Hermeneutics and The Shape of the Future - Edited by Frank K. Flinn

The Historical Jesus and Divine Principle - Anthony J. Guerra


The present essay explores the possibilities for dialogue between the higher criticism of New Testament scholarship and Divine Principle. Is Divine Principle inherently antithetical or hopelessly irrelevant to higher criticism, or rather may it lend assistance on issues in which the scholarly enterprise has come to an impasse? I shall not conceal my optimism in this matter by confessing at the outset that I am of the latter opinion.

The topic of this essay, Divine Principle's reading of the New Testament, is very broad and complex. I decided that the best way to get a handle on the subject is to choose a pivotal problem of the critical investigation of the New Testament -- namely the historicity of Jesus. In the first section, I describe in bold strokes the major phases up to the present of the quest for the historical Jesus and the methodological impasses in which they have terminated. In the second section, I present briefly several concepts in Divine Principle which seem to guide its interpretation of reality, including scripture. In the third section, I examine a few features of Divine Principle's construction of the historical Jesus and suggest some methodological questions relevant to their elaboration and verification and begin to measure the assertions of Divine Principle against the results of higher criticism. Again, I must note that these are tentative proposals which I hope can provide a stimulus for a more thoroughgoing and comprehensive treatment of the subject.

The Quests for the Historical Jesus

The original quest for the historical Jesus was prompted by the Enlightenment reaction against dogmatic restrictions upon scientific and historical investigation.1 The nineteenth century optimism that the historical method could provide an access to the actualities of history further supported the idea that a reconstruction of the biography of Jesus was possible "by means of objective historical method."2 The acknowledgment of the inescapable relativity characterizing all historical reconstruction arising at the end of the last century and dominant in our own was to cast a persisting cloud of doubt over the advisability of the quest for the historical Jesus as originally envisioned. Moreover, a basic ideological objection levied at this first quest for the historical Jesus in the twentieth century questioned whether the object of the quest served only to falsify faith by providing assurance in knowledge rather than challenging the believer to a life of commitment. A positivistic construction of a historical Jesus would only serve to provide the believer with an idol rather than to confront him with the radical demand of Christ to live for the sake of God and neighbor.

In addition to the twentieth century changes in the notions of faith and history, there also came a fundamental reorientation of our understanding of the Gospels. The Gospels are now seen as primary sources for the history of the early church rather than for the history of Jesus.3 Karl Schmidt maintained that the order of events in the Gospels is not based upon a memory of the chronicle of events of Jesus' life, but rather is the result of the redactional work of the authors who arranged their material based on considerations other than chronology.4 Martin Dibelius and Rudolph Bultmann developed form criticism in order to identify the Sitz im Leben of the various units of tradition out of which the New Testament writings were composed. Much of the early enthusiasm for form criticism was generated by the hope that the earliest oral tradition (i.e., Jesus' discourse) could be determined by its rigorous application.

As the results of form criticism proved meager in determining with certainty the original tradition of Jesus -- for even authentic sayings of Jesus were seen to be placed within narrative contexts reflecting not Jesus' situation but the life situation of the church -- Bultmann expressed his skepticism concerning the possibility of knowing more than very little about the historical Jesus.5 Instead, Bultmann focused almost exclusively upon the kerygma of the church, despite his conviction that the continuity between Jesus and the kerygma could not be definitively asserted. Bultmann could hope, however, that the quality of self-existence which Jesus embodied and evoked from his disciples is preserved in the church's kerygma, and that this kerygma in turn evokes a qualitatively similar response from today's believer. Bultmann can be satisfied if there is a similarity in the functions between the sayings of Jesus and the kerygma of the Gospel in calling forth "authentic existence."

