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It’s like history “Inception”: Martin Kähler

Today’s Church history minute is about Martin Kähler, someone who was wildly influential, yet who is not very well known outside of Academia. I say it’s like history inception, because Kähler talked about history, in terms of history and this is a “Church history minute” so…wait I’m confused.

Who was he?

Kähler was a 19th century (and very early 20th century) German theologian. His primary claim to fame was the publication of his book The So-Called Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ. In essence, as can be surmised from the title, the work was a critique of the Quest for the Historical Jesus, specifically the first one (I talked about the Quest for the Historical Jesus last week). Although it’s not translatable in the title, he actually uses two different (German) words for “history.” The first, related to the Quest for the Historical Jesus, was a cognate of the German Historie. The second, in the Historic, Biblical Christ, is a cognate of the German Geschichte. [To the readers out there with a basis of New Testament Greek, it may be similar to the distinction between (transliterated) Kairos and Chronos, though the two are not similar enough to call them parallel]. Kähler’s point was that the “Quest” had become so focused on the historical study of the figure of Jesus that they had neglected the genuine historical impact of Jesus, which is Jesus in the bible and Jesus as he is preached. For Kähler, the historical facts about Jesus’ life outside the bible were secondary (if even that). Famously he noted that the genuine Christ was the “Christ preached.” This, while initially positive, led to some, what I would consider, negative consequences that we’ll have to get to in a later piece.

Why was he important?

He influenced a variety of theologians and philosophers, though mostly German ones. He may also be credited with starting something called “kerygmatic theology.” One of those he influence, Rudolf Bultmann, became the poster-child for “kerygmatic theology” which emphasized the kerygma or message about Jesus over the actual historical figure Jesus. Other people he influenced include Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as well as (possibly) Wilhelm Dilthey (a German Philosopher).

Fun Fact

Martin Heidegger (20th century German Existentialist Philosopher), is often credited with the distinction between two types of history, even though he notes that his distinction is based in Wilhelm Dilthey. However, as has been recently been noted by people who study this thing, Kähler published the work with this distinction before Dilthey. As such, he is the first to talk about history in different senses in the modern world, something that, in a way, may have been a precursor to Einstein’s discussion of relative time.

Where might I have heard of him?

You probably haven’t unless you are a serious academic or just really interested in 19th century German theology (in which case, kudos to you), but he was really influential. Trust me.

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2 thoughts on “It’s like history “Inception”: Martin Kähler

