Theology and history: on totally different wave lengths

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I have had quite a lengthy conversation here with Bobby Grow following on from my random review posts about Samuel V. Adams’ book The Reality of God and Historical Method: Apocalyptic Theology in Conversation with N. T. Wright. The conversation was basically a dispute, a little testy in places, about whether the interpretation of scripture needs to be predetermined by theological ideas about the epistemologically prior revelation of God in Christ developed by the later church.

Grow has reached the conclusion—rightly I think—that we are “on totally different wave lengths” and appears to have withdrawn from the conversation; and who can blame him? I express my thanks for his substantial contribution. But I thought it might be worth reviewing and summarising briefly what appear to me to have been the main areas of disagreement.

By what authority?

The theological approach holds to a doctrine of sola scriptura, which states that while scripture is the sole source of revelation, the interpretation of scripture is subject to the “magisterial” authority of the church.

This is often set in contrast to a “revisionist” doctrine of solo scriptura, a corruption of the Reformation principle, which rejects the authoritative interpretive tradition of the church and permits individuals to decide for themselves what a text means. Fr. Jonathan Mitchican discusses the grammatically irregular, pseudo-technical distinction between sola scriptura and solo scriptura.

The distinction between ecclesiastical and private interpretation, it seems to me, is largely illusory. On the one hand, there is no single magisterium even in the tradition to which modern Protestants are heirs; and on the other, individual readers always belong to a reading community of some sort, even if only implicitly and unwittingly.

The historical approach, in principle, makes appeal neither to church authority nor to personal whim but to a broad and rather loosely defined set of historical-critical standards. Historical Jesus research in particular has shown how these standards, while not merely subjective, are subject over time to the vagaries of cultural and ideological prejudice. Still, good historians will argue that they are always working towards a more or less “objective” understanding of what a text meant in its original author-reader setting. The historical reading of scripture is itself an authoritative tradition embedded in a reading community.

To the theologian it appears that the historical reconstruction is no less artificial than the theological reconstruction of biblical meaning. There is some truth in this. Two things may be said in response, however. First, it seems hard to deny that the immediate Jewish worldview should have priority for interpretation over Patristic or Reformation or post-Barthian worldview. Asking how the text was read in the first century and asking how it was read in the fifth century are two very different exercises, but they are both historical exercises. Secondly, historical reconstruction is, in principle, self-correcting; it engages critically with the data. Orthodox theologians, on the other hand, for better or for worse, can only offer different ways of saying the same thing.

The problem of historical reductionism

Theology, on the evidence of Grow’s comments, tends to characterise the historical method in reductionist terms. It puts itself forward as the defender of the theological-supernatural content of scripture against a materialist historical-critical methodology that is taken to be inherently hostile towards confessional readings of the texts.

History will say that this is no longer a fair analysis. The historical method does not need to settle the metaphysical questions. We only need to establish what the communities that originally produced and read the texts understood, believed, thought, etc. Whether the interpreter today understands, believes and thinks in the same way is another matter.

My argument is that persuasive historical interpretations should not be suppressed simply because they diverge from theological expectations.

So it is a perfectly reasonable historical question to ask what Matthew meant when he attributed Jesus’ conception to the Holy Spirit. Did he mean that Jesus was God incarnate, which is the theological assumption? Or did he mean that Jesus’ birth—like the birth of the boy “Immanuel” in Isaiah 7—was a powerful sign that God was with his people at a time of eschatological crisis? Theologians more or less take it for granted that the text conforms to dogmatic expectations. Historians will set that traditional assumption on one side and will ask whether, when interpreted according to the appropriate literary contexts, which are first century Jewish rather than Patristic, the saying might carry a rather different idea.

The important point to note is that this literary-historical reading does not question the fact of the “virgin birth”—did it really happen? It questions its meaning. My argument, then, is that persuasive historical interpretations should not be suppressed simply because they diverge from theological expectations. We need to find a better way of resolving the tension.

The theological cart before the biblical horse

Theology claims to precede or condition the Jewish context of the biblical writings; it describes the “metaphysical heritage” of the Jewish worldview or thought-world of the New Testament. Theology has taken upon itself the task of writing the epistemological—for which read “metaphysical”—rulebook for the interpretation of scripture. This is the fundamental move that Adams makes: he adds an apocalyptic epistemology to N.T. Wright’s critical realism.

