History, Theology, and Jesus

Today there was a wonderfully stimulating session in the Theological Interpretation of Christian Scripture group, as a panel of reviewers critically assessed and compared Darrell Bock and Robert Webb (eds.), Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus with Richard B. Hays and Beverly R. Gaventa (eds.), Seeking the Identity of Jesus: A Pilgrimage.

The conversation on the panel swirled around the questions of what it means to read the Bible as Christians; or, how to do greatest justice to the historical narratives contained in the gospels.

In this, I was much more sympathetic to the Hays and Gaventa volume. Their volume strives to cultivate reading strategies for the canonical gospels that witnesses to Jesus. The Bock and Webb volume strives to establish, and explain the coherence of, a dozen key moments in the life of the historical Jesus.

Bock and Webb, along with Michael Bird, spoke of historical Jesus research as a necessary prolegomenon to New Testament Christology and other such study.

No, I don’t think so.

The church has not canonized the historical Jesus, it has canonized four Gospels. We can cultivate a rich theology for the church based on these interpretations, without digging behind them to the “real Jesus” back there in history. In such a practice, inevitably we tell a new story, construct a fifth quite theologically conditioned Jesus of our own. Our fifth Gospel is not the “starting point” for studying the four.

But for all my wariness about the historical project as such, I am not ready to rush into the arms of some versions of an already theologized Jesus, either.

And here I come back (again!) to the challenges posed by those who think that we should be reading the Jesus stories toward Chalcedon. In a line that was quoted a couple of times, Rob Wall spoke of scripture as something along the lines of spirit sanctioned witnesses to Jesus as incarnate Christ. I’m butchering the first and beautiful part of the sentence, in which Wall draws us to give the four canonical gospels their rightful place as starting-point for our Jesus deliberations.

But in articulating that to which they witness in the terms of the divine christology of the later church, the bible has lost the place he seems to be claiming for it, and now Chalcedon has come to take its place.

And so I once again walk away appreciative of both history and theology, but wanting to reiterate what I see as a better theological method: not beginning with the history behind the text, nor beginning with the theology placed in front of the text to refract our vision, but beginning with the stories of Jesus themselves.

9 thoughts on “History, Theology, and Jesus”

  1. Thanks for the summary an your thoughts Daniel. I was there as well, and your approach seems really sensible and helpful. By the way, picked up your new book at the Baker booth–looking forward to it!

    1. As a member of the group whose work led to the essays in Seeking the Identity of Jesus (and author of the essay on John), I’d like to make a few comments on today’s discussion.

      The two books were discussed in the section on theological interpretation of Scripture. But in the 3+ years that our group met at CTI to talk about the identity of Jesus, I don’t recall anyone using this phrase to describe what we were doing, nor do I think the project was framed in that way. (That doesn’t mean it wasn’t, of course!) So while our project fits more easily under this rubric than the project headed by Bock & Webb, “theological interpretation” wasn’t on our agenda and, I suspect, some members of the group would have reacted against it.

      Rob Wall wasn’t part of the group – which, of course, was one reason that he was asked to respond to the two projects. Rob obviously has certain commitments (which he has spelled out in various publications) but the formulation he used, about “interpreting towards Chalcedon” was not one that we used to frame our project. If you read the exegetical essays in the volume, I’m pretty sure you’ll find that none of them uses this formulation, and neither do Dale Allison or Francis Watson’s essays on methodological issues. I really do think this formulation represents Rob’s agenda more than the CTI group’s agenda. The essays on the various biblical books are predominantly “exegetical,” with, of course, an eye to answering a question like “who is Jesus?” (according to John, or Paul, or Hebrews, or Mark). The fact that the essays are so different from each other might suggest that we lacked either instructions on what to do or methodological agreement (or coherence?) on how to do it! (Indeed, we talked repeatedly and regularly about the definition of “identity”.)

      But, still, Rob’s formulation is interesting to consider – interpreting towards Chalcedon (not as Chalcedon does). I think NTWright does this in quite another way although he insists that he wants to give us Jesus apart from the church’s credal formulations. His Jesus and the Victory of God is essentially written against Reimarus’ view that what Jesus intended, he did not accomplish, and what he accomplished, he did not intend. There is, to borrow Lessing’s phrase a broad, ugly ditch – this time between “the Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith.” As it has been said elsewhere, all historical Jesus’ studies is essentially a dialogue with Reimarus. NTW wants to locate the essential biblical and ecclesiastical portrait of Jesus in the aims of Jesus. Jesus believed he had to do and be for Israel what only YHWH could be and do. That’s a different version of “towards Chalcedon” without invoking Chalcedon; at least it’s an interpretation “towards Chalcedon.”

      Time would fail me to comment on Chalcedon – a statement not only of the divine identity of the Son but also of his humanity. The ecumenical creeds never say one without the other, do they?

