Jesus in Sociological Perspective

The forty years from the outbreak of the First World War mark something of a hiatus or diversion in 'life of Jesus' research, dominated as the period was by the reassertion of a dogmatic christological perspective (Barth) and an (in effect) equally dogmatic kerygmatic perspective (Bultmann). Consequently, it will make better sense to delay till the next section (see §§5.3 and 4 below) consideration of both the contribution of Bultmann and the wrestlings of the immediate generation with Bultmann's heritage in terms of the tension between history and faith. That the Bultmann epoch does indeed constitute something of an interruption both in the flight from dogma and in the quest itself, however, is also confirmed by the fact that from the mid-1970s onwards the concerns which had dominated the old Liberal quest reasserted themselves — in two forms.

For all its defects and failures, the Liberal quest had attempted to see Jesus within his historical context, and it was motivated by a genuine ethical concern. The former objective found a close ally in the emergence of the history-of-religions school at the beginning of the twentieth century. This latter was an extension of the Liberal reaction against dogma in that it turned away from the traditional preoccupation of Christianity as primarily a doctrinal system and sought to understand the emergence of Christianity as one among the many religious movements of the first-century Greco-Roman world.123 In the event, inquiry focused mostly on the 'Hellenization' of Christianity (to use Harnack's term),

Perrin points out, however, that we can only really speak of the collapse of the Liberal quest in reference to Germany; the Liberal position on the question of our knowledge of the historical Jesus and on the relationship of that knowledge to Christian faith was maintained in Britain and America for another fifty years (Rediscovering 214-] 5). See further Weaver, Historical Jesus xi-xii and chs. 4-6 passim.

123. W. Wrede's programmatic essay caught the mood — 'The Task and Method of "New Testament Theology"' (1897), ET in R. Morgan, The Nature ofNew Testament Theology (London: SCM, 1973) 68-116. It should be noted that the motivation in the emerging sociological perspective was not so much hostility to dogma as concern that the older dogmatic perspective was too narrow and for that reason distorted twentieth-century perception of the historical reality. This section fits least comfortably within the overarching theme of the present chapter.

building on the old Liberal assertion of a major transition (mutation?) from Jesus the teacher of timeless moral ideals to Paul the proponent of a religion patterned on the mystery cults of the time.124 Schweitzer could be said to have shared the same history-of-religions motivation, in that he set Jesus within the context of Jewish apocalypticism. But in so doing, as we noted above, he left questers with a conundrum (how could a failed apocalyptic prophet provide a credible religious model for the twentieth century?), to which Bultmann's existentialism provided only temporary solution.

At the same time Liberalism's ethical concern was strengthened by the first attempts to draw on the emerging social sciences, particularly sociology. The infant enterprise survived the war, but its new step-father (kerygmatic theology) was hardly well disposed towards it, and its early flourishing in Marxist contributions126 no doubt increased Western scholarly suspicion towards it. It is true that the early form critics recognized a social dimension to the forms (Sitz im Leben), but only in a limited way — the life of the forms within the congregations, not the life of the churches within a wider social context.127 And although the older Liberal agenda lived on in the Chicago School into the 1920s and 30s,128 it did not make any real impact beyond America.

It was only in the mid-1970s that the infant attained full adulthood. This coming of age was partly the result of the social sciences having become fully established within expanding university systems in the West,129 and partly the result of increasing European disengagement with its colonial past and the con-

124. See chapter 1 above at nn. 16 and 18.

125. Also characteristic of the history-of-religions method was Troeltsch's observation that 'the Christian idea will never become a powerful reality without community and cult' ('The Significance of the Historical Existence of Jesus' 196). See further Troeltsch's The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (1912; ET London: George Allen andUnwin, 1931). G. Theissen, 'Social Research into the New Testament', Social Reality and the Early Christians (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1992/Edinburgh: Clark, 1993) 1-29, notes that Troeltsch 'wished to supplement the "ideological" view of Christianity carried through in the history of dogma by a "sociological" way of looking at things. But he restricted himself to the social doctrines of the churches and sects' (8, n. 8). Theissen also points out that Troeltsch lived in the same house in Heidelberg as Max Weber and that they influenced each other mutually (7).

126. Particularly K. Kautsky, Foundations of Christianity (1908, "1921; ET London: George Allen and Unwin, 1925).

127. Theissen, 'Social Research' 8-13. See further below §8.6a and vol. 2.

128. Most notably S. J. Case, Jesus: A New Biography (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1927), and S. Matthews, Jesus on Social Institutions (New York: Macmillan, 1928); see further Weaver, Historical Jesus 127-36.

129. The expansion of the British university system in the 1960s was marked by the transition from 'Theology' or 'Divinity' as the appropriate title for departments or faculties to 'Religious Studies'.

emergence of liberation The revival and mature flourishing of the sociological quest is evident in two contributions in particular.

Study Aid

Study Aid

This Book Is One Of The Most Valuable Resources In The World When It Comes To Getting A Scholarship And Financial Support For Your Studies.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment