Fourth in a Series (Part I)

The long failure of German theology to reject the existential-dialectical notion that the historical aspects of the Christian revelation are dispensable gave to Continental dogmatics something of the atmosphere of an exclusive private club. Membership was restricted mainly to scholars who shared the speculative dogma that spiritual truth cannot be unified with historical and scientific truth. They therefore emphasized the kerygmatic Christ at the expense of the Jesus of history, isolated Christianity from answerability to scientific and historical inquiry, and detached theology from philosophic truth.

Meanwhile British and American theologians and exegetes—whether conservative or liberal and despite sharp differences over the role and outcome of historical criticism—retained a lively interest in historical concerns. Most Anglo-Saxon biblical scholars still repose bold confidence in the historical method. They view the Gospels somewhat as historical source documents, carry forward the research effort to reconstruct the life of Jesus, stress the kerygma’s connection with specifically historical factors, and assume generally the concrete historical character of divine revelation.

The current renewal of European interest in biblical history and its bearing on divine revelation encourages many scholars to hope that for the first time theologians and exegetes in America, Britain, and Europe as well may at long last join in theological conversation. Since British and American scholars currently hold a considerable head start in their commitment to historical concerns, some observers feel that non-Europeans could in fact wrest away the theological initiative long held by the German professors.

Most of today’s unrest in Bultmannian circles results from the present sprawling interest in historical questions. Some pro-Bultmannian scholars, of course, still invoke radical historical criticism in support of existentialist exegesis; Conzelmann, for example, insists that the bare fact of Jesus’ historical existence is the only datum that can be historically fixed. Even the post-Bultmannian “new quest” for the historical Jesus reflects a continuing loyalty to Ritschl’s and Herrmann’s subordination of the knowledge of God to faith or trust, so that its historical interest does not lead to evangelical results. But many post-Bultmannians at least share Fuchs’s emphasis that “the historical Jesus of the nineteenth century was not really the historical Jesus, but [that] the Jesus of the New Testament, the Jesus of revelation, is.” Bultmann’s kerygmatic Christology closed the door in principle to any movement behind the kerygma to the historical Jesus. At the same time, he nowhere explains why, on his premises, any continuity whatever is necessary between the historical cross and the preached cross of the kerygma; nor why, since he insists on this limited continuity, other historical aspects embraced by the kerygma must be excluded.

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Yet what sets off post-Bultmannian interest in the historical Jesus from that of the Heilsgeschichte scholars is its refusal to regard the historical Jesus as decisive for faith, and also its emphasis that faith requires no historical supports. The salvation-history scholars, by contrast, investigate the revelation-significance of God’s acts in history.

Some post-Bultmannians, it is true, take a position at the very edge of Heilsgeschichte concerns. Günther Bornkamm, for example, argues that the Heilsgeschichte concept cannot be renounced but must be redefined. “Faith must be interested in history,” says Bornkamm, “because the name of Jesus in our confession is not a mere word but an historical person.” Yet he centers historical interest in the content of Jesus’ preaching. He rejects antithesizing history and experience, and stresses that while revelation does not (as he sees it) take place in “history itself,” it does occur in the encounter “which belongs to history.” Unlike Heilsgeschichtescholars, who locate the meaning of history in sacred history, Bornkamm insists that the essence of history is still to be decided. “We are ourselves part of the drama of history and salvation-history. The meaning of history is not given as a Heilsgeschichte drama or series of past events of which we are spectators, and to which we need only relate ourselves to accept the divine gift.”

Bornkamm complains, moreover, that Ernst Kasemann’s view of the relevance of Jewish apocalyptic for Christian faith is contestable. Käsemann, who presses the question of the meaning of certain acts of God for Christian proclamation, stresses over against Bultmann that the real center of primitive Christian proclamation was not the believing subject but rather the interpretation of the eschatological teaching with its anticipation of final fulfillment. The New Testament message, he says, is the proclamation of an apocalyptic event.

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Historical Revelation

Heilsgeschichte positions differ from post-Bultmannian perspectives in emphasizing that the saving deeds of God supply a ground of faith: Christian faith is faith not only in the kerygmatic Christ but also in the historical Jesus. All Heilsgeschichte scholars insist on an integral connection between the saving deeds of God and Christian faith.

Not all members of the salvation-history movement today speak unreservedly of historical revelation, and none would go the distance of the old Erlangen Heilsgeschichte school. Their approach sometimes does not transcend an application to New Testament studies of Gerhard von Rad’s positions in Old Testament study. Von Rad rejects the old Erlangen view of history as a process whose inner meaning can be demonstrated, and his emphasis on the Old Testament as a collection of confessional traditions of salvation-history leaves the historical and confessional factors unsurely related. He does not regard Jesus’ life and work as a direct fulfillment of particular Old Testament prophecies and promises; rather, with the contemporary Heilsgeschichte school, he views Jesus as fulfilling the general Old Testament picture only in the broad sense of archetype and type. All Heilsgeschichte scholars reject the bare Religionsgeschichte view that Jesus incarnates the universal spirit or idea; they look instead in the direction of Von Rad’s emphasis that the Old Testament must be interpreted (independently of all developments of non-biblical religions) as the history of God which was fulfilled in Jesus Christ; and that the New Testament must be interpreted (independently of all religious developments in the old world) as the fulfillment of the Old Testament.

