Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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C H Dodd (1884 -1973)
Charles Harold Dodd was one of the more influential British theologians of the first half of the 20th century, particularly in the area of messianic theology (christology). To put this influence in a perspective, he can be perceived as an apologist for the compatibility of revelation with analytical history. Dodd studied at Oxford University and briefly in Germany under Adolf von Harnack at Berlin University. In 1912 he was ordained as a Congregationalist minister and served for three years. The rest of his career was as a university professor at Oxford, Manchester and Cambridge. After he retired he directed the ecumenical group which produced the ground-breaking (but ultimately unsuccessful) New English Bible.

Dodd, in common with some others of his time, focused on the crucifixion of Jesus as a "crisis point" in history. A Scottish theologian, P T Forsyth (1848-1921), had already proposed that history is not a steady evolution but rather progress in steps, each precipitated by a crisis. That is, events appear to progress only by steady, gradual increments but are in fact from time-to-time fractured by major changes. This was the type of change that Dodd proposed in his theology.

The first major book published by Dodd was The Authority of the Bible (1928). It in he proposed that not only was the crucifixion an historical event, but it was one which was to re-shape the Western world and, through a knock-on effect, every other culture without exception. This, thought Dodd, makes Christianity a uniquely historical religion. In The Parables of the Kingdom (1935), The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments (1936) and History of the Gospel (1938) he advanced his theory of so-called "realised eschatology".

In his concluding chapter to Parables Dodd summarises his thesis:

[The parables] use all the resources of dramatic illustration to help men see that in the events before their eyes ... God is confronting them in His kingdom, power and glory. This world has become the scene of a divine drama, in which the eternal issues are laid bare. It is the hour of decision. It is realized eschatology.

The context of this eschatology was Dodd's lifelong focus on the necessity of historical research. If, he said, Christianity claimed to be based upon a revelation in history then there is no alternative to historical research. Those who had demonstrated that Christianity has borrowed certain ideas and images from other religions were acknowledged. So also were the form critics, who analytic methods had attempted to recover the original Christian sources. Dodd maintained that the Christian faith was nevertheless new in essence.

For almost three centuries now there has been an ongoing painful tension in Western Christianity about the possibility of accepting elaborate traditional teachings in the face of meagre and uncertain history in the gospels. Moreover, if Jesus was "God with us" then to what extent was he subject to normal limitations of humans in history? In other words, was he fully human or on some sense more than human and therefore outside normal human limitations?

In Dodd's case this tension found expression through two main theological strands:

  • Realised eschatology  Eschatology is a technical term which refers to the "last things" - a point in time when God, through the agency of Jesus, will bring history to an end and impose his rule on the world. By Dodd's time it had been widely accepted - largely due to the work of Albert Schweitzer and others - that Jesus certainly believed in the coming of God's kingdom (a new world order) within his lifetime. It's nearly as certain, said Schweitzer, that he recognised his error before he died. And, of course, events have shown that Jesus was in fact wrong to expect and end to history and the vindication of his beliefs. 

    The early Church, as Paul's letters make clear, rapidly moved from expectation that the "last things" would come immediately, to a belief that the new order would dawn some time in the future - a Christian teaching which persists to this day.

    Dodd thought that early Christians recognised that they were living through the early stages of a world crisis which had begun with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. As he put it, "The death of Jesus was the crisis of religion". But if Jesus was wrong in expecting God's kingdom in his time, then he could have been wrong in many other respects. It was therefore paramount to probe every aspect of the gospels for their historical truth. At the same time it should be recognised that the "Jesus crisis" had introduced God's kingdom to the world - even though it might take the rest of historical time to reach fruition.

    This "now but not yet" approach which Dodd brought to the question of the "last things" attempted to hold in tension two apparently incompatible ways of interpreting reality. 

    On the one hand is the idea of revelation, the teaching that God intervenes in history and that his deeds reveal his intentions and nature to humanity. In this sense, God provides us with information about the ultimates of life. We use this revelation the discover God's will for us. Our main task, therefore, is to interpret in the light of our changing circumstances what has been given to us through revelation. The person of Jesus represents the final and absolute truth which all must accept to be saved from the effects of sin.

    On the other is the idea of history as a seamless web of events known and analysed on the basis of evidence. If this route is taken, then the only information we have - and can have - about God comes from the universe. Reason in all its forms is the primary means by which we learn about God. The historical method (or methods) are the means by which we judge "what really happened". This way of knowing God always, by definition, delivers provisional conclusions open to new information and therefore to change.

    The context of Dodd's stand is significant. Theologians like Karl Barth were proposing that the available biblical evidence is an insufficient basis for Christian living. He maintained that at some point faith takes over in the life of the ordinary Christian. The "eye of faith" brings us from the point where historical evidence ends into a holistic response to the witness of the Church. Dodd held on to the unity of revelation as discovered through the Bible, and at the same time insisted on historical answers

    In contrast, and in reaction to Christian apocalyptic, Karl Marx (for example) held that the hope of things to come was in essence the way in which religion gives spurious comfort to the masses. In reality, the oppressed workers of the modern states held their fate in their own hands. Others (like Albrecht Ritschl 1822-89) thought that the eschaton was to be replaced by the gradual evolution of humankind towards perfection, moving towards a higher form through natural selection rather than through God's intervention in history.

