Monday, 20 October 2014

Why the Historical Jesus is Indispensable to Theology

I was recently rereading Scot McKnight’s excellent article in Demise of Authenticity, “Why the Authentic Jesus is of No Use to the Church.” My interest in this rereading has to do with my current work on Lonergan and Meyer, and specifically was to think about how it is that Meyer can consider the historical Jesus to be of great benefit to theology, given McKnight’s reservations on the matter. As I reread McKnight I saw the inklings of an answer: McKnight’s reservations are about the relevance of the authentic Jesus for the church, whereas I was thinking about the relation between the historical Jesus and theology.

It seems to me that one can have a historical Jesus who is not the authentic Jesus, at least not in the sense that McKnight appears to use the latter, i.e. to reference a figure at fundamental variance from the church’s understanding of Jesus of Nazareth. That is, judicious historical study of Jesus of Nazareth could potentially lead one to an understanding of the man that is remarkably congruent both with the evangelists’ understandings and with later Christian interpretation. This is in fact to be expected, at least to some extent, given that the gospels remain our best data for the historical study of Jesus of Nazareth and the church’s understanding of Jesus develops largely out of engagement with those same gospels. I would merely add the caveat that we must not expect history to answer metaphysical questions. That is, the historian is not equipped to offer either a "Yes" or a "No" to the question "Was Jesus the Son of God, second person of the trinity, etc.?"

What I find under-developed (pun intended) in McKnight’s argument is a notion of development. He seems to be resting his argument upon the supposition that the church has an invariant understanding of Jesus of Nazareth, such that if the “authentic Jesus” is one that is at notable variance with this understanding it is no longer that of the church and thus of no use to the church. Of course I have no doubt that Dr. McKnight is well aware that such invariance is not empirically the case, that in fact the church's understanding of Jesus of Nazareth has been remarkably diverse over both time and space. Yet I wonder whether he underestimates the significance of that fact. It has always been in development, even if the fact of development was not fully realized until the 19th century (thank you, John Henry Newman). In fact, Meyer defines one of the central problems of New Testament historiography, and I would extend this to include Christian history up until quite recently, as the need to account for the fact of doctrinal development whilst working with texts written by persons who had not the conceptual apparatus to recognize that their doctrines are the product of and continue to be in development.

The fact of development allows us to make two observations. First, we can define the task of historical Jesus studies as the enterprise committed to understanding Jesus’s role in the development of doctrine that leads from Second Temple Jewish theology to such later articulations as the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian definition, the rejection of the latter by churches such as the Assyrian Church of the East, on into medieval, early modern, and contemporary theological and Christological discourse; in other words, the quest for the historical Jesus becomes not the quest for the “real Jesus” but rather for the Jesus who occupies a significant place in the movement from ancient Judaism, even in fact ancient Israelite religion, to contemporary Christianity. Second, consequent to the first observation, we should understand historical Jesus studies not as an aberration from Christian thought but rather a development therein, and in fact one of the distinctive modes in which Christological discourse has taken over the last two centuries. That this is a mode of Christological discourse markedly open to contributions from non-Christians is itself a theological question of some significant interest. That is to say, McKnight is quite right to state that historical Jesus studies is a fundamentally theological enterprise.

The above brings us also to the distinction between church and theology. The church is an institution, or more properly a number of disparate yet historically related institutions, made up of parishioners, clergy, and, yes, theologians. It is to this latter group in particular that falls a particular interest in and responsibility for the work of theology. Not to say that these are matters of disinterest to parishioners and clergy, but that the theologian has a specialized vocation that contributes to the church in a myriad of fashions. Now, insofar as one supposes the development of doctrine to be a matter of some importance to the work of theology and to the extent that one integrates the historical study of Jesus of Nazareth into the study of the development of doctrine it follows that the historical study of Jesus of Nazareth is a matter of some importance to the work of theology. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that one cannot really understand what happens at, for instance, Nicea, and thus also the urgency of the council’s decisions, without a robust understanding of what gets us from Jesus to the council. And thus we can begin to see the indispensability of the historical Jesus for theology.

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