  1. Hal Bennett on said:

    When I was a Th.M. student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, 1968-1971, the high point of those three years was my hermeneutics class — which is a big word for ‘biblical interpretation.’ My professor, Dr. Redus Edgar Glaze, Jr., was interested in the Quest of the Historical Jesus. I found that subject to my liking, since I had recently finished the residence work on a master’s in history at Florida State University.
    Dr. Glaze was so impressed with my paper on the historical Jesus that he invited me into the Th.D. program in New Testament. That was the beginning of my problems. I was a confused young man at that time, so confused that I didn’t even KNOW how confused I was.
    Once I had gotten into the Th.D. program at NOBTS, I found that I didn’t have a clue as to Jewish apocalypticism, especially as it related to the Jesus of history.
    I was aware that Schweitzer saw Jesus as a thoroughgoing apocalypticist, and that C. H. Dodd was a “realized eschatologist,” but I could not, for the life of me, understand just what this all meant, especially regarding my stance as a Southern Baptist.
    By 1978, I had been relieved of my Th.D. work by order of the dean, as I had not finished my dissertation. I decided upon a wholesale exit from the ministry, giving up my pastorate as well as my National Guard chaplaincy.
    A name that nevertheless stuck with me from my days with Dr. Glaze was Martin Kahler. In retrospect, I now understand why Glaze was so interested in Kahler.
    The Southern Baptist Convention began to split apart, theologically, in 1979. By 2000, the split was “complete,” in that the Fundamentalists had won the day by taking over most of the Convention’s main agencies. The grip of the Fundamentalists on the denomination extends to this day, perhaps even stronger than it was in 2000. I find that the preachers who hold the strongest pulpits in our area of south Alabama are adamant in their Fundamentalist stance. It is as if they have told Dr. Glaze, Martin Kahler, C. H. Dodd, and anyone else who tried to understand the Quest of the Historical Jesus, to just forget it.
    Kahler’s position, as I understand it, anyway, is that the Quest of the Historical Jesus was a blind alley, that we don’t have enough in the way of documents that agree with one another concerning this and that regarding Jesus, so as to classify our knowledge of Him and His ministry as reliable history. Nevertheless, Kahler contended, we have in our Biblical record regarding Jesus the basics of what is needed for our soul’s salvation.
    But that is not quite the same take on Jesus as that of Schweitzer, who, after all, came to see Jesus not as the Saviour of mankind. Bultmann, basing his stance largely upon Schweitzer’s findings, saw Jesus as an apocalypticist who was mainly involved in the same mistaken idea, that the Messiah’s coming would signal the end of the world.
    I never quite gave up on my study of the New Testament, so that gradually over the years, I came to my own understanding of the issue between the Fundamentalists and those in our denomination, such as Dr. Glaze, who saw such men as Kahler and Dodd as “antidotes” to men such as Schweitzer and Bultmann.
    But all you have to do is Google up this and that Fundamentalist opinion, and you will see that they lump (“classify” is too dignified a term for this) Dodd in with Bultmann as a “liberal.” And I must assume that if they knew much about Kahler, they would brand him as a liberal too.
    What I could never grasp at the seminary (while I was there) was that the professors there were trying to avoid interpreting the New Testament according to any futuristic take on the Book of Revelation. Later I came to understand this much more clearly once I had made my own study of the Fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. I came to the opinion that at bottom this takeover is based upon a Premillennialist, even Dispensationalist, take on the Book of Revelation.
    It strikes me as ironic that the Fundamentalists agree with Schweitzer and Bultmann that Jesus was a futuristic apocalypticist. I wonder if they are even aware of this. If they are NOT aware of this paradox in their thinking (or lack of it), then that might explain why they cannot see that someone such as a Dodd or a Kahler has tried to “help” them by finding a way out of the dilemma of seeing Jesus as Schweitzer and Bultmann did.
    The biggest reason I have come to my present way of thinking concerns the fact that I took Dr. Glaze up when he told me that psychologically I could not “get over the hump” regarding the theological teachings of my childhood. I determined to do just that, “get over the hump.” I set out on 38 years of talking with the head of the Psychology and Counseling department of the seminary, Dr. Stanley Jack Watson.
    I have come out of that experience believing that (1) the problem with most Southern Baptists is that, just like me, they cannot “get over the hump” in their theological thinking due to their emotional attachment to what they were taught as children within the denomination; and (2) Apocalypticism, is, after all, a psychological phenomenon brought on by stress on a mass scale.
    The people of the Southern Baptist Convention have come under tremendous stress in modern America. Our institutions, including that of the Family, have come under increasing “attack” by the forces of modern Society. I agree with the Furman professor who thinks that the split in the Convention itself is an apocalyptic event. If that is true, then it is no wonder that the leadership of the present Convention establishment is able to base its movement upon a futuristic emphasis upon the Book of Revelation.
    Psychology tells us that people regress under stress. They become somewhat paranoid under stress, and they “regress” to modes of coping such as those they actually used in their childhood. I must ask the question — is apocalypticism, after all, a phenomenon that falls within such a category? And, after all, did the “historical Jesus” somehow understand this, such that He rose above it rather than participating in it as an enthusiast? As Kahler might seem to indicate, the Biblical record perhaps is not clear enough to make a pronouncement on this one way or the other.

    • I don’t know that many people who group Schweitzer and Bultmann together, nor separate Kahler and Bultmann. Yes Schweitzer critiqued Kahler, arguing that Jesus was a radical historical figure giving a necessarily apocalyptic message, but I don’t know that the rest of the scenario works out among the Germans as you describe. In fact, Bultmann almost certainly was following in the tradition of Kahler, who inaugurated what would become kerygmatic theology, with Bultmann tracing this line from Kahler to Barth and then in his own way. Further, Schweitzer and Dodd were more or less on the same side. Now Kahler, Bultmann, Schweitzer and Dodd all criticized the quest for the historical Jesus, which claimed that we can know from history that Jesus was merely an ethical teacher. Schweitzer and Dodd objected because, according to them, the Jesus known in history had a strong apocalyptic message that cannot be ignored (i.e. the Kingdom of God is not about ethics, but about radical transformation and an eschatological revolution). Kahler, and later Bultmann, both argued that not only could we be uncertain of history, but that the history (German: Historie) was irrelevant, all that mattered was the message (greek: kerygma) of the early church, that was concerned primarily with impact of history (German: Geschichte). In doing so they minimized the Christ of history, and eliminated the scandal of particularity. However, and this is where I object to Kahler and Bultmann, the historical facts (Historie) are indistinguishable from the Geschichte of Jesus, and this history is what comprises the kerygma of the early church. Resurrection does not only mean that new life is possible after destruction, but (more importantly) resurrection means that God has transformed the very fabric of history (both Geschichte and Historie) and inaugurated an eschatological kingdom that is at odds with the ways of this world. This is Pannenberg’s point (a student, and later critic, of Barth). Now all of them would be labeled a liberal by most SBC fundamentalist pastors (as would Kierkegaard, whom they base their model of worship on, and Barth, who renewed the emphasis on the Word and on Preaching). In fact, while fundamentalists are distinguishable and those who reject the exclusivity of Christ (neo-progressives) are likewise distinguishable, the liberal-moderate-conservative distinction is often a fairly artificial one, with views held by each group that would be considered liberal or conservative by both Fundamentalists and neo-progressives alike. The truth, as is typically the case, is much more complex.

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