Tuesday, 3 February 2009

'Historicity' at the core of the Gospel?

the Bible makes numerous claims - explicitly and implicitly - concerning the factuality of the events it records. At that most fundamental level, at the central core of Christian beliefs, is the fact that Christ did indeed die for the sins of humanity and then rose from the grave in a great victory over death. This forms the ground and basis of our faith. [*]
This quote is taken from a conservative Evangelical and I affirm it. In the realm of exegesis, however, it often leads to the need to interpret every Biblical story as having happened exactly as it is portrayed. As one Evangelical Introduction to the Old Testament asks: "If Jericho was not razed, is my faith in vain?"

I don't want to answer this question here, simply because I am, at present, unable to. However, I would like to ask whether the category of "history" is as self-evident as we assume, and whether it truly does justice to "the core of Christian beliefs," as Howard put it. As I read Douglas Farrow's fascinating book, Ascension and Ecclesia: On the Significance of the Doctrine of the Ascension for Ecclesiology and Christian Cosmology, I'm learning that historical events that constituted Jesus' life and mission did not just take place within history, they also transformed it. This is particularly the case with the ascension, which was "the act in which the link between our fallen world and the new creation was fully forged" (p. 39). This act has all kinds of metaphysical/cosmological consquences, consequences which lie at the heart of the Christian kerygma and thus should also be considered as being part of "the central core of Christian beliefs." In short, the Gospel does just redeem me, it redeems the very dimensions of time and space themselves. Paul Minear has made similar observations in relation to other events of the kerygma in his excellent book The Bible and the Historian (which I have posted on a number of times).

In short, though we need to say with St. Paul that "if Christ is not raised, we have believed in vain," we also need to bare in mind Paul's struggle with the ontological implications of this event. The whole of reality itself has been re-arranged around the human Christ, enthroned at the right hand of the Father. And in the light of these implications, we ought to re-evaluate once more just what it means for the Biblical narratives to be "historical," to have literally happened just as they are written. Ultimately, Scripture does not just witness to God's "mighty acts in history," (à la G. Ernest Wright) is also witnesses to his new reality, proleptically tasted in the present as the hors-d'oeuvre of the coming kingdom. Hermeneutically, that implies a vertical and not just a horizontal dimension to exegesis (see Childs' critique of the Tübingen school of Biblical Theology in Biblical Theology, 77. See also my post, The need for ontological categories in Biblical exegesis). The challenge lies in finding the correct balance between the two.

I think, by the way, that Hans Frei was touching on this too, in his response to criticism coming from Evangelicals that his narrative theology had no interest in "historical fact":

Even if I say that history if first of all the facts—and I do have a healthy respect for evidence—I come across something else. Is Jesus Christ (and here I come to the problem of miracle) a “fact” like other historical facts? Should I really say that the eternal Word made flesh, that is, made fact indeed, is a fact like any other? I can talk about “Jesus” that way, but can I talk about the eternal Word made flesh in him that way? I don't think so, just as I don't think that I can say “God created the world” and mean by that a factual referent like any other. ... Once again, yes, “Jesus” refers, as does any ordinary name, but “Jesus Christ” in scriptural witness does not refer ordinarily; or rather, it refers ordinarily only by the miracle of grace. And that means that I do not know the manner in which it refers, only that the ordinary language in which it is cast will miraculously suffice. It is historical reference (to use our cultural category) but it is not historical reference in the ordinary way: nor of course is it metaphor. [**]
[*] Howard, 1993: 35.
[**] Frei, "Response to 'Narrative Theology: An Evangelical Appraisal," in
Theology and Narrative (eds. G. Hunsinger; W. Placher; Oxford: Oxford Uni. Press, 1993), 211-212.

Update: I feel that Halden's two recent posts - Theology, Speech, and Silence and God's Incomprehensibility and Trinitarian Exploration - speak to this issue too, though in a thoroughly different manner.


Bob MacDonald said...

Jericho raised? not razed? (or rased the archaic spelling)

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks Bob! I had an odd feeling about my spelling ...

Josh said...

Interesting post. I wonder, however, what the incentive is to affirm the 'vertical' nature of the Scriptures. On one hand, it could be a genuine desire to affirm the divine nature of the Scriptures (i.e., inspiration, etc.). On the other hand, I worry that it is a defensive position taken against the perceived threat of some 'scholarship' which challenges historicity. In other words, it becomes a fall-back position: if a particular event is not historical, I can still hold on to it because it is still true in a meaningful way. Also, I don't understand how theology could maintain its significance without its literal historicity.

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Josh,

thanks for sharing your thoughts with me. You wrote: I don't understand how theology could maintain its significance without its literal historicity.

I agree with you.

I wonder, however, what the incentive is to affirm the 'vertical' nature of the Scriptures.

The incentive, I believe, is the Scripture itself constantly does it. We can read, for example, the wildnerss wanderings "economically" (to use the Trinitarian term) as being one stage on the path of salvation history. We are not Israel in the wilderness, but we see how that fitted into God's salvation history. On the other hand, we can (and normally do anyway) reading it "immanently" (or "vertically"), i.e. as a picture of our own situation. As the letter to the Hebrews saw it, we are still waiting for the promised land, even though, in one sense, we have kind of arrived. That is the tension at it can be applied to a Biblical story whether it happened or not. I'm just suggesting that given this tension between history and eschatology, profane and redeemed time (perhaps), the question of historical happendness is relativised ... somewhat. For example, after the Reed Sea event, Moses sings a song. It is located within a particular temporal horizon: after their salvation, before entering the wilderness. Yet the contents of the song explodes this horizon. He suddenly starts talking about events at the Jordan and within the land as if they have all already occured. One can take the conservative (and traditional) route and argue that Moses was a prophet speaking in the prophetic perfect, or one can take the critical route and say that an editor stuck a song into its context without thinking too much about narrative sequence. I would say (following Childs' commentary), that it is theology statement about the ontological unity of all these events. The fragementary part belongs to a greater whole, and this song in this narrative context witnesses to that. A similar thing can be said about Isaiah. Prophecies about Assyria and Babylon are constantly juxtaposed, ignoring their temporal and cultural distance. One the one hand they are discrete entities, just as we are faced in our daily experience with discrete and partially comprehensable entities. But, with Isaiah, they become typologically related as witnesses to a more fundamental, ontological unity: the wickedness and hubris of man (or something like that, no doubt far more profound). The Bible has a habit of subordinating temporal sequence for the unity of theological content, and that is where the vertical comes in. It's every where, actually. The same applies to Christology: Jesus came in the "fullness of time," yet it the beginning he "is."

Does that clarify things? Or am I fudging the issue in an attempt to have my cake and eat it ?

Phil Sumpter said...

There was supposed to be a "winky face" thing before the final question mark: ;)?

Superb Jon said...
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