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Theology > Jesus > Introductory Considerations > Relationship of Theology and History  


RELATIONSHIP OF THEOLOGY AND HISTORY

Part of the dilemma for those writing critically regarding the Christian Faith is the degree of reliability that should be assigned to Biblical history. It is especially a dilemma for the one who embraces modern historiography with its general doubt as to the validity of reported history, causing, because of the problem of verification, some writers even to deny the reality of objective history—it simply, according to them, cannot be known. When this perspective is applied to the Christian Scriptures, the history in the Text is either denied or reinterpreted.

For those students adhering to this secular viewpoint, certain facts cannot be true of history, that is, certain events cannot happen, such as: creation by fiat, a serpent talking to a woman, God becoming man via a virgin conception, a man walking on water, people being healed by touching a garment, water turned into wine, etc. Thus, de facto these and similar events are determined to be impossible. By arbitrary definition and selection the miraculous becomes an impossibility.

But if these supernatural events are impossible, then some explanation must be given for the record of such happenings in the Scriptures; therefore, the idea of myth, saga, legend, or some other comparable reason is proffered. But with each explanation, whatever it may be, Revelation is reduced to reflection because the normative nature of the Text is rejected. Explicit in any explanation is a rejection of the claims made by Scripture concerning its own nature, coupled with a rejection of the historic voice of the Church through its three major branches (Orthodox, Roman, and Protestant) which affirm that these events are indeed miraculous.

These erroneous concepts—typified by rejection of the normative nature of the Text as well as a denial of the viability of the miraculous—do not need to be given any consideration because the concepts arise out of false premises. Attention must be given to the affirmation of the Truth, rather than to an unfruitful dialogue with a position that cannot accept much less be reconciled to the claims of Scripture.

Valid questions of reliability may be true for ordinary treatises which contain historical content but is not a problem for the Scriptures of the Christian Faith, because the believer approaches them from a presupposition of faith that recognizes and accepts the claim of the Scriptures that they are from God and not men. In other words, historical skepticism is not a viable option for the believer as he begins his investigation of the meaning of Scripture; rather than coming to the Scriptures with a looming question regarding their veracity his approach embraces the reliability of the Scriptures. Besides, their veracity is not created nor enhanced by a so-called independent research into their truthfulness. They stand on their own—they exist and continue to exist because of Revelation. They are self-authenticating to the one who has been Embraced by Truth. Let the unbeliever debate and dialogue, the believer must affirm.

The issue in connection with this discussion is whether the New Testament text in general, and the Gospels in particular, contain the frayed and inconsistent recollection of the early Church or contain the true facts of the life of Christ. Is the New Testament the history of early Christian ruminations, or is it literal history—events and sayings—of the Christ Himself?

Compounding the dilemma, as mentioned above, is the introduction of the concept of myth by Bultmann and Brunner, or the concept of legend or saga by Barth (the choice of words does not matter; the point is the same). And the point is that the accounts in Scripture are simply vehicles used by ancient Biblical writers to communicate metaphysical truth; but the vehicles must be rejected today because the worldview, which mandated such vehicles, has been invalidated by modern scientific investigation. Even though they convey the truth, the myth, saga, or legend conceals the truth, hence the need to remove the myth in order that the kernel of fact/truth may be discovered.

But this approach creates havoc with any notion of real history. The miraculous or supernatural accounts in Scripture do not really matter; the concern of the modern student is what the accounts teach when one divorces the historical baggage from the point that is made by the baggage. The historical is dismissed as superfluous. Thus the investigation of the Scriptures ignores the history found in the Scriptures, especially that which contradicts normal observations mandated by modernity.

The quest becomes a subjective enterprise, a searching for the hidden truth. It becomes a search of the Scriptures from a secular perspective rather than an acceptance of the Scriptures as required by the Scriptures.

On the other hand, the believer is not in a search for history but is in the pursuit of understanding the history he has found. The believer does not need to establish the Text but to explicate the Text. And the premise of the investigation is that the Bible contains historical reality. It matters not whether the affirmation of the text is that Jesus walked on water or that he drank wine, whether he healed the sick or went to sleep in the boat—all of it is history. And it is history with a profound significance.

