith-image. A theological tradition which ‘believes in Jesus’ encourages the believer to construct the faith-image of this Jesus, an image made up as a result of many different influences: the preaching and teaching of the Church, the reading of the gospels and of devotional literature, the lives and ideals of influential individuals, and so on. Significant in this process can be also the results of historical critical research, mediated through the books of influential liberal scholars. In itself this is a wholly natural, and, indeed, wholly admirable process, and the liberal faith-image is altogether excellent, as a faith-image. The difficulty was that the liberal critical scholar was engaged at one and the same time in constructing a faith-image and reconstructing the historical image, the one as a believer and the other as a scholar, and this led to the confusion between these two tasks to which Schweitzer, in effect, pointed, and which was, indeed, unavoidable. In the very nature of the case, the liberal Jesus of history became the Christ of a liberal kerygma, and vice versa.
The second critic of the liberal quest who must concern us is Martin Kähler, whose work Der sogennante historische Jesus und der geschichtliche, biblische Christus (ET The So-called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ) was practically ignored at the time of its publication in 1892, but has since been recognized as a major contribution to the discussion. In 1892 the liberal movement was at its height, Schweitzer’s work was still fourteen years in the future, and the discussion was between, on the one hand, an orthodoxy still claiming the gospels as historical documents and the Christ of the Church’s faith as a historical figure, and, on the other hand, a liberalism claiming the gospels as non-historical in their present form, but as capable of being used as historical sources, sources for the reconstruction of a historical Jesus to be distinguished from the Christ of the gospels. Both sides had capitulated completely to the post-Enlightenment view of history, and they had accepted the conclusion that the object of Christian faith must be historical in this sense. To the one the historical Jesus must be found directly in the gospels, to the other he must be reconstructed from them; but to both he is the object of Christian faith. Kähler, however, now challenged this basic assumption. He regarded himself as arguing for orthodoxy against liberalism and he claimed, (1) that the gospels are not and cannot be sources for the life of Jesus, and (2) that the Christ of the gospels is the only concern of Christian faith, not the historical Jesus. He distinguished between the historical Jesus, the Jesus known as a result of historical research, and the historic Christ, the Christ of the gospels in his significance for the faith of later generations, and in so doing established the distinction between der historische Jesus and der geschichtliche Christus which has come to play such a role in the contemporary theological discussion. Although written on behalf of orthodoxy, the ultimate effect of Käihler’s work was radical both as over against orthodoxy and as over against liberalism. In effect, his insights lead to a challenge to orthodoxy to give up the myth of claiming that the Christ of the gospels was a historical figure and to content itself instead with recognizing that he is a historic figure, admittedly known to us only from Christian preaching but in any case the only legitimate concern of Christian faith. At the same time they challenged liberalism to give up the myth that it was possible to reconstruct a recognizable figure from the gospels used as historical sources. They are products of early Christian preaching and do not contain the necessary material; for example, they have no account of Jesus’ personal development, and attempts to supply this material by analogy from other historical figures are inappropriate to the subject. In any case, again, the historical Jesus is not the concern of faith.
At the time of its publication, Kähler’s challenge fell upon deaf ears. One suspects that the reason for this was that in 1892 neither orthodoxy nor Liberalism was prepared to abandon Historie for Geschichte. But Kähler had pointed the way forward, because it is, in fact, true that the historical Jesus is not directly the concern of faith. Once the modern concept of history was established, and with it the concept of the historical Jesus as the man Jesus ‘as he actually was’, then it became inevitable that it should first be argued that this was the direct and immediate concern of faith, and then recognized that, after all, it was not. Faith is concerned with the risen Lord in his fulfillment and in his significance for later generations, with the historic Christ, and it is to Kähler’s immense credit that he recognized this and was prepared to distinguish between Geschichte and Historie in this connection. Of course, the recognition of the validity of this distinction, and of faith’s concern with Geschichte rather than Historie, means the end of both liberalism and orthodoxy in their nineteenth-century forms, which is why Kähler is so immensely important today. It also means the raising of the question of the relationship between Geschichte and Historie: granted that faith’s immediate concern is with the geschichtliche Christ, what is then the relationship between this figure and the historische Jesus? This is a question with which we are concerned in our current discussion, but before it could be asked a number of other factors had to play their part in the discussion, including the first world war and its aftermath, the rise of form criticism and the coming of Rudolf Bultmann.
The events of 1914-18 effectively ended the reign of liberalism in German theology, because historically speaking liberalism arose in the context of Kulturoptimismus: the sense of progress, the optimism about the social, political and moral possibilities of reform and development in the world, in society, among individuals, which was such a feature of the second half of the nineteenth century. But so far as Germany was concerned, all this came to an end, suddenly and drastically, in the summer of 1914, and the liberal theology related to it could not survive without it. The new times called forth a different understanding of the nature of the Christian faith, epitomized by the rise of Karl Barth, and the liberal concern for the historical Jesus as the object of Christian faith died, because the liberal theologians had no successors in the Germany of the 1920s. The Anglo-Saxon tradition did not have the same drastic experience; in it liberalism was able to live on for another half-century. But the continuing experience of the first half of the twentieth century was not such as to encourage Kulturoptimismus even in Britain and America; in this tradition also liberalism has been, or is being, abandoned in a search for more satisfactory expressions of faith. The relationship between theological liberalism and cultural optimism is, however, by now an old, old story, so let us leave the external historical circumstances and return to more purely academic and theological considerations, of which the next to concern us is the rise of form criticism in the 1920s.
At the academic level form criticism is the single most important development in the history of the discussion of our problem, for it provides what must be regarded as the only satisfactory understanding of the nature of the synoptic gospel material -- satisfactory, that is, from the viewpoint of being able to explain the phenomena demonstrably present in the texts themselves. We use the term ‘form criticism’, as always in our work, widely and loosely to describe the approach to the gospels which considers them as products of a process of oral transmission of tradition, that is, to describe the oral process of transmission of a tradition which has been given its present form in response to the needs of the early Church and to express her theological viewpoints, a tradition which was to a large extent created to meet those needs and to express those viewpoints. At this point we do not propose to repeat the arguments for accepting this view of the synoptic tradition which we adduced in our first chapter, but only to repeat our claim that this is the only justifiable view of the nature of that tradition. It must be recognized that the narratives in the synoptic gospels were created to express the theology of the early Church, that they are through and through mythical in Strauss’s sense of the word. It must be recognized, indeed, that there are comparatively few narratives which correspond in any way to events in the ministry of Jesus, and that where such correspondence is to be found, as for example in the baptism or crucifixion narratives, the gospel account has been so influenced by the theological conceptions and understanding of the Church that we can derive little, if any, historical knowledge of that event from those narratives. Even the fact that the baptism or crucifixion are historical events is not to be derived with any certainty from the gospel narratives; it has to be argued on other grounds. With form criticism the original insights of Reimarus and Strauss come into their own, and the possibility of writing a Life of Christ vanishes for ever.
The effect of the demise of liberalism, with its concern for the historical Jesus, and the rise of form criticism, with its confirmation that the gospels can never be sources for a Life of Christ, was to clear the way for an acceptance of the challenge of Martin Kähler. With the effectual disappearance of the historische Jesus from the scene, it was natural to follow Kähler and to concentrate attention on the geschichtliche Christus. So we reach Rudolf Bultmann, whose views are the basis for our current debate. (R. Bultmann, Jesus and the Word ; Theology of the New Testament I ; Primitive Christianity ; ‘New Testament and Mythology’ and ‘A Reply to the Theses of J. Schniewind’ in H. W. Bartsch [ed.], Kerygma and Myth ; ‘The Primitive Christian Kerygma and the Historical Jesus’, in The Historical Jesus and the Kerygmatic Christ, ed. C. E. Braaten and R. A. Harrisville .
Perhaps the best way to detail Bultmann’s position is in terms of its relationship to that of Martin Kähler, without thereby intending to claim that this relationship is as conscious as our explication will tend to make it appear. There are three particular points at which Bultmann seems to be developing insights to be found in Kähler’s work.
I.There is a distinction between historical Jesus and historic Christ. It is the distinction between the one who proclaimed the Kingdom of God as the imminently expected eschatological act of God and the one who is proclaimed as eschatological act of God. This is Bultmann’s famous distinction between the Proclaimer and the Proclaimed and it should be noted that it includes three elements, all of which are very important to Bultmann.
