The Search for an Invulnerable Area for Faith

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However we may now evaluate the fundamental statements about historical method by Lessing and Troeltsch, the fact is that the strict application of historical method became a major problem for those who wished to maintain some sort of faith standpoint. The response was a flight from history, less trumpeted than the Enlightenment's flight from dogma, but just as critical for the understanding and expression of faith.

Lessing's (or the Enlightenment) solution, as we have seen, was to postulate an area for faith ('necessary truths of reason')16 incapable of historical investigation, to maintain that religious truth is of a different order from historical truth, and that the former in no way needs or depends on the latter. But the theory of innate ideas ('necessary truths of reason') could not last;17 the truths self-evident to all 'men of reason' soon proved to be neither self-evident nor necessary. Nor have either Reimarus's rationalist Jesus or Strauss's idea of God-manhood commanded lasting assent. Historical method had proved merely reductive of faith; even the much diminished faith that remained had not escaped its withering power after all.

As the epistemological debate moved on, the nineteenth-century Protestant Liberals attempted to locate the safe area for faith in Schleiermacher's religious consciousness, which is not in the end amenable to historical analysis, or in Kant's sense of moral obligation, from which a religious ethic could be derived independently of the NT. The climactic result was in effect the stripping away of all historical accidentals from the eternal verities taught (as it happened!) by Jesus. The urge to find an area for faith invulnerable to historical questioning (in Kahler's phrase, a sturmfreies Gebiet, a 'storm-free area') was a major motivating factor particularly for one of Bultmann's teachers in the late nineteenth century, Wilhelm Herrmann, and for Kahler himself.

In his influential study, Herrmann claimed to recognize the force of Lessing's caveats on the weight attachable to historical judgment,18 but argued that a secure base can nonetheless be found in religious experience, the experience of faith: the power of Jesus' inner life reaches across the centuries; 'Jesus Himself and His power over the heart is actually the vital principal [sic] of our religion'.19 This emphasis on the reality and power of religious experience, over

16. I note again that 'faith' is my term.

17. It had already been heavily criticized by Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) and was about to be subjected to Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (1781).

18. Herrmann, Communion 72.

19. Herrmann, Communion 109; '. .. whenever we come to see the Person of Jesus, then, under the impress of that inner life that breaks through all the veils of the story, we ask no more questions as to the trustworthiness of the Evangelists' (75); 'When we speak of the historical against an understanding of faith primarily in terms of uniform dogma, is to be welcomed; Herrmann's focus on the experience of faith was influential on both Barth and Bultmann, and his emphasis on the faith of Jesus anticipated the later interest in the subject in the second half of the twentieth century. But the will-o'-the-wisp of Jesus' 'inner life' was hardly a secure area of retreat from the threats of historical method.20

More effective and of more lasting influence was the contribution of Kahler. He took the challenge of historical criticism more seriously, and instead of ducking the challenge he accepted it in full. 'We do not possess any sources for a "Life of Jesus" which a historian can accept as reliable and adequate'. Historical scholarship leaves us with 'mere probabilities'. The sources contain nothing capable of sustaining a biography of Jesus.21 Despite Lessing, the effective assumption in life of Jesus research had been that faith must rest on the historical Jesus, that is, on Jesus insofar as he could be uncovered and reconstructed by historical-critical research. But the multiplicity of different reconstructions only made faith harder and not easier.22 More to the point, only a few scholars have the specialist training to carry through such reconstruction. Is faith, then, to depend on the findings of a few scholars? Are critical historians to become the new priests and pope of Christian faith? No! To tie faith to the historical accuracy of this or that detail would wholly undermine faith. Faith looks only to the historic Christ, the biblical Christ, 'the Christ who is preached'.23 'The biblical Christ is the "invulnerable area" from which faith can gain its certainty without relying on the heteronomous guarantees of external authorities'.24

This move to link faith with the preached Christ anticipated Bultmann, and the shift from a reconstructed Jesus behind the Gospels to the Christ of the Gospels anticipated the more recent focus on the Gospels themselves rather than on

Christ we mean that personal life of Jesus which speaks to us from the New Testament' (77); 'Doubt as to its actual historicity can really be overcome only by looking to the contents of what we learn to know as the inner life of Jesus' 'The traditional record may appear doubtful;

but the essential content of that record, namely, the inner life of Jesus, has the power to manifest itself to the conscience as an undeniable fact. That means everything' (235-36). A second 'objective fact' for Herrmann 'is that we hear within ourselves the demand of the moral law' (103).

20. Troeltsch was dismissive: 'The whole position is untenable in the face of historical criticism' ('The Significance of the Historical Existence of Jesus' 192; see also 198).

21. Kahler, So-Called Historical Jesus 48, 50-52. 'The inner development of a sinless person is as inconceivable to us as life on the Sandwich Islands is to a Laplander' (53).

