Historical Method Posts
February 6, 2012 by Jason Hood
Pun intended, I suppose. I just finished a conversation with a distraught co-worker about a local “Christian” school, whose approach to the faith is revisionist in every respect. What galls her, as it galls me, is the insistence on keeping the label “Christian” when virtually everything that is distinctly Christian has been jettisoned: the ethics, tenets, Scriptures, and historical events are surrendered wholesale.
Also today: a former student sent this highly relevant snippet, found in a letter dated 29 January 1886, from Theodosius Harnack to his son Adolf Harnack, the famous critical biblical scholar:
Our difference is not merely theological but a profound and directly Christian difference, so that if I overlooked it I should be betraying Christ; and no one, not even someone who stands so near to me as you, my son, could demand that of me or expect it.
To name only the all-decisive main issue: whoever regards the fact of the resurrection as you do is in my eyes no longer a Christian theologian. I totally fail to understand how anyone can still appeal to history after that sort of historical construction; or I understand it only if the appeal to history is meant to denigrate Christianity. So, either–or…
For me Christianity stands or falls with the fact of the resurrection; with the fact of the resurrection the Trinity, too, stands for me rock firm.
– J.C. O’neill. The Bible’s Authority: A Portrait Gallery of Thinkers from Lessing to Bultmann. The letter is in Agnes von Zahn-Harnack, Adolf Harnack, 1st ed. page 143, 2nd ed. page 105.1 Comment
September 30, 2009 by Gerald Hiestand
In their book, Introduction to Church History, Bradley and Muller argue for a form of methodological agnosticism regarding historical method. For Bradley and Muller, failure to suspend one’s Christian commitments too easily leads to a tainted reading of the data. Thus the “scientific investigation” done by Christian scholars in the seminaries should not be substantively different than the historical method done by secular scholars in the universities.
To make their point, Bradley and Muller point to Catholic historical reflection prior to the mid-eighteenth century, noting that “it was almost invariably written from a confessional viewpoint and it was anything but detached. . . . The theological assumption that links authority with antiquity has thus had a longstanding, deleterious effect on scientific investigation.”
In short, because Catholic theologians were committed to a Roman notion of continuity between the past and the present, they were unable to critically engage with the primary source material. “The entire view point was dominated by the concepts of a controlling providence and the unanimity of the tradition, granting the normative character of tradition for the contemporary expression of the church.”
For Bradley and Muller, the Protestant historical method fared little better. While the Protestant Reformation introduced a more critical historical method, “this reorientation was laden with its own problems. The principle of Sola Scriptura profoundly influenced the Reformers’ understanding of church history as well as theology.” Bradley and Muller go on to observe that the Reformers were less interested in establishing continuity with the past, and tended to “view the period of church history from St. Augustine, or at least from the thirteenth-century dawn of scholasticism, to the sixteenth century, in terms of apostasy.” Thus, “Church historians throughout the sixteenth and most of the seventeenth century. . . viewed the church’s past in terms of either orthodoxy or heresy.” In other words, church historians ran into problems because they viewed church history as church historians, rather than as secular historians.
The main difficulty with Bradley and Muller’s central point here is that they seem to be assuming the historian can approach the text from a epistemologically neutral perspective. Pointing toward the Pietist historian Gottfried Arnold as an example of a more appropriate critical method, Bradley and Muller observe that Arnold was unencumbered by any commitment to orthodoxy or continuity. “Since the heart of religion for Arnold was subjective, experimental piety rather than strict orthodoxy, he strove for a fair presentation of the religious motives of various heretics and schismatics.” Well and good. No need to be harder on the heretics than necessary. But Bradley and Muller immediately go on to observe, “The corollary of this generosity, however, was that Arnold frequently treated the orthodox with undue severity.” Exactly.
To be sure, Bradley and Muller don’t view Arnold as a model historian. “Arnold . . . never really grasped the need for an objective handling of the original sources. But [his] new approach to the past freed [him] from arriving at a predetermined, predictable conclusion.”
No it didn’t. Arnold found what he was looking for. The simple rub is that we all tend to find what we are looking for. Orthodox theologians looked for unity and found it. Arnold looked for disunity and found it. This isn’t to say that we can’t achieve a functional level of objectivity, but it is to say that we don’t come to the data as disinterested observers. In as much as Bradley and Muller are arguing for accuracy in historical studies, I agree. Augustine didn’t affirm double imputation and we shouldn’t try to pretend he did. But Bradley and Muller at times push beyond this when they imply that the Christian scholar should not approach the data as a Christian.
When I read St. Paul, or the Fathers, or Thomas, etc., I do so as both a Christian and a pastor. And (even more scandalously!) I have an ecclessial agenda that consciously drives my investigation and analysis. I read Augustine not just to know what Augustine believed, but to know what the church should believe, and to know what I should preach to my people. I very much am looking for unity and continuity from the apostolic age to the present. Sometimes I find it; sometimes I don’t. But there’s no point in pretending that’s not what I’m doing. And indeed, I don’t know what else a Christian historian should be doing.
The key to being objective is not to set aside one’s presuppositions and agendas, but to openly and consciously acknowledge them. If both myself and my readers know I am approaching a given subject with certain stated theological commitments and agendas, both myself and my readers are better able to judge the accuracy of my conclusions. But the historian (secular or ecclesial) who attempts to bury his agenda beneath a veneer of objectivity, tends to leak out his (a)theological commitments in less obvious, and, for that reason, often more malignant, ways.2 Comments