Theology and History

OK, so here’s my paper from class this week.  Basically what I’m trying to do is explore the relationship between theology and history and try to see what happens.  My key point, I think, and the one I want to explore more, is that the doctrine of the Resurrection represents God’s commitment to history, and it should be match by a faith which does the same.  Or something like that.

It’s titled, “The Partial Observer: Toward a Theology of History”.  Spina likes snappy titles.  I don’t know if that qualifies.

Hope you like:


In the post-Enlightenment age, history has trumped theology.  Historians have started with a set of Enlightenment presuppositions about what history can—and, more importantly, cannot—discuss, examined the events recorded in Scripture with these presuppositions in mind, and came to certain conclusions about what did and did not happen.  Worse, many Christians have welcomed the conclusions of these historians and incorporated them into Christian doctrine.  This unfortunate mistake, I think, results from an incorrect understanding of the relationship between theology and history.  Rather than allowing an Enlightenment-era understanding of history to gloss Christian theology, I argue that Christian theology must change the way we understand and interact with history.  Before beginning any such discussion, however, we must first define our terms.

By ‘history’ I mean the study of the human past.  It is important to note that historians do not record human events; their interest is not merely in what happened, but why.  In order to do this, historians gather all of the data relevant to their study and create from it a logical narrative that explains ‘what happened’.  Both causes and effects are considered.  The devil is in the details, of course, and the real task of the historian is reconciling often contradictory, inevitably biased reports of what happened into one coherent, objective narrative framework.  Since the work of a historian is ultimately judged on how well her narrative explains all of the relevant data, and since ten historians, given the same topic of study, will generally write ten very different histories, the devil is (as usual) in the details.  Historians must argue that this record of an event is more reliable than another, and for these reasons, and that that event must be granted more significance than this one in explaining this event, and so on.   Methodology is everything.

For our purposes, two aspects of historical study are of particular importance.  Firstly, history studies human cause and effect.  When a tropical storm develops off the coast of Africa but loses steam and dissipates before reaching Jamaica, that’s meteorology.  When the governor of Florida announces a state of emergency, businesses close their doors, and residents board up their homes because a hurricane is headed straight for Ft. Lauderdale, that’s history.  Secondly, history, by nature, removes the object of study from the one studying it: one cannot experience history directly, but can only analyze it in retrospect.  The goal is to be separated enough from history so that one can explain it without bias: the more disinterested the historian is in her subject, the better.  In this way, an artificial separation between the student and the studied occurs.  Considering the fact that historians are themselves part of human cause and effect, this is more than a little ironic.  Indeed, most historians remain unaware that in fifty years, they will be the object of their own subject!

Theology means speech about God.  Any statement which has God as its subject is a theological statement.  Theologians, those who speak about God, do not only ask (and seek to answer) questions about God’s nature—Who is God?  What are God’s characteristics?—but also about the way God relates to us—that is, how does God reveal Godself?  What is God doing, and why?  But good theology, unlike history, requires a direct engagement with the subject at hand.  Bad Christians do not make good theologians.  Separation in the name of objectivity is not only impossible, but harmful to the theological task. Christian theology requires a commitment to faith.

The trouble is that history and theology cannot remain separate while one remains a Christian.  Far from Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, that deistic entity who sets the universe in motion but lets the chips fall where they may, the Christian God interrupts, interferes, and impedes on history.  More than that, God enters history in the person of Jesus.  If we profess that Jesus was fully God and fully human, then Christology—talk about Jesus—constitutes both theology and history at the same time.  The two are intertwined.  The doctrine of the Incarnation, then, muddles any attempt to separate the human from the divine.

Indeed, the attempts of various scholars at unearthing a ‘historical Jesus’ in recent centuries have been endlessly frustrated for this very reason.  Because historians deal with human cause and effect, their natural desire is to separate Jesus’ divinity from his humanity—something the Gospel writers never tried to do.  Unfortunately for historians, these Gospels, for whom Jesus’ humanity and divinity are inseparable, are our only substantial records of what Jesus said, did and taught during his time on earth.  These sources resist the historian’s scalpel with surprising resilience.  After dozens of historical Jesuses discarded due to one methodological mistake or another, it is the Jesus of the Gospels, not of the historians, who remains alive, well, and intact.

This is not merely a metaphor.  If Christians confess Jesus’ full divinity along with his full humanity, we do so because we first confess his Resurrection.  This event—that is, God’s raising of Jesus from the dead—seems, from one angle, anti-historical, for if there is anything that history has taught us, it is that when people die, they stay dead.  This has happened so often in history that it has come to be regarded as a scientific fact.  This, at least, we can rely on—or so we had thought.

Yet by ‘anti-historical’ we do not mean ‘non-historical’.  Inasmuch as Jesus is God, the Resurrection is a theological doctrine, for God is here both the subject and the object.  But inasmuch as Jesus is a man, it cannot remain ‘mere’ theology, for God is here the subject and a man the object.  God raised Jesus—God and a man—from the dead.  So the Resurrection is also history, because it had the human effect of bringing Jesus of Nazareth back to life.  Yet the Resurrection is also anti-history because it refuses to submit to the historical method—it cannot be accessed that way.  Certainly the appearances of Jesus after he was raised can be the object of historical study.  So, too, can the activities of the early church.  But the Resurrection, precisely because it flies in the face of the most reliable thing about history—that dead people stay dead—and because it was not caused by humans but by God, defies history.

This shatters Enlightenment presuppositions about how history is to be approached.  Historians, generally speaking, desire objectivity.  Interest, passion and commitment are detrimental to the historical task because they, supposedly, interfere with the historian’s judgment.  But to proclaim “He is Risen!” is a self-committing statement.  To affirm that Jesus is risen is to make a historical statement about ‘what actually happened’ which has major theological consequences—and theology, as we have seen, cannot be done objectively.  The Resurrection means that God has interfered with history to raise Jesus from the dead into a new sort of life.  To say that God interferes in history is to say that God cares about history: that is, that God cares about human cause and effect and is willing to get involved in it.  In history, God reveals Godself as a God of love.

The proper response to this love is faith, that is, commitment, the very thing that historians try to avoid. This shape of this faith should correspond to the God who inspired it.  Since God committed to history in the Resurrection, so, in response, should we.  Faith, then, does not mean wishful escape from history, but a fierce, personal commitment to it that mirrors what God has shown in Jesus.  As the conquering of death in defiance of history, the Resurrection gives history meaning and purpose, yes, but also a motive to engage in history as an agent of God’s work.  Through the Holy Spirit, the Church must work to transform history, reconciling all things to God in Jesus Christ.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s