While a mildly conservative New Testament scholar like Goppelt of Hamburg is congenial to these positions, some conservative scholars view the Heilsgeschichte wing as little else than a more positive movement of the critical school. The problem is dramatized by the fact that many Heilsgeschichte scholars, for all their larger emphasis on biblical history, still hesitate to regard the meaning of salvation as objectively given and accessible. Instead, they continue to speak of religious experience or decision as a fulcrum of revelation. Although he insists that the Old Testament is strictly a Heilsgeschichte process, Goppelt refuses to hold that divine revelation is given in history, and retains a dialectical perspective despite differences with Bultmann and Barth. Invoking the Lutheran formula of “in, with, and under,” he asserts that it is too much to say that the Word is revealed in history.

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For the sake of clarity we shall compare the viewpoints of the Heilsgeschichte scholars and of the traditional conservative scholars. Both schools agree that divine revelation and redemption are objective historical realities. They both admit that the sacred biblical events, like all past happenings, are not accessible to empirical observation, although from written sources these events are knowable to historians by the same methods of research used in the study of secular history.

What, then, of the meaning of the biblical events? Surely even the immediate observers, whether Pharisees or apostles, could not have learned this by mere observation. The spiritual meaning of these sacred events is divinely given, not humanly postulated. Here again Heilsgeschichte and conservative scholars agree.

But how is this divine meaning of sacred history given to faith? Conservative scholars insist that the historian need not shift to some mystical ground or suprarational existential experience to discern it. For the New Testament documents as they testify to divine deed-revelation give or are themselves divine truth-revelation; that is to say, the divinely given interpretation of the saving events is contained within the authoritative record of the events themselves. Or to put it another way, the divine saving events include, as a climax, the divine communication of the meaning of those events, objectively given in the inspired Scriptures. While nobody can infer the meaning of the biblical events from empirical observation or historical inquiry, the doctrines of Christianity are accessible to the historian in the form of the New Testament verbal revelation of God’s acts and purposes. Historical investigation deals with the scriptural documents that record the historical disclosure of God’s suprahistorical redemptive plan. When conservative scholars assert that God’s revelation in history is not found by scientific research but is given to faith, they mean that the Holy Spirit illumines the minds of men to accept the scriptural revelation of the meaning of the events of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. That the truth of apostolic interpretation is grasped only by faith and our acceptance of Scripture is a work of the Holy Spirit is a constant evangelical emphasis.

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The Heilsgeschichte scholars compromise the conservative view because of their prior critical rejection of the historic Christian understanding of revelation in terms of the infallible divine communication of propositional truths. Their emphasis falls instead upon individual spiritual encounter not only as the focal point of illumination but as the focal point of the revelation of divine meaning. While they insist that revelation is objectively given in historical events, they suspend the knowability of the meaning of that revelation upon subjective decision and isolate it from divine truths and doctrines objectively and authoritatively given in the inspired Scriptures.

A Case In Point

Werner Georg Kümmel of Marburg, a spokesman for the salvation-history school, insists that divine revelation “exists only in response,” although his exposition of this perspective includes many conservative facets.

“Revelation is given not only in history but even in historical events and the interpretations connected with these events. Historical critical research is therefore indispensable for faith that wants to know about the events and the interpretation connected with them. But research can find out only the events or the reflex of the events (e.g., of the resurrection of Christ) and the claim of the participants to interpret these events in the way God wants. Whether this claim is correct, research cannot find out, but only faith. So we never find revelation in history by scientific research. But we can clarify and make clear that their claim and our faith attached to this claim are founded in an event that really gives the sufficient ground for this faith. So faith does not depend on historic research but needs it as soon as faith begins to reflect on itself, for faith does not only need the certainty of the event-basis but also the good conscience of not being built in the air.”

As Kümmel sees it, by historical research one finds in scripture both the sacred events and the meaning adduced as the kerygma connected with those events. But, he insists, the unbeliever cannot disallow “the factuality of the events and the factuality of the interpretation given them by the apostolic witnesses, (whereas) the validity of these interpretations is grasped only by personal response in faith”—in response, moreover, that must be “a reasoned response.” Apart from his disjunction of fact from meaning (and not simply of objective event from subjective appropriation), it should be clear that Kümmel struggles to elevate the meaning of saving history above a theology of decision. Yet he balks at an objectively-given scriptural interpretation which is to be appropriated, as in the conservative tradition, as authoritative propositional information. For Kümmel distinguishes proclamation from information and, moreover, subjects the scriptural meaning of salvation-history to possibilities of critical revision. In view of his appeal to “the character of faith as response to a proclamation and not to an information,” and of his consequent insistence that the believer “cannot simply repeat what has been said by others, but must try to understand and, perhaps, to reformulate or to criticize the aptness of the apostolic interpretations,” one must ask Kümmel what post-apostolic criteria and what non-historical ways of knowing are available for this task. Surely we cannot object to the need for understanding (what Paul said), rather than mere unintelligible repetition; but what is it to criticize Paul’s interpretation? Does this mean that we can amend or replace the scriptural interpretation with one of our own? That may not reduce to a “theology of decision,” but it does imply the acceptance of a norm inconsistent with and independent of Scripture. By distinguishing proclamation from information, moreover, Kümmel seems to imply that proclamation contains no information, hence is not true as an account of what happened.

