Kenneth Cauthen

This essay in a revised form appears as Chapter Six in my Toward a New Modernism (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1997), 109-133. Copyright © 1997 by University Press of America. All rights reserved. Permission to reproduce this essay must be sought from UPA, 4720 Boston Way, Lanham, Maryland 20706. 
Everyone who has thought about it must surely be struck with how Jesus is remade in every theology to fit the image that particular outlook requires. I mean to imply more than that there is a correspondence between the description of Jesus viewed as the Christ and the rest of that particular theology. In any good perspective, this concord will, of course, obtain. I want further to insist that the interpreter gives the final shape both to the theology as a whole and to the person and work of Christ within that framework. The Christ Christians believe in is constructed by them (or by the tradition they uphold), but the assumption generally is that the real Jesus of Nazareth corresponds to that particular description. Put otherwise, the underlying premise is that one examines the normative sources and perhaps the experience of Christians in order to discover the person and the nature of Jesus as Christ. The inter preting subject (the believer) comes to know the object (Christ) while functioning as a transparent medium through which the reality is captured in appropriate concepts. The resulting portrait is assumed to be descriptive of the reality as it is in itself. Certainly this was the way the formulators of the classical creeds saw their task. The Reformers viewed themselves as continuing the objectivist tradition of Chalcedon, and so did the theologians of protestant orthodoxy. The search for the historical Jesus in the 19th century was an attempt by critical historical study to discover the actual person behind the creeds and the Christologies. The historian replaced the metaphysician as the author of the real truth about the central figure of the faith.

In the 20th century theologians seriously infected with the corrosive acids of relativity and pluralism have been more circumspect about their claims regarding the correspondence between the Jesus Christ of their theologies and the biblical Christ who lived long ago. Yet if one picks up a theological text, the impression one gets is that the authors are not just articulating their own vision of Jesus as Christ but are describing a reality objective to them who was in fact much like the picture they have painted of him. When pressed, of course, the authors may give their own disquisition on historical relativism, opt for plural ism, and settle for modest claims regarding the correspondence between their Christology and the Christ of history. The end result, however, is not to abandon the connection between the depicted Christ and the real one who taught beside the Sea but only to qualify it variously. One is generally left with the suggestion that the author is pretty sure it is the factual Jesus who is the final sanction for the beliefs and values espoused as authoritative for today.


I want to propose a thesis that bypasses these questions. Christians, or the traditions in which they stand, are the authors of their Christologies and the main correspondence is with the theological systems in which they appear and with the overall belief systems of the various authors. Every portrait of Christ is relative to the cultural context of the theologians who paint them. Each one reflects a view of reality as a whole along with an understanding of what humans beings need to achieve the ideal life. The Jesus depicted in these multitudinous Christologies undoubtedly has some connection with the facts of history, including the message, ministry, and intentions of the man himself. The connection, however, cannot be precisely known with certainty.

The problem is that we cannot compare our Christologies with the real Christ to discern where they do and do not accurately portray the past in adequate language. We cannot make that comparison because every Christ available to us is already an inter pretation of the reality we wish to encounter and not merely the reality itself. Each of the Gospels presents its own particular slant on Jesus. The Jesus who spoke as he is represented as doing in John did not likely speak as he is said to in the other three. The best we can do is to use these original portraits to measure our own, but this opens a very wide door. Before we can proceed, we have to adopt a procedure for studying and interpreting these particular historical documents. Finally, when we ask what Christ requires of us today, the role of the contemporary interpreter becomes even more prominent, even decisive.