(a) The distinction between historical Jesus and historic Christ, which is ultimately derived from Martin Kähler.
(b) The introduction of a reference to the eschatological act of God, proclaimed by Jesus in terms of the Kingdom of God and by the early Church in terms of the cross and resurrection of Christ.
(c) The emphasis upon the fact that in the message of Jesus this eschatological act of God is still future, albeit imminent and even now beginning to break in, whereas in the kerygma of the early Church it is already past, although available ever anew as God manifests himself as eschatological event in the kerygma. So Bultmann always maintains that salvation is only a promise in the message of Jesus, but a present reality through the kerygma of the Church.
2. The object of Christian faith is the historic Christ, the Christ of the kerygma, and not the historical Jesus. The Christ present in the kerygma is necessarily distinct from the historical Jesus, above all in what we may call his effectiveness. The historical Jesus did not demand faith in himself; but at the most in his word, especially in his word of proclamation of the imminence of the Kingdom of God, and he did not offer salvation, but only promised it for the future. The kerygma does, however, demand faith in the Christ present in it, and offers salvation now to those who believe in him. Again, the historical Jesus proclaimed the future eschatological event, whereas the kerygmatic Christ is the eschatological event as he confronts the man addressed by the kerygma. The historical Jesus proclaimed a message that was the last word of God before the End; the kerygmatic Christ is the word of God and the End.
At this point we should pause for a moment to note that there is one concept which is decisive for an understanding of Bultmann’s approach to the question of the historical Jesus, and, indeed, of his whole approach to the interpretation of the New Testament: the concept of ‘paradoxical identity’. There is a paradoxical identity of proclamation and saving event as the saving event becomes the saving event for me in the proclamation. There is the paradoxical identity of eschatology and history in the cross, which is at one and the same time historical and eschatological event. This is an absolutely essential paradox. The cross is historical and also necessarily eschatological (so far as Christian faith is concerned). The saving event necessarily combines the ‘thatness’ of Jesus and his cross and the presence of Christ as eschatological event for me in the proclamation.
Lastly on this point we come to the reformation principle ‘by faith alone’ as restated by Kähler, maintained by Bultmann, and generally acceptable in the Germany in which liberal theology was dead and reformation theology in revival: faith as such is necessarily independent of historical facts, even historical facts about Jesus. In practice, today’s assured historical facts tend to become tomorrow’s abandoned historian’s hypotheses, and, in principle, a faith built upon historical fact would not be faith at all but a work. Further, faith is faith in the eschatological act of God in Jesus Christ, but that God has acted in Jesus Christ is not a fact of past history open to historical verification, and this is shown by the way in which the New Testament describes the figure and work of Christ in mythological -- not historical -- terms.
3. The gospels are not and cannot be sources for a Life of Jesus; they are products and embodiments of the preaching of the early Church. Bultmann’s critical studies convinced him that the gospels as such are necessarily concerned with only one historical fact: the ‘thatness’ of Jesus and his cross. That there was a Jesus and that he was crucified is the necessary historical presupposition for the kerygma, the proclamation of the Church. But beyond this the synoptic gospels themselves are uninterested in the historical element as such, since they freely overlay the historical with the mythical, they present much of their material as a historicization of myth, and they make absolutely no attempt to distinguish the historical as such from the mythical. They are a unique combination of historical report and kerygmatic Christology, the purpose of which, however, is proclamation, not historical reporting. This is even more clearly true of Paul and John, both of whom require no more of history than the ‘that’ of the life of Jesus and his crucifixion for their proclamation. So the nature and purpose of the gospels as this is revealed by critical scholarship support Bultmann’s understanding of the significance of the historical Jesus for Christian faith.
In addition to the three things related to Kähler’s work, there is one further element in Bultmann’s thinking that needs to be considered at this point: the significance of the historical Jesus for an individual’s self-understanding, or understanding of existence. Bultmann espouses an existentialist understanding of historiography, whereby the individual enters into dialogue with the past, and is challenged by an understanding of existence (self-understanding) from the past which becomes significant to him in the historicity of his own existence. So in the case of the historical Jesus there is an understanding of existence (self-understanding, not self-consciousness) revealed in his teaching which challenges us in terms of our understanding of our own existence. Hence, Bultmann writes a Jesus book, Jesus and the Word, from this perspective.
Three things, however, must be said at this point:
(a) As the subject of this existentialist historiography Jesus is not unique. A similar study, with similar consequences in terms of a possible challenge to our understanding of existence, could be carried out in connection with any figure from the past for whom we had sources: Socrates the philosopher, or even Attila the Hun, as well as Jesus the Christ.
(b) This historiographical challenge to our self-understanding is not for Bultmann the challenge to faith, not even though the challenge to faith could be, and is, expressed by him in similar existentialistic terminology. He himself stresses the facts that the Jesus of history is not kerygmatic and that his book Jesus and the Word is not kerygma, because the essential aspect of the kerygma is that Christ is present in it as eschatological event, and Christ is not so present in existentialist historiographical studies of the historical Jesus. If he were, then they would cease to be existentialist historiographical studies and become kerygma.
(c) This type of study of Jesus is to be sharply distinguished from the liberal Quest. In the liberal Quest attempts were made to reach, and to understand, the psychology and personality of Jesus (i.e. his self-consciousness) which was an endeavour both impossible (no sources) and illegitimate (use of analogy), whereas in the Bultmann study the concern is with the understanding of existence (self-understanding) revealed in the teaching of Jesus.
We should perhaps attempt to clarify this distinction between self-understanding and self-consciousness which Bultmann makes. It is difficult to grasp, and it becomes important in the post-Bultmannian debate. By self-understanding Bultmann means the understanding to which the self comes concerning the nature of its historical existence. In his History and Eschatology, originally written in English, he often uses the expression in close connection with the untranslatable German word Weltanschauung, and it is to be understood as referring to a person considering the existence which is his and reaching an understanding of it in all its historicity. The actual word in German is Existenzverständnis, and James M. Robinson has properly urged that the English ‘understanding of existence’ should be used to express it. (J. M. Robinson, ‘The New Hermeneutic at Work’, Interpretation 18 , 347-59, esp. 358.) The difficulty lies in grasping the fact that it means the understanding of the self’s own existence, but, at the same time, it does not mean the process of experience, reflection, decision, and so on, by means of which that understanding is reached; that would be self-consciousness. Similarly, it refers to the understanding of existence which an individual comes to have, but it does not refer to the conscious decisions to which this understanding leads and in which it may be expressed; this, again, would be self-consciousness. The self-understanding of Jesus is a legitimate concern for the historian, because it can be deduced from his teaching. The self-consciousness of Jesus, however, is not a legitimate concern, because we have no sources for such knowledge, and when we supply the deficiency by analogy from other historical individuals, we are psychologizing about Jesus.
This position of Bultmann’s on the question of the historical Jesus and his significance for faith has been attacked from three standpoints, one might say: from right, left, and centre.
The attack from the right has been motivated by the conviction that the historical nature of Christian faith or the meaning of the Incarnation necessitates more emphasis upon the actual historical events circa AD 30 than Bultmann will allow. In this camp we find all kinds of strange comrades in arms united in their conviction that the historical events of the ministry of Jesus, in addition to the cross, are necessary to Christian faith. We can find the whole gamut of possibilities from the extreme conservative insisting on the factual historicity of everything from the Virgin Birth to the Resurrection to the old-fashioned liberal to whom only the Jesus reconstructed by historical study can be of significance to faith. Of all the possible names here we will mention only that of our own teacher, the moderately conservative Joachim Jeremias, who deserves to be heard on this point, if only because he has done more than any other single scholar to add to our knowledge of the historical Jesus. He has published a booklet on the question, The Problem of the Historical Jesus. In this he argues that the proclamation is not revelation, but leads to revelation, so that the historical Jesus is the necessary and only presupposition of the kerygma (a play on Bultmann’s famous opening sentence of his Theology of the New Testament), since only the Son of man and his word, by which Jeremias means the historical Jesus and his teaching, can give authority to the proclamation. This is a major issue in the contemporary debate: does Bultmann’s view do less than justice to the historical nature of Christian faith or violence to the Incarnation? Is the historical Jesus as such the necessary ultimate concern to whom the kerygma points? (For further discussion of this position see our review of some more recent works representing it, JR 46 , 396-9.)
