History and theology: never the twain shall meet

Murray Rae’s History and Hermeneutics is “an enquiry into how theology and history may be thought together”. This is an overriding concern of contemporary hermeneutics, and the book is an excellent contribution to the debate. But how you think the problem is to be resolved depends very much on where you start from.

At the end of a detailed account of how the conflict between history and theology has been handled by modern scholarship, Rae comes to N.T. Wright’s insistence that the New Testament must be read both historically and theologically, with both a postmodern self-consciousness regarding the reading process and a recognition that “the rootedness of Christianity in history is not negotiable”. But while it should be possible in principle to balance the seesaw, scholars inevitably have to sit at one end or the other. So whereas ”Wright establishes base camp in the fields of historical enquiry”, Rae proposes to “set out from certain theological convictions about the self-revelation of God” (45).

The question is whether there is really any prospect of history and theology reaching an agreement.

If you start with history and move towards theology, you end up, as I see it, roughly speaking, with the exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of the Father and the concrete outworking of that belief for both Judaism and the pagan world.

If you start with theology and move towards history, you will end up at some abstracted principle, which then becomes the lens through which the New Testament is interpreted. For evangelicals that abstracted principle is likely to be either a gospel of personal salvation or—for the more socially minded—the kingdom of God. The problem is that neither theological concept—neither gospel nor kingdom—really fits the New Testament narrative as it is interpreted historically.

For Rae—and for many traditionally minded theologians—the abstracted principle is incarnation. He argues that the heart of the Christian concern with history is “the story told in the Gospels of God’s redemptive participation in history by which history itself, turned away from God through human sin, is reoriented to its proper goal in the kingdom of God” (58).

This is the point of the incarnational narrative. In the incarnate life of Jesus Christ, the Word of God and second person of the Trinity graces our history with his own presence, thus confirming its goodness, and showing it to be the medium through which God’s loving purpose is worked out. In Jesus Christ, God’s relation to the world takes the form of his becoming a subject within it. The one through whom and for whom all things were created and hold together (Col. 1.17) renews through his presence that which human sinfulness had subjected to disorder and decay and ‘reconstitutes it in its relation to God’. (59)

The direction of thought here is quite apparent. The Word of God, the second person of the Trinity, becomes incarnate, which becomes the defining centre of God’s relation to the world. Conceptually the argument reaches back only as far as a text like Colossians 1:17 because theology—or at least modern theology—needs to work with the largest possible abstractions. The incarnation is framed cosmically; it is for the sake of the salvation of the whole of humanity. The concrete existence of the historical people of God is barely relevant. We would struggle, I think, to give a good answer to the question, “What has incarnation to do with Israel?”

The historical reading of the New Testament begins with the concrete reality of Israel under Roman occupation, with its particular self-understanding; it interprets Jesus primarily in relation to that concrete circumstance; it locates salvation within the story about Israel; and while it may strain tentatively towards certain high level notions of the relationship of Jesus to the Father, it arrives basically at a thoroughly apocalyptic account of the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus as Lord—that is, a theological interpretation of history rather than a historical embodiment of theology.

peter wilkinson | Mon, 08/22/2011 - 10:30 | Permalink

Agreed that the gospels begin with a background of Israel under Roman occupation, and that there is an apocalyptic dimension to Jesus's teaching which addresses Israel under that occupation, but is this all there is to a historical reading of the gospels, or even the main theme of the gospels?

The story which is being picked up in the gospels ranges over much wider territory than the immediate issue of Roman pagan oppression of Israel, and Israel's coming judgement in history (at the hands of Rome). It is also very arguable that every time Jesus speaks apocalyptically of coming judgement he has much more than judgement on Israel in view.

In fact, the story which Jesus is addressing is Israel's entire story, not simply the story of return from exile and the immediate circumstances of Roman occupation. It is remarkable how very little reference Jesus makes to Rome, and when he does, how affirming he is of individual representatives of Rome.

There is a see-saw which you are sitting on, Andrew, with theology at the other end, and it has been a feature of history that 'the Jesus of faith' has been contrasted with a 'Jesus of history' in historical criticism in the past. From where I'm sitting, there is no see-saw, nor is there the contrast between abstractions and apocalyptic which you illustrate in your diagram. This feels to me like a reversion to a historical argument, which culminated in Schweizer's The Quest of the Historical Jesus. I think we have moved on from this.

Murray Rae may have seized on the incarnation as the controlling narrative of the gospels. His framework of thought seems to make good sense of much more of the NT than Colossians 1:17! However, for me, if your interpretation of Rae is right, this would be jumping too swiftly to conclusions.

There is a controlling narrative in the gospels, and the NT; it is Israel's story as contained within a story of the world. You cannot separate one from the other. It is the Exodus story retold as the New (Second) Exodus. It is the story of Abraham, which looks back to the story of Genesis 1-11, and looks forward (in Genesis 15) to the Egyptian captivity, Exodus and entry into Canaan, and Canaan as the springboard for the fulfilment of the worldwide promises made to Abraham.

As the NT tells this story, apocalyptic involves the wrapping up of God's purposes in one person - Jesus, and the impact of this one person, through the church, on all remaining history. Take this version of the narrative, and there is no see-saw, and there never has been a retreat of the church from history into metaphysical abstractions. The only retreat, if there has been one, is the retreat of modernism from the supernatural, with which in the developed world we are still struggling.

I wouldn't expect you to agree with this; I do think that a credible alternative exists to the dichotomies which you expose in your own interpretation of the controlling narrative. I think the alternative deserves some serious exploration.