Who Is Jesus? History in Perfect Tense. .
Give a piece of Scotch tape to an infant and the youngster cannot get rid of it. It will pass from one finger to another, to the thumb, then to the leg, and back to the fingers--always sticking somewhere. The intersection of the historical Jesus and theology is Leander Keck's piece of tape, and we are all enriched because it sticks to him.
Keck's published interest in the intersection of theology and historical-Jesus research spans four decades, and no one brings a more informed perspective to "theological reflections on history--on those aspects of the Jesus of history that are central to his continuing significance" (p. x). Readers familiar with Keck's A Future for the Historical Jesus: The Place of Jesus in Preaching and Theology (Abingdon, 1971) will welcome Who is Jesus? as a fresh reflection, born of continuing devotion to the issue at hand.
The subtitle, "History in the Perfect Tense," indicates the nature of this book. The metaphor is grammatical: A verb in the perfect tense refers to action completed in the past that has ongoing impact in the present. Throughout this "theological reflection on history" (p. x) Keck is in conversation with biblical scholars and with theologians. The weight of the conversation shifts from the former to the latter as the book progresses.
Who is Jesus? is in five chapters. In chapter 1, "The Presence of the Past," Keck sketches the task of historical reconstruction. Keck affirms that "the Jesus of history differed from the Jesus of the gospels" (p. 19), but he rejects the notion that difference equals distortion. As becomes clear in the latter chapters, Keck is more apt to emphasize continuity than discontinuity between the two.
Chapter 2, "The Permanent Particular: Jesus the Jew," presents both the clearest advance in Keck's reflections over A Future for the Historical Jesus and his opening salvo against popular Q-based reconstructions of the histories of Jesus and early Christianity. The scandal of Christian theology, of Jesus' particularity, Keck argues, must be considered in view of Jesus' Jewishness. This is a not an original critique of Q-based profiles of Jesus, but Keck does present the case clearly and coherently.
Chapter 3, "The Embodied Future: Jesus the Teacher," provides a summary of Keck's position vis-a-vis Q. Yes, there was a Q; but no, to construct the Jesus of a presumed earliest stratum of Q is hardly convincing. 'The confidence with which today's 'Q people' reconstruct the past on the basis of inference and assumption is remarkable" (p. 67). The primary question of this chapter is that of Jesus' understanding of the kingdom of God. The question is pivotal to any assessment of Jesus of Nazareth and of Jesus' ongoing significance, because Jesus undertook "to so announce and embody the imminent coming of God's kingdom that those who believed him would already change their lives to reflect the character of God's reign actualized" (p. 108). Keck's ultimate object of inquiry is Jesus' God. Thus, "the real question is...whether [Jesus] was right about the God whom he imaged as king and father" (p. 112). Preachers will find this chapter a particularly fruitful source of stimulating and exegetically sound sermon seeds on Jesus' message of the kingdom and on Jesus' relationship to God as "Father."
Chapter 4, "The Fractured Prism: Jesus' Death and the Living God," explores the significance of Jesus' death by execution for understanding God. Keck continues his practice of popping popular balloons: "There is no evidence that Jesus explicitly connected his arrival [in Jerusalem] and the temple act with the coming of the kingdom--i.e., that he saw these events as hastening its coming" (p. 121), and "There is no evidence that his first followers developed a Jesus-shaped understanding of God on the basis of his words alone" (p. 127-28). In the end, Keckappeals to a "Golgotha hermeneutic." That is, Jesus' death, and particularly the manner in which he died, redefines messiahship and reveals the God who remains faithful to those whose defining moral characteristic, like Jesus' defining moral characteristic, is self-denial.
In the final chapter, "The Authorizing Judge: Jesus in the Moral Life," Keck takes up Jesus' role as judge and the impact that role should have in the moral life of the Christian. Keck constructs the argument that, while much can and should be said of Jesus' teachings, those teachings cannot be lifted out of the particular situations in which they were uttered. Disembodied teachings are distorted teachings. Though Keck does not use the categories of speech act theory, he argues in effect for the necessity of accounting for the elocutionary and perlocutionary dimensions of Jesus' speech acts, rather than distilling out something solely from the locutionary dimension. Consequently, an abstract entitled "Jesus' teachings" cannot serve as a guide to moral life. Jesus himself, Keck concludes, is the warrant for moral life and the judge to which all are accountable.
I find Keck's call appealing, yet frustrating. How does one reckon with "Jesus himself," as Keck puts it? Keck says, "It is the deliberate, persistent appropriation of Jesus into the moral life so that he becomes its internal compass and criterion of the doer and the deed. When Jesus' word and way are assimilated, he becomes 'habit forming"' (p. 166). But isn't this internalization process still vague, lacking criteria for successful assimilation? Keck acknowledges the problem: "To what extent is it Jesus or an imagined Jesus who is being assimilated?" (p. 167). Yet Keck never spells out his methodology for sifting what is genuine from what is secondary. In this regard, the work is akin to the widely acclaimed Jesus: A New Vision by Marcus Borg (Harper San Francisco, 1991) and The Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancey (Zondervan, 1995).
For traditional Christians, whose primary interest is the continuing significance of Jesus, Who is Jesus? may not adequately incorporate the claim "Jesus is alive." Nevertheless, this book is going to be more valuable to the practicing pastor than most historical-Jesus fare, not because it is less scholarly than the others-it is not-but because it goes where the pastor's study of Jesus has to go, namely, to the potential influence of Jesus on the lived life of today's believer. Moreover, because Keck does not reduce Jesus to a one-dimensional caricature, this work ought to be read as well by every senior seminarian and teacher of the New Testament.
Read Who is Jesus? with an eye toward future issues for ministry. Keck has been ahead of the pack before.
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|Author:||Roth, S. John|
|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2003|
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