Historical Theology

This post was originally published on my Facebook account. It is a response to a comment that was made on my post titled “The Irony of Liberal Biblical Scholarship.

“I’m curious, would you then use a more extensive non-religous based texts to support your conclusions instead of the bulk from the Bible. And then wouldn’t you consider yourself more of a historian instead of a theological researcher. That is the end all goal is the history instead of the religon?”

I think you raise a very important and good question. You have asked a question that is very acute to the topic I’ve discussed. I am a little confused by the wording, but I think I got the gist. Please tell me if I am wrong. Your question is: History and theology are separate, so in a secular school would you not approach Biblical studies from a historic standpoint? I realize there is more to your question, but in my response I think I’ll be able to cover them. In a nutshell, I think that real Biblical scholarship is incapable of separating historical events from the Truth the Bible purports to claim: namely that humanity is doomed to Hell and Christ conquered death and sin and pain and suffering so that those who believe in Him will go to Heaven and enjoy eternity because Jesus has wiped away all pain and suffering. And I say this due to the strong overlap of history and theology the Bible has because theology in the Bible cannot be separated from history if we are to have a correct understanding of Jesus and who he is.

Necessarily we approach how we study the Bible from a historic standpoint because it was written 2,000 + years ago. This is only natural and right that scholarship would take this approach and one of the reasons why I designed my degree the way I did. I wanted to approach the texts with a cultural understanding of the time period so I wouldn’t bring my 21st century biases into my interpretations. And the peculiar thing we observe about the Bible and Christianity is that these texts just aren’t a series of statements of belief or principles on how we should view the world, but the document itself is a historical document. The Bible records events in history that are known to be true. For example, the Bible records the crucifixion and death of a man called Jesus Christ. This happened; we have various extra-biblical sources (i.e Josephus & Roman records) that allow us to know this historical event is true. And too be honest this historical event, Jesus dying, is really insignificant in the Roman world. Thousands of people were crucified under ancient Roman rule. So in this we have history recorded in the Bible. Also we have theology: God loves us and shows his love toward us because Christ died for us (Romans 5:8 & John 3:16). And theology is how we view God such as: who he is, what is his character, how he has made himself known; anything that should tells us more about God and his authority over the universe.

Notice how I have not mentioned Christ’s resurrection until this point. That’s because no scholar has a problem with Christ dying; it’s him rising from the dead they have a problem with. This historical event is pivotal to understanding Christianity. For Christianity to be true, Jesus must have risen from the dead and still live in bodily form right now as you read this post. And so this why I say theology in the Bible cannot be separated from history. If Christ did not overcome death then Christianity has no theology. Boom! Done, game over. For how should we know that God is love if he didn’t actually sacrifice himself? And how should we know that God is more powerful than death and evil if he didn’t rise again from the dead. Our understanding of God is shaped solely on this questioned historical event: Jesus dying and rising from death to life. And it is questioned because nothing in history or any major world religion makes a claim like Jesus did, that he will rise from the dead (Mark 9:31).

The problem then becomes: Did Jesus rise from the grave? Naturally, but not necessarily right, it’s ridiculous to think that he did not rise because people don’t come back to life after dying; so this event claimed as true is dismissed to be false because we have no repeated occurrences with similar results. But we would be arrogant to the extreme to say that an event like this cannot happen. Christ rising from the dead, I will admit, seems grossly unlikely, but it is possible. To deny its possibility is like denying the possibility that the sun will not rise tomorrow. And because Christ rising from the dead is possible we therefore need to examine the Bible with an approach that recognizes this possibility; for our understandings and interpretations will be greatly impacted by this event in time. Liberal Secular scholarship doesn’t even acknowledge the possibility. What is there to be learned about the Bible and what it says if we outright dismiss this event, of which the whole of the Bible rests? As a side note we do have historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. The Jewish historian Josephus (who was not a Christian and therefore had no reason to falsify records) documents sightings and testimonials of those who saw the risen Christ. And the Apostle Paul in one of his letters (1 Corinthians 15:3-19) dares the Corinthians to go talk to one of the 500 people who saw the risen Christ. This letter is undisputed by secular and Christian scholars to be a letter written by Paul himself. Why would Paul risk the power of his reputation by telling people to examine something that isn’t true? There are other evidences as well. I would recommend reading Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Christ” and Timothy Keller’s “The reason for God.” Both give historical evidence for the Truth of Christianity and Christ’s resurrection.

And I want to be clear. I am not a Christian because it makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. If tomorrow I found indisputable evidence that Jesus did not rise from the dead then I am done with Christ, done with God, done with doing anything that relates to a god. I am after the Truth, not what I think/feel/believe to be true.

In closing, I realize I have made one major assumption; God exists. I can neither prove nor disprove God’s existence. That’s fine and I am not concerned with this as much as I am concerned with properly understanding the Bible and what it says; for I am more concerned with what the Bible says to be true. As Flannery O’Connor implies in her short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” if Jesus rose from the dead then everything that Jesus did and said matters and is essentially of the utmost importance. This is why I find liberal Biblical scholarship to be ironic because it is concerned with peripheral topics. For example, dating of texts, authorship, textual corruption; these are important and do shape how we interpret the Bible but they are not ultimate when we compare that to how the Bible speaks about Jesus and our relationship to him. Jesus claimed to be the Truth (John 14:6); not just a truth among many but the Truth: the most important thing the world has ever known and will know. This claim carries some weight when we consider the possibility of Christ’s resurrection because the reality of Heaven and Hell depend on it. Either Heaven and Hell exist or we turn to worm food when we die. So it troubles me that in our attempt to study the Bible from a secular/liberal approach that we would dismiss this claim to Truth and let Christ’s resurrection have no bearing, whether big or small, on our interpretations and understanding of the Bible. For if Christ is the Truth, too much on the state of your soul and mine rides on separating history and theology in Biblical scholarship.

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