Hurtado on Historical Inquiry and Christian Faith

Here is a helpful post by Larry Hurtado about the importance of historical inquiry for Christian faith. (BW3)

Historical Inquiry & Christian Origins

larryhurtado | July 15, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Categories: Uncategorized | URL:

Hurtado writes:

I’m currently in Vancouver teaching a summer course in Regent College.  My course, “Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity”, draws upon my research and publications over the last 20+ yearas.

It’s interesting, yet again, to lead students in focusing on historical issues involved in the origins of Jesus-devotion.  The students are all communicant Christians (of one kind or another), and for many of them these specific issues are new, and an effort at a strict historical approach somewhat new as well.

It is, however, one of the unavoidable features of Christianity that it is a historical religion, its origins provenanced, a number of the leading figures identifiable, and with texts from the earliest period, some of which take us back to within ca. 20 years after Jesus’ execution.  So, it’s really unavoidable for thinking Christians to take seriously the historical nature of their faith, all the historical issues and approaches valid.

In fact, to my mind, it’s one of the attractive features of Christianity that it is a historical faith, and doesn’t claim to be simply some set of timeless truths (e.g., to be discovered by contemplation).   It means living with the nature of historical knowledge on a number of issues (limited by extant evidence, always provisional and subject to correction, and conclusions often disputed).  But it can be an intriguing exercise to try to project ourselves back into the setting of earliest Christian centuries, when they were having to understand what they believed had happened to them, and without the later creeds, theologians and church structures of subsequent centuries.

Finding Jesus— Reboot
Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’–The Interview Part Six
Finding Jesus– Review of Part One
Kingsman– The Secret Service
  • Delmy Vialpando

    Great post! Historical Christianity is such a fascinating subject and as you described, very intriguing. Nevertheless a strong tool to many for increasing and validating our personal faith. I am slowly reading “Jesus and Marginal Women” by Dr Stuart L Love, which confirms your words that “is not easy to project ourselves into those settings’” but at the same time, from my perspective, it clarifies the why’s of many of our cultural practices. Thanks! I enjoy your writings.

  • Rick

    “to my mind, it’s one of the attractive features of Christianity that it is a historical faith, and doesn’t claim to be simply some set of timeless truths (e.g., to be discovered by contemplation). It means living with the nature of historical knowledge on a number of issues”

    Wonderful thought.

  • Steve Kenney

    We were just talking about this last Sunday! “These things were not done in a corner…” Paul was able to make a strong appeal to Agrippa and Bernice because the historical basis of “the way” was open for all observers. How those events were interpreted was an ongoing matter of debate, but whether Jesus existed and whether the shocking events in Jerusalem actually happened were taken for granted in his well-crafted speech to Agrippa and Bernice.

  • Leo

    Terrific post! I lurk and read your blog all the time, and I love it.

    I do have an unrelated question, because I can’t find an email address for you. My Greek professor here at ASU has agreed to do a reading course through the book of John, and told us we could use a commentary, but make sure it’s scholarly.

    I have your commentary, and I LOVE it, but I was wondering if you could point me in the direction of a commentary that was focused primarily on the grammar, syntax, and text transmission. Yours touches on all of these things, but isn’t really what I’m looking for for this purpose. Can you help?

  • ben witherington

    Hi Leo:

    You might appreciate Craig Keener’s John Commentary.

    Ben W.

  • Tone Ranger

    Good post but this topic of the historical christian faith is what I call the ‘invisible elephant in the room’. It needs exponentially more attention in today’s world. The more I read western theologians, the more it feels like we keep bumping into the epistemological mammoth and get bounced around without knowing what’s really in the way.

    I’ll give you an example. Saw a video of Grudem where he was enumerating his influences, usually with a good dollop of ‘he’s brilliant’, ‘he’s great’ here and there in referring to Machen and so on. I couldn’t help but wonder, when did intellectual brilliance become the watermark in assessing what theologians have to say? The Enlightenment? The reformation? The 18th century? Whichever it is, that moment is to be mourned.

    The Eastern church has a saying “He who prays is a theologian and the theologian is the one who prays”. In other words, the standard by which we judge theology is not by some arbitrary measure of intellectual talent, but by the holiness of life lived out, first and foremost. If we would only learn from the eastern church, we wouldn’t be throwing 500th birthday parties for ‘genius’ scholars who helped burn people at the stake…

    More importantly, Jude 1:3 makes it clear that there WAS an historical faith that was ‘ONCE AND FOR ALL handed down to the saints”. Not only was it in existence within years of Christ’s death and resurrection, but Jude urges his readers to CONTEND for that faith, to defend it and protect it.

    My question to you Ben and to readers is this: Can we honestly say that the evangelical faith is in alignment with that faith that was salvifically complete? (Read Christ’s words to the churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia, they sure didn’t need no Calvin or Machen or Pink to be assured of the orthodoxy of their salvation beliefs now did they, anachronism aside).

    I would submit that not only has the protestant faith departed from the historical faith once handed down, but even the eastern orthodox, geographical proximity to the early church notwithstanding, has not kept that early faith as much as they claim to, and same for the catholics faith.

    Christian theology is a MESS today, especially in the west. I’m sorry. Just look at the mess over the NPP and Piper etc. Is pistis Christou in the subjective genitive or objective? Are we justified by grace or by works, or by both? Is justification a legal/forensic declaration primarily or inclusion into God’s covenant family. Is penal substitution the primary understanding of the atonement? (while substitution was clearly the understanding of the early church, there’s absolutely no evidence whatsoever that the ‘penal’ part of it, i.e., that God necessitated the punishment of Christ before He could forgive mankind, was ever what they believed. This is a medieval invention) What about tongues, the Holy Spirit, liturgy, is communion merely symbolic and so on.

    We must return to the early faith once and for all handed down. We can put together a basic sketch of what it looked like from the earliest documents available to us and the writings of first century christians. It is not an impossible task. And NO, those people weren’t dumber than you. In fact, some were of a devotion and caliber that the majority of contemporary christians could not compare with.