A Wake-up Call

Several weeks ago a controversy erupted over the dismissal of Anthony Le Donne, New Testament professor at Lincoln Christian University. Most of the blogs (if not all) that were written about the controversy were sympathetic toward Le Donne. I shared, however, the opposite perspective: Le Donne deserved to be dismissed because of his work Historical Jesus, primarily because the work undermines the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture by accepting epistemological skepticism as a method of investigation into the historical Jesus (you may access my blog post on this here).

In this post I want to discuss the idea that Le Donne’s dismissal should serve as a wake-up call to all institutions of Christian higher education. What I mean is that it provides the opportunity to ask a very important question: “What should be the mission of institutions of higher Christian education?” Certainly, there are several different missions that Christian colleges and universities may legitimately pursue; not all necessarily do or should do the same things. For example, some Christian colleges are liberal arts oriented, providing students with the opportunity to study medicine, psychology, or science while inculcating in the student-body a Christian worldview. Others, on the other hand, are more narrowly focused, training people for ministry in the church, particularly preachers.

Although the question of whether a particular Christian institution ought to be more focused on the liberal arts or training ministers is important, a much more foundational question ought to be asked in light of Le Donne’s dismissal that pertains to any Christian institution: when it comes to studying the Gospels and the historical Jesus, should Christian institutions be leading students in seeking Jesus or proclaiming Jesus? To clarify, should professors (like Le Donne) be leading students in “the search for the historical Jesus” or teaching them who Jesus was and what he taught? The first is a form of skepticism and assumes that we do not know who the Jesus of history was and so we need to “find” him. The latter assumes that Scripture accurately portrays who Jesus was and thus we know who he was and we therefore can accurately proclaim who he was and what he did—there’s no “search” for Jesus needed because we know who he is and what he did.

It seems to me that, although the “search for the historical Jesus” movement may occasionally provide helpful insights, it is mostly unhelpful in building a Christian worldview and defending the veracity of historic Christianity. The search for the historical Jesus movement assumes, at root, that the Gospels do not give an accurate picture of who Jesus really was and what he did. As such, it ought to be dispensed with as a serious inquiry in Christian institutions, especially in those whose mission is to train people for ministry in the local church. To understand better why the search for the historical Jesus ought to be avoided in institutions of Christian higher education, we must take a brief look at the history of the historical Jesus movement.

The First Quest

The search for the historical Jesus is typically viewed to have “three quests.”[1] The first began in the 19th century at the height of the Enlightenment. Prior to this time, the church viewed Scripture as the inspired, inerrant Word of God. But all this changed during the 17th-18th centuries when a philosophical movement, what is now known as “Modernism,” began. Although the tenets of Modernism are much more complex than they are often portrayed and Modernism itself is far from being monolithic, Modernism is often correctly understood to include the view that human rationality and science, not religion or the Bible, are arbiters of what is objectively true.

Modernism greatly influenced the church; it particularly brought about a shift in biblical studies, such as the study of the Gospels and Paul’s letters. One major influence of Modernism on biblical studies was that supernaturalism was viewed to be illegitimate and was thus thrown aside in favor of naturalism, i.e., the belief that all that exists is physical matter, or “nature.” Since supernatural events were viewed as impossible, the biblical accounts of miracles all became suspect and were, in fact, rejected.

Hermann Reimarus

The first quest for the historical Jesus, then, began with the assumption that the supernatural events described in Scripture were myth or legends invented by the early church. Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768), often viewed as the one who began the first quest, argued that Jesus was just a human Messiah who had come to free the Jews from Roman oppression. When Jesus died his disciples stole his body from the tomb and claimed he had risen again. Many scholars eventually rejected Reimarus’ radical view of Jesus, but he sparked the historical Jesus movement to find the “real Jesus” who “lies behind the text” of Scripture, with naturalism as the underlying assumption.

