"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.
–2 Peter 1:16
It has pleased God the Holy Spirit to give us his Word in the form in which men of an ancient time and of an ancient culture wrote history, giving us several accounts of the same event without bothering about the differences; employing citations which are not word-for-word (würtlich) according to our standards; numbers which do not want to be taken word-for-word in the sense of statistical historiography; events which lie beyond human experience like the protological (primeval, urgeschichtlich) and eschatological (end-time) statements of the Scripture …
It is only by receiving the Bible from God’s hand as his Word, as it is, and not by trying to make it what our reason expects of a divine book that we will be in a position to believe and understand it as the book of eternal truth.
-Hermann Sasse: On the Doctrine De Scriptura Sacra: Scripture and the Church
The Historical and the Theological Aspects of the Bible
The Bible like Christ is considered by Christians to be both divine and human; it is a divinely inspired text, the Word of God to us, and yet it was written by human authors living in historical space embedded in empirical conditions, determined and influenced by their particular cultural environment. Unfortunately many of the church’s theological doctrines and creeds exist in tension with the conclusions of the historical method as applied to the Bible.
This post will attempt to tease out more clearly where the boundaries between the “historical” and the “theological” lie in Bible with reference to two examples: (1) the mid 20th century theological discussion on the resurrection as “myth” or “history” with the Neo-Orthodox reconciliation between the two and (2) Peter Van Inwagen’s comparison between the Old Testament stories and scientific modelling of empirical phenomena. The discussion will then conclude with a brief advocacy of the emerging “theological interpretation of Scripture” as continuing in the orthodox direction the Neo-Orthodox insights while avoiding the pitfalls of the “narrative” approaches of more recent theology.
What Happened at the Tomb? The Divine Act
Interwar theology can be characterised by two approaches to the resurrection. On the one hand we have the Anglo-American apologists who insist upon the fully “historical” character of the resurrection. The resurrection of Christ is a fully historical event discerned and determined by history. The absolute historicity of the resurrection is essential to the Christian position, without which our faith is in vain.
On the other hand we have the continental “demythologisers” who insist that we must “demythologise” the Bible of any supernatural elements. The history or “what actually happened” in the Bible is irrelevant, what really matters is what it means to us, its existential significance as far as the human condition or our needs are concerned. The historical critical method, in tracing the purely human causes or motivations behind the Bible text has rendered the “historicity” of biblical events suspect; that it might have ongoing significance we must reject the supernatural as essential to the Bible and reframed it in a manner more suited to the needs of modern man.
Between the two positions stands the German Neo-Orthodox Lutheran theologian Walter Künneth, who interacts with both positions and formulates his own via media in his work The Theology of the Resurrection.
Künneth argues that reducing the Resurrection to pure history is a mistake. His main argument here is that the historical method is directed towards the discernment of empirical phenomena and natural causes. The reduction of the resurrection to pure history would ironically turn it into a purely natural event devoid of any supernatural or theological dimensions. He writes:
If the resurrection is an event on the plane of history, then it also participates in all that determines the nature of history. The resurrection event is then a relative fact in the context of the phenomena and life of history, stands in continuity with a multitude of other known and unknown factors belonging to this world, is an element in historical existence and as such possesses no absolute validity but is subject to conditions and thus to the uncertainties and probabilities of all history. To insist upon the historic character of the resurrection has the result of objectifying it, … that means… that the assertion of its historicality leads to an irresistible process of dissolution, which ominously threatens the reality of the resurrection itself.
This point is a bit abstract but here’s how it can be fleshed out. First, if the resurrection is a purely historical event, then it can be described or explained in purely naturalistic terms like via the “swoon theory”. Thus naturalists can agree that Christ was alive after the crucifixion, but that he was resuscitated after having merely fainted during the crucifixion. So if the resurrection was purely historical, then it can be explained in purely historical or naturalistic terms without reference to the divine or supernatural. Attempts to prove the resurrection on the purely historical plane become increasingly desperate “God of the gaps” kind of explanation where supernatural agency is hastily plucked out of the thin air in order to fill the explanatory gap of allegedly weaker naturalistic accounts.
The central significance of the resurrection is not merely that Jesus was seen alive after his crucifixion, the real significance is that God raised Christ from the dead. How can the historical method, which can only discern the empirical, identify the acts of the invisible God? Supernatural agency is not merely brought in to fill up the explanatory gap left behind by weak naturalistic theories, it is at the heart of the Christian proclamation itself. No historical proof or method can lead us from the disernible “Christ was seen after his crucifixion” to the theological “God raised him from the dead”, the latter theological proposition is an article of faith, it can only be proclaimed, not demonstrated; believed, not deduced. Thus beyond the plane of history theological interpretation is required.
