I think that Kähler’s thesis was a brilliant and influential one. It created space for Jesus in the hearts and minds of a people who would have otherwise abandoned all ties to Christianity. In other words, Kähler’s thesis was exactly the sort of thing one would expect from a hyper-modern context. But it had fatal flaw and I fear that Scot’s thesis has the same flaw.
Kähler’s Christ was a “supra-historical” figure. This is to say that, for Kähler, Christ had transcended the mundane particularities of first-century Judea. This Christ could be cosmic in scope and personal in character. Of course, this is quite similar to the Jesus of evangelical veneration. But, and this has been overlooked by too many historical Jesus people, Kähler’s “supra-historical” Christ also transcended Jesus’ Judaism in a context where a Jewish Jesus was desperately needed.
In the early years of National Socialism in Europe, it was not uncommon to talk about Jesus over and against Judaism. French polymath Ernst Renan is a prime example of this. For Renan, Jesus was “the destroyer of Judaism.” As the Nazi Party reached the height of its power, Jesus became the mouthpiece of Aryan supremacy [see the magnificent work of Susannah Heschel on this topic]. My point is a simple one: the Lutheran Church needed the historical Jesus during this period but all they had was a cosmic Christ that was untethered from his Jewish identity. The result was disastrous.
Ironically, if the Lutheran Church in Germany had paid better attention to the historical Jesus, they would have found a Jesus very much in line with the earliest Christian Creed.
Most scholars of Paul’s Letter to the Romans think that we find the earliest Christian creed in Romans 1:3-4:
born of a seed of David according to the flesh…Notice here that the first line anchors Jesus to his Jewishness. It is not an incidental or trivial fact of Jesus’ ethnicity or upbringing; it is gospel truth that Jesus was a Jew. This is the very first thing one needs to know about his identity. Tragically, this primary statement of faith had been forgotten in Kähler’s context. And if not forgotten, then trivialized or problematized. Simply put, the Nazi Christians were in breach of the first line of the first Christian creed.
declared the Son of God by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness
Historical Jesus studies, and this has been true of the discipline since Josephus and Augustine, has guarded this element of the life of Jesus. And it is this element that has made the last four decades of Jesus studies the most fruitful in history.
So I must disagree with Scot when he writes that “Historical Jesus studies are decidedly contrarian to orthodoxy and the church and even the Gospels.” The historical Jesus is the Jewish Jesus. This supports an orthodox understanding of Christ. And it is the historian’s job to diligently pursue this Jesus even when church folk have strayed from the path. For more on this topic see my two chapters in this book.
Look, I'm not blaming the Holocaust on Martin Kähler. And I am certainly not saying that a lack of historical grounding can lead to Nazism. I'm saying that historical Jesus research should be one voice at the conversation table, if for no other reason than to correct the Church when our Jesuses start looking too much like us.