This prior “theologic” or “inner logic” or “metaphysical heritage” is taken to be christological. In Pauline language it may be construed, in Grow’s words, as the “primacy of Christ over and for creation” as stated in Colossians 1:15-20. It was given a definitive “grammar” by the councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon. The Barthian apocalyptic theology advocated by Adams is a philosophically updated version of this patristic grammar.

History will argue, however, that this is an unwarranted arrogation of interpretive authority, a hermeneutical power-play. Nothing in scripture itself points to the need for such a reframing of the text and pre-emption of meaning. Scripture sets its own rules for interpretation, and they are not incarnational-apocalyptic.

Christology is central to the New Testament for the obvious reason that it is about Jesus and the significance of his death and resurrection for the early church and the pagan world. It was written by a community for which the story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and enthronement was of paramount importance.

Equally, there are good historical reasons for thinking that trajectories of thought established in the Old Testament land—albeit sometimes in a rather complicated fashion—in the New Testament’s presentation of the significance of Jesus. But forcibly to subsume the whole of the Old Testament under a christological premise is simply unnecessary and in practice often results in contrived exegesis.

A historical reading of the Bible will highlight themes much more closely related to the narrative shape of the material. At the most general level this will be understood in terms of the continuing historical existence of a witnessing community, but in my view it is the political-religious theme of the kingdom of God, vis-à-vis both Israel and empire, that constitutes the main hermeneutical key. Here again we see the contrast between a Jewish mode of apocalyptic as the story of the troubled existence of a people and a theological apocalyptic which makes the revelation of God in Christ the condition for interpreting the supra-historical Word of God.

In a nutshell, theology claims to precede, contain, underpin, interpret history, whereas history claims to precede, contain, underpin, interpret theology. The New Testament church operated with an apocalyptic-historical self-understanding; the church relocated into a Hellenistic setting developed the first paradigm; and I suggest that in the age to come we will be better served by the second paradigm.

Incidentally, in response to a rather vexed criticism made by Grow, the historical approach that I am advocating does not require us to think that “God’s presence had been absent until the ball got rolling to its current trajectory” in biblical studies. My view is that once the church began to feel at home in the Greek-Roman world, it lost interest in a Jewish-apocalyptic narrative that was designed to offer hope to an oppressed people, and set about the task of constructing a new hybrid worldview, largely on the basis of John’s logos theology, which was to last for 1500 years and more. But this hiatus in historical self-understanding does not mean that God was absent in the intervening period, merely that his relation to the world and to his people was differently construed.

The ontology of scripture

Theology assumes or argues that scripture has its own unique divine or sacred ontology as the Word of God. It is simply not like other historical texts and therefore cannot be read on the same terms. If we reduce it to a historical text, it can no longer exist or function as divine revelation that speaks to people at all times.

A historically oriented biblical hermeneutic will argue, to the contrary, that the only meaning that the texts have is their meaning in historical context. If the later church chooses to find in scripture a sensus plenior or submerged “theo-logic”—in other words, a meaning that isn’t there—then that is to be evaluated as part of a reader-response hermeneutic. A historical hermeneutic in principle must relativise all traditional formulations as being no less culturally conditioned than the Jewish-apocalyptic worldview that appears to have been so influential in shaping New Testament thought. The authority of scripture for the community that owns its story is to be found within its historical character, not outside of it.

Goldilocks and the three narrative bears

Theology instinctively tells the biblical story in cosmic terms, highlighting the development from 1) creation and fall to 2) incarnation and redemption to 3) a final eschaton. It then develops the implications of this universal meta-narrative for any and every individual. The story of Israel is merely an aspect of the inescapable particularity of the irruption of God into history—an aspect of the “Triune story”, as Bobby Grow puts it.

Grow argues that there is no abstraction here, but I disagree. There is a great difference between saying that participation in the life of God is grounded in the vertical reality of “God’s own participatory life for us in Christ” and saying that participation in the life of God—even allowing that this is a good starting point—is grounded in the continuing historical experience of a people chosen to bear witness to the creator God.

