October 12, 2009

Faith Based Historiography

Christian believers read the scriptures by faith. Historians reconstruct events based on probability. Apologists explain away difficulties. And critics simply challenge everything. These four approaches each have weaknesses matching their strengths. Things did not happen a certain way just because we like to think so. Strict probability cannot accept miraculous events. Faith is limited by the reliability of its object. But even the most confirmed skeptics have to trust someone, eventually.

One central aspect of attempting historical reconstruction, from scripture, is that even a faith based approach must proceed at some point according to probabilities and completely abandon the desire for absolute proof. (For one example, we may accept Luke’s testimony that there was a census, but unless we wish to call it a mythical census we must endeavor do reconstruct an historical census – which is to say, a most likely one. For another, people may have different ideas about Jesus' upbringing in Nazareth, but we should all acknowledge that he grew up as a part of a Synagogue and begin reconstruction from there.) Some details of our conclusions may be less than perfectly certain, but what scripture does tell us should help comfort us against what it does not.

If my goal was the conversion of skeptics, I might be tempted to overstate my case. Instead, I begin from the standpoint of faith. If my goal was defense of the scriptures, I might focus completely on the problem areas and miss the whole forest for those few crooked trees. Instead, I suspend judgment on what seems confusing and work at all times primarily from what seems most clear. My goal is to encourage believers by reconstructing one, most likely chronology and thus grant Bible readers a broader historical context of events in the New Testament era. If I succeed in that goal, with whatever qualification, the result could be worth an awful lot, don't you think?

My sincere hope is that a more objective historiography can still preference the scriptures without preferencing any religious philosophies or doctrinal interpretations of any particular traditions. Theologies supported by that which the scripture itself does not necessarily and clearly state are suspect anyway, in my humble opinion. Institutional doctrines have defended the faith adequately for centuries, but the faithful are less and less content to be socially or intellectually cloistered by parochial dogmas.

Therefore, it is my secondary hope that we focus on reconstructing events, instead of ideological truths, the bedrock of our faith may be held more securely by those who feel compelled to wander outside institutional walls into God's wilderness. Like parents caring for willfully wayward children, I would hope ecclesiastical authorities get behind such an idea more quickly than not. We have many brothers and sisters adrift, who need truly non-denominational support for their faith. We cannot keep them at home where they were raised, but we can equip them more ably for wherever the journey might lead them.

Getting back to the point: God can never be proven to those with a non-divine standard of proof, but since the Church is called to make disciples, we should attempt a faith based historiography that is profitable for instilling the people of God with a more contextual view of the New Testament. Whatever we do, the best witness to scripture’s reliability will always be the spirit of God, which speaks and has spoken through the church throughout the centuries. At least, so we believe.

Believers, keep trusting the scriptures. Historians, keep dealing with likelihoods. Apologists, keep on defending beliefs. And critics, please keep on challenging everyone. We all want to be as accurate as possible and we all need to admit that we’ll never know everything. All I am suggesting is that we may proceed from a simple, conditional challenge: Assuming that details found in the scriptures are both true and factual, so far as we can tell, how do those facts fit together, historically, with each other, and with their own contemporary events?

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