McKnight has listed 5 criteria as necessary guidance on the historical vs. canonical vs. creedal Jesus debates.This is especially relevant to the Church's hermeneutical emphasis upon Jesus in today's current revelatory studies.
Basically, what is meant by the phrase, "the Historical Jesus of the Gospels," is that historians are attempting to discover the real Jesus behind the Gospels. That He has been technically lost "historically" and must be found apart from the early first century Church's description of Him. To which redactory endeavor I submit can, and cannot, be done having already become seamlessly integrated with the Gospels of the Bible by the Church through its canonization of the Gospels of Jesus. Meaning that, what we see in the Gospels is mostly the canonical Jesus of the Church. To find the historical Jesus is largely an endeavor in futility. It's like trying to write a history of ourselves apart from the legacy of ourselves developed around us. We see this in the many biographies of Winston Churchill or Theodore Roosevelt as biographers attempt to encapsulate "the man behind the myth." Each biographer's viewpoint is an interpretive viewpoint of the person they have met or studied - in this case Churchill or Roosevelt. Likewise we find this same "dilemma" in the many interpretive viewpoints of Jesus contained in the Gospels by (1) the Gospel writers themselves (Matthew, Mark/Peter, Luke/Paul, John). As well as (2) the many vignettes of Jesus given to those writers from their interpreted "sources" of eyewitness within the many Gospel stories collected and compiled by each author for their Gospel recount.
Right from the start we understand the difficulty of trying to unveil and discover "the man behind the myth," or, in this case, the historical Jesus of the Gospels. Now nearly everyone of us will have an interpretive view of our friends just as everyone who came into contact with Jesus will have thoughts of the same. To attempt to reduce who a person is from a collection of sources might describe a generalized account of that person (to some degree true, and to another degree untrue, based upon authorial repute or eyewitness veracity) but mostly this attempt becomes lost in the annuals of time as the decades and centuries roll by. What we are left with is the canonized story of Jesus found in the Gospels as upheld by the Church's historic councils directed to the purpose of preserving biographically true stories of Jesus (mostly found in the Gospels of the New Testament; as well as in the other books of the NT in another sense) as versus less biographically true stories of Jesus (known as the Gnostic Gospels of the NT). This then is what is meant by the canonical Jesus of the authorised NT (as authorised by the early church in the century or two afterwards), or the canonical Jesus of the Gospels, as versus the historical Jesus of the Bible. It's nearly an impossible task to find the historical Jesus, so that what can be said of Jesus can only be sanguine, mostly generalized statements, about Jesus. Things like, "Jesus was a good child," or "Jesus knew labor as a carpenter," or "Jesus grew up in a family," and was "an (biologically) adopted child in a sense" because of his unique birth to Mary, or "Jesus knew hunger and pain because of His humanity." However, it was Jesus as the incarnate Person of the Trinity, as God come to live and minister amongst men, as the Spirit-filled man, as the perfect revelation of God in both Godhead and humanity, that we glean from the biblical accounts, memoirs, and essays of the New Testament. This is the theology of Jesus from which we get from the canonized NT books of the Bible, and especially from the Gospels themselves. And this then is what we mean by the canonized Jesus. It doesn't mean that Jesus is any less historical, just that His personage bore an interpretive meaning behind (and within) it that superseded mere commentary on His lifestyle.
So what do we mean by the creedal Jesus then? Simply this... as the Church grasped Jesus' mission and gospel it developed an ensuing theology of Jesus (mostly redemptive in orientation). As example, for some bodies of believers they didn't understand Jesus' intermix of divinity and humanity - a common problem going back to the misunderstanding of one's theology about sin and materiality (is sin corporeal, is it spiritual, is it some combination of both, and if so, to what extent?). Which then required studies in harmatology (sin), theology proper (God), anthropology (man), pneumatology (the Holy Spirit), and so forth. Each area impacting the other area (much as I am attempting here in this blog by interweaving various doctrinal positions into a holistic version of Emergent Christianity). As a result various doctrinal ideas were propagated by the church - some believed Jesus less than divine. Others that Jesus was fully divine. Some that Jesus was sinless while others thought Jesus bore sin either spiritually or because of His corporeal body.
