Jesus Research and Christian Faith

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This page is part of the Jesus Database project.


Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J.

"The Word was Made Flesh and Dwelt Among Us. Jesus Research and Christian Faith." in Doris Donnelly (ed), Jesus. A Colloquium in the Holy Land. New York: Continuum, 2001. Pages 146-166


Notes and Extracts prepared by Greg Jenks


Introduction

we are blessed with a fresh renaissance in Jesus studies at turn of the millennium
this work inevitably gives rise to existential religious questions
so what is the significance of this research for Christian belief and practice today

this is a relatively new issue for faith to deal with
church has lived for most of its 2,000 years without any quest for the historical Jesus

Insofar as many of the insights about Jesus generated by biblical scholarship are genuinely new to people who have lived with the Gospel texts as sacred scripture, these new data pose challenges to traditional patterns of thought. Insofar as vast numbers of contemporary people operate with a type of thinking marked by a "literal" rather than "legendary" understanding of history, this research also offers an opportunity to answer basic questions about the meaning of Christian faith. (p. 147)

3 disputed options in response to this new information:

skeptics
seeking to debunk over-inflated claims of Christian tradition
from Reimarus in the 18C through David Frederick Strauss in the 19C
to "some, though certainly not all, members of the Jesus Seminar"

traditionalists
carving out a storm-free zone for faith
dismisses the contributions of historical scholarship from Martin Kahler in 19C to Luke Timothy Johnson

moderates
seeking to combine scholarship and faith
deny any ultimate discrepancy between faith and reasons
value critical thinking as an ingredient of contemporary faith


Changing Imagination

core thesis

Jesus research affects faith mainly by changing Christian imagination

our image of Jesus is very important to Christian faith

the collective memory image of Jesus "ensures that the content of Jesus in the confession that Jesus is the Christ is not reduced to a cipher or a projection but remains a gracious, challenging gift from God, Subtract the memory of Jesus from the church, and the whole life of faith implodes." (page 150)

Jesus research is changing this memory image
especially dramatic for a high Christology based on a literal reading of the Gospels

the new pictures being painted include:

  • Jesus the Jew (Vermes)
  • a marginal Jew (Meier)
  • a prophet of Israel's restoration (Sanders)
  • a Spirit-filled leader, compassionate healer, subversive sage and founder of a revitalization movement in Judaism (Borg)
  • a Mediterranean Jewish peasant (Crossan)
  • an eschatological prophet proclaiming the dawning of God's reign (Schillebeeckx)

these various profiles are changing the traditional Christian imagination of Jesus
they are not all the same
real contradictions between the pictures and their underlying sources/methods

Still, taken singly or together, these depictions encapsulate an awareness of the figure at the origins of Christianity different from that of the doctrinal Christ of traditional piety. This is not to say that these images are opposed to doctrine, but they do give rise to a different appreciation. Obviously, the images emerging from contemporary studies do not exhaust the reality of the actual Jesus who lived. But I would argue that given the critical tools being utilized, this changed imagination arguably approximates aspects of the first disciples' memory of Jesus more closely than the church's memory image has done for many generations. (page 151)

4 areas of our Jesus memory are especially affected:

  • who was/is he?
  • what did he achieve?
  • what is the church?
  • how do we imagine God?


The Person of Jesus Christ

classical doctrines affirms two natures
but in practice Christians neglect humanity of Jesus
benchmark for orthodoxy is "Jesus is truly God" not "Jesus is truly human"
mysterious Monophysite undercurrent allows divinity to swallow humanity

Intellectual dualism that prizes spirit over matter, body over soul, and thus pure divinity over enfleshed humanity is one contributing factor. A competitive model of God's relation to the world whereby the infinitely powerful One overwhelms the puny integrity of the creature is another. A political power structure that privileges an elite group over the grubby masses, absorbing Christ into the glorified image of the ruling emperor is yet another. It may also be the case that we are so little at home in our own skins that the idea of God's truly entering into our earthy condition becomes seriously unimaginable. (page 151f)

Precisely here, Jesus research refreshes the imagination of the church about the genuine humanity of the eschatological prophet from Nazareth. Fed by Jesus research, a clearer grasp of Jesus' historical humanity now provides Christology with a new yet ancient starting point. (page 152)

