Monday, September 22, 2008

History, Criticism and Christian Conviction - Part 1

I once dreamed I was trying to explain the difference between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith to a close relative. It was a nightmare really, brought on, I suspect, by reading Albert Schweitzer's brilliant Quest of the Historical Jesus. In his introduction Schweitzer explains that "hate as well as love can write a life of Jesus, and the greatest of them are written with hate" (4). He was thinking of Reimarus, and perhaps also of himself, for unlike many of his contemporaries whose Jesus was "only the reflection of Liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well" (George Tyrrell), Schweitzer did not like the deluded apocalyptic Jew he discovered. In an unforgettable passage, Schweitzer describes 'his' Jesus, who
"comes...and in the knowledge that he is the coming Son of Man lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and he throws himself upon it and is crushed" (370).
Schweitzer began with what he regarded as three assured results of scholarship: Markan priority, an apocalyptic Jesus, and naturalism--God may exist, but miracles do not. His review of the quest is a fascinating tale of conflict between confessional and secular scholarship in 19th century Germany. Sound familiar?

This brings me, in a roundabout way, to Nick's comment on my post (from back at the beginning of August) on Bill Arnal: "So what do you make of his [Bill's] charge that confessional scholars must necessarily find affirmative results in their investigation of the historical beginnings of their faith? It seems a fair question to ask."

I think he has a point. Conservative scholarship on the historical Jesus all too often unfolds like a Hollywood movie: You can enjoy the action because you know that everything will turn out in the end and that the ‘right’ answers you had at the beginning will be confirmed. Whatever the intentions of those involved, it seems like some scholars treat history as a game of lining up criteria and evaluating the evidence in order to confirm what they thought all along. The result tends to be predictable and rather dull.

Of course, we bring our past knowledge and experiences, our presuppositions, to everything we do. I am not advocating methodological doubt. It is fine to begin with a hypothesis that the narrative of Acts, for example, is reliable, and then test it as Colin Hemer and William Ramsay apparently did. But to study a historical question is to enter into the possibility of being wrong. It is not a safe enterprise.

The same goes for study of the Bible. Often this functions positively: Because the Bible is not safe, those who approach it as Scripture are challenged and shaped by studying it. Sometimes, however, a careful reading will lead--for some people on some occasions--to questions that deal with issues which are central to faith. For this reason too, honest study of the Bible is not a safe enterprise.

To be continued...

3 comments:

RogueMonk said...

How do you define "safe?" If we come from a so called "confesional" approach, couldn't it be said that careful and hoenst study of Scripture is inherantly safe because God's Holy Spirit will bring some positive fruit from that study. In this way, a study of scripture that is guided by Christain conviction is completely safe because it it is frimly held in the hand of a soveriegn God.

This is the place where I think our systematic theology has much to contribute to questions of truth, authority and perspective as they relate to the reading and study of scripture--both in the accedemy and in the pew.

Blessings, RogueMonk

Isaac said...

I like this post. There are a few things that come to mind.

The creeds of the church are just as prone to misreading as scripture. So are the creeds (and other essentials) themselves "safe?"

The tenets of naturalism may also provide "safety" to its adherents.

Thought of Aslan (who is wild, but good). Also Luther's often repeated quote about scripture confronting us like an enemy.

Thanks.

d. miller said...

Thanks for the helpful comments. Indeed, whether or not it comes from systematic theology : ), it is good to be reminded of God's role in all this.