Give Up On the Historical Jesus?

A Response to “The Jesus We’ll Never Know”

This post is in response to Scot McKnight’s cover story on The Jesus We’ll Never Know in Christianity Today, April 2010.  I encourage you to read the responses of N.T. Wright, Craig Keener, and Darrell Bock.

Let me begin my response by saying that I believe McKnight makes some good points.  Principally that historical studies of Jesus “can only do so much.”

As Jonathon Wilson has written, “Jesus Christ is not merely a figure of the past.  Therefore, our Christology cannot be confined to a study of the past” (God So Loved the World: A Christology for Disciples, p. 187).

McKnight is right to recognize that some scholars find a Jesus in their image; a Jesus they wanted all along.  However, I think it is a huge mistake to lump all those involved in historical Jesus studies together in one pot and communicate the idea that it is not helpful nor is it necessary.

There is a world of difference between the men and the historical quests described in the article. (As Tom Wright has pointed out in his response.)

I’m sure that McKnight would acknowledge that he himself has benefited in some way from his own studies. How can you teach at the university level and deny the fruit of such a quest?  Historical studies may not prove that Jesus died for our sins, or other faith claims, but its benefits are not then cancelled out because of this.

I myself have undergone a period of setting intellectual pursuits aside to touch the Lord in the spirit.  I have previously written:

“It is with our mind that we may learn of the historical Christ of the past, but it is with our spirit that we know of the living Christ today.”

And I still believe it.

The Lord is helping me to see that there is a worthwhile scholarship that is born out of a genuine revelation of Christ in the spirit where the human mind is governed by the Spirit of God.  I can find the Lord in the spirit with a little assistance from the mind.  He is resurrecting spirit, soul, and body.

I’m convinced that there can be great reward in studying the historical Jesus of Nazareth. There is much to be learned from the many believing scholars who have devoted their lives to helping others meet the historical Jesus.  Not only has it helped the agnostics among us, but those who profess him as “Lord” and God.

Unfortunately, I fear that McKnight’s article will only serve to fuel those “spiritual” anti-intellectuals who have not learned a study of theology and history that is consistent with the spiritual life.

The same people that are reticent to historical studies of Jesus may even be tempted to think it’s no concern of theirs that their skeptic friend reads books by Albert Schweitzer or Bart Ehrman and really believes what they have to say about Jesus of Nazareth.

It’s a tragedy that many Christians can’t carry on an intelligent conversation about the historical Jesus and discuss the reliability of the New Testament.  For some… there is simply no room in the spiritual life for “intellectual” exercises.

It reminds me of the older man that responded to those who had educated themselves. He said, “Some people read too many books.” What he was really saying was, “Don’t bother me.  I don’t need you challenging my view of Jesus.”

When’s the last time you read the book of Romans?  Peter even said that Paul’s writings are “hard to understand” at times (2 Pet. 3:16).  I hardly think we are ready to throw Paul’s epistles out the window and say, “Forget trying to clear away the cobwebs Paul. We just need a mystical experience of Jesus.”

Once again, instead of reconciling faith and reason, we often overcompensate and fall headlong into the gutter on the other side of the road.  I suppose that if everyone runs in the direction that this article seems to suggest… there will come a day when we will rise up out of the one ditch to find the historical Jesus in the other.

How long will the balanced Christian life elude us?

I do believe that the growing hunger for a real spiritual connection with Jesus will cause many to say “Amen, I agree!” to the article and move on thinking we now have no need of history or theology.

I guess this is necessary for some on their journey… at least for a season. For some, leaving behind the world of academia may be a breath of fresh air!  But I do hope that many believers will soon realize that God often teaches us through the swinging pendulum of faith.

Where is that pendulum presently swinging in your life?

I must continue to hold that the true spiritual life makes use of what we can know about the historical Jesus.  Lord, help us to stay on the spiritual road that leads us to the same Jesus that lived, died, and was resurrected in the first-century.

“Jesus is either the flesh-and-blood individual who walked and talked, and lived and died, in first-century Palastine, or he is merely a creature of our own imagination, able to be manipulated this way and that.” N.T. Wright, Who Was Jesus? p.18


About David D. Flowers

David received a B.A. in Religion from East Texas Baptist University and a M.T.S. in Biblical Studies from Houston Graduate School of Theology. David has over 20 years experience as a pastor and teacher in and outside the church. He currently pastors an Anabaptist congregation in Pennsylvania. View all posts by David D. Flowers

18 responses to “Give Up On the Historical Jesus?

