I keep coming back to this. There are people out there in the church—perhaps not very many—who think more or less the same way that I do. We may not agree on the details or the degree, but we are oriented in roughly the same direction. But there are a lot of good people out there in the church who don’t think the way I do, and it is a constant struggle to understand why this is and what can be done about it. It sometimes feels like a battle for the soul of the (evangelical?) church. Perhaps that’s too melodramatic, but the distrust runs deep, and I don’t see a lot being done to build bridges. I’m certainly not helping much.
I tend to think of it broadly as a clash between theology and history, but, as the chart below indicates, we’re really talking about the clash between theology and history on the “high” side of the polarity between a high view of scripture and a low view of scripture. These are not absolute positions, of course. They are scales, they overlap, they generate makeshift, often unintended alliances. I have argued for a consistent narrative-historical reading of scripture, for two reasons: because it does justice to the texts and because it grounds us in the lived reality of the people of God. Many people are sympathetic to this point of view but would prefer a theological-historical hybrid, a compromise position between the two quadrants. We should also note that this is a distinctly Western-Protestant view of things.
Above the line, we have to the left an assortment of modern orthodoxies and to the right what I call the “narrative-historical method”, for want of a more snappy term. Below the line, we have to the left theologies driven more by prevailing philosophical and socio-political convictions than by scripture and to the right the historical-critical method, which has proved itself to be much better at tearing down than building up.
For a long time the historical-critical method dominated the right hand side of the chart. It is only fairly recently that space has opened up for more constructive, integrating ways of working with the narratives of scripture. “Narrative” is not the only integrating category—we could also use the word “canonical”. But scripture as “canon” takes us further from the original historical situation of the texts than scripture as “narrative”. It also has the undesirable side-effect of isolating the biblical texts from their literary environment—in particular, from the texts of second temple Judaism.
Notice the orange arrows. They highlight the fact that, to my mind at least, the narrative-historical method is likely to be much more open to a cautious but positive engagement with the other quadrants. Modern evangelical and Reformed theologies have been formed largely in reaction against “liberal” theologies and historical criticism. The theological jury is probably still out on whether the narrative-historical method should be regarded as friend or foe.
So, keeping in mind that by “theology” I really mean “modern evangelical and Reformed theologies” and by “history” I mean the “narrative-historical method”, or whatever else we might wish to call it, here is a list of antitheses that roughly plot the differences between the two positions. It is overstated, incomplete, and reflects my personal bias. The exercise was prompted by the work I have been doing on “Reading the Old Testament as a Christian”, which is where we begin.
- Theology works backwards, reading the New Testament in the light of contemporary statements of belief, and the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament. History works forwards, evaluating its beliefs in the light of the New Testament, and reading the New Testament in the light of the Old Testament.
- Theology speaks in the language of the Fathers. Or the Reformers. Or John Piper. History speaks in the language of scripture. Or of second temple Judaism. Or of Josephus.
- Theology is static. History is dynamic.
- Theology is clean and tidy. History is dirty and messy and bloody.
- Theology has little time for social-political-literary-religious context. History cannot get enough of it.
- Theology yearns for coherence. History cannot escape from contingence.
- Theology thinks that it has transcended history. History thinks that theology is simply more history.
- Theology sees too far. History cannot see far enough.
- Theology is defensive, conservative. History is critical, self-correcting.
- Theology begins with answers. History begins with questions.
- Theology is foundationalist. History is critical-realist.
- Theology is idealistic. History is realistic.
- Theology moves smoothly along the rails of reason from doctrine to doctrine. History lurches like a dysfunctional family from crisis to crisis.
- Theology collects belief-data from the wild and arranges them systematically, like butterflies pinned in rows in display cabinets, to support a hypothesis. History observes how belief-data behave in their natural environment.
- Theology constructs its relationship to truth synchronically. History constructs its relationship to truth diachronically.
- Theology is prescriptive. History is descriptive.
- Theology teaches doctrines. History tells stories.
- Theology knows exactly what it wants to preach. History is working on it.
- Theology is apologetic. History is unapologetic.
- For theology Christology is incarnational-Trinitarian. For history Christology is determined by the apocalyptic narrative of suffering, vindication and rule.
- For theology Jesus is Word made flesh. For history Jesus is flesh made Lord.
- For theology the crucifixion is more important than the resurrection. For history it’s the other way round.
- Theology puts the individual’s relationship with God at the centre of its program. History puts the community’s relationship with God at the centre of its program.
- Theology is interested in beginnings and endings. History is interested in what happens in between.