Recently Neil Godfrey has been commenting on Brodie’s position that Christian theology does not require the historical Jesus. The whole series blogging through his book Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus is excellent (almost, the book’s publisher might think, too good!).
I am not a Christian theologian, and, simply on a criterion of earnestness, I am ill-equipped to comment on what is or is not capable of being considered sound Christian theology. So that is not the point here. While it is easy to show that Brodie is not alone among Christian thinkers, it is also easy to see that there are some theological concerns in Christianity for which the historicity of Jesus (some might call it the incarnation) is at the center.
Brodie and Friends
So let’s start by showing that Brodie has not gone out on a limb on his own. Bousset wrote,
And even if Science should pass the ultimate verdict that Jesus never existed, yet faith cannot be lost, for it rests upon its own eternal foundations; and moreover the figure of Jesus in the Gospels would remain in spite of it, though only as a great fiction, yet as fiction of eternal symbolic significance.
James F. Keating explains the general stance that leads to such a statement (“The Invincible Allure of the Historical Jesus for Systematic Theology,” Irish Theological Quarterly, vol. 66, p. 213):
This option holds that, whatever the chances of finding the historical Jesus, the historian has nothing to tell the believer, either about whether he should believe or what he should believe. This position is most often associated with the work of Martin Kähler and Wilhelm Herrmann. Although their differences are considerable, both agreed that any attempt to base faith in the findings of historians is the purest folly. This follows from the very character of faith. While faith must be both certain and sustaining, historical judgements are tentative and forever open to revision. In Herrmann’s words: ‘It is a fatal error to atempt to establish the basis of faith by means of historical investigation. The basis of faith must be something fixed; the results of historical study are continually changing.’ A faith which looks to history for support will find not a mighty fortress but shifting sand.
The two Catholic writers, Thomas Brodie and Luke Timothy Johnson (The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels), by two different routes, eventually come together to agree on the conclusion that none of the results of historical investigation into Jesus are relevant to the truth of faith. That shared opinion fits perfectly with the statements made by the German theologians Bousset, Kähler (The so-called historical Jesus and the historic, biblical Christ), and Herrmann on the basis of faith and its absolute independence from history. In the distinction sometimes made between the historic (the importance of something) and the historical (the actual events), it is only the historic Christ that is the concern of faith.
Scholarship First, Faith Second
Marcus Borg says of his reconstruction of the historical Jesus:
This image flows out of contemporary biblical and historical scholarship. Thought it may seem fresh and initially unfamiliar, it is very old, going back to the first century of the early Christian movement. Meeting this Jesus will, for many of us, be like meeting Jesus again for the first time. (Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, p. 3)
Although such differences are often hidden with an unhelpful term like “liberal,” the approach of someone like Borg, which may have found its most famous articulation in the Jesus Seminar, is quite different from that of someone like Brodie. Instead of relying on fideism and faith alone, Borg is calling on the tools of reason to gird the foundations of belief. He does this by citing contemporary biblical and historical scholarship in order to build an image of Jesus that challenges other notions of what it means to believe in Jesus. While there is still room for faith in terms of the decision to follow Jesus (instead of, e.g., Apollonius of Tyana or John the Baptist), anybody who performs this kind of procedure must always be willing to reconsider the content of their faith as the conclusions of contemporary historical scholarship shift.
For this type of scholar and the popular audience following these claims, the question of the historicity of Jesus is absolutely vital. Otherwise the first step would not be meeting Jesus again for the first time but rather finding out that there’s actually nobody there waiting by the lakeside to call his disciples (or, at least, that history cannot assure us that there was, let alone recover his message).
Coming at it from the theological side of things rather than from the scholarly side, Roger Haight writes:
Some knowledge of Jesus is necessary for christology for several reasons. First of all, Jesus is the subject matter of christology; christology is about Jesus. Without knowledge of Jesus, the discipline would have no real content, and the idea of the risen Christ who relates to us today would be empty. The risen Christ is Jesus, and we know nothing concrete about the risen Christ apart from Jesus because all such knowledge must be historically mediated. (“Appropriating Jesus Today,” Irish Theological Quarterly, vol. 59, p. 245)
Historically-based apologetics (an approach emphasizing the reliability of the Gospels and the historicity of the Resurrection) may also fall under the category of putting “scholarship first, faith second” (even though the particular contents of the historical scholarship cited differ).
