"I Believe.In Jesus Christ, His Only Son, Our Lord": The Earthly Jesus and the Christ of Faith

Article excerpt

Christians recognize that the earthly Jesus can never be captured fully by historical scholarship. They recognize as well that Christian faith is not based on historical reconstructions. These recognitions notwithstanding, Christians insist that some elements of Jesus' life, which are open to historical research, are of central concern to Christian faith.

DURING THE PAST DECADE, scholarly and popular interest in the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth has intensified greatly, especially in North America. Numerous studies, varying widely in religious perspective, evaluation of sources, argumentative rigor and internal consistency, have sought to present an account of Jesus' life on the basis of modern historical methodology.1 Recent literature has burgeoned to such an extent that some commentators now speak of a Third Quest of the historical Jesus as a contemporary sequel to the original quest of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries2 and the new quest inaugurated in 1953 by a seminal address of Ernst Kasemann to fellow students of Rudolf Bultmann.3 In addition to diverging significantly among themselves in their overall portrayals of Jesus of Nazareth, contributors to the Third Quest also differ in assessing the relationship of their historical reconstructions to classical Christian professions of faith in Jesus Christ.

It has long been clear that few have studied Jesus of Nazareth solely out of detached scholarly interest in a prominent figure of the past. On the one hand, declared foes of Christianity, opposed to Christian faith as such or at least to its traditional christological affirmations, have sought to retrieve the historical Jesus as a tool to be used to undermine Christian faith or to replace its confession of Jesus Christ as risen Lord and Son of God with the memory of a purely human political revolutionary or ethical teacher. The classical instance of the first model is Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768), a deist who envisioned Jesus as a failed nationalistic messiah whose disciples stole his body after his crucifixion, drastically altered his message, and successfully disseminated falsehoods about his resurrection and ascension.4 The numerous liberal Protestant practitioners of the nineteenth-century quest who sought, in the words of Albert Schweitzer, to find "the Jesus of history as an ally in the struggle against the tyranny of dogma"5 are cases in point for the second model. On the other hand, such prominent Christian theologians as Eberhard Jungel, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Karl Rahner, and Edward Schillebeeckx have attributed to the historical study of Jesus a considerable role in their presentations of systematic christology.

While obviously differing in religious beliefs and historical judgments, all these authors share the common conviction that faith in Jesus Christ is intimately connected with the factual events of his life. This conviction is not universal: Rudolf Bultmann, for example, held that Christian faith need concern itself only with the fact of Jesus' existence, not with further details of his life,6 and Schubert Ogden has more recently argued that Christian faith relates to the "existential-historical Jesus," or Jesus as known through the earliest apostolic witness, not "the so-called historical Jesus."7 But most authors who investigate the historical Jesus judge that some empirical information about him is, in one way or another, of foundational religious and theological significance. The widespread public interest in such questions, while in part artificially stimulated, reflects a similar presumption on the part of many Christians that the issues under discussion are directly relevant to their religious convictions.

Viewed from the christological perspective suggested by these observations, recent research on the historical Jesus may conveniently be classified into three categories. First, there are authors such as Paul Hollenbach, Burton Mack, and Thomas Sheehan, who with varying nuances in detail seek to supplant Christian faith with an alternative conception of who Jesus was. …