Paging the Real Jesus: Why Kähler Still Matters

Like many of you, I love old books, and Martin Kähler's theological critique of 19th century historical Jesus quests is a classic. But I'd argue this is not the sort of venerable work that one tosses in the dustbin of a footnote. Rather, this is a book those of us interested in the intersection of constructive theology and biblical studies should continue to read. Kähler -- whose work casts an enormous shadow over the work of Barth, Bultmann, Tillich and many other 20th century theologians -- still speaks to us as a contemporary.

Martin Kähler. The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ, trans. Carl Braaten (Fortress, 1966).

Of course, as with any great thinker of the past, we can't be expected to swallow the project wholesale.
Martin Kähler (1835-1912)
(Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Much has transpired in theology and biblical studies in the thirteen decades since this short of volume of addresses to German pastors was published. Carl Braaten's superb introduction in this volume helps both to situate Kähler, who served as a professor in the universities at Bonn and Halle, in his own day and to highlight what is of enduring significance in his work. Kähler was a man, a scholar and a believer fully emersed in the concerns of Continental Protestantism in the 19th century. A product of revival movements with strong ties to pietism, Kähler nonetheless rejected what he perceived to be the overly credulous perspective of Protestant orthodoxy. A strong advocate for biblical authority, he nevertheless rejected the doctrine of plenary verbal inspiration. Immersed in the heady milieau of German idealism, he still kept his own counsel in matters of faith. As Braatan argues, Kähler had common cause with the mediating theologians, who sought to affirm traditional doctrinal commitments without slipping into repristination of the past and while trying to give modern critical scholarship its due.

Kähler's best known contribution to theology, which is the central matter of this book, is his principled rejection of any attempt to ground Christology upon the uncertain results of modern historical-critical investigations into the life of Jesus. He was not dismissive of such historical scholarship per se, and he was aware that modern critics had raised legitimate quesitons about traditional depictions of the savior's humanity. He did not take everything narrated in the Gospels to be historically factual. Still, Kähler affirmed the divinity of Christ and believed something miraculous was in play in the person and work of the Savior -- a transcendent and saving dimension of Jesus's identity that could not be perceived or refuted by historical work. Braaten writes:

Kähler believed that the confession of the true humanity of Jesus was an immediate datum of apostolic faith in the Word made flesh, and not the product of historical scholarship (p. 19)

Kähler's proposal is complex and not unproblemmatic. Still, I would home in on one crucial aspect of his argument that continues to vex folks who think about these matters, myself included. As Braatan notes, the problem of the full humanity of Jesus, always in danger within traditional thought of being subsumed by his divine dignity, became particular acute in the modern period. Kähler admits the legitimacy of this attempt to retrieve the full embodied reality of the Savior. Yet he rejects the notion that ostensibly objective histoircal scholarship offers privileged access to Jesus' reality. In fact, to go further, he suspects something surreptitious is afoot in the world of the liberal scholars who published lives of Jesus during the 19th century. He discerned an unsavory reductionism at work in the historicism of the early Jesus questers. On the face of it, as Braatan writes:

The intention of this quest was to rediscover the authority of the historical Jesus on religious and ethical matters behind the dogmas of the apostles or to trace out the life and thought of Jesus beneath the quilt of ideas thrown over him by the theology of the early church (p. 18)

Thus, Reimarus led the way in attempting to ferret out Jesus' psychological development within his original external context. But Kähler perceives a more subversive and normative impetus, going far beyond the interests of dispassionate scholarship, driving such efforts. Braaten writes:

In Kähler's view it was not so much devotion to the Jesus of history as antipathy to the Christ of dogma which constituted the real interest in the Life-of-Jesus movement. At least for many historians the recovery of the historical Jesus provided the dynamite to explode once and for all the christological dogma of the ancient creeds. Others contrasted the Jesus of history not only to the Christ of the creeds but also to the apostolic picture of Christ. It was not, however, their demonstration that Jesus was a real man of history which offended Kähler in the modern biographies of Jesus, but rather their hidden ebionitism, their obscuration of the trans-human dimensions of the biblical Christ (p. 19).

Assessing the fairness of this accusation goes beyond what I could do in this post. Nonetheless, I note that many more researchers have plowed the field of Jesus studies in recent decades. They have more information than the 19th century Jesus biographers had, and perhaps the more recent scholars avoid some of the mistakes of their forbears in the field. Still the question remains: To what extent can critical historical research help resolve the question of Jesus' religious identity and significance? The churches and the academic guild seem no closer to answering this question today than they were in the time of Martin Kähler.


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I think the criticism remains valid. I wonder if the Jesus Seminar, whose work I appreciate from the historical side of things, is not confirmation. Most of these scholars, at least the ones who wrote books, found something in the contemporary church they disliked and hoped their studies would challenge. This seems particularly true with the desire to set aside traditional Christology. As Barth put it, if one is wrong here, one will be wrong everywhere.
My takeaway from Kaehler is somewhat different, I suppose. What I'm taking away from his study is a cleaner separation between historical-critical research into the life of Jesus, on the one hand, and the question of traditional faith and dogmatic Christology, on the other hand. Not an absolute separation, perhaps, but a clear boundary, nonetheless. The question is to what extent is any historical researcher trying to answer the question of faith in Jesus from a strictly empirical perspective. Thus, if this is right, one could still have a fairly traditional Chalcedonian Christology and pair it with a fairly revisionist historical portrait, because the two sides of this issue are, to some extent at least, incommensurable. I wouldn't expect this compromise to please everyone but, in the words of the old song, "I've learned my lesson well."

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