Monday, October 8, 2012

Why the Historical Jesus is of No Use for the Church

The only contributor to Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne’s Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity who did not attend the conference last weekend was Scot McKnight. I have never personally met McKnight and would have liked to do so. He seems an affable person and a good scholar. You can find him on the web at his blog Jesus Creed.

Having heard each contributor give a presentation of parts of his or her chapter at the conference, upon returning home I immediately read McKnight’s essay. He provocatively titled his contribution, “Why the Authentic Jesus is of No Use for the Church,” but I went ahead and crossed out “Authentic” and wrote “Historical” instead, because I think that is what he means. This is a two part post. Part one consists of a description of McKnight’s argument. Part two is my critique.

McKnight begins by asserting that all historical Jesus work is theological and that historical reconstructions provide each historical Jesus scholar with the Jesus he or she “believe[s] in” (174). Additionally, he argues that historical methods are useful and able to yield “a ‘historical’ Jesus or a historian’s Jesus or a Jesus as he can be reconstructed through historical methods” (174). He argues that historical Jesus research is fundamentally reconstructing Jesus which produces “a theological Jesus for that scholar and those who agree with him or her” (175, emphasis original).

Since the task is reconstruction, McKnight asserts, “The historical Jesus enterprise is designed to take apart the Church’s Jesus [. . .] and the Gospels in order to find what is historical [i.e. what really happened] and then to construct an image of Jesus on the basis of what survives the test” (175). Such work reconstructs and thus deconstructs the portraits of Jesus in the canonical Gospels. As a result, McKnight contends that “historical Jesus proposals are of no use to the Church—at all” (175, repeated throughout the essay 176, 178, 179, 180, 182, 184). To be clear, McKnight does not think historical reconstruction is “wrong or impossible, but that it does not help the church” (178).

Why exactly does McKnight think historical Jesus studies “useless” for the church? Succinctly,
When the Jesus we have (re)constructed is no longer orthodox or the Jesus of the canonical Gospels or the Jesus of the regula fidei, the Jesus we have is no longer the Jesus of the church, and a Jesus who is not of the church is not a Christian Jesus. That Jesus was virginally conceived as a result of an act of God, lived as a Galilean Jew, preached the kingdom and did miracles and all that, died and was buried and was raised from the dead by God, and was exalted to the right hand of God, and will come again. And these acts are saving and forgiving and justifying and reconciling in such a way that those who participate in that Jesus are granted eternal life. That Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity. He is divine and he is human, fully God and fully man. (176)
McKnight goes on to make four specific contentions about why he thinks historical Jesus research is useless for the Church.

First, he argues that reconstructions remake the meaning of Jesus but the meaning of Jesus has already “been made by the Gospels and the creeds” (176). For McKnight, the narratives of the canonical Gospels and the interpretations of the Creeds produce the Church’s Jesus, a Jesus that cannot be deconstructed and still serve the Church.

Second, McKnight argues that “the criteria will not permit us to get back to a Jesus that is intellectually compelling to more than a gaggle of like-minded scholars” (180). Oddly, he switches to the book project with the word “criteria,” but up until this point he has simply referred to historical reconstruction. His point here is simply to observe that despite the painstaking efforts of brilliant scholars, “the criteriological approach to Jesus is facing now a crisis in confidence” (182). This makes me wonder if McKnight would see value in historical Jesus studies for the church if scholars agreed on a particular historical Jesus.

Third, McKnight thinks that historical Jesus studies are useless for the church because, “memory studies dampen enthusiasm for the kind of confidence needed to construct a genuine historical Jesus” (182). McKnight references Dunn’s argument that all we have is the “remembered” Jesus (Jesus Remembered). It is unclear to me what McKnight means by “genuine” but it appears that he is critiquing memory studies for failing to give us criteria-like-assurance of firm results, providing “genuine” sayings, deeds, etc. The central point of the book as a whole is that the criteria approach does not give us assured results.

Fourth, “the historical Jesus enterprise is of no use to the church because [. . .] historical Jesus studies shift and change from generation to generation, and that means the Jesus offered changes, and that means the church [. . .] would be asked to re-do its Christology every generation” (184). He rhetorically asks whose Jesus would be followed and who will make that decision.

McKnight, then, sees no value for the church in historical Jesus studies. What do you think? 

I'll post my critique tomorrow.

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