One of the things we notice as we study history is that history tends to repeat itself. The heresies about the identity of Jesus of Nazareth during the early days of the Christian Church have repeated – different names, but same heresies.

As we addressed in the last part of our series, the true identity of Jesus of Nazareth is at the heart of the problem with both Christians and non-Christians. 

Heretical Jesus “Reruns”

John the Apostle wrote this to Christians at the end of the 1st century:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world. 1 John 4:1-3

The “spirit of the Antichrist” is still in the world today. The heresies about the identity of Jesus of Nazareth from the first few centuries of the Church – Arianism, Adoptionism, Apollinarianism, Socianism, Sabellianism, Docetism, Monophysitism, Gnosticism, Judaizers, Ebionites and others – now have names like Jehovah’s Witnesses, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Christian Science, Oneness Pentecostalism, The Way International, The Unification Church, Christadelphianism, and the Unitarian Universalist Church. Each of the modern groups is a “rerun” of one of the ancient heretical groups the Church contended with centuries ago.

Some of these groups (often referred to as Christian cults) began in the 19th century (e.g. Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, Christadelphianism). Others began in the 20th century (e.g. Oneness Pentecostalism, The Way International, The Unification Church). The Unitarian Universalist Church was a 20th century consolidation of two older denominations – 18th century Universalist Church of America and 19th century American Unitarian Association.

There are others, but it demonstrates that old heresies don’t die – they just go into reruns. Satan knows what works with humans when it comes to “religion” and replays the same things over and over again.

The “Liberal” Jesus

I would add “liberal” and “progressive” Christianity in that heretical group as well. So many denominations and groups from those movements have chosen to show reruns of ancient heresies as part of their “church” experience. Non-belief in the Deity of Jesus is one of those heresies. Let’s begin with the “liberal” view of Jesus. We’ll look at the “progressive” in the next part of our series.

We see many of the problems with a liberal approach to identifying Jesus of Nazareth develop in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. One of those came from what’s known as a search or quest for the “historical” Jesus. Albert Schweitzer coined the phrase with his 1906 book titled The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede.

I grew up in a church that revered Schweitzer for his medical missionary work, but never heard any discussion of his position on Jesus Christ. It was only after becoming a Christian that I read through his seminal book and learned that Dr. Schweitzer was a heretic. He did not believe that Jesus was God. He did not believe that Jesus was born of a virgin. Schweitzer believed that Jesus was surprised when He was arrested and put on a cross. He believed that Jesus had much loftier plans for Himself as Israel’s Messiah and suffered defeat at His death. Schweitzer also did not believe that Jesus rose from the dead. That was quite interesting to me based on my memory of him from pastors and others in the church where I was raised as a child. I would have liked Schweitzer better when I was an atheist if I had known what he really believed about Jesus of Nazareth. Atheists like Christians who don’t believe in Christ.

That’s what “liberal” Christianity does. It strips Jesus of His Deity and leaves us with a man, possibly a man who had some good ideas, but just a man like the rest of us. No supernatural power, no authority, really very little to offer anyone else. Jesus doesn’t continue to exist in reality, but His “spirit” continues on with men to encourage them in their desire to be better, to do better, in this world. As Schweitzer wrote about in The Quest of the Historical Jesus:

We are experiencing what Paul experienced. In the very moment when we were coming nearer to the historical Jesus than men had ever come before, and were already stretching out our hands to draw Him into our own time, we have been obliged to give up the attempt and acknowledge our failure in that paradoxical saying: “If we have known Christ after the flesh yet henceforth know we Him no more.” And further we must be prepared to find that the historical knowledge of the personality and life of Jesus will not be a help, but perhaps even an offence to religion.

But the truth is, it is not Jesus as historically known, but Jesus as spiritually arisen within men, who is significant for our time and can help it. Not the historical Jesus, but the spirit which goes forth from Him and in the spirits of men strives for new influence and rule, is that which overcomes the world. Albert Schweitzer, 1906

This historical quest that Schweitzer wrote about began in the late 17th century and continues to the present time. It began as part of critical scholarship into the Bible that grew into the German “higher criticism” of the 18th and 19th centuries. The quest or search for the “historical” Jesus was included in many biographical writings about Jesus – known as Lives of Jesus.  The biographies were an attempt to harmonize the different Gospel accounts with historical research the led to new views of the life of Jesus.

First Quest — Late 17th century through early 20th century … quest to distinguish between the historical Jesus and the “Christ of faith” … this period ended with Schweitzer’s book

No Quest Period — Even though some have called the decades following Schweitzer’s 1906 book the “no quest” period, people were still writing about Jesus. That included the rise of the “Christ myth theory.” Arthur Drews wrote The Christ Myth in 1909 to deny the existence of a Historical Jesus. Other Germans (e.g. Bruno Bauer, Albert Kalthoff) joined in with their views on Jesus being a myth. We still hear about the Jesus myth theory today, even though much of that has been debunked by scholars in recent decades. Rudolf Bultmann also wrote during this time period as a skeptic of the quest for the “historical” Jesus. Bultmann, a German theologian, believed that little could be known about the life of Jesus and that what mattered was that Jesus existed, preached and died on a Roman cross.

Second Quest — Early 1950s through early 1970s … Ernst Käsemann, a student of Bultman, gave a lecture in 1953 titled “The Problem of the Historical Jesus.” He veered from Bultmann’s perspective and believed that historical information about Jesus had some importance. It began what some at the time called the “new” quest, but is now referred to as the “second” quest. Käsemann introduced new critical approaches to historical analysis including the criterion of dissimilarity and criterion of embarrassment. What Käsemann introduced became known as “Form Criticism.” Günther Bornkamm, another student of Bultmann, wrote Jesus of Nazareth in 1956. James M. Robinson, a member of the Jesus Seminar, wrote A New Quest for the Historical Jesus in 1959. Marcello Craveri wrote The Life of Jesus in 1966 based on the Dead Sea Scrolls. The second quest lost steam in the early 1970s.

Third Quest — Late 1970s and continuing … Scholars in the late 1970s, 1980s and beyond looked at the historical Jesus through the lens of Second Temple Judaism, what some have called Palestinian Judaism. They looked at the Dead Sea Scrolls along with other ancient Hebrew texts and archaeological finds. Jesus Seminar member John Dominic Cross wrote The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant in 1976. E. P. Sanders wrote Paul and Palestinian Judaism in 1977 and Jesus and Judaism in 1985. Paula Fredriksen wrote Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews in 1999 and John Meier wrote A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus in 2009. Another aspect of the third quest has been the development of a historical-critical method which includes rules that many scholars have found acceptable.

These “quests” for the Historical Jesus have not gone unnoticed by orthodox Christian scholars. The response, in fact, has been robust through the years. Many Christian historians have questioned the methodology and bias of “questers,” including members of The Jesus Seminar. It is quite clear that the Jesus of liberal ‘Christianity’ is not the Jesus of the New Testament. He is a “soft” Jesus who is pliable in the hands of wolves in sheep’s clothing. It is a Jesus who aspired to greatness, but ended His life in defeat. The Jesus of liberal Christianity is a weak imitation of the real Jesus we find on the pages of God’s Word.

Next Time

We will look at the so-called “progressive” movement in Christianity and how it views the identity and sayings of Jesus of Nazareth in the next part of our series, And Jesus Said.

Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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