Quest for the Historical Jesus

Different Christology orientations of "Christ from above," Christ from below," and Augustinian models of study

By Kathy L. McFarland


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Quest for the Historical Jesus

Traditional Christology reflected the “miracle-working, preexistent Second Person of the Trinity,”[1] with a discussion of Christ formed by denominational or confessional standards.  Usually, these standards reflected the issues that were resolved in ecumenical councils of earlier centuries.[2] But, suspicion that Christ in tradition was different from the actual Christ created a shift from metaphysical to historical Christology.[3]

Adolf von Harnack’s bellwether book “What is Christianity” helped to define the liberal Christology view that presented Christ without supernatural abilities.[4] Harnack’s analysis of Jesus through this liberal Christological lens denied miracles purported to originate from Christ, with the explanation that in that time, there were no scientific insights into possibilities, thus miracles were wrongly assumed in their collective naiveté.[5] Also, Harnack defended his position with the argument that it was common for miracles to be wrongly ascribed to famous people after their death for propriety sake; thus his basis for limited a view of supernatural events surrounding Christ’s ministry were declared to be governed by nature, rather than by God in Heaven; actual miracles did not occur in life governed by natural law[6] With an increasing uneasiness that the liberal historical Christology was fabricating ideas about Christ,[7] Catholic scholar George Tyrrell assessed Harnack’s position as “The Christ that Harnack sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness, is only the reflection of a Liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well.”[8]

The writings of Albert Schweitzer and Martin Kähler brought an end to the liberal historical quest for Jesus. [9] Schweitzer questioned the objective of liberal researchers by presenting different conclusions to their basic historical investigation.[10] He charged that they brought a preconceived notion of Christ into their inquiries; rather than a reflection of a type of Christ of their creation, Schweitzer analyzed their data as a presentation of an eschatological Jesus that did not match their modern-day suppositions.[11] Kähler examined Jesus with the observation that the Jesus of the gospels had little influence and that it was the risen Christ of faith that was significant in capturing His Person and Works.[12] This realization changed the focus of Christology from the historical Jesus to the historical Christ, and moved from the Historie of Gospel accounts as the defining ideas,[13] toward the Geschichte, significant ideas, that examined the impact of Jesus upon His disciples.[14]

Christology from above

Kähler’s ideas of the need to study the Person and Works of the risen Christ and the relationship established by faith from His disciples, rather than focus upon the historical Jesus as human being, led to the formation of studies with the orientation on “Christology from above” by Rudolf Bultmann, Karl Barth, and Emil Brunner, in the early 20th century.[15] “Christology from above” became the orthodox way to study Christ before scholars challenged the inerrancy of Scripture as being historically incorrect.[16] Emil Brunner expressed several key ideas of this type of Christology in her book The Mediator,[17] which included:

1. The church proclamation (kerygma) regarding Christ is a better foundation for study, than the history surrounding the life of Jesus.[18]

2. The writings of Paul and the study of the Book of John is more profitable for the study orientated on “Christology from above” theology, since the Synoptic Gospels provide historical accounts rather than explicit theological ideas.[19]

3. Faith in Christ cannot be understood through the reasoning process seeking a rational proof.[20]

But, Brunner does acknowledge the need to study a historical part of Christ with a consideration of His two different aspects, one as God becoming incarnate in the flesh, and the other revealed by “Christ after the flesh.”[21] Brunner admits that only the historical Christ in the flesh with the examination of specific written accounts by witnesses leads to more knowledge of Him in a historical sense, than does the consideration of “Christ after the flesh” which requires faith to fully understand.[22] Thus the “Christology from above” orientation takes the witness of the church and combines the expressions of faith of “Christ after the flesh” with the focused historical study of Christ through Scripture, and leads to a clearer understanding of Christ.[23]

Christology from below

A new quest to discover the historical Jesus was once again addressed in reaction to Bultmann’s demythologization[24] that said the kerygmatic Christ cannot be connected with the life of human Jesus.[25] Ethelbert Stauffer, Joachim Jeremias and Ernst Käsemann disagreed, which led to a different strategy and orientation to study “Christology from below.”

