How Theologians Do History?

Screen Shot 2015-11-28 at 10.25.46 AMThe contention of at least one representative of what he calls “apocalyptic theology,” namely, Samuel V. Adams (in The Reality of God and Historical Method), is that only theologians know how to know God, and that “how” is by way of apocalyptic — Barthian, Kierkegaardian, Torrancean (sp?) — theology. The inference to be drawn is that any other kind of knowing God falls short, and Adams is most concerned with NT Wright’s major series of books — The New Testament and the Question of God — that has its agenda “the question of God.” It is unusual for anyone these days, when commenting on Wright’s books — at least since the first one (The New Testament and the People of God), to wonder what Wright is up to when it comes to God (or “god”). Very few point to this when it comes to his most recent Paul and the Faithfulness of God.

Most directly, then, Adams thinks Wright’s method, critical realism, cannot take us adequately to knowing God or, put differently, it is not how to know God. Wright might wonder how Adams thinks history is to be done and this is what Adams proceeds to do.

His approach to history is through the grid of apocalyptic theology, which means reading all of history through the grid of the Christ event (my expression), which leads to all sorts of questions from me, including the raggedy old problem of supersessionism. I jump ahead in his chapter to what I would take to be a summary thesis of his approach:

In contrast to Wright’s position—or in furtherance of it [yikes] —I have articulated a theological epistemology that assumes God as an active revealing and knowing subject, as both subject and object in the knowing relationship. This relationship is realized in fulfillment of all human knowing in Jesus of Nazareth, where God the Son as the new Adam, in full humanity, knows God the Father. In Torrance’s theology, we participate in this knowing relationship through the agency and gift of the Spirit. This way the relationship between idealism and realism is overcome by the perfection of knowledge in the trinitarian relations and as humanity is brought into that relation through the movement of the Son in the hypostatic union and through the work of the Spirit, who gives the gift of participation in those relations to the human knower. 181

[He continues on 182]: For a theology of history this ongoing presence and reality is precisely that which changes the historical paradigm. Instead of there being a gulf between the past and the present, there is a theological continuity—theological because it is grounded in the ongoing presence of God with his people. Theological epistemology is a pneumatic event for the human knower, since the actual knowledge relationship is realized outside of the knower in the relationship between the Father and the Son. Theological knowledge is true knowledge, but it is an actively mediated knowledge according to the category of gift.

[Thus]: Wright is imply wrong to say that theological knowledge, that is, knowledge of God and God’s involvement in the contingent order, is like knowledge of anything else.

[And on 183]: A theology of history articulates a perspective on the meaning of history as a whole, as, perhaps, a grand narrative that makes sense of all happenings in time and space, but does so according to the presently active reality of God. Again, this reality is not a reality obtained and possessed as universal knowledge in the way described above, but rather is a reality that demands that the meaning of history be placed in the hands of the one who gives history meaning and who remains, in his freedom, determinative of that meaning. This is apocalyptic. A theological epistemology, grounded in the trinitarian way of knowing, suggests that a theology of history would determine a theological account of historiography because a theology of history changes the hermeneutical position of the historian with respect to the past.

No historian can do history this way except in Christian higher education or in a church or in a theological department, and I’d like to know if Adams knows any historians doing “normal” history this way for subjects outside the Bible. How does one do medieval history? or the history of Alaska? or a history of locomotion this way? This approach to history colonizes the historian’s trade into the theologian’s pulpit. The only historians doing this are theologians in the Torrance mode and they are not historians but theologians or perhaps “theological historians.” Strong, I admit, but I don’t know how else to say this.

I turn today to his 5th chapter, ” History according to the Theologians: From a Theology of History to a Theology of Historiography.” He begins with the basics, which Adams is very good at articulating.

Understood at the most basic level, a theology of history is history subject to the criterion of theological knowledge. That is, in order for anything to be a ‘theology of” it must be determined by the unique object of theological knowledge—namely, God. Only then can the object of the preposition, in l this case history, be understood to be properly qualified theologically. Because this is so, history must remain a general conceptuality that is only given definitive content in light of the priority of the proper object of theology (173).

A theology of history locates the epistemological question that is central to historiography, the “science” of history (knowledge of the past), in the epistemological question germane to theological science (knowledge of God). 174

He turns his gaze again upon Wright and summarizes Tom’s view:

The proper object of history, being in one sense knowledge of the past, is never simply presented as the knowledge of bare facts about “the past,” whatever those would be, but rather as past events that belong within complex webs of meaning. It is in these complexes that events of the past can be known according to the unique way in which past events can be known. 174

These questions and their answers guide the historian to hypothesize, to formulate meaningful stories about events and then to verify those meaningful stories, testing them against the historical data. So the object of the historian’s research is not simply bare facts about the past, but rather the meaning of those facts or events. 175

But he wants to turn the historian against himself/herself at the level of subjective interference so Adams finds Fasolt to his liking:

Any given event in the past is, in the modern historians perspective, absent; and in its chronological absence it is fixed and unchanging, therefore immutable. The truth about history, about the past, is that it is a fixed reality, it is distant from us and it cannot be changed. If this is the case, then one cannot really have contact, with events of the past, but only with objects in the present that tell us, in various mediums, about the past. Because of the absence of history’s object signified by historical evidence, that is, because it points to something that is not here, the evidential nature of history undergirds the distinction that is fundamental to modern historiography: the distinction between the past and the present. 177

Quoting his book The Limits of History,

But history is not the study of reality, much less the study of the reality of time. History is the study of evidence … and evidence is not reality. Evidence is a sign, as different from reality as letters are from meaning and as numerals are from numbers. 177

Now to Wright:

By specifically focusing on worldviews, Wright acknowledges the subjective aspect of the historian’s task, but makes this subjectivity, finally, into an object, isolated in the historiographical task, and determined by the distance between the present and past. 178

Now that the subjectivity issue is on the table for Wright, he turns again to Fasolt to turn the subjectivity issue inside out:

If Fasolt is right, then in this way, [sic] “history is a form of self-assertion.” By that he means that history asserts the autonomous position of the historian with respect to history and the question of the reality of history. This is a distinctly political reading of history. [Yathink!] 178

Modern historiography, almost regardless of method, assumes and reinforces the distinction between the past and the present, and in so doing affirms the place of the present independent of the past—except as the past is admitted on the terms of the present. The historian sets the terms. 179

He goes to Balthasar’s theory of the world of ideas at work in doing history, and ties this then to theology — once again leaning toward apocalyptic theology:

A theology of history, according to this view of history, will interpret the historical sources in light of theological claims, doctrines and dogmas; the universal” claims of theological knowledge provide the interpretive framework for understanding the unique particular events of the past. 180

He has now set his agenda in full: apocalyptic theology “supersessions” all admissions of subjectivity and all worldview admissions. We will further this point in the next post.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.