Historical Jesus

Book Review: Who is Jesus?

Who Is Jesus

Who Is Jesus

From the Editors: This review will be showing up in a future edition of LOGIA. Who is Jesus? Disputed Questions and Answers. By Carl E. Braaten. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011. Paper; 147 pages.

Carl Braaten has written a little handbook of the faith for laymen without a formal theological education. Only in the book’s conclusion does he show his hand: he has used the scholastic method of quaestiones disputatae to get at some fundamental points of Christian belief. He says what various people are saying about some controverted issue, such as the historical Jesus or the connection between Jesus and the church, and then gives an answer, always lively and plainspoken. The chapter titles themselves are simple and understandable and match various classical loci: prolegomena and the means of grace; Christology; missiology; ecclesiology; and the two governments.

Braaten’s pithy, lucid words are the reader’s well-aged wine. It is everywhere evident that the writer has been turning these things over in his mind for a very long time. So when they come out, they come out full of flavor and body. Savor this from Braaten’s discussion of the Jesus Seminar: “The Jesus of the ‘Jesus Seminar’ is a dead Palestinian Jew who was unlucky enough to get nabbed and nailed to a cross, due to a colossal misunderstanding—just a bad mix-up at city hall.” From his examination of the quest for the historical Jesus to his discussions of interreligious dialogue and ecclesiastical politicking, Braaten is always keen to find where the crucified God has been removed from the equation. Jesus Seminar doyen Robert Funk claimed that Jesus had not even been crucified, let alone God. His body was likely consumed by scavenging dogs. The Jesus resulting from the Seminar’s research decisions is for Braaten “not worth the bother.”

The book is more than an assortment of linguistic goodies. It also provides substantive, critical coverage for the lay reader—or theological student or under-informed pastor—of the critical quest for Jesus and its ultimate futility. Braaten does not find in the historical quests much of actual use for Christian proclamation, since certainty is needed for faith. He finds the canonical Scriptures much more useful and defends them over against gnostic gospels or other ancient Jesus literature by pointing out that the Holy Spirit has used the canonical Scriptures to create and sustain faith, not any of the other gospels long ago written and recently discovered. “A plain reading of Scripture mediates a living impression of ‘the whole Christ of the whole Bible’ without any need to appeal to dogmatic or historical authorities. An essential dependence of faith upon the results of historical research would force faith to rely on the erudition of learned professors.” Braaten avers he doesn’t want to turn back the clock on historical criticism, but in his rejection of scholarly certainty and his embrace of the Spirit’s certainty from a “plain reading,” the sensus literalis peeks out from the pre-critical age.

The loci covered in the book will therefore shock no one because Braaten aims here only to line up his answer to “Who is Jesus?” with the answers he has received from Christian tradition. His applications of that orthodox tradition to contemporary universalism and historical-critical biblical research are particularly interesting, since he sees in both trends the same deep desire to separate Jesus from God. This began with the nineteenth-century exchange of the religion about Jesus for the religion of Jesus, as in von Harnack’s What Is Christianity?, and continues in the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature, whose meetings Braaten regularly attends, “Lots of highfalutin talk goes on about the glorious God of the universe, but embarrassment prevails when it comes to speaking about Jesus, the humiliated God on the cross.” If Christology can be lowered or even altogether abolished, the theology of glory can annex the Lebensraum it demands in the human heart.

The book’s brevity induces some unfortunate historical-theological judgments of the type any pastor is liable to make offhandedly in Bible class. Contra Braaten, the Pastoral Epistles can scarcely be self-evident validation of the threefold form of ministry; the New Testament contains no particular “church order” as he claims. We are certain of a New Testament gospel ministry but less certain of the forms it took in Antioch, Jerusalem, Corinth, and elsewhere, as titles shift and differ, not to speak of enumerated tasks for the various offices. Lutheranism’s continued rejection of the ancient church order long after the Reformation ended is not an historical mistake or inconsistency, making “a virtue out of a necessity” by forever abandoning a threefold ministry. It was Lutheranism’s recognition and confession of only one ministry of the gospel (AC V), unadulterated by dubious historical researches. In his insistence on a particular church order, Braaten reprises the historical dubiousness and passionate assertion of the Jesus questers he elsewhere derides.

The glib equation of the orthodox Protestant doctrine of verbal inspiration with papal infallibility, which Braaten makes at least once, ignores his own discussion of the epistemology of Christian faith. If every Christian has been given the faith he has by the Spirit working through the Word, verbal inspiration is the confession of faith that has learned to trust the Holy Spirit who calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies—the catechetical framework Braaten himself uses to explain conversion. Confession of verbal inspiration is the upwelling of faith in the converted heart, not a rigid, psychologically, and scientifically precarious adherence to preexistent authority. Verbum domini manet in aeternum at the very least means we can trust God’s word, since it endures when all else fails. The doctrine of verbal inspiration is just the application of the Spirit’s own essential trustworthiness to all the words he speaks.

We do not throw away a perfectly good hammer for a few chips in the handle. Braaten’s highly commendable intent in writing the book is for the lay reader to grasp better these basics things of the faith and for pastors to teach faithfully the church’s understanding of Jesus’ identity, purpose, and meaning. Classic Christology, especially the crucified God-man, is at the book’s center. As in anything, a little ability to test the spirits goes a long way, but with that testing, the reader will be richly rewarded by almost all Braaten has to say. In this little book a master is speaking simply and clearly, so we would do well to sit awhile and listen.

Vicar Adam Koontz

St. John Lutheran Church

Sayville, New York