Catholicizing the Historical Jesus: A Review

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This is the second article in our weekly series on Christology. The following is a review of William Loewe’s From the Humanity of Christ to the Historical Jesus The first article can be found here.

By Will Deatherage, Executive Director

In his essay From the Humanity of Christ to the Historical Jesus, William Loewe describes how Catholic theologians argued for the relevance of historical Jesus studies to Catholicism and responded to scholars who weaponized such studies against the Church. One major catalyst for this third wave of historical Jesus scholarship was the Jesus Seminar, in which a group of scholars voted on which Gospel passages could be attributed to the historical Jesus. This series of seminars sought to strip Christianity of its dogmatic theology and use the authentic sayings of Jesus as the religion’s new foundation. Perhaps predictably, these scholars not only concluded that Catholic doctrine was incompatible with the historical Jesus, but that the real Jesus could not be found in scripture at all. Among Catholic theologians to react against the Jesus Seminar were David Tracy and Elizabeth Johnson. The former rebutted its attempt to undermine dogmatics by asserting that the foundations of Christianity are the Apostolic witness to Jesus Christ, rather than the literal words of Christ, Himself. Thus, Tracy argued that historical Jesus studies were not very relevant to theology. While Johnson agreed with Tracy’s focus on Apostolic witness, she argued that certain attributes of the Apostolic Jesus, such as His existence, were contingent on a historical Jesus, while touting the benefits of historical Jesus studies on gaining a better understanding of Jesus’s human nature. Finally, she urged caution when using “historical Jesus” as a fixed concept, since there are several competing sources portraying Jesus’s life, and their interpreters will inevitably find a Jesus who conforms to their own biases.

After being rattled by the first two waves of historical Jesus studies, the first driven by Enlightenment secularists and the second by Protestants, Catholicism needed to defend its Christological foundations. Johnson and Tracy were crucial in equipping theologians to better argue for aspects of Christ’s nature, such as His existence and divinity, that once relied on assumptions. They also renewed attention to Christ’s human nature, which had been obfuscated by crypto-monophysitism, the tendency to focus exclusively on His divinity. Additionally, Johnson’s observation regarding the impossibility of an objective historical Jesus helped to expose the anti-dogmatic biases that the preceding quests had. Both theologians not only defended the integrity of Christology, but they, especially Johnson, helped to Catholicize historical Jesus studies. 

Throughout most of my life, I was exposed to two extreme opinions regarding the historical Jesus: one insisted that the historical Jesus is not worth investigating, and the other claimed that the historical Jesus was fundamentally different from the Jesus that Catholics worship. Even today, I often hear my conservative peers deem historical Jesus studies as fruitless because they originated from anti-Catholic sources. To these critics, I respond that the efforts of Johnson and Tracy are excellent examples of the Augustinian mission to despoil the Egyptians by interpreting the findings of secularists and Protestants in a Catholic light. Historical Jesus studies help Christology appreciate Christ’s human nature and equip Catholics to respond to the fundamental questions people from other religions or cultures might have about Jesus. Thus, the historical Jesus is an invaluable asset to Christology when it is used as a tool, rather than a foundation, for learning more about Jesus.

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