Rowan Williams in his essay Between the Cherubim: The Empty Tomb and the Empty Throne draws a comparison between the empty space flanked by the cherubims on the ark of the covenant and the empty tomb flanked by the two angels, arguing for the theological significance for the fact that no one witnessed the resurrection event itself. Just as the blank space, where the Lord God is supposed to be located, dispossessed us of our ability to grasp the invisible God in controllable empirical terms, likewise the empty tomb flanked by the two angels displaces the resurrection of Christ from the plane of the human or empirical to the invisible divine act.
Imagine if someone had actually witnessed the resurrection event live. The resurrection event would then devolve into obsessive questions concerning the character and motivations of the witness himself: what did he see exactly? Was his eyes working properly, was he hallucinating? Drunk? Bright lights? On drugs? Maybe he has a certain eye condition which can produce these effects! All these fully historical and interrogative questions of the reliability of eyewitnesses.
By removing the resurrection event from the empirical plane its theological character is preserved, it places a limit upon human agency and properly gives place to the Spirit inspired conviction or act of faith concerning its theological heart: for God raised him from the dead, as foretold by the Spirit inspired prophets and now proclaimed in the power of the same Spirit who spoke of old.
From an epistemic and spiritual point of view, it is necessary that eventually we must raise our eyes above the plane of history, with all its merely probabilistic arguments and contingent empirical factors, to the Spirit inspired heavenly plane of certain assurance. The life of faith, although it might begin with the things which are seen, eventually needs move to the things which are not seen but grasped in faith, it cannot be bogged down or subject to the uncertainties or critical distance necessary to the task of doing historical science properly. This brings us to the proper role and meaning if history in biblical interpretation.
What Happened at the Tomb? The Human Witnesses
Despite Künneth’s critique of the complete historicisation of the resurrection, he does argue that there is a valid concern behind the drive towards establishing the “historicity” of the resurrection. He argues that historical arguments and evidences locate the resurrection event in the objective world external to our subjective belief or will. While historical evidence cannot tell us that the resurrection occurred, it can tell us where and when it occurred, and in fact, it must do so if the resurrection is to be an objectively true event and not one merely willed into belief by a subjective fiat.
As such, while the resurrection event can only grasped by an act of faith, it is faith in an objectively true event which occurred in actual historic space, not merely in our imaginations or wishful thinking. As Künneth puts it:
There is no doubt that the New Testament has an interest in the connection between resurrection and historicality. The concept of the historic not only aims at the exclusion of the subjective, but also includes indispensable elements of value in its definitions of the concrete, the completed and the unique. It is a question of the unique and unrepeatable character of the resurrection event, which took place independently of man’s consciousness and his powers of discernment. The cardinal point of the resurrection story is thus necessarily the testimony of the eye-witnesses. ‘We have seen the Lord’, is a message which marks the uniqueness of particular events that became the cause and the primary ground of the Easter faith. The truth which is enshrined in the description of the resurrection as a ‘historical fact’, and the earnest intention thereby expressed to preserve the statements about the resurrection from meaninglessness, must not be overlooked.
As such historical evidence, while it cannot establish with infallible certitude the Easter faith, is still a necessary part of the Christian proclamation. The evidence of eyewitnesses to Christ’s death and the subsequent empty tomb is vital to locating the resurrection as an event within historical space, not merely a fantasy imagined or story concocted by man. The resurrection did occur in a concrete historical setting which setting and context can be discerned and established by historical evidence and eyewitnesses. What however remains outside of the scope of the historical method is the theological conclusion that God raised Jesus from the dead. That has to remain an article of faith which comes about by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
The hermeneutical method of Walter Künneth is characteristic of the neo-orthodoxy of the interwar period, a desire at the same time to do justice to the historical critical method of reading the Bible, with its focus upon the contingent and the empirical aspect of the Bible, while going beyond its restrained theological inferences or minimal theological content to discern the theological character of those Biblical events based upon theological rather than historical premises.
While this investigation into Künneth’s understanding of the resurrection has given us a way of discerning the distinction which exists between the historical and theological, it could be instructive to look into Peter Van Inwagen’s concept of a just-so story in order to discuss further how robust or concrete the historicity of Biblical events must be in order for it to make or communicate a theological point.
Scientific Models and Just-So Stories
Was there a global flood or a local one? Did the Exodus event “actually” happen? Are Adam and Eve “actual” historical persons? What are to make of questions concerning the “historical” character of the Bible? If the Bible was purely “mythical” could we still draw any theological conclusions from mere “myths”?