And here is the key point. Jesus research affects the imagination of faith about the true humanity of the Word made flesh not be generalizing but by particularizing. Jesus of Nazareth is not a generic human being but a specific one. (page 152)

Even a few such details change the imagination and feed the rediscovery of the "truly historical human" dimension of christological belief. It becomes harder to maintain a "Superman" model of Jesus' life: mild-mannered worker in wood and stone on the outside, with secret, souped-up powers on the divine inside, as if his mind and will were not utterly affected by his finite, social location in history. (page 152)

While it may be easy to admit that Jesus' body was real flesh that could experience pleasure and pain, and while it may even be admissible that he thought and spoke in Jewish categories, resistance to the impact of Jesus research often draws a line in the sand over Jesus' own self-consciousness. (page 152)

Jesus does not wake up in the morning reciting the prologue of John's Gospel or the formula of Chalcedon. Rather, it takes his whole lifetime with all its experiences for him to grasp himself in concrete terms. (page 154)

Did Jesus know he was God? Rahner concludes: yes and no. Yes at the subjective pole of self-awareness where we intuitively grasp who we are. No at the objective pole of self-awareness where we define ourselves in concrete terms. To put the question another way: Did this first-century Jewish man think he was Yahweh? Of course not. The very parameters of the faith in which he worship forbad such a self-definition. In later years Christians would have to develop the very concept of God into Trinitarian terms in order to make this identification. (page 154)

Allowing for nescience, psychological development, and genuine, situated freedom in Jesus of Nazareth is an acid test of how radically "one with us as to his humanity" we are prepared to allow him to be. (page 154)

If one holds to a position that considers Jesus a "mere man," even if an extraordinary Jewish one, then the impact of Jesus research on Christian imagination is not so dramatic. But if one holds deeply to the classical confession of this faith, this scholarship brings to birth a renewed appreciation of just how radical the incarnation really is. God with us and for us under the conditions of genuine human existence, which is inevitably particular and limited -- How much further could Love go? (page 154)

Salvation Thanks to Jesus Christ

how can we understand the Nicene phrase "for us and our salvation" ??

diverse NT metaphors for what Jesus did "for us"

  • business metaphors: buying, redeeming, ransoming
  • medical metaphors: healing and wholeness
  • legal metaphors: justification or acquittal
  • political metaphors: liberation, deliverance, freedom
  • military metaphors: victory over the opposing powers
  • cultic metaphors: sacrifices, atonement
  • relational metaphors: dividing walls removed, proximity after distance
  • family metaphors: adoption as children

in Western theology sacrificial atonement has displaced earlier diversity
yet no formal definition of the issues

The metaphor's narrative focus on the cross, moreover, leads to the idea that death was the very purpose of Jesus' life. He came to die; the script was already written before he stepped onto the world stage. This not only robs Jesus of his human freedom, but it sacralizes suffering more than joy as an avenue to God. It tends to glorify violent death as somehow of value. (page 156)

Jesus research contributes to redressing that imbalance in Western theology

assigns value to the whole of Jesus' life and ministry, not just final hours; and it identified the resurrection as the definitive action of God in not allowing death to have the last word.

Herein lies the saving power of this event death does not have the last word. The crucified one is not annihilated but brought to new life in the embrace of God, who remains faithful in surprising ways. (page 157)

Jesus' death can be seen as what happened to the prophet sent by God when historical human actors make free decisions in particular contingent circumstances

To put it simply, Jesus, far from being a masochist, came not to die but to live and to help others live in the joy of the divine love. To put it boldly, God the Creator and Lover of the human race did not need Jesus' death as an act of atonement but wanted him to flourish in his ministry of the coming reign of God. Human sin thwarted this divine desire yet did not defeat it. (page 158)


the view of salvation then moves its focus on to God rather than Jesus

... the view of salvation fed by Jesus research shifts theological emphasis from a sole, violent act of atonement for sin before an offended God to an act of suffering solidarity that brings the compassionate presence of God into intimate contact with human misery, pain, and hopelessness. (page 158)

Part of the difficulty with the atonement/satisfaction metaphor, especially as it has played out in a juridical context, lies in the way it valorized suffering. Rather than being something to be resisted or remedied in light of God's will for human well-being, suffering is seen as a good in itself or even an end necessary for God's honor. Not only has this led to masochistic tendencies in piety ... but ... it has promoted acceptance of suffering resulting from injustice rather than energizing resistance. (page 159)

