History, Theology, and Methodology

The following post is a guest post from a good friend of mine, David Hemlock, which was originally an answer to a question I asked about the nature of historical method and theological truth, pertaining specifically to N.T. Wright, from an Eastern Orthodox perspective. David’s brilliant blog can be found here: http://katachriston.wordpress.com/

‘The historical is not “the real” (even Ranke probably didn’t go that far (in the U.S. historians “traditionally” translated the German eigentltlich as “actually” though it really means “essentially,” Ranke’s “geshichte wie es eigentilich gewesen/history as it essentially happened” was widely misunderstood as meaning “history as it actually happened”). It is, rather, the result of an attempt of contingent finite human minds to reconstruct the probable (or in some cases today, expedient) past. The same methodology that can illuminate the ancient landscape can artificially circumscribe it as any basic study of the host of so-called authenticity criteria in the New Quest and Third Quest for the historical Jesus should reveal to the careful student.

The 19th century Quest for the historical Jesus came to its final end (before being succeeded by the New Quest and so-called Third Quest) with the observation that its principle historians were like men peering into a deep well who failed to realize that they were in the final analysis seeing their own reflection. Subsequent methodologies -even good ones!- can also function as a hermeneutical circle where whatever gains in resolutions appear in the center of the image produced also carry a probability of distortion especially along the margins.

To get back to Bishop Wright’s approach, while 2nd Temple Judaism is a good check against Roman Catholic and Reformation ideologies never existing before the medieval period, I think it in a less criteriologically “infallible”) position in application to early Christianity. Early Christianity I think of as being as much a corrective to much of 2nd Temple Judaism as also a fulfillment and outgrowth of Judaism, and as well an *addendum* of progressive revelation that can in no wise in every case be crammed into the old wineskins that preceded it. This was the teaching of all the apostolic fathers (i.e. those directly knowing or directly appointed by an apostle or an immediate disciple of an apostle).

For example I would say “yes” to the NPP but “no” to a rejection (of) Chalcedon. I suspect Nestorius himself could have approved on the basis of 2nd Temple Judaism knowing nothing of “divine nature” talk (which also so happens to be New Testament talk). Yet methodologically these are out-workings of the same horizontal/epistemological/rationalist principle, which was earlier described as “historical” as opposed to “dogmatic”, but might just as easily be termed (correct me if I am wrong) “dogmatic” in its own right, for not even second temple Judaism used historical critical method to circumscribe what God might reveal in the present to what was culturally or theologically conceivable to previous generations. To be sure it should not be radically incompatible, but radically new wine is not per se something that I would regard as a theological problem. And to be *really* nit-picky, should historical method on this grounds (2nd Temple Judaism not knowing the method any more than it knew of medieval ontology etc.) be criteriologically/methodologically be excluded from the theological task? (extreme example -sauce for the goose and all that).

If the NT and the apostolic fathers (by which we mean those who directly knew or were appointed by an apostle or their immediate disciple) seem at points XYZ to possess wine that would explode a 2nd Temple Jewish wineskin, on what grounds should we insist the old wineskins are criteriological for spiritual truth if revelation is progressive?

Bishop Wright is a noble proponent of the Renaissance tradition of foundationalist application of historical critical method. But that is not to my mind the same thing as theology. If it was, the wise and intelligent with the proper method is the group with eyes to see. Where is the wise, or the scribe is to be answered with the raise of the scholar’s hand. Scripture and tradition in Orthodoxy, by contrast, is received as light bearing because it flows through the ancient and continuing lineage of the experience of God-bearing persons, as opposed to more foundationalist approaches which ground truth horizontally, e.g. in an Infallible Book (much of Protestantism -Karl Barth, T. F. Torrance, Donald Bloesch and the like are obvious exceptions), an Infallible Man (Latin Catholicism/officially only since 1870), Infallible (more or less) Historical Method/s etc. Truth is the revelation of the incarnate Christ, the Holy Spirit, experience of God-bearing/illuminated saints rather than methodological application of scientific hermeneutic methodologies whether ancient or modern.

Even within Orthodoxy, with scripture and Tradition at our disposal, truth is living, not methodological, not restricted to any horizontal dimension, and only properly received by a repentant sinner (“open our eyes, Lord, that we might see glorious things from thy Law”). This is *not* to say that the methodological study of historical criticism, hermeneutics, exegesis, etc. are rendered irrelevant; tacitly or explicitly truth of which the Church is a pillar and ground may run congruent with some authoritative method like rabbinical midrash, historical criticism, etc., but never in the sense of truth being reducible to some horizontal reality. Christ is the foundation; Christ is the truth; the Church is the pillar and ground and witness/martyr. Even if a book, an appointed authority, or some presumably infallible method could “speak” infallibly it cannot be heard except by the ears of a repentant sinner, hence the locus of truth is not the “authority” (more of a Latin Catholic/Protestant/contemporary academic preoccupation, I think); Christ Himself is the truth, and the Church as a whole is His body. Apologies for being so lengthy, but the sum of it is that I think of authenticity criteria of any kind, Wright’s included, in the same manner as the ancient Greek tragedies regarded their heroes greatest strength as often paradoxically displaying not only a fatal weakness, but a fatal weakness with potential to actually undo the hero at the end of the day.’

3 thoughts on “History, Theology, and Methodology

  1. Cal January 30, 2014 / 10:13 pm

    I find EO provides good critique to the varied positions of Protestantism & Rome, but the solution is a mush. I agree that we’re hearing through busted ears, and therefore any conduit of authority would be subject to that. But then, what? I don’t think the authority question is a bad one. It’s an agreement to stand beneath something, even if not all things are agreed upon.
    That’s the hope of the Holy Spirit. Yet it’s a hope tempered through what He already promised. Jesus validated the Scriptures as a place to find Him, just as Jesus validated the Eucharist as the means for receiving grace. Of course, it can come off as circular, but that’s not necessarily so.
    That’s the question of Canon, and why I can appreciate Wright’s work. Yes, it can be dangerously utilized to create a hierarchy of scholars that are suckled upon for any knowledge. Or, such knowledge can help liberate from traditions. Councils, creeds, and the writings of those gone before: what are they? Are they chains to restrict our thinking lest we be heretics? Or are they helpful landmarks along the King’s road, leading us into understanding?
    I’d say the latter, and in that way Wright is not the tragic hero, but another helpful voice to shake people out of their traditions and return to the regula fidei.
    2 Cents,


    • whitefrozen January 31, 2014 / 8:57 am

      Thanks for commenting – I don’t have tons of time to reply, but RE Wright I tend to agree, as I’m not convinced of the dogmatic approach that we see in (say) current Protestant dogmatics.


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