Monday, July 11, 2011

Review in Word & World

On Being a Disciple of the Crucified Nazarene, By Ernst Käsemann.  Eerdmans, 2010.  Pp. 337.  $30.00, paper.

Imagine that Ernst Käsemann, progenitor of the New Quest for the Historical Jesus, champion of demythologization, and formidable German New Testament scholar, throws this gauntlet at your feet:

“Whoever listens to the Bible leaves familiar territory and should be prepared for something like a Pentecost event” (53). “Put very pointedly, whoever has not stumbled over God’s word and does not do so again and again will never learn to proceed in true Christian fashion” (310). “Very often one reads only what one already believes, and the great poverty of Christianity stems not least from the fact that it always or mostly finds in the Bible what it already knew, thus actually intends self-confirmation” (103-104). “It cannot be denied that the number of those who live with and out from this book has shrunk mightily” (169). “The most scandalous thesis: that none of us should give up on the Bible, that we cannot do without it if we would hear the voice of the true God” (173).

When Käsemann’s gauntlet hits the ground, will you pick it up? Will you accept the challenge?

The book is your opportunity to be a roadie on an Ernst K speaking tour, with Roy A. Harrisville as your companion and translator. Because it is a collection of essays, lectures, and sermons, all delivered over a period of years, you get to hear various riffs and emphases repeated numerous times. This never feels redundant. It is, instead, training in thinking like Käsemann—certainly a worthy undertaking.

Even if one has not read (or maybe especially if one has not read) his more exhaustive and influential works—such as his Commentary on Romans, The Wandering People of God, Perspectives on Paul, Jesus Means Freedom: A Polemical Survey of the New Testament, or New Testament Questions Today—this collection of twenty-eight previously unpublished lectures and sermons[1] should and can serve as introduction to his thought. It illustrates how his New Quest and demythologization was always in the service of his primary vocation—teacher of the church.

However, this book is not important simply because it introduces Käsemann to a wider reading public, or because it throws down the gauntlet for how challenging the Bible is. This book is important because it gives courage for steadfast discipleship of the one Käsemann calls “the crucified Nazarene.”  He is concerned that “almost always the churches have worried more about their members’ peace of soul and tended edification from the cradle to the grave than given courage for resolute discipleship in everyday life” (30).

What precisely does it mean to be a disciple of the crucified Nazarene? A definition is offered: “True surrender of the disciple is unbound, not a private affair, tends toward aid to the world, extends freedom everywhere” (128). This is the outward manifestation, but this definition of discipleship can only be understood in the context of discipleship as spiritual warfare, an essentially apocalyptic approach to understanding biblical interpretation and the Christian life.

For example, in his fascinating retrospective (a brief memoir that opens this volume), Käsemann concludes, "As a last word and as my bequest, let me call to you in Huguenot style: 'Résistez!' Discipleship of the Crucified leads necessarily to resistance to idolatry on every front. This resistance is and must be the most important mark of Christian freedom” (xxi). So discipleship is always resistance to idolatry, and this is precisely because the spiritual life always has something as its lord, always ridden, either by Jesus or the lords of this world. “There is no neutral zone between gospel and idol worship. Whoever is not for the one lives for the other” (87). “What is assumed is an anthropology that defines one at any given time by one’s lord” (131).

Readers unfamiliar with Käsemann but somewhat familiar with the project of demythologization will be fascinated by his sustained attention to demythologization as not simply something that is done in relation to the bible, but to all contexts needing to be demythologized—especially, he makes a point of noting, Enlightenment readings of Scripture. In fact, almost all exegetes and preachers would benefit from memorizing his definition of demythologization: “In the evangelical sense demythologizing occurs as a battle and resistance against superstition. And superstion at least according to Luther’s explanation of the first commandment, is everything that does not allow us most deeply and without compromise to fear, love and trust God ‘above all things.” Thus demythologizing, evangelically conceived and rooted, denotes ridding humanity and the earth of the demonic” (200). Demythologization does not claim that demons don’t exist—rather, it does battle with the demons.

What are some examples? In the first essay in the volume, Käsemann has been asked to talk about the danger and meaning of anxiety. Specifically, he has been asked to talk about the relationship between apocalyptic and anxiety, and proceeds to do so by demythologizing both. In the end, he shows how true Christian apocalyptic does not cause anxiety, but is the antidote for it, whereas worldly anxiety misinterprets the apocalyptic and fails to see how it is the carrier of evangelical freedom and truth.

Second, a major focus of Käsemann throughout his essays is a call to the “white race” to acknowledge its complicity in the sufferings of the world. This leitmotif can be found in almost every essay. He pushes the topic of race to such a degree, because he firmly believes that the church of Jesus Christ should be “a resistance movement of the exalted Lord against all who make God’s creation a prison for anyone, near or far, a playground for their selfishness, vanity, and lust for rule” (277).

For those interested in making use of this book in a study group, consider focusing on two pairs of essays, discussing the essays over two sessions. In session one, read “Evangelical Truth and Radical Change in Christian Theology” together with “What is Due in the Church?”  These two essays will give a sense of the book as a whole. Second, compare “The Righteousness of God in Paul” and “Divine and Civic Righteousness.” These two essays sound a basso profundo in Käsemann’s thought, and approach righteousness each from opposite sides, divine and human, in a fruitful fashion.

Pastor Clint Schnekloth
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Fayetteville, Arkansas

Published in the Summer 2011 issue of

[1] And one radio address given over South German radio—when was the last time you heard a full theology lecture given over the radio?

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