Peter Van Inwagen (in a work of his I can’t quite remember) once discussed the problem of God trying to communicate with people of a certain cultural background. Suppose he wanted to describe the creation of the universe, how would he have gone about it? He could of course drop a thousand page physics journal describing in exquisite mathematical detail the formation of the universe unto a pre-scientific people. However it would simply go right over their heads and completely miss the point, he wanted them to know that he alone made the world, not the scientific mechanics of it. So instead God choose to communicate it in a manner which a pre-scientific culture could understand it with concepts and images in use in their time. As such using whatever concepts the culture possessed at that time, he could sketch out an account which sufficiently “resembles” what “actually” happen but sufficient for his purpose of communicating a theological point.
However we can ask, doesn’t this account which merely describes what sort of “resemble” what actually happened look a lot like a myth? Doesn’t that raise all kinds of problematic questions as to how theological conclusions can be drawn from mere “myths”? The word “myth” today has derogatory connotations as works of pure fiction which springs from the imaginations of man and which bears no relation or correspondence to actual events or reality. There is however a place for accounts which are not strictly true or even accurate but which nevertheless are useful for “pointing us” in the direction of the truth. Peter Van Inwagen in his essay I look for the Resurrection of the Dead and the Life of the World to Come discusses the concept of a “Just-So” story which, though isn’t strictly true, nevertheless does contain within it elements which does resemble the truth and which does point us in the right direction. Such “Just-So” stories are important because they do establish the possibility of an event in general terms without needing us to be necessarily committed to the specific details.
Van Inwagen uses an example from scientific modelling to make illustrate a just-so story at work.
In the 19th century, Lord Kelvin (one of the pioneers of thermodynamics; we still honour his work by measuring our temperature in kelvins), scoffed at the postulates of geologists that the fossil evidence shows that there has been life for hundred of millions of years old (whom he denounced as mere “stamp-collectors”). Lord Kelvin argued that the sun has been shining for at most 20 million years and so life couldn’t be hundreds of millions year old. Lord Kelvin contended that the only conceivable mechanism for the Sun to work is for it to convert its gravitational potential energy into radial energy by the gravitational contraction of the sun. So, if you plug in all the figures of the mass, radius and surface temperature of the sun, the Sun could have only been shining for twenty million years.
According to later physicists, they understood that Lord Kelvin was correct in his calculations. However, what Lord Kelvin was wrong was the mechanism. 20th century physics now knows about nuclear fusion and reactions and that the internal reaction and action of the atoms would be sufficient to generate the energy for the Sun to burn for hundreds of millions of years.
But even in the 19th century with pre-nuclear physics, it is possible to argue against Lord Kelvin via a Just-So Story. A Just-So Story to give an alternative account of solar radiation which can account for the sun burning a hundred million years could go like this:
Suppose that all of the sun’s atoms where spinning rapidly and these spinning atoms were colliding into each other with a certain velocity. Then the kinetic energy of the rotation of all the atoms lost per collision, in addition to the gravitation contraction, could together, provide the necessary radial energy needed for the sun to burn for hundreds of millions of years.
This “Just-So Story” provides a conceptual possibility for a phenomenon, but it strictly isn’t true. But yet in some sense, it is true or at least it does sufficiently resembles the truth. There is one important truth which the “Just-So Story” reveals and shares with actual solar radiation production. The inner actions and dynamics of the atoms contributes to the production of radial energy. In the story, kinetic rotational energy, in the real world, nuclear binding energy.
To come back to the Bible, how would such a Just-So story go? I have developed such a just-so story to how literal six days creationism could be compatible with big bang and evolution here by locating the big bang and evolution after the Fall. However here’s another shorter and simpler one. Now in the flood account in Genesis, it is said that the waters rose as high as the mountains. How could we account for this if we think that there was only a local rather than global flood? Well, what could have happened is that as the region flooded the “fountains of the great deep burst forth” (Genesis 7:11) referred perhaps to certain tectonic activities, and thus along with this severe tectonic activity there was a great tsunami which lifted the ark upwards or perhaps accompanied by an entire mountain or hill or ridge sliding down into the flooded waters. Thus with the tsunami causing the waters to rise and the mountain or hill sliding down into the waters, it looks like “The waters prevailed above the mountains” (Genesis 7:20).
My little story of course is rather fanciful and rather incredible and I am quite sure that nothing of the sort I just described actually happened. However could something resembling my account have happened? Who’s to say no?