If all creation bears witness to God (Ps. 19:1-6; Rom. 1:18-21), the heavens above and the solitary leaf descending to the ground in the Fall, then likewise all of history bears witness to God, the empty tomb and the death of Socrates. There is no sacred history and secular history—all history is His history; all history is Sovereign history. If there is no aspect of creation that does not testify of God, then surely there is no event of history that does not also proclaim God. The burden upon the observer of creation and the student of history is to be discerning sufficiently in order to see and to hear the loud declarations of God in both creation and history.

Thus history cannot be distinguished from Theology. There is no regular history and a so-called Heilsgeschichte; every event of history is regular and saving simply because it is testimony and manifestation of God and His ways. All history is redemptive—every single event, however small or trivial, plays its part in God’s comprehensive plan of salvation for His creation.

Contrary to Barth, and others of the same inclination, Historie (concrete, real events) and Geschichte (meaning or significance of the events) should never be distinguished; they are one and the same. A separation displays an improper concept of the very essence of history—it fails to recognize that all of history is revelatory. To make a distinction in the concepts is to divorce history from Revelation; it is to gut the Biblical record of its affirmations of what has indeed occurred. Barth claims that to identify Revelation with history is “profane” (CD, I, 1, 44)—really, to fail to make the identification is heresy.

From whatever theological persuasion, evangelical or critical, terms such as Historie and Geschichte, supra-historical, Heilsgeschichte, redemptive history, salvation history, cosmic time, supra-temporal, revelational symbol, and metahistorical are all misleading and destructive to the Christian Faith. Such expressions are ill-advised and unnecessary. The Christian Faith must not adjust its methodology and terminology in order to accommodate the modern concept of historiography with its naturalistic presuppositions. For the believer a concept of history that is devoid of the supernatural and does not even allow for the reality of the same is unacceptable. The believer should not be intimated by such intellectual schizophrenia.

History can never be detached from Theism. Only from within the parameter of Biblical Theism can history be understood. Objective history is a figment of the imagination of biased intellectuals; every scholar comes with a perspective, a perspective that includes God in the equation or that separates God from the equation. And the inclusion or exclusion of God determines the approach and conclusions of the historical investigation. The Christian Faith must admit its perspective and adhere to the same (see: Basic methodology). Allow the unbeliever to go in a different direction.

Within history there is no understanding of history; insight into the meaning and telos of history must come from without. Comprehension is illusive and erroneous when it is anchored in the individual consciousness; conclusions are not trustworthy. The individual consciousness must be informed and guided by presuppositions that arise from the workings of grace. As man, man cannot understand man; man must be interpreted from the perspective of Theism. If God is not the foundation for the discussion, man is without understanding and significance.

Following are the major presuppositions that a student must accept if one is to have a proper foundation for interpreting history:

One, God is.

Two, God created history.

Three, God acts in history, both through speaking His Word to man and through His deeds for and against man.

Four, God entered history and became a part of history in and through the God-Man.

Five, God determines the events of history; He is Sovereign in all things.

Six, God is directing history to a conclusion.

Separation of history and theology is a separation between thing and meaning or between fact and doctrine. While distinctions can be made to facilitate discussion, in the final sense there is no distinction between these seemingly separate concepts. They must merge for they are one and the same.

There is a point at which the two sides in such contrasts pass into each other. He who does not see the meaning does not see the thing; or to use the more imposing words, he who refuses to take a “dogmatic” view proves by doing so that he falls short of a completely “historical” one (James Denney, The Death of Christ, 4-5).

The Christian Faith is predicated on both history and theology; it is not either/or but both/and. “God was manifest in the flesh” either has only mythological significance, which is really no significance, or the statement is characterized by historical facticity. There is no intermediate option.

Without history there is no valid theology;
and without theology history has no meaning.

Both are interconnected, so much so that it is impossible to disconnect the two. Thus there is no need for NT or OT Theology, just a need for Theology!

So the New Testament utterly repudiates the thesis that revelation and history cannot be united, and this at the same time destroys the view that historical research is a denial of revelation (A. Schlatter; quote is in G Hasel, NT Theology: Basic Issues, 41-42).

History can be removed from Christian theology
only by the total destruction of theology itself.
John W. Montgomery  


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