Review of Who Is Jesus? Disputed Questions and Answers by Carl E. Braaten (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011).
I have had the experience more than once before of spending most of my time reading a book being utterly perplexed as to what it was supposed to be about, not because of any unclarity on the part of the writer but because of the title. Perhaps this is a marketing department issue more than anything else.
In any event, such was my experience in working my way through this latest offering of Carl Braaten. At the end, my hunch was confirmed by the author himself: literally at the end, on the last page of the book, where I’d encourage you to start if you read this one yourself. There he writes: “This little book is a kind of apologetic for ordinary Christian lay folks who have not had the luxury of a formal theological education. Every chapter ends with ‘questions for discussion,’ to help the teacher focus on the main points. My hope is that pastors will take the time to teach their people the church’s understanding of Jesus’ identity and meaning” (142). His treatment doesn’t intend to be exhaustive; in fact—after the issues he talks about here are addressed—he suggests that adult study groups solicit further questions from participants that they could attempt to answer themselves and then bind the answers together in a supplemental volume to go with this one. I have rarely seen a theologian show such confidence in the ability of the laity to tackle theological questions of such import: it speaks well of Braaten.
Back to the question of what this book is not about. It is not a deconstruction of deconstructive Jesus Seminar constructs of Jesus, though the Jesus Seminar and associated “intellectual” movements come in for passing criticism. But it is also not a plug for a “better” historical Jesus movement—better in this case meaning doctrine- and church-friendly. Though Braaten appreciates the efforts of N. T. Wright and others to dispute the spurious historiographic assumptions of the doctrine-haters, he doesn’t think their approach can ultimately give the answer that people are looking for. Any historical apologetic for Jesus can be ad hoc at best. But, as Braaten rightly points out, the whole point of any field of inquiry is that its results shift and change constantly and are endlessly subject to re-evaluation, and so to build faith on them is to be like the foolish man who built his house on sand. Today’s conclusive rebuttal is tomorrow’s embarrassment. If that applies to the doctrine-haters, then it must logically apply to the doctrine-lovers as well.
Thus Braaten’s work here is a restatement of the faith of the church through the doctrines of the church. He doesn’t attempt to prove: instead, he attempts to explain, describe, and apply. The underlying principle is not to make the testimony about Jesus rock-solid and indisputable but only plausible. At this I felt a bit of discomfort. How much history about Jesus is enough to render the rest plausible? It might be absurd for the Jesus Seminar to vote on each red-letter statement of the New Testament to determine its authenticity. But surely we need at least enough historical certainty to say that there was such a man as Jesus, who did conduct a ministry in Galilee and Jerusalem, who did actually die on a cross. I agree with Braaten that the likelihood of these things having happened, based on the documentary evidence we have, is very high. But it still means that historical veracity is an essential component in the faith mix—so I was told to value that otherwise depressing line “crucified under Pontius Pilate” in the Creed because it is the historical anchor of a faith that crosses all boundaries of time and space. So how much history is enough? The question is left unanswered and, to be fair, Braaten was not trying to answer it. But it remains and impinges on the faith questions of people today all the same.
What this book really is, is a primer on christology for the laity. (If only it had been titled that!) After the first chapter raising and then dismissing the Jesus Seminar challenges, Braaten considers how we come to faith in Jesus, whether Jesus rose from the dead (but again, not trying to “prove” it, in the vein of N. T. Wright), why Christians testify that Jesus is truly God, how Jesus relates to other religions and their believers (a section entirely too short, in my view), why Jesus had to die on the cross, whether Jesus “founded” the church, and what faith in Jesus might have to do with politics. There is not much new here for those who have been through a theological education, but it is an excellent presentation of basic Christian doctrine on the Second Article and thus very fitting for its intended audience of laypeople in a church setting. And there are little gems of Braaten’s own observation studded in it. I particularly appreciated his own take on the atonement in the subsection “Christ Our Representative.”
One last observation. Whatever C. S. Lewis may have liked to believe, there really is no such thing as “mere Christianity.” (Lewis was describing “sensible Anglicanism” under this rubric.) Since the disruption of the unity of the church at the Council of Chalcedon when the Miaphysites were misconstrued and the dreadful Tome of Leo was allowed to stand alongside Cyril’s far superior christology, every Christian has been a Christian-plus, and of course that has only been exacerbated with the passing of time and further schisms. The “Christian-plus” phenomenon is at work in this volume too because Braaten, with good reason, can’t simply describe christology plain and simple. There are real choices and divergences even within the so-called “Great Tradition,” and as the questions arise Braaten is forced to choose among them. Inevitably, his choice is the Lutheran one, though he makes a point of being generous to other Christian options. As far as content goes, I certainly am inclined to agree, but the awkward reality of the divided church is written right into the fabric of this book. It will make good reading for the adults in your Lutheran parish, but I suspect that if non-Lutheran Christians pick it up, they might be startled to find the confessional sympathies so plain in what appears—from its misleading title—to be a plain and simple treatment of Jesus for everybody.
Posted by Pastor Spomer at February 26, 2012 05:13 “So how much history is enough?”
The historicity of Jesus Christ serves more than an epistemological or apologetic purpose. I reveals the Gospel in world history, of which it is a part, and in our lives, and in the future of humanity. Remember Pannenberg’s treatment of Christ as the End of History and the key to its evaluation. It’s not so much a matter of enough history. It’s that history is its natural place, as oppose to say, myth or mathematics.
Thanks for the article Rev. Wilson
Posted by Stuart Smith at March 11, 2012 00:28 Does the book include any references to Luke Timothy Johnson? From your review, it looks like Braaten is taking Johnson’s line as given in his book “The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels”.
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