In subsequent years several of his own foremost students have come to object to the apparent limitations of Bultmann's approach. The division between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history seems to violate an essential aspect of the Christian perspective, namely the historical character of the Christian revelation, i.e., that God worked in and through Jesus of Nazareth. Simply put, God works in history through persons and not merely through proclamations; the deeds as well as the words of Jesus are of great significance. Ernst Fuchs, a Bultmannian, has written that it is Jesus' conduct which is "the real context of his preaching."6

James Robinson states that the possibility of a new quest for the historical Jesus after Bultmann rests on an acceptance of the contemporary notions of history and of the self.7 The focus of the concern must remain the intentionality and commitment of the historical Jesus rather than the chronology of his life. Areas of substantial disagreement emerge between Bultmann and his heirs, however. Bultmann had claimed that Jesus proclaimed the law, while Paul proclaimed the Gospel. The shift from the old to the new aeon is a decisive factor distinguishing the situation of Jesus and Paul: "Jesus looks into the future, toward the coming reign of God, although to be sure toward the reign now coming or dawning. But Paul looks back, the shift of the aeons has already taken place.... Paul regards as present what for Jesus was future, i.e., a presence which dawned in the past."8

Bornkamm differs with Bultmann and accentuates Jesus' present as the time of salvation. Bornkamm's presentation of Jesus' situation equals Bultmann's presentation of Paul's situation.9 Kasemann asserts that it is with John the Baptist that the shift of the aeons takes place and therefore both Jesus and the church have their existence in the new aeon.

Bultmann further distinguished Jesus and Paul by claiming that Jesus preaches law and promise whereas Paul preaches "the gospel in its relation to the law."10 Robinson parts company with Bultmann, and after a comparative analysis of the church's kerygma and Jesus' messages, concludes that the classical Protestant distinction between law and grace no longer seems to separate Jesus from the church's kerygma.11 Robinson argues that when one moves beyond a superficial level of comparison to the deeper level of meaning, the underlying similarity between the message of Jesus and the church's kerygma is apparent: "Thus the deeper meaning of Jesus' message is: in accepting one's death there is life for others; in suffering, there is glory; in submitting to judgment, one finds grace; in accepting one's finitude resides the only transcendence. It is this existential meaning latent in Jesus' message which is constitutive of his selfhood, expresses itself in his action, and is finally codified in the church's kerygma."12

Robinson attempted an ad oculos demonstration of his position by laying out in parallel fashion the authentic sayings of Jesus and the church's kerygma and exegetically arguing for their underlying similarity. Later in this paper we shall return to the methodological issues at stake in this discussion. At this point, I should like to remark that Robinson restricted his concern and the application of his methodology to the intentionality of Jesus and ignored the theological concerns for the shift in aeons and the relative positions of Paul and Jesus, which were debated by Bultmann, Kasemann, and Bornkamm.

Concepts in Divine Principle which Shape its Picture of Jesus:

Give-and-take Action, Subject and Object, Foundation to Receive the Messiah, Foundation of Faith, and Foundation of Substance.

At the outset, we should face squarely that the problem of verifying the claim of revelation is intellectually insoluble. As a first premise statement, insolubility cannot be rationally concluded but only asserted. It may be the case that believers are convinced and therefore "know" the truth of such claims. But this conviction and knowledge is "from the Holy Spirit and not from the human mind."13 Herein, we are concerned with the hermeneutical principles of Divine Principle's scriptural exegesis, rather than from such first order claims. More accurately, I discuss here the Divine Principle world view, or the general presuppositions from which are generated all its hermeneutical principles including those scriptural, historical, ethical, et al.

Give and take is said to be the fundamental action generating all forces for existence, multiplication, and action (Divine Principle p. 28). In Divine Principle, give-and-take action represents a value term as well as a descriptive term. Cooperative interaction is seen as a positive good because it reflects the image of God whose aspects are continually engaged in give-and-take action. The principle of reciprocity expresses the fundamentally interdependent status of all entities. The status of interacting entities is described most generally by the terms "subject" and "object." Subject and object mutually determine each other and for this reason Divine Principle states that there is no value distinction implied in these terms. Rather, value distinctions can be made only on the basis of the quality of the reciprocal relationships between a subject and object (Divine Principle pp. 461). The subject needs an object for its self-definition, and vice versa, the object requires a subject for its determination.

