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.’

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Texts and Archaeology

‘So why begin with the textual evidence, biblical and extrabiblical? It would also be possible to begin with the archaeological evidence, provided that we limited ourselves to cataloguing the material evidence (perhaps forming tentative judgments about social context and general modes of living) and vigorously resisted the temptation to begin writing our own “stories” about specific events and persons. As is often observed, material evidence alone is il suited to tell a story, except perhaps a very general story about the longue duree. Study of the material evidence is best suited for establishing general conditions and gauging the plausibility of stories that available texts tell. If our interest is in human history, and not just natural history or general social history, texts prove invaluable. Appropriately then, especially in view of our openness to testimony, we begin with the texts. They provide a story, or stories, the plausibility of which we may then test in the light of whatever material remains are known.’ ‘Provan, Long, Longman III, ‘A Biblical History of Israel’,p. 147)

Justification, in Summary

This post originated as a Facebook comment. There’s obviously lots to flesh out, tighten up, and correct and plenty to debate, but here’s my summary of justification.

Historically, its as factual as factual can be that Torah, in 2nd temple Judaism (all of Judaism, but specifically here), was not seen as a bad thing or a burden or something which was a kind of impossible standard one had to keep in order to go to heaven, and it still isn’t within Judaism. On factual, historical grounds, that’s pretty much beyond dispute. Calvin was right on when he saw the Law not as an entrance requirement but rather as something given to the redeemed people.

Alright, so what’s the point of Torah? It was not primarily, as commonly supposed, a way for people to recognize their own moral failings, as if it were a kind of Kantian moral imperative which hangs over all men, and that once the failure to meet this standard was recognized, the Gospel could then be preached. That was not the point though, though Torah did expose one’s failings and did serve to kill sin by imprisoning it. But here’s the thing: in Judaism, when you messed up, you made atonement and moved on. People mess up and don’t keep Torah perfectly, because we’re sinners. Okay. Make atonement, square yourself away and get back in step.

So if Torah isn’t primarily something that exists to show that it can’t be met, what is it? Here, modern scholarship is pretty much in accord in saying that Torah was not what one did to get into the people of God but what one did which showed that one was in the people of God. It was, in the days before Jesus, an ethnic marker of sorts. Torah belonged to the people of God, and the people of God kept Torah. One can disagree with the theological/dogmatic implications, but that is, again, pretty much an established fact.

The problem, however, is in that second to last sentence. Israel were called to be a light to the nations, to bring salvation to the world. People were to look at Israel and go, ‘What a people! What a God!’ But, as Scripture drives home, this was not the case. Sin worked through Torah, turning the heart upon itself, and what was supposed to the charter for the people of God, what was supposed to be the distinctive thing about the people of God, ended up being used to keep people *out* of the people of God. The promise of Abraham is being killed by the curse of Adam.

The rest, as they say, is history, up until an incident in Antioch, when the ethnic problems come to a head. Paul says to the Judaizers, no. You’ve missed the point. The second you begin to do with Torah what Christ had done, which is to redefine the people of God around faith instead of adherence to Torah, you’re right back where we started, keeping people who aren’t ethnic enough out. That is something Paul won’t stand for.

That is the fundamental issue – Torah cannot be used as a means to define the people of God anymore, because now the people of God are defined as those who, by faith, both their faith in Christ and the faithfulness of Christ, are in Christ. Jesus defined adherence to Torah not as rigorous obedience and boasting but as loving God and loving your neighbor – and this, Paul declares, is true Torah. This – faith and love – are what defines the people of God. Paul says, look, keeping Torah is fine, if you want to do it. But if it becomes something that separates people at the table, then you’re right back where we started, and you’re going to have Torah staring you down.

Note on Historical/Theological Studies

I was in a discussion recently about the relation of biblical/historical studies to theological/dogmatic studies. It’s a bit of an odd question, to me at least, but I’ve found that dichotomies puzzle me in general. To be sure, historical study in and of itself can’t be the basis of dogmatics (I can’t imagine someone concerned with dogmatics would studying Scripture with that idea). Historical study can, however, inform theological and dogmatic issues (say, the translation of a word, or the context of a certain historical event, or any number of things). Something that comes to mind is (as an example) the priesthood of Christ, a doctrine which would probably not make a lot of sense if there wasn’t an historical understanding of the Jewish priesthood.

Witherington on Heaven

‘Notice how very little the New Testament says about dying and going to heaven, and that when the matter is discussed, for instance in 2 Cor. 5:1-10, Paul makes clear that life without a body in heaven is by no means his own hope or expectation in regard to how he will spend eternity. Indeed, Paul refers to life in heaven without a body as nakedness, which to an early Jew was hardly the most desirable state of affairs. While it is true that under the influence of Greek thought medieval Christianity often substituted the discussion of immortality of the soul for the New Testament doctrine of the resurrection of the body, this is not what the majority of New Testament passages are speaking of when they refer to the afterlife. Indeed, it could be said that in the new Testament life in heaven is seen only as an interim condition. Resurrection is something that happens in the earthly realm to real people who have died, It is not an event in some other real (for instance, heaven) and is not immune to historical scrutiny and evaluation. It is interesting that J. Murphy-O’Connor has suggested in a recent book, Paul: A Critical Life, that the whole reason that Christians believed in the everlasting existence of the human personality beyond death at all was precisely because they believed that there had to be a person there for God in Christ to raise up on the last day. How very different this is from what one usually hears today about dying and going to heaven.'(Ben Witherington III, ‘New Testament History: A Narrative Account’ pp. 166-167)

Metzger on John the Baptist

My interest in 1st century/2nd temple Judaism/early Christianity has been rekindled – I’ve spent the morning reading Wright, Sanders Segal, Metzger and others, and here’s an interesting snippet from Metzger about John the Baptist:

‘The other unique characteristic of John’s preaching was his insistence that in the coming judgment the privilege of belonging to the chosen people would count for nothing: “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Matt. 3:9, Luke 3:9). In effect, John excommunicated the whole nation and received back such as would repent and be baptized.’ (Bruce Metzger, ‘The New testament, it’s Background Growth and Content’, pp. 109-110).

Wright is well known for the thesis ethnic boasting and exclusivity was a major problem for the apostolic church, and it would seem here that John the Baptist provides a bit of evidence to bolster that thesis. Part of John’s problem (it appears) was that people were resting content in the fact that they belonged to the ethnic family of Abraham, and so were safe on judgment day, to which John gives his spirited reply.