Consequently, how a church fellowship understood other parts of theology, philosophy, biblical doctrine and human endeavor was how they understood the Jesus they read about in the Bible. This is known as a believer's "frame of reference." In today's terms this means that we can be products of our environment formed by experiences in our church, by our religious background, even from our geographical era and family values, creating a very personalized frame of reference. A frame of reference that makes us, us - but a frame that is not easily circumvented beyond our own opinions upon subjects. As an example, generally, for older adults growing up in the mid- to late- 1900s they will have a modern, and not a postmodern, mindset. But within those large philosophical sets are additional "-isms" and "-ologies" that have influenced one's dispositional make-up as can be seen below by this societal map:
(click on map to enlarge)
Hence, one may have a Catholic orientation, a Baptist, agnostic or atheistic orientation, so that what a person's frame of reference is will be that person's depiction of Jesus to him or her. This is the same with a local or regional fellowship of believers. Their environment of societal variables determines what Jesus may have meant to them (as witnessed to by Rob Bell's Love Wins book - it was reviled by some parts of the country, and hailed in other parts of the country). So that today, many American denominations will behold Jesus differently from one another, having come from differing philosophical backgrounds. While in another sense many denominations and churches may be described as a common "societal class of congregants" bearing similar values, belief structures, and dogmas with one another as evidenced by whether one is a Protestant, a Catholic, Roman Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, liberal, progressive, moderate, evangelical, or even emergent Christian. Which is then reflective of that church's doctrinal positions of the Bible, theology and even of Jesus Himself. This then is what is meant by the creedal Jesus (as opposed to the historic Jesus and canonical Jesus).
So that, to a further extent, various branches of the Church went beyond basic interpretations of Jesus (for example, Jesus' redemptive ministry of salvation) to submit additional doctrinal interpretations about Jesus. For example, the controversies over the "hypostatic union of Christ" laid out a dozen or so positions about a fellowship's view of Jesus' humanity and/or divinity, about sin and materiality, about God, and so forth (see the historical charts at the end of this discussion). Many of these positions either didn't say enough about Jesus, or said too little. As a result, the Church accumulated continuing confessions about Jesus by adapting its reading of the New Testament to the times-and-circumstances of its societies, such that as regarding Christ's divine/human nature we see the Church's doctrine developing and maturing relative to this theology. A theology being played out in the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian, and Athanasian Creeds. Developing over time and place in response to its various (and vigorous) debates about Jesus' meaning for the Church's theological positions of the Bible.
Which is why a good biblical theology should also pay attention to (i) the historical creedal and confessional revisions of the church, as well as (ii) to study the historical eras the church worked and lived within - if not the very history of the church itself. It all adds up to a more complete study, and understanding, of the Scriptures, and specifically, of one's view of Jesus. Not that the past necessarily drives current discussions of theology, but seeks to inform theological discussion as it is pertinent or relevant to ideas and directions being discussed. As example, the postmodern direction of the early 21st Century is driving a resultant discussion of all things God, and the Bible, and is known under many names because of the many drivers contributing to the evolving discussion of Jesus. Myself, I prefer the edginess (and sometimes the impertinence) of Emergent Theology which seeks to maintain an orthodox relationship to the past while also pushing the envelopes of the theological future within a postmodern, post-Christendom setting.
Let me take a short commercial break here for several paragraphs ...
As such, Emergent Theology is still emerging (pun intended). And should not be defined by any one Emergent speaker or figurehead. Thus, I find hope in contributing to its evolving presence taking the best of my evangelical orthodox past and interrelating it to the best theological observations being made today. Which is why several new sidebar sections have opened up within Relevancy22 (sic, "An Open Faith and Open Theology," and "An Emerging Theology") as I take these past many months of emergent exploration and begin to interweave them towards larger conclusions.
Competing with Emergent theology is a neo-Reformed, neo-Calvinistic theology bearing the (safe) name Radical Orthodoxy. Each are dealing with postmodernism, but each are coming at it from differing directions and target audiences. Emergent Theology seems to be more free of church dogma and thus quicker to respond more relevantly towards a post-Christendom witness and mission. Its target audiences seem to be from all ranks of the church, plus the non-churched and unchurched masses of society who may have been abandoned, or set aside, by the church for one reason or another. As example, how many times do we read of Christian evolutionary professors removed from their posts by a Christian college? Do you ever wonder where these professors go? I would imagine they find work in another city and worship in another church. But these types of people are the would-be inhabitants filling the ranks-and-files of Emergent Christianity. Whether they use the name emergent or not. Because Emergent Christianity is a movement, not an organization. An attitude, not a doctrine.
