Jesus and Christian Ethics

Article excerpt

New scholarly approaches account for much of the recent rise of interest in Jesus. Instead of starting from Christological and trinitarian doctrines, scholars have turned to history, literary criticism, and the social sciences to discover the identity and meaning of Jesus. Two conflicting responses based on historical methods appear in the works of John P. Meier and John Dominic Crossan.(1) The well-publicized Jesus Seminar scrupulously sorts biblical texts and the Gospel of Thomas into five layers of authenticity printed in different colors.(2) The "quest for the historical Jesus" has moved into a new phase. First, the 19th-century "lives of Jesus" presented him as a teacher of universal moral truths; then Rudolf Bultmann and the "second quest" portrayed Jesus as the eshatological prophet; now the "third quest" considers him a teacher of unconventional wisdom.(3) Jewish scholars have reclaimed the Jewishness of Jesus.(4) Major recent works on New Testament ethics anchor these teachings in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.(5) The 1994 convention of the CTSA addressed the theme of Jesus for the first time in its fifty-year history.(6)

Revisionist moral theology has generally brought in Jesus via Christological doctrines rather than "from below," i.e. from gospel accounts of Jesus' words and deeds. That too appears to be changing. Jon Sobrino has written the first volume of what promises to be liberation theology's most thorough Christology.(7) Sobrino focuses on Jesus from a conviction that "whenever, in the course of history, Christians have sought to reinvest Christ with his totality, they have returned to Jesus of Nazareth."(8) In his encyclical Veritatis splendor, Pope John Paul II made a similar move to ground Catholic moral teaching in the response of discipleship as portrayed in the dialogue between Jesus and the rich young man in Matt 19:16-22.(9)

Our review of the contemporary appeal to Jesus in Christian ethics and biblical studies will focus in turn on three central issues: the shift from history to ethics as the way to grasp the meaning of biblical texts; the question of whether Jesus is the eschatological prophet of the reign of God or an empirically astute sage; and use of the analogical imagination to move from Scripture to contemporary Christian normative reflection.

From History to Ethics

Interest in Jesus as the center of Christian ethics has increased as the historical-critical method has lost its monopoly in biblical interpretation. In the latter part of the 20th century it seems that ethics may be supplanting history as the primary mode of scriptural interpretation. Questions now focus on the meaning of Jesus rather than on factual knowledge about him. This shift has occurred in part because we have moved from a culture which prized historical fact and objectivity to one which evaluates systems of ideas primarily by their capacity for transforming individuals and society.(10)

In addition, historical method promised an objectivity it has been unable to deliver. New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson notes that "the new quest is carried out in an academic environment far removed from the religious polemics that characterized earlier attempts, and is able at last to deal with Jesus in truly 'historical' terms. It has been an embarrassment, therefore, that the many books generated by the new quest [specifically the work of Meier and Crossan] are no less divergent in their portrayal of Jesus."(11) Many contemporary scholars have abandoned the ideal of establishing who Jesus was with scientific objectivity on the grounds that the historical project cannot be separated from the author's own convictions.(12) Old Testament exegete Bruce C. Birch makes a disclaimer which has become familiar: "I no longer believe that it is possible or desirable to achieve objectivity in the exercise of this method. All interpreters bring their own perspectives and commitments with them to the text. …