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notes on Schlatter

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Just a few remarks in review of Adolf Schlatter's The History of the Christ (ET).

To be upfront, as a result of my own background as a pretty hardcore Lutheran in the radical-criticism and existientialist strain, I've always been highly skeptical of attempts to rehabilitate the Gospels about Jesus' earthly life -- which he lived upholding and teaching the Law -- as the most fundamental source for formulating Christian doctrine. Given that almost all teaching I encountered in mainline and even Roman Catholic churches was a.) a rehash of the Gosdpel lesson, and b.) essentially semi-Pelagian, I took the position that using the Gospels as a teaching point for gospel, instead of law (in the Lutheran sense of the distinction), was probably impossible, and probably contrary to the sense of the Gospels texts themselves (and thereby an abuse of Scriptures). So, I pretty much let the scrabbling in the dust about the Synoptics go on at my feet unheeded, and moved on. John was useful because it represented Jesus interpreted according to what he'd accomplished, not merely in the act of fulfilling the Law.

However, over the years, two, and now three, authors have begun to actually challenge my limited approach to the Gospels. The first was Robert Farrar Capon's series on the parables (Parables of the Kingdom, of Grace, of Judgment). While astoundingly creative and imaginative, Capon's indisputable strengths, those expositions didn't quite seem to be any less disconnected from the historical context than competing expositions which made Jesus dully legalistic. Still, it was a great leap forward for me: the Gospels could be turned from contradiction to the Epistles and Apostles into their pioneer and foundation (which seemed clearly the more logical position, if possible).

The second, and probably more important, influence is the work of Kenneth Bailey. His work on the traditional Near Eastern cultural setting for Jesus's context is a breakthrough. By putting the Synoptic portraits of Jesus in context, the tensions and radicalism of Jesus within Judaism, as well as Jesus' Scripture-bound approach, make the course of the Gospels, leading inexorably to the Cross, historically and exegetically comprehensible. It would be difficult to understate Bailey's growing importance to exegesis.

Which brings me, belatedly, to Schlatter. Adolf Schlatter was a name I knew only through passing references, and footnotes in Ernst Kasemann, for a very long time. Deep into the 1990s, however, Amerikajin finally got around to checking out the guy, though millions of Krauts knew him quite well, both scholars and ordinary folk. In the last year or so, I myself was finally able to get hold of both a short biography, and the two translated volumes of Schlatter's New Testament theology. The first volume is Die Geschichte des Christus, first edition 1920, revised in 1923. 426 pages in English, with indexes and a very short translator's preface, this book has taken me more than half a year to finish.

To start with the less positive aspects of the book. As one might guess from the fact that it took more over 6 months to complete, it's not an easy read. Noone can say the prose is lively. Schlatter does not discuss technical points in detail, and does not roadmap the specific texts he is covering at any particular point -- he simply assumes a deep familiarity with the Gospels on the part of the reader. This can get a bit baffling as he delves into the central stretches of Jesus' teaching ministry without that roadmap or signposts.

A second concern I have is Schlatter's practice throughout the book of describing (to paraphrase), "Jesus' concept of ______ was..." He seems, often, to get inside Jesus' head a lot. Kahler, who is also woefully undertranslated, has warned us about the dangers of the procedure. Though Schlatter does often tell us how Jesus felt or what he thought, his assertions are backed by the observation of Jesus' actions and words, both at that particular point and throughout his work. I can't really condemn Schlatter's work for this procedure, because he always is sure of a leg to stand on, but it's bad practice and I have reservations about it.

If I sound like I'm merely quibbling, though, you're hearing me right.

Despite being 80 years old, Schlatter's History of the Christ shows scarcely a hint of its age. This is probably due fundamentally to the fact that Schlatter is concerned explicitly and seriously to do his exposition as a matter of observation of the Gospel texts. When Schlatter addresses himself to competing interpretations, he does so generally, dealing with the first principles, rather than details of So-and-so's presentation of the argument. (For instance, the term "vision" and Jesus's baptism, p. 84-5, and the issue of miracles in III.10 [p. 174ff].) By not tying his interpretation to anything other than his reading of the text, Schlatter brings his reader to a secondary level, next to the text, rather than tertiary or worse, filtering through layers of competing readings. Schlatter places himself next to the text, and ensures that the reader can directly compare the two.

By taking the text seriously, Schlatter can form a unified picture of the sources, and describe Jesus according to the actions and words of the Gospels, as a unity. The surpassing strength, in my humble opinion, of the History is that it shows Jesus as acting according to a definite will and character, expressed in words (parables, teachings, dialogue, exposition) and actions (travels, symbolic acts, exorcisms, healings). The unique unity of judgement and grace in Jesus' work is thereby shown to be intimately connected with the culmination in the Cross and his vindication in the Resurrection.

One of the reasons I think Schlatter has achieved real insight into the text is the flow of his exposition itself; Schlatter's text, too, builds from the beginnings and the Baptizer's call to repentance, toward the high point and focus of the Cross and its meaning. Beginning with the conflict with the Pharisees (III.15), the work intensifies, and mirrors thereby the Gospel accounts. Schlatter shows how themes from throughout Jesus' earlier ministry are connected and transformed in "Jesus' Way to the Cross" (Part IV).

For anyone willing to invest the time and reflection in broadening their understanding of Jesus as he is presented in the Gospels, I highly, highly commend The History of the Christ. In spite of the effort needed to get into the flow of Schlatter's prose, and the limits of its age, an exposition thoroughly invested in observation of the text bears fruit thirty-fold for the reader.

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