Leipzig Conference: History-of-Religion and Theology
I returned yesterday from the invitational conference held in Leipzig (28-30 September) and focused on the relationship of “history-of-religion” research and theology. The conference was scheduled in observance of the 100th anniversary of the death of Georg Heinrici, an eminent scholar in Leipzig who was himself very much involved in history-of-religion research, and also in the controversies about how this research related to traditional Christian theology.
The fifteen invited presentations varied in scope and focus, but were all interesting. Confining myself here to those papers that addressed the broader questions, Heikki Räisänen (Helsinki) offered reflections on his own emphasis on “A Religious Studies Alternative to New Testament Theology,” providing further insight into his own thinking and personal background for it. (He was unable to attend, on account of health, but his paper was read out for us.)
Geurt Henk van Kooten (Groningen) proposed connections between the Gospel of John and Greek mythology and philosophy, urging that the author intended to make such connections as part of a concern to evangelize. Udo Schnelle (Halle-Wittenberg) focused on the NT idea of Jesus as “incarnate” deity, making comparisons and contrasts with other ancient ideas sometimes seen as analogies. Cilliers Breytenbach (Berlin) discussed the use (and misuse) of purported “analogies” and how dangerous it can be to construct “genealogies” from them. In short, similarities don’t necessarily signal “borrowing” of one thing from the other.
Peter Geneinhardt (Gottingen) considered the long-standing question of whether it is correct to see “myth” used in the NT declaration of Jesus’ significance. Part of the problem is that there are several distinguishable meanings of “myth” in modern scholarly usage. If, for example, “myth” refers to some figure/event of the timeless past that can be actualized in the present, that doesn’t quite fit. For earliest Christians (at least those in the emerging “proto-orthodox” circles such as the NT writings) tended to emphasize that Jesus is a real historical figure, whose death was a real and locatable historical event. Moreover, the eschatological emphasis makes for a difference: In early Christian proclamation, crucial events lie in the future (such as resurrection of the dead and the return of Christ). That isn’t typically a feature of ancient “myth.”
Marco Frenschkowski (Leipzig) reviewed the stances of Heinrici, Harnack, Bousset on the relationship of history-of-religion and theological approaches of the early 20th century. John Fitzgerald (Notre Dame, USA) surveyed references to Heinrici in English-language scholarship, noting the unjustified neglect but also the particular instances where Heinrici has been acknowledged (e.g., Hans Dieter-Betz’s notice of Heinrici’s commentary on 2 Corinthians as what he judged the best case for the literary integrity of 2 Corinthians).
I was invited to explore possible theological implications arising from the sort of work I’ve been involved in over the past few decades on the origins of Jesus-devotion, which forms part of what is now sometimes referred to as the “new religionsgeschichtliche Schule.” Noting that the term is misleading, and there isn’t any one theological stance represented in the body of scholars sometimes so-designated, I then offered some preliminary suggestions of my own, which I’ll briefly summarize here.
First, what implications arise from emerging consensus that the treatment of Jesus as somehow worthy of divine(like) honor originated in the earliest circles of the Jesus-movement? In my view, this doesn’t decide the theological validity of traditional Christological claims, but it does remove one major reason that has sometimes been used as a basis for rejecting them. You can’t relativize a “high” Christological stance by claiming that it reflects a secondary and late development. The early centrality of Jesus-devotion, in my view, makes it central also for theology today.
Moreover, the place of Jesus in earliest Christian proclamation and practice has theological implications for “God” as well as for Christology. The link of Jesus and God is the key distinguishing feature of discourse about “God” in the NT. Just as Jesus is consistently defined with reference to God (e.g., sent forth by God, raised/exalted by God, etc.), so “God” is rather consistently defined with reference to Jesus. I suggest that there are theological implications for virtually every traditional topic in theology.
I also discussed how the terminology used in early Christological discourse varies, focusing on the curious Christological usage of the Greek term pais (“child/servant”), which appears in only Acts and then a few other early Christian writings, and mainly in passages that reflect liturgical settings. Whatever the reason that the term had this limited usage, it illustrates how early Christians used various terms to express their faith. The basis implication is that theology has this continuing responsibility to find meaningful ways of communicating in different cultural settings and circumstances.
I also pointed to the importance of early Christian devotional/worship practices. My point was that the central place of the risen/exalted Jesus in earliest devotional practices has, I contend, profound implications for theology. There is a distinctive “dyadic” shape to earliest Christian devotional practice and to earliest Christian proclamation. Indeed, I propose that theologians might be advised to study earliest Christianity more closely, as perhaps a more fruitful resource for theologizing in the modern global and multi-faith context. For some 15 centuries, Christian theology has basically been an “in-house” discussion, Christian theologians arguing with one another. And the key starting points have been theological developments of the 4th century AD and later. But in the modern context in which again Christianity is simply one religious option among others, it is perhaps again important for theologians to work at articulating Christian faith in ways that can be engaged by people of other faiths. For that, I suggest that the texts of the first three centuries may now be more valuable than the later writings that have been more frequently the focus of theologians (e.g., Cappadocian Fathers, Augustine, etc.).