Rather than being an act willed by a loving God, [the cross] is a strikingly clear index of sin in the world, a wrongful act committed by human beings. What may be considered salvific in such a situation is not the suffering endured but only the love poured out. The saving kernel in the midst of such negativity is not the pain and death as such but the mutually faithful love of Jesus and his God, not immediately evident. (page 159)


a richer vocabulary of salvation

Finally, the view of salvation fed by Jesus research allows the rich tapestry of metaphors found throughout the New Testament to be brought back into play. No one image and its accompanying theology can exhaust the experience and meaning of salvation through Christ. Taken together these metaphors correct distortions that rise when one alone is over emphasized ... (page 160)


The Church: Following Jesus Christ

As the community of disciples graced by the Spirit who follow Jesus the Christ, Christians take their cue for right action, belief, and relationship from their memory image of him. (page 160)

Like Jesus, the earliest Christians had no blueprint
everything was improvised

They followed Jesus not by slavish imitation but by creative application of his values, imprinting his presence in new situations as best they could. Ever since, through a terribly messy history, the core dynamic has been the same. In the community of the church, the future of what Jesus started is being lived out. ... Down through the centuries we keep the "dangerous" memory of Jesus alive. (page 161)

By following Jesus, taking our bearings from him and allowing ourselves to be inspired by his Spirit, by sharing his Abba experience and his selfless love for the "least of these," and thus entrusting our own destiny to God, we allow the history of Jesus, the Living One, to continue in history as a piece of living christology, the work of the Spirit in the world. (Schillebeeckx, Christ, p. 641)
The church as a piece of living Christology---herein lies the link with Jesus research. For new understandings of Jesus' own historical story lead to critique of some of the church's patterns of discipleship, prayer, and praxis and inspire new directions.
(page 161)


Three critical examples:

Christian anti-Semitism is impossible when Jesus' Jewishness is valued
affluent Western Christians ignore Jesus' prophetic preferential option for the poor
women would not be be relegated to second class status in a church that imitated Jesus

As a piece of living Christology, the church is awakened and challenged by Jesus research to a new faithfulness. (page 162)


The Living God

Since Christians believe Jesus to be the Word, Wisdom, and revelation of God, truly divine, then what scholarship turns up about the specificity of this particular first-century Jewish human being has great import for understanding the character and intent of the living God. (page 162)

Recovering the history of Jesus becomes a route to recovering aspects of divine mystery generally submerged by classical doctrine. That doctrine, drawn from philosophical theism apart from revelation, conceives of God as an absolute, self-subsistent being with attributes of infinite perfection such as omnipotence, immutability, and impassibility, and so constituted as to have no real relation to the world or its history. Reversing direction, theology today seeks to think the reality of God from the history of Jesus Christ. If Jesus belongs to the definition of God, what does the concrete shape of the history of this human being reveal about the incomprehensible divine mystery? (page 162)

Jesus not only teaches parables about God. He is concretely the parable God is telling in this historical world. (page 163)

Theology dares to extrapolate from the words and actions of Jesus to the conception of God's own being as fundamentally and essentially Love (1 John 4:8).

God is the lover of the earth and human beings who desires the well-being of all. That places God in total opposition to whatever degrades or destroys the beloved creatures. It makes God particularly partisan toward those who are powerless and suffering. Far from being allied with forces or structures that oppress, God's liberating love opposes them and seeks their transformation so that the downtrodden might be released into fullness of life, the singular precondition for all human beings to dwell in new community. It follows that to know and love God, then, is to hunger and thirst for justice, to ally oneself compassionately with the cause of God in solidarity with those who suffer in this world. Understand God as the ever-coming, liberating God of life is yet another result of theology's reception of Jesus research. (page 163)


Conclusion

such research does not rob Jesus of his mystery

... historical study succeeds in placing Jesus so carefully in first-century Palestine that he becomes helpfully strange to contemporary, first-world persons. The inveterate tendency to domesticate him, making him like unto ourselves, is upended when his own historical concreteness is asserted. (pages 163f)

Jesus research is providing new imaginative fodder for Christian life and practice. Neither history that is sceptical of faith nor faith that exists in an a-historical vacuum will suffice to satisfy questions asked in the spirit of our age. But history and faith in mutual relationship open fruitful new paths. (page 164)