September 10, 2010

Talk about a false dichotomy!

"The Bible is Theology, not History." As much as anything else, that thought illustrates the fact that theologians aren't trained to think as historians. It also brings to mind an old saying - when all you've got is a hammer, everything else begins to look like a nail.

Exhibit A, Jim West, at B&I this week:
The Bible’s aim is not to tell a historical tale; its aim is to tell a theological tale. For that reason its authors, minimalists all, recognized that their work and aim and calling was something other than to use traditions and tales for historical reconstruction. “What, when, and how” were of no interest to them at all; but “why and who” mattered supremely.
In 29 months of biblioblogging, I've gathered that Pastor West has a big heart for believers, and he wants to save believers from having to struggle against skeptical claims. So he embraces some tenets of skepticism, and builds a wall to retreat behind. Meanwhile, he maintains relationships with skeptics and occasionally ministers to them. His goal is sincere. His strategy, I believe, is ill conceived.

Point #1: Jim grew up into an academic community in which "Historical" views of the Bible had always involved doubtful detractions from scriptural claims OR futile apologetic attempts to "prove" scriptural claims. He cannot see a third way. So he retreats from History into Theology.

Exhibit B, Daniel Kirk, responding to Jim:
[I]t seems important to ask if, as an ancient historian, [Luke] had a more mixed category of history and theology that makes his work, to his mind, thoroughly both–even while it undermines the modern concerns with historiography as a discipline.

In general, though, I’d say that the way Jim describes what we should be doing with the Bible is correct: we read it to understand the theological narrative being communicated. History can help us understand that narrative better, but witnessing to an uninterpreted, “objective,” or de-divinized history behind the text, is not the purpose for which these texts were written.
Point #2: Compared to Jim, Daniel has grown up into a world that's becoming much more open minded than Jim's world ever was, and his nuance reflects that. But Daniel's world is still largely owned and operated by the world of Jim's academic forefathers, and his flurry of qualifications [on where he does or doesn't agree] reflects that.

Point #3: The code words run thick, near the end of Daniel's post. For the moment, "History" seems to mean 'having a critical awareness of contextual accuracy'; "[not] uninterpreted" reminds us that Biblical narrative writers offer biased views of the sources they worked from; "[not] 'objective'" and "[not] de-divinized" are genuflections by Daniel to that entrenched dichotomy Jim grew up into, where supposed objectivity was always pretentious, and where historical criticism always threw out supernatural subject-matter.

If you want to understand those two blocked quotes better, I'd encourage you to go read work through both posts, linked above.

But now, here's what Bill Heroman thinks.

Pastor Jim, you're simply going the way of the Dodo. I'm sorry. Shout all the louder about that, if you must. But what you're doing is trying to bully people into choosing your side of a false dichotomy. It won't work for much longer.

Daniel, the Hays v. Wright issues are vital here, BUT - and I want to hope you'll agree with me on this - the end of this debate should not become a preference for one or the other approach. The Gospels CAN be "windows to look through" when looking for History, for the sake of considering History. AND the Gospels can ALSO be read "as stories", as "theological narratives", for the sake of the texts "as we have them".

The old world was about drawing lines in the sand and getting everyone onto your side if you could. Today's world still has plenty of that, but it's becoming more common to see equal consideration being allowed.

As denominational boundaries become more and more impotent, and as Belivers grow more and more comfortable with the inherent uncertainty of faith claims, I predict that some sort of Faith-based Historical approach to biblical texts [to the Gospels, at least] will grow only more popular, among 'post-evangelicals'.  Hopefully, it will also grow more rigorous, academically.  But that's a whole other post.

YES, we acknowledge that every word in scripture may not have been chosen to serve as 'hard nosed reporting'. But NO, we do not disallow that History itself can be reached at and worked towards, through the scriptures, by the process of historical analysis and [attempted] reconstruction.

Theologians haven't been trained to think like historians. Not since forever. Instead, most theologians have been trained - whether they and their seminarian predecessors realized it or not - to prefer views that can be presented as absolute.  Theological analysis of Story can be used to promote seemingly absolute conclusions.  In contrast, History has too much possibility involved for anyone to build large, indomitable, earthly kingdoms upon it.

And that is one thing I've grown to love more and more about History.


Rick Wadholm Jr. said...

Wonderful post Bill! I believe I'm with you completely on this one. I actually posted a brief comment under the article at Bible Interpretation where I question his dichotomy as a false one. I am personally convinced that the theological and the historical are as intimately bound to one another as the divine and human are in the persona and work of Christ Jesus. We are all the richer for not thinking (or acting) as if one is more necessary than the other. At least that is my two cents...

Rick Wadholm Jr. said...

I just realized I accidentally wrote "persona" instead of "person" of Christ. Thought I better correct that one. :-) Wouldn't want to be labeled more of a heretic than I already am....

Bill Heroman said...

Ironic, then, that the "personna" of Jesus is precisely what's at issue... according to some. (!) ;-)

Thanks for the vote of confidence, also.

"the theological and the historical are as intimately bound to one another as the divine and human are in the persona and work of Christ Jesus"

That's a beautiful, profound and encouraging statement, Rick. Amen!

The rub, of course, is in figuring out how to 'do' something like "theological-history".

Rick Wadholm Jr. said...

Perhaps part of the problem is the same as in Christology where it is easier to develop a negative Christology instead of a positive Christology. In the negative we simply say what ISN'T, but in the positive we are left with the far more dangerous and difficult task of saying what actually IS. I think personally this may be part of the issue with theological-history. It seems easier and safer to discuss only what it isn't (which in reality typically means that it gets defined only as one or the other). What we need is an Athanasius. But the fractured state of the Church today is far from conducive to even being able to work out such a thing together. I'm thankful for folks like yourself who are willing to work in detail on such matters and have the eloquence to write about it for the rest of us. :-)

brian said...

so you probably weren't too into the post and hubub at my blog about the Genesis deal? lol I agree the Bible is theology and history but still side with Jim somewhat in that the history and historical events are more often interpreted theologically.

Bill Heroman said...

Hey Brian. I just found it, after missing it. Quite a hubub indeed.

"more often interpreted theologically"?

I can't argue with that. ;-)

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