It was Adolph Harnack, brilliant exponent of liberal theology and penetrating observer of the historic scene about the turn of the century, who declared that “there is something touching in the anxiety which everyone shows to rediscover himself, together with his own point of view and his own circle of interest, in this Jesus Christ, or at least to get a share in him.” This phenomenon has been no less evident in the half century since Harnack thus expressed himself in his memorable lectures on the essence of Christianity. Few indeed have been those who have read the Gospels with serious attention and have not been sympathetically drawn to the portrait of Jesus Christ there drawn. There is genuine pathos, however, in the observation that many a modern inquirer in his quest of Jesus, finding the Jesus of the Gospels unacceptable, more or less unconsciously refashions the portrait to conform Jesus to his own presuppositions or predilections.

Although Harnack himself spoke so self-assuredly regarding his understanding of Jesus, it was not long before criticism had exposed the subjuctivity of his reconstruction and had effectively shown that he had been guilty of presenting a radical modernization of Jesus. In seeking to maintain the thesis that “the gospel of Jesus proclaimed that it had to do with the Father only, and not with the Son,” and in interpreting Jesus’ messianic claims and his eschatological teaching as merely formal or peripheral and ultimately as expendable, Harnack came to be recognized as arbitrarily eliminating that which was uncongenial to his modern spirit. Nevertheless, in terms of his own perspective, he was captivated by the history and personality of Jesus. For he thought of Jesus not only as a teacher but as one who was connected with the gospel as “its personal realization and its strength.” Christianity to him was not a question of a doctrine—not even the teaching of Jesus—being handed down, but rather of a life “again and again kindled afresh,” as one came under the impact of Jesus’ personality.

It may also be recalled that Wilhelm Herrmann, Harnack’s peer as a spokesman for liberal Christianity, was perhaps even more emphatic in interpreting religion in Christ-centered terms. If one supposed that the liberal theology conceived of Jesus merely as a moral teacher and example, and that accordingly the religion of the liberal was devoid of fervor and power, he would be bound to undergo a revolutionary change of judgment if he came really to know Herrmann. Thus, at any rate, J. Gresham Machen, as he sat under Herrmann in 1905, was completely overwhelmed at the evidence of his religious earnestness as expressed in terms of “absolute confidence” in and “absolute joyful subjection” to Jesus. Such occupation with the figure of Jesus Christ and such confidence and devotion, however, did not serve to establish Herrmann’s theology on a sure foundation. His view also was soon recognized as essentially a modernization of Jesus. But there is a heightening of pathos as one contemplates the sincerity of his mistaken response to the testimony of the Gospels regarding Jesus.

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Invoking The Spirit Of Jesus

Among those who struck powerful blows that shattered the portrait of the liberal Jesus was Albert Schweitzer. The very elements which Harnack had found most uncongenial, namely, the messianic and eschatological teaching, and which had, as Schweitzer says, “ingenuously and covertly” been rejected, Schweitzer declared to be the central and dominating features of Jesus’ life and thought. Although Schweitzer’s interpretation suffers from one-sidedness and other basic defects, he must be credited with an epochal contribution toward the understanding of the witness of the gospel. As the result of the impact of his views it would seem that no serious student of the Gospels can ever contend again for an essentially non-eschatological understanding of Jesus. But an even greater pathos can be found in Schweitzer’s evaluation of Jesus than in the older Liberalism. For no longer is it one of a more or less artless kind. It is now a self-conscious pathos in the presence of tragedy of gigantic proportions. This is so because the Jesus whom Schweitzer searches out, though he is described as an “imperious ruler” and as possessing the “volcanic force of an incalculable personality,” was a mere man who was completely disillusioned on the cross. Moreover, subsequent history is regarded as having demonstrated that Jesus was completely in error with regard to his most basic thoughts regarding his life and destiny. Although Schweitzer wrote a doctoral dissertation to defend the sanity of Jesus, his own interpretation of Jesus’ self-consciousness appears to place too great a burden upon him for any healthy person to endure. The end of the story, as Schweitzer depicts it, is therefore utterly pathetic.