Subsequent works written in the first quest continued the anti-supernatural bent. For example, H. E. G. Paulus (1761-1851) argued that Jesus’ miracles were simply accomplished by unknown causes or that people simply misperceived the events. He popularized what is now called the “swoon theory” of Jesus’ resurrection: that Jesus only appeared to die on the cross but revived when he was laid in the tomb. Other figures who continued the anti-supernatural methodology in the first quest included Adolf von Harnack (with his famous work What Is Christianity?), Ernst Troeltsch, D. F. Strauss (who wrote the controversial The Life of Jesus Critically Examined), William Wrede, Johannes Weiss, and Martin Kahler.

Rudolf Bultmann

The first quest for the historical Jesus eventually ended in skepticism with Rudolph Bultmann as its spokesman. Bultmann argued that nothing can truly be known about the Jesus of history. The Bible was nothing but a description of the “Jesus of faith,” not the “Jesus of history.” He concluded that the reason why the writers of Scripture propagated such myths and legends about Jesus was because they had to meet the “theological” needs of their time (whatever those were). Bultmann, however, believed that there was still a “true” message of Jesus that could be found in Scripture once all the myths and legends were “demythologized.” For Bultmann, Jesus’ message was to live a life of “authentic existence,” which was essentially the New Testament read through the lens of existential philosophy as propounded by Martin Heidegger.

One significant result of the first quest was that a method of inquiry into the Gospels (and the NT as a whole for that matter) had become entrenched which would influence later historical Jesus “quests.” The method included three elements: (1) an anti-supernatural bias, (2) doubt regarding historical claims, i.e., truth claims are merely subjective, and (3) historical events are uniform—what we experience today must be the same as what others experienced in the past. With these methods in place, a view of the Gospels also became entrenched which would also be assumed in subsequent “quests”: (1) Scripture does not give us a picture of the one, true Jesus of objective history, (2) Scripture is nothing more than subjective interpretations of the Jesus of history, and (3) there is a distinction between the “Jesus of faith” and the “Jesus of history,” i.e., the Jesus proclaimed by the church and the Jesus who lived in the first century.

The Second Quest

Ernst Kasemann

The second quest for the historical Jesus continued the same trajectory and assumptions as the first quest. Building on the first quest, the second quest, begun by Ernst Kasemann (1906-1998) with his paper “The Problem of the Historical Jesus,” maintained an existentialist worldview, rejection of the supernatural, the distinction between the “Jesus of history” and the “Jesus of faith,” that the gospels were written years after the events they describe, and that the gospels were embellished and created by early Christian communities. Although there may be some examples that may have done otherwise, the overall methodology remained the same and the assumptions regarding the Gospels continued.

Interestingly, the second quest actually concluded a few more things about the one, true Jesus than the first quest. Unfortunately, however, since the second quest continued many of the same assumptions as the first, not much more could be concluded. It could conclude only that: Jesus was from Nazareth; he was baptized by John; he preached and told parables about the kingdom of God; he taught that the kingdom was coming; he performed what people thought were exorcisms and healings; he had disciples; he ate with sinners and outcasts of society; he was arrested and charged with blasphemy and sedition; he was crucified by the Romans. Such a list obviously does not bode well for defending the historicity of the Christian faith. Moreover, the second quest specifically denied that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, that he predicted his death, and that he rose from the dead. [2]

Third Quest

The third quest for the historical Jesus, which began in the 1980s, is much more of a “hodge-podge” of ideas. Many in the search have continued the same assumptions from the first and second quests, e.g., that the “Jesus of history” and the “Jesus of faith” are two entirely different concepts. One extreme example of this skeptical approach is the infamous Jesus Seminar (with John Dominic Crossan as probably the best representative).

Luke Timothy Johnson would be another example of one who continues the skepticism of the first and second quests. Although Johnson is to be distinguished from the Jesus Seminar, he nevertheless continues the belief that the real Jesus cannot be found via historical investigation but through existential faith, i.e., fideism (blind faith). For Johnson, there really is no way to find Jesus in objective history; we have to rely upon some type of experience only. As such, he is one who continues the distinction between “the Jesus of history” and the “Jesus of faith.” In a similar vein, Anthony Le Donne, Chris Keith, and others argue that historical methodology is insufficient to “find” the historical Jesus.[3] In my previous post, we saw that this was clearly the case with Le Donne.

