In the recently published volume Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity, Scot McKnight writes a chapter arguing that historical Jesus (HJ) studies are useless for the church. I gave a lengthy review of his argument here. I find McKnight’s argument problematic for at least four reasons.
First, McKnight’s argument that HJ studies are useless for the Church largely ignores the central focus of the book, the misuse/problematic nature of the criteria of authenticity. He only mentions the criteria approach in his second point and then argues that a memory approach is not without its problems in failing to produce a “genuine” Jesus. The focus of the book is how to do better HJ work by moving past the “criteria approach,” which failed to yield what it promised. Ignoring the project of the book is, in my opinion, tantamount to arguing that history does not matter. In the end, all believers have is the “Church’s Jesus.” This seems to me a failure to “take the incarnation seriously” as Dagmar Winter put it in her presentation at the conference.
Second, McKnight is emphatic that the Church’s Jesus is the only valid Jesus for believers. My problem here is that the Church does not have one Jesus. In the canonical gospels alone there are four Jesuses. The preface of Luke’s gospel might well indicate that he found the other reconstructions less than satisfactory and sought to produce a better, more “accurate [ἀκριβῶς]” reconstruction (Lk 1.1-4). Even if Luke is not implicitly critiquing the other gospels he is at least suggesting that more than one is necessary (cf. Jn 20.30-31). The canonical gospels present us with four Jesuses and we have the Jesuses of the apocryphal gospels indicating that some strands of early Christianity saw value in adding to the existing reconstructions. Therefore, the argument that the Church has one Jesus is simply not true. The church has always had many reconstructions of Jesus.
Third, McKnight appeals to “the Creeds” to argue for the singular “Church’s Jesus,” but I wonder which Creeds and whose church? The Jesus of the Episcopalian Church is radically different from the Evangelical Jesus. The Jesus of Roman Catholicism is different from the Eastern Orthodox Jesus. Taking this point even further, the Jesus of my church is different than the Jesus of McKnight’s for the simple reason that we hear different sermons, practice different liturgies, confess (or don’t confess) different creeds. There is no question that there are various Jesuses and that each church is involved in the “meaning making” of its Jesus. The question is whether or not good historiography can help churches have a more historically accurate Jesus, a Jesus not determined by cultural convention or local preference. I am of the opinion that it can, even that it must.
Fourth, McKnight’s lamentation of the fact that portraits of Jesus shift in each generation is not, in my opinion, a bad thing. History and theology must be culturally relevant; otherwise they are simply chasing the wind. Thus, it’s not a surprise that portraits of Jesus change in different cultures. I contend that using good historical methods can help believers see outside of their culture and get a more accurate picture of Jesus. That historical Jesus reconstructions change is a neutral fact, neither positive nor negative. The question, again, is whether or not historical methods can help provide a more accurate Jesus for churches. I believe they can.
Please note additions placed in [brackets] in response to Scot McKnight's comments on this critique.