The attack from the left has taken the opposite position, namely that Bultmann is inconsistent in his views in that he properly sees Christian faith as a transition from inauthentic to authentic existence, and then illogically maintains a necessary link with the historical Jesus in this process. Surely he should recognize the fact that all he is really saying is that there are those for whom this is true. But there are those for whom the transition can be made in other ways, and there is in particular the existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers, who debated this issue with Bultmann, (K. Jaspers and R. Bultmann, Myth and Christianity . R. Bultmann, ‘Das Befremdliche des christlichen Glaubens’, ZTK 55 , 185 -200.) maintaining that the link with the historical Jesus introduces an objective factor into an existential moment where it has no place. Jaspers’s views are actually in one respect reminiscent of liberalism of the Harnack type in that he sees Jesus as an example, an example of the kind of existential relationship to the transcendent which the philosopher seeks for himself. It must be admitted that Jaspers appears to have the better of his immediate argument with Bultmann, Bultmann’s final reply being a three-sentence letter refusing to commit himself further at that time. But he returned to the discussion later, in a quite different context, and then it became obvious that he regarded himself as committed by the New Testament itself to a necessary link with the historical Jesus, for he could only reiterate his major point, that Christian faith as such is committed to the paradoxical assertion that a historical event within time, Jesus and his cross, is the eschatological event, and support it by exegesis of New Testament texts, especially Paul and John. Thus, we come to the unbridgeable gap between the New Testament theologian and the theistic existentialist, and we find that it is an old issue returning in a new form: is the historical Jesus necessarily anything more than an example we seek to imitate in his worship of the Father (Harnack) or in his breakthrough to true existential self-understanding (Jaspers)?
A similar point becomes evident in the interchange between Bultmann and another of his critics from the left, Schubert Ogden. (Schubert M. Ogden, Christ Without Myth [New York: Harper & Bros., 1961]) Here it turns upon Bultmann’s existentialistic understanding of Christian faith as authentic existence. Bultmann had always contended that authentic existence was a ‘possibility in principle’ (ontological possibility) for man outside of Christian faith, but a ‘possibility in fact’ (ontic possibility) only within that faith. Ogden criticized this as inconsistent, arguing that the possibility in principle is always a possibility in fact because of the primordial love of God, ‘which is, indeed, decisively revealed in Jesus the Christ, but is by no means simply to be identified with him’. (Ibid., p. 143.) The point is that this love is manifest to men in every aspect of life, not only in the Christ-event.
To be sure, the church stands by the claim that the decisive manifestation of this divine word is none other than the human word of Jesus of Nazareth and thence of its own authentic proclamation. But the point of this claim is not that the Christ is manifest only in Jesus and nowhere else, but that the word addressed to men everywhere, in all the events of their lives, is none other than the word spoken in Jesus and in the preaching and sacraments of the church (ibid., p. 156).
Bultmann replied to this further attempt to abandon the particularity of Christian faith as follows: (In a review of Ogden’s book, JR 42 , 225-7, Quotation from p. 226.)
Christian faith contends that the gift of radical freedom is the gift of God’s grace. And Christian faith speaks about the grace of God not as an idea but as an act of God: an act which reveals itself as grace in Jesus Christ, that is, in a historical event. This assertion cannot be proved by philosophy; indeed, it is a stumbling block, a scandalon for rational thinking. And therefore I must ask Ogden whether what he calls the inconsistency of my proposal is not rather the legitimate and necessary character of what the New Testament calls the stumbling block? [Italics ours.]
The next major development in the discussion came, so to speak, from the centre, from a pupil of Bultmann’s, Ernst Käsemann, who, in 1953 raised the question as to whether or not Bultmann was, in fact, doing justice to the New Testament. In his essay, ‘Das Problem des historischen Jesus’, (Originally published in ZTK 51 , 125-53, and then reprinted in Käsemann’s collected essays, Exegetische Versuche und Besinnungen I , 187-214. ET in E. Käsemann, Essays on New Testament Themes , pp. 15-47.) he sounded a warning about the danger of a position in which there was not a real and material continuity between the historical Jesus and the kerygmatic Christ: the danger of falling into Docetism, or of having faith degenerate into a mere mysticism or moralism. But the important thing about the essay is not his warning in itself; but the fact that Käsemann was able to support it by observing that the synoptic gospels are more concerned with the pastness of Jesus and his ministry than Bultmann’s position, built largely on an exposition of John and Paul, would allow. Not that the gospels are uniform in their understanding of the relationship of the past ministry and present life in faith, far from it. They agree that the ‘once’ of Jesus’ ministry has become the ‘once for all’ of revelation (we may put it: the chronos of Jesus has become the kairos of faith), but the relationship between the ‘now’ and the ‘then is a problem for them, and a problem for which they find their several different solutions.
The really important thing about Käsemann’s essay is this challenge to a consideration of the synoptic tradition, for the problem of the historical Jesus is ultimately a problem for us because of the material in the synoptic gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. If our New Testament consisted of the gospel of John, the epistles and the apocalypse we would have no problem, for we would have nothing in any way relevant to what we would call the historical Jesus. If it were not for the synoptic gospels and Acts, Bultmann’s position would be unassailable; the remainder of the New Testament certainly has no interest in what we would call the historical Jesus, apart from the ‘thatness’ of this Jesus and his cross. So the discussion ought to have turned to an intensive consideration of the synoptic tradition, especially since we now had form criticism to guide us as to the true nature of that tradition, but unfortunately it did this only in part. The issues which were taken up most immediately and most vigorously in the subsequent discussion were, rather, those of the question of continuity between the Christ of the kerygma and the historical Jesus, and of the significance of an existentialist view of history in connection with the ‘problem of the historical Jesus’.
The final point in Käsemann’s essay is, in effect, an exploration of our actual (i.e. post-form-critical) knowledge of the historical Jesus, in order to show that we are able to say that the messianic claims of Jesus explicit in the kerygma are already implicit in the teaching of Jesus. So the continuity between the historical Jesus and the kerygmatic Christ is already more than merely chronological; it is material in that it is a continuity between implicit and explicit messiahship. Actually, Bultmann himself had used the term ‘implicit Christology’ in connection with the message of the historical Jesus, so it might be said that Käsemann was only bringing out an element already present in Bultmann’s position. But the subsequent discussion showed that Bultmann was concerned to minimize this element of continuity for the following reasons: (1) he was fearful that historical research might come to be used to legitimate the kerygma, which would be a denial of its nature as kerygma; and (2) he insisted that there can be no real material continuity, because the kerygma lays major emphasis upon a particular understanding of the death of Jesus, whereas we can never know how the historical Jesus understood his own death, and must always face the possibility that he simply broke down before it. (R. Bultmann, ‘The Primitive Christian Kerygma and the Historical Jesus’, The Historical Jesus and the Kerygmatic Christ, pp. 15-42.)
This question of the continuity between historical Jesus and kerygmatic Christ became a major aspect of the discussion, other Bultmann Schüler adding their particular contributions, until eventually it resulted in the development of a wholly new position: the ‘new hermeneutic’ of Ernst Fuchs and Gerhard Ebeling. (The New Hermeneutic, ed. J. Cobb and James M. Robinson . G. Ebeling, The Nature of Faith ; Word and Faith ; Theologie und Verkundigung . E. Fuchs, Studies of the Historical Jesus . E. Jüngel, Paulus und Jesus .James M. Robinson, ‘Neo-Liberalism’, Interpretation 15 , 484-91; ‘The New Hermeneutic at Work’, ibid. 18 , 347-59.)
To understand the ‘new hermeneutic’ it helps to recognize that it grew out of the exploration of the continuity between the historical Jesus and the kerygmatic Christ, which, of course, in view of form criticism, is necessarily a question of the continuity between the message of Jesus, to the limited extent that we know it, and the kerygma proclaiming the Christ. Fuchs and Ebeling brought to this exploration the conception of a ‘word-event’ (Wortgeschehen or Sprachereignis), i.e. a reality which is manifest in language itself (with obvious dependence on Heidegger’s ‘language is the house of being’), and in particular the conception of faith as ‘word-event’. In the message of Jesus, faith is manifest as such a word-event because Jesus himself by virtue of a decision he himself had made over against the reality of God and the possibility of his own fate, is the witness of faith. Since he is the witness to faith, faith comes to word, i.e. it is manifest as word-event, in him, and particularly in his message. The continuity with the kerygmatic Christ is that faith is also manifest as word-event in the kerygma, and this continuity is particularly strong in that the believer, in responding to the kerygma, actually echoes the original decision which Jesus had made. So the witness of faith becomes the ground of faith, and faith, as word-event, is the element of continuity between the message of Jesus and the kerygma of the early Church.
