THE PERSON AND WORK OF JESUS
Understanding Jesus is the quest of every Christian. His life on Earth is the center of the majority of study done by most Christians in their personal journey through the Bible. Understanding how he lived as a man, died as a sacrifice, rose as a Savior and now lives as our God is the challenge that brings us back to the Bible every day.
The Jesus in history has been studied many ways. Erickson clearly outlined this “search for the historical Jesus” and how it has evolved and developed over time. (Erickson, p679) In the beginning of the search are the questions centered around what Jesus the man was like and what he actually did while on Earth. There have been many learned and respected scholars who have written fascinating material on this subject.
Prior to the 1800’s most believers generally accepted the Bible as a valid and historical document. As the age of the Enlightenment began, this “trust in the historical accuracy of the Gospels” began to fade. (Lea and Black, p89). Many writers began to question to authenticity of the story of Jesus as presented in the New Testament.
Adolf von Harnack is presented by Erickson as the “best-known and most influential” of these writers. (Erickson, p679) His work concludes that the Bible just doesn’t give us enough detail to really understand Jesus’ life from a biographical, day to day point of view. His conclusions are also that the life of Jesus was really not miraculous at all. His summary of the historical Jesus concludes that Jesus lived in a time when miracles were considered were considered as anything out of the ordinary and almost common place. The events of Jesus’ life presented in the Bible as miracles were really just events with no obvious explanation, but not really miraculous at all. Harnack’s work became the “classic statement of the liberal theological position” on the life of Christ. (Erickson, p680) To Harnack, Jesus was just a talented teacher of “high ethical ideals” who gave his life in service to mankind. (Lea and Black, p89)
Harnack’s work came at the end of the era of overall mistrust in the accuracy of the Bible. There were many other writers who also expressed this view. Martin Kahler work came at the beginning of the end of this so-called search for the historical Jesus. His approach was simply that the work of Christ in teaching man faith was the real impact of his life on Earth. What Jesus did day to day while living as a man was worthy of study and understanding but not the real point, the real story of his earthly life. What was most worthy of our attention was the life of Christ, walking in faith with the God in Heaven. The life of Jesus in teaching us faith, his “Geschichte” was what really mattered. (Erickson, p681)
Kahler’s work would help open the 1900’s to the study of the life of Christ. The growing movement at that time moved from the “search for the historical Jesus” to the concept of Christology from above. (Erickson, p679) This concept, along with its counterpart, Christology from below, summary much of the thinking of the 1900’s on how theology in general, or the study of Christ specifically, should be approached.
Christology from above is the idea that theology should begin with the concept of Jesus living in Heaven then coming to Earth, coming from above to save man, emphasizing his place as God. Christology from below is the idea that theology should begin with the concept of Jesus living on Earth, emphasizing his place first as a man. Christology from above was the accepted doctrine of the earliest churches. It came to be in that time when the historical accuracy of the Bible was generally unquestioned.
As Erickson outlined from Emil Brunner’s work, there were three main features of this idea. (Erickson, p682) First the foundation for understanding Christ was not the historical record of his life as recorded in the Bible, but the church’s on-going proclamation of his life is the first main feature. It is not so much that Christ lived, but that the church continues to proclaim that he lives that is important. Secondly, Paul’s writings in John are the preferred source for information regarding the life of Jesus. Supporters of this doctrine believe that the Synoptics were more factual accounts of Jesus’ life compared to the book of John which is more about “theological interpretations” of his life. (Erickson, p682) Finally the Christology from Above doctrine states that faith in Christ is just that, faith. It cannot be empirically proven or measured. It is “outside the sphere of natural reason” and cannot be proven or disproven objectively. Brunner also stated that the true theology of Christ is based on the concept of “Christ in the flesh”, as God became man. To accept God as man is to truly understand that God came to Earth for man’s salvation, Christ coming from above!
As with any significant theological idea, Christology from above has its opposing view, in this case Christology from below. In began in 1954 with the work of Kasemann. (Erickson, p684) He presented the ideas that no study of the life and ministry of Christ could exclude the detail of his historical life as the basic foundation for all conclusions. The facts of his life on Earth must be included in any theology about his ministry or impact on humanity. This point of view was also supported by Pannenberg in his work from 1968. Similar to Brunner’s three points of support for the opposing view, Pannenberg presented his three basic points of support for Christology from below. His first point was that Christology “presupposes the divinity of Jesus” when in fact it was proven by his life on earth, after the fact. (Erickson, p684) To really believe in Jesus, one must come to that belief after believing in faith the facts of his earthly life. Secondly, understanding the life and ministry of Jesus can only be done by understanding life of a Jew in the Nazareth of his day. Christology from above, while largely disregarding the historical details of Jesus’ life, ignores these factors. Third, God sent his son to live on Earth so we could have this view of him, the view of humanity. If this was not part of the plan, why send him at all? To ignore the details of his earthly life, the details of his humanity, is to miss the point completely!
This is a fascinating debate! The original search for Jesus in history seems to be a familiar tactic, still present in ultra-liberal thinking today. Just regarding Jesus as an historic figure, with no real deity, is a comfortable perspective for those looking to avoid the real questions of life that God presented to us with the the birth, life and death of his son on Earth. This point of view is easy to understand while viewing it objectively from afar. It was probably more difficult to deal with in its day.
Christology from above and below both has solid merit. To ignore the humanity of Christ is to ignore much of his story! At the same time, presupposing his deity works for me. Plainly, he was God before he came to Earth, while he was here and today in Heaven. It is fascinating to me, as Erickson pointed out that today, the theology from below is more embraced by Latin American believers while the perspective from above is more Asian. (Erickson, p687) Is this because of the deep impact of traditional Roman Catholic theology in Latin America? That needs more research from this student.
The two schools of thought do seem to have deep conflict, one rooted in faith, the other in historical detail, or “reason” as Erickson puts it. This is a classic conflict in theological discussion. Christology from above is deeply rooted in the work of Brunner and Kierkegaard. Christology from below supported by the work of Thomas Aquinas. This is not the first or last theological conflict between these two schools of theological thought.
Erickson’s alternative approach, based on the work of Augustine is a logical compromise. Faith is necessary for all Christian work, as expressed in the theology from above. Faith can also be supported by the reason that comes from a sound understanding of the facts sent to us by God in his book. Erickson proposes supporting the faith based kerygma with the historical record of Jesus’ life. This alternative approach blends theology from above and below. Indeed “the historical Jesus was the confirmation of the Christ of faith”. (Erickson, p691)
Much more study and understanding is necessary for this amateur student of theology. So much to learn! So great a journey!
Erickson, Millard J., Christian Theology, Second Edition, Baker Academic Publishing, 1998.
Lea, Thomas D. and David Alan Black. The New Testament, Its Background and Message, B&H Publishing Group, 2003.