Others involved with the third quest, however, believe that historical investigation does indeed give us true, objective knowledge of who Jesus was. Such scholars would include N.T. Wright and Ben Witherington. They argue that particular historical methodologies, such as the criteria of embarrassment, Semitic influence, coherence, and multiple attestation, reveal the actual Jesus of history: there is a Jesus of history and we can know who he was.

The Question

After a brief history of the three quests for the historical Jesus, we now return to the original question: what should be the mission of institutions of Christian higher education in regard to the study of Christ and the Gospels? Should it be to get on board with the search for the historical Jesus movement or should it be to pass on what Jesus taught and did?

It seems to me that Christian colleges and universities ought to be providing students with studies of what Jesus said and did. First, if institutions pursue the search for Jesus, then it clearly implies that we do not really know who Jesus is, which in turn entirely undermines the overall goal of a Christian education. For those institutions which are geared more to providing a Christian worldview, the search for Jesus undermines that such a worldview is even possible, for Jesus remains unknown. Certainly, in order to have a Christian worldview one must know who Jesus is! For those institutions which are focused on training preachers and teachers in the local church, the search for Jesus undermines the very content of what they are to teach in the local church. How can preachers and teachers proclaim the gospel of salvation in the local church if it is not known who Jesus was and what he did—if we are still searching for him?

Second, the search of the historical Jesus carries with it, for the most part, all the assumptions that were laid in the first quest. This is problematic for several reasons. First of all, a distinction between the “Jesus of history” and the “Jesus of faith” severs belief with reality. What one believes about Jesus is no longer necessarily connected to the Jesus of Nazareth who lived, died, and was resurrected in first century Palestine. As a result, either the Jesus of faith becomes an idol or a figment of one’s imagination (and these two are not necessarily mutually exclusive!). In either case, Jesus is now made in our image.

In addition, the anti-supernatural bias that is assumed in the quests for the historical Jesus leads to the denial of the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. The Jesus sayings and events as portrayed in Scripture are severed from reality. They are merely interpretations of early Christian communities; they are not inspired words of the Holy Spirit. It is this assumption that has led the likes of Anthony Le Donne to employ “social memory theory” to Scripture and to assert that the Gospels are merely interpretations of Jesus. The Gospels become a mere human product, susceptible to all the frailties and errors of humanity. Such a practice eviscerates the Gospel and completely undermines the epistemological foundation of the Christian faith, Scripture. In the end, we really have no word from God.

Third, the search for the historical Jesus undermines the study of theology. Instead of one cohesive, coherent theology of God and all other things that relate to him, we have multiple theologies. This necessarily follows from the idea that Scripture is merely a manmade product. Scripture thus contains the theologies of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, and others. There is no one understanding of Jesus or the Gospel. And, again, this leads right back to the idea that Jesus is made in our own image.

All this being said, I want to make clear that not all historical Jesus studies are illegitimate. After all, some of the studies have helped shape parts of the historical method of investigation. Also, some of the studies provide helpful information into the culture and context of first century Palestine and help shed light on the biblical text that aids in our understanding of Scripture. Moreover, some studies, like those of Craig Evans, Craig Keener, Ben Witherington, N.T. Wright, Mike Licona, and others, are helpful in establishing the truth of the Christian faith. Much of their work is in the area or may be used in the area of apologetics, i.e., in the defense of Christianity, and they do not assume much of what the traditional searches for the historical Jesus movement assumed. In fact, an argument could be made that their work ought to be viewed as distinct from the search for the historical Jesus movement. Their work is very helpful in exposing the fallacious arguments put forth by those who continue in the same vein as the first and second quests.

If Christian colleges and universities follow the general approach of those like Evans, Wright, and Witherington to historical Jesus research, then it seems that such is overall worthwhile and beneficial for the Christian faith. Such an approach appears to be aimed at defending Christianity and helping us understand its truth, especially as revealed in Scripture. On the other hand, those who take the approach of those like Le Donne end up following the skepticism that was part and parcel of the original quests for the historical Jesus. Such a method is antithetical to the overall goal of Christian education: to impart knowledge of Christ and his Kingdom to students in order to prepare them for the proclamation of the Gospel and to develop a Christian worldview.

