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. This is the third and concluding article in this series. Both sets of essays are outgrowths of each writer’s Ph.D. research.
by Tom Hobson
In his book The New Testament and the People of God, N. T. Wright seeks to explode two myths from the Enlightenment era about the issue of history. One is the myth of ignorant ancient peoples, the belief that “it is only in the last two hundred years that we have discovered what ‘history’ really is, while writers in the ancient world were ignorant about these matters, freely making things up, weaving fantasy and legend together and calling it history” (84). Wright calls this view itself “a modern myth, legitimating the cultural imperialism of the Enlightenment without having any basis in the real history of the ancient world.” Wright cites both Herodotus and Josephus as examples of ancient historians who knew the difference between history and fiction, and who strenuously denied mixing the two.
The other Enlightenment myth that Wright seeks to explode is the myth of uninterpreted history, which he also refers to as the Myth of Objective Data or of Presuppositionless History. He writes that it’s “chasing after the wind to imagine that anyone, ancient or modern, could or can ‘simply record the facts.’ … There is no such thing as a point of view which is no-one’s point of view. To imagine, therefore, as some post-Enlightenment thinkers have, that we in the modern world have discovered ‘pure history,’ so that all we do is record ‘what really happened’, with no interpretive element or observer’s point of view entering into the matter — and that this somehow elevates us to a position of great superiority over those poor benighted former folk who could only approximate to such an undertaking because they kept getting in their own light — such a view is arrogant absurdity” (pp. 85–86).
There are no such things as bare facts. Yes, there is data, both written and material. There are ancient manuscripts and archaeological finds. But even in the very act of collecting, sorting, organizing, and translating data from the ancient world, he says, we are engaging in interpretation. And not only are historians interested in “what actually happened,” but also why it happened. Ben Meyer points out (The Aims of Jesus, p. 79), “Human purpose is an important determinant of human action” — why a revolution was launched, why it succeeded or failed. Historical knowledge is inferential – for history, unmediated knowledge is unattainable and ultimately irrelevant. That means it’s impossible to avoid making judgments. “All history,” says Wright, “is interpreted history.”
Which is exactly what makes some observers nervous. If it’s that hard to avoid interpretation, some people jump to the Kantian conclusion that there are no such things as facts that we can know outside the brain. Wright responds, “The fear that ‘actual events’ will disappear beneath a welter of particular people’s perceptions … is to be rejected as groundless … it must be asserted most strongly that to discover that a particular writer has a ‘bias’ tells us nothing about the value of the information he or she presents. It merely bids us be aware of the bias (and of our own, for that matter), and to assess the material according to as many sources as we can. ‘Intellectual honesty consists not in forcing an impossible neutrality, but in admitting that neutrality is not possible’” (p. 89).
Wright uses a kaleidoscope as an illustration. Its lenses may distort, and we may fall prey to errors of perspective, but we are not looking at a fictitious landscape, but at objects in a real world. All we need to do is make allowances for the distortion, and look for other lenses and viewpoints to help correct our vision. Wright calls for “(c)ritical realism, not the abandonment of knowledge of the extra-linguistic world.”
Fear of distortion by the limitations of human perception is one of the fears that leads interpreters to shy away from history in their approach to the Biblical text. (It is ironic, says Wright, that after centuries of insisting that we must do historical criticism, now that it’s finally getting us somewhere, the same critics are now afraid to take objective history seriously.) Another such fear is the claim that to base one’s faith on history is to fall into justification by works. Wright responds: “Faith may be the opposite of sight. It is also, in some important senses, the opposite of doubt. To say that basing one’s faith on events is to turn it into a ‘work’ … is to be justified not by faith but by doubt” (p. 94).
The final fear of those who shy away from historical questions is, ultimately, disbelief that God has acted in history, by miracles or by any other means. The issue is a priori dismissal of the supernatural, or shall we say, the paranormal.
Is it objective or scientific to categorically rule out in advance occurrences that are extremely rare (if not unique), unrepeatable, and/or which have no natural explanation? Such is the question raised by historian Van Harvey in his book The Historian and the Believer: “If one uses present experience as a basis for judging reports about the past, does this not prejudice the possibility of understanding genuinely unique events? Does not this criterion prevent genuine knowledge of the past by forcing the witnesses’ experience to conform to our own? The report of an alleged miracle is an interesting case in point, for as Collingwood has shown, a miracle is merely an extreme case of what is true in principle of any historical event, because history is the realm of the unique and unrepeatable” (p. 71).
Historical events like Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon can’t be repeated in a test tube. (For that matter, evolution can’t be demonstrated in a test tube.) Science has put itself in a straight jacket by confining “fact” to mean only what can be empirically verified. By so doing, it automatically defines history as outside the realm of fact, not to mention the vast majority of verdicts that take place in our courtrooms. If a soldier performs an act of heroism on the battlefield, but no witness survives to tell the tale, did it really happen? Science can’t say!
Ripley’s Believe It Or Not has made its own quasi-science out of documenting events that are bizarre-but-true. Sometimes credibility boils down to how many disinterested witnesses we can find for an occurrence. UFOs are a case in point. So was the existence of the platypus, which was doubted until enough Western observers were able to see it for themselves under credible conditions. Resurrection is a little harder to find reliable witnesses for. And yet, some Jewish historians were recently interviewed on TV who couldn’t say that Jesus rose from the dead, but could not accept any other explanation of what happened. That’s about as strong an historical case as anyone can ask for, outside the CSI crime lab.
Psychiatrists reject the reality of demon possession because they’ve never seen a case that was not purely mental illness. But after being trained to disbelieve in such cases, best-selling psychiatrist Scott Peck claimed in People of the Lie to have witnessed three honest-to-goodness cases of demon possession out of the thousands of cases of mental illness he’s seen in his life. Does that mean that demon possession is real? How does one arrive at an authoritative answer to such a question of historical referent?
Christians should approach issues of “what really happened” with neither gullibility nor with dogmatic, knee-jerk skepticism. We should be consistent, whether we are considering our own paranormal claims, the claims of Mormonism, Islam, New Agers, faith healers on TV, or the claims of science.
Fact alone is not enough. We have to be able to make the connection between what happened back then and what it means to us. A fact like Jesus’ resurrection can be a basis for faith, for instance, only if we add in the interpretation, “because He lives, we shall live also.” Van Harvey writes, “No remote historical event — especially if assertions about it can solicit only a tentative assent — can, as such, be the basis for a religious confidence about the present. … Faith finds its certitude, its confirmation, in the viability of the image for relating one to present reality” (pp. 282–283). We all can concur on this.
But without fact, with only pure fiction as our starting point, our faith is built much less on solid rock than it is on the shifting sands of human sentiment. Yes, we have compelling stories, including the ones that are pure artistic creation. But it is historical referent that gives our faith much of its power and credibility. Without fact, what else do we have to ground our faith in? Historical referent is our only check against pure subjectivity. And it is historical referent that sets Christian faith in a class by itself from all the other faith stories on the market.
Tom Hobson is a Ph.D. student at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Mo. A PC(USA) minister since 1983, he is currently stated supply at United Presbyterian Church, Granite City, Ill.