History and Theology Go Together Like...

The theological interpretation of Scripture, that is, theological hermeneutics, has been gaining much steam for some time now. Like the liberation hermeneutic that gained popularity and began to win the day when it stepped on to the scene, there are many parallels with those doing theological hermeneutics today. While I am all for the bridging the gap between Scripture and (systematic?) theology, I am not so sure that fully embracing this hermeneutic is the way to go. In my estimation, one of the places that many who operate out of this hermeneutic go, is down the dangerous road of being ahistorical (to some degree at least, though some do not go as far as others).

It is becoming increasingly popular to chuck the historical events of the Bible (though, oddly, when it comes to the resurrection those embracing this approach employ phrases such as “it is true with the other parts of the story, like the birth narratives but not the resurrection). All I can say is: “Wow. Where’s the consistency?” Actually, that’s not “all” I can say. I do have more thoughts. Let me give an example.

Let’s suppose that today, in our era, someone experiences a healing (yes, folks it does still happen). God heals someone of cancer, sickness, disease, etc. Now, if we were to see this with our own eyes, for instance, a crippled persons legs straightening and they’re able to walk again, how would we react? For many of us, we would immediately think of this in terms of theology or theological categories. We might instantly attribute this to God and praise Him for it.

Now, let’s imagine that a few years down the road, that person, as they’re on their deathbed asks you to write about their life. Of course, you’re going to pick and choose some things but lets just say you pick that event whereat the person was healed. If you were to write about it, you might add some embellishments and without a doubt, you would speak about it theologically. You might even go on to make some applicatory points. What you wouldn’t do is totally fabricate stories (at least, if you had integrity you would not). Neither would you lie about that healing event. By the same token you would not doubt that it ever happened.

Now, if someone were to come along and read this, perhaps a person who knew the person or was truly interested in learning about their life, what would they think when they came to the healing story? Would their first thought be: This never happened! Would their second thought be: This is much too embellished to be true! Would their third thought be: The author didn’t want me to believe that this actually took place but simply wanted me to think theologically about it. Would their fourth thought be: There is no relationship between the things that actually happened to this person and the reports of them. Would their fifth thought be: There is no way that history and theology can coexist and even if they could, it wouldn’t be important.

History is important. Theology is important. History and theology can coexist and interact. History can make sense out of theological issues. Theology can help us to understand things that took place in historical circumstances. That is why I am not willing to give one more credence than the other and that is also why I am not a minimalist historian. Further, when I read Scriptural texts such as the Gospels, I find that when taken in their socio-historical contexts, Bible passages come alive with theological meaning. From there though, I do not make the jump that says now that we’ve got the theological importance out of it, we’re good to go. Instead, I embrace the fact that God acted in history, His people acted in history and that through these actual events, I can become aware of how that very same God is doing very similar things today.

The notion of Crossan and Borg and company that nobody before the Enlightenment was concerned with whether or not historical events happened and therefore never asked questions of them is, in my opinion, rather ludicrous. Thus, to further suggest that we should get back to that mindset makes little sense. It is just as important for me that the events told by the biblical writers happened (I’m not speaking of parables and that sort of thing here!) as it is that I exist as real person within the confines of history. What happens is important and so is the meaning and interpretation of those things. In brief, that is a way in which I see history and theology going together and interacting. Just some thoughts.


  1. Michael-

    Thanks for this and your many other thoughtful posts. There are a few things that come to my mind relating to this issue, most or all of which I have already shared with you personally, but I figured I would get the ball rolling on this discussion.

    I wonder whether your characterization of theological interpretation as "ahistorical" is entirely accurate. I think it is difficult to define theological interpretation in any comprehensive way because, though it has well-established roots, we have not seen what it will look like on this side of historical critical studies. Anyway, as you know, I am of the ilk you would categorize as "ahistorical" or "minimalist," though I don't agree with how you are using either of these terms. As another of your conversation partners pointed out in another string, I do not know what a minimalist approach would be save for a narrow and ill-conceived reading of the OT. What I would say is that the question of the modern (post-enlightenment) historian-- What exactly happened?-- is not the primary question that scripture seeks to answer. That is not to say that the narratives are fabricated ex nihilo, but it does raise questions for me about what right we have to demand that first century theological narratives maintain the standards of modern history writing. I agree with your claim that God has acted in history, though I do not see how this would therefore necessitate the weight you put on historicity. To my mind, it is important for us to understand how biblical narratives teach us what it means to be the people of God, not to defend their historicity. One could (and should) ask questions such as, How can we explain the genesis of Christian faith apart from Christ's resurrection? The occasions on which I could be coaxed into an argument over historicity are very few. Perhaps you are right that this is inconsistent, but I think that there are some things worth having the historicity discussion over and some that are not.

