This weekend I re-read Donald Baillie‘s brief book God Was In Christ. Though originally published in 1948 it still strikes me as fresh and contemporary, not least in the way that it treats the problem of the “historical Jesus” and/vs. the “Christ of Faith.”
Baillie is waging a two-front war here. On the one side are “liberals” who, so intoxicated by research into the historical Jesus, want to keep Jesus but jettison Christology. Why not be content, they ask, with the “simple religion of Jesus” rather than the religion about Jesus, which overlays the message of God’s fatherly love with obscure Christological dogma.
On the other side are those who Baillie calls “neo-confessionalists.” He has in mind here folks like Barth, Brunner, and Bultmann, who, in spite of their differences, downplay the importance of the Jesus of history in favor of the Christological dogmas about Jesus. They ironically accept the most radical biblical criticism of their day, but use it to undermine the optimistic liberal version of the historical Jesus and to buttress the authority of the church’s proclamation of the God-man.
What’s interesting here is that these two poles are in many ways still with us. A liberal like Marcus Borg or John Dominic Crossan would have us abandon the church’s proclamation about Jesus with its Christological baggage and focus instead on Jesus as an exemplar of religious consciousness and an advocate for social justice.
Meanwhile, Christians overly impressed with some strands of postmodernism dismiss “historical Jesus” research and, in light of various epistemological critiques, see the church’s web of belief and practice as epistemically prior to any purely historical questions about “what really happened” back in 1st century Palestine. Thus the church’s proclamation about Christ and its portraits of him in the Gospels are rendered immune to challenge from purely secular sources of knowledge.
Baillie, however, is unhappy with both approaches and seeks to thread a middle way. He deploys a rather ingenious argument against the “liberal” position. He points out that “the faith of Jesus” can’t be so easily disentangled from claims about who Jesus was/is. In other words, any adequate theology will require a Christology. This is because the God that Jesus reveals is not a remote deity to which humans must ascend by their own efforts, but a gracious father who takes the initiative and seeks the lost. To see Jesus as an examplar, even the supreme exemplar, of this quest fails to do justice to the faith of Jesus himself:
If Jesus was right in what He reported, if God is really such as Jesus said, then we are involved in saying something more about Jesus Himself and His relation to God, and we must pass beyond words like ‘discovery’ and even ‘revelation’ to words like ‘incarnation.’ ‘In order to give us authentic tidings of the character of God’, I quoted from a philosopher, ‘Jesus did not require actually to be God.’ Is that, then, all that Jesus did–to bring us authentic tidings, as from a distant realm, of a God who takes no initiative Himself to seek us out? If God is like that, then Jesus was wrong about Him, the tidings He brought were not authentic, and He was not even a true discoverer. But if He was right, then there is something more to be said, something Christological; and if we leave it out, we are leaving out not only something vital about Jesus, but something vital about God. That is to say, if we have not a sound Christology, we cannot have a sound theology either. (pp. 64-5)
Baillie has a different bone to pick with those he calls the “neo-confessionalists.” Skeptical about the ability of historical research to tell us much at all about the life and personality of Jesus, it falls back on the church’s proclamation of Christological dogma. Thus it makes a virtue out of necessity, even going so far to say that knowledge of the life and career of Jesus would be positively no help in coming to faith. Kierkegaard, who had influenced this neo-confessionalist strain, went so far as to say that “If the contemporary generation had left behind them nothing but the words, ‘we have believed that in such and such a year God appeared among us in the humble figure of a servant, that He lived and taught in our community, and finally died,’ it would be more than enough” (quoted by Baillie, p. 49).