In a prelapsarian state, the principles of give and take, subject and object, and growth, operated both on the natural level via law and also within human society via the priority of love. Love implies relationships between subject and object. God-centered family love should characterize the quality of all human relationships. The three blessings spell out explicitly that each human being is responsible to love God. The postlapsarian state has created a disordering of human love (emotions) and thus of the individual's relationships to God and to other human beings. The purpose of God in his providential activity is to restore the lost love to his children.

The principle of restoration is simply a formula for the attempt to restore individual love relationship to God and neighbor. This can only be done to an inadequate, or limited degree, until the Messianic figure appears (Divine Principle pp. 221-22). On the other hand, the Messianic figure can only appear on the scene when some foundational unity and love has been accomplished. Thus the foundation to receive the Messiah equals a foundation of faith, which means the restoration of the individual's vertical relationship to God, combined with a foundation of substance, the restoration of the horizontal relationships between brother and brother, etc. (Divine Principle pp. 227-30). The spirit of God works continually to inspire the restoration of bonds of love.

Even from these preliminary remarks the approach that Divine Principle will take to the quest for the historical Jesus should be apparent. Jesus cannot be adequately or even most profitably comprehended as an individual in isolation, but rather in relationship to others. Therefore, Divine Principle speaks of Jesus in relationship to John the Baptist (Divine Principle pp. 153-62), Jesus and his twelve apostles, (Divine Principle p. 368) Jesus and the Jewish people (Divine Principle pp. 155-57), Jesus and the Roman Empire, Jesus and the Church, the resurrected Jesus and the believing apostles (Divine Principle pp. 361-62), Jesus and the Holy Spirit (Divine Principle pp. 214-16, 362). Jesus cannot be understood apart from his intentions and actions vis-à-vis others and their actions in response to him. I believe that Divine Principle has understood an essential implication of the creedal affirmation of Jesus as "truly man" when it consistently acknowledges his vulnerability to society. Jesus, as with any truly human being, is vulnerable to the response of others. He is determined partly by the others' response as well as determining others. (A view of the self-limiting God would also not preclude that divinity is also determined by the response of human beings, even if this determination is only possible by the willful acceptance of God. This notion is especially central to Divine Principle which acknowledges a suffering God.) In other words, man is a social being, and if Jesus is to participate fully in the lot of humanity, he must perforce share in the vulnerability to others which characterizes human existence.

Divine Principle Reconstruction of the Historical Jesus.

In Divine Principle there are two chapters which deal extensively with Jesus of Nazareth, namely chapter 4 of Part I, "Advent of the Messiah," and chapter 2 of Part II, "The Providence of Restoration Centering on Moses and Jesus." The advent of the Messiah is preceded by a rehearsal of the biblical history from Adam through Moses. That is to say, in the second part of Divine Principle Jesus is formally set in the framework of biblical personages who preceded and helped prepare his way. In particular, the courses of Jacob and Moses are understood as prefigurements of the very pattern of the life course which Jesus followed. In the chapter devoted to Jesus in Part I of Divine Principle, Jesus' work is evaluated in terms of the criteria established in the preceding chapters: specifically, an understanding of God's original purpose of creation, the nature of the human fall, and the final goal of God's providential activity.

In chapter 4 of Parr I there are two sections in which Jesus' work and life are considered: section I "The Providence of Salvation through the Cross," and section II, "The Second Advent of Elijah and John the Baptist." Formally defined, the second section is a history of religion's approach showing that the role of John the Baptist is to be understood in the context of the Jewish messianic expectations of the day, and in particular the role of Elijah in the popular Jewish eschatology. Furthermore, this section is also an explanation of the cause of Jesus' passion: "Here, we come to understand that the greatest factor leading to the crucifixion of Jesus was the failure of John the Baptist" (Divine Principle, pp. 162-63). The failure was not Jesus' failure.

