Friday, January 16, 2009

Why Christians can't leave history alone?

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)


Chad said...

Great Post-this is an issue that has to be dealt with, and the usual "God did it, I believe it" isn't a good enough explanation.

I think Robert Webber had an interesting take on this problem without address as you did. But what he did say is that the American Christian Church, overall, has lost the ability to tell the story of God. In this story telling, history and theology are intertwined because the church accepts these historical situations as fact, but doesn't use them in logical ways, instead recognizing ideas such as the incarnation as a radical inbreaking of God into human history.

Again-great post and please keep thinking about this!

Phil Snider said...

Hey Chad;

Thanks for your comments. I haven't had a chance to read much Robert Webber, but I'm not surprised that this is the approach he takes. Ultimately, we need to recognize both of how much we Christians must found our faith in history and how difficult it is for those outside Christianity to accept what we are saying. The kind of conflict that I allude to in this entry is inevitable and we can't run from it, but, ultimately, unresolveable.

I wonder about the flip side to this: how do we Christians articulate the incarnation as historical, but recognize the limits of human understanding.


Weekend Fisher said...

Phil, I admire your reserve.

The distinction between canonical and non-canonical is objectively measurable and demonstrable based on the texts. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all have far more reality-links than, say, the Gnostic gospels (or semi-platonic gospels, if you'd rather). For goodness' sake, in the parts of the Gospel of Mary that we have, Jesus never eats, or sleeps, or goes to Jerusalem for the feasts, or quotes Moses, has no identifiably Jewish views ... and for that matter, the "Jesus" of the gospel of Mary is never identified by the name "Jesus". (I.e. the word "Jesus" does not occur in the surviving text, which is the case with several of the non-canonical gospels.)

Then in the semi-platonic category, GThomas and GTruth have just a small fraction of the "Jewish context" scores of, say, GMatthew or GLuke, and even less than half the Jewish context score of GJohn. Anyone who can't see why we take one group more seriously and the other group less seriously is wearing blinders.

The irony is that that kind of willful blindness tends to fly itself under the banner of "Neutral and objective scholarship". Please. The people who say "we're more objective than you about why we're right and you're wrong" already don't pass the BS detector. Then when members of the same group somehow can't see something so obvious as why one group of texts (with a non-Jewish Jesus) deserves to be less respected than another group of texts (with a Jewish Jesus) when it comes to the historical Jesus, that really doesn't pass the smell test.

Ok, I'll get back off my soapbox now. ;) I'm glad you're posting on this.

Take care,

Phil Snider said...


I take your point. Personally, one of the reasons why I see the canonical gospels as historically more useful is because there are actual connections to pagan and Jewish sources. Why, even Luke and John bow to the conventional rhetoric of historical writing which is something we should take seriously. The non-canonical gospels tend to happen in some kind of ahistorical never-never land. How that is useful for a historian is something that I'll never understand.

As for the claims of objectivity etc, I've long since learned to recognize these moves as the modern equivilent to the ancient historical commonplaces which we find in prefaces of various Greek and Roman historical writers. I know these authors mean them, but, of course, they're going to claim the historical high road, but it is important that claiming the high road is not the same thing as walking it.


mjjhoskin said...

I forget what scholar came through with this idea, but someone decided to determine the genre of the four canonical gospels, and he discovered that they fall into the category of Hellenistic biography. Biography is a genre of literature within the wider concept of what we call "history." This means that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were not writing good moral stories. They actually believed that God had become incarnate, died, and risen from the dead. And they believed that these things had happened in their lifetimes. As a result, whether these things were historically true or not would have had an impact upon their reception, because the other Christians and Jews could have stood up and said, "No, he never said those things, claimed those things, or did those things."

So if we examine historical probability not in terms of "likelihood of this ever happening," but, rather, "likelihood that my source is telling the truth," we find that the gospels have a high probability of truth. At least, I would argue that they do, based on how early they were written and how quickly they were disseminated broadly.

What is the probability of anyone dropping an atomic bomb on an inhabited city? This has effectively occurred only once. That means that, in all of history, it has as much probability as Resurrection. The difference is that we are within the lifetime of those who were there and have ample documentation. Nonetheless, the concept of "historically probable," is a modernist creation, likely rooted in the Enlightenment, and is being used in a way so as to entirely exclude the miraculous (which, by definition, is historically improbable), rather than to exclude the ordinary that probably wasn't true, or to choose the more probable of two options resting before the historian.

Phil Snider said...


Thanks for your comments. While I hestitate about classing the Gospels as Hellenistic biography (sorry, that is the classicist in me), I take your point in treating them as historical (as opposed to formal history). The Gospels, I think, are distinctive genre, but I also think that they were meant to tell the historical story of Jesus' life.

I agree that the question really isn't about the probabilities about the narrative, but rather on the trustworthiness of the source. Really, the scholarly arguments boil down to that question. I don't have a good way to prove this beyond all reasonable doubt, but I am convinced about it.


Roger Pearse said...

Quite right. Those who affirm that "theology must be kept out of history" mean only "I don't believe any of this actually happened because I share the secularist preconceptions of the period of history in which I happened to grow up" and are dressing that up in bs-speak. Those who do not share such prejudices should not defer to them, nor accept their assertion that only that perspective is scholarly or historical (since their prejudice is neither).

We should not shrink from identifying these prejudices either. There is rather too much of a tendency among honest people to presume equal integrity among the sort of people who used to peddle "Marxist economics", for instance. They knew what they were doing.

In our day, people wanting to advance some idea usually start by trying to stifle any criticism. We need to be watchful for such methods.

mjjhoskin said...

The book I was thinking of is Philip L. Shuler, A Genre for the Gospels: The Biographical Character of Matthew. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982. I think the argument was actually for 1st-century biography, which may not technically be the same as "Hellenistic", since in literary terms, the Hellenistic age ends during the 1st century BC.

Robarts has a copy: BS2555.2 .S47

Phil Snider said...


Thanks for the reference. I remember hearing about the biographical argument in the late nineties when I was living at Wycliffe College at U of T. I'm still skeptical, but should look up Shuler one of these days.

Does your reference to Robarts mean you're in Toronto?


Jim said...

If by somehow separating history and theology what we mean is reducing the Gospels to something interesting but not reliable so that non-believers are comfortable, then that is a place I wont go. On the other hand, I think Borg, +Wright, and a number of others have demonstrated that one can use the discipline of historical inquiry to investigate the Gospels with (for the secularist surprising) affirming results.

I have no idea which if any details of the synoptics actually did or did not get reported exactly. The large picture is pretty clear -- the authors wrote what they believed to be true. If some of the details are blurred by the impact of oral tradition, the picture is as good as any we have of that time. Incarnation may bother secular folk (one can hope) but it is there in the text.