Painting Jesus: History and Dogmatics, The Brushes

Here is something I have been pondering, why don’t you join me? It seems like there are those among us who want to paint a portrait of Jesus through historical portrait of jesusreconstruction alone (mostly Biblical Studies scholars, like N.T. Wright et al), and then there are others who veer towards Christian Dogmatic artistry. And each of these approaches—in general—seem as disparate as Analytical Theology is from Continental or Dialectic Theology is. As N.T. Wright oft asserts; that if we fail to engage with the historical Jesus (i.e. reconstruction of the Second Temple Judaism etc.), then we end up constructing a Docetic Christology (i.e. untethering Jesus from physical/bodily reality as if He hovers over the world as an apparition). But I think the problem with this (and historical reconstruction in general) is that it assumes too much for itself; and it fails to appreciate that the Gospels (i.e. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are each in their own ways providing a particularly theologically shaped interpretation of the realities of Jesus’ life and work, and with the explicit intent of painting a Jesus who remains hidden under the veil of history unless someone has the eyes of faith.

Thomas Torrance says this, this way:

The mystery of Christ is presented to us within history — that historical involvement is not an accidental characteristic of the mystery but essential to it. That is the problem.

Let us first put it this way, recalling the bi-polarity of our theological knowledge. If God has become man in the historical Jesus, that is an historical event that comes under our historical examination so far as the humanity of Jesus is concerned, but the fact that God became man is an event that cannot be appreciated by ordinary historical science, for here we are concerned with more than simply an historical event, namely, with the act of the eternal God. So far as this event is a fact of nature it can be observed, and so far as it is historical in the sense that other natural events are historical, it can be appreciated as such; but the essential becoming behind it cannot be directly perceived except by an act of perception appropriate to the eternal event. That act of perception appropriate to an eternal act, or divine act, would surely be the pure vision of God, which we do not have in history. Here on earth and in time we do not see directly, face to face, but see only in part, as through a glass enigmatically, in a mystery. We see the eternal or divine act within history, within our fallen world where historical observation is essential. Faith would be better described then as the kind of perception appropriate to perceiving a divine act in history, an eternal act in time. So that faith is appropriate both to the true perception of historical facts, and also to the true perception of God’s action in history. Nor is it the way we are given within history to perceive God’s acts in history, and that means that faith is the obedience of our minds to the mystery of Christ, who is God and man in the historical Jesus. What is clearly of paramount importance here is the holding together of the historical and the theological in our relation to Christ.

If the two are not held together, we have broken up the given unity in Christ into the historical on the one hand, and the theological on the other, refracting it into elements which we can no longer put together again. We then find that we cannot start from the historical and move to the theological, or from the theological and move to the historical without distortion, and nor can we rediscover the original unity. We can only start from the given, where the historical and the theological are in indissoluble union in Christ. [Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation, 6-7]

So historical reconstruction without sensitivity to the fact that what God has done in Christ in incarnation is a novum, or something for which there is no analogy; will instead engage in the equal and opposite error of engaging in an Adoptionistic (or Ebionite) heresy. A portrait that starts with Jesus as a historical man in search of a God to affix him.

I obviously favor Christian Dogmatic approach to appreciating the fine art of God’s life that Jesus is. I favor this approach because I think it is coordinate with the approach that the New Testament authors took. They didn’t write from a naturalistic historism, instead they wrote through eyes of faith. So any approach that does not intentionally start from an analogy of faith is doomed to present a Jesus that shuts down instead of opens up people to the faith of God, or the faith of Jesus Christ for us. It will gives us a Jesus who is stale and only available to the historian’s tools, and it will fail to recognize that the only true portrait of God that has any real validity is the one painted by the Son (cf. John 1:18); He introduces us to God, not simply as God, but Father—His Father, and now ours!

17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” John 20:17

Am I against the usage of history? On the contrary, but the idea that we can approach knowledge of God, knowledge of Jesus through historical inquiry alone (as most of Biblical Studies and Historical Jesus Studies does) will never penetrate to the depth dimension of God’s inner life as revealed through His outer life in Jesus Christ. This could have (and does) untold consequences on a person’s Christian spirituality (the same consequences that conceptual scholasticism has).