In an earlier post I outlined the provocative position of Barth and Balthasar that the obedience of Jesus vis-à-vis the Father is revelatory of the very life of God. This was grounded on the same fundamental position with which Tanner begins her Trinitarian theology: the life of Jesus reveals the trinitarian relations within God. In her earlier book, Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity, she says it exactly as Barth or Balthasar do: “Jesus relates to the Father, the first Person of the Trinity, in the mode of existence of the Son, the second Person of the Trinity, made human” (32-33).
Nevertheless, she rejects the further move of Barth and Balthasar to see this as revelatory of God in a strong sense (although in Christ the Key she only names Balthasar). All three theologians note that we do not have in Jesus the simple unveiling of the divine nature (for Tanner, see 180, 244). We see the trinitarian relations of God “translated” through the human nature of Jesus. According to Tanner, the obedience of Jesus is one of the aspects that must be attributed to the “translation” of trinitarian relations within a world of sin and death. With most of the tradition, Jesus obeys the Father only as human. But Jesus’ obedience still does reveal something about God: “Corresponding to the apparently subservient relationshp that come about because the Son is sent on the Father’s mission is the fact that the Son is of and from the Father, the fact that the Son arises out of the Father’s own substance to be the perfect divine exhibition of him” (183). Furthermore, passages which indicate obedience (“I do as the Father has commanded me”) are primarily intended to affirm Jesus’ “exception character among men” (184). She also argues that, united to the Word, Jesus’ human nature is not obedient as to an external legislator (as it may be for a will impacted by sinful inclinations); the will of the Father is “the teaching of his own heart” (185).
This disagreement raises a fundamental question. On what grounds do we posit some aspect of Jesus’ existence as merely economic? For Tanner, obedience means subservience and thus inequality (244). Barth, in contrast, argues that the Son reveals himself as the Son of God precisely in his (divine/human) obedience (CD IV/1, 208-209). Some aspects of Jesus’ life seem to be more economic (“translated”) in character (i.e. his prayer to the Father); but the Son’s obedience to the Father in his mission from the assumption of human flesh to his ascension into heaven would seem to point to something more immanent in God.
In June 1988, at a conference of the Catholic Theological Society of America on the “Sources of Theology,” biblical scholar John Meier critiqued liberation theologian Jon Sobrino for his inadequate treatment of the historical Jesus (he also considered Juan Luis Segundo, but I’ll focus on Sobrino here). In short, Meier contended that Sobrino has not demonstrated the historical veracity of the claims that he makes about the historical Jesus. The problem with this criticism is that it depends on a fundamental equivocation. Is the “historical Jesus” equivalent to that construct of probable facts about Jesus which any reasonable community of scholars, regardless of confession, would hold to be true in light of the evidence (i.e., the historico-critical Jesus of Meier’s A Marginal Jew)? Or is the “historical Jesus” the Word incarnate in a particular historical context in the past (first century Palestine) and sacramentally mediated in the liberating praxis of the church in analogous contexts in the present (e.g., late twentieth century El Salvador) (i.e., the historico-theologal Jesus of Sobrino’s Jesus the Liberator)?
Both ways of seeking the historical Jesus risk sacrificing Jesus’ reality–that is, who he actually was and what he actually did: Meier by restricting his gaze to the demonstrably probable, Sobrino by pursuing a theological interpretation which is not pinned down on every point by demonstrable probability. Sobrino, it should be noted, does cite historico-critical scholarship in defense of many claims. Moreover, there is room to question the objectivity of any historical report–especially if it is about a religious figure such as Jesus–even if there are scholarly arguments, such as Meier’s, in place.
But the point I want to make here–and it is in some ways a point against Meier and in favor of Sobrino–is that reason has no absolute dominion over history. What is most true historically is not necessarily what will convince a neutrally disposed committee of experts. I don’t doubt that Meier’s meticulous work is of great value. Certainly it is! I do claim, however, that Sobrino’s reflection on the historical Jesus engages reality in a way which may be unavailable to those concerned primarily with academic consensus. Understanding Jesus, for Sobrino, implies discipleship in history. This, it seems to me, has more to do with who Jesus actually was than does any text which one might produce as a disinterested observer.