The implications of this way of understanding Christologies lead me to a form of pragmatism in which the terms of the argument are thoroughly recast. The definitive question ceases to be whether the Christ of our Christologies corresponds with the Christ of history. The compelling issue is whether one has dealt with the historical materials as responsibly as possible to con struct a model of Jesus as the Christ that (1) has salvific functions within a framework shaped by that Christian's or that tradi tion's belief system and (2) is congruent with it as a whole. The final test, then, is whether the resulting picture of the Christ present in Jesus is harmonious with the rest of one's beliefs and whether it functions to promote the highest ends of life for oneself and others, specifically unity with God and neighbor. Conflicting Christologies will still confront one another in abundance. However, we would evaluate them not by their correspondence with the past but by their power to promote the best possible life here and now. That judgment is made in light of the best that we know up to know from all sources about everything relevant to the issues at hand. The consequence is that we speak of Jesus the Christ as he is known by us in our lives and in our theologies without making any definitive claims about the identity of our Jesus with the actual Jesus of the past. The Jesus known to us as the normative Christ doubtless has connections, even points of identity, with the Jesus of history.

However, since we cannot sort out the truth and the falsity of the various components of our picture of the historical Jesus Christ, we cannot make the historical truthfulness of our portraits the necessary underpinning of our own normative beliefs about the means and ends of the ideal life. Did Jesus hold an apocalyptic view of the full manifestation of the Realm of God? I dare not rely on the findings of the historians for anything essential to present faith since the next generation of scholars now writing dissertations in Cambridge, Claremont, Heidelberg, or somewhere will surely undermine the edifice I have constructed. Beliefs about reality and morality must justify themselves here and now as critically interpreted by reason in light of what we cannot help but believe about the world, its creative Source, and its possibilities for affording the good life for the citizens of planet earth.


With this general survey of the territory I wish to explore in mind, let me proceed more systematically. Who can ever forget those words of George Tyrell about the picture of Jesus that Adolf Harnack set before us as the genuine article. Harnack, said Tyrell, looked deeply into the well of history to see what was on the bottom. When the water got still and the features of Jesus became visible, he saw "only the reflection of a liberal Protestant face." We laugh at poor Harnack who made Jesus over in his own image, who saw his own visage at the bottom of the well. Our glee should make us nervous. Alas, what holds for Adolf Harnack pertains to us all!

The Marxist Jesus is a social radical calling the masses of the oppressed to revolution. In a book that claims to offer "a discovery of the real Jesus," Bruce Barton insists that Jesus had a business man's mentality. For feminists, Jesus held equalitarian ideals free from any bias of gender. For liberation theology, he is a here and now liberator of the socially oppressed. For the Baptists I grew up with, Jesus bore the wrath of God on the cross so we could be forgiven and go to heaven. For slave holders Jesus told approving stories about slave owners and thus implicitly sanctioned slavery (Matthew 25:14ff NRSV). The Ku Klux Klan uses a burning cross as its symbol. We could make this list as long as we wanted. Christians have countenanced nearly every evil and supported just about every good (by somebody's assessment) cause history has produced. In every case Jesus is thought to be the objective source and sanction of their doctrines and practices.

What biblical scholars in succeeding generations affirm Jesus to have taught about the Realm of God neatly coincides with the requirements of theological movements that rise and fall. Compare Adolf Harnack and Rudolf Bultmann. The former's idealistic teacher contrasts neatly with the latter's existentialist preacher. The immanent God of the 19th century liberals and the transcendent God of the 20th century neo-orthodox took turns being the real, the only, God that Jesus knew. It seems Jesus can be whoever and what ever we want and need him to be. Will the real Jesus please stand up!

When I was in seminary in the 1950's, we knew that the old search for the Jesus of history was bankrupt. The synoptic Gospels are not biographies, the reasoning went, but theological por traits. We had always known this was true of the Gospel of John. Now it seemed Mark, Matthew, and Luke were theologians too, set ting forth the meaning of Jesus for their faith. They, of course, had slightly different theologies, so their pictures of Jesus corresponded as required. The rejection of "The Quest" was soon followed by a "New Quest." Whatever the consensus may be at the moment, if there is one, in the leading centers of inquiry, it will be followed by new proposals that will have their fifteen minutes of scholarly fame.