Käsemann refuted Bultmann’s model, charging the need to examine Jesus with a historical search his Person and Works as the only approach to Christology; this approach was called “the new search for historical Jesus.”[26] This new search effort in 19th century was more of a Jesusology rather than a Christology with a bit of anti-supernatural bias thrown in for good measure. [27] But, the supposition was made that there was a possibility of starting the study for the historical Jesus that would lead to genuine Christology with an arrival point of His Deity as a conclusion rather than a presupposition from the investigation.[28]

The contemporary “Christology from below” is highlighted in the work of Wolfhart Pannenberg who criticizes the presuppositions of Christological methodology to achieve an openness and objectivity for three reasons:

1. Today, the divinity of Jesus is disputed; thus, it is the task of Christology to offer rational support without presupposition for this belief.[29]

2. Understanding the relationship of Judaism in the time of Christ is essential to understanding His Person and Work; the significance of these types of historical features of Jesus of Nazareth is neglected by “Christology from above.”[30]

3. Limited human beings cannot do “Christology from above” because only God knows this high perspective.[31]

Pannenberg supports a full Christology that includes the study of both the life of Jesus and His Deity. Pannenberg’s “Christology from below” orientation strives to bring openness to the task of historical investigation with these points in mind:

1. The kerygma of the New Testament must be historically investigated, since a chronological sequence of Jesus’ life is impossible to formulate. This historical inquiry must not exclude supernatural, anti-supernatural or natural events just for their sake; rather, they must be approached without bias or presupposition.[32]

2. The history of Christ, including his Resurrection, sacred history, and redemptive acts must be considered with the rest of the world history.  The historical Jesus cannot be separated from ordinary history, and all special realms like Geshichte and Heilsgeschichte must not be acknowledged.[33]

3. “Christology from below” can reveal the full humanity of Jesus and a unity of Christ with God can be examined with His pre-Resurrection claim to authority given to Him by God.

Erickson’s alternative approach

According to Erickson, Christology from above recognizes the real value of the incarnation of Christ among His followers, but it is difficult to substantiate belief. This position acknowledges Jesus’ deity is unable to be proven through the study of facts about His human life. The faith of the Apostles through the examination of kerygma is the theology of existentialist theologians like Brunner and Soren Kierkegaard.[34]

Christology from below eliminates subjectivity which waters down or removes the Divinity of Christ and His miracles;[35] it is primarily Thomistic.  The deity of Christ is not presupposed but becomes a conclusion of the process through a study of the historical reason rather than faith or authority.[36] Erickson tries to resolve the problems of both orientations, while eliminating the problems, by first acknowledging the same faith vs. reason dichotomy[37] that has plagued Believers and the world forever.

Erickson proposes a third model called the “Augustinian.”[38] This model begins the study with kerygma faith, but it does not remain independent of reason.[39] He suggest that faith and reason intertwine in a mutually dependent, simultaneously progressing fashion, with the idea that the more familiarity the scholar receives toward the kerygmatic Christ will enable more historical data to be applied.[40] He uses several examples to support the Augustinian model through Scripture examples that show disciples knowing Jesus’ words and deeds, but unable to arrive at accurate knowledge concerning them. (Matthew 12:22-32; Mark 3:20-30; Luke 11:14-23).

Evaluation of this debate

It seems impossible that a mature Christian scholar can remove faith from the process of historical inquiry, and that there will always be a bias that gets in the way of Christology from below.  It also seems impossible for a mature Christian scholar that receives increased knowledge and teaching about the things of God to not develop a reasoned approach to historical study of His things.  Basically, if you are maturing, both your faith and your reason are growing together. Therefore, Erickson’s proposal makes the most theological sense for the study of Christ, utilizing both faith and reason in the process. But, the Person and Work of Jesus Christ must be known from a biblical perspective first; it is the Word of God, rather than the philosophy of mankind, that should form the foundation of any study model, and then added to with reasoned history as the knowledge is increased.



Brunner, Emil. The Mediator. London: Lutterworth, 1934.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. Second ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998.

Kähler, Martin. The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1962.

Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Jesus - God and Man. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1968.

Schweitzer, Albert. The Quest of the Historical Jesus. New York: Macmillan, 1964.

Tyrell, George. Christianity at the Cross-Roads. London: Longmans, Green, 1910.



[1] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, Second ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998), 680.

[2] Ibid., 679.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 680.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] George Tyrell, Christianity at the Cross-Roads (London: Longmans, Green, 1910), 44.

[9] Erickson, 680.

[10] Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (New York: Macmillan, 1964), 367.

[11] Erickson, 681.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 681.

[14] Martin Kähler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1962), 43.

[15] Erickson, 682.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Emil Brunner, The Mediator (London: Lutterworth, 1934), 158.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 172.

[20] Ibid., 158.

[21] Erickson, 683.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 682.

[25] Ibid., 684.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus - God and Man (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1968), 34.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid., 23-25.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Erickson, 690.

[35] Ibid., 688.

[36] Ibid., 690.

[37] Ibid., 689.

[38] Ibid., 690.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

Last modified: Wednesday, 18 September 2013, 12:19 PM