22. 'Historical facts which first have to be established by science cannot as such become experiences of faith. Therefore, Christian faith and a history of Jesus repel each other like oil and water . . .' (Kahler, So-Called Historical Jesus 74).

23. Kahler, So-Called Historical Jesus 66, 72-73, 109-10 (Braaten's 'Introduction' 2627).

24. Braaten's 'Introduction' 29.

the history behind the Gospels. But if the hope was to present a single Christ over against the multiply diverse reconstructions of the historical Jesus, it ignores the interpretative problems and hermeneutical reality which confront readers of the NT and hearers of its message(s). For even in the NT there are several 'Christs of faith', and if we are talking of the experience of faith in encounter with the preached Christ, then the diversity of experiences may be as problematical as the diversity of historical Jesuses. Is the biblical Christ, then, quite such an invulnerable area for faith? And is history so dispensable as Kahler implies? Kahler's 'Yes' to these questions began to be seriously questioned only in the second half of the twentieth century. In the meantime the flight from history continued.

5.3. Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976)

By common consent, Karl Barth (1886-1968) rang the death knell on Liberal Protestantism. It gave no message for a war-torn Europe; the message of optimistic moralism was no gospel. In contrast, Paul's letter to the Romans spoke a gospel of divine sovereignty and transcendence, of human finitude and sinfulness, and of God's initiative in revelation and grace. The good news is conveyed through the kerygma about Christ, the proclamation that God has drawn near in Jesus, not in a Jesus discovered by historical analysis. In his epoch-making Epistle to the Romans Barth strongly reaffirmed Kahler's position: 'In history as such there is nothing so far as the eye can see which can provide a basis for faith'

In a famous correspondence between Harnack and Barth Harnack accused Barth of abandoning scientific theology, and of surrendering the gains of the previous decades. Barth replied that historical criticism has its rightful place, but that it also has its limitations: it can deal only with the words of Paul; it cannot get to the word of God within Paul's words. Harnack claimed that theology can be defined historically, the simple gospel of Jesus historically rediscovered as over against the intellectualisation imposed on it through the in

25. See my Unity and Diversity 216-26.

26. Cited by H. Zahrnt, The Historical Jesus (London: Collins, 1963) 68. Influential also was the comment of the Danish philosopher S0ren Kierkegaard (1813-1855): 'If the contemporary generation [of Jesus] had left nothing behind them but these words: "We have believed that in such and such a year the God appeared among us in the humble form of a servant, that he lived and taught in our community, and finally died", it would have done all that was necessary' (Philosophical Fragments [Princeton: Princeton University, 21962] 130). See also L. E. Keck, A Future for the Historical Jesus (Nashville: Abingdon, 1971) 49-50, 84-85.

27. For details see J. M. Robinson, A New Quest of the Historical Jesus (London: SCM, 1959) 45. See further H. M. Rumscheidt, Revelation and Theology: An Analysis of the Barth-Harnack Correspondence of1923 (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1972).

fluences of Greek philosophy. Barth replied that Harnack was reducing Christianity to the human level; theology was concerned rather with the transcendent God and his approach in Christ, not with the religious life as exemplified in Jesus. Taking up 2 Cor. 5.16, Barth affirmed that we know Christ no longer according to the flesh: this is the Jesus with whom critical scholarship is concerned, and over whom it disagrees; rather it is the Christ of faith with whom we have to do, who confronts us now in the Word of God. This debate had a decisive influence on Bultmann, who abandoned the Liberalism in which he had been trained and embraced Barm's kerygmatic theology.28

Bultmann's principal contribution to our story lies in his development of what quickly became known in the English-speaking world as 'form criticism' ,29 In this he was building on the work of two immediate predecessors. Julius Wellhausen had demonstrated that in each of the Synoptic Gospels one can distinguish between old tradition and the editorial contribution of the Evangelists. It is the editorial work and concerns of the Evangelist which have given each Gospel its present form, whereas the earlier tradition consists chiefly of single brief units.30 K. L. Schmidt had gone on to examine the connecting links which join together the separate episodes in Mark's Gospel. He concluded that almost all the references to time and place are to be found in the verses which connect the single narratives into the larger whole; that is, they are part of the editorial work of the Evangelist. It also follows that the original tradition was made up almost entirely of brief, single units which lack note of time or indication of place; that is, which lack historical reference. The impression that Mark gives of being a continuous historical narrative is given entirely by the editorial links.31 These conclusions became foundational for Bultmann: (i) the distinction between earlier tradition and editorial work, (ii) the nature of the earlier tradition — single units, and (iii) the lack of historical interest within the earlier tradition.32

28. Robinson, New Quest 46.

29. The English term is not a translation, but is modeled on the parallel of 'text criticism' and 'source criticism'. The German term Formgeschichte was coined by M. Dibelius, Die Formgeschichte des Evangeliums (1919), ET From Tradition to Gospel (London: Nicholson and Watson, 1934) and denotes the 'history of the form', thus focusing much more on the process than on the forms themselves. The difference in emphasis had unfortunate consequences.

