Friday, January 21, 2011

Kenosis and the Historical-Critical Method.

Something from the book.  Chapter 5 in the section on kenosis.

Lastly, contrary to what is commonly claimed, the historical-critical method cannot discredit the Gospels' portrayal of Christ's kenotic self-consciousness.  Historical critics of the New Testament frequently claim the New Testament's portrayals of self-conscious divinity and Messianic identity were created by the later Church after the fact.[1]  Such claims are largely rooted in the presupposition that supernatural revelation is impossible within the closed system of cosmic history.  Not only is this mere conjecture and impossible to prove, but it should be noted that recent studies of the Gospel material have made convincing arguments that the theory of later communal inventions of these materials is false and that in fact the Gospels are products of eye-witness testimony.[2] 

Assuming such conjectures are in some sense scientific, modern theologians have unfortunately put too much stock in them and developed alternative explanations regarding the historicity of the Gospels portrayal of Jesus' kenotic life-form.  In particular, it is often asserted, that after Jesus rose from the dead the later Church read the post-resurrection glory into his earlier existence.[3]  Two points should be made in response to this.  First, as Martin Hengel notes, the resurrection and exaltation cannot have been the basis of the claims that Jesus was the divine Messiah, since the Jews of the Second Temple believed in many exalted Patriarchs (i.e. Enoch, among others) and martyrs whom they never attributed any such role to.[4]  This is especially true of the New Testament's claims of Christ's divinity.  A resurrected man is still a man nonetheless.[5]  To many Jews a single resurrected man might indicate the beginning of the eschaton (as it doubtless did for Jewish-Christian heretics like the Ebionites), but it would not indicate divinity (again, also a conclusion that the Ebionites refused to reach). Indeed all humans would eventually be resurrected and this did not indication that all human beings were divine.  Hence, the resurrection could not have created the exalted claims regarding Jesus identity we find in the New Testament, but rather vindicated ones that already existed (Rom 1:3-4). 

All this suggests that the Disciples must have already believed in Jesus as the divine Messiah in some sense (all be it, an incomplete one) prior to the resurrection, as in fact the Gospels indicate.  Furthermore, if they had this understanding, it cannot be doubted that the source was Jesus himself (as again the Gospels claim), since he very well could have discouraged overly exalted estimations of his person and mission in the space of three years of ministry.  It might be objected that the Gospels also indicate that the Disciples frequently misunderstood Jesus' identity and mission.  Nevertheless, as Peter's confession in the Synoptic Gospels demonstrates, it was not Jesus' identity that they misunderstood, but rather its implications for his mission.  The paradox of one who is God and Messiah but who will also suffer and die is something that was unacceptable to them and therefore they willfully misunderstood Jesus in many instances.  Peter's response of rebuke to the Jesus' Passion predictions immediately following his confession of Jesus' identity clearly reveals this (Mt 16:21-8).  In short, Jesus' exalted identity did not cause offense, since the Disciples eagerly embraced it, thereby believing that they could gain a share in his power and glory (Mk 10:36-40, Lk 9:46-7).  For this reason, it would appear that it was more Jesus' mission than his identity that caused misunderstanding and offense. 

Secondly, from the perspective of the Christian faith, it is especially illegitimate to rule out Jesus' messianic self-consciousness a prior, since as God become man Jesus could have any amount of messianic consciousness that he wished.  In fact, as we observed earlier, such knowledge was essential to his mission.  It is for this reason that we must look to the Gospels themselves to report the shape of Jesus' kenotic self-understanding, rather than relying on secular historical conjecture.  Christian dogmatics is especially reckless and arbitrary when it attempts to split the difference between such pseudo-historical treatments of the Gospel material and the presupposition of orthodoxy, as can be observed in the earlier case of Thomasius.  It in fact accomplishes little more than placing the square peg of a supernaturalistic worldview in the round hole of secularist materialism.

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