For Fuchs and Ebeling, we may say, faith comes to word or language in Jesus for those who heard his message and for subsequent generations in the Church’s message about him. This is the continuity of proclamation and the continuity of faith coming to word or language in proclamation for the believer. So far as we are concerned, the primary source in which we hear the word being proclaimed is the New Testament; thus, the New Testament is to be interpreted in such a manner as to facilitate the coming of faith to word or language for us through its words. A true existentialist interpretation of the New Testament is one through which faith comes to be word- or language-event for us, and the hermeneutic by means of which this is to be achieved is the ‘new hermeneutic’.
In this new and interesting development, hermeneutic has, in effect, taken the place of kerygma and a concern for an existentialist interpretation of the kerygma has been modified by a concern for the historical Jesus until it has become a concern for an existentialist interpretation of the New Testament -- now seen not as a source book for knowledge of the historical Jesus, as in the older liberalism, but as a means whereby that faith which came to word or language in Jesus may come to be word- or language-event for us. James M. Robinson appropriately suggests that this position be designated ‘Neo-liberalism
This bald summary is only a caricature of this most recent development, but we hope it is sufficient to show that we do, indeed, have here a new theological position. By pushing a Lutheran emphasis upon faith to an extreme, Fuchs and Ebeling have arrived at a point at which faith is practically personified. By taking a Lutheran emphasis upon the Word to a similar extreme, they have achieved a concept of faith coming into being or being manifested in ‘word’ or ‘language’, and so have made a new use of the parallel between the message of Jesus and the message about Jesus. By being prepared to think of decisions which Jesus himself made and in which the believer imitates him, they have reached a point at which they are restating a position which Schleiermacher and Harnack would surely have recognized, despite the difference in conceptualization.
Bultmann has reacted very sharply against this development, which he accuses of psychologizing about Jesus in the manner of an already discredited liberalism. (In his essay ‘The primitive Christian Kerygma and the Historical Jesus’, The Historical Jesus and the Kerygmatic Christ, esp. p. 33.) In the light of Bultmann’s criticism Ebeling carefully restated his position, (In his Theologie und Verkündigung, pp. 19-82; 119-25.) making the following points:
1. It is not a case of psychologizing about Jesus but of recognizing that a person is necessarily involved in his word, that the message necessarily involves the messenger, that a message challenging to faith necessarily involves a witnessing to faith on the part of the messenger.
2. Bultmann himself speaks of the Proclaimer becoming the Proclaimed. In the new terminology Ebeling is using, this is expressed as the witness to faith becoming the ground of faith.
3. The kerygma as such is kerygma by act of God, but it needs historical knowledge for its proper interpretation. Since it identifies kerygmatic Christ and historical Jesus, knowledge of the historical Jesus may properly be used to interpret the kerygma.
It is clear that we are only at the beginning of what promises to be a most lively discussion.
The second of the issues raised in the discussion sparked by the publication of Käsemann’s essay was that of the significance of an existentialist historiography in connection with our problem. This arose in connection with the concern for parallels between the message of Jesus and the message about him, parallels between the proclamation of Jesus and the kerygma of the early Church. Käsemann had pointed to the parallel between the implicit Christology of the message of Jesus and the explicit Christology of the kerygma, and the subsequent exploration of such parallels became a major feature of what came to be called the ‘new quest of the historical Jesus’. We might mention particularly the work of Herbert Braun, who argued that throughout the New Testament, from the message of Jesus to the developed kerygma of the Hellenistic church, there is a constant and a variable. The constant is the self-understanding of a man before God, the anthropology; the variable is the expression of the significance attached to Jesus, the Christology (implicit and explicit). (H. Brawn, ‘Der Sinn der neutestamentlichen Christologie’, ZTK 54 ’ 341-77 [ = H. Braun, Gesammelte Studien zum Neuen Testament und seiner Umwelt (Tübingen:J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1962), 243-82]. See also his essay ‘The Significance of Qumran for the Problem of the Historical Jesus’, The Historical Jesus and the Kerygmatic Christ, pp. 69-78.) In 1959 James M. Robinson published his New Quest of the Historical Jesus in which he gave this new movement both its title and its definitive form. He explored the parallels already pointed out between the message of and about Jesus, and he added to them some of his own derived from a study of the Kingdom sayings. Then, in addition, he took the post-Diltheyan, modern, existentialist historiography which seeks to mediate an encounter with the past at the level of self-understanding, and approached the historical Jesus and his message in this way. Now we have two sets of parallels: between the historical Jesus and the kerygmatic Christ at the level of meaning of the message of and about the one and the other, and between the encounters mediated by modern historiography with the one and by kerygmatic proclamation with the other. ‘It is because modern historiography mediates an existential encounter with Jesus, an encounter also mediated by the kerygma, that modern historiography is of great importance to Christian faith.’ In the encounter with Jesus, one is confronted ‘. . . with the skandalon of recognizing in this all-too-human Jewish eschatological message the eternal word of God’, which means that in the encounter with Jesus, ‘one is confronted by the same existential decision as that posed by the kerygma’. So one has proved all that can be proved by a new quest of the historical Jesus: not that the kerygma is true, but rather that the existential decision with regard to the kerygma is an existential decision with regard to Jesus’. (James M. Robinson, A New Quest of the Historical Jesus, pp. 90,92.)
The immediate retort to this, made by R. H. Fuller and echoed with approval by Bultmann, was that’. . . the effort to demonstrate the continuity between Jesus and the kerygma may so blur the difference between them as to make the kerygma unnecessary (R. H. Fuller, ATR 41 , p. 234. R. Bultmann, ‘The Primitive Kerygma . . .’, Historical Jesus and Kerygmatic Christ, ed. Braaten and Harrisville , p. 39.) In reply to this criticism, and to others made by Bultmann himself; Robinson reformulated his position in an essay ‘The Recent Debate on the New Quest’. (JBR 30 , 198-208.) In this essay a good deal of the emphasis upon the encounter with the historical Jesus by means of an existentialist historiography was quietly dropped, and attention was more sharply focused on the basic parallel between the message of Jesus and the kerygma of the early Church, and on the significance of scholarly study of the message of Jesus for the Church.
The responsibility of Christians today is to proclaim the kerygma in our situation, but ‘. . . we must nevertheless implement the kerygma’s claim to be proclaiming a Lord who is at one with Jesus, and we must do this by critical participation in the discussion of the Jesus-tradition of our day’. (James M. Robinson, ibid., p.204.) So it is, to use our own words, the Church’s identification of the risen Lord with the earthly Jesus that poses for us the problem of the relationship between the two figures, and demands an answer to the question of the significance of historical knowledge of the latter. That identification by the early Church requires at least that the Christ proclaimed by the kerygma be consistent with what we come to know of the historical Jesus. For Robinson, the particular function of the ‘new quest’ is to investigate, not the self-consciousness of Jesus, for which we have no sources, ‘but the understanding of existence which emerged in history from his words and deeds’, (Ibid., p. 200.) i.e. is implicit in his teaching and in the fact that he accepted the cross.’. . . it is the implicitness of the kerygma in Jesus’ understanding of existence that is required by the kerygma, if that reference is in fact a fitting one.’ (Ibid., p. 202.)
The last point in Robinson’s essay, and a shrewd one, is, in effect, an argument that the kerygma has a content, for ‘kerygma’ means both the act of proclamation and the content of proclamation. Since the kerygma has a content, historical study of a past form of the kerygma, e.g. the pre-Pauline Hellenistic kerygma or the Palestinian kerygma, can serve ‘. . . not to replace the (contemporary) minister’s preaching but to improve it’. (Ibid., 207.) But, in regard to historical study, there is no difference between historical-critical study of a past form of the kerygma arid that study of the teaching of Jesus. So’. . . in our situation the historical study of Jesus is not of the esse of preaching, but it belongs to its bene esse’. (Ibid.)
It seems to us that there are a number of promising points in this statement of the ‘new quest’ position, and when we develop our own position below it will be seen that we are indebted to it at several places. However, there are three things we would like to say at this stage about the ‘new quest’ position as a whole, as Robinson has defined it.
