The Figure of Jesus Christ in Contemporary Christianity – Part 3

The Figure of Jesus Christ in Contemporary Christianity - Part 1

The Figure of Jesus Christ in Contemporary Christianity – Part 3

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By relating Christian teaching to the existential and cultural questions that arise in contemporary society, both Bultmann and Tillich were setting up a dialogue between Christianity and the secular world. But it was another German theologian, also one who had formerly been an ally of Barth, who advocated an affirmative attitude towards the phenomenon of secularization, claiming even that secularization is an implicate of the Christian revelation. This was Friedrich Gogarten (1887–1967). Like Bultmann, he wanted to address the ‘modern’ man or woman, and he embraced Bultmann’s demythologizing as a step towards doing this. But whereas it has been objected that Bultmann was too vague in what he understood by the ‘modern’ mentality, Gogarten is more careful in trying to analyze the changes which the Enlightenment brought to the European mind. One of his main points was that in the modern period history has taken the place of metaphysics as our frame of reference. According to Gogarten, this means that the world has become man’s own world, in the sense that he has now to shape the world rather than to adapt himself to its pre-established order. Thus, for Gogarten, secularization is historicization, the bringing of everything into the historical reality, the saeculum.

This understanding of history is quite different from the nineteenth-century quest for the historical Jesus. It is a question of reading the history of Jesus in such a way that it illuminates our own history and enables us to lay hold on its possibilities. Gogarten can declare that the word of Jesus is the word of

God and it is obvious that his position is very close to Bultmann’s. But in a book entitled Christ the Crisis (1970) Gogarten explores more fully than Bultmann had done the grounds for equating the word of Jesus with the word of God. Perhaps this involves him, whether he likes it or not, in metaphysics and objective history. At any rate, Gogarten claims that Jesus was the first member of the human race to break with the confusion between God and the world, and therefore to take full responsibility for the world.

The biblical authority cited for this is Paul’s teaching that the Christian has come of age (like the man of the Enlightenment!). Jesus brought the old world to an end with its oppressive powers and inaugurated the kingdom of God in which human beings are free to become co-workers with God (Gal. 4:1–9).So Jesus appears here as the pioneer of modern secularity. But an obvious problem for this view is that modern secularity seems to get along very well without either Jesus or Christianity. As Gogarten ruefully acknowledges, ‘The difference between modern historical thought and Jesus’ understanding of history is that virtually nothing remains of responsibility before God’(Gogarten 1970:157).The idea of a secular Christianity spread to the United States and, in a lesser degree, to England. Harvey Cox (1929–) took up Gogarten’s point that Jesus had freed human beings for a new responsibility towards the world and claimed that the rise of Western science and technology could be attributed to the influence of Christianity in ‘disenchanting’ or ‘desacralizing’ the world, so making it open to investigation. In his very widely read book, The Secular City (1965), Cox argued that secularization is so far from being the enemy of Christianity that it may be considered an implicate of the Gospel. However, it was just about that time that people were beginning to perceive the ambiguities of technology, and it seemed that the total desacralization of nature might be a serious danger.

A different form of secular Christianity was proposed in Paul van Buren’s The Secular Meaning of the Gospel (1963). The author of this book was a student of Barth and was also versed in analytic philosophy. Though he later modified his position, his secular interpretation of Christianity was meant to reduce it to history and ethics, so that his teaching could have a secure place within the limits of knowledge laid down by the positivist philosophy of the day. The best-known British writer on these topics was Ronald Gregor Smith(1913–68), especially in a book called simply Secular Christianity (1966). He was very critical of the American secularizers, both for their naive optimism and for their equally naive reductionism. His own view was close to Gogarten’s—that secularization is primarily historicization, but that this does not

Eliminate God, who is the transcendent reality which we meet within history, especially the history that has its centre in Jesus Christ.



By the 1960s, it became obvious that new ideas were stirring in theology. The great theologians who had dominated Protestant thinking for decades—Barth, Brunner, Bultmann, Gogarten, Tillich—were dying off or becoming inactive. The leadership passed to younger theologians, and among them an interest

In eschatology became apparent. It is true that since the beginning of the twentieth century, theologians had been aware that in the New Testament an expectation of the end of the present age played an important part, more important than the nineteenth-century liberals had allowed. But Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer, the two scholars who had done most to show the importance of eschatology for the New Testament, had been somewhat embarrassed by their own discovery that such a mythological idea played such a key role in the thought of primitive Christianity, and even of Jesus himself. Both Barth and Bultmann talked much about eschatology, but they both played down the futuristic aspects of the idea. Now some younger German theologians were bringing back eschatology and emphasizing its futuristic character. Instead of seeing it as a mistaken idea of the first Christians, they were claiming that it belongs to the essence of the Christian proclamation.

