Why Not Weiss? The Historical Jesus vs. the Paul of Faith

Perhaps it's my roots in evangelical Protestantism. Or maybe it's a certain Anglican penchant for both/and thinking. Whatever the reason, Johanness Weiss gets off on the wrong foot with me in the introduction to his monumental little book on the apocalyptic preaching of Jesus.

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)
To recover the real Jesus in his own context as a living voice for faith entails, for Weiss, confronting not only post-Enlightenment and Romantic liberal voices but challenging conservatives as well -- in particular, Lutheran confessionalists. In particular, Weiss insists we must chose between Jesus, preacher of the Kingdom of God, and the apostle Paul, who (ostensibly) was obsessed by a narrow, doctrinaire fixation on justification by faith. In other words, Weiss pits the message of a living person against a supposed staid doctrine. In his original context, perhaps, he is making an important point; by contrast, for some of us 21st century readers (myself included), Jesus vs. Paul comes across as a tired cliche.

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.



I will be interested in how you pursue your last question. I suppose I have found it puzzling that the most natural place to go for ethics, such as the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, some parables, the vice and virtue discussions of Paul and Peter, the household rules, the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, and even the two great commandments of Jesus, all seem fertile soil for ethical and political reflection. However, that is for me. It seems like most theologians move to a different set of texts and emphases. To be clear, I am not thinking of re-imposing a Torah. I am thinking that the Bible does not leave without some guidance, some content, to the new life we have in Christ. I am thinking of Paul in Romans 12-15 and Galatians 5-6 as examples.

I was also intrigued by the tearing down Weiss did of liberal lives of Jesus and the relation between Jesus and Paul. Did it take time for people to see the apocalyptic nature of Paul's gospel?
You ask: "Did it take time for people to see the apocalyptic nature of Paul's gospel?"

But isn't it still hard for many readers today to grasp this?

As for your ethics question: It's true, we naturally might gravitate toward the explicitly parenetic material in the NT, including the passages you mention. Or something like the "Sermon on the Mount" (or "Sermon on the Plain"). Since, not without some inner resistence, I find myself drawn to dialectical theology, I'm going to resist the notion that a contemporary ethics would be simply a matter of restating or reinterpreting the NT passages that deal explicity with human behavior, as if some general principles of human fourishing were embedded in little pacakges we could open on demand.

What if, rather, we followed a clue from Weiss' retrieval of the apocalyptic Jesus and his proclammation of the Kingdom. What if, then, we began our ethical reflections by pondering a passage such as the following?

"And Jesus said, 'The kingdom of God is like a man scattering seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows —he knows not how. The earth, by itself, produces first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once the man puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.'” (Mark 4:26-29).
Matthew Frost said…
Great illustration, Scott. Yes: Weiss, for all his apocalyptic emphasis, still thinks that there is a positive basis for the real, important (systematic, constructive) work of theology and ethics—much like our friend George here does—and that the critical adaptation he sees Paul doing is naturally secondary to this depositum fidei. Though I might rather say Weiss is eminently skeptical—but only so far down in the stack. His skepsis is a tool to get to a very specific point, in the existence of which he rather uncritically believes.

And, of course, George's problem is similar: he believes rather uncritically in the existence of a positive body of applicably universal foundation material; we just have to get back to it, and then we can adapt it to ourselves.

The problem in both cases is the same: that presumed positive foundation is itself the result of critical work. It does not exist, in any of its original forms, sui generis. Jesus is not being less critical than Paul; if anything, he's being more critical! Jesus is not less presumptively apocalyptic in setting aside the legalistic demands of context and the efforts of the best minds of the time to adjust them to make possible a way of life; he's being far more foundationally apocalyptic as the one who comes in the person of God to correct the old and dictate the new in response to it. And their audiences know this; it's what they value about these works, and why they get preserved when everything else is going to hell in a handbasket.

What's going on with Weiss (and George) is not what's going on with Jesus and Paul. The latter are in pursuit of the living God as the basis for responsible ways of life before God; the former (and most of our history as Christendom) are in pursuit of proxies that will allow them to construct ways of life secure in the knowledge of what God wants. Ad fontes is a great approach if what we want is fidelity to the sources and through them their authors. But the authors of these scriptural sources are not God; they are witnesses to God, at best. Going ad fontes with scripture cannot be a mere historical quest for a suitably authoritative layer of the tradition, or it won't be faithfulness to God that results. Scripture teaches us to do what it (at best) does: point outside ourselves to God and put our trust there.

So yeah: Weiss' preface is an odd way, in its inherent traditionalism, of beginning a tract on Jesus as an apocalyptic figure pointing beyond the world to God. But that's built on understanding this figure as dead, and on understanding a layer of the tradition as the necessary proxy in its place. It's reformation, not revolution.

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