Tuesday, November 02, 2010

A theological critique of the "Quest for the historical Jesus"?

John Webster writes:

'Knowledge of Jesus Christ is possible and legitimate because of his antecedent, gratuitous and utterly real self-presence. Setting himself forth, expounding himself as the present one who encloses and orders all things, Jesus Christ makes himself known, and thereby excludes the possibility of legitimate, well-founded ignorance of himself. He is, and therefore he is present, and therefore he is known. There is a negative inference to be drawn here, namely that this given presence of Christ excludes ways of approaching the task of Christology in which there lurks the assumption that Jesus Christ is not, or may not, or cannot be present to us. Jesus Christ's givenness sits I'll well with, for example, those Christologies which make historical scepticism or probabilistic reasoning into the first principle of the knowledge of Christ ... Because he is who he is, and because he acts as he acts in his majestic self-presentation, he cannot be "sought". That is, he cannot be approached as if he were an elusive figure, absent from us, locked in transcendence or buried in the past, and only to be discovered through the exercise of human ingenuity ... All such strategies, whether in biblical scholarship or philosophical and dogmatic theology, are in the end methodologically sophisticated forms of infidelity. Their assumption is that he is not present unless demonstrably present - present, that is, to undisturbed and unconverted reason' (John Webster, "Prolegomena to Christology: Four Theses", in the utterly brilliant Confessing God. Essays in Christian Dogmatics II (T & T Clark, London, 2005, pp. 136-38)
If Webster is right, then what is the place for certain issues raised by NT study, such that it can be reasonably doubted that Jesus did or said 'such and such' in John or the Synoptics. How would such historical findings shape the fundamentally given nature of the knowledge of Christ? Could it? Does Webster's position ultimately make study of the NT, in so far as it raises christologically-relevant questions of historicity, redundant?

His own understanding about the role of Jesus in revelation sounds remarkably Johaninne, yet apart from the growing number of scholars such as Paul Anderson, most would still prefer the synoptic presentation of Jesus. As E.P. Sanders writes, for example, in The Historical Figure of Jesus:
'[F]or the last 150 or so years scholars have had to choose [between the Synoptics on the one hand, and John on the other]. They have almost unanimously, and I think entirely correctly, concluded that the teaching of the historical Jesus is to be sought in the synoptic gospels and that John represents an advanced theological development, in which meditations on the person and work of Christ are presented in the first person, as if Jesus said them’.
If historicity is vital (and the Word, as John puts it, did become Flesh - not a text), then is there not a problem for Christology, even one that simply sits humbly before the canonical texts, because of the sometimes either-or nature of Christology in terms of the John vs. Synoptic differences?

Surely somebody out there can cleverly illuminate my thinking!


At 11/02/2010 10:40 PM, Blogger AKMA said...

I'm missing the problem, Chris. Isn't Webster's position compatible with the premise that historical inquiry yields many useful, informative insights -- but such insights may not necessarily determine the outcome of christological deliberation?

At 11/02/2010 11:32 PM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

I am extremely glad you are chipping in on this one, thanks!

I think you are right, Webster's position is compatible with such an understanding of historical inquiry. But what when historical inquiry turns out to be decidedly unhelpful to orthodoxy? Namely, what to do when much more of christological significance is at stake? In particular, John has the various "I AM" sayings, yet the synoptic sayings make it hard enough to think Jesus claimed Messiahship. Hence, admittedly among other reasons, scholars like Sanders reject John as a source for historical inquiry into that first century Jew (the historical Jesus questing has been de-Johannised, as Anderson puts it). Of course, there are plenty of ways of negotiating the claim that the historical Jesus may not have said what John tells us he said (though I am coming to the conclusion at the moment that Jesus must have said things approaching the I AM expressions, but that is another story), mainly by asserting some kind of creativity or, positively put, recognition in the church's reflections about Jesus, but does this leave Christology untouched?

I think I agree with Webster's claims here, but it does leave me with a few unresolved questions which I am struggling to articulate!

At 11/03/2010 12:01 AM, Blogger David Mackinder said...

