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A book on the subject of Jesus, especially Jesus as savior, might seem to be of appeal only to Christians. If the subject were limited to baptism or bishops that might be true. But it is not true about Jesus. Television specials on Jesus are regularly aired by the major networks at Christmas and Easter. There are shelves of books on Jesus at bookstores, some of which have little to do with Christianity. Jesus is more popular in America today than in the 1950s, when far more people attended church. The more unorthodox America becomes, the more interest there seems to be in Jesus.
"The world has gone after Jesus," lament the Pharisees in the Gospel of John (12:19). Well, maybe not the world, but the historical Jesus is indeed a public phenomenon in the Western world. We are more likely to see a cover story or television special on Jesus than we are on any other figure from the past - and certainly from the distant past. The appeal of Jesus is by and large detached from the church and organized Christianity, however. The Jesus who interests the modern world is Jesus as a spiritual personality who is recoverable by scholars, historians, and social scientists, not the Jesus proclaimed from pulpits. The "Sunday-Jesus" is suspected of having been tarnished with legend and dogma.
We noted in the Introduction that religion and morality are often not thought of as objective realities that exist independently of our ideas about them, like Mount Everest or the law of gravity, for example, but as ideas that can be adapted to changing times. This same current of thought affects the modern understanding of Jesus as well. The purpose of this chapter is to identify one particular current that has shaped the quest for the historical Jesus for more than two centuries now. This current is the foundation of all scholarly investigations of the Bible, including investigations of Jesus. Like most foundations, it is underground, out of sight, and rarely seen. Occasionally, however, we catch a glimpse of the foundation. A professor at a leading university wrote in a popular Bible journal recently that the idea of God directly speaking to or intervening in the world was a view of "the Bible's premodern devotees." "For academic scholars," said the professor, "such an explanation violates the 'rules of the game' by invoking the supernatural." Secular scholars, he continued, seek to account for events in the Bible, whether mundane or "miraculous," in the same way they account for events in any other period of history. They account for them by human causality, not by direct divine causality. There is the foundation in full view: the "rules of the game" do not allow God to break onto the field of play.
The Rules of the Game
The rules by which a game is played affect the outcome of the game, and the rule that all events must be accounted for by natural causes rather than by supernatural ones is technically known as naturalism. Naturalism goes back roughly to the time of the founding of the American Republic, to a movement we call the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment is usually remembered as the age that birthed the scientific method, representative democracy, and the industrial revolution. It birthed all three - and with them the modern world. The indelible mark of Enlightenment thinking was a shift in allegiance away from traditional authorities, such as kings and queens; social position and privilege; popes, prelates, and pastors; church decrees and dogmas. The ultimate court of appeal was no longer the old authorities, but the autonomous individual. The Enlightenment endowed the human spirit - each individual human spirit - with the right to question every authority except the authority of reason and experience.
The Enlightenment inaugurated an intellectual revolution in which The West is by and large still participating. For the first time since the ancient Greek Cynics, the Enlightenment made skepticism a virtue. But unlike the little-known Cynics, Enlightenment skepticism has become pervasive in Western thought. The program of the Enlightenment consisted in trying to establish the absolute grounds of objectivity and certainty, and to establish them by discounting everything that could not be understood in terms of human reason. By submitting all beliefs, including the previously-hallowed truths of morality and religion, to doubt and rational examination, the Enlightenment broke trail into the modern world, a world dominated by the values of discovery, invention, and the idea of progress. Personal liberties and rights were made the standard by which past conventions and traditions, whether social, political, economic, or religious, stood or fell. Where earlier ages placed their confidence in the old authorities or in God, the Enlightenment placed its confidence squarely in the autonomous individual, as embodied in unadorned, unencumbered, and iconoclastic figures such as Voltaire, Ben Franklin, and the American Minuteman. The Enlightenment called the human individual out from the wings to center stage. Human reason was the only altar before which one should bow. Not surprisingly, the human self became the most sacred thing in the world.
The commitment to human reason as a standard for truth and morality, and the values of discovery, questioning, invention, and individual autonomy are very appealing to me, and they must be to most people. Who but tyrants, the insane, and charlatans could object? The answer is that surely no one would object - if the above values were as straightforward as they appear. But here we must become Enlightenment individuals ourselves. When we read the fine print of Enlightenment "reason" with the glasses of Enlightenment skepticism we discover not a pure and independent reason, but a reason driven by definite constraints that affected its outcome.