In the first place, the quiet but drastic step taken by Robinson between the publication of his book and his essay, of abandoning the concept of an existential encounter with Jesus mediated by a modern historiography in favor of something much less dramatic, is an absolutely essential step to take. No modern historiography can mediate ‘. . . an existential encounter with Jesus’, if only because we do not have the materials necessary to reconstruct the complete figure we would need for such an encounter. In this respect, form criticism is as lethal to this kind of ‘modern historiography’ as it was to the liberal life of Christ research, and the imagination of an existentialist ‘new quester’ would have to be every bit as active as was that of any liberal ‘old quester’.
Then, secondly, it must be recognized that the ‘new quest’ is not, in fact, all that new. True, it tends to ask rather different questions, such as those concerning the understanding of existence implicit in Jesus’ teaching, but its work is still based on exactly the same kind of historical-critical methodology as that used by Bultmann or Jeremias. It has to begin by asking the questions that have always been asked: What did Jesus mean by ‘Kingdom of God’? Did he assert the coming of the ‘Son of man’? How was his work related to that of the Baptist? And so on. Only when it has established a core of authentic sayings, etc., can it go on to ask about an understanding of existence which emerges into history from them. When Robinson, after recognizing this, goes on to observe ‘. . . that material regarded as wholly "unauthentic" in terms of a positivistic historiography may not seem nearly so "unauthentic" in terms of modern historiography’, (James M. Robinson, A New Quest of the Historical Jesus, p. 99 n. 2.) then he is either talking about a rather special form of our ‘criterion of coherence’, or he is talking nonsense. One may certainly accept sayings which reflect the same ‘understanding of existence’ as that found in indubitably genuine sayings, but to go beyond that is to run the risk, again, of doing in terms of the new existentialism what was done in terms of the old liberalism. Unless we exercise all possible care, it is just as easy for ‘Jesus’ understanding of existence’ to become ‘my understanding of existence’ as it was for ‘Jesus’ moral principles’ to become the liberal scholar’s ideals.
Then, finally, a weakness in the ‘new quest’ position is that it simply assumes the identity of historical Jesus and kerygmatic Christ, arguing that the kerygma and modern historiography provide us with two avenues of access to the same Jesus, or at any rate, have reference, on the one hand, to Jesus, and, on the other, to the Lord who is at one with Jesus. This is a bold assumption indeed! In the first place, it ignores the variety of kerygmata in the New Testament itself the existence, in fact, of a multiplicity of Christs of different kerygmata; and in the second place, it ignores equally the possibility of tension between the results of historical-critical research and the kerygmata of the New Testament. Are we, for example, to assume that the implicit Christology of the ministry of Jesus corresponds to each of the explicit New Testament Christologies: proto-gnostic heavenly redeemer, fiercely apocalyptic Son of man, Hellenistically oriented Lord, Judaistic Son of God, etc.? And are we further to assume that our historical research will always point to parallels between the message of Jesus and a form of the kerygma, and never to differences? Surely, both of these assumptions are unjustified. The Christologies of the various forms of the kerygmata known to us from the New Testament and Christian history are not necessarily coherent with one another, still less necessarily consistent with the teaching of the historical Jesus, and historical research may well raise problems for a form of the kerygma, as, for example, research into the eschatology of Jesus raised problems for the older liberalism.
Before turning to our own considerations of these matters, there is one last contribution to the discussion to be noted: Ernst Käsemann’s recently published essay, ‘Sackgassen im Streit um den historischen Jesus’. (Published in his second volume of collected essays, Exegetische Versuche und Besinnungen II , 31 -68. See our review of this volume, JBL 85 , 462f).
In this he enters into vigorous debate with two viewpoints expressed during the discussion, those of Jeremias and Braun, and with Bultmann’s rejoinder to his own pupils and definitive statement of his own position in light of the discussion: ‘The Primitive Christian Kerygma and the Historical Jesus’. From the perspective of our present purpose, however, this aspect of the essay is not what matters most. More important to us is the fact that he seeks to further the discussion by focusing attention sharply upon the phenomena present in the synoptic tradition and the contrast between this and the remainder of the New Testament. Beginning with the New Testament apart from the synoptic gospels, he points out that it is absolutely remarkable how small a role the earthly Jesus plays in the tradition. Apart from a few sayings and reflections on the history of Jesus, only the cross has theological relevance, and not only the history in general, but also the cross in particular has been so overlaid with mythological interpretation and parenetic application that the historical phenomena are more hidden than revealed. In the synoptic tradition, on the other hand, although the same mythological overlay and parenetic application is there, the fact remains that we do have what we would call historical material and historicizing tendencies in a way we do not have elsewhere in the New Testament. Käsemann’s way of formulating this is to say that while the dimension of the past of the gospel and of Christology in Paul and John can be overshadowed by the present and future, in the case of the synoptic gospels this past dimension is dominant in the proclamation, even though it is being made to serve the kerygmatic and parenetic purposes of the present. In this phenomenon our theological problem is revealed and we must explore it and its significance to solve the problem.
On this point we are absolutely in agreement. One must investigate the theological significance of the very fact of the existence of the synoptic tradition, and the significance of its essential nature, in order to throw light on the problem of the historical Jesus. Indeed, we would go further than Käsemann, who against Bultmann still wants to explore the question of continuity between historical Jesus and kerygmatic Christ, for we would limit the question of continuity to the question of whether the Christ proclaimed in a form of the kerygma is consistent with the historical Jesus.
In order to clarify the points at issue in the current discussion, we may say that it is a discussion involving three different kinds of knowledge. First, there is the essentially descriptive historical knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth with which we have been concerned all through this book. Then, secondly, there are those aspects of this knowledge which, like aspects of historical knowledge of any figure from the past, can become significant to us in our present in various ways. Thirdly, there is knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth which is significant only in the context of specifically Christian faith, i.e. knowledge of him of a kind dependent upon the acknowledgement of him as Lord and Christ.
Let us say something about each of these kinds of knowledge. The first, the descriptive historical knowledge, is the post-Enlightenment historical knowledge. It is difficult to achieve for the reasons discussed at the end of our first chapter, but it is our claim that it can be achieved by the appropriate hermeneutical methodology. When it is achieved, its very existence raises the question of its significance, apart, of course, from the significance it has as a series of more or less interesting facts from the past. This knowledge is ‘hard’ knowledge, by which we mean that it exists independently of any specific interest in it or usefulness to be ascribed to it, or, indeed, independently of any lack of interest in it or even danger found to be inherent in it.
The second kind of knowledge with which we are concerned is essentially a selection from the collection of ‘hard’ historical knowledge. Some of this knowledge will be found to be directly significant, in various ways, to a man of today. But such significance will depend upon the establishment of some point of contact between that knowledge from the past and the situation of the man in the present. So, for example, the existentialist analysis of the nature of human existence, with its emphasis upon ‘self-understanding’, or ‘understanding of existence’, establishes a point of contact between the figure from the past and the man in the present. Since the man in the past is, so to speak, also existential man, it may be possible to discern the self-understanding implied in what we know of that man and so establish our contact with him at the level of self-understanding. Other kinds of contact are also possible. For example, modern artists have found themselves challenged by primitive man at the common level of the use of symbols; a modern humanist could be influenced by, say, the historical Socrates, because of a common devotion to a certain understanding of the meaning and significance of truth; and so on. Historical knowledge from the past becomes directly significant, i.e. it becomes historic knowledge, to us in our present in so far as it ‘speaks to our condition’, ‘has a direct point of contact with us’, or the like.
The third kind of knowledge becomes significant to us at the level of religious faith, belief or commitment. It is distinct from the second in that it is particular, i.e. for the individual concerned it has a value beyond that to be ascribed to any other historical knowledge, or to knowledge of any other historical individual. Also, it is particular in the sense that it has this value only to certain individuals or groups, those who share the particular faith, belief or commitment. It is also distinct from both the first and the second in that it is not necessarily historical knowledge. Historical knowledge can come to have this significance, but then so can myth, legend, saga -- and any combination of these!
Perhaps we can make our point about these three kinds of knowledge clearer by means of some examples. Let us call the first kind of knowledge ‘historical knowledge’, the second ‘historic knowledge’ and the third ‘faith-knowledge’.
