The starting point of view that is used below is that an exegesis that only wants or dares to base itself on what is scientifically acceptable in the figure of Jesus Christ cannot be reconciled with an authentically Christian vision of God. This problem arises with a considerable part of contemporary theology. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI recently (spring 2019) put his finger on this festering wound with his complaint that God is increasingly being pushed aside in contemporary theological literature and sometimes simply not mentioned anymore.
For biblical studies, more specifically of the earliest Christian writings, including the 4 canonical gospels, the “historical-critical” method is usually used at university level. One of the more recent designers of this was the still highly praised Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultman (1884-1976). His exegetical research focused primarily on the “demythologizing” of the biblical texts. According to him, for the evangelists the “kerygma” (the proclamation) was primarily important, but not the historical authenticity of their writings. In the theological circles that work according to his method, the evangelical miracles are treated almost exclusively as didactic tales, laden with some biblical symbolism. But the irony is that the perhaps well-intentioned historical-critical approach largely yields “disembodied” gospels. Instead of a historically better described Jesus the result was a widely appreciated but fragmented and vague mythical figure. It was very malleable and usable for all kinds of purposes: theological, ideological, political…, even fitting in show business (cf. the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar from around 1970).
The original intention of the historical-critical method was to provide the proclamation of faith with a solidly substantiated historical framework. But it is highly questionable whether this strictly applied methodology is suitable for the treatment of religious texts in general and the New Testament in particular. After all, you cannot simply separate the proclamation of faith and truthful tradition with impunity. The purpose of gospel writers was undoubtedly to bring their readers to faith in the Lord. An important question in this context is whether they also found it necessary to integrate very realistically told, but in fact purely symbolic or allegorical stories into their account of Jesus life. If one answers in the affirmative, as is customary among Bultman’s followers, then the conclusion is that Jesus’ life in itself was not convincing enough. The story of it therefore had to be artificially lifted to a higher (supernatural) level, in order to be useful for the proclamation of a new theology, which gradually developed between the first Christians, according to the supporters of this “scientific” exegetical method.
For them, the opening story of the Gospel of Luke, about Jesus’ first years of life, is a good example of this and is qualified as “unlikely” (or sometimes conveniently as “added later”). In flagrant contrast to this, we read how Luke (doctor and companion of St. Paul), even before he starts his story, reassures his correspondent Theophilus: “… having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in an orderly sequence …” (Luke 1:3). Such statements call into question the credibility of the four canonically accepted gospels. Moreover, one does not create a solid historically substantiated unity in the proclamation, but an almost inexhaustible source of counterproductive disputes between exegetical schools and tendencies. The writings of Edward Schillebeeckx O.P. (1914 – 2009) illustrate this well. According to him, quite a number of the words of Jesus have been attributed to Him by the evangelists afterwards (sic). His theological works are well known, but mainly study material for the trained religious scholars who manage to distinguish the heads of the tails in his tortuous reasoning. They are very progressive, but faith strengthening??
The historical-critical method largely led to an unfortunate marriage of convenience between faith and science, in fact not really scientific and even less religious. An extreme example of the modernist “faith updating” to which this can lead can be found in the works of Roger Lenaers S.J. (1925-2021) (1). This much-translated author refers more or less the entire “depositum fidei”, or roman Catholic content of faith, to the trash without detours … In his letters to Timothy, Paul warned us: “guard the deposit committed to you, avoiding profane, empty babblings, and opposing arguments falsely called knowledge” (1 Tim. 6:20).