Let me illustrate by telling a story. In the 1970s and 1980s I participated in several church visitations to then communist East Germany. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, an East German with whom I was fairly well acquainted asked me if I had not been working for the CIA. Surprised, I asked him why he thought so. "Your knowledge of German, your interest in our country, and your frequent visits and many contacts here have taught you more about East Germany than any American I know," he said. "I assumed you must be working for the CIA." What my acquaintance observed in me was what he expected of a CIA agent, and he chose to explain his observations in that light. It was, in one sense, a reasonable conclusion - although in this instance it was wrong. I did not work for the CIA, nor had I ever thought of doing so. My acquaintance did not consider that other conclusions might be even better explanations of the same observations. (The proper explanation of my "covert activities" was simply this: they were inspired by a commitment to witness to the oneness of the church of Jesus Christ in a divided Cold War world.)
The thinking of my East German acquaintance was driven by prior assumptions and constraints that caused him to interpret facts and observations in predetermined ways. Thomas Kuhn calls these constraints "paradigms"; we might liken them to intellectual houses that attempt to accommodate large families of data and ideas. There are as many paradigms as there are families of data. Racial profilers operate with a paradigm of suspicion against minorities. Men who suspect their wives of infidelity interpret otherwise normal acts in light of a paradigm of infidelity. Most cancer survivors contend with a paradigm of the inevitability of the recurrence of cancer; that is why they suspect aches and pains as a return of the dreaded disease. Paradigms provide explanations for common facts and data. People who rely on them are not irrational. But neither are they truly objective. They do not - or cannot - admit that the same facts and observations could be rationally accounted for equally well or better by other paradigms. A predetermined circle is drawn, and everything, whether it falls inside or outside the circle, is interpreted in light of it. In truly objective thinking, seeing is believing. In paradigm thinking, believing is seeing.
Now, back to the Enlightenment. The reason of the Enlightenment was paradigmatic reason, and the paradigm was naturalism. Naturalism is the philosophical belief that all phenomena can be explained either by material or scientifically provable causes. Committed to explaining all reality by means of the scientific method, the Enlightenment reduced all reality to naturalism, empiricism, and rationalism. Committed to naturalism as the sum of reality, the Enlightenment could not admit the possibility of a God (if there was one) who would "violate the laws of nature" by breaking into the natural order. Things that could not be explained by the scientific method - whether historical events, morality, human affection, or the existence of God -were explained away by it.
In a society in which skepticism was a sacred duty, one might expect everything associated with the Christian faith to have been jettisoned like a spent booster rocket. Much was jettisoned, including the authority of the church, Scripture, and divine revelation. In many respects, the Enlightenment signaled a twilight of the gods in the Christian West. Surprisingly, however, there were two important aspects of Christianity that were not jettisoned, although they were greatly altered.
The first was God. The Enlightenment did not dispense with the concept of God, although God was altered to resemble the laws of nature, as the Stoics much earlier had thought of the Logos, and the Neo- Platonists of the First Principle. Enlightenment thinkers were fond of referring to God in functional categories - Providence, Creator, Nature's God. God was thought of as a concept or idea, a facsimile of Reason that pervaded the universe and superintended its processes. The rational processes of the world corresponded to the God of Reason in the same way that a waterfall corresponds to the law of gravity. And just as there could be no contradiction between the law of gravity and a waterfall, there could be no contradiction between the way God works in the world and the way human reason works in the world. As rational creatures, human beings became partners of God and, insofar as they were rational, even like God. Since God both embodied and conformed to reason, traditional ways of knowing God had to be discredited and discarded. Revelation could no longer be regarded as an independent source of truth that superseded reason. The resultant view of God is known as Deism. Deism granted that God created the world, and through the laws of nature was the benefactor of the world. But the God of Deism could not and did not meddle in the world apart from the laws of nature.
The Quest Begins
The second aspect of Christianity not jettisoned by the Enlightenment was Jesus. But like God, the Jesus that survived was an abridgment of the New Testament Jesus. The Enlightenment donned critical investigation into the origins of the Bible and the life of Jesus with intellectual legitimacy. Indeed, if the effect of the Enlightenment on Christianity in general was like a sedative, its affect on the quest for the historical Jesus was like a steroid. The lion's share of this investigation was done in Germany. Only a fraction of the scholarship has been translated into English, but its magnitude is staggering. Indeed, it occupies a unique genre of research in the Western intellectual tradition. Two problems above all dominated the field of inquiry. One was the attempt to explain the relationships among the first three Gospels, the Synoptic Gospels, as they are called. The question of the formation of the Gospel traditions was a dominant and defining post-Enlightenment intellectual enterprise. In the words of a scholar who devoted his life to the problem:
The critical analysis of the sources of the Gospels is justifiably regarded as one of the most difficult research problems in the history of ideas.... one can truly say that no other enterprise in the history of ideas has been subjected to anywhere near the same degree of scholarly scrutiny.