  • The place of tradition (the kerygma or "preaching")  If (as Rudolf Bultmann insisted) there simply isn't enough evidence
    of sufficient quality to build up a historical portrait or biography
    of Jesus, what is left of Christian doctrine? Dodd's response
    was to maintain (a) that we have enough residue of historical fact for an in-depth understanding of the main elements of Jesus life and teaching; and (b) that for the rest we can safely rely on the primitive and relatively constant kerygma of the early Christian communities.

    He wrote: "The Gospel is not a statement of the general truths of religion, but an interpretation of that which once happened" [1]. Much as he attempted to focus on good history, this and many other statements place the final arbitration of truth squarely in the hands of the Church. It is thus not reason but doctrine which signs the final imprimatur.
  • When scholars pointed out that many elements of Hebrew and Christian tradition reflected other religions of the times - such as the myths of a dying and rising god - Dodd responded that the biblical witness nevertheless constituted something new in essence and detail. Thus the teaching of the last things was not ignorant superstition but an intensely penetrating vision of how God actually works in history. One result of this viewpoint was Dodd's insistence that John's Gospel is much more important for the life of the Church than is normally thought today.

    However, recent research into the social background of New Testament times is casts considerable doubt on the validity of the kerygma as a uniform body of doctrine. Early Christian teaching turns out not to have been as stable as Dodd's thesis requires. First, Palestine before the year 70 and the destruction of the Jerusalem temple was in a state of great flux. There were many competing versions of the kerygma - as the gospels and the non-canonical gospels reveal. Second, the Roman Empire was far less uniform than is the modern nation-state which we now take as the norm. Many forms of religion co-existed in the Empire, just as did many varieties of Judaism. In short, there was never such a thing as the kerygma. Rather, there were many types of kerygma.

Dodd's theology needs accounting for. How is it that he needed to come up with his "now but not yet" fence-sitting position? One way of answering the question is to observe that the rise of Christianity requires more than the historical Jesus. A powerful and influential interpretation (kerygma) of Jesus evolved after his death. The rapid and all-pervading spread of the Church in the West derived from an alliance of this kerygma with the Roman state in the fourth century. Dodd's point is that a powerful kerygma depends upon the historical existence of a powerful and influential Jesus.

As E P Sanders puts it:

In the Anglo-Saxon world it has often been argued ... that something about Jesus could be inferred from, in fact was necessitated by, the faith which sprang up among his disciples. [1]

This is more particularly so, says Dodd, because Jesus

... issued no program of religious or political reform, any more than he laid down precise regulations for individual behaviour. He disclaimed any intention to reform the existing system. [2]

So Dodd proposes that Jesus' actual intention was to set up a community which would become the people of God. This would happen through personal responses to the message about the coming of the kingdom and its future realisation on earth. When Jesus tried to establish this community in Jerusalem he was killed as a threat to the centres of power there.

This approach tones down Schweitzer's apparently cast-iron conclusion that Jesus was mistaken about the immediate coming of God's kingdom. Jesus was not merely a failed prophet. Rather, his life and death ensured first the establishment and then the future fulfillment of the kingdom. In other words, Dodd's theology provided a sure-fire way of explaining away a serious difficulty faced by the Church at the time.

Dodd's assessment of Jesus was, in my opinion, nevertheless the result of an unacceptable degree of overstatement on the basis of slim evidence. Bultmann was correct - there isn't enough historical data upon which to build huge castles of doctrine. Dodd's conclusions were too subtle and too extensive to be borne by the Jesus of history. One has only to read his work on Parables to wonder at the broad conclusions Dodd arrived at. It's true that, as an English theologian, Dodd was at some distance from European thought. But that is no excuse for not recognising that it had already been established that we have relatively little good history in the gospels - a conclusion which the so-called "Third Quest" for the historical Jesus has (I think finally) confirmed.

Perhaps even more regrettable is a failing which Dennis Nineham has pointed out in his The Use and Abuse of the Bible (1976). It was that Dodd gave no attention to his great cultural distance from Jesus, both in time and place. Perhaps the New Testament past is not quite  as unavailable as Nineham made out. But the material we have simply does not provide the grounds for Dodd's detailed and subtle conclusions.

David F Ford makes the further point that Dodd (and others) failed to distinguish between using history to derive elaborate conclusions about Jesus on one hand, and on the other using it to refute false conclusions about him.

It was not frequently enough perceived that the importance of historical research ... lay in its ability to refute the negative or skeptical historical judgements which would have falsified Christian claims about Jesus ... No facts of a historical kind ... could possibly verify the claims of christology. [3]

On the positive side, Dodd's insistence that the New Testament had to be subjected to penetrating historical research helped ensure the continuance of that research. At one stage it may have seemed that the "faith is the final arbiter" movement epitomised by Karl Barth had triumphed.
[1] Jesus and Judaism, SCM Press Ltd, 1985
[2] The Founder of Christianity, 1971
[3] The Modern Theologians, Blackwell, 1997

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