Theology, history and which Jesus?

One of the main intellectual tasks facing the church in the aftermath of modernity has been to reconnect theology and history. Historical criticism, with help from scientific method generally, generated such distrust of the biblical narrative that it was safer for theologians to do their thing without reference to history other than in the most abstract terms. Historians, for their part, were happy not to have nervous theologians looking over their shoulder all the time telling them what the texts were supposed to mean and scolding them for asking too many questions. The divorce suited both parties.

Since the end of the nineteenth century or thereabouts numerous attempts have been made by theologians to restore the marriage. This rudimentary “infographic” (thanks to Piktochart—I don’t want to pay the $29 a month to have the watermark removed) is an attempt to clarify and comment on the process.

The central point to make is that the original “marriage” was one between a metaphysical theology, heavily dependent on Greek thought, and a tripartite cosmic meta-narrative of creation, redemption and final consummation abstracted from scripture.

The meta-narrative might be classified as History with a capital “H”, but it is not history as we know it; and it is biblical only in an attenuated sense—a few chapters from the beginning, a few from the middle, and a few from the end.

It is this large-scale meta-narrative that modern theologians mostly have in mind when they talk about reconciling theology and history. For example, Murray Rae, in his book History and Hermeneutics, argues that “Contrary to the prevailing assumptions of historians, history is not impervious to divine agency, but is the very means by which God establishes the relation with his people for which they were created” (48). What is needed, therefore, is a “theological account of what history is”.

This theological account of history is then sketched in two chapters. First, a trinitarian doctrine of creation establishes the basic theological conditions for human history: on the one hand, that the world has “its own being and integrity in distinction from God”, and on the other, that God “involves himself in bringing creation to its goal”. Secondly, the resurrection of Jesus constitutes the turning-point of history, the culmination of God’s redemptive action in the world. Since the resurrection also reveals the final goal of history, the renewal of all things, we have here the tripartite form of the cosmic meta-narrative of biblical History—the doctrines of creation, redemption and final consummation.

This sort of approach keeps the theologians firmly in control of the reconciliation process. It is done on their terms. Having commended N.T. Wright’s professed “willingness to think history and theology together”, Rae throws his hands up in horror at this statement in The New Testament and the People of God:

In a sense, the study of Jesus is first and foremost a matter of history, needing careful ancillary use of literary study of the texts and theological study of implications.

“Theology is thus put in its place!” Rae protests. “Historians—with some help from the literary scholars—will lay bare who Jesus was, while theologians are left to consider the implications” (46).

Rae’s Barthian objection is that we still cannot trust “history”—that we need revelation to tell us what history really is. But I think that the more serious issue is that the large-scale theological account fails to recognize that most of the New Testament deals with history in an entirely different mode. 

The narrative frame in which Jesus is located is not—certainly not for the most part—the meta-narrative of creation, redemption and final consummation; it is the smaller, historically focused narrative of YHWH’s judgment of his people and the transformation of their place among the nations. [pullquote]Jesus is not Word-become-flesh in effective isolation from the story of Israel. He is the Son of Man who will be seen by the rulers of Israel seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.[/pullquote] He is, first and foremost, a political agent—YHWH’s king, the vindicated martyr, the embodiment of the persecuted disciples who will suffer in the coming years, as YHWH judges and restores his people but will also eventually be vindicated for their faithfulness.

This apocalyptically conceived but thoroughly historical narrative, though overwhelmingly dominant in the New Testament, began to fade from view around the time of Justin Martyr and is still largely ignored by theologians, who are interested only in the big abstractions of creation, sin, incarnation, redemption, and final judgment. If we are serious about re-establishing the relationship between history and theology, then I would argue that the historical narrative of judgment and kingdom, not the inflated narrative of creation and redemption, needs to be given priority.

That is why I think that Wright is correct to put history first and let theology deal with the implications. Our inherited theology has spent the best part of two thousand years wooing, living with, separating from, and trying to win back History-with-a-capital-H. It now needs to learn how to live with a much more down-to-earth, messy, painful, everyday, contingent, non-capitalized history, beginning with the New Testament story of the Son of Man, which is the story of how God judged, restored and promoted his people amongst the nations of the ancient world. It’s not the same woman. Theology should not assume that it knows her.

I am not sure how to say this without coming off as a fanboy or something, but what in your mind is the best way to go further along this way of thinking? I have read all of your books (OK, not Speaking of Women) and much of NT Wright. I would love to find some other scholars or theologians that would help me explore this line of thinking.

peter wilkinson | Sat, 08/23/2014 - 11:38 | Permalink

Nicely argued: the case for a limited historical interpretation of the biblical narrative clearly presented, and a warning to theology to stop throwing its weight around.

Overargued? I think so, whilst taking note of the central argument. For instance, I think it’s too glib to go back to Greek thought as a target for all the supposed ills of modern theology — “a metaphysical theology, heavily dependent on Greek thought, and a tripartite cosmic meta-narrative of creation, redemption and final consummation abstracted from scripture”. 400 years+ of enlightenment debunking has put paid to this whipping boy.

It’s also too easy and dismissive to say that modern biblical theology is a construct based on “a few chapters from the beginning, a few from the middle, and a few from the end”. The detail needs to be looked at more carefully than this, but I think a balanced theological case tells us that there does need to be more attention paid to political and historical circumstances in NT times, and how prophecy pointed to that. However, this is very far from the whole story.

The truth is that all biblical interpretation, historical included, is theological. The idea that we can have biblical history without theology is a myth, and should be exposed as such.

While theology should not throw out the baby of historical perspective, neither should history throw out the bathwater of theological insight. Baby and bathwater need to be kept together. Otherwise there are significant tranches of the OT and NT, more than “a few chapters from the beginning, a few from the middle, and a few from the end”, and not least the significance of the promises to Abraham and his descendants as the controlling metanarrative, which have to be suppressed for the sake of supporting an overemphasis.

I have been reading in Neil MacDonald’s book “Metaphysics and the God of Israel.”

A powerful and clear presentation of the issue of God’s judgment and then final mercy over Israel as told within the thematic development of Israel’s history of rise and fall. A significant interaction with Barth and Von Rad…

It seems that MacDonald argues from history as well showing how Pilate becomes a critical player in the history of God’s enacted judgement on Israel…

Rev. Bryant J… | Wed, 09/17/2014 - 03:29 | Permalink

Every thing that we do in this world is theological in some way. Unfortunately, many even within Christianity divorce history and theology. Why? Unbelief. The implications to the Church and Christian academia are numerous and disasterous.

Christianity is based on the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is a historical fact. Without it we are the most miserable of men. Of course, there are other historical and scientific facts that are found in the Scriptures, but many want to believe that science, history, psychology, etc. are more authoritative and accurate than the Scriptures. This will always be their doom. To elevate man’s reason above God’s revelation of Himself in Christ (Hebrews 1:1-4).