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But the extent of the pathos in Schweitzer’s construction is even now not fully measured. For it is touching to observe how Schweitzer, having radically rejected the eschatology of Jesus and the Jesus of eschatology, nevertheless is not able to let him go. And in spite of his judgments upon the liberal theology he himself ends up by being a liberal! Now, however, this occurs without the benefit of the liberals’ appeal to “the historical Jesus.” And Schweitzer is not less arbitrary than the liberal when he likewise insists that it is possible to set aside the eschatological as husk and to retain as kernel something that has little or nothing to do with Jesus’ own dominant ideas. And so Schweitzer, in spite of his recognition that the liberal Jesus is an historical illusion, and in the face of his own judgment that the Jesus of history as he understands him is altogether unworthy of trust, makes the claim that “the spirit of Jesus” is on the side of liberalism. Like David F. Strauss before him he discounts the significance of the historical by regarding it as constituting only the outward form in which with considerable variation essential religious truth comes to expression. And so declaring “that it is not Jesus as historically known, but Jesus as spiritually arisen within men,” he sets out to develop his ethical mysticism.

Can one conceive of greater pathos than that which confronts us here? According to Schweitzer’s view, the more fully that we come to a genuine knowledge of Jesus as he lived on earth, the more impossible it becomes to accept his central self-appraisal. Nevertheless, in spite of his being persona non grata as he appeared in history, we are told that we need not be discouraged. Indeed, we may be basically indifferent to the results of our study of what the Gospels have to say concerning him, and yet we are to suppose that we may come to genuine knowledge and experience of “his spirit.”

The Pendulum Of Criticism

Speaking rather broadly of certain dominant trends of gospel criticism, we may observe that this basic characteristic is evident again and again. There has indeed been some genuine progress in interpretation, not only as it concerns eschatology, but also as it relates to the broader impact which the Gospels as a whole make upon us. Schweitzer’s extreme views have been corrected and modified by subsequent criticism as far as most New Testament scholars are concerned. His one-sided futurism in particular has been largely abandoned in favor of a more comprehensive estimate of the manifestation of the kingdom of God and of the scope of the ministry of the Son of Man. There has developed, moreover, a greater awareness that the Gospels are concerned with the single theme of God’s decisive action in Christ for man’s salvation, that this action finds climactic expression in the cross and the resurrection, and that, accordingly, the message of the Gospels resists dissection of kernel and husk after the manner of the liberals. Thus, also the unity of the New Testament, particularly in its central concern with salvation history, is substantially discerned and acknowledged.

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To a significant extent, however, exegetical gain has spelled historical and religious loss. For it is especially the more radical critics who, having recognized that the Gospels proclaim a message of supernatural salvation through Jesus Christ, but disallowing that this could have been Jesus’ own conception of his ministry, regard the Gospels as essentially dogmatic constructions rather than historical memoirs. And so the Christian community, whether in Palestine or in the Hellenistic world beyond, has been held mainly responsible for the origin of the Christian message. By this approach, Jesus Christ becomes a vague and misty figure in the background, about whom we have little or no certain knowledge.

Among recent New Testament scholars Rudolf Bultmann is perhaps the most representative of these latter tendencies. As the result of his application of the method of form criticism, only a few remnants of the Gospel tradition are regarded as applicable to the Jesus of history. Bultmann has even said that he would have no quarrel with anyone who might wish to place “Jesus” in quotation marks as a designation for the historical phenomenon back of the Christian church. In the most recent phase of his thought, which is concerned with the Christian proclamation, he is indeed substantially faithful in expounding that proclamation in terms of the supernatural action of a pre-existent divine being who appeared on earth as a man. But he is compelled, in virtue of his estimate of technological progress and man’s understanding of his own nature (as “a self-subsistent unity immune from the interference of supernatural powers”), to regard this proclamation together with the view of the world that it presupposes as hopelessly obsolete.

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In certain basic respects Bultmann’s position, however, is like that of Schweitzer. For Bultmann, too, the life of Jesus was a merely human life which ended in the tragedy of crucifixion although he had envisioned the dawning of a new world through supernatural intervention in history. Bultmann is more skeptical regarding the testimony of the Gospels to Jesus than was Schweitzer, for he does not even allow that Jesus thought of himself as the Messiah. But this difference is after all only one of degree so far as the significance of the life of Jesus upon earth is concerned. As noted above, Schweitzer, in spite of his tragic estimate of the Jesus of history, with startling boldness proceeds to reinterpret his life and spirit in liberal terms. And Bultmann, in spite of even more radical judgments upon the life of Jesus, also becomes involved in the effort to separate the kernel from the husk in his judgments concerning Jesus and the Gospel. For example, in dealing with the message of Jesus, he acknowledges that Jesus thought of the kingdom of God in supernatural terms and awaited its manifestation in world-shaking events such as the coming of the Son of Man, the resurrection of the dead, judgment and the end of the world. Nevertheless, Bultmann has the temerity to insist that these features of “contemporary mythology” do not express Jesus’ “real meaning”! “The real significance of the kingdom of God for the message of Jesus,” Bultmann declares, “lies in any case not in the dramatic events associated with its coming … it does not interest Jesus at all as a condition, but rather as the transcendent event, which signifies for man the great either—or, which compels man to decision.” It may be observed, therefore, that as to both method and results, in basic respects Bultmann’s position does not differ essentially from that of the liberal.