Whereas Radical Orthodoxy is attempting to bring the fracturing churches of the evangelical movement along with itself while discovering similar ideological barriers to cross. Though past councils and creeds are helpful, the issues of postmodern society have changed requiring the postmodern church to respond with a theology that is relevant, contemporary, and meaningful. As such, to each-and-every theology that preaches Jesus we wish God's greatest blessings and Spirit-based inspiration regardless of name or structure. In the end, the bible must be made meaningful to today's generations. Not changed. Meaningful. And changed within our religious preferences and dogmas to become meaningful. Which is what Relevancy22 is attempting to do along with many other visionary prophets, preachers, theologians, writers, poets, organizations, and Christian media outlets.
Now back to our discussion...
This then is what is meant by the creedal Jesus of the Church to which the historical-Jesus redactors have attempted to strip away so that we may see (the enigma) of their own "real Jesus." Even as historical church theologians have attempted to strip away the canonical Jesus for their own church denomination's position on creedal propositions and statements.... Its hard not to think of these various redactory efforts not unlike Ezekial's "wheels within wheels within wheels," where one area leads to another area, leads to another area, which makes having a well-versed teacher, professor, set of books, or reference tools, important to one's discovery of the Christian faith. According to 1 John 1 we all have are own self-inflicted delusions to which we must attend. And pray to the Spirit of God that those delusions not harm redemption's resurrection of Jesus held within us.
Thus, I find I must reiterate McKnight's synthesized positions about the historic vs. canonized vs. creedal Jesus. Each point is found to be important. And each point is helpful to the task at hand. By way of summary he says that:
(1) historical Jesus studies are possible but the better effort is to be given to the canonical / creedal positional development of Jesus;
(2) each of the four Gospel stories of Jesus are four authorial viewpoints of the one historical personage of Jesus;
(3) historical revisionism of Jesus is of no use to the Church because it already has a canonical view of Jesus that supercedes all non-canonical (historic) views of Jesus;
(4) Jewish studies of Jesus will lead to important revisions of the Church's canonical and creedal views of Jesus.
This last sentiment is known as the "New Perspective of Paul" reinvigorating present Pauline studies using first-century Jewish theology while paying attention to the ancient Hebraic customs of the time. The idea is to recover the Church's doctrines backwards towards a more Jewish/OT flair and appreciation for its earlier Jewish times and settings. This does not mean that we are to become Jewish Christians and re-proselytize the Church. But that we are Messianic Christians who should try to better understand the deep Jewish culture of the New Testament through a re-orientation of our westernized theology backwards towards with an emphasis upon Jesus (aka Sanders, Dunn, Wright). But not towards any specific Jewish observance of calendar dates, dress, religious institutions, and the like, as evidenced by the well-meaning, and sincere, observations of Olive Tree Christians and the variant proselytized Gentile forms within Jewish Christianity.... This latter is yet another example of interpretive creedal difference just as we have discussed above between churches, denominations, and faith fellowships. Where Jesus is lifted up we are all one ecumenical body of Christ.
However, this latter effort also is a response to the Protestant Reformation itself, to its Westernized and Easternized elements of Christianity, and to Catholicism itself, resulting from each's interpretive imprint upon the early church's canonical and creedal views of Jesus that have become distinctly less appreciative of the Gospel's Near-Eastern, Semitic/Jewish cultural roots. If one is to properly read the Gospels and the New Testament, then one must pay attention not only to the Aramaic/Hebrew language but to its surrounding Hebrew culture latent in the Gospel and New Testament settings. If not, then we do an injustice upon the biblical texts by forcing our own Western, Eastern, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, or Evangelic doctrinal interpretations upon the text while missing the prevalent teachings of the NT writers about Jesus. Giving to us an unbalanced Gentile view of Scripture as versus a more-informed Jewish understanding of Scripture.
(5) And lastly, the Gospels are already interpretations of Jesus, who was thus canonized by the Gospel writer's simple act of reporting their observations of Jesus, and of the meaning of His ministry and resurrection for us. Thus giving rise to a variety of creedal versions about Jesus which have arisen through the Church's continual reassessment of the Jesus of Scripture, and of Scripture itself. In historic response, there then arose from the Church various acclaimed "creeds and confessions" for the guidance of fellowship and community life. (A small list of these can be found here on this blog under the section "Notable Creeds and Confessions of the Church. Whereas the charts below are just one instance of a creedal history pertaining to one theological development within the church. Hence, there are many more denominational/orthodox distinctives should one begin to consult the general historical development of the Church since its first century origins out of Jerusalem and Judea.)
