Why Not Weiss? The Historical Jesus vs. the Paul of Faith
Jesus' Proclamation of the Kingdom by Johannes Weiss. Ed. R. Hiers & L. Holland (Fortress, 1971).
But before I lay into Weiss' work, I must preface my gripe with words of praise. Overall, this is a superb, tightly argued biblical-theological tract that has borne portentous historical significance since the first edition was published in 1892. As the editors of this edition demonstrate, Weiss is not merely intent to critically engage historical Jesus research, but he also is keen to integrate this historical spadework with contemporary systematic and constructive interests. Put another way, Weiss explores the problem of how the Jesus of history, in his message and vocation, might continue to be normative for modern believers. To that end, he seeks to retrieve the historical Jesus -- more specifically, to retrieve the uncanny and unnerving apocalyptic preacher from Galilee -- and in the process decimates the overly sentimental, moralistic and anachronistic notions about Jesus propagated by 19th century liberal Protestant biographers.
|Johannes Weiss, with a child (Heidelberg, 1914)|
(Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
Weiss begins his introduction with these claims:
Even to common historical sense it must appear appropriate when describing the positive character of the Christian religion and the historical circumstances under which it arose to take as the point of departure and center of systematic theology the main ideas of Jesus' proclamation, rather than Paul's doctrine of justification. This likewise gives a more satisfactory basis for a really systematic arrangement of the series of Christian concepts which theology has to offer with respect to the special tasks for our time (p. 57).
Weiss is making a double-edged, historical and constructive claim here: First, Jesus' preaching of the kingdom is more primitive to Christianity's Palestinian origins than is Paul's Hellenized soteriology. The difficulty here, of course, is that Paul's writings are earlier than the Synoptic Gospels by about a generation (and Weiss is aware of this). So what privileges the Synoptic tradition over Paul's letters? Part of the answer, which I hope to illustrate in a later post, is that Weiss' confidence in the authenticity of the Jesus tradition conveyed through the Synoptics would count as "conservative" (or credulous, depending upon one's perspective) by 21st century standards. Thus, Weiss is no skeptic: He believes the historical Jesus is eminently recoverable, as long as the researcher can bracket some typical modern ideological commitments.
Second, and somewhat surprisingly, Weiss is arguing that the primitive teaching of Jesus itself should be the primary and controlling source for contemporary systematic theology -- more specifically, that Jesus' Kingdom teaching forms a more sure basis for organizing the topoi of systematic theology than is Paul's carefully worked out and rhetorically sophisticated musings on the relationship of Law and Gospel, faith and justification. Weiss is particularly keen to integrate dogmatics and ethics -- that is, to recover what later interepreters might term the "existential" force of the Christian faith. His worry is that a preoccupation with justification by faith issues in a passive and individualist fixation on piety in and of itself. He writes:
The artificial isolation of religious experiences, "of the action of God upon men," from the religious-ethical reactions of individuals is a necessary consequence of the separation of the two disciplines [dogmatics and ethics] which in turn follows from the mechanical demarcation between justification and new life (ibid.).
Weiss hopes his study will help reinvigorate pastoral theology, freeing it from hidebound orthodoxies.
[I]t is an open secret that preaching and instruction which proceed according to the pattern of the ordo salutis in the old Protestant sense, bounce off the majority of our contemporaries without effect (57-58).
Weiss argues that this orthodox interpretation 1) fails to integrate the religious good with the ethical imperative; 2) the doctrine of redemption it promotes is too abstract and insufficiently practical; and, consequently, 3) this paradigm, focusing on forensic justification, neglects the need for growth and formation within a process of sanctifying grace.
For now, I leave you with three of my own questions. First, does Weiss have a legitimate critique to level against some of his orthodox contemporaries? That seems plausible, though I would need to do more research and look at more texts to evaluate the perspicuity of this criticism. Second, and crucially, how does all this look in light of contemporary revisionist interpretations of the Apostle Paul and, particularly, his teachings on justification and sanctification? Finally -- and I think this is just a perennial question for Protestant theology as a whole -- just how should we relate the proclamation of God's free, saving grace in Jesus Christ with the task of spurring the growth of believers in faith and love? That is, what is the proper ethics -- and I would add, the most faithful political stance -- that should ensue from our soteriology?
However we might answer these questions, it seems to fair to say that Weiss' preface seems like an odd way to begin a tract that interprets the historical Jesus as an apocalyptic figure who believed that the final judgment and the coming Kingdom of God were imminent.