      A final comment: one of the key questions that we might have discussed today and is huge for both of these projects is simply the question, “what is history”? What do we mean by the “historical Jesus”? I thought the Bock/Webb project seemed to work with a bifurcation between “history” and “theology” as two distinct categories. To some extent, that is exactly the kind of bifurcation we sought to overcome, both in terms of method and results.

  2. I’m a rookie in these conversations, but if I recall correctly, Wright reacts strongly against the charge that he’s attempting to create a “fifth gospel,” or a Jesus behind the text. According to Wright, he does “historical Jesus” studies–or perhaps we should say he studies the text with the tools of good historical inquiry–to help him (the church) better illumine the Jesus of the text. Would you agree with that assessment? Where is the line between doing historical Jesus studies in a way that creates a “fifth gospel,” and doing good historical research to better understand the Jesus of Scripture?

  3. Daniel,

    From my perspective I see people like Bird, Wright, and Bock as wanting to help fill in Lessing’s ditch, which on one level is a worthwhile goal. The other approach, I think, lands mighty close to fideism, to something close to classical foundationalism (maybe, biblical foundationalism or Van Till’s Presuppositonism–ah, there’s the connection with you!). However, just because you say it doesn’t make it true. We need “warranted beliefs”.

  4. Thanks, Daniel, for this post. And also my dear friend, Marianne Thompson, for her sensitive post in response. Great stuff! I use Chalcedon as a kind of trope. My point, which you pick up, is that EVERY Jesus we construct, whether exegetically or historically, should be analogical to the church’s Christological agreements (which I think–as least for non-Nestorian Christianity–are articulated by the Chalcedonian Definition. (I actually think my comments in this regard are pretty close to the work found in the Gaventa/Hays collection, which I think on balance is a spectacular success in this regard. I’ve been using it with my students since its release to make this very point.)

    Darrell Bock, in response, said repeatedly that the location of the confessing historian’s project is for the “secular” skeptic located in the “public square” to convince him/her of the reliability of the canonical Gospel. Both he and Bob Webb went on to separate their work from ours, but then to stipulate that their work is the necessary first step that prepares the way for a theological reading of the canonical Gospel. This is just wrong! In the first place, the work of a theological interpretation of Scripture is the church, not the public square. Joel Green (Fuller) observes that this is why the historian’s Jesus contributes very little to the theologian’s faithful reflection of the historical/biblical Jesus. But in the second place, the church engages the public square (and I would add the skeptic) with the proclamation and practice of the gospel of the risen/living Jesus. Richard Hays’ brutal question to both Tom Wright and to Bock/Webb is apropos of this observation: “How is that (historian’s Jesus) working for you (in the public square)?!” Isn’t it true of Acts that people are persuaded by the Spirit into the faith by the preaching of the gospel rather than by apologetics? For this reason, I think the religious motive of the Bock/Webb collection, whilst a very interesting study in its own right, is mistaken.

    1. “How is that (historian’s Jesus) working for you (in the public square)?”

      This might be a backdoor answer to that question, but if it wasn’t for the historical Jesus research of folks like Wright, I wouldn’t be a Christian. Though this isn’t the only reason for my faith, it is an essential one.

  5. As the chair of the program unit that organized this session, I don’t want to comment at length, but I think one thing is important to make clear: we were not saying that either book was doing theological interpretation, or that one approach was more valid or helpful for theological interpretation than the other. We were simply trying to raise the question of the potential significance of “Jesus-studies” of various kinds (or at least two kinds) for theological interpretation. The session made it clear that this is a complex and important topic that needs even more attention. My own personal sense is something similar to Richard Hays’s “complementarity” or “both/and” perspective (in one of his final comments), but that perspective is mine, and mine alone.

  6. Thanks, everyone, for jumping in here, especially those of you involved in either the project itself or the session.

    I think that the distinction between theological interpretation as an intentional hermeneutical approach and the works done in both reviewed volumes was clear enough in the session. It was also clear, however, that the Hays and Gaventa volume came off much better for those with theological-interpretation inklings than did the Bock and Wall volume.

    I agree that the historical Jesus as preparatory for Christological reflection is wrong. It is wrong both historically (this isn’t what Christians have actually done to formulate our understanding of Jesus) and theologically (our reflections on / assessments of the canonical gospels do and should indicate our theological reflections on the theologically interpreted Jesus of scripture).

    Finally, I see that offering some sort of historical comment is often necessary, as Wesman indicates. But I also worry about meeting people on this ground of secular history in this sense: it seems to be answering affirmatively that a certain way of viewing history is a true reflection of what Christianity claims for itself. I often find myself thinking that we need, instead, a deconstruction of such assumptions rather than an attempting to demonstrate that Christianity fits within them.

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