But, Baillie asks, is the sheer brute fact of the Incarnation a sufficient foundation on which to build an adequate Christology? He is happy to concede that the various “historical Jesus” schools have overreached both in what we can really know about Jesus and in trying to isolate the “history” from the divine drama of redemption. But at the same time, to take the Incarnation seriously means that it matters what kind of life God in the flesh lived on earth. The personality or character of Jesus is itself a revelation of the nature of God. “[Barth] has reacted so violently against the ‘Jesus of history’ movement that he does not seem interested in the historical Jesus at all. His theology has become so austerely a theology of the Word that (if one may venture with the greatest respect to say so) it is hardly a theology of the Word-made-Flesh” (p. 53).
I’m not in a position to assess whether this is a fair critique of Barth, but what I take two points away from this. First, the personality or character of Jesus matters. If the Christian message were confined to the mere report of the dying and rising of the God-man and made no mention of the kind of man he was, it would be radically incomplete. Secondly, it matters whether Jesus really did do and say the kinds of things ascribed to him in the Gospels. However much legitimate criticism there is to be made of the methods and conclusions various “historical Jesus” reconstructions, Christians can’t simply shrug off the historical question by taking refuge in the church’s confession. Honest seekers will always want to know what relationship the story of Christ that the church tells bears to reality.
With all its emphasis on the incursion of the Divine into human life once for all in Jesus Christ, [neo-confessionalist theology] has no interest in studying the resultant life as an historical phenomenon; and this is not because it would put back the hands of the clock by rejecting modern historical criticism (far from it!) but because ‘the Jesus of history is not the same as the Christ of faith’ (Brunner). I do not believe that this can be a stable position for theology. It would ultimately stultify the whole doctrine of the Incarnation. ‘If righteousness is by the Law,’ said St. Paul to the first Christian generation, ‘then Christ died for nothing’; and we might now say, in this twentieth century: If revelation is by the Word alone, then Christ lived for nothing, and the Word was made flesh in vain. That is the ultimate answer to our question as to whether we can dispense with the Jesus of history. (pp. 53-4)
Baillie’s point is that it’s not enough to take refuge in the dogmas, tradition, language, or practices of the church, however essential those are. Although current theology is more interested in Jesus’ character and teachings, there is a tendency among the heirs of Barth to insulate the church’s story from the issue of historical veracity, often by appeal to a kind of postmodern relativism of epistemologies. If no one has access to the unmediated truth of things, then the church’s version of events is no worse off (and, of course, no better off) than anyone else’s version. The question is whether safety from external critique is purchased at the price of universal relevance. If the Incarnation was a public event, a revelation of the divine character and purpose in the life of an actual historical human being, then it matters what that life was like. It seems to me that we risk embracing a new kind of gnosticism if we say that knowledge of Jesus is only possible within the “narrative” of the Christian community.
Baillie contends that, even taking into consideration the results of historical criticism, it’s still possible to discern the character of the historical Jesus. Against the “form criticism” school that tries to understand the Gospel elements in terms of the rhetorical or homiletical purposes, Baillie points out that this doesn’t exclude “biographical” information about Jesus. It’s become a cliche to say that the Gospel writers weren’t interested in writing history or biography in the modern sense, but it hardly follows that they had no interest in historical recollections about Jesus. As Baillie says, “surely we should expect those men, believing what they did about Jesus, to be immensely interested in recalling anything that He had said or done, simply because He had said or done it, however remote they might be from the modern ‘biographical’ interest” (p. 57).
Thus I cannot believe that there is any good reason for the defeatism of those who give up all hope of penetrating the tradition and reaching an assured knowledge of the historical personality of Jesus. Surely such defeatism is a transient nightmare of Gospel criticism, from which we are now awaking to a more sober confidence in our quest of the Jesus of history. (p. 58)
While I think there’s a lot to be said for the kind of critique of the “historical Jesus” industry offered by someone like Luke Timothy Johnson, I think Baillie is correct that a truly incarnational faith can’t detach itself from its roots in history. At the same time, he’s also correct that the “Jesus of history” is insufficient as the basis for a living faith. The church’s experience of Easter and Pentecost, as well as its ongoing life, are surely indispensable for understanding the meaning of Jesus in the divine drama of our salvation.