The Thomistic Approach
Some still subscribe to an essentially Thomistic approach (certainly some of Brodie’s colleagues), and a recent example of a historical Jesus scholar who sought to uphold it is, naturally enough, John P. Meier (in A Marginal Jew). This approach does not retreat faith statements entirely into the realm of the unfalsifiable, as the first approach does. Rather it claims that both faith and reason are avenues of belief in truth. It further claims that reason rightly understood doesn’t contradict faith rightly understood, on the idea that truth doesn’t contradict itself.
The statement of Aquinas on faith can be read here and on the incarnation can be read here. You can already see where this is going. If nothing false can come under faith, and if the incarnation is necessary as part of the atonement (which comes under faith), then the incarnation isn’t false and can’t be contradicted by reason, rightly understood.
Of course, this is exactly what Doherty seeks to controvert (from the reason side of things, not the faith side of things) by titling his second historicity of Jesus volume Jesus, Neither God Nor Man. It is the Christian doctrine of the incarnation that is at stake. Since science and history can’t pretend to say anything meaningful about whether a man was God, it is the existence of Jesus as a man that is controverted. (Make no mistake: I’m not saying that this effort doesn’t follow from Doherty’s reading of the evidence as it clearly does.)
This is, conceptually, a very powerful kind of attack because in the modern world, when faith and science have clashed, faith has generally conceded ground. Whether it is successful or not isn’t the topic here. But I will say that, to be really successful, sowing doubt about the historicity of Jesus may not be sufficient. The Thomistic formulation of the relationship between faith and reason allows that some statements of faith are not supported by reason. If the conclusion is merely that the historicity of Jesus is not established by reason, it is quite possible that this could find the agreement of Aquinas without shaking his faith.
A Modern Protestant Approach
Some may recoil from the idea of the non-historicity of Jesus simply because it doesn’t seem to offer the Christian faith any vitality. Walter P. Weaver wrote concerning Troeltsch: “Those who are content with a Jesus who is simply a mythical embodiment of an idea or symbol are not likely to join communities anyway, and neither will believers be satisfied with such. For believers God cannot be an idea or possibility but is a ‘holy reality’ (197). It is therefore consequential that their faith is connected to one who truly struggled, lived, conquered, and died.” (The Historical Jesus in the Twentieth Century, pp. 67-68)
Karl Barth is an influential theologian and, while I haven’t studied him, I have pulled a couple quotes of his on the incarnation from the web. Here’s one:
Col. 2:9 tells us: “In him dwelleth all the fulness of the godhead bodily.” Therefore the sovereignty of God dwells in His creaturely dependence as the Son of Man, the eternity of God in His temporal uniqueness, the omnipresence of God in His spatial limitation, the omnipotence of God in His weakness, the glory of God in His passibility and mortality, the holiness and righteousness of God in His adamic bondage and fleshliness — in short, the unity and totality of the divine which is His own original essence in His humanity. The actuality of the incarnate Son of God, the union of the two natures in Him, is the direct confrontation of the totality of the divine with the human in the one Jesus Christ. (Church Dogmatics IV/2, p. 86)
It is in full unity with Himself that He is also – and especially and above all – in Christ, that he becomes a creature, man, flesh, that He enters into our being in contradiction, that He takes upon Himself its consequences. If we think that this is impossible it is because our concept of God is too narrow, too arbitrary, too human – far too human. Who God is and what it is to be divine is something we have to learn where God has revealed Himself and His nature, the essence of the divine. And if He has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ as the God who does this, it is not for us to be wiser than He and to say that it is in contradiction with the divine essence. We have to be ready to be taught by Him that we have been too small and perverted in our thinking about Him within the framework of a false idea about God. It is not for us to speak of a contradiction and rift in the being of God, but to learn to correct our notions of the being of God, to constitute them in the light of the fact that He does this. (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1, 186)
But it should not be necessary to multiply quotes to great extent just to find how central the incarnation has been to modern ruminations on Christian theology. Perhaps the extent of it can best be illustrated from the coinage of the word incarnational.
The incarnation frequently comes up in interfaith dialogue as one of the doctrines that sets Christianity apart from its Abrahamic spiritual cousins, Judaism and Islam. And indeed it is. Take that one away from Christianity, and Christians may struggle to find much left to talk about that is uniquely Christian. The perceived danger is that one could be left with merely a form of deism that meets on Sunday. Not that this is inconceivable. It’s just that many are not nearly ready to conceive of it.