  • cindyinsd

    It seems to be our nature to live in the ditches, and some of us are even proud of doing so. God gives us knowledge of Himself flowing out of relationship–it doesn’t therefore follow that scholarship is evil–but rather that it is a subordinate (and vital) tool–neither the ultimate goal nor the ultimate foundation.

    It doesn’t lose importance by this, but finds its rightful and necessary and beneficial place in the whole.

  • Paul Snyder

    This is a great article! I especially like what you say here: “Once again, instead of reconciling faith and reason, we often overcompensate and fall headlong into the gutter on the other side of the road.” This is the problem I see with so much of Christianity, especially many seminaries and Bible schools…but most churches, too. And the funny thing is that while Christians are trying to fight secularism on many fronts, they are adopting a brand of it all their own…not reconciling faith with reason (which is the same sort of heresy found at the roots of secularism, as seen in the teaching of Averroes) problem of. Christ is All in all. And that means He can be seen in science just as well as in the hymnal…in history, too. I am privileged to work for a liberal arts Christ-centered college, which embraces the idea that faith and reason abide harmoniously in Christ.

  • Paul Jones

    It has been great getting to know you via Facebook. I especially like your quote “It is with our mind that we may learn of the historical Christ of the past, but it is with our spirit that we know of the living Christ today.” As a young Christian and in my teens, I had a huge struggle to reconcile my intellectual life with the way the Bible was expounded at the churches I attended in my teens. In the end, I clung to the Lord’s command to “love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength”…
    I think the key issue (for me, at any rate) is the spirit in which we read the Bible. I find that the more I get to know Jesus as a living person, the more amazed and enthralled I am by him. For this reason, I really like your “supremacy of Christ” phrase. Jesus is the ultimate expression and manifestation of God, both qualitatively and in time. I tend to feel that to carry on as followers of Christ, we need to do two things: to catch the spirit of the scriptures, such as Hebrews 1:1, to really grasp their message, which is NOT just a set of theological statements or teachings, but intended to set our souls ablaze with love for God; and to have a very active scepticism about what is often preached in churches, which sadly often falls far short of the truth of the Bible. (In my own church, the worship leader told a full church including a good number of non-Christians, that to be right with God on the day we die, we just have to say, “Good morning, Jesus” and “Good night, Jesus” each day. SIGH…)

  • Pam

    David, this article is so timely. Just three nights ago, I said to Thadd, “When you hear the words, ‘Jesus’ or ‘Christ’ what comes to mind?” He shared his thoughts and I went on to say that I think sometimes when we “think on Christ” we focus on JUST the historical accounts of His life here and all that He did during that time…and we stop. I told him that I personally focus more on the “now Christ” who is seated next to the Father, interceding for us, guiding us and living in and through us! But how can I know these things about Him? Because I study all of God’s words regarding Him. My point is this balance you speak of…the pendulum cannot be swung to one side or the other and STAY there. We are then out of balance. We know Him through His word AND through the Spirit mingling with our spirit in our daily encounters…they go hand-in-hand. We can know a lot of Scripture, but not know Him in our spirit. On the other hand, we can focus on knowing Him ONLY in our spirit and neglect studying the Scriptures. In my opinion, if we want to know Him fully and completely, we must give pursuit to both. I think we can be left, “empty” or “wanting” if we neglect one for the other. To answer your question about where the pendulum is swinging in my life, I am striving for it to touch both ends equally. Hopefully I answered the actual question you were asking. :0)

    • David D. Flowers

      That’s right, Pam! The “now Christ” is the Christ we know from history. So many disagreements within the church are simply one side of the coin being expressed. Really… I’m finding it’s more like a diamond with many sides. Yes, let the Lord bring balance. We must allow the Body of Christ to discover Jesus in all places and trust that he can do a better job of “discipleship” than any of us. Love you!

  • Marshall

    McKnight’s “psychological test” (and premise) returns from an academic-institutional pooling & sampling of false-Christ: predominantly, people who (endeavor to) imagine Him by way of each their own experience/perception. Hypothetically, results from a true-Jesus sample would show equal or greater diversity, absent the statistical correlation to individuals.
    Is the historical Jesus to be keyed by an intellectual experience? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul/being, and with all your mind/comprehension, and with all your strength/power.” [Mark 12:30]
    Rather than “balance” or pendulum-braking, there remains in us the fullness/peace of Christ. I/we can know (and discern) the Lord in Body and in the Spirit with His heart, Body (being), Mind, and Strength: The Jesus we’ll ever know.
    [ref: Paul letter to Ephesians]

  • Sandro Baggio

    Good reflection David.
    I’m someone who thinks we need to seek balance in everything, so we should not neglect theological and historical studies in the same way we should not neglect personal devotion to God in Spirit and faith even when we don’t have all the answers (which is true most of the time when the subject is the Infinite and Eternal).

