Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Whose Jesus?

“As is already heralded in his 1968 Introduction to Christianity, later in his contribution to a volume which he edits on ‘The Conflict over Scriptural Exegesis’ (1989), Ratzinger paints a gloomy picture of the historical-critical method: ‘Faith is not an element of the method nor God a factor of the historical event with which it reckons,’ Historical criticism attempts to ‘construct’ the human history behind the biblical history of divine action. This is then to serve as the criterion for exegesis: ‘No one can be surprised that in this procedure the hypotheses increasingly bifurcate and finally become a jungle of contradictions. In the end one hardly knows what the text says but only what it should say, and from what elements one can derive it’,” H. Küng, Disputed Truth: Memoirs II (Continuum 2008), 129.

“Of course Joseph Ratzinger doesn’t make it as simple in his 1968 Introduction to Christianity. After rejecting an enquiry into the Jesus of history, because he claims that this is impossible, he wants ‘simply to try to understand what is stated by the Christian faith, which is not a reconstruction but a present reality’,” ibid. 224.

In one respect, I’m sympathetic to Ratzinger’s position: the historical reconstruction (i.e. the quest for the historical Jesus) is a human construct. To place your faith in that “Jesus” would be to place your faith, not in the historical Jesus of Scripture, but in a merely human construct. To that extent, Ratzinger makes a valid point, and a momentous point.

However, his own position is severely flawed in a number of key respects:

1.He presents a false dilemma: It’s not as if we’re forced to choose between a reconstructed Christ–on the one hand–and a patristic or conciliar Christ–on the other hand. What’s wrong with the Christ of the Bible?

2.If he rejects the Christ of the Bible was a sufficient reference point because he tacitly buys into some of the skeptical methods and assumptions of the historical-critical method, then he can’t very well salvage his Christian faith by turning to the ecumenical councils or Nicene/post-Nicene fathers to lay a firmer foundation. It’s not as if these sources are better informed about the historical Jesus than the NT writers were. All he’s done is to shift the object of faith from one human construct–the Jesus of the quest–to another human construct–the Jesus of the fathers and councils. And, of course, he’s selective about which fathers and councils set the standard.

(From a Protestant perspective, the fathers and the councils are valid in the degree to which remain faithful to the Biblical witness.)

3.In addition, if you’re skeptical about the NT Jesus, then you should logically extend your skepticism to the patristic or conciliar Jesus. If, for example, you think the high Christology of John’s Gospel represents a legendary embellishment, then the same holds true for Chalcedon.

Likewise, if you think belief in miracles is a hallmark of legendary embellishment, then that’s equally applicable to Bible writers and church fathers alike.

So Ratzinger’s alternative sufferers from the same problem as the perceived failings of NT Christology.

4.If, on the other hand, Ratzinger rejects the skeptical methods and assumptions of the historical-critical method, then the NT is a trustworthy source of information about the person and work of Jesus.

5.Ratzinger’s low estimation of the quest for the historical Jesus is probably colored by his encounters with proponents like Rudolf Bultmann. It’s understandable if he’s reacting to their radical reductionism. However, there’s obviously a big difference between a representative like Bultmann and a representative like Tom Wright or Craig Evans.

6.Catholic scholars in good standing, like John Meier and the late Raymond Brown, are also exponents of the quest for the historical Jesus. But if Ratzinger rejects the entire enterprise, then, as pope, why doesn’t he take action against a Catholic scholar like John Meier?

7.For that matter, Ratzinger also presided over a BPC document which sanctioned the historical-critical method. And Catholic scholars like Joseph Fitzmyer and Luke Timothy Johnson are prominent exponents of this method. But if he regards their methodology as fundamentally flawed, then why doesn’t he take action?

8.The historical-critical method is generally driven by a number of arbitrary assumptions, such as:

i) God doesn’t speak and act in human history. Hence, any supernatural incidents in Scripture reflect legendary embellishments.

ii) Even if God does speak and act in human history, a historian must suspend judgment on the supernatural factor and confine himself to naturalistic explanations (i.e. methodological naturalism).

iii) The Jesus tradition underwent decades of creative oral redaction before it was finally committed to writing (i.e. form criticism). Hence, the canonical gospels are not a reliable witness to the historical Jesus.

iv) The canonical gospels are faith-statements rather than historical accounts.

v) The object of the quest is to isolate and identify, if at all possible, a residual core of factual information. To winnow the legendary chaff from the kernels of truth.

vi) Although supernatural incidents (e.g. miracles, exorcisms) are not or cannot be literally true, we may still be able to incorporate them into a contemporary version of faith by reinterpreting them as metaphorically true.

If, however, you reject these arbitrary assumptions, then there’s no need to fall back on subscriptural or extrascriptural alternatives.

9.The quest for the historical Jesus can still be a useful exercise from an apologetic standpoint as long as you don’t submit to a set of arbitrary methods and assumptions which filter out the witness of Scripture.

10.Although it’s important for Jesus to be a “present reality”–as well as a future reality–that’s not the right way to frame the issue.

i) It’s not as if a reconstructed Christ fails to provide a present reality whereas a patristic or conciliar Christ succeeds in providing a present reality. That’s another false dichotomy.

ii) Moreover, there must be a point of identity between the present reality and the past reality. Ratzinger is setting up yet another false dichotomy.

This is not a choice between a reconstructed Jesus and a patristic or conciliar Jesus. Rather, this is a choice between the historical Jesus of Scripture and subscriptural or extrascriptural alternatives.


  1. Steve: "The historical-critical method is generally driven by a number of arbitrary assumptions..."

    Slightly off-topic. Steve, do you know of any inerrantist (CSBI affirming) who is also a historical-criticism scholar? Were any of the signers of CSBI historical-criticism scholars?

    Is the historical-criticism methodology de facto opposed to the doctrine of inerrancy?

  2. Steve, this is a pretty fascinating analysis.

    My comment here sort of speaks (at a personal level) to TUAD's question. I'm taking Greek lessons from an individual who is a retired Biblical Scholar. He is an old-school grammarian, and I'm into some of the hard stuff right away.

    He also tells some good personal stories. He's a CRC minister (formerly PCA); he says he knew Raymond Brown personally (as well as Bruce Metzger). He said that Brown was probably one of the finest Biblical Scholars he'd ever met -- emphasis on "Scholar" because he said, "no matter what he said, he knew he'd take heat from one side or the other -- either his fellow biblical scholars or from the Magisterium. So he made sure his scholarship was impeccable.

    Steve, this may be why Ratzinger, knowing the tensions, does not discipline folks like Meier. He just has no ground to stand on. As you've asked several times, "what's the difference between a correct interpretation and an authoritative one? I can't imagine how this will be resolved going forward, unless some pope officially just sticks his fingers in his ears and says "nuh-uh!" That kind of thing is not unheard of.

    (My Greek teacher thinks that Brown's commentary on the Gospel of John was one of the finest ever written, and that Meier's study of the "historical Jesus" is probably the "industry standard" on that topic.)

    He is not a subscriber to the Westminster Confession (though he subscribes to the three forms of unity, which don't discuss inerrancy). Nor does he believe that the Chicago statement on inerrancy can be applied today, because there is just no way to know what the original autographs say. (Though he does say that the Scriptures are infallible in their teaching). He has angered some people by saying that.

    (I'm not the kind of person who can argue with him one way or the other. I just don't have the resources at the moment.)

    But I thought it was an interesting personal comment on this sort of thing.