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
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
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
- 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
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
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" .
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
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. 
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.
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
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)
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
the claims of christology. 
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.
 Jesus and Judaism, SCM Press Ltd, 1985
 The Founder of Christianity, 1971
 The Modern Theologians, Blackwell, 1997