Let us investigate recent historical-critical studies bearing on the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus. Bultmann and Raymond Brown agree that passages in the fourth gospel reflect the rivalry between the sects of Jesus and of John the Baptist (late first century).14 They recognize apologetic motifs in John 1:8-9 which states that Jesus, not John the Baptist, was the light; also John 1:30 which states that Jesus existed before John the Baptist and is greater than he; John 1:20 and 3:28 which stress that John the Baptist is not the Messiah; and John 10:41 which says that John the Baptist never worked any miracles. The question which confronts us from the perspective of biblical-critical methodology is whether a continuity can be assumed between the late first century polemical situation of the church and the early first century situation of Jesus and John the Baptist.

We can recognize here a case parallel to that discussed above of the relationship between the authentic sayings of Jesus and the kerygma of the church. Thus we may apply Robinson's methodology to the relationship between the authentic sayings of Jesus and of John the Baptist and the apologetically motivated biographical narrative passages of the evangelist. The issue is more complex than in the first case cited, as we must be concerned with trying to identify authentic sayings of John the Baptist as well as of Jesus. Nevertheless, we have set up the problematic in such a way as to make it amenable to solution by a methodology approved as effective in other instances.

Another line of argumentation may also be helpful in showing that Divine Principle's reading of the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus is fundamentally correct. We know with certainty that a Baptist sect refusing to acknowledge the lordship of Christ and very probably affirming the messiahship of John15 existed at the time of the writing of the fourth gospel. Some would argue indeed that this sect is the chief polemical target of the evangelist. If the founder of the Baptist sect had wholeheartedly and publicly proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah, it seems unlikely that his adherents would have explicitly rejected his admonitions to follow Jesus and acclaimed John the Messiah instead. Historical reasoning would lead us to conclude that John the Baptist must have been less than clear in advocating Jesus as the Messiah and that herein lies a significant cause for the later conflict between the sects of John and Jesus. It should be noted further that Bultmann believes that the witness of John the Baptist to Jesus as the Messiah is the work of a redactor and not very likely an authentic saying of John the Baptist.16

Leaving many important matters in Part I, chapter 4 of Divine Principle for another occasion, I will now turn to the construction of Jesus found in Part II, chapter 2. As we noted previously, a fundamental disagreement between such Ne w Testament scholars as Bultmann and Kasemann exists concerning whether John the Baptist or Jesus marks the end of the old age. In Part II, chapter 2, Divine Principle offers a schematization of the life of Jesus which bears directly on the problem of the change of aeons. For my purposes the nature of the parallels between the three courses of Jacob, Moses, and Jesus is not of primary concern, but rather my present interest is with the content and form of the courses of Jesus (see Divine Principle pp. 342-370).

In Divine Principle's reconstruction of Jesus' life, a first course is presented in which John the Baptist carries the burden of establishing the "Foundation to Receive the Messiah." Accordingly, John the Baptist must fulfill certain conditions: a life of sacrificial, saintly living (to establish his foundation of faith), and then assume leadership among the people (to establish the foundation of substance). John's conditions came to naught because of his failure to unite fully with Jesus. Thus a second restoration course had to be instituted in which Jesus substituted for John the Baptist and attempted to "make straight" his own way. Therefore, Jesus underwent a fasting period and confronted the three temptations (to lay a foundation of faith), and then he had to establish a foundation of substance -- i.e., the apostles and especially the leaders of the Jewish people were to accept his authority. These conditions would make the proclamation of Jesus' messianic role credible. The failure of the disciples and leaders to unite with Jesus resulted in the crucifixion as the only means for Jesus to make an offering to the Father in what now became his third restoration course. Once Jesus offered his own physical body on the cross -- in Divine Principle terminology, "the conditional object of faith" -- then a foundation of substance had to be established. This second foundation was successfully established when the apostles united in faith with the resurrected Jesus who appeared to them.