    If I, as an interpreter of Scripture, purport to be faithful to the text, I think I must be mindful of whether I am projecting my own expectations onto the text, perhaps by asking an author to answer questions that s/he had no intention of answering. If, for example, it was no intention of Mark to prove that X or Y happened in a precise way, how can I demand that it be so? To relate this to your earlier conversation about the birth narratives, lets say that whichever was written first was available to the other writer (Matthew or Luke). Let us also say that the writers of Matt and Luke were reasonably intelligent people and would be capable of recognizing that both of their narratives cannot simultaneously and consistently answer the question, What exactly happened? The inconsistencies are not a problem for Matt and Luke (or for the early church that recognized these complementary narratives as Scripture) because their questions are different--dare I say more important-- than, What exactly happened when Jesus was born? They are occupied with the weightier matters of who Jesus is, how God is working in Jesus as a continuation of the unfolding drama of salvation history, and how Jesus is going to draw the world to its Creator. This, I think, would be too much to ask of mere history.

    Let me throw one additional thought your way. There has been significant work done on the issue of historicity in recent years. Particularly, I have read Birger Gerhardsson, Samuel Byrskog, and more recently, Richard Bauckham. This impressive cast would agree with your perspective and raise some of the same objections to my view that you do. I wonder though whether such perspectives are their own sort of ideological criticism. My question is whether they (like liberation or feminist critics, for example) have an agenda that exists apart from the text that is applied, sometimes with great coercion.

    Peace to all as we prepare our hearts for the coming of the Lord.

  2. Thanks, Michael. Let me clarify two of my points in light of your generous response.

    1. To my mind, the reason the Bible is Scripture and Tom Sawyer, et al. are not is not that the Bible is a book of history and TS is fiction. I would say the Bible is Scripture because the Church has recognized it as such. Maybe this opens up a whole different can of worms rather than clarifying my point...

    2. I think what theological hermeneutics folk would say is not that historical context/concerns are unimportant, but rather, the primary context of scriptural texts is an ecclesial one. So, if we take seriously that we must engage the text as God's word to the whole Church (historic and contemporary), then we would engage in our own conversation with the text while also recognizing that we exist as part of a cloud of witnesses. To pick on the birth narratives again, I would be less concerned with the fact that there is no record of people being required to return to their home town to register for a census that I am with how the church has interpreted Luke 1-2 as part of Luke-Acts and the metanarrative of salvation history. In many cases, we may simply assume that something is historical (e.g. the resurrection, the incarnation). In other instances, we may just say that "what happened?" is not the right kind of question.

  3. Jake, ( I went back and changed some of this response because I couldn't stand by some of what I initially wrote),

    Good reply. Some follow up thoughts.

    1. Here is something interesting, you use two terms interchangeably that I am not akin to using that way: a) Scripture, and b) Word of God. Me, I am less inclined to refer to Scripture as the Word of God. To me, there is just way too much baggage attached to WOG (I'm thinking here of inerrancy, inspiration, etc. arguments). WOG tends to go that way where Scripture does not. Indeed, I agree with you wholeheartedly that Scripture is such because the Church deemed it so. To me, that is way more proof to its validity, truthfulness, etc. than any other argument. So, I'm there with you on that point, even if for a different reason than you're being there.

    2. That said, I don't know if I'd go as far as you saying that the Scriptures' main function is an ecclesial one. This is what opens a whole other bag of worms.

    You are right that the question "What happened?" is not 'always' the right one to be asked. But quite often it is. Sometimes the question "What is the theological significance?" can not be answered in full or even in part without first exploring the issue of "What happened?"

    Personally, I am concerned from a historical standpoint whether or not there was a census. I am equally concerned with how Luke is setting up the issue of salvation history.

    I still think that our differences are often less than they appear to be. It seems to me that you and I should attempt to find out "EXACTLY" where it is that we're disjointed, that is, we should try to uncover the specific question that we're both trying to answer or at least the link that seems to leave us a bit disjointed. I can't put my finger on it exactly, though, on the surface, it seems to have to do with the relationship between historical events and their theological meaning. At this point, I see this as the best way to think about the subject. I would say that you need to tighten the reins a bit and pull back from your loose historical views. I may be errant :) in saying that, but then again, I'm only trying to see where exactly our views diverge. Perhaps we differ epistemologically.