Which approach to historical Jesus studies does the Christian institution practice that you support? We ought to respond to this wake-up call and ask ourselves this very important question. The Gospel itself may be at stake.


Peter Jay Rasor II


[1] See Mark L. Strauss’ Four Portraits: One Jesus (pp.347-378) for a more thorough, yet brief survey of the history of the three quests for the historical Jesus that is laid out here.

[2] See Mark L. Strauss, Four Portraits: One Jesus, 356-57.

[3] See the forthcoming book Anthony Le Donne and Chris Keith, ed., Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (T&T Clark International) to be released August, 2012. The description of the book clearly states that the typical historical method of investigation is no longer tenable:

In the past five to ten years, historical Jesus research has taken a turn away from the traditional “authenticity criteria”. In previous decades, criteria such as Dissimilarity, Embarrassment, Multiple Attestation, Semitic Influence, Coherence, Multiple Forms, et cetera enjoyed a prominent place in Jesus studies. But what were once staples of the so called “Quest for the Historical Jesus” have fallen toward obscurity. Not only have several key studies in the field openly abandoned their use, those who include these criteria now do so with heavy qualification. The authors of this book target several criteria and show them to be in utter disrepair.

What makes this book most timely is that it undermines the foundation upon which much of historical Jesus study stands. The guiding thesis of this book is that the Quest for an “authentic” Jesus – one who is isolated and disconnected from the narrative representations of him – was launched with the presuppositions of historical positivism and the notion that an uninterpreted past can be recovered. Very few critical historians now think that facts from the past can be distilled from the packaging of human perception, bias, memory, and identity-invested reflection.

Many of the authors of this book argue that historical Jesus study will continue to be important for future generations. As such, it is high time that historians part ways with the pitfalls of historical positivism. All of the authors of this book will take issue with these assumptions and argue either (a) that one or more of these criteria are broken, or (b) that the assumptions that led to the prominence of these criteria must be abandoned. [This description can currently be found here: http://www.lincolnchristian.edu/JesusConference/AboutBook.asp]

If it is the case that the traditional historical method of investigation is “broken,” then the obvious question is, what will replace it? For Le Donne it is “social memory theory,” or what he termed “memory refraction” in his book Historical Jesus, which is in essence postmodern relativism as I discussed in the previous post. Chris Keith concurs with Le Donne that social memory theory is the replacement for the historical method of investigation; see Keith’s interview with Matthew Montonini at the New Testament Perspectives webpage: http://newtestamentperspectives.blogspot.com/2012/05/was-jesus-literate-interview-with-chris.html

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8 Responses to A Wake-up Call

  1. Greg Waddell says:

    Great article! Thank you for taking the time to put together this analysis.

  2. Great post. I love reading posts like this that really make you think.

  3. Great blog, Dr. Jack Cottrell pointed my way to your blog. Great stuff. Keep pointing us in the right direction with great information.

  4. Great Information.

  5. Matt Summers says:

    You are at your very best when writing on theological issues and discussions such as these. Thanks!

  6. Jim says:

    I would like to respond to the following statement: “… when it comes to studying the Gospels and the historical Jesus, should Christian institutions be leading students in seeking Jesus or proclaiming Jesus?”

    As an employee of a Christian higher education institution I find this dichotomy confusing and misleading. The answer is, and should always be, both. What 18-22 year old doesn’t go through confusion, doubt, and questions about what they see in the world and also in Scripture? It doesn’t matter if they are planning on becoming a missionary at a traditional Bible College, or a school teacher from a Christian liberal arts institution. Instead of creating reductionistic dichotomies such as the one posited here, we should engage in these issues more deeply.

    This article is probably written by a Baby Boomer or perhaps someone older who is concerned about Christian Higher education institutions losing their mission and not taking the “real” Jesus or the Bible seriously. As an under 30 product of a Christian higher ed institution I appreciate your heart, but think you are missing the point. I know dozens, literally dozens of my peers who graduated for Christian higher ed institutions who are now walking away from faith altogether. They’ve checked out, because the doubts they had in college were not taken seriously or given validity by their Christian professors. They can no longer take the simple answers seen in the church and are gone. These are good people, with master’s degrees who grew up in good homes, and went to youth group every week and mission trips to Mexico every summer and proclaimed Jesus for the bulk of their teenage years.

