How Christianity Came Into Crisis
Today at the dawn ofher third millennium, the Christian church is undergoing a theological crisis in what she thinks and believes about Jesus of Nazareth.
The crisis grows out of a fact now freely admitted by both Protestant and Catholic theologians and exegetes: that as far as can be discerned from the available historical data, Jesus of Nazareth did not think he was divine, did not assert any of the messianic claims that the New Testament attributes to him, and went to his death without intending to found a new religion called “Christianity.” That is, the theological crisis has to do with the prima facie discrepancy between what Jesus of Nazareth apparently thought he was (a special but very human prophet) and what mainline Christian believers now take him to be (the divine Son of God, consubstantial with the Father and the Holy Spirit).
The apparent difference between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith” is not a new problem in Christianity. Since the last century liberal Protestant scholars like Adolf von Harnack and agnostics like Ernest Renan have tried to strip away what they thought were
the church’s divinizing embellishments of Jesus of Nazareth so as to arrive at the “real” (that is, the human) prophet of Nazareth.
More recently Roman Catholic exegetes and theologians have joined the discussion. With the encouragement of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Catholic scholars now teach that the Gospels are not accurate “histories” of Jesus but religious testimonies produced by the second and third generations of Christians, whose faith that Jesus was their savior colored their memory of his days on earth. Thus, even though all Catholic biblical scholars believe that Jesus is God, they do not necessarily maintain that Jesus himself thought he was the divine Son of God, who had existed from all eternity as the Second Person of the Trinity.
Just as the question of discontinuity between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith is not a new problem, so too solutions to it have long been available in Christian teaching. Today, however, those solutions and the presuppositions on which they rest are being called into question.
Did Jesus actually think that he was the divine Son of God? Christian theologians have traditionally answered this question by asserting that their savior, insofar as he was both God and man, was quite literally of two minds about himself. Relying on a complex distinction that ancient Hellenistic philosophy made between “nature” and “person” (or “rational hypostasis”), these theologians claim that Jesus, even though he was only one person, did have both a human and a divine nature, joined in “hypostatic union.” Each of the two natures, they say, had a corresponding intellect, finite in the one case, infinite in the other. And therefore, even if in his human self-understanding Jesus was not aware of his own nature as God, in his divine mind he did know who and what he really was. And he chose to reveal his identity gradually and indirectly, in ways that believers came to fully comprehend only after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
How, then, do believers know that the Jesus of history is Christ and God? Some Christians assert that faith is a higher form of cognition than empirical, historical knowledge and therefore that Christian believers have a deeper insight into who Jesus really was than do nonbelievers. According to this thesis, historical research gives us only the “historiographical Jesus”—that is, only those aspects of him that are
available via historico-critical method—but it cannot show us the authentic, divine Jesus of history, who actually lived and preached two millennia ago. To arrive at that real Jesus, so the theory goes, one must have faith; and unlike the scientific historian, the believing Christian supposedly knows that Jesus really was the Son of God, even if the historical evidence does not show that.
But this solution does not work. Faith provides the believer with no more data about who Jesus of Nazareth “really” was than does normal historical experience. There exists no revealed body of supernatural information that is given over to the Christian faithful while being kept hidden from nonbelievers. Christians have at their disposal only the same public evidence about Jesus that everyone else has—but they interpret the data differently. That is, Christianity is a “hermeneusis,” or interpretation. Its beliefs and doctrines are but one of many possible and equally valid ways of understanding the universally available empirical data about Jesus of Nazareth. Christians may claim that their faith is based on revelation, but as far as one can tell empirically, such revelation is a name for the historically relative and culturally determined hermeneutical process in which Christians, confronting the humanly available information about Jesus of Nazareth, choose to interpret him as their savior, who reigns with God in heaven.
Despite these attempts at solving the problem, the critical fact remains: At the root of Christianity there lies the difference between how Jesus apparently understood himself while he was alive—as the eschatological prophet—and how the church came to interpret him within a half century of his death: as the divine Son of God.Does this difference constitute a discrepancy, an incompatibility between the evidence of history and the claims of faith? On the one hand, no one can scientifically prove (and no believer would want to) that Jesus actually was the divine savior that Christianity eventually took him to be. On the other hand, it can be established with a high degree of historical certitude that the early church did not create her christological understanding of Jesus out of absolutely nothing, but rather based it on the earliest believers’ firsthand impressions of Jesus’ dramatically prophetic comportment. That is, Jesus spoke and acted with an extraordinary authority that he attributed to God, who was working through him. His disciples interpreted this authority as evidence
that Jesus was God’s final prophet, sent to prepare Israel for the end of time. Thus early christologies, which interpreted Jesus first as the Son of Man and eventually as Christ and God (see [Part Three]), were an extension and enhancement of what Simon Peter and the original disciples believed that Jesus had been, whether or not that belief corresponded to what Jesus actually thought of himself and (if this were knowable) who he ontologically was.
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