The project of "The Jesus Seminar," conducted by Robert W. Funk and other high-profile scholars, was to give us a judgment on which of the reported words in the Gospels were actually uttered by Jesus. Does anybody seriously think this can be done in a way that will justify enough confidence in the results to do anything important with them? One may, of course, use the conclusions for practical purposes, but surely one must do so with great tentativeness, since next year's investigations may lead to conflict ing conclusions. The Seminar scholars certainly did not -- could not -- settle the issue once and for all. Is it important for theology and faith to get answers to Seminar questions? Or are these efforts worthwhile only to record history as correctly as we can, even though our results cannot be held with certainty? If the latter, I certainly would not quarrel with the aspiration. Many will doubt both the wisdom and the efficacy of the enterprise. Others will criticize the methods and assumptions employed, while also refuting the conclusions of the investigators. That the results can be helpful to me as a contemporary person in quest of help with living, I doubt. An exception to this judgment would occur, of course, if historical investigation into what Jesus said or did unearthed novel insights hitherto undiscovered that illuminated the nature of human existence and its ideal possibilities. But it would be the convincing insight that was useful not the fact that it originated with Jesus. It is the value of the words for faith that matters, not whether Jesus did or did not say them.

Yet while many will recognize that in every theology Jesus is pictured as being exactly what he needs to be to constitute the authoritative basis for that particular perspective, few seem to draw from that fact the conclusions that I now find compelling. The problem, of course, is that these theological outlooks, each with a portrait of Jesus favorable to itself, contradict each other to one degree or another, approaching total mutual annihilation at the extremes. This plain fact does not seem to produce the trepidation in others that it arouses in me. One outlook may be in fact true and the others false, but which one, and in what sense is it true? Any attempt to unravel these issues will hurl us headlong into the briar patch of epistemological inquiry, long the burying ground of profitable discourse. Nevertheless, the mission demands a brief rehearsal of options.


We can distinguish between two polar extremes. I will propose a third way, but one that is not found as a point on the continuum between the opposite poles. I should acknowledge that I am not alone in affirming the third option.


At one extreme are the realists, who assert that we can have reliable knowledge of the objectively real. Two versions of this perspective are current.

(1)The Absolutists

This view holds that there is a truth about the Jesus of history and the person of the divine Christ, and they are in full, total, and exclusive possession of it. Adherents to this rendering of things can with confidence pronounce views that deviate from their own as purely and simply wrong. They know that they have come to a knowledge of the real, the one and only Jesus. Readers may fill in this category with their favorite representatives of dogmatic fervor.

(2) Critical Realists

More modest are the critical realists, who have been contaminated with various degrees of historical relativism. Since I am a former or recovering adherent, let me describe my version. Reality is "out there," and truth faithful to its features can partially and perhaps even progressively be attained. At least our depictions of matters historical and ontological can be held with enough confidence for us to proceed practically to work out the implications for belief and behavior. Critical realists constitute a broad spectrum, varying among themselves in part on how far away they are from the absolutists as determined by how fully and in what form they embrace relativism. Generally, they speak of a Jesus who is real to them and are sure that their theological version of him is valid, but not exclusively so. They are tolerant pluralists who must admit into the household of faith a variety of Christologies (though doubtless ruling out the most abhorrent as plainly spurious), even though it is impossible to reconcile them all.

It is not easy to make a neat classification of contemporary theologians with respect to their realism, but some widespread themes can be noted. Relativity and pluralism are commonly accepted. The literature reveals an agonizing quest for universal truths while fully recognizing that justification of belief occurs within particular communities that both devise the warrants and conduct the testing, producing a obdurate multitude of conflicting perspectives. A yearning for a public theology based on general rational principles is frustrated by the lack of consensus about what constitutes right reasoning on the big questions. The constructive character of theology is widely recognized. Theological perspectives are relative, tentative, partial attempts to grasp the reality of God and to formu late doctrines of Christ. Tentative, relative adequacy is the most that can be claimed for our efforts. Conversation is urged among representatives of different and conflicting outlooks with an openness to appropriate insights from each other so that commonality may grow. Mutual creative transformation may occur in these encounters. Without surrendering the idea of a reality referent, truth may be defined not as correspondence with reality but as a consensus of well-grounded belief. Yet we must live with the likely impossibility of achieving universal agreement on the ultimate questions of being and meaning. Moreover, a practical test in terms of the efficacy of an outlook to provide understanding and to facilitate justice and human fulfillment is urged by many.