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The predicament of the Heilsgeschichte scholars, therefore, lies in regarding history as an avenue of divine disclosure but suspending the meaning of that revelation upon subjective factors. If Bultmann was content to connect Old and New Testaments in decision (and even then viewed the former only in terms of negative antithesis), while Heilsgeschichte scholars insist on connecting them historically, the contemporary salvation-history school nonetheless compromises objective historical revelation in a manner that suspends its meaning upon personal response. The intelligibility of revelation remains a matter of private decision. The dilemma confronting this salvation-history compromise is reflected by Nils Ahstrup Dahl of Oslo: “I don’t want to say that all religious affirmations are only subjective emotive affirmations, but I find it hard to state the alternative without surrendering what I want to preserve—the right of historical research to establish truth.”

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This bifurcation of divine revelation into a deed-revelation in history and a meaning-revelation in experience has propelled the problem of history to new prominence. In fact, the debate over the definition and meaning of history has become so technical that few scholars any longer feel wholly at home in it. In barest terms, history involves these questions: What relation if any exists between event and meaning? Does one method grasp both event and meaning? Are there bare events as such or only interpretations of historical process? What relation exists between Christological faith and historical fact?

Heinrich Ott, Barth’s successor in Basel, contends that no historical facts whatever exist. Significance is an integral and constitutive element of all historical reality. Reality impresses itself upon us in the form of pictures which we interpret, and from which we abstract “facts.” Hence history, he says, is always of the nature of encounter: all reality merges factual, interpretative, and mythical elements. “God’s seeing”—his purpose and goal in historical events—is said to exclude a purely subjective notion of history, and thereby limits the danger of relativism. But because we stand within history, argues Ott, we can never transfer ourselves to God’s standpoint. It is through the Spirit’s inner testimony that “the knowledge of faith” assures us of having rightly understood the Christ-event.

Instead of detaching historical investigation from the philosophical presuppositions of twentieth-century dialectical-existentialist theory as well as from nineteenth-century naturalism, some recent scholarship stresses an existential relation to history in which historical continuity yields to “personal-ontological continuity.” Hardly surprising, therefore, is Ott’s acknowledgment that “the mystery of historical reality, its ambiguity and depth” are more likely to multiply the historian’s esteem and awe than to reward with striking results the axioms on which historical research is presently conducted.

Many graduate students find the current climate of conflicting exegetical claims so confusing that they are tempted to identify the “assured results” of historical research simply with “what most scholars (now) think.” The definition of history remains so much in debate that more radical students think of history only in terms of historical documents plus the imagination of historians.

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Oscar Cullmann views salvation-history as a revelatory activity in which God’s plan is unfolded. His Basel colleague Karl Barth absorbed history into the decrees of God and emptied it of revelation-content by locating justification in creation and by viewing all men as elect in the man-Jesus. For Cullmann, the options are not so predetermined as to nullify revelation and decision in history, although Cullmann objectionably puts time in the nature of God as the means of preserving a genuine distinction between what has happened and what will happen. The concrete historical character of divine disclosure is a controlling emphasis of Cullmann’s thought. God acts in the contingent temporal sphere, and divine revelation takes place in “sacred history”; at the center of this line of time, which reaches from creation to consummation, stands Jesus of Nazareth as the absolute revelation of God. There can be no Heilsgeschichte without Christology, and no Christology without a Heilsgeschichte that unfolds in time, Cullmann contends. While he emphasizes Jesus’ work more than his person, Cullmann insists that one can assuredly possess authentic Christian faith only if one believes the historical fact that Jesus regarded himself as Messiah—a complete inversion of Bultmann at this point. Thus Cullmann views the history of salvation as the locus of divine revelation, anchors revelation in the dimension of historically verifiable facts, and assigns to historical knowledge a relevance for faith that is more in keeping with historical evangelical theology.

Many Heilsgeschichte scholars push Cullmann outside their circle, however, because—like more traditionally conservative men such as Jeremias and Michel—he speaks of Jesus’ messianic self-consciousness (a predication equally distasteful to the post-Bultmannians, Eduard Schweizer excepted). Cullmann’s critics complain that his historical critical investigation is dominated by theological presuppositions—from which they presumably are scot-free in achieving contrary exegetical results!

To be continued...

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