The theme of this conference is “Do we need Jesus?” That is not a question that I can recall ever having been asked during the 20th century, though it very well might have been. Earlier than the 20th century the question was almost unthinkable and could well have been regarded as too blasphemous to utter. In Christendom, from about the fourth century onwards, it seemed to be self-evident within the expanding Christian community that all humans were in need of the salvation brought to us by Jesus. He was praised and worshipped as the Saviour of the human race.
And even today, in more traditional Christian circles, people sing lustily,
I need thee, Oh I need thee.
Every hour I need thee.
Oh bless me now, my Saviour,
I come to thee.
What lies behind this passionate expression of need? It is simply the once widely held conviction that we are all born sinful and can do no good at all except by the grace of God. Further, because of our sinful rebellion against God we are doomed to the fires of eternal punishment unless we take advantage of the saving grace of God offered to us in Jesus Christ his Son. Jesus died on the cross to deliver us from the divine punishment that our sinfulness so thoroughly warrants. We need Jesus as our Saviour.
Alas! many of the hymns being sung on Praise Be on TV1 on Sunday morning still affirm this.
It all goes back to the doctrine of sin, the foundation stone of the Christian dogmatic system. My own theological teacher, John Dickie, regarded by conservatives in his day as a dangerous liberal, wrote in 1930 on the first page of his magnum opus (our text-book), “If there is no alienation between God and man, man has no need of a Saviour and historical Christianity is a mere illusion?.”
Even when I was a young theological student we were often warned that, on being approached by elders seeking a new minister, they would want to be assured that we were “sound on sin?. This also is why Billy Graham always spent the first two nights of his mission weeks convincing people what a lot of miserable sinners they were, so that he could then follow it up by saying, “I have the very message that you need – It’s Jesus Christ, the Saviour”.
Yet already when I was a theological student we liberals shied away from people who asked “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour??. What was it that happened that caused us to question that particular need of Jesus that was for so long dominant in Christian orthodoxy? The answer to that is long and complex. Let me sketch it simply.
It goes back to the Renaissance, whose leading thinkers became known as the humanists. Humanism is a word that is used today in a great variety of contexts and has come to mean somewhat different things. I remember being puzzled by it as a student. So let me give a philosophical definition.
Humanism is any philosophy which recognizes the value or dignity of the human condition, makes mankind itself the measure of all things and takes human nature, with its limits and interests, as its theme.
This positive and creative potential in the human condition had long been denied by Christian orthodoxy, which emphasized ad nauseam the sinful condition of the human species. The Renaissance scholars, perhaps to their surprise, discovered this human potential in the Greek and Latin classics of pre-Christian times; thereafter the study of these classics simply became known in the universities as “The Humanities”.
The Renaissance humanists began to ask – How is it that the great thinkers and writers of pre-Christian Greece and Rome could be so creative? The humanists were not anti-religious and certainly not atheistic, yet they were beginning to undermine the most basic doctrine of Christian dogma – the doctrine of sin. Not surprisingly, therefore, the humanists were condemned by church authority. The great scholar Erasmus is a case in point.
Yet the long-term influence of the Renaissance humanists continued and can hardly be overestimated. They provided the conditions that were to lead to the birth of modern empirical science. They also indirectly initiated the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation in turn led to the Enlightenment.
Whereas the Protestant Reformers challenged the Church hierarchy by appeal to the Bible as the Word of God, the leading thinkers of the enlightenment challenged Christian orthodoxy by appeal to human reason. This was when humanism began to triumph.
As a result the Bible itself became subjected to human critical reasoning. Reimarus (1694-1768) produced the first critical study of the Gospels. When the first fragments of this were published after his death, they caused such a sensation that further publication was forbidden. In 1835 David Strauss published his famous “Life of Jesus?, said by the scholarly Bishop Stephen Neill, to be a turning point in the history of Christianity.
From that time onwards it has become necessary to distinguish ever more sharply between the Jesus Christ expounded in Christian orthodoxy (now often referred to as the Christ of Faith) and the historical figure who lies hidden behind him (often called the Jesus of history). Although the Christian dogmatic system did not change all that much, the focal point began to change in some of the new hymns being written. Less and less was Jesus seen as the Saviour hanging on the cross and more and more as the great hero who was leading his army of Christian soldiers into a new kind of world in the here and now. The humanity of Jesus was coming to be emphasized more than his divinity.
The nineteenth century saw a vigorous search for a reliable account of the historical Jesus until Albert Schweitzer in his epoch making book of 1906 showed how fruitless it was.
Indeed Rudolph Bultmann, arguably the greatest New Testament scholar of the 20th century, concluded that we know practically nothing for certain about Jesus except that he was crucified. Yet he believed that does not really matter. What remained important for Bultmann was what he called the kerygma, the preached or proclaimed message about Jesus. Yet he conceded that even that had to be demythologised, by which he meant reinterpreted into today’s cultural “non-mythological” or “non-supernatural? context.”
Then came the Jesus Seminar. In the latter part of the 20th century this community of scholars, using modern historical methods, meticulously examined all the ancient records – biblical and non-biblical – and produced two important works: The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? And The Acts of Jesus: What Did Jesus Really Do?
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