Critical realism is nuanced in a multitude of ways that tilt in some versions toward a kind of confidence in theory that moves toward absolutism and leans in others in the direction of deconstruction and pragmatism. Nearly all move between the poles of a hopeful craving for universal truth accessible to all and the recognition that beliefs are generated and justified within par ticular frames of reference in a situation where no supreme court is available to settle stubbornly persisting disputes. No one has been able to find a way "beyond objectivism and relativism" that is itself not quickly refuted by other candidates for the job.


At the other extreme opposite the absolutist realists is deconstruction. If anyone goes all the way to the end in undialectical fashion, we find the startling denial that our writing about God and Jesus is about reality. Every theory expressed in words is just one more in a never ending series of interpretations. There is no truth about objective reality, only points of view, no knowledge, only opinions. We write and we speak, but we do so with respect to other speaking and writing. Never does the reference transcend the text but is always to other texts. Interpretation is of other interpretations and rests on interpretations all the way down and all the way across. There are no fixed or right meanings and no text-transcending realities in our witness that can be properly known and accurately described. There is only the text itself; neither author nor referent matter.

Deconstruction functions within a postmodern framework defined by Cornel West as "anti-foundational, anti-totalizing, and demystifying." No foundation can be found upon which to erect indubitable structures of truth. Theories that try to explain everything in one all-encompassing scheme are rejected. Systems of ideas and ideals are infected with ideologies that further self- interest and justify the possession of dominating power. Widely quoted is Jean Francois Lyotard, "Simplifying to the extreme, I define "postmodern" as incredulity toward metanarratives." A metanarrative is the big story being worked out in all the little stories, the overarching pattern and direction exhibited in the many particular events of history.

Deconstruction rejects "the metaphysics of presence" associated with "logocentric" (Derrida) schemes that purport to capture reality in dependable structures of rational doctrine. Likewise, it abhors binary oppositions in which one term of the pair is favored over the other, whereas we are urged to embrace and appre ciate difference in dialectical interplay with identity. Seldom is anything presented unparadoxically, unambiguously, or unequivocally. All is an endless artistic play of dialectical moments and movements in which nothing is ever just simply what it is. Does deconstruction completely deny or disregard the connection between language and reality? In some versions it seems to. In any case, at the end of the road down which deconstruction starts lies an extreme point at which talk and text are totally severed from any pretensions of grasping the objectively real.

Within this framework, one can play with various interpretations of Jesus or the Word become words in texts and find some of them useful for some purposes as long as one does not pin anything too neatly, simply, or permanently. Given its transgressive character in which established rules of scholarship and procedure are questioned and in which no hermeneutical scheme is privileged or foundational, what then are to be the criteria by which we measure deconstructionist exegesis and theology? It would appear to me that pragmatic tests might be the best way to go, but doubtless that would be altogether too confining, too constructed, an at tempt to stop the interminable succession of reinterpreted interpretations. If not pragmatism, what? My suspicion is that the most extreme among them take aesthetic delight in pleasuring themselves with dangerous thrills by flirting with a latent and lurking intellectual nihilism, but never undialectically, of course. Yet the theologians seem genuinely troubled in their joy that God, self, history, and the Bible are all dead, but not in any final or total way. One deals with presence in absence and absence in presence, and negation gets negated in an endless serpentine interplay of opposites with no beginnings, middles, or endings. We begin where we happen to be and do the best we can with what we have around the margins groping and grasping never content with any conclusion for long in a continuing process in which answers become new questions, and opposites become each other.