Unfortunately I'm not able to access Webster's essay to read your quoted passage in context, but a key statement seems to be his assertion that Jesus' self-presence 'excludes the possibility of legitimate, well-founded ignorance of himself'. However, it's not possible from the quotation to unravel quite what he means by such 'self-presence'. Whatever it may mean, it does seem as if he's ruling out any scepticism, historical or other, regarding Jesus' being. I'm intrigued by what this might mean in terms of say a Bultmannian reading of the gospel accounts. Also, in a funny way, maybe, it raises the spectre of Rahner's anonymous Christianity -- it's almost as if he's saying that, try as one might, one cannot legitimately deny Jesus (or should that be Christ?).

At 11/03/2010 1:48 AM, Anonymous Steve Fowl said...

Hi Chris,
I do like reading your stuff when I get the chance. I think there must be a word or two missing in the first part of the Webster quote before the ellipsis. This is the sentence I mean,"Jesus Christ's givenness sits I'll well with, for example, those Christologies which make historical scepticism or probabilistic reasoning into the first principle of the knowledge of Christ." I assume from the second part of the quote that he wants to claim that any Christology that is fundamentally determined by historical reasoning is bound to miss the gratuitous nature of Christ's "givenness." This would fit with the claims of the quote after the ellipsis.
The point here seems primarily directed at those scholars who might try to rely on the results of various sorts of historical inquiry to reason themselves into a Christology "through the exercise of human ingenuity..."
AKMA made a similar sort of point in his article on Kasemann and docetism several years back. Christ's presence is given rather than sought and established by human reasoning, either historical or philosophical. It is not clear to me that Webster's assertions really touch on your concerns, which seem to be of a different sort. Please correct me if I am missing something here.

At 11/03/2010 2:01 AM, Blogger Edwardtbabinski said...

All we possess of the actual words of Jesus as preserved in the entire NT could fit into a small 16 booklet. I once bought such a booklet in a Christian bookstore. Just the words of Jesus. Mostly parables of course.

But combined with all that has grown up around those words, Christians assume they "know" Jesus because they've been raised in a church, or read the NT, or both, and seen pictures, and movies, and heard his name uttered in everything from a reverent tone to a curse.

Sure, Christians claim they "know" Jesus. And some of them, many of them fear hell's the location of those who "don't know Jesus."

I know some people who can read another person "like a book," but Christians reverse the process, they read a book like it's a person.

Sure other books contain fascinating and compelling and moving characters, but this book is approved by a "church" THE CHURCH, God's church, and there's a huge bonus if you worship together with people who recite passages out of that book. You never have to die! Never have to suffer again. Wow! Sign me up! Where do I start bowing and repeating prayers daily? (Or, if I'm a Pentecostal, jumping up and down and shaking on the floor and speaking lively gibberish!)



Ipso Facto, why worry about this stuff?

At 11/03/2010 2:42 AM, Blogger Rich Griese said...

I have found Albert Schweitzer's _The Quest of the historical jesus_ to be perhaps the second best book I have read on christian history, behind only David Friedrich Strauss's _The Life of Jesus Critically Examined_. The good news is that Schweitzer's book is available to read for free online at; http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/schweitzer/

Cheers! RichGriese.NET

At 11/03/2010 6:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like how Mr. Babinski made a comment that only barely relates to the topic at hand and then fails to attempt to answer the question and then simply stated what was on his mind at the time.

Chris, I think Robert Jenson has an answer to the problem that is similar to Webster's own answer. That the resurrected Jesus himself is competent to ensure that the testimony available to the church is sufficient for the purposes of the church in history. It's circular, but sensible to the person for whom the gospel of the resurrected Jesus is morally compelling.

At 11/17/2010 3:46 AM, Blogger Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Chris

I'd like to mention something about GJohn. First let me grant what's probably obvious: that it often tends towards reflection rather than narration. But I don't think the historical aspects are gone from GJohn. It's the only one recording the Hanukkah visit to Jerusalem, or the lengthy arguments about "Why don't you just say who you are already?" Likewise some scenes in the synoptics make more sense if some of Jesus' sayings in John are taken as having been part of what Jesus said and did publicly. (Where exactly did Jesus' accusers get the idea that he said he'd destroy the Temple and rebuild it in 3 days?)

So I think that GJohn is almost a different sub-genre than the synoptics, but it doesn't evacuate all the historical value of it.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

At 11/24/2010 9:15 PM, Blogger Bill Heroman said...

Hey, Chris. Good to see you at SBL.

On this topic, did you see my post, Knowing John Adams' Ghost?

Like that post, I think your post here goes directly to the debate Wright & Hays were having at Wheaton last March.


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