‘Historical knowledge’ of Jesus of Nazareth might be held to Include the fact that he accepted his death as the necessary consequence of his proclamation of the Kingdom, and of his ‘table-fellowship of the Kingdom’ with ‘tax collectors and sinners’, and that he went to the cross with a sure confidence that it would ultimately serve, and not hinder, the purpose of God. (We are using this as an example without necessarily claiming that this is ‘hard’ historical knowledge, in fact, it could be very strongly argued.) Similarly, it might be held to be a fact that Socrates accepted his death as the necessary consequence of his own innermost convictions, and drank the hemlock with a serenity arising out of the courage of those convictions. Finally, to give a more recent example, it has been held that, in early March, 1912, Captain Oates, ‘who was too ill to travel further, walked out into a blizzard, hoping, by his sacrifice, to save his companions (of the Scott Antarctica expedition)’ (Encyclopedia Britannica 20 , 179.) These are three examples of historical knowledge and, as such, they are subject to correction and change on the basis of further research or discovery. So it is theoretically possible, however practically doubtful, that we may one day have to concede that Jesus was carried to the cross, railing against God and his fate; that Socrates had to have his jaws forced open to drink the hemlock; or that Oates’s companions drove him out of the tent into the blizzard. If this were to happen, we would simply be exchanging one historical fact, now discredited, for another, and the exchange would make no specific difference beyond this, at the level of historical fact or historical knowledge.
Historical knowledge can, however, under certain circumstances become ‘historic knowledge’, i.e. it can assume a direct significance for the present. So, to stay with our examples, the historical knowledge of Jesus’ acceptance of the cross can become historic knowledge as it influences a future time which finds itself touched or moved by it in some way. So, also, can Socrates’ acceptance of the hemlock, or Oates’s sacrifice on behalf of his friends. We move from the historical to the historic as the event from the past assumes a direct significance for a future time. We are thinking of a significance other than that which the event has as part of the chain of causation which has produced the later time. Historic knowledge has a direct, even personal or existential, significance for a later time and its people, or, at any rate, for some of them. Historic knowledge can be affected by the vicissitudes of historical factuality. A Jesus railing against God and his fate, a Socrates being forced to drink the hemlock or an Oates being driven out into the blizzard would have historic significance of a kind very different from that ascribed to these men immediately above.
‘Faith-knowledge’ depends upon special worth being attributed to the person concerned, so that knowledge of that person assumes a significance beyond the historic. Historic significance can be attributed to almost any number of people from the past, certainly to all three of our examples, but ‘faith-knowledge’ could be attributed only to the one figure who comes to be of special significance in terms of revelation, religious experience, religious belief. Also, the use of these categories necessarily introduces a reference to a transhistorical reality -- strictly speaking, a non-historical reality -- in that it introduces the idea of God and his activity. So, for the Christian, it is possible to say: ‘Christ died for my sins in accordance with the scriptures.’ This, however, is a statement of faith, not of history in the normal sense. It is faith-knowledge, not historical knowledge. It depends upon recognition of Jesus as the ‘Christ, the Son of the living God’; it necessitates a recognition of his death as having significance in terms of the religious concept ‘my sins’; and it requires that the cross be recognized as being in accordance with the ‘definite plan and foreknowledge of God’ as this is said to be revealed in the sacred writings of the Jews. None of this is history in the post-Enlightenment sense of that word; nor is it dependent upon the manner or mode of the death of Jesus, only on the fact that it happened. The value here ascribed to that death is not ascribed to it because of what Jesus did, but because of what God is regarded as having done. The death of Jesus is not efficacious for ‘my sins’ because he died nobly, or because he showed confidence in God, but because the cross is believed to have fulfilled the purpose of God. That Jesus died nobly or showed confidence in God are historical statements, subject to the vicissitudes of historical research, but that his death fulfilled the purpose of God in regard to ‘my sins’ is certainly not such a statement, and it lies beyond the power of the historian even to consider it, even though, as a Christian, he might believe it.
We should make it clear that the ‘historic Christ’ of which Kähler speaks is, according to our definition of the terms, not the ‘historic Jesus’. Kähler speaks of the Christ of the gospels in all the fulfillment of his significance for faith; he is, therefore, making faith statements and speaking of the Christ of faith, not of the historic Jesus about whom one could make statements of the kind one could make about the historic Socrates or the historic Oates. What we are doing, in effect, is attempting further to refine the terminology in light of the distinctions introduced into the discussion since Kähler wrote.
These distinctions we have made are important to the contemporary discussion, for the discussion really turns upon a recognition of these three different kinds of knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth. The historical sciences have given us historical knowledge of Jesus, as they have given us such knowledge of other figures from the past. Then, especially in the last few decades, we have become aware of historic knowledge of Jesus, as of such knowledge of other figures. Finally, we have come to distinguish faith and faith-knowledge from history and historical knowledge, largely under the influence of Bultmann.
Let us now briefly reconsider some aspects of the discussion we have portrayed, making use of the distinctions we have suggested.
Bultmann’s position becomes immediately clear. He grants that we have historical knowledge of Jesus, although limited in extent and not including any knowledge of how he understood his own death. (R. Bultmann, ‘The Primitive Kerygma . . .’ The Historical Jesus and the Kerygmatic Christ, pp. 22ff.) So also we have historic knowledge of him; we can encounter him as historical phenomenon at the level of historic significance.(R. Bultmann, ‘Reply to the Theses of J. Schniewind’, Kerygma and Myth, p. 117.) Finally, and quite distinct from this latter, we have ‘faith-knowledge’ of him; we encounter him as the eschatological phenomenon in the proclamation. True, this Jesus of the kerygma, this Jesus of faith-knowledge, encounters us in our historic situation, but he is not the historic Jesus, he is the Christ, the eschatological Jesus. Our encounter with him is not like an encounter with the historic Socrates, or with any other historic figure, but it is an eschatological encounter: it changes everything for us and brings our old history to a close, opening up for us a new history and a new future as no other encounter with a figure from the past could do. Even this figure from the past can only do so because, as the eschatological figure, he becomes present for us in the proclamation, and present for us as eschatological act of God.
The attack upon Bultmann’s position from the right seeks to establish closer links than Bultmann will allow between historical knowledge and faith-knowledge, between the first and third of our categories. The attack upon Bultmann from the left attempts to make the third category only a variant of the second, so that Jesus becomes not the eschatological, but only a (or, the) supreme historic figure. So, from the right, Jeremias can argue that historical knowledge is directly related to faith-knowledge. The incarnate Word is revelation, not the preaching of the Church. The proclamation is witness to the revelation, not itself the revelation. ‘To put it bluntly, revelation does not take place from eleven to twelve o’clock on Sunday morning.’ (J. Jeremias, The Problem of the Historical Jesus, p. 23.) From the opposite viewpoint, from the left, Jaspers and Ogden can argue, in effect that faith-knowledge is only a special kind of historic knowledge. Jesus, as an example of existential relationship to the transcendent which the philosopher seeks to emulate, is a historic figure, not a faith image. So also is the Jesus who reveals the primordial love of God which can also be known elsewhere than in him. In these viewpoints, even if it can be claimed that we have a kind of residual reference to the transhistorical reality, God, we certainly do not have an unrepeatable uniqueness ascribed to Jesus. The faith-knowledge has become historic knowledge.
At this point we are at a parting of the ways, so far as the discussion of the ‘question of the historical Jesus’ is concerned, for here we have fundamental presuppositions as to the nature of faith and the significance of history. On the right we have the presupposition that the Incarnation -- or the biblical concept of God active in history, or the traditional view of Christianity as related to certain revelational events in history, or the like -- that this demands a real and close relationship between historical knowledge and faith-knowledge, and that justice must be done to this in our discussion of the question of the historical Jesus. On the left we have the conviction that, even if we may speak meaningfully of God or the transcendent, none the less the essential relativity of all historical events means that we cannot think in terms of a knowledge of Jesus that is different in kind from knowledge we may have of other historical persons. So, either Jesus becomes an example of an existential relationship with the transcendent, supreme but capable of being imitated (Jaspers), or he becomes the ‘decisive’ manifestation of that which may also be known elsewhere (Ogden). No doubt other variations on this theme could be found, but they would all be variations on the one theme, that faith-knowledge is historic knowledge. What we know in Jesus may be ‘decisive’, but it is not different in kind from what may be known elsewhere. Finally, in the centre, we have Bultmann, whose position may be expressed, in our terms, as maintaining that the three kinds of knowledge are separate and must be kept separate. (This, we would claim, is true for Bultmann even though, in his concern for ‘demythologizing’, he is prepared to describe almost all of the faith-knowledge in terms of historic knowledge.)
