These two methodologies serve not only to typify the major Liberal treatments of miracles, but provide models for the entire subject of the life of Jesus. As such, they present two distinct methods of approaching the Gospel data.
Still, Classical Liberalism as a whole fell on hard times earlier this century. It espoused an overly optimistic outlook, holding an evolutionary anthropology that involved humans reaching higher levels of consciousness. But such a view was overwhelmed by the realities of World War I and the recognition of intrinsic weaknesses within human nature. Those scholars who could not abandon their idealistic beliefs in the goodness of man, who still clung tenaciously to their convictions, struggled past the greatest slaughter of human lives in history, only to be confronted by the carnage of World War II. Liberalism was unable to maintain its leadership in the theological realm.
Liberalism suffered setbacks for other reasons, as well. For our purposes, the major issue is not only whether there is warrant for the belief that Jesus lived and acted in history. On this subject, there was little dispute. But we are also interested if there is any basisfor supernatural events in his life. This remains to be seen. De-Emphasizing the Historical Jesus
The publication of Barth’s Epistle to the Romans^11 in 1918 seemed to entail a message that was not only more fitted to the troublesome political climate, but matched an emerging theological conviction, as well. Barth insisted on a revitalized belief in God’s sovereignty, along with the reality of sin. The book hit the kind of nerve accomplished by very few volumes, serving as a monumental call away from a groundless trust in the goodness of human abilities, along with a restored focus on God.
Barth’s Neo-orthodoxy replaced Liberalism in the forefront of contemporary theological dialogue. However, while opposing a variety of the Liberal theological emphases, Barth and his followers were rather uninterested in the historical Jesus, preferring to divorce evidential concerns from the exercise of faith.^12 Even late in his career, Barth continued to express his lack of support for those who sought to study the historical Jesus.^13
The work of Rudolf Bultmann was another major influence against the pursuit of the historical Jesus. His 1941 essay“ New Testament and Mythology” popularized
11 Karl Barth, Epistle to the Romans, transl. by Edwyn C. Hoskyns (London: Oxford University Press, 1933).
12 For one early discussion of such matters, see Karl Barth, The Resurrection of the Dead (New York: Revell, 1933), pp. 130–145.
13 Karl Barth, How I Changed My Mind(Richmond: John Knox, 1966), p. 69.
the theological methodology of demythologization, including a de-emphasis on utilizing any evidential foundations for faith.^14 Biblical descriptions of the supernatural were thought to be crucial indicators of early Christian belief, but simply could not be understood today in any literal sense. Yet, transcendent language was significant in itself. Rather than discard it, such should be reinterpreted in terms of its existential significance for present living and decision-making.^15
While Barth and Bultmann were quite different in their theological agendas, to be sure, and often radically opposed to one another,^16 they agreed that the historical Jesus was an illegitimate quest. Many of their followers agreed, but not everyone followed them in their conclusions.