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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


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