The first time I read (about) D. F. Strauss I immediately set my face against him. The second time I (actually) read Strauss I began to suspect he might be onto something. It is odd for a Chalcedonian-compliant Christian to enjoy Strauss. At least, it is odd for a modern orthodox Christian to do so, since Strauss seems to strike at the very heart of Christianity—Christology. But Strauss was always bound to be a polarizing figure, and his polarization is felt in the unusual respect he acquires from another famous modern orthodox theologian—Karl Barth. And, in fact, while Barth acknowledges the importance of Strauss for nineteenth-century theology, his presentation of Strauss cannot decide whether to admire or admonish.
The work that both marked the life of David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) and haunts his ghost was and is his Life of Jesus Critically Examined (Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet), “a work,” Barth writes, “which made [Strauss] at once and for many years to come the most famous theologian in Germany and ensured that he would never in his life be considered for any post in the church or in the academic world” (527). The force of the work was largely negative, perceived as intent on destroying the foundations of Christian orthodoxy. But in reality, Strauss was merely symptomatic of the post-Enlightenment fascination with history. As Barth eloquently observes, we should look on Strauss not as a great speculative thinker, but “as one who broods, with a passionate, shrewd, and skilful, co-ordinating brooding” (530). Strauss pressed the question of history, and the force with which he asked it regarding the person of Jesus struck fear into the heart of nineteenth-century theology. All his other major works fell flat. None of his attempts at a positive system were very striking, much less influential. It was the force of his question, which he could not (even had he wanted to) effectively answer, that disturbed his confreres. This is Barth’s very accurate reading of Strauss. In short, although Strauss was not a certifiable genius, he reverberated with all the theological anxiety of his day and was intelligent enough and positioned just right to explode the whole.
In his Life of Jesus, Critically Examined, Strauss ranged his attack against both supernaturalist and rationalist interpreters of Jesus, and his assault on both parties was thorough. In this work Strauss sought to question historically, free from faith, the life of Jesus. Dismissing the biblical material as almost entirely myth, he makes no attempt to reconstruct what he has so viciously (virtuously?) rent into shreds. As Barth writes, “Strauss made everything, without exception, historically uncertain” (546). Strauss originally intended this work to be the second of three movements: first, a positive exposition of christological dogma; second, a negative reduction of the former; third, in good Hegelian fashion, a reconstruction of christological dogma for the modern age. The first movement was abandoned, and all attempts at the third were forever curtailed either by the weakness of Strauss’s constructive powers or by his great disdain for theology and the church which followed the upheaval of the occasion of this Life of Jesus. As an example of the third movement, in the same work Strauss finally denied that any unique status could be granted to Jesus, since the whole quest of Christology was, for him, ultimately only a question of humanity. The mythic portrayal of Jesus in the gospels is in fact only one instance of a history of the ideal of humanity. This is the theological payoff of Strauss’s (first) Life of Jesus, and it is why Strauss follows Feuerbach in Barth’s account of nineteenth-century theology. Just as with Feuerbach, Christianity is the projection of the values of humanity, so with Strauss, Jesus is an (not necessarily the) exemplar of all that humanity is and should be.
In the aftermath of this catastrophic rupture Strauss was able to find few friends and not a few critics in theological circles. By the third edition in 1838, Strauss had made a few concessions, which he promptly rejected after an incident in Zürich where, due to conservative uproar, he had to be pensioned off as a professor shortly after having been offered a post. The fourth edition (1840, the most commonly circulating English edition, translated by the superb pen of George Eliot) was as caustic and unapologetic as the original edition. Strauss also completed another Life of Jesus (subtitled: For the German People, 1864). In this later work, Strauss musters all the banal sentiment regarding Jesus he can and sketches a portrait of Jesus as a man of genius, whose life is shrouded in myth, but who ultimately can help humanity reach its destination. It is this kind of conciliatory, predictable move that earned him the scorn of Nietzsche, who reckoned Strauss the Philistine of Culture. But as Barth writes so well, “If Strauss had said [the things he did in the later Life of Jesus] in his first and famous Life of Jesus in 1835-6, it would definitely not have become famous, and it would not have cost its author his place at the university. As something which at that time could be regarded as having the attraction of a certain harmless novelty it would have brought him to the heaven of a university post in the usual way; and nothing would have been known of the great vexation which the name D. F. Strauss symbolizes in theology to this very day” (540). This later Strauss precisely was the philistine of culture for whom Nietzsche had nothing but gall. Barth wonders a little who was the true D. F. Strauss, the author of the 1835 Life of Jesus or the author of the third edition of that work and of the 1864 Life of Jesus. The truth, of course, is that both are the “real” Strauss, though the Strauss who has been enshrined in the history of theology is the critical, negative Strauss of the original Life of Jesus.
Since the negative Strauss is that figure whose shade lingers in theology, perhaps the most intriguing line in Barth’s treatment of Strauss is almost incidental: “Strauss offered to his time the sight of the theologian who has become an unbeliever, for all to behold and without denying it” (533). Barth continues the line of thought, following Strauss’s proud claims to having bested theism and his prescriptions for theology’s destructive vocation. Strauss even refused to have any clergy present at his funeral—and that ten years before his death. But Barth shows magnanimity toward Strauss. He refuses to let this negative face of Strauss be the last word, and goes on to expose the softer Strauss who thought there was some value in being religious, at least in the religion of humanity. Even so, it is exactly in his ire for the theology around him, that Strauss serves as a most welcome tutor. Strauss’s destruction was complete, and the reasons for the destruction clear. Unlike the further quests for the historical Jesus, Strauss’s negative portrait from the beginning pronounces its alliance to “modern” ways of thinking and seeing the world. Long before Bultmann’s demythologizing and in anticipation of Schweitzer was Strauss. His historical quest already belied the quests of secular history and sketched the telos (though unfortunately not the terminus) of the supposition that dogma could be wissenschaftlich. The Wissenschaft of modernity left no room for the Glaube of the Gospels. And it was Strauss above all who probed the extremes of a theology which thought it could control and represent dogma in the same way it attempted to control and represent all of reality and nature. The rules to the game of critical history were exposed, the lack of rigor amongst theologians in deploying modern currents of thought denuded.
Albert Schweitzer wrote, “Strauss must be loved in order to be understood.” Since it is hard to actually love, much less pity Strauss, Barth modifies Schweitzer: “One must love the question Strauss raised, in order to understand it” (554). Strauss’s contribution and great gift to us, then, is that he represents the bankruptcy of nineteenth-century theology’s fetishization of history and the historical Jesus. That the “historical” Jesus is still sought by the faithful is evidence of ignorance of Strauss and his question. “It is a fact,” writes Barth, “that he and no other man has the merit of having put this question, the historical one, that is, to theology, with such a grasp of the basic issue. Since then theology has talked round it in many and various ways, which was, rather, evidence of the fact that it had not heard his question. Many people have not been able to overcome Strauss to this day; they have simply by-passed him, and to this very day are continually saying things which, if Strauss cannot be overcome, should no longer be said…In such a situation…Strauss could not and must not be pensioned off” (553-4). Well said, Professor Barth, well said.
- Andrew Guffey