For the first post in this series, click here.
C. H. Dodd’s opening chapter in History and the Gospel bears the title “Christianity as an Historical Religion.” He begins by briefly reviewing the rise of the so-called “quest for the historical Jesus,” which to this day continues unabated in New Testament scholarship (if nonetheless also severely modified in methodology and agenda). Though he does not mention any of them by name, thinkers such as Reimarus, Strauss, Schweitzer, Wrede and Bultmann set a new course for the study of the Gospels in the post-Enlightenment era in Europe. The goal of biblical interpretation was now understood to consist largely in the attempt to peel away the surface layers of the propaganda of the Gospels, and to uncover the kernel of real, objective history which lay hidden beneath the distorting faith of the earliest Christians. Indeed, the cry of this courageous endeavor was “We want to know, not what somebody thought, but what happened. Back to the facts!” (p. 13). As Dodd goes on to note, the core ambitions which fueled the beginnings of this quest were as audacious as they were methodologically naïve:
“Its assumption, avowed or implicit, was that this method would succeed in eliminating from the records a mass of intrusive material due to the faith and thought of the early Church (Gemeindetheologie). When this was done, the residue would lie before us as a solid nucleus of bare fact, upon which we might put our own interpretation, without regard to the interpretation given by the early Church in the documents themselves. Christianity might thus be reconstructed upon a basis of historical fact, scientifically assured.” (p. 11)
While it is not his intent to point out the varying strengths and weaknesses of this movement here, Dodd does fault the Jesus-questers for operating with a fundamentally deficient understanding of what “history” actually is, as well as how later human beings can come to know it. More on this later, but suffice it to say that Dodd impressively anticipates here many of the important insights of chastened postmodern historians half a century later.
As one would expect, this early stage of the quest for the historical Jesus, with its addiction to logical positivism and its predictable proneness toward naturalistic explanations, gave rise to a theological movement of an extreme opposite tendency. In the looming shadow of Schleiermacher, the proponents of this outlook emphasized only the religious intuitions of the earliest Christians, and ignored “what really happened” in history. For them, doctrine was simply the (non-authoritative) record of the subjective, mystical experiences of those who followed Jesus. Modern psychology (“Tell me how you feel“) kisses theology, and the two shall live in peace forevermore. But Dodd knows that this will not do either. To retreat from history is to rid ourselves of the possibility of special revelation, of a normative word from God, and the Gospels themselves persistently claim to record much more than the personal, experiential impressions of Jesus’ disciples:
“This is not the estimate of the events in question which is to be found in the Gospels as they stand. They profess to report, not important historical events simply, but eschatological events, the climax and end of history, the revelation of the supra-historical.” (p. 13)
Therefore, all such approaches to the Gospels—whether the approach is that of scholars who will allow nothing but brute empirical evidence shorn of any reputed eyewitness testimony, or the approach of those who rule out a priori the crucial importance of what actually took place in time and space in the 1st century in dusty, Roman-ruled Palestine–are patently reductionistic and thus demonstrably inadequate. To highlight either immanence (as when the evolutionary process of the historical development of humanity is equated with revelation, ala modern liberalism) or transcendence (as when history is no longer allowed to be the plane of God’s redemptive activity or revelatory communication, ala the irrationalism of extreme pietism) alone is insufficient. Neither immanence nor transcendence can be isolated from the other without doing massive damage to the integrity of what is being claimed by the narrative of the Gospels. As Dodd argues,
“The older method of criticism, in its search for bare facts, set out to eliminate whatever in the Gospels might be attributed to the faith or experience of the Church. In doing so, it deliberately neglected in them just those elements which in the eyes of their authors made them worth writing. They did not write to gratify our curiosity about what happened, but to bear witness to the revelation of God. To do full justice to the intention of an author is a necessary step towards understanding his work.
Nevertheless, when all these contentions are admitted, they do not dispense us from the duty of asking, and if possible answering, the historical question. The Gospels are religious documents: granted. But they are Christian documents, and it belongs to the specific character of Christianity that it is an historical religion. Some religions can be indifferent to historical fact, and move entirely upon the plane of timeless truth. Christianity cannot. It rests upon the affirmation that a series of events happened, in which God revealed Himself in action, for the salvation of men. The Gospels profess to tell us what happened. They do not, it is true, set out to gratify a purely historical curiosity about past events, but they do set out to nurture faith upon the testimony to such events. It remains, therefore, a question of acute interest to the Christian theologian, whether their testimony is in fact true. No insistence upon the religious character of the Gospels, or the transcendent nature of the revelation which they contain, can make that question irrelevant.” (pp. 14-15)
Indeed, as Dodd rightfully marvels, “It is a remarkable fact that scarcely one of the Biblical writers is of the type of the pure mystic, rapt into another world and detached from temporal events.” (p. 30)
What, then, actually constitutes history, and how does one come to know it with confidence? And how do the claims of the Gospels hold up when exposed to the searing light of historical inquiry? To those questions we will turn next, guided again by Dodd’s expert analysis.