  4. How about this: I think the point where our thinking diverges is the potential for truth to be conveyed through non-factual accounts (e.g., myth, fiction, et al.). For example, I would say that there are instances when the writer of a text could more fully express the truth of something by going beyond recounting facts. For me, it would be better to recognize that we have two accounts of Jesus' birth that go beyond mere fact and express the meaning of his life and place in God's drama of salvation history than to have two accounts that we harmonize and perhaps miss the truth of each. If we may understand nativity sets as examples of visual exegesis, these are a good example of how we have tried to make two distinct and diverse narratives into one and thus miss the truth in both of them. I hate to keep picking on the birth narratives, but they happen to be on the fore of my mind and heart this time of year.

    Maybe this is also the root of my confusion over being considered a minimalist. In the example I use here, I think my view invites deeper reflection and engagement with the narratives and thus has a greater potential to shape my understanding of Jesus and God's action in salvation history. To my mind, this would make me--excuse the goofy word--the maximalist.

  5. Jake,

    I'm not sure that the solution you offer is on target. Indeed, I believe that there are many means, modes and ways of conveying truth, even through non-factual accts. This does get us a bit further though. I think the issue may be that we disagree when the Sciptures are and are not doing that. How, we decide then, may be the topic. What are the criteria we use and why?

  6. Well, as I have said, I am not apt to say that something in the Scriptures is not historically factual, nor am I likely to go the other way and argue that it is unless there is some compelling reason to do so. One instance where I think it is worth engaging in such a debate is the resurrection, not just because it is central to Christian faith, but also because I don’t think it is possible to posit an intellectually honest explanation for the emergence of Christianity without it—save for your “Paul was an evil genius” theories and the like. Ultimately, the “what happened” question rests behind the text and is sometimes of immediate relevance to how we interpret the text, but usually I think it is not. After all, for example, the Church has canonized four diverse Gospels, not the historical Jesus. I think that in almost every case, arguments for or against historicity are ultimately doomed to the realm of speculation and are driven by one’s propensity—for or against historical factuality. I would simply rather bring my meager intellectual resources to bear on different questions.

    That has sort of dodged your question, I think. You want me to talk about criteria for distinguishing between what is historically important and what is not. I am not sure that tangible criteria exist in every instance. There are some examples of where I think the hermeneutic I am arguing for is warranted and perhaps even demanded. There are of course the birth narratives which present us with tremendous historical problems when read as modern historical accounts; the problems are then compounded ad infinitum when we try to read both of them as modern historical accounts together. The fervor to conflate them and deny the problems is heightened when we have tied their status as Scripture to their ability to function as modern history, all the while missing the profound theological nuances of each author. I think we can see the kind of issues I am raising in acute form in the birth narratives. For example, Luke has Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem for a census at the time of Jesus’ birth, after which they return to Nazareth without incident (Luke 2:21-22, 39). In Matthew, they remain in Bethlehem (which is their home, at least after Jesus’ birth; contra Luke where they live in Nazareth) for some time before fleeing to Egypt. Then you have the historical issues, particularly Luke’s census of which there is no explicit record or any record of people needing to return to their hometowns to register. So we have two different types of problems with reading two texts such as the birth narratives as a source of modern history—and many more could be cited.

    Now, I have read a number of conflation efforts, all of which fall on a spectrum ranging from mildly tortured to outright dishonest. My biggest problem with such efforts is that they cause us to miss the point of both Matthew’s and Luke’s theological narratives. My question of these texts is not how we can make them say the same thing, but how their details function in their respective narratives. From a narrative perspective, the census effectively explains how Jesus, who is known as a Nazorean in Luke’s narrative (4:16, 34; 18:37; 24:19), could have been born in Bethlehem. To have Jesus be born in Bethlehem is of course important in light of Mic 5:2; that he be a Nazorean/from Nazareth is important in light of Isa 52:1-2 and, perhaps, the common knowledge that Jesus was actually from Nazareth. What is more important, however, is the theological question, “What is Luke saying by constructing his narrative as he has?” Let me reiterate that I don’t think that one needs some special warrant (in the form of historical problems) to read the text as I have, but you have asked me for some criteria, and this is one example where such criteria is abundantly found.

    I’ll close by saying that I do not expect to convert you or anyone to my perspective; I just enjoy this kind of conversation for its own sake.