  • Alice Scott-Ferguson

    With what alacrity we respond out of our binary,either/or,dualistic thinking! As I bloomed awake over my coffee in the yard this morning,I recalled a tucked away, but revealing, and profound reference in Matthew’s Gospel chapter 24;on the road to Emmaus it is written that Jesus,beginning with Moses and the Prophets, explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself (v. 27),then later in the narrative (v.32), we read that they asked each other, “were not our hearts burning within us as he talked and opened up the Scriptures to us.”

    Couple that w/the statement that Jesus made to those who pored over the Scriptures, knew them well, but would not come to Him for eternal Life. (John 5:39,40) And, the amazing pronouncement that Christ made when he said that no man knew the Father but the Son and those to whom he REVEALED him.(Matthew 11:27) All this to say that I concur w/you David that we need both the historical reference and the Living Word that comes only by revelation of the Spirit.

    Many who are fleeing the institutional church, where the Bible has become enshrined to the point of worship–and the Spirit ignored–are now tempted to discard the historical record in favor of Spirit only; like going to sea under sail only, with no engine for back up!

  • Paul Snyder

    Things are going great at Ecclesia College…not to be confused with Ekklesia College. The college I work for is a four-year, fully accredited institution…

    Your blog is a blessing!

  • Kurt

    maybe it’s a false dichotomy?

  • tyler m taber

    Thanks for the great post. I really appreciated it.

  • Andrew Beveridge

    Very interesting article – keep up the good work !!

  • Susan

    Well, I believe Jesus was indeed a real person who actually did live among us. And since he has become so central to my life, I want to know as much about who he was, and is, as possible. I think he mattered, and matters, exactly as he was. I don’t need the gild on the lily. I don’t need man-made fabrications, doctrines, and dogma. Jesus, the real Jesus, is all we should really need.

    Therefore, I have only admiration and respect for those who work so hard at sifting through the words written about him and attributed to him in an effort to see him more clearly and know him better.

    Scott McKnight goes to great lengths to paint all Jesus scholarship as wish fulfillment. Apparently Mr. McKnight isn’t aware that the Jesus seminar cautions their members and their audience not to become too comfortable with the Jesus that emerges from study.

    What it amounts to is simply this: taking him seriously. The scholars take him seriously, as he deserves. May they never cease in their quest.

  • SaltSister

    If I hadn’t touched the living Christ in spirit, I might have doubts today based on interpretations of the “historical Jesus”. In point of fact, I wonder if some of the scholarly studies aren’t really imprecise opinions about historical finds. People can’t agree on who killed John Kennedy, but they will jump on a soapbox and declare themselves in the know about the real Jesus!

    There is a living Christ who we can only know by revelation. We can’t show others our revelation or prove that we even had one. The heart only knows what it knows.

    Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responded with, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” Next, Jesus responded with words that have been debated for centuries, “Flesh and blood have not shown you this, but my Father which is in heaven. Upon this rock will I build my church…”

    There is not one scripture anywhere else that I am aware of that can be used as proof incontrovertible as to what that “rock” is in this passage. Roman Catholicism interprets it as Jesus pointing to himself as the “Rock”–which he is–but we don’t know whether he made that clear in his gestures when he uttered those words. Protestantism has tended to believe that the “rock” is Peter’s confession–though I don’t know how you prove that, either.

    I have an alternative that can be supported by another verse. I believe the “rock” in this context is Peter’s revelation. I believe this revelation is not simply belief, but the unveiling of Christ to his people, the Church, which strengthens them in a way that they cannot be shaken. For it was immediately before this that Jesus had said, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you…” Peter had the revelation, the unveiling of the true identity of Jesus in that moment.

    That has been my own experience in those times when I might have been otherwise shaken by the scholars. I can get in over my intellectual head, but then I remember, “I KNOW. I SAW. I HEARD. It was OPENED to me…” The “gates of hell” cannot overcome that revelation.

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