September 28, 2010

excerpt: History vs. Political Theory

From Gordon S. Wood's The Purpose of the Past, Chapter 11:
Historians are as interested in the ideas and ideologies of the founders as political theorists like [author]. What is different about the two disciplines is their purpose. Historians attempt to recover a past world as accurately as possible and try to show how that different world developed into our own. Political theorists who work with the ideas of the past have a different agenda. They are primarily interested in the present or future conditions of political life and see past ideas merely as the sources or seeds for present or future political thinking. [T]hey usually see the past simply as an anticipation of our present, and thus they tend to hold people in the past responsible for a future that was, in fact, inconceivable to them.

There is nothing wrong with this sort of ransacking of the past by political theorists; lawyers and jurists do it all the time. But we should never confuse these manipulations of the past for present purposes with doing history... Jefferson's idea of equality, for example, has been used time and again throughout our history, by Lincoln as well as Martin Luther King, Jr. Historians contend that such usages violate the original historical meaning of the ideas and cannot be regarded as historically accurate, but they don't deny the rationality and legitimacy of such violations.

My thoughts:

New Testament research is often political theory disguising itself as history, in order to support church politics, aka "theology". Day by day, dear Lord I pray, we need to spend more time attempting to see our own past for what it is, just as it was, not for how it might help us to mold our own future/present.

It's fine to extract principles of diversity, or of pastoral care, or of social justice, or of ecclesiological order - whichever principles those may be, for you - and then to apply those scriptural principles in another context. The most educated academics and clerics already know how this works, much better than anyone. But there are still some who push views of the first century (or allow it to appear a certain way) which support their ecclesiology, and their theology. Worst of all, it is very hard to find those who search behind the text for a reasonable History of Jesus and Paul, for its own sake. This should not be so rare.

Lord, hear our prayer.

6 comments:

Josh L said...

What would you say to those who claim you've done the same thing in your own research, Bill? That is, that you have gone about reconstructing the NT in such a way that it supports "organic", "house" church, or whatever?

Bill said...

Ah, well, I haven't. ;-)

No, seriously. Since 2005, I've posted again and again to the effect that (A) the first century church pattern wasn't uniform, whatever it was, (B) even if we could say 'the church was like X' that wouldn't necessarily justify our being just so, and (C) I've never met anyone who did church like I think Paul did church.

Never. No one.

So what could I possibly push?

I think the way Paul did things was radically different from the way people today do things. My passion is to show that forth, to the extent such can be shown. But once we recognize the pastness of that (glorious, wonderful) past... there's nothing but God's voice to tell us what to do with that info.

Seriously. Ideally, what I'm doing should benefit Catholics and Presbyterians as much as 'organic' church enthusiasts. In the final praxis, ideologically, I'm not much more radical than Howard Snyder.

Patmos Pete said...

The third message from heaven...

If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand, The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.

Bill said...

Not sure how that's on point, Pete, but thanks for that healthy reminder.

What on earth does it mean?

Josh L said...

Haven't read any Snyder, so I'll have to take your word on that one.

And speaking of words, I think "praxis" is a pretty cool one.

I've been working a lot lately on my own timeline, borrowing heavily from yours of course. :) If anything I'm discovering how little I really know the New Testament.

Bill said...

If anything I'm discovering how little I really know the New Testament.

Testify, brother. Testifyyyy!

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