This summer we present a three-part series of op-ed essays by Tom Hobson that offer a counterpoint to the earlier essays — elevating objective accuracy of Scripture. Both sets of essays are outgrowths of each writer’s Ph.D. research.
by Tom Hobson
In the movie Galaxy Quest, a team of former TV science-fiction superheroes gets beamed up onto an alien spaceship. The aliens have copied every detail of their ship precisely from the vessel used by the Galaxy Quest team on their old TV show. Now, they want help defending themselves against attack.
The Galaxy Quest team can’t believe their eyes. These aliens have built their entire ship around a fabrication — a spaceship that doesn’t even exist! It was all just a story, and these aliens took it 100% seriously.
As I first watched this story unfold in the movie, I can remember thinking to myself, Have we invented a God and a Scripture out of thin air, like these aliens invented their spacecraft, based on an original that doesn’t even exist? Is it all just a story, made up by us, with no reality behind it, a story never to be taken seriously?
Historicity! Does it really matter whether any events narrated in Scripture truly happened? Does the Easter story lose any value if Jesus is still in the ground, and the risen Jesus turns out to be no different than sightings of Elvis? Isn’t the resurrection of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock just as good a symbol of new life as Jesus’ resurrection?
Does it matter whether Jesus walked on the water, or raised a man who had been brain-dead for four days, or fed 5,000 men with only five loaves and two fish? Does it matter whether Jesus was conceived without the help of any human father? Does it make any difference whether the Exodus really happened, or whether David and Solomon (or their empire) really existed? Does it matter whether 2 Peter was a shameless forgery? Does it matter whether the twelve Patriarchs were really only personified place names, or actual historical characters? Does it matter whether stories such as Jonah and Esther are fiction or fact?
To varying degrees, it does matter and warrants exploration. Other issues of interpretation related to history deserve attention — questions such as: Is there any such thing as “bare facts”? Can one do history of any kind without interpretation, based on one’s worldview? Does a search for “what really happened” lead us to put our faith somewhere other than in Scripture itself? And can history that is controlled by so-called scientific assumptions about human experience make any room for the unique and unrepeatable?
As Hans Frei has demonstrated in The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, Protestants since the pre-modern era have shifted to where we almost all make a distinction between text and historical referent, a distinction that we never made before. Both liberals and conservatives talk about “the text” as distinct from “what really happened.” In the last 200 years, a large number of Biblical scholars have either avoided or reacted skeptically to the question, “What really happened?” Some would say it doesn’t matter; they would argue that Scripture’s meaning lies not in any historical referents, but elsewhere. (Spinoza claimed that the Bible’s teaching “does not depend on the truth of any historical narrative whatsoever.”)
As I investigated the issue of historicity and why it matters (if at all), I was surprised to find that, while a lot has been written on the topic of Biblical inerrancy (from Charles Hodge to Carl Henry to the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod’s position paper on the subject), almost none of it helped answer this specific question to the degree I had hoped. The most helpful comments I found were in the works of Wolfhart Pannenberg and N. T. Wright.
Pannenberg writes in Revelation as History, “An understanding that puts revelation in contrast to, or even in conflict with, natural knowledge is in danger of distorting the historic revelation into a Gnostic knowledge of secrets” (135). He argues that God’s acts in history proved who he was to the nations, not just to Israel. “What Jahweh accomplished in history cannot be written off as the imagination of the pious soul. … The proclamation of the gospel cannot assert that the facts are in doubt and that the leap of faith must be made in order to achieve certainty. If this sort of assertion were allowed to stand, then one would have to cease being a theologian and a Christian. The proclamation must assert that the facts are reliable and that you can therefore place your faith, life, and future on them” (136–8).
Likewise, as N. T. Wright lays out his approach to historiography in his work on Christian origins in The New Testament and the People of God, Wright stresses the “public” nature of the events around which much of the New Testament is based. He claims that Jewish beliefs are most characteristically expressed by “stories about events in the real world” (78 – emphasis his). He calls it an “epistemological mistake” to deny the public reference of such stories. Wright observes that the New Testament can be divided into stories that “functioned without relation to possible referents in the public world,” and “would lose their point unless they concerned historical reality.”
Which brings us back to that question, Why does it matter?
N. T. Wright put his finger on it. Some stories lose their value if they are found to be fiction. In 1981, a journalist named Janet Cooke was stripped of a Pulitzer Prize for a feature story about an 8-year-old heroin addict after the story was found to have been fabricated. Likewise, a Christian comedian who claimed to have been a former Satanist high priest was exposed as a fraud. The inspirational value of his conversion story evaporated (along with his credibility). The same goes for so-called “urban legends” like the story of the homeless boy who carried his mother’s ashes in a paint can. Heads roll at the news department when news reports are found to be fiction.
But some stories do not need any historical referent to be of great value. Can fiction be a legitimate vehicle for faith? Yes! I am convinced that Jesus made up His parables. The Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Galaxy Quest give us truth in the form of fiction. Thank God that Orwell’s 1984 is fiction, but it is still packed full of true, artistic warnings about the dangers of human depravity.
What’s the difference between the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and the resurrection of Mr. Spock of the Starship Enterprise? Fiction lacks the compelling note of realism that meaningful faith requires. Who wants to stake both their life and their eternal future on some piece of fiction, no matter how well it was written? How many suicide bombers would we have today, if these guys believed that Paradise and the 72 virgins were just faith-promoting fiction?
Mundane fact trumps even the most exciting fiction. Star Wars is a wonderful story with truckloads of meaning, but it is pure fantasy. A real-life cure for AIDS means more than even the most inspiring tale that never happened. A real-life Wall Street means more than a fabled El Dorado. Narnia is worthless unless there is a real Heaven to which it points. A fictional Esther has much less power to inspire us than a real Persian queen who really did take her life in her hands to save her nation from genocide.
The same is true for the notion of a mythical resurrection. The resurrection (or the Incarnation) can only be of value as symbols if there is a compelling reality to which they point. Symbols must be rooted in historical reality. A purely mythical resurrection has no more power to inspire us than the old Greek myth of the dying and rising Phoenix. And to paraphrase Pannenberg, the “mighty acts of God” ring hollow, if God never did any of them. Likewise, centuries ago Quintilian (Institutio Oratoria 2.4.2) argues that historical narratives were to be preferred to fiction or even realistic narratives, since the force of such a narrative is in proportion to its truth.
An assurance that a force is with us would be weak indeed if the truth is not with us as well. Historicity does matter.
Tom Hobson is a Ph.D. student at Concordia Seminary in St Louis, Mo.