Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Bible, History, and the Historian

In his book Art of Biblical History, The, V. Phillips Long approaches a question I get all the time from students - why do scholars disagree? The books I read in seminary on the OT are quite different from the critical books an IU student would read in an Intro the the OT. Why the difference in how the OT story is told, how it's historical claims are accepted, etc.?

I think Long hits the nail on the head - "the historian's basic intellectual and spiritual commitments ("how he or she sees the world") exercise an inevitable, even 'dominating,' influence over which historical reconstructions will appear plausible to that historian." Moreover, the historians "model of reality" will greatly affect the historian's preferred methods of doing historical investigation. He points out, "Most well informed scholars have access to essentially the same data. It is, rather, in the assessment of the data that differences arise."

The method most common in biblical research, and most problematic, is often referred to as the historical-critical method, a method "based on assumptions quite irreconcilable with traditional belief" (Michalson, cited in Long).

Long's next 12 pages are dedicated to examining the historical-critical method and answering the question, "who can use it?" He begins the section, "

"It is often asserted that those who study the Bible as a source of history must, if they wish to merit the title historian, acknowledge and adhere to the same canons of historical research as those espoused by their secular counterparts. In principle, this assertion is valid. In practice, however, difficulties are encountered ..."

Paul Achtemeier defines the historical-critical method in a way that makes it quite possible for a faithful Christian to use. He defines historical as "the continued necessity of recognizing that the Bible is the product of another time, and that this much be taken into account whenever we attempt to use it to solve contemporary problems." Critical, then, is defined as taking a critical attitude towards what we think a passage means. If that is all that is meant by historical-critical methods, there would be no problem.

Unfortunately, that's not all that is meant. The secular Biblical scholar who regards the Bible as a merely human composition will approach the text "assuming not only the possibility, but the probability (if not certainty) that the text has erred in places, since 'to err is human'." Moreover, according to Halpren (a secular biblical historian) the critical historian 1) "takes a critical stance toward his sources," 2) "is inclined to disregard the supernatural or miraculous in his treatment of past events," and 3) "he is very much aware of his own historicity and, accordingly, of the subjective and tentative character of his historical conclusions."

Obviously the second is a non starter for the Christian. While we might dismiss some accounts of the supernatural as unbelievable, we will not dismiss all. Let me explain that last sentence. If I read a piece of Ancient Near Easter literature that ascribes some catastrophe to Baal, or a piece of Greek history that ascribes a fire in a city to the anger of the gods, I'll dismiss it. Why? Because I do not believe Baal or the Greek gods exist. However, I do believe the God of the Bible is a personal God who acts in history, so I cannot (will not) dismiss an account of deliverance or judgment as historically attributable to God. Again, that's a nonstarter.

Beyond these three principles, there is "a fundamental principle of the historical-critical method that tends to bring its results into direct conflict with the biblical testimony...this principle of analogy assumes that '[citing Miller] all historical phenomena are subject to analogous explanation (explanation in terms of similar phenomena).'" As you can see, this approach seems to "assume in advance that the unique cannot occur, that miracles do not happen, and that God never intervenes in history, " for such events (the unique, miraculous and divine) cannot be explained in terms of similar phenomena.

Abraham points out one glaring flaw in this approach - historians must be willing to accept unique events in history - for example, that moon landing. Abraham illustrates by asking his reader to imaging explaining the moon landing to a tribe that had been totally isolated. They wouldn't believe it because it is unbelievable to them. The example highlights the truth that "conclusions drawn from the application of the principle of analogy are only as sound as the background beliefs held by those drawing the conclusions."

So where does that leave the Christian historian? Does every chapter end with 'Providence'? Not necessarily. Long quotes Bebbington, "the Christian historian is not obliged to tell the whole truth as he sees it in every piece of historical writing. He can write of providence or not according to his judgment of the composition of his audience. So long as his account accords with the Christian vision of the historical process, he will be fulfilling his vocation." Long elaborates, "Christian historians, if they are to be consistent, must take care that what they do say is compatible with their full set of background beliefs." To this end, Long offers to cautions. First, the Christian historian must resist the temptation to offer "exclusively natural explanations fore each and every occurrence in the past, even for those occurrences that the Bible presents as involving direct divine action." In other words, don't cave to the pressure to explain things like the exodus or the resurrection in purely naturalistic ways. Second, makes sure that the 'minimalistic' approach doesn't "infect your model of reality" - doesn't become your mode of viewing the world.

Long concludes this section wonderfully: "The historian may believe that God is the 'lord of history,' sovereignly at work behind the scenes and even intervening on occasion, and still remain a competent historian. Indeed, unless theists are badly mistaken in their theism, then surely it is the denial of any place for God in the historical process that is the mark of bad history." What's great about that quote is you could easily substitute the world 'science' for 'history' and it would be equally true.

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