My fundamental point however in discussing these “just-so” stories is that we can be committed to the biblical accounts of events without needing to be too concerned with whether or not it “really” or “literally” happened in the detailed so described. We can be sure that something like what is described in the Bible happened. Historical criticism will attempt to “flesh” that out in detail using naturalistic or humanistic explanations. However as far as a theological interpretation of Scripture is concerned in order to discern the theological point or the divine will for us by the text, we don’t actually need to know what actually or literally happened. We can simply accept the text as it has come down to us, authorised and confirmed for us by Jesus, without needing to bother with its literal truth. God can use these accounts, written for and by a people of a certain or particular cultural background, to communicate his will or divine truth for us.
The Theological Interpretation of Scripture versus the Narrative Approach
The Theological Interpretation of Scripture is a relatively new school in theological circles and has yet to be received as widely as, say, the New Perspective on Paul. It is however a continuation in a more orthodox direction the neo-orthodoxy of the interwar Protestant theologians. Daniel Treier for example in his Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture identifies Karl Barth as the forerunner of the theological interpretation school of thought. While the adherents of this school would not have been as accepting of historical criticism and its numerous skeptical conclusions or naturalistic explanations of biblical phenomena as Karl Barth, nevertheless they would still argue that we need to read the Bible theologically with explicit theological premises and not confine ourselves to the mere literal or historical meaning of the biblical text. Ultimately the Bible is not merely a collection of inerrant or infallible propositions, it is God’s Word to us, revealing the divine will for us in Jesus Christ and through the events it witnesses to. The Bible, while written by human authors embedded in particular empirical conditions or concrete historical contexts, is nevertheless an “inspired” text given to us by God to communicate theological points, not merely provide historical information, no matter how inerrant, about past events.
To make a very brief comparative point, I think the theological interpretation of Scripture take the best aspect of narrative theology while avoiding its pitfalls. What is correct about narrative approaches to the Bible is that it does justice the teleological ordering of Biblical events. The Bible does not merely record a disjointed sequence or series of events, they are arranged and crafted to reveal a larger divine purpose and direction for those events or objects which are being realised or developed through salvation history. However the danger of the narrative approach is that the divine teleology or will which are rightly revealed by the biblical narratives can easily become forgotten in the focus upon the narrative as a literary form in itself. The correct sense that God is directing or moving events towards their goal and fulfilment in Jesus Christ can very easily be lost when theologians or biblical scholars concentrate upon the narrative as a humanly constructed form or product. The text becomes emptied of its theological significance and authority when the focus is upon how mere man has chosen to frame or construct the narrative rather what God intended to communicate here.
Once the narrative form as a literary construct begins to dominate our theological consciousness, it would inevitably slide back into the “demythologisers” where we are free to frame or “develop” this literary construct in any way or form to suit our own needs. Narratives as a literary form are inherently plastic thing which can be easily be frame or reframed to prove any conclusion after the fact.
A theological reading of the Bible holds together the historical and literal sense with a absolute character of the divine which displaces the human elements of the biblical text from beyond our control. The historical and literal elements of the Bible are not just raw materials for us to simply frame or construct whatever narratives we like. Nor are we allowed to invent overarching narratives to negate or overwhelm the particular historical or literal details of the Bible. Rather, the human and literal elements of the Bible must be firmly subject to its substantive theological content, the divine will and character revealed within, and not human narrative spinning which could be discarded or rearranged at pleasure.
Conclusion: The Primacy of the Divine Will in Scripture
I wish to end off with some remarks about a seeming paradox of Karl Barth. Barth accepted historical criticisms of the Bible and its many skeptical conclusions. He did not think when and where the resurrection occurred was important and considered eyewitnesses to the New Testament events to be immaterial. Yet even though Barth held to many such skeptical conclusions which would shock the contemporary Evangelical, he held otherwise to many practical theological positions rejected by Evangelicals who would insist upon the literal sense of Scripture. For example, Barth held to male headship the rejection of which today is considered acceptable by many “orthodox” theologians. How could that be?
A Lutheran blogger once explains it this way: Despite Barth’s skeptical positions, Barth was fundamentally a good and faithful Christian who read the Bible with the intent to obey the divine will. Thus if God prescribes something in the Scriptures then he will obey and conform. Contemporary Christians on the other hand read the Bible in order to reconcile it with the dominant prejudices of the day. As such, purely “historical” events or facts like Christ rising from the dead does not by itself logically entail any particular practical action or conclusion. Thus it is easy to subscribe to the “literalness” of all the historical events of the Bible as long as it does not have a direct impact upon what we are to do today.
At the heart of the theological interpretation of the Bible is fundamentally religious piety, reading the Bible not merely to discover information about the past but to be assured of and to be conformed to the will of God in Jesus Christ in the present. The past as witnessed in the Bible is not for itself but ultimately for us and for our salvation, to lead us unto both faith and obedience to the Word made flesh.