Meaningful debate between representatives of these three positions is difficult, for sooner or later that debate will run aground on the hard rock of the very different fundamental presuppositions. We saw that happening above, in the case of Jeremias over against Bultmann, and in that of Bultmann over against both Jaspers and Ogden. Examples could readily be multiplied from the history of the discussion. (Because of their representative nature, the following would be of special interest: E. Ellwein, E. Kinder and W. Künneth in Kerygma and History, ed. C. E. Braaten and R. A. Harrisville [New York: Abingdon, 1962], pp. 25-119 [representing an orthodox Lutheranism against Bultmann], and R. E. Brown, ‘After Bultmann, What ? -- An Introduction to the post-Bultmannians’, CBQ 26 , 1-30 [representing Roman Catholicism]). When this happens, the debate may become a sympathetic agreement to differ, or it may degenerate into strident disagreement, but it has no future as debate. So at this point the scholar or student finds himself in one of three different groups, according to his basic presuppositions, and from this point on he will be involved in one of three quite different discussions. The question of the historical Jesus has to be faced and discussed, in accordance with one’s basic presuppositions, in light of the challenge issuing from the other groups and the developments and changes going on in one’s own.
Our own presuppositions are such that we find ourselves in what we regard as the centre, with Bultmann, for we find ourselves ‘feeling’ that the three kinds of knowledge we have described do exist, are different, and should be kept separate. Empirical historical knowledge is a special kind of knowledge and the question of its existence, factuality or truth should always be kept separate from that of its significance. ‘Historic’ or significant knowledge from the past should always be subject to the tests of demonstrating that it is, indeed, historical knowledge and that the avenue, channel or point of contact between it and the man from whom it becomes significant in the present can be defined. Religious or ‘faith’ knowledge, on the other hand, should be subject to quite different tests: the understanding of ultimate reality it mediates, the kind of religious experience it inspires, the quality of personal and communal life it makes possible, and so on. It may also be subjected to the test of determining whether or not the knowledge is also factual or true in an empirical historical sense, so far as any such test is possible in connection with it, but it must always be recognized that although historical knowledge can have this kind of significance, this kind of significance is not limited to knowledge that is also historical.
If we consider the ‘new hermeneutic’ in the light of our distinction between these three kinds of knowledge, a Bultmannian distinction which was the starting-point for the work of Fuchs and Ebeling, then we see that the movement does, in practice, tend to abandon it. This is most clearly to be seen in the work of E. Jüngel, Fuchs’s pupil, for he reviews the academic historical investigation of the parables of Jesus in recent times and climaxes this review with the following statement: ‘The Kingdom comes to word in parable as parable. The parables of Jesus bring the Kingdom to word as parable.’ (E. Jüngel, Paulus und Jesus, p. 135. the statement is italicized by Jüngel Now whatever this may mean, it is clearly a faith statement rather than a historical statement (which would have to be limited to: ‘Jesus intended to bring the Kingdom to word . . .’ or ‘Jesus’ hearers believed that he brought the Kingdom . . .’ or the like). Occurring as it does in the context of a review of one of the most spectacularly successful empirical historical investigations in the whole field of life of Christ research, it is clear evidence of a tendency of the ‘new hermeneutic’ to blur the distinction between statements possible on the basis of academic historical research and statements possible only on the basis of faith.
The same tendency is very much to be found in the work of Ernst Fuchs himself. One can open his book of Studies of the Historical Jesus almost at random and find evidence of it. Take, for example, the following:
The starting point of Jesus’ proclamation in the Synoptics is Jesus’ full authority to gather a people for God under the banner of the rule of God (cf. Matt. 9.8). This authority . . . answers the questions: What do you pray for? or, For whom do you pray? Jesus’ faith leads him to prayer for the heavy laden, for the poor and for the disciples (cf. by contrast the unmerciful servant, Matt. 18.23-35). In the future faith in Jesus will continue this prayer, even though Paul is undecided whether or not he should at once pray for the day of the Lord (Rom. 8.26). For faith it is sufficient that God has listened to Jesus (Heb. 5.7; John 17.10). (E. Fuchs, Studies of the Historical Jesus, p. 63.)
This begins with a historical statement, namely (to use our words), that the starting-point of the message of Jesus in the synoptic gospels is the authority of Jesus to proclaim the Kingdom and to gather together Jew and ‘Jew who had made himself as Gentile’ into the table-fellowship of that Kingdom. Then it ends with the faith statement: ‘For faith it is sufficient that God had listened to Jesus.’ It is clear that Fuchs is able to move from the one to the other because of his concept of faith as a ‘language event’. The faith that comes to word in Jesus is the root of the authority he had; thence, the faith come to word in Jesus becomes Jesus’ faith, and leads to the thought of Jesus’ prayer life; from there we move to faith come to word in the future for men of the future, and their prayer practice; and, finally, we arrive at the climactic faith statement. All this may be in accordance with the ‘new hermeneutic’, but it is a clear abandoning of hard-won distinctions and of the gains from hard-fought battles. (We might also add that it is an overloading and overworking of the concept ‘faith’, which is being used in a variety of ways. One of our challenges to the ‘new hermeneutic’ must be that it should define and clarify its use of ‘faith’.) For a hundred and fifty years we have been struggling to clarify issues and gain understanding. Are we to throw all this away in an attempt to make the historical Jesus relevant to faith by abandoning legitimate and -- we would claim -- necessary distinctions? This, it seems to us, is what the ‘new hermeneutic’ is in danger of doing.
The ‘new quest’ position also can be approached from the standpoint of this distinction between the three different kinds of knowledge. As represented by Robinson’s New Quest of the Historical Jesus it formally abandons the distinction between faith-knowledge and historic knowledge. His later position, however, seems to restore this distinction and to claim, rather, that historic knowledge of Jesus (and, by implication, historical knowledge also) may be used ‘to improve’ the faith-knowledge, i.e. to serve as corrective, where necessary, and as supplement to that knowledge. Our own position approximates to this, so we will now discuss the issues as we ourselves see them.
We start from the premise that the three different kinds of knowledge we have described actually exist, and that the distinctions we have made can and must be made when we consider our knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth. This does not answer the ‘question of the historical Jesus’, but rather raises it in what we regard as its proper form, namely: What is the relationship between the three kinds of knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth that we may be said to possess?
Let us consider, first, our faith-knowledge of Jesus. This arises in response to the challenge of the proclamation of the Church; the recent discussion and our own experience have convinced us of this. There are, of course, many different forms of proclamation, including historical narrative, myth and legend. But the claim of faith must be that there is a distinguishing characteristic of each and all of these many possible forms of proclamation: the ability to mediate the encounter of faith with the Christ present to faith in them. In this respect we wholeheartedly accept the contention of Kähler and Bultmann.
Let us spend a moment to distinguish between kerygmatic Christ and historical Jesus as we would see the matter. As a product of an Anglo-Saxon liberal Baptist tradition we have been taught to ‘believe in Jesus’, and all the various forms of proclamation to which we have been subject have served to produce for us what we would call a ‘faith-image’ of this Jesus. Part of this faith-image is certainly made up of traits of the liberal historical Jesus, but then the writings of the liberal ‘questers’ were in their own way kerygmatic; the mistake is to claim them as historical. Again, part of the faith-image could be the result of the existential impact of knowledge of Jesus mediated by a modern historiography, historic knowledge, for to a believer brought up in this tradition almost anything that talks about Jesus can become kerygma, that is, it can contribute to the faith-image. This faith-image is, so far as the individual believer is concerned, the kerygmatic Christ, since it is an image mediated to him by the multiple forms of Christian proclamation, and it has to be distinguished from the historical Jesus, even though historical knowledge of Jesus may have been a constituent factor in its creation. It has to be distinguished from the historical Jesus because its ultimate origin is not historical research, but Christian proclamation, even if it may have been historical research which has unwittingly become proclamation, as in the case of much liberal life of Christ research. It also has to be distinguished from the historical Jesus because the results of historical research are not a determining factor in the constituence of this figure; like the Christ of the gospels, the Jesus of one’s faith-image is a mixture of historical reminiscence, at a somewhat distant remove, and myth, legend and idealism. What gives this faith-image validity is the fact that it grows out of religious experience and is capable of mediating religious experience; that it develops in the context of the complex mixture of needs, etc., which originally created, and continues to create, an openness towards the kerygma; and that it can continue to develop to meet those needs.