30. Summed up in his Einleitung in die drei ersten Evangelien (Berlin: Reimer, 1905): 'The ultimate source of the Gospels is oral tradition, but this contains only scattered material. The units, more or less extensive, circulate in it separately. Their combination into a whole is always the work of an author and as a rule the work of a literary artist (Schriftsteller)' (43).

31. K. L. Schmidt, DerRahmen der Geschichte Jesus: Literarkritische Untersuchungen zur ältesten Jesusüberlieferung (Berlin: Trowitzsch, 1919).

32. Bultmann acknowledges his debt to Wellhausen and Schmidt in his 'The New Approach to the Synoptic Problem' (1926), Existence and Faith (London: Collins, Fontana, 1964) 39-62 (here 42-44).

These conclusions allowed the earliest form critics to take a decisive step forward. The Liberal quest of the historical Jesus had been content with having uncovered the two earliest sources of Jesus tradition (Mark and Q). But Wrede's insistence on the theological character of Mark (see above, §4.5b) had undermined the previous confidence in Mark as a source for historical information. Now Dibelius and Bultmann offered the prospect of getting behind the earliest sources. Dibelius defined the twofold objective of Formgeschichte thus: 'it seeks to explain the origin of the tradition about Jesus, and thus to penetrate into a period previous to that in which our Gospels and their written sources were recorded . . . (and) to make clear the intention and real interest of the earliest tradition'.33 Bultmann similarly defines the aim of form criticism: 'to rediscover the origin and the history of the particular units and thereby to throw some light on the history of the tradition before it took literary form'.34 At first this might seem to give renewed hope to questers: to get back to the earliest stages of the traditions regarding Jesus must surely bring one closer to the historical figure of Jesus. But had such a hope been entertained, Bultmann would soon have dashed it.

The way had already been closed off by the observation that the earlier forms display no historical interest in locating particular episodes or sayings at specific points within Jesus' ministry. Which is also to say that there was no interest in these earlier stages of the Jesus tradition in tracing out any development in Jesus or in his self-consciousness.35 But that also means that there is no biographical interest in or intent behind the tradition in its earlier forms. This is the basis for much-quoted dictum:36

I do indeed think that we can know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary; and other sources about Jesus do not exist. . . . [W]hat has been written in the last hundred and fifty years on the life of Jesus, his personality and the development of his inner life, is fantastic and romantic.

33. Dibelius, Tradition v.

34. R. Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (1921, 21931; ET Oxford: Blackwell, 1963) 4.

35. A classic example is the Synoptic accounts of Jesus' baptism. They recount an event which happened to Jesus, not an experience of Jesus. Dibelius expressed the point sharply: 'It is not credible that the origin of the whole narrative goes back to what Jesus himself told of his inner experience at the baptism, otherwise the section would have been preserved as a word of Jesus' (Tradition 274). Despite this, most lives of Jesus have felt free to speculate about the sense of vocation which Jesus received on that occasion; see further below § 11.5b.

36. R. Bultmann, Jesus and the Word (1926; ET New York: Scribners, 1935) 8.

It is important to recognize here, however, that what was decry ing was the pointless inquiry after Jesus' personality and inner life. He was much more confident about reaching back to the message of Jesus. Four pages later he also says: 'Little as we know of his life and personality, we know enough of his message to make for ourselves a consistent picture'.37 Yet what did this mean? Bultmann envisages the Jesus tradition as 'a series of layers', Hellenistic and Greek, Palestinian and Aramaic, within which again 'different layers can be distinguished'. By means of critical analysis 'an oldest layer' can be determined, 'though it can be marked off with only relative exactness'. Even then 'we have no absolute assurance that the exact words of this oldest layer were really spoken by Jesus', since there is the possibility of still earlier development in the tradition 'which we can no longer trace'.38 In other words, the earliest layer, to which Bultmann in fact traces about twenty-five sayings of Jesus (some forty-one verses), gives us a sufficient impression of the teaching of the man who stands behind the oldest Palestinian community which preserved that first layer.39 And on that understanding, Bultmann proceeded to give an impressive sketch of the teaching of Jesus, or, as he notes some might prefer, of 'Jesus'. Of Jesus' teaching only, it should also be noted; almost a century later, the impact of Strauss was still being felt.