Deconstruction, moderate or extreme, is one option for critical realists so overwhelmed by relativism, pluralism, and uncertainty that it appears to be the only recourse. Along with the surprising, astonishing, and unsettling but edifying insights its adventurous explorations might produce, its main value is negative. It exploits the follies of the absolutists and the inherent ambiguities of the critical realists who think they are in touch with reality but who cannot be certain about what is true and false in their interpretations. Pluralism within a realist context is unstable and is tempted either to resolve its anxieties by creeping closer toward some new confident scheme or by wandering near the pit of nihilism in the company of the furthest out representatives of deconstruction. To put it differently, critical reason infected with relativism generates a tolerant pluralism that founders on the rock of uncertainty. It can neither pronounce its opponents completely wrong or claim that its own conclusions are thoroughly true. Yet I prefer critical realism to deconstruction, but my version slides over into pragmatism.


Pragmatism does not position itself at some point between realism and deconstruction but reframes the problem and sets it into a quite different context. On the basis of realism, once you accept the full consequence of relativism and pluralism, you simply cannot be certain about the truthfulness of your own views, where truth means correspondence with reality. Moreover, unless all the competing versions, which in confrontation range from the mildly incompatible to the utterly irreconcilable, can all be equally true, i. e., descriptive of reality, then all but one outlook is at least partially false anyway. But which file contains the true one, and how can I down load it to my system? But, the argument goes, we can claim to have partial correspondence with reality or a valid perspective. The problem is that you have no way of judging what are the correct and the incorrect aspects of your assertions since you cannot compare your interpretation with the reality as it is in itself. How do you know if you have partial knowledge if you cannot compare the part with the whole? And if you can discern the whole, knowledge need not be partial or only a perspective. If you can know reality as it is, you can just describe it, i. e., produce an interpretation that corresponds with it. Reinterpreting the correspondence theory of truth to mean "the consensus of warranted beliefs" is a good move but does not resolve the basis tension between the craving of universality and the recognition of the historicity and relativity of thought. Defining the criteria of beliefs that are "warranted" calls for the elaboration of prin ciples that remain in interminable dispute.

The central problem is that we cannot compare our theories with the uninterpreted real Jesus to determine how close we are to the mark. One other little troublesome question has to do with what we take "the real Jesus" to mean and refer to. There is no Jesus except an interpreted one. I agree that the interpretations intend to be interpretations of the real. However, we cannot adjudicate our conflicting perspectives except within some frame work of common assumptions. Unfortunately, since competing sets of doctrines persist stubbornly in endless profusion, the consequence is a morass of irresolvable controversies. Here I seem to be slipping into deconstruction. I escape by reframing the question so that the alternatives do not run between realism and deconstruction.

Continuing meditation on the changing, conflicting currents of scholarship and reflection convinced me gradually that my trust in realism, no matter how critical, was misplaced. How could the particular stage or version of things that compelled my acceptance be worthy of bearing the weight I had put upon it? As I have reviewed the course of biblical and theological developments over the decades, I have increasingly become a skeptic, a more pronounced relativist, and a pragmatist.

In the background is an assumption that guides what I am about to say. Three points of reference are relevant to knowledge: reality, experience, and interpretation. The problem is that we can never sort these elements out infallibly. Each depends on the others. Neither can be defined without reference to the other two. They are indissolubly connected to each other. Our schemes, we may claim, are interpretations of reality based on our experience. But there is no reality (for us) apart from our experience of it, and our experience of reality is always interpreted. We always deal with experienced reality as interpreted or interpreted reality as experienced or interpreted experiences of reality.

Given this assumption, my proposal is that the frame of reference must not be whether theories correspond to the objects theorized about. The test must be in terms of whether a theory is harmonious with the whole set of convictions we find compelling based on the best we know from all sources up to now. The frame of reference is our experienced world. In our experience we engage a world objective to us and real in its own terms, but we can only speak of reality as it is experienced by us. The world is what it is experienced to be. Or as William James said, reality is what it is "known as." By referring to what is real for us in experience, we can create and test interpretations that prove themselves by making sense of our experienced world. Moreover, we can organize vast amounts of data into highly complex networks of mutually supporting and reinforcing theories that ideally approach as a (surely unattainable) goal a total interpretation of experienced reality. Theories can be revised or abandoned as need be. The tests are two: (1) The empirical test is whether a point of view adequately accounts for all available relevant evidence. (2) The rational test is whether a theory fits harmoniously with the rest of our presently held beliefs and values. Success is partial; theories must be held tentatively, ever open to revision in light of better evidence or more acute reasoning.