Related to what became known as the "Synoptic Problem," but much better known, was a second intellectual enterprise of the Enlightenment, the "quest of the historical Jesus," to quote the English title (1910) of Albert Schweitzer's monumental study. Schweitzer was a German scholar who surveyed over 200 tomes written between 1750 and 1900 about the life of Jesus. Leben Jesu Forschung - investigation of the life of Jesus - became a virtual genre of literature.
The most important thing to understand about the quest of the historical Jesus is the term itself. When we hear the phrase "historical Jesus," we might think of something along the lines of "the Jesus who would have been recorded by a camcorder," for example. But in the Enlightenment paradigm, the expression meant the Jesus discernible by the historical methods of naturalism. Naturalism, as we have noted, is the commitment to explain all phenomena as results of causes that can be measured by the senses or conceived of rationally. Therefore, permissible evidence was limited to what could be known about Jesus by "the rules of the game" discussed above. The books surveyed by Schweitzer all assumed that the laws of nature are understandable by reason alone, and that God neither intervenes in them nor alters them. A distinction developed between the human Jesus of critical historiography and the divine Christ of the church. For the Enlightenment the real Jesus was not the supernatural Christ who was born of a virgin, performed miracles, and whose death and resurrection effected salvation of the faithful. That Jesus - the Christ of the church - was rejected. The Enlightenment Jesus, rather, emerged as an itinerant humanitarian who could be known by naturalistic historical research.
Another way to put it would be to say that relevant knowledge about Jesus had to come "from below" rather than "from above." Knowledge "from above" has God as its direct source, and what comes directly from God must be primarily known by revelation. But revelation violates the "rules of the game" by invoking the supernatural, and the supernatural, as a way of knowing things and explaining their existence, was ruled out of bounds. Everything about the life of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels had to be accounted for "from below," in the same ways we would account for events in the life of Julius Caesar or Princess Diana. Miracles, naturally, had to be explained without reference to God, and various explanations were put forth to explain rationally all the miracles attributed to Jesus in the New Testament. The story of Jesus' walking on the water (Mark 6:45-52), to take one example, was usually explained as an optical illusion caused by Jesus' walking along the shore; or alternatively by Jesus' walking on a sandbar hidden in the Sea of Galilee. At any rate, the Gospel narrative that he actually walked on water could not be taken at face value.
The First Quest was supremely confident that human reason could, like a metal detector in an airport, cull out the contraband of legend and superstition in the Gospels and render Jesus compatible to a naturalistic worldview, safe and respectable. There are, however, significant flaws in this methodology. There are a great many things in life we presume true that cannot be verified either by naturalism or by the scientific method. All historical events, for example, fall outside scientific verification, since they can neither be controlled or repeated. When naturalism became the only standard by which Jesus could be judged, it had to dismiss very plausible evidence not compatible with the theory - somewhat like eliminating infrared and ultraviolet light from the spectrum because they cannot be seen by the naked human eye.
Consider the following summary of Jesus' life: He was a figure of antiquity, known primarily through historical record. According to his own self-understanding and the testimony of his followers, he stood in an unshared relationship with God. His contemporaries (opponents included) believed in his ability to perform miracles. His earliest followers believed that his death effected forgiveness of sins and atonement with God for those who received the gospel in faith. His followers believed he was resurrected from the dead. This is a sparse list of affirmations about Jesus compared to the New Testament or virtually any Christian creed. Nevertheless, each italicized affirmation was rejected by the quest of the historical Jesus because it could not be verified by scientific methodology. The rules of the game dismissed such evidence, regardless how plausible it might be, as supernatural and thus "unscientific." The Enlightenment was forced by its methodology to explain away the supernatural as legend, mistaken belief, symbol, or hallucination.
Excerpted from Is Jesus the Only Savior? by JAMES R. EDWARDS Copyright © 2005 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co..
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|Introduction : the shore and the current||1|
|1||The quest of the historical Jesus||9|
|2||The Jesus seminar||23|
|3||How reliable is the New Testament as a historical document?||33|
|4||What can we know about the Jesus of history?||46|
|5||Did Jesus consider himself God?||67|
|6||Jesus - the savior of the world||100|
|7||Can the gospel compete in a pluralistic world?||116|
|8||Is a savior from sin meaningful in a day of moral relativism?||142|
|9||The gospel and postmodernism||163|
|10||Does an exclusive savior threaten world peace?||182|
|11||How should Christians think about other religions?||203|
|12||The mystery of the incarnation||229|
Posted October 21, 2009
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Posted January 11, 2011
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