At the last, the canonical Jesus and the creedal Jesus is the Church's Jesus. The historical Jesus endeavor is not realistic for if it could be done it would simply discover the Jesus we know from the Bible. No more and no less. Thus, this historic redactory effort is not theologically informative. For its intent is to strip away Jesus' divine personage thinking to find simply a fleshly man dressed in religious garments bearing a passionate, universal message. To find Jesus no longer God Incarnate. Nor as man's Redeemer-Savior. But become like a Buddha, a Mohammad, or even a Joseph Smith, the Mormon, each of whom were significant figures to their religions. But of no importance to the revelatory salvation of God incarnated in Christ Jesus as portrayed to us by the first century Church's canonized record laid out in the New Testament. I think they got it right. And I trust we will too. I hope this helps.
October 15, 2012
rev. January 25, 2013
A simplified chart of historical developments of major groups within Christianity.
|Church Councils and Doctrinal
Historical Jesus Contrarian
by Scot McKnight
October 10, 2012
Well, I didn’t get to attend the Historical Jesus conference last weekend led by Chris Keith and Anthony LeDonne, but I’ve seen a couple reports taking me to task for my view, which was part of the book published, though I’m not sure the posts are taking my definitions seriously enough, so let me clarify. I do realize my view of historical Jesus studies is contrarian, but it’s hardly new. It’s a bit like Martin Kähler and a bit like Jimmy Dunn, but not identical to either.
What I say emerges from my own work in historical Jesus studies, and you can read my own approach to historiography in Jesus and His Death: Historiography, the Historical Jesus, and Atonement Theories, published by Baylor University Press. It also emerges from more than five years of working in the Historical Jesus Seminar of the SBL at the Annual Meetings.
Point 1: My contention is that historical Jesus studies are all about reconstructing what Jesus was really like. They are the attempt to get behind the Gospels (and the Creed) to the real Jesus, the one who walked and taught and ministered in the Galilee and Judea.
Point 2: My contention is further that this reconstruction occurs over against the church’s Jesus, which is found in the Gospels (four presentations, not four “gospels” — not four “Jesuses” either, but four gospels presenting the Story of the one Jesus in four ways) and then developed even more in the Creed. The point of departure for historical Jesus studies is that the church either got Jesus wrong or said too much. The historical Jesus will be the real Jesus over against the church’s more theologized Jesus.
If you don’t accept these two premises, we have no discussion. If you do, we’ve got one. Again: it’s about reconstruction over against what the church thinks. Historical Jesus studies are decidedly contrarian to orthodoxy and the church and even the Gospels, if I may say so, and that is why they subject the church’s Jesus to criticism.
Point 3: And my contention is that historical Jesus studies, because it is all about reconstructing Jesus over against what the church has always believed, are of no use to the church. Why? Because the church knows what it believes about Jesus: The Gospels are the first source and then the Creed will be the second source for what the Church believes. [I want to avoid the Creed vs. Canon debate for this post because I'm intent on explaining what it means to do "historical Jesus studies."]
My contention is not that it is impossible to do historical Jesus studies — in other words, I do think historical methods, when folks stick to the methods, can discover what the method permits for discovery. (That’s the historical Jesus as reconstructed on the basis of methods, and my Jesus and His Death is that kind of historical Jesus book.) Some have said it is impossible to do historical Jesus studies because we don’t have any brute facts to interpret in another way. I disagree; I do think the methods are useful for historical purposes.
Point 4: My contention, further, is that “examining the Jesus of the Gospels [canonical Jesus] in his Jewish context” is not the same as “historical Jesus studies.” Canonical Jesus study sets an interpreted Jesus [canonical Jesus] in his Jewish context while historical Jesus study gets behind the canonical Jesus to the (less interpreted) real Jesus and sets that reconstructed figure in his historical context. I’m all for historical study of the canonical Jesus.
Point 5: And my contention is that the Gospels are already interpretations of Jesus, that is, the Gospel writers were “historians” in some sense and strung together facts about Jesus into a narrative that was designed to “gospel” Jesus to its readers. That is the church’s Jesus, the canonical Jesus, and that is the Jesus the church believes in. The creedal Jesus develops the canonical Jesus, and even if many think the creedal Jesus said too much, that does not change that the creedal Jesus is also the church’s Jesus.
If the church opts for the historical Jesus, it must choose to disregard the canonical Jesus for a reconstruction of Jesus on the basis of historical methods.