What is the relationship between