    My peers, and the world of college educated agnostics and athiests who your Bible College trained pastors are trying to reach believe this stuff implicitly (but would care less about the actual nuts and bolts you clearly laid out here). However If you want to “speak their language” culturally speaking you need to be fluent in their doubts, questions and concerns related to this movement. Christian leaders for the next generation need to know about the historical Jesus movement, and actually give it some validity instead of just setting up an awkward dichotomy at the beginning of an article, spewing out a well educated synopsis of a controversial movement to gain some credibility, and then giving a reductionistic answer to a very complex issue in the conclusion. Doing so will cause young people such as myself will tune you out.

    As a Christian from a younger generation I agree with your underlying assumptions here that the Bible is paramount, and any Christian institution needs to safeguard itself against folks it considers “hostile” to it’s mission. However, the bigger issue in my mind facing Christian higher education institutions is a generational one. Many of my peers, and at times myself feel the church, and Christian higher ed is becoming too dismissive, insular, and reductionistic when facing complex moral issues seen in society today.

    Christian leaders for tomorrow (and all generations) need to be able to explore the practical realities of our culture and world along with the truths in the Bible. This doesn’t mean you take the Bible less seriously or give it any less focus. We do have a great Biblical illiteracy problem among young Christians, I won’t contest that. But, it does mean your Christian college trained leaders need to engage in the murky questions about the historical Jesus to have voice in this culture. The same can be said of conversations about science (stem cell research, cloning, etc), and any other hot button issues of our day.

    The real issue facing Christian higher education…and the church as a whole, is to stay culturally relevant and have a voice into the world without watering down the Gospel or sacrificing their values. Otherwise you will be dismissed as a modern day Amish… as many of my peers already have.

    • prasor says:


      I think you have misunderstood my statement that you are contending with. You are equivocating on the term “seeking.” My very next sentence clearly defines what I mean by “seek”: “To clarify, should professors (like Le Donne) be leading students in “the search for the historical Jesus” or teaching them who Jesus was and what he taught?” The question is whether Christian institutions should be getting “on board” with the “quest for the historical Jesus” or whether they should be investing their time teaching who Jesus is and what he did, NOT whether they should be “seeking” Jesus in their daily lives and “seeking” who he is in Scripture. So, the statement is not a false dichotomy, nor is it confusing if one continues to read the remainder of the article.

      That being said, I entirely agree with you that youth today have questions, confusion, and doubts about the Christian faith. But Christian colleges/universities which jump on board with the “third quest for the historical Jesus” will only confirm their doubts as to who Jesus is. Why? Because the assumption is that we cannot know who he is via Scripture. In addition, I clearly pointed out that the “quest for the historical Jesus movement” should be studied for apologetical purposes–so Christians know how to answer critical, unbelieving people. The problem is that those who are actually involved with the “quest” for Jesus often agree with critical, unbelieving people: that Jesus cannot be known and that Scripture is not inspired; and they agree with many of the other assumptions that have been embedded in the search for Jesus since the first “quest.” Have you ever thought to ask yourself why some young people who are graduating from some of the Christian institutions are leaving the faith? I would suggest because some (not all) are leaving because they are being taught the conclusions that come from the search for the historical Jesus movement. In fact, I know some myself. I would encourage you to do some more extensive research on the “quests for the historical Jesus.” They were the seedbed for what used to be termed “liberal theology,” or “modern theology,” which ultimately led to unbelief. Also, I’m happy to know that you do not want to water down the gospel. But this is exactly what is done by those involved with the “quest for the historical Jesus.”

      Finally, you should do some research on who wrote the article. You would find out that no “baby boomer” wrote this article. I am someone who more recently graduated from an institution which taught some of these things I have written about. Look me up on the internet sometime. You should be able to find me.

    • Joel says:

      “This article is probably written by a Baby Boomer or perhaps someone older”

      I could not help but chuckle when I read this only because I know the age of the writer.