I believe certain advantages accrue to regarding the message, meaning, ministry, and intention of Jesus or the symbols of incarnation, and resurrection in this framework. We can have a basis for our own faith and practice without having to argue with others about who has the truth that corresponds to the reality. Christians with competing views of the Christ can debate each other vigorously. The grounds for holding to a certain outlook can be specified and defended. Most views will reveal areas of common agreement with others. Usually the circles of interpretation will overlap to varying degrees. Seldom will they lie totally outside each other. Interpretations can be revised, defended, or abandoned by all parties as their advocates find it necessary within their own terms or as their larger assumptions may get undermined or reframed.

It is true that in the end when all the argument is done, each must say, "It works for me, but I cannot specify to what degree and in what respect my views mirror the objective reality of Jesus believed in as the Christ." Judgment is made in terms of pragmatic efficacy and not in terms of correspondence with reality. Pragmatic efficacy means that a view provides understanding of the world for me within my frame of reference, and it provides me with routines of practice that facilitate coping with life's challenges and that promote the highest ends of life as I have come to discern them experimentally and experientially. With William James we can hold that if competing doctrines make no difference when tested in experience, disputes about them may be safely ignored. Interpretive schemes and routines of habits and practices are subject to revision in the light of compelling experiential evidence and rational argument.

When pictures of Jesus and formal Christologies are viewed in this way, we will not be surprised at the variety of them and at their conflicting conclusions. Neither need we worry about which correspond to reality most fully. That question cannot be settled except by sheer declaration. Nor need we be anxious about whether our own images of Jesus with their implications for living are authentic expressions that Jesus himself would approve. We can only say that our views of Jesus represent the best we know using the best sources and most convincing interpretive frameworks available to us so far. I can compare my views with others, know ing that I am comparing my views with other views. I can be in fluenced by them, or I can reject them. I can ask if my views are consistent with available evidence, if they fit with the rest of my beliefs, and if they are useful in guiding me and others to a better, happier, more loving, more just world, as I judge these matters.

The standard objection to this kind of pragmatism is that it lands us in a relativism in which anything goes that works for someone. If relativism means that everybody's beliefs are as good as anybody else's or that no system of values is any better than another, perhaps we should worry -- if anybody could be found who actually believed that and lived by it. If relativism means that the only way to justify claims is to make use of the resources available to us in our own time and place, surely a good case can be made for the doctrine. Remaining to be resolved is what is required in the way of belief essential to discovering the means that lead to the good life for all and for cultivating the virtues necessary to its achievement. Intelligent reflection on what past experience reveals about what works to increase joy and justice on earth is a recommendation worthy of consideration.


Have I succeeded in laying out a clear and distinct alternative to critical realism? I am not sure. I think I may have hinted at a vague and inchoate option! I do retain an element of realism in that reality is one of three points of reference, along with experience and interpretation. My intention is to distinguish my view from critical realism by shifting attention from correspon dence to reality to convincing conceptualizations of the experience of reality. We cannot test our theories by comparing them to reality. We have to test them by asking whether they offer coherent schemes elucidatory of the evidence. Do our theories succeed in providing a satisfactory interpretation of experience? The question is not whether our theories are descriptive of reality but whether they are explanatory of experience. Put differently, critical realism assumes a subject-object framework in which the issue turns on the way and extent to which interpretations of the experience by the subject correspond to the reality, i. e., the object. Pragmatism abandons or at least deemphasizes this duality in favor of the unity constituted by the indissoluble togetherness of reality (the objective), experience, and interpretation (the subjective).