History prefers to tell the biblical story in down-to-earth political terms, relegating the cosmic aspect to a background supporting role. In this Goldilocks hermeneutical model, the neglected mother-bear-sized political narrative about the people of God and its relation to the nations of the ancient world is precisely what scripture is all about and what determines meaning. The cosmic narrative is much too big, and the personal salvation narrative is much too small.

Worst line of children’s toys ever.

But, yes, this is exactly the issue. You can’t say “the meaning of Scripture presupposes the centrality of the incarnate Christ” without depending rather heavily on what you (or your theological forefathers) have decided beforehand about the issue.

One point you made that I’d not really considered is that, when we take a historico-critical approach to reading Scripture, we are attempting to determine the theological reading of the people who produced them, which is not -necessarily- more or less “truthful” or “legitimate” than later theological readings, but does enjoy the position of being the one that actually produced and was contemporaneous with the Scriptures we are trying to understand.

There should be nothing controversial about asserting that a writing comes out of a cloud of existing thought patterns, current issues, etc. However, a statement that the writing comes out of a mysterious expression of God incarnate is an assumption we’d have to bring in from the outside.

peter wilkinson | Thu, 05/19/2016 - 22:27 | Permalink

“A historically oriented biblical hermeneutic will argue, to the contrary, that the only meaning that the texts have is their meaning in historical context”

Having been reading Brueggemann’s “Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy” recently, the challenge to the above statement will be to the whole project implied in the phrase “a historically oriented biblical hermeneutic”, and the question as to what exactly historical context is, in the OT especially. Brueggemann does a good job in particular of summarising the drifts and cross-currents of biblical interpretation in the last century and a half, with the ascendency, fall, and rise again of historical criticism, but against a backdrop of increasing doubt about historically based assumptions amidst the pluralism of current OT interpretation.

Which leads to Brueggemann’s own contribution to OT theology. Whereas the weakness of historical criticism is that it inveterately seeks meaning behind the text, Brueggemann’s rhetorical criticism pays close attention to the rhetoric of the text, in the sense that the OT is largely history reported through speech, and the grammar of YHWH himself, as principle subject acting through characteristic verb groups on characteristic direct objects.

It’s a different approach, but produces some arresting results, and perhaps charts a way forwards through the impasse of historical criticism and theology. To be fair, Brueggemann does not dismiss historical criticism, and affirms its major contributions to scriptural interpretation, especially in the history of interpretation. But he does illustrate the limitations of historical criticism, and its tendency to buy into enlightenment myths: such as non-supernaturalism, progress through evolution, and a hint that the goal of progress is not unlike the values and practice of Western European thought and hegemony.

@peter wilkinson:

Whereas the weakness of historical criticism is that it inveterately seeks meaning behind the text, Brueggemann’s rhetorical criticism pays close attention to the rhetoric of the text…

There is still a judgment to be made regarding whether the rhetoric of the text is an aspect of its historical character or something that is only discernible or appreciable given major subsequent theological developments. There is no reason why historical criticism should not take the rhetorical aspects of the historical text into account—indeed, rhetorical critiicism of the New Testament has mostly been a comparative historical exercise.

Perhaps you could give a page reference for the “grammar of YHWH” idea. Is he talking about an ancient Jewish grammar? A grammar detected by Jesus and the apostles? A grammar inferred by modern readers? In other words, is it intrinsic to the historical texts or extrinsic?

@Andrew Perriman:

It’s grammar in the sense that YHWH is observed and conveyed in the form of sentences with subject, verb, direct object, and qualifiers/modifiers (ie adjectives and adverbs). The subject is YHWH himself. Usually, we infer meaning from isolated words or phrases. From this, Brueggemann observes that the Israelites only describe YHWH in terms of concrete actions he performs, and were not interested in metaphysical or isolated descriptive qualities of his person — his ontology, if you like. I’m reading this on an e-reader, so can’t provide a page ref for you, but Chapter 4 — “Testimony in verbal sentences” might provide what you want.

@peter wilkinson:

OK. But that sounds to me like theology framed by history, interpreted historically. This offers a way beyond the impasse, but only because it subsumes theology within the categories of history—the concrete actions that God performs. History swallows up theology. I doubt that Bobby Grow or Samuel Adams would see this as an acceptable solution. In fact, Adams expressly rejects it. I think that they would argue for a theological grammar that transcends the thought world of the ancient Hebrews.

