Monday, May 03, 2010

What is the point of the evangelical study of the historical Jesus?

I think Wright in his lecture at the recent Wheaton conference hit the nail on the head with respect to the apologetic point of Historical Jesus studies. The quotation occurs at about 50th minute. I could not agree with this more.
We have to reconnect with the real Jesus who the canonical Gospels give us . . .but whom we have so misunderstood . . . Yes there is an apologetic task . . . not to prove Jesus’ divinity by some arm twisting fashion . . . But rather we need to speak truly and wisely about Jesus and show that the Gospels, as they are and not as the tradition has shrunk them into being, really do make sense, historical sense. And that the overwhelmingly best explanation for the Christian faith and its rise is that Jesus was and did what the Gospels say he was and did. Otherwise it seems to be that there is the danger [as in Barthian theological circles] of getting to this closed, charmed circle where we don’t allow any natural theology. There is no way to break in. When God has laid his hand on you then the whole system works but you’ve really got no point of contact with the outside world or from outside in.
I think it is interesting how he defines the "historical Jesus" that he aims to study. When I subtitled my essay on the historical Jesus: "Why I'm not a 'historical Jesus' Scholar?" I was not referring to what Wright describes here. The Jesus to which he refers here is a crucial apologetic project for which I myself am fully committed.

However, and again I'll state it, the question is one of definition: what are we studying historically?  The canonical Jesus, the Jesus the Gospels reveal, or the so-called historical Jesus, a Jesus who is the result of a minimalistic historical methodology?

Gathering from both Craig Keener's response in the CT article (I have not yet read his book) and Darrell Bock's at CT online (see also his blog as well as in the comments in the former post here) I think they aren't that far from McKnight. No one is saying that we should not firmly root Jesus historically for Christian doctrinal re-formation and for apologetics with the wider world. I think the  crucial point is for which Jesus do we contend?


Christopher said...

Joel, I couldn't agree with you more. The whole enterprise of historical Jesus studies have been on a minimalistic quest, such that they have provided a Jesus you cannot ultimately preach. Good word.

Chris Skinner

Rachel said...

I'm afraid I have to disagree with a lot of this, and rather strongly. First, Wright has just got Barth totally wrong here. (I doubt he's ever read a word of KB except for the Römerbrief.) Hays pointed this out at Wheaton incidentally. Second, the claim that "The overwhelmingly best explanation for the Christian faith and its rise..." etc. etc., seems suspiciously like a historicizing project undertaken by scholars to me. Please! The best explanation for Christianity--and Judaism--is usually taken to be God, which would mean primarily God acting and revealing to[ward] us and through us, not us investigating first--an investigation we are intrinsically unequipped actually to do.

Ironically, the NT knows this well. Paul's understanding of Jesus--probably rather better informed historically than ours--was inadequate until God told him what the story was in no uncertain terms. And while our walks may lack Paul's drama at times, we do all nevertheless witness together to the same epistemological structure--an obedient response to the disclosure of the living God. In the light of this we can then go on to do historical investigations, but we have to appreciate that those activities are ancillary and secondary to the main event, the act of God. Saying that there is "no way to break in" to all this radically--and dare I say disobediently--misunderstands what is really going on, namely, that the God of creation is speaking to everyone, and being obeyed (at least in part) by us. God HAS broken in, and breaks in all the time all over the place. In fact, we are the ones who are constantly breaking away....

I'm afraid that this looks like Wright at his most muddled to me. (Sorry Mike.) Incidentally, this is not to deny the value of his historical work in its proper place, or the many other impressive things he represents and has to say, which I generally learn much from and endorse.

Joel Willitts said...

Thanks for your response. Let me say first that this is not Mike Bird, but Joel Willitts. I’m sure Mike would not want my thoughts confused with his on this issue as we’re of slightly different minds on this. However, I would venture to say that you would like disagree with him more than me on this point (see his post below on the canonical vs historical Jesus).

Second and more substantive is that you focused on the point in the quotation that I least care about, namely the Barthian critique. My dual point in quoting Wright here, which it seems you might have missed, was to raise the issue again of definition and to express one, and I underline one, value of studying the Jesus of the Gospels historically; that is for an apologetic reason.

I think you are undervaluing role that a convincing historical argument for the validity of Jesus can have in one’s process of coming to faith, Darrell Bock will be happy with me here. Being able to situation Jesus historically has apologetic value at least for some.

Now to be honest I agree with you and I have myself a reformed epistemology like the one you express. Furthermore, this rooting the Jesus of the Gospels historically is also of great benefit to believers who need to be reassured that their faith, which they have from the work of God as you point out, is not illusionary or ahistorical. It sounds like you listened to Hays paper and you’ll recall that he made a similar point and commended Wright’s work to this end.

In addition, Hays quoted Barth on the importance of the historical basis for the incarnation in his imaginary dinner party with Barth and Wright. I would say it like this, our Christian faith presupposes the history, but does not result from it. Encounter with the risen Christ is what matters. I think this is a point that the Gospel of John makes quite strongly. And I would equally point to Mary in John 20 as an example.

So to sum up, the quotation is spot on in my view in its expression of the best kind of historical Jesus study for the church, namely studying historically the Jesus found in the Gospel. I should add here that the history of Jesus, as Thiesen and Winter usefully pointed out, is also the footprint of Jesus found in the Gospels: the history of the effects of Jesus codified in the four gospel accounts.

Rachel said...


I think (and I emphasize "think") I do understand what your agenda is, and unless one is very careful with it, fear that there are still some serious dangers involved. Done well of course it is as you say constructive. But done imprecisely it is disastrous. Hence I still have some unanswered questions after your rejoinder, which I appreciated.

1. How can someone make a convincing historical argument for Jesus as fully human and fully divine--for Jesus as God incarnate?, remembering that this is the heart of the Christian faith that all converts need at some point to grasp and grasp centrally.

2. Wouldn't such an argument instill in converts the belief that a proper understanding of Christ is done from below? When would we turn around and tell them that actually it isn't--Christian truth has an entirely different basis?

3. What does the literature on conversion suggest an argument from history really achieves (bearing in mind that the most effective modern "converters" are probably Mormons)? Indeed, how do we distinguish the need for a historical argument for converting interested inquirers on the street from a highly academic enterprise aimed at avoiding shame in the university at the hands of non- or dubiously Christian scholars?

4. How do we avoid teaching Christians that the most important thing about the Gospels is their function as historical sources for the life of Jesus of Nazareth in his earthly ministry, as against affirming a four-fold Gospel in the canon that is explicitly NOT to be harmonised but has been given to us in this precise form for our instruction and formation?

5. Your appeal to Thiesen and Winter troubles me. If the Jesus of history IS the footprint of Jesus found in the Gospels, then you've lost the risen and ascended Christ--his footprint seems no longer to matter. (Did you notice your slip into Tatian-like claims in the last paragraph, having successfully resisted them in the previous two paragraphs?!)

This is what I mean about potentially dangerous claims for history. Given our historicizing culture and the historicizing predilections of the Academy, any appeals to history have to made very very carefully or they inevitably end up endorsing a historicizing paradigm for Christian truth which is, at bottom, a false gospel. I spend most of my time in Introduction to the NT teaching my students not to think like this.

Thanks for the post!

A final caveat: my epistemology is recognizably Reformed in some respects, but is also hopefully catholic, orthodox, ecumenical, and Patristic. Am I saying anything that Athanasius didn't say--although he did it rather better of course!!