Does that vanquish or replace realism? No, not totally, since the claim remains that it is reality that is experienced and interpreted but precisely reality as experienced. Does this constitute a plausible alternative to critical realism? It seems to me it does. But perhaps I have only succeeded in shifting the emphasis but not creating an alternative to critical realism. Perhaps I should call the result pragmatic realism, i. e., a version of critical realism with a heavy stress on pragmatic verification.

What about the relationship of my view to the deconstructionists? I agree with them that history and the contemporary scene exhibit an endless chain of interpretations. That, after all, was one of my main points. Moreover, each interpretation is an interpretation of other interpretations. But is there no referent beyond the text in any sense? If they mean that no interpretation ever connects with reality, that reality is never present in interpretation in any shape, form, or fashion whatsoever, I demur. If they mean merely that reality is never directly or literally or fully present but is present only in interpretation, that the only reality we know is reality as interpreted, then I agree, when allowed to put my own spin on the terms. But if that is what they mean, how do they differ -- in that respect only -- from the critical realists or from my pragmatism?


Some who might be willing at least to entertain the propositions set forth to this point may wish to demur when I draw a further conclusion. I propose that Jesus as represented in Scripture and tradition cannot be the final authority, norm, and judge of beliefs, values, duties, personal virtues, and social policies. For Christians the data available to us in the New Testament and in the history of the interpretive tradition will certainly enter positively and centrally into the determination of all these matters, but what Jesus believed (or what we believe he affirmed) cannot be final or ultimate. What we make of what we take Jesus to have said and done is the work of the interpreter.

Further, I urge that in practice and functionally this is the case anyway, whether or not my own views are accepted or not. It works this way at least in those theologies that construe Jesus in such a way that their favored doctrines are found there. But since the opposing parties attribute contradictory doctrines to Jesus, all cannot be right. Yet each insists on its own truth, since if something is authorized, proposed, or approved by Jesus, it must be true. My thesis is that Jesus as the Christ is a theological device with which we express our own normative beliefs, ideals, and values. Conceptions of Christ typically are mirrors in which we discover our own ideals. The usual view is that Jesus himself held these authorized and authoritative views, and this makes them valid or at least Christianly authentic. This move is necessary to support the underlying proposition, namely, that if Jesus said it, it is true or that Jesus said it because it is true. Either way a congruity must exist between Jesus and truth. I deny that this connection necessarily holds.

Let me illustrate. If Jesus sanctioned slavery or the subordination of women, would that make it authoritative for today? The answer must be no. The usual way to settle this question is for the slaveholders to demonstrate that Jesus did implicitly approve slavery and for the opponents to show that he did not. The same holds for the status of women, traditionalists finding in Jesus an upholder of male supremacy and feminists finding in him an equalitarian with respect to the sexes. But are not slavery and the subordination of women wrong, regardless of what Jesus thought? The stratagem of finding in Jesus our own ideals is not dishonesty, but it is apparent to me that this is exactly what we do.

Creativity knows no bounds in conservatives or liberals when it comes to finding in Scripture what fits with their own theologies. Today liberals readily dismiss passages of Scripture that teach disapproved doctrines, whether in the Old Testament or in Timothy. Usually, they hold back from challenging Jesus, preferring to represent him in such a way that he is the author of the views they find compelling and normative. This sometimes means judging particular views of Jesus by his own more basic ideals. On this basis many liberals almost effortlessly reject what Jesus said about the everlasting punishment of the wicked (Matt. 25:41, 46) in favor of universalism or some other alternative nicer than being tossed into the eternal flames. Once we locate that inner core of Gospel truth, we can support or reject whatever we need to, never mind what specific passages say. If a text, however, is favorable, it can be quoted by liberals with a fervor that rivals that of the biblical infallibilists. Fundamentalists have their own ways of letting in and keeping out what does not fit with their preferred doctrines. or troublesome passages. Biblical materials and the infinite possibilities inherent in hermeneutical imagination are such that with skill the stratagem of harmonizing objective norms with subjective proclivities can be successfully carried out by all parties, never mind that they contradict each other right and left.

