This week, April DeConick has been reflecting on the different projects of theology and history. That is, theology "attempts to take old authoritative texts and read them doctrinally, with the big question at stake: what does this text say to me about my life as a Christian?", while history is a "pursuit that wants to know what happened in the past". That is, true enough. The concerns of theology and history as fields of studies are different and, if only for clarity, we need to remember this.
Yet, what interests me about this post is Dr. DeConick's perplexed reaction to the Christian practice of treating such things as the virgin birth, the resurrection of Jesus and the miracles of Jesus as historical fact. Again, one can sympathize with this perplexity because all three of these are, historically speaking, pretty improbable events. History, especially ancient history, rests firmly on assessing the probable reconstructions of past events, so improbability tends to disturb historians and cause them discomfort. To me, this demonstrates the limits of history and of human understanding, but doesn't necessarily rule out the action of God which can and, traditional Christianity would claim, did act exceedingly improbably, if there was a need. I don't think this will comfort Dr. DeConick because this really isn't a historical statement, but rather a theological one.
Ultimately, my intention with this post isn't to argue with Dr. DeConick or anyone else about the priority of history over theology when reading the various canonical and non-canonical Gospels. I recognize that the intellectual honesty of many historians who argue against the priority of canonical over non-canonical texts in explaining early Christianity. While I disagree with them, I hope that I'm aware of when I've placed myself on a historical/theological limb in claiming such events as the incarnation and the resurrection of Jesus as historical events; that is, events which actually happened pretty much in the way that the canonical gospels lay out. My historical proofs for these 'absurd' claims are flimsy at best, but, ultimately, it comes down to trusting these canonical sources not just as theological sources, but as historical ones. That may strike many of my readers as hopelessly naive, but, ultimately, as I've discovered in my apprenticeship in Classics, many decisions around historical reconstruction are based on how far do you trust this or that source. One's answer to that question will determine what version or versions one is likely to use as the basis for one's reconstructions. In the case of the canonical vs. non-canonical materials, Dr. DeConick and I disagree, so, as a result, our reconstructions differ. I can live with that because I really don't know how to adjudicate between these different reconstructions.
Yet, that begs the question of why can't Christian theologians just mind their own business and leave historians to do the history of early Christianity. Let history and theology do their own things. My answer to this question is that traditional Christian theology cannot abandon history because the notion that God intervenes in history is central to its theology ; first in the history of Israel, second, in the life of Jesus and, third, in the life of the church. Christians cannot divorce history from theology for the simple reason that their whole theological system falls apart if they do.
Take the doctrine of the Incarnation as an example. Now, here is an exceedingly improbable event: the God of the universe, somehow, becomes a human baby and spends a short lifetime as a human before being executed in a particularly nasty way. Never mind such mundane supernatural events as the virgin birth, how is this supposed to work historically? When has this happened before? Never. Which is rather the point, isn't it. This is a one-off and dramatic personal intervention of God into the world, designed to start putting it to rights. Sure, there will be a followup, but that just hasn't happened yet. So, how are we supposed to talk about a historical parallel or about historical probability. Yet, this is crucial to explain how God is putting the world to rights again and in explaining God's plan to save humanity and Creation. Ultimately, without an incarnation of God into historical time, there can be no resurrection and, without a resurrection, as Paul notes, our hope is in vain.
I have, of course, opened myself to the criticism that, just because something is theologically necessary, doesn't make it historically so. That is correct, but what I was trying to demonstrate wasn't the historical truth of the Incarnation in such a way that non-Christian scholars will acknowledge it, but rather why Christians simply cannot accept the divorce of theology and history which Dr. DeConick (and others beside her) recommend. Yes, Christians (and not just contemporary ones either) make historical claims which are exceedingly hard to prove. Yes, sometimes Christians overstate their claim. But, ultimately, asking Christians to accept this divorce is asking them to change their theology, not just their history, which is asking rather too much.
In this sense, whether Dr. DeConick realizes it or not, the suggested divorce of theology and history isn't a theologically neutral statement. That is, while I certainly agree that both Christian and non-Christian historians have to respect the same rules of evidence and rigourous historical method, a demand to separate theology and history is a demand to deny one's own spirituality. Respectfully, I decline to do that because I cannot afford the spiritual damage which I know will follow. That, I agree, isn't going to impress secular scholars, but I hope they will understand that what they are asking for something that Christians cannot do; set aside a search for God working in history.
So, ultimately, the answer to the question in my subject line- why Christians can't leave history alone?- is quite simple- they can't. Too much rides on a God who works in history. That is theology, of course, but, I am bold to say, it is also history.
NB: I've gone through and cleaned up some of the language in this entry which was written rather too hastily and edited rather too little. If I've missed any errors, let me know. (19/01/09)