The other roadblock for any would-be questers which Bultmann's exposition of form criticism erected was his observation that 'what the sources offer us is first of all the message of the early Christian community'.40 In this, of course, he follows Wrede and Wellhausen.41 But for Bultmann the observation applies equally to the earlier layers of tradition. This is where the key phrase Sitz-im-Leben ('life-setting') became crucially significant: the tradition as we have it bears witness first and foremost to the which gave the tradition its present form. It was the usefulness of the tradition to the life of the earliest churches which gave the tradition its shape, and from that shape we can deduce the concerns of the earliest churches more directly than any deduction we may draw regarding Jesus' own message. What this meant in practice for Bultmann was, first of all, the recognition that many of the sayings would have been modified in the course of transmission. The point is that the traditions of Jesus' teaching were preserved not for any archival value, but because of their continuing value to the early community. And since the needs and circumstances of the earliest churches would differ from those of Jesus, the tradition would inevitably

37. Bultmann, Jesus 12.

38. Bultmann, Jesus 13.

39. 'The Study of the Synoptic Gospels', Form Criticism (with K. Kundsin, 1934; New York: Harper, 1962) 11-76 (here 60-63).

40. Bultmann, Jesus 12.

41. Bultmann, 'New Approach' 41-43; note Robinson's gloss in New Quest 35.

have been adapted and shaped. It also meant, secondly, that 'many sayings [within the Jesus tradition] originated in the church Here Bultmann envis ages material being drawn in from Judaism and wider religious traditions, or early Christian prophets speaking a word of (the risen) Jesus, in each case, presumably, words which spoke to the community's needs and which were considered by the community as worthy of inclusion in the Jesus tradition.42 This working hypothesis provided Bultmann with one of his key critical tools: 'whatever betrays the specific interests of the church or reveals characteristics of later development must be rejected as secondary'.43

More to the immediate point, none of these negative conclusions (negative for questers) really mattered. For form criticism gave Bultmann the confirmation (provided, ironically, by his historical method) that his theological shift, in following Barth, was correct. The early church was also not interested in the historical figure of Jesus, that is, in the life and personality of the Jesus who walked and taught in Galilee. Kahler was right: the only Jesus who meets us through the pages of the Gospels, even when we have completed our form-critical analysis, is the Christ of faith. Barth's claim that all hangs on the word of God in preaching depends not only on Paul, but is confirmed also by the Gospels. This Christ of faith can be encountered in the here and now and is not at all dependent on a reconstructed cal Jesus, were that even possible. The conclusion that it is not possible carries critical historical weight, but no significance for faith. Faith does not depend, and should not be made to depend, on history. In an outcome that reflects the influence of Herrmann as well as Bultmann was in effect able to find a secure refuge for faith in the moment of existential encounter with the word of proclamation, an area for faith invulnerable indeed to the challenge and acids of historical criticism.

In all this Bultmann was able to bridge, or rather disregard, the gulf between his negative historical-critical findings and his very positive faith in the kerygmatic Christ by means of an existentialist He makes this clear in a revealing passage in Jesus and the Word.44

When I speak of the teaching or thought of Jesus, I base the discussion on no underlying conception of a universally valid system of thought [like his ra

43. Bultmann, Jesus 13.

44. Bultmann, Jesus 11. He was more explicit in his famous 1941 address on 'Neues Testament und Mythologie: Das Problem der Entmythologisierung der neutestamentlichen Verkundigung', in which he directly addressed the problem of interpreting the thought-world of the NT writers and unfolded his programme of demythologizing: 'Our task is to produce an existentialist interpretation of the dualistic mythology of the New Testament. ..' (ET 'New Testament and Mythology', in H. W. Bartsch, ed., Kerygma and Myth [London: SPCK, 1957] 1-44 [here 16]).

tionalist and Liberal predecessors] Rather the ideas are understood in the light of the concrete situation of a man living in time; as his interpretation of his own existence in the midst of change, uncertainty, decision; as the expression of a possibility of comprehending this life; as the effort to gain clear insight into the contingencies and necessities of his own existence. When we encounter the words of Jesus in history, we do not judge them by a philosophical system with reference to their rational validity; they meet us with the question of how we are to interpret our own existence. That we be ourselves deeply disturbed by the problem of our own life is therefore the indispensable condition of our inquiry.

Here, as with Herrmann and one cannot but be impressed by the degree of personal involvement with the subject matter so evident in all Bultmann's theology; that is what makes it such good theologising. But even so, we can hardly avoid asking whether Bultmann's existentialist hermeneutic is any more valid than Reimarus's rationalist hermeneutic or Harnack's Liberal hermeneutic. Once again the flight from history caused no problem for what was essentially a position (standpoint of faith), because faith had been rearticulated, or better redefined, in terms of a contemporary philosophy45 whose appeal was hardly more enduring than the problematic historical-critical method itself. 'He who marries the spirit of the age will soon find himself a widower'.

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