Monday, 12 December 2005

Paul Althaus and the historical Jesus

It does not seem to be very well known that the prominent German theologian Paul Althaus (1888-1966) wrote a little book on the historical Jesus back in 1958. It was translated into English as The So-Called Kerygma and the Historical Jesus (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1959). As you might guess from the title, the book is a polemic against Rudolf Bultmann, and more particularly against Friedrich Gogarten, who had recently written Demythologizing and History (1955) in defence of Bultmann.

As an admirer of Bultmann, I disagree with much of what Althaus says in this book; and at times I find Althaus’s angry polemics a little distasteful (his remarks about Gogarten are especially bitter). But I do think he makes a valuable point about the search for historical authenticity in the traditions about Jesus.

Althaus notes the complex problems which surround the Jesus tradition, and the difficulty of achieving historical certainty about Jesus. He notes that the Jesus tradition “has been shaped by apologetic and dogmatic considerations” so that it has “legendary features”; that the boundary between “genuine” and “fictitious” words of Jesus is uncertain and fluid; that the primitive Christians not only modified Jesus’ words but also “added alien elements to them” and sometimes even “transformed them” altogether (p. 72).

In spite of all these ambiguities and complexities, and in spite of our lack of historical certainty, Althaus offers this crucial observation: “And yet all [these] results and undecided questions of the researches of the historical critics have in no way blurred the characteristic features of the person and the story of Jesus. We must not let our gaze be confused by the dust which research has raised in the foreground, but we must attempt to see through it” (p. 72).

In fact, Althaus says, the fundamental features of Jesus’ outlook and message “have been preserved through every layer of the tradition,” and these fundamental features “make [Jesus] everywhere recognisable” in the tradition (pp. 73-74). Althaus thus concludes that “the boundary between what is supposed to be historically genuine and original, and secondary and later, and the impossibility of everywhere drawing a clear line of demarcation between them, becomes here relatively unimportant. Jesus and His character have left their stamp deeply on the secondary, even the legendary material” (p. 74).

Althaus thus argues that in our search for historical authenticity we should distinguish between “the exact authenticity of the narratives” and the “authenticity of content”—and, he suggests, “that which is inauthentic in the first sense often turns out to be authentic in the second” (p. 74).

12 Comments:

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the reason Althaus is not studied today is due to the charge that he supported the Nazi agenda. Now, granted, his intellect is to be greatly admired, but his political choices are distasteful. His discussions of "blood" and "Volk" in terms of the Nazi agenda are downright sickening at times, especially if you consider the lucidity of the Barmen declaration. Though there is much to be admired in Althaus, it seems to me that we must consider the "historical" Altaus in terms of Nazi Germany...

Ben Myers said...

Yes, I think you're definitely right about this: scholars generally steer clear of Althaus on account of his tragically mistaken political views. This is an understandable reaction -- as you say, we can only feel horrified reading his ideas about the "Volk".

But I still think it's a mistake to judge Althaus's entire body of scholarship on the basis of this one flaw. It would be like judging Calvin solely in terms of the Servetus trial; or like remembering Luther and Zwingli only for their persecution of the anabaptists; or (for a closer parallel) like judging Heidegger's philosophy solely from the perspective of his Nazi sympathies.

In other words, I think it's possible to turn away sadly from Althaus's political views, but still to affirm all that is good and valuable in his life and scholarship. Or, to put it more simply, it is possible for us (even as historians) to forgive.

Anonymous said...

I understand what you are saying, and I do agree with your reasoning (nice examples, by the way). However, what I am concerned with, as a theologian and as a sympathizer of history, is credibility. Perhaps we should be a little more critical of Calvin, Luther, and yes, Althaus. His sympathies were (in our modern minds) misguided. This should (absolutely!) be kept in mind in evaluating the whole of his work, or else (perhaps), we will end up becoming soft in our critical thought. I agree with you that there is a way to appreciate the man and his work save his Nazi sympathies. However, I cannot reconcile his work on the historical Jesus with his credibility. This is, I think, not so much a matter of forgiveness as a matter of credibility.

kim fabricius said...

I too wrestle with this one - and Ben's examples are indeed good ones. I am sure that the fact that his beloved T.S. Eliot was an anti-Semite also sticks in his craw. But two points.

(1) In a fine essay entitled "The Truth Looks Different from Here" (1993), the point of departure of which is the famous 1539 exchange of letters between Sadolet and Calvin, Janet Martin Soskice considers a contemporary student reaction to Schleiermacher's sexism: "How could he be so great a theologian if he failed to notice this great affront to human dignity?" Soskice suggests that such a response is "a failure of moral vision", and continues: "It is the assumption that the truth is always and everywhere transparent and self-evident. It is the assumption that the right thing for a Christian to do is always obvious. It is in short the sin of pride."
Granted, sexism is not be in the same league as Nazism, still . . .

(2) On another blog I recently had a joking go at a Methodist colleague by alluding to John Wesley's many foibles and failings, which Rowan Williams enumerates in embarrassing detail in his brilliant essay "John Wesley" (in "Open to Judgement"). But I ended by quoting Rowan himself: "This neat, nervous little man, with his impulsive judgements, his endlessly betrayed reliance on his fellow men and women, his passionate and confused sexuality is, arguably, the greatest saint, the greatest witness to Jesus Christ, produced by the eighteenth century Church of England - the last place you'd expect to find fools for Christ's sake."
Again, I'm not suggesting that Althaus is in the same league as Wesley - a lesser saint, a greater sinner - still . . . I think you get the point - which is "sola fide".