In similar fashion, as Bultmann is concerned particularly with the apostolic proclamation, he places an unbearable strain on our credulity when he outrightly insists that the Gospel is mythical and yet makes the claim that by a process of de-mythologizing one may discover “the real meaning of the New Testament.” As far as history is concerned, the cross is merely the tragic end of a great man, and the resurrection itself is not an event of past history. Nevertheless, the cross and the resurrection are viewed as forming “a single, indivisible cosmic event” which we may experience as an event in the word of preaching as we acknowledge that by the grace of God we understand our existence in terms of being crucified and risen with Christ.

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Considering how profoundly skeptical Bultmann is concerning the possibility of knowledge of the historical Jesus and his scornful repudiation of the Christian kerygma as that comes to us in the New Testament, we might expect that he would let Jesus go and frankly espouse a Christless religion or philosophy. Yet he does not do that. And it remains significant that, in spite of the centrifugal forces which drive him away from Jesus Christ, there remains an impact of Christian tradition which somewhat restrains this outward course.

There are, to be sure, many other scholars whose approach to Jesus and the gospel is far less skeptical and negative than that of Bultmann. Among such scholars a higher estimate of the trustworthiness of the gospel tradition prevails; and hence the Christian community is assigned a less creative or transforming influence. Nevertheless, among modern students of the New Testament generally we find the characteristic liberal failure to see the New Testament message as a unity or to accept it in its entirety. Perhaps the clearest illustration of this tendency is found in the fate of eschatology. For one of the most striking features of present-day thought about the New Testament is that, speaking generally, the clearer the apprehension of the inclusion of distinctively eschatological features in that message, the greater the insistence upon discounting or minimizing them. The latter may be done by “interpreting” them in terms of timelessness, as not only Bultmann but also Lohmeyer, Barth, and others have done. Or a similar result may be achieved by the approach of C. H. Dodd who, by interpretation and criticism, develops the formula of “realized eschatology.”

The defining of the gospel in Christocentric terms or in terms of salvation history is a highly salutary emphasis compared with that of the older Liberalism. Nevertheless, when the entire testimony of Scripture is not acknowledged as authoritative when Christ is not received in all the fullness of the testimony that the Scriptures contain. When his eschatological message is affirmed and denied at the same time, there may indeed be a poignant wrestling with the historical and personal problem of Jesus Christ and his meaning for us. But the element of pathos remains as long as men do not come to the place where with all their hearts they receive and embrace Jesus Christ as the Scriptures present him to us.

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For the evangelical, the recognition of this factor should provide no basis whatever for conceit or complacency. First of all, he will be constrained to search his own mind and heart to see whether he has come fully to the place where he no longer sits in judgment upon Christ but rather is characterized by wholehearted commitment and submission to him. And then he will be deeply moved, as he contemplates with tears the pathos conspicuous in much of present-day religious faith, to rededicate himself to the ministry of reconciliation, a ministry which points men first of all to the manner in which in Christ God was reconciling the world unto himself and then beseeches them in Christ’s name to be reconciled unto God.

We Quote:


Professor, Union Theological Seminary

The preacher’s message must be derived, not from current events or current literature or current trends of one sort or another, not from the pholosophers, the statesmen, or the poets, not even, in the last resort, from the preacher’s own experience or reflection, but from the Scriptures. There is, of course, nothing really new about this. That it needs to be said again, and with fresh emphasis, means only that preaching has departed in this respect from its own tradition.—In The Integrity of Preaching, p. 9.

Ned B. Stonehouse is Professor of New Testament and Dean of the Faculty, Westminster Theological Seminary. He is Editor of the New International Commentary on the New Testament and author of Paul Before the Areopagus.

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