Was Jesus a feminist or a traditional upholder of male supremacy? Let us employ the best resources and methods available to determine to the extent that we can if Jesus were in fact a feminist, and, if so, in what sense. If we get very precise about what feminism is or must be, the results are likely to be quite uncertain. The logic of my position, however, was stated by Mary Daly, who said that whether Jesus was a feminist or not, she is. The Apostle Paul had good advice:

Finally, . . . whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Phil. 4:8 (RSV).
Certainly, what we believe Jesus to have sponsored in the way of beliefs, virtues, obligations, and aspirations enters into the determination of what we take to be true, just, lovely, worthy of praise, and most excellent. Nevertheless, the truth or falsity of something does not depend on whether Jesus affirmed it or not. That judgment must be made in the light of the best we know up to now from all sources, the Jesus of the New Testament being prominent among the clues to what is true, good, and beautiful. My claim is that this is the way it works anyway. We do not allow Jesus functioning as the Christ to have held views that we know (from whatever source) to be either false or immoral. Everyone somehow manages to find in him the normative source and anchor of what is true, moral, and most excellent in all things spiritual, even if some creative exegesis must be employed to accomplish this end.

I think it is better to recognize honestly that we are the ultimate and final authors of what we believe. We can acknowledge Jesus to be the source and inspiration of the highest and best that we know, namely, that God loves us and requires us to love one another. Nevertheless, in putting that into a theological and ethical framework for today, we must concede that we are the actual or functional authorities who determine what is normative for belief and practice. It may be useful to do the best we can to discover the person, the words and the deeds of Jesus as a historical figure. We can acknowledge him as the supreme inspiration of our own best ideals and values. But in the end, it is we who are the author of theological doctrines and moral values, even when we assert them to be grounded in a reality not ourselves. All present convictions are subject to criticism, revision, and abandonment, but it is we who must undertake those tasks too as better information or insight demands. At last, when all is said and done, we have no choice but to live by what we judge to be most excellent in the way of belief and practice. This is the case even if our choice is to surrender our autonomy in order to believe and practice what we understand the Bible, Jesus, God, our church, or some other authority to require of us.

Liberal perspectives that point to an essence, core motifs, central meanings, and the like as the necessary identifying feature of the faith are workable only if this alleged universal element is stated at a level of abstraction high enough to allow interpreters the needed flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances. The fact is that when liberal traditions or individuals spell out the detailed implications of this universal core to make it relevant to particular situations, it is the outlook of the interpreter that is determinative of these specifics. As an exponent of a more liberal liberalism, I urge (1) that we give up the notion of an abiding, universal essence of Christianity, since I think we create it with the authoritative materials rather than discover it embedded in them and (2) that we acknowledge that we are the author of our beliefs and values in the final analysis.

With that I invite responses.
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This is one of a series of essays. The first link takes you to my Home Page and a complete listing with links to all.
Back to Theological Essays
Presently, the following essays are available:
About the Author
A List of my Books
Interpreting the Bible Today
The Authority of the Bible
Using the Bible with Integrity
Natural Law and Moral Relativism
What is Truth -- and Does it Matter?
A Doctrine of God (Short Version)
A Doctrine of God (Long Version)
Trinity: God, Christ, Spirit
God as Masculine and Feminine
Theodicy: the Problem of Evil
Theodicy: A Heterodox Alternative
The Many Faces of Evil
Christ and Christians
A Critique of Niebuhr's Christ and Culture
The Incompatibility of Christianity and Civilization
Christian Ethics
Process Christian Ethics
The Ethics of Belief
Relativism, Morality, Belief
Capital Punishment
Physician Assisted Suicide
Bioethical Decision-Making
Drug Policy
Theology and Ecology
Religion and Politics
Science and Theology
Church and State
A Short Biographical Sketch

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Last Updated: Thursday, November 18, 1999, 3:45 PM