Jesus: The Unanswered Questions

Written by John Bowden Reviewed By Richard Bauckham

Some Christians enjoy being sceptical about Christian belief, and perhaps it is not surprising that the editor of SCM Press should be one of them. Books he has published naturally feature prominently among the sources from which he builds up a case against, not only traditional Christology in the narrow sense, but the role which the figure of Jesus Christ has hitherto played in Christianity. Other books he has published take account of the kinds of difficulties he raises but find them no obstacle to positive christological construction, but these books—by, for example, Pannenberg, Moltmann, Sobrino, even Bowden’s friend Schillebeeckx—seem to have influenced his thinking about Jesus not a jot. He attempts to forestall criticism by admitting (in contradiction of his subtitle) that many of his questions have been ‘discussed, and indeed answered, with enormous sophistication elsewhere, at very great length, and scholars will inevitably criticize me for being naive and superficial. My problem, however, is that I do not even begin to understand many of these complex, long, sophisticated (and also, it has to be said, often mutually contradictory) explanations’ (p. 12: my italics). This is surely a little disingenuous: to know that complex explanations are mutually contradictory one needs to understand them rather well! It is true that ‘there is never any harm in simple questions’ (p. 12). But it is also possible for simple questions to become a kind of stubborn scepticism which will not attempt that kind of looking at a whole matter from another angle which satisfying answers to simple questions often require.

My criticism of this book is certainly not that it asks questions. Asking honest, difficult, disturbing questions is essential to the health of theology and the church. To suppose such questions is indeed, as Bowden charges, to turn Christianity into an ideology. So I had hoped to find in this book at least an agenda for contemporary Christology—a set of questions sharply and insightfully posed. But I was disappointed. In fact the book does not really ask questions, but sketches broad areas of disquiet liberally scattered with often too-confident assertions. Of course, extremely important issues are raised, such as in the chapter entitled ‘Can Jesus be Everyman?’ (This title is curiously question-begging, in view of the fact that feminist difficulties about a male Saviour are a major ingredient in its topic.) But this chapter turns out to be a confused tangle of issues which are never properly analysed and defined. They are issues which really do need much more careful attention than they have usually received in Christology, but this chapter will not do much to promote that. The impression throughout the book is that Bowden already has his own answer to all his ‘questions’—that the role of Jesus in Christianity must be radically reduced—and is no longer interested in the possibility of other answers.

In Bowden’s valiant attempt to end on a positive note Jesus scarcely features at all. That his questioning takes place in the context of real faith in God is clear, but that it is any longer a questioning faith in Jesus seems very doubtful. Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the book is the author’s apparent conviction that the decline of Christianity in the West can be arrested by this kind of resolute scepticism about Jesus and Christology (p. 196).

Richard Bauckham

Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of St. Andrews