Anonymous said...

I know hindsight is 20/20, but let us use a modern example. Since I am an American, this example should be especially lucid. I do not equate Bush with Hitler (b/c we're on the topic of Althaus), but I do see striking comparisons with his policies. I think Bush should be held accountable for his hideous foreign policy, and we can only hope that history holds him responsible for thousands of unnecessary deaths. Now, let's say that some American theologians agree with Bush's agenda (and his so-called "Christian" way of running a country). I am thinking specifically of the Southern Baptist Association amongst other numerous fundamentalists. I think these theologians should be viewed (historically, that is) as being wrongly aligned (as I view Althaus). I suppose only history will show if I'm right, but I do think these theologians will be (and rightly so) held accountable for backing a leader who is morally reprehensible. One need only think of Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson (and read this: they ARE NOT theologians). Perhaps, we shall have a contemporary equivalent of Althaus. As I've said, history will show...

kim fabricius said...

What can I say but "Well roared, lion!" I myself so roar as an American expat minister living in the UK, where we have the monkey Tony Blair dancing to the tune of the organginder and his oligarchs in DC.

But another distinction perhaps? Between a tutor and an emperor - and a tutor who contributed something to the fount of theological knowledge and a President who has contributed little but corruption, poverty, suffering and and death to the world. And comparisions with Falwell and Robertson fail because, as you rightly say, unlike Althaus, they are not theologians, or, if they are, they have contributed nothing but pernicious heresies.

I acually suspect that we are pretty much reading from the same hymn sheet here - or at least hymn book!

Anonymous said...

Agreed, Kim, and though I'm back in the States, it's interesting that you're an expat because I recently completed a master's at the Univ. of St. Andrews. (Funny how living in the UK can give you a crystal clear picture of the USA). I suppose what's frustrating is that I do admire Althaus, but I cannot overcome the issue of credibility. I certainly hope others are able to see through the thin ideology of "freedom" the same way that several brave German theologians saw through Nazi propaganda (i.e. Bonhoeffer, and to a lesser extent, Bultmann). Seen in that light, it's hard to take Althaus seriously...

Anonymous said...

I must admit I have only recently become acquainted with Paul Althaus through the broadcast of "Theologians under Hitler". I found the documentary fascintating, at least partially because of the apparent parallel with the contemporary marriage of convenience in the US between theological perspectives and poliitcal objectives. However, it was also clear that it was the intent of the documentarian to highlight this comparison. I'd really like to read the source document for myself but have had trouble finding it. A search on Google brought me to this thread. Specifically, I am looking for an English translation of Althaus' "Hour of the German Churches." I'm hoping someone on this thread can point me in the right direction. Thanks.

Ben Myers said...

Hi there -- thanks for your query. As far as I'm aware, there is no English translation of this work.

For what it's worth, though, I think the parallel between the German Christians in the 1930s and contemporary US evangelical politics is a frighteningly real one. Apart from the issues of race and nationalism, the German Christians also developed a theological justification of war: and of course this kind of theologising is also happening today within some evangelical circles in the US.

Anyway, sorry I couldn't be of more help.

Richard said...

It is utterly ridiculous to compare the Calvin-Servetus affair with the Nazi Sympathies of Paul Althaus. Six million Jews were slaughtered and another five million people for being nothing more than Eastern Europeans, Gypsies, and anybody that stood up to the Nazis like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who Paul Althaus is not even fit to be named in the same sentence!

Nixon isLord said...

Althaus must be of some value or the Mainline Protestant publishing house Fortress Press wouldn't keep his works in print. The ELCA isn't, so far as I know, a group that usually sympathizes with Nazis.
Protestantism is so polarized; you and the Fundiegelicals are so much alike. No wonder religion is shrinking away to nothing. Someday someone will find Mainline Protestantism's toleration for the USSR in the name of "keeping lines of dialogue open" and "moral equivalence between the camps" ridiculous and pitiful attempts by the Mainline churches to remain "relevant" and "avoid captivity to our own camps".
So glad I'm an atheist and don't have to waste time, money and effort on these fantasy figures.

Anthonybuzzard said...

Althaus was extremely perceptive in detecting the paganism in popular Church views about death and the future. "The hope of early church centered on the resurrection of the Last Day (I Cor 15; Phil. 3:21). This resurrection happens to the man and not only to the body. Paul speaks of the resurrection not 'of the body,' but 'of the dead.' This understanding of he resurrection implicitly understands death as also affecting the whole man. Thus the original Biblical concepts have been replaced by ideas from Hellenistic, Gnostic dualism. The New Testament idea of the resurrection which affects the whole man has had to give way to the immortality of the soul. The Last Day also loses its significance, for souls have received all that is decisively important long before this. Eschatological tension is no longer strongly directed to the day of Jesus' Coming. The difference between this and the Hope of the New Testament is very great" (Dr. Paul Althaus, Theology of Martin Luther, Fortress Press, 1966, 413, 414)

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