@Andrew Perriman:

I didn’t have either in mind, but was drawing attention to Brueggemann’s point, as I understand it, that historical criticism has encouraged a culture of ignoring meaning on the “surface” of the text for meaning “behind” the text (in more or less verifiable history).

The driving force of this observation, at the moment, is the increasing doubt held over the historical realities “behind” the text (this is mainly an OT observation), which the text itself describes. This is following 20 years or more of favour given to supposed historical realities through the “biblical theology” movement. So we may need a different way of reading what Israel meant through the text.

It may be that history was being revised much more than we have been accustomed to think, to meet the needs of Israel at a particular historical period — the exile/post exile period being favoured. If this is the case, finding meaning on the “surface” of the text is quite different from looking past the text to find meaning in history, and produces different results.

This loosening of hold of historical criticism as a monolithic methodology may be the reason for the emergence of a pluralism of biblical interpretation — eg feminist, liberationist, sociological, etc. History itself may no longer be the prime arbiter of a search for meaning.

@peter wilkinson:

If this is the case, finding meaning on the “surface” of the text is quite different from looking past the text to find meaning in history, and produces different results.

Still not sure I follow this. I fully take the point that historical criticism has been more interested in the historical realities behind the text, as you put it. But doesn’t your argument simply shift the historical focus from the ostensible pre-exilic context to the actual exilic/post-exilic context? This is why I put the emphasis on the historical existence of the community which produced and read the texts rather than on the events referenced. The same argument could be made regarding the Gospels. Whatever doubts we may have about the historical Jesus, we are reasonably confident that the Synoptic Gospels are a reliable witness to the story as it was being told in the latter part of the first century. That is still a historical issue and needs to be assessed critically.

These are the important questions: What story was the exilic/post-exilic community telling about itself to account for its identity, condition, and purpose? What story was the early church telling about itself to account for its identity, condition, and purpose?

But I agree with you that the short-sightedness of historical criticism has provoked diverse reactions, for better or for worse.

@Andrew Perriman:

“But doesn’t your argument simply shift the historical focus from the ostensible pre-exilic context to the actual exilic/post-exilic context?”

Yes it does, but it raises other issues too, in which the existence of historical realities behind the text, to which it refers, become subservient to the rhetorical character of the text itself.

Brueggemann is dealing with the OT rather than NT, so it’s stepping slightly outside his field to apply the same criteria to the NT. So the questions you ask in your penultimate paragraph may define an approach (and I think they are also somewhat begging the question), but they are still probing into the area of meaning “behind” the text. I would be interested in exploring Brueggemann’s principles as they apply to the NT, and gospels especially.

This not to deny that you have already, to some extent, been doing this — eg in interpreting NT texts and passages in the light of your interpretation of the OT. Yet I still wonder if even in your approach, there is some “flattening” of the gospel accounts, to fit your interpretation, which overrides, for instance, frequent contradictions or misalignments between the gospels. How important was historical accuracy, or history at all, to the gospel writers? The approach of rhetorical criticism would avoid this tendency, because of its relativisation of history.

I do think, by the way, that the life, earthly ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus were actual events in history, and that events described in the gospels do refer to events in history. Beyond that, I’m just asking questions. But the questions you ask at the outset of a critical journey can determine the destination to which your journey takes you. Ask different questions, and the destination can be quite different.

Also bear in mind that I’m often being entirely mischievous in posting comments here — in a serious kind of way.

phillip mutchell | Sat, 05/21/2016 - 10:10 | Permalink

It is true, that so far as the detection of hereditary and common errors are concerned, we have great advantage over even the foremost men of the far past. We have developed the comparative method, and the means of applying it to our beliefs. It would have been impossible for Christ or Socrates to trace the beliefs around them, hunt them back to their origin in some Indian metaphor or Assyrian fable….We should fall beneath our opportunities if we did not detect the familiar fallacies around us to a larger extent than was possible in the past, now that we are brought face to face with them as they existed in the past, and can know the results of them as worked out by intervening generations. (Idols and Ideals Conway 1877)

Same old battle the light shines and the darkness wants to overwhelm it, but it can’t and won’t but it’ll sure try.