Historical knowledge of Jesus, then, is significant to faith in that it can contribute to the formation of the faith-image. In a tradition which ‘believes in Jesus’, historical knowledge can be a source for the necessary content of faith. After all, in the Christian use, faith is necessarily faith in something, a believer believes in something, and in so far as that ‘something’ is ‘Jesus’, historical knowledge can help to provide the content, without thereby becoming the main source of that content. The main source will always be the proclamation of the Church, a proclamation arising out of a Christian experience of the risen Lord.
Now there arises immediately the obvious question: If there are so many different forms of proclamation, and, in effect, as many faith-images as there are believers, how do we distinguish true from false? This is a question of peculiar force in America, where the tradition is to ‘believe in Jesus’ and where there are a multitude of conflicting and competing kerygmata; where everything from radical right racism to revolutionary Christian humanism is proclaimed as kerygma, and as Christian. It is also a question of peculiar force to us, because we must fully admit the highly individualistic character of a believer’s faith-image, and yet, at the same time, face the question of which, if any, are to be called ‘Christian’, and so face the necessity of distinguishing true from false. In this situation we introduce the second aspect of our own position: We believe we have the right to appeal to our limited, but real, historical knowledge of Jesus. The true kerygmatic Christ, the justifiable faith-image, is that consistent with the historical Jesus. The significance of the historical Jesus for Christian faith is that knowledge of this Jesus may be used as a means of testing the claims of the Christs presented in the competing kerygmata to be Jesus Christ. To this limited extent our historical knowledge of Jesus validates the Christian kerygma; it does not validate it as kerygma, but it validates it as Christian.
This procedure seems to us to be justified by the facts of life with regard to the synoptic tradition, and the differences between this tradition and the remainder of the New Testament. The theological truth revealed by these facts is that of the complete and absolute identification, by the early Christians, of the earthly Jesus of Nazareth and the risen Lord of Christian experience. To early Christianity the Jesus who had spoken in Galilee and Judea was the Christ who was speaking through prophets and in Christian experience. It is for this reason that we have the remarkable phenomenon of sayings of Jesus being treated as simply part of general Christian instruction in the epistles (e.g. Rom. 14.13, 14, 20). For this reason Paul can speak of words from the Lord and mean words possibly originating from Jesus but heavily reinterpreted in the Church and overlaid with liturgical instructions (I Cor. 11.23-25), because he is completely indifferent as to whether all, some or none had, in fact, been spoken by the earthly Jesus. For this reason the synoptic evangelists can take words originally spoken by Christian prophets (e.g. the apocalyptic Son of man sayings) and ascribe them to Jesus, and can also freely modify and reinterpret sayings in the tradition to make them express their own theological viewpoint (e.g. Mark 9.1 par.) and still ascribe them to Jesus. The tradition outside the synoptic gospels evinces little interest in the earthly Jesus, because Paul, John and the Hellenistic church generally concentrate attention on the risen Christ aspect of the equation earthly Jesus risen Lord. But the synoptic gospels are produced in those same Hellenistic communities, and they concentrate on the earthly Jesus aspect of the equation. But the equation is always there, witness the fact that the epistles can include sayings both of the earthly Jesus and of the risen Lord in their tradition, equally without feeling the need to identify them in any special way. The absolute identification of the earthly Jesus of Nazareth with the risen Lord of Christian experience is the key, and the only key, to understanding the phenomena present in the New Testament tradition. With the rise of modern historical knowledge of Jesus, a phenomenon necessarily absent from the New Testament, this early Christian equation justifies us in using that historical knowledge to test the validity of claims made in the name of Jesus Christ and the authenticity of a kerygma claiming to present Jesus Christ: to be valid and authentic these must be consistent with such knowledge as we have of the historical Jesus.
At this point it may be helpful to refer, by way of an example, to one instance of the kind of thing we have in mind. In the preparation for our previous book, The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus, we had occasion to study the impact of Albert Schweitzer’s konsequente Eschatologie upon English liberal theology. This study has come to illustrate for us the point we are trying to make, for the fact of the matter is that the historical truth that eschatology played a central role in the teaching of Jesus has played a large part in rendering unsatisfactory the kind of Christ we find presented in the work of men like William Sanday, C. W. Emmett or E. F. Scott. (See N. Perrin, Kingdom, pp. 37-57) The Jesus of the older liberal faith-image has to be transformed precisely because he was, in some fundamental respects, inconsistent with the historical Jesus revealed to us as a result of the work set in motion by konsequente Eschatologie.
Knowledge of the historical Jesus is, then, important in that it can contribute positively to the formation of the faith-image, i.e. it can help to provide faith with its necessary content, and in that it can act negatively as a check on false or inappropriate faith-images, or aspects of a faith-image. Can we go beyond this? Yes, we believe we can, and we reach, therefore, the third aspect of our own position: the fact that historical knowledge of Jesus can be directly relevant to faith, apart from aiding in the formation of the faith-image. We reach this by calling attention to the nature of the narratives in the synoptic gospels; like the sayings, they reflect the equation earthly Jesus = risen Lord. So, for example, the confession at Caesarea Philippi and the subsequent instruction to the disciples (Mark 8.27-9.1 par.) may or may not vaguely correspond to some incident in the ministry of Jesus, but in its present form it is an ideal scene in which Jesus = risen Lord, Peter = typical Christian disciple, and the instruction to the disciples = the risen Lord’s instruction to his Church in face of the possibility of persecution (so Mark), or in face of the necessity of settling down to an everyday witness over a long period of time (so Luke). In Matthew the whole thing has become a paradigm of the risen Lord’s relationship with his Church and the consequent authority of that Church. Now this kind of narrative is possible only because of the equation earthly Jesus = risen Lord and the consequent and subsequent equation: Situation in earthly ministry of Jesus = situation in early Church’s experience, which equation is necessarily implied by the methodology of the synoptic evangelists. Incidentally, we have recently had some striking historical evidence for the validity of this equation in that the intensive discussion of the eschatology of Jesus and of earliest Christianity in recent New Testament scholarship has shown that there are remarkable parallels between these eschatologies: both challenge men to a new relationship with God in face of a decisive act of God in human experience (Jesus: Kingdom of God; early Church: Christ as eschatological event), and in both the believer stands in a situation theologically the same, for all the difference of terminology involved. But the claim of the equation earthly ministry of Jesus = situation in early Church’s experience does not depend on the results of recent research in earliest Christian eschatology; it is involved in the very nature of the synoptic gospel narratives. Again here, historical knowledge of Jesus, which normally means historical knowledge of his teaching, brings a new factor into the situation. If the believer in response to the kerygma stands in a relationship with God parallel to that in which a Galilean disciple stood in response to Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God, which the synoptic gospels necessarily claim, then teaching addressed to that latter situation is applicable to the former. In this way historical knowledge of the teaching of Jesus becomes directly applicable to the believer in any age. It is precisely for this reason, of course, that some actual teaching of the earthly Jesus was taken up into the synoptic tradition, and that the very concept of a Jesus tradition came into being.
In what we have said immediately above we have made no attempt to discuss historic knowledge of Jesus, as distinct from historical knowledge. The reason for this is that we regard it simply as an aspect of historical knowledge. As historic knowledge it can influence us individually, as can similar knowledge of any figure from the past. As an aspect of historical knowledge, it can function in the way that historical knowledge, in our view, can function.
To summarize our own position as to the significance of knowledge of the historical Jesus for Christian faith, we are prepared to maintain (1) that the New Testament as a whole implies that Christian faith is necessarily faith in the Christ of the Church’s proclamation, in which proclamation today historical knowledge may play a part, but as proclamation, not historical knowledge. As proclamation it helps to build the faith-image, to provide the content for a faith which ‘believes in Jesus’. Then (2) in face of the varieties of Christian proclamation and in view of the claim inherent in the nature of the synoptic gospel material (earthly Jesus = risen Lord), we may and we must use such historical knowledge of Jesus as we possess to test the validity of the claim of any given form of the Church’s proclamation to be Christian proclamation. Then (3) in view of the further claim inherent in the nature of the synoptic gospel material (situation in earthly ministry of Jesus = situation in early Church’s experience) we may apply historical knowledge of the teaching of Jesus directly to the situation of the believer in any age, always providing, of course, that we can solve the practical problems involved in crossing the barrier of two millennia and radically different Weltanschauungen necessary to do this.