As most of my readers know, I’ve been working on revising my study guide to Hebrews. At least I keep mentioning it. I’m only about two years overdue on the project. When one deadline or another must be missed I tend to miss mine and work on other people’s stuff.
So today I was reading in Hebrews, especially the first four verses, and I got to thinking about the distinction between the “historical Jesus” and the “Christ of faith.” There are various words used to make the distinction, and it is not a distinction that is uncontroversial. On the one hand there are those who don’t think the Jesus of history is really accessible in a meaningful way, so if we, as Christians, are going to discuss Jesus at all, it will be as the Christ of faith. There are others who think that the Jesus of history is so well established that there is no need of any distinction at all. There are, of course, many variations on these views.
I am not one to deny the importance of history, but at the same time I doubt our ability to access it in any absolute fashion. If one studies history, I believe one studies probability, so I would describe the Jesus of history not as a necessarily accurate portrayal of who Jesus was, but rather Jesus as he can be accessed by purely historical methodology. Just how accurate you believe that picture is will depend on how you evaluate the documents we have, not to mention the methodology we use. But for me the Jesus who can be established historically, while important, is not critical in any sort of detail.
There is, for me, definitely a “Christ of faith.” That is the Jesus in whom I placed my own faith as a nine year old at a church in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico. I made that confession when I knew little of a Jesus of history or a Christ of faith. I proceeded to encounter Christ personally through washing one another’s feet and through participating in the act of communion. The person whose feet I washed had walked for three days over muddy trails to be at that place at that time. He was laughing the entire time I washed his feet and then he washed mine. It was a friendly laugh. In it, I encountered a Jesus who definitely transcended history. He is one reason why I cannot conceive of an amount of historical reasoning that would actually change my faith at the core. The details of the stuff I believe might change, and indeed they have over the years. But at the core, that is my Christ of faith.
As I read from Hebrews it occurred to me that while the author of Hebrews builds on history, the Christ he preaches could never be established by historical means. We might make factual statements of all that can be construed as an historical claim, and we would have an extraordinary person by biblical standards (assuming Hebrew scriptures at that point), but that person would not be God, would not be exalted, and would not be the foundation of our faith. All of that is founded on a person, and have no doubt that I believe fully that Jesus came in the flesh, i.e. that God has walked among us and has experienced what we must experience and died. But even a person rising from the dead does not make that person God. There is no set of criteria which a historian could use to say, “This person is God because they meet the criteria.”
Rather, that is a matter of faith. I don’t believe it merely because I have the witness of the New Testament writers, or their witness to witnesses, as is expressed in the early verses of Hebrews 2. Rather, I can believe Hebrews 2 because of what happened when I was nine years old. That experience matches mine, and the two together, through the power of the Holy Spirit, become my faith.
I think it is very easy to change one’s views about history. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to change that experience, even if one is distant from it for a time, as I was.