Baker Academic

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

No Controversy about the "Heresy" of the Quest for the Historical Jesus?

In a very interesting earlier post, Anthony opened up the discussion for responses Michael Bird’s quotation of a provocative statement from Luke Timothy Johnson:

“Since the time of the Enlightenment, the longest-running of all Christological heresies has deeply infiltrated the church with scarcely any protest or controversy, much less the calling of a council of bishops to clarify and defend the faith of the church. I mean the replacement of the Christ of faith with the so-called historical Jesus.” (Johnson, The Creed [2004], p. 300 [emphasis added])

Anthony took issue with Johnson’s statement about a lack of “protest or controversy” based on  recent experiences of professors who have been fired and/or silenced because of positions they have taken on the historical Jesus. As a Catholic, I found Johnson’s statement puzzling from a different angle: the history of Catholic biblical studies in the early 20th century.

The Modernist Controversy and the Excommunication of Alfred Loisy
Alfred Loisy
As Luke Timothy Johnson surely knows, in European Catholic circles in the late 19th and early 20th century, there was in point of fact an enormous controversy about the popular late 19th century antithesis between the “Jesus of History” and the “Christ of Faith.” I am referring of course to what came to be known quite simply as the “Modernist Crisis.” See C. J. T. Talar, ed., Prelude to the Modernist Crisis: The Firmin Articles of Alfred Loisy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Although the point is sometimes forgotten, the Modernist Crisis took place in large part in the wake of the publications on Jesus and the Gospels by the prolific French priest scholar Alfred Loisy (1857-1940). Although Loisy is all but unread by most New Testament scholars today, he was extraordinarily prolific (I think Loisy may even have written more than Michael Bird), very influential, and very controversial in his own day. (By the way, Loisy was taught by Ernst Renan.) Particularly significant in this regard were Loisy’s books L'Évangile et L'Église (1903; trans. The Gospel and the Church) and Les Évangiles Synoptiques (1908). In fact, it was precisely in the wake of his publications on the Synoptic Gospels that Loisy was excommunicated. I call that controversy.

The Syllabus of Errors and the Quest for the "Jesus of History"
Johnson also certainly knows that in 1907 Pope Pius X—largely in response the growing influence of Loisy’s views about the historical Jesus and the Gospels—promulgated a famous document entitled “Syllabus Condemning the Errors of the Modernists” (the Latin title is Lamentabili Sane). 

In keeping with the style of early twentieth century magisterial documents, the Syllabus is basically a list of propositions that are “condemned and proscribed.” One of these condemned propositions is formulated precisely in terms of the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith:

“It is permissible to grant that the Christ of history is far inferior to the Christ who is the object of faith.” (Holy Office, Lamentabile Sane, no. 29)

Notice here that what is proscribed is not "The Quest for the Jesus of History" per se, but rather the claim that the Jesus of history is "inferior" to the Christ of faith. Nevertheless, I call this protest. To be sure, Johnson is right that the publication of the Syllabus of Errors does not come close to the extraordinary act of calling an ecumenical Church council (like Nicaea). Nor does the joint publication of the the companion papal encyclical, On the Doctrines of the Modernists, Pascendi Dominici Gregis (1907). Nevertheless, in European Catholic intellectual circles in the early 20th century, the Syllabus of Errors and Pascendi were extremely controversial documents. Ask any Catholic biblical scholar in his 60s-80s if either one was controversial and you will get an earful. 

A Forgotten Chapter in the History of the Quest
In sum: in contrast to the impression created by Johnson's quote, there was in point of fact quite a bit of controversy and protest about replacing the Christ of faith with the so-called historical Jesus in early 20th century--at least in Catholic intellectual circles. To be sure, almost none of this makes it into standard overviews of "the Quest for the Historical Jesus", which continue to be written mostly by Protestant or secular scholars. (I for one can't think of the last time I read a major Jesus book that spent any serious time exploring the Modernist crisis or the controversy over Loisy's works on the Gospels, much less his excommunication.) But it remains an important chapter in of the history of the Quest nonetheless.

Now, whether to search for the historical Jesus per se is “heresy” (as Anthony put it in his original post) is another (very interesting) question altogether. The answer will, of course depend entirely upon what you mean by (1) the "historical Jesus" and what you mean by (2) "heresy." Those answers, we will have to save for a future post.


  1. The Catholic evolutionist deChardin was also forbidden to share his ideas in print.

    And even earlier, look at what happened to D.F. Strauss after his Life of Jesus Critically Examined was published.

  2. “It is permissible to grant that the Christ of history is far inferior to the Christ who is the object of faith.” (Holy Office, Lamentabile Sane, no. 29)


    1. The structure of those kinds of papal documents was a list of affirmative statements that the pope was condemning, so the statement as quoted is correct, but with the assumed predicate: "We anathematize the notion that ..."

  3. Peter:
    Yes, there is an implied question and an implied negative. The Syllabus was a list of proscribed propositions, that function to articulate positions that are being rejected. In other words, just add the word "not" so that it reads: "It is [not] permissible..." and you'll get the proper sense.

  4. Excellent first post. And in a serif font! How very Catholic :).

  5. ...not to mention the disenfranchising of Lessing and Wrede.


  6. Nor the expulsion of Tyrell, who at least gets his "reflection in a well" quote into every history of the "Quest" so-called

  7. Being a good Catholic, I want to go on record and affirm, in agreement with Pius X, that the Christ of history is indeed far superior to the Christ who is the object of faith. The Christ of our weak and fallible faith is circumscribed all too well by a fundamental lack of imagination and charity, even though we should know that God cannot be defined or comprehended. Whatever the reality of the Jesus of history, unknowable for other reasons, it was surely greater than what we think we know about the Christ of faith.