From the perspective of the scholarly debate on the changing of the aeons, this delineation of the life of Jesus is very helpful. Divine Principle seems to say that John the Baptist was supposed to close the old age by providing a foundation on which Jesus could be received as Messiah. The failure of John in this mission necessitated Jesus' adoption of the role of precursor and thus Jesus appears in an Old Testament role. A further nuance in the Divine Principle understanding of the mission of Jesus rests in the fact that Jesus could have realized the eschaton and obviated the need for a second coming of the Messiah if the response of individuals to him had been faithful. Instead Jesus wrought only the first turn of the cosmic wheel (an "already/not-yet" eschatology) by means of his death and resurrection. It is only the postmortem Jesus who closed the old age and opened the new.

The new life made available in Jesus Christ can be appropriated only when the connection is made between the resurrected Jesus and the earthly apostles. The historical reality of the fruits of Christ remained dependent on the willing, positive response of historical individuals. "Restoration must be accomplished on earth." Because of the impossibility of establishing the foundation to receive the Messiah on the earth while Jesus still had his historical physical existence, then the third course was only spiritual.

The transition in interpretation from the text to the event itself which is spoken about in the text raises with new vigor the question of historicity. Although we cannot know with absolute certainty many of Jesus' precise sayings, teachings, and even his deeds, nevertheless we can assert confidently that he did exist as an historical entity. At the most fundamental level the transition from interpretation of text to the interpretation of event itself is fully justified. Divine Principle offers also a realist-spiritualist perspective of the parousia as that moment when a historical individual cooperates with the spirit person Jesus, and together they fulfill the expectations for a kingdom of God on earth. Thus the relational hermeneutic by which, as we have seen, Divine Principle interprets the historical Jesus is applied also across time, so as to encompass the living spirit Jesus' relationships with other historical personages including the eschatological Lord.


1 Joachim Jeremias, "Der gegenwartige Stand der Debatte um das Problem des historischen Jesus," in VCissenscbaftliche Zeitschrift: Gesellschafts-und Sprachwissenschaftliche Reihe, 6, No. 3 (1956-57), I65f.

2 James Robinson, A New Quest of the Historical Jesus (Naperville, Illinois: Allenson, 1959), p. 29.

3 The position dates from Julius Wellhausen, Einleitung in die drei ersten Evangelien (Berlin: Reimer, 1905).

4 Karl Ludwig Schmidt, Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesus (Berlin: Trowirzch, 1919).

5 An often used methodological principle to validate an authentic saying of Jesus is to deter mine that the saying is distinctive from both Jewish apocalypticism and early church theology. This negative criteria obviously grants the status of an authentic saying very sparingly.

6 See Ernst Fuchs, "Die Frage nach dem historischen Jesus," Zeitschrift fur Theologie i/nd Kirche, 53 (1956), 210-29.

7 Robinson, pp. 70-71.

8 Rudolf Bultmann, Glauben und Versteheti (Tubingen: Mohr, 1933), I, 200f.

9 See Robinson, p. 116.

10 Bultmann, p. 201.

11 Robinson, p. 116.

l2 Robinson, p. 123.

13 I must thank Don Deffner for calling my attention to this quotation.

14 See Raymond E. Brown, ed. and trans., Gospel According to John (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1966), I, Ixviii-lxix; and Rudolf Bultmann, Gospel of John, trans. G. R. Beasley-Murray (Philadelphia: Westminster; 1971), pp. 88, 167.

15 Raymond E. Brown says that we can definitely know that the Baptise sect in the second century thought that John is the Messiah. But this very cautious scholar says it is less certain in regard to the first century. See his Gospel of John, Introduction.

16 The Baptist who bears witness to Jesus is a figure from the Christian interpretation of history." Bultmann, p. 167 

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