A leader in this new phase of German theology is Jürgen Moltmann (1926–). His first major writing was his Theology of Hope (1964), subtitled ‘On the Ground and the Implications of Christian Eschatology’. He was writing in conscious opposition to Bultmann, and denied that eschatology is merely a mythological trapping of first-century belief. Instead, Moltmann claims, eschatology in its full futuristic sense is at the very heart of Christianity. The theologians of the previous generation had made revelation central to their enterprise, but Moltmann believes that the central place belongs to promise. The whole Bible has a future reference and God is to be understood not so much as a present reality but rather as the power of the future or the power of resurrection. Moltmann can even speak of the present world as ‘godless’, but this is not to be understood in an atheistic sense, but in the sense that God is ‘not yet’—a phrase that comes from the neo-Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch. This philosopher visualized not only the human race but the whole universe as imbued with a striving towards the future—a quasi-mystical

Idea which brought him into conflict with orthodox Marxists, For Moltmann, therefore, the notion of resurrection is central, and by this he understands both the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the ultimate

Resurrection or renewal of the whole creation, So in opposition to all demythologizes, Moltmann declares: ‘Christianity stands or falls with the reality of the raising of Jesus from the dead by God’ (Moltmann 1964:165).The resurrection of Jesus he takes to be the promise or guarantee of the future resurrection. We may wonder whether Moltmann is not relapsing into a kind of remythologizing. He never succeeds in making clear just what he understands by resurrection. It is not myth, but it is not empirical fact either. On the other hand, we should note that the future resurrection is not conceived as only supernatural or otherworldly, but it is linked firmly by Moltmann with social and political action for the renewal of human society. He is among contemporary theologians, one of those most involved in the social applications of Christianity. We should note also that in later writings Moltmann sets alongside the resurrection the cross and the tragic elements in Christianity. This is the case especially in his notable book, The Crucified God (1974). Hereit is Christ in his suffering that is placed at the centre, and Moltmann argues persuasively for a form of pane theism in which the relation between Jesus Christ and the Father is so conceived that the Father too suffers at the cross. Another German theologian who has taken up the eschatological theme is Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928–). Like Moltmann, he is critical of Bultmannand, more generally, of what he calls ‘positivist’ history. In particular, he believes that the theologian must have a conception of history that allows room for resurrection and other eschatological ideas. In his words: One must be clear about the fact that when one discusses the truth of the apocalyptic

Expectation of a future judgment and a resurrection of the dead, one is dealing directly with the basis of the Christian faith. Why the man Jesus can be the ultimate revelation of God, why in him and only in him God is supposed to have appeared, remains incomprehensible apart from the horizon of the apocalyptic expectation.(Pannenberg 1964:82–3)The fact that Pannenberg lays this great stress on resurrection should not mislead us into supposing that he is making an appeal to the super natural. On the contrary, he adopts a rationalist (but not ‘positivist’) attitude to history, and believes that ‘resurrection’ is the most reasonable ‘explanation’ of the traditions concerning the end of Jesus’ career and the rise of Christianity.

Unlike Bultmann, Pannenberg does not think that the story of the empty tomb is merely a legend, but an independent tradition supportive of the appearance stories. So he can accept the resurrection as an event of history. Yet at the same time he insists very strongly on the full humanity of Christ. We must begin from the full acceptance of this humanity, and it is not breached even by the event of resurrection. Nevertheless, one must not be too hasty in attributing to Christ something ‘more’ than humanity. ‘All Christological considerations tend toward the idea of the incarnation; it can, however, only constitute the conclusion of Christology. If it is put instead at the beginning, all Christological concepts…are given a mythological tone’ (ibid: 279).

Can we arrive at a clearer idea of Pannenberg’s concept of history, which allows for resurrection though it is not, he claims, mythological? He advances two considerations in support of his view. One arises from the existentialist analysis of the human being. The human existent is constantly projecting itself into the future and this projecting goes beyond death. ‘It is inherent in man to hope beyond death’ (Pannenberg 1970a: 44). This may indicate that for the human individual something like an expectation of life beyond death belongs to his or her existential constitution. But Pannenberg has a more ambitious and more comprehensive argument. Dissatisfied with the positivist view of history as a series of episodes, he seeks to revive the idea of a philosophy of history, a unitary view of the historical process. It is God who gives unity to history and reveals himself in history. This is possible only if history moves towards an end. Such a view, Pannenberg claims, does not imply any supernaturalism. ‘Proper theological research into history must absorb the truth of the humanistic tendency toward an imminent understanding of events. It may not supplant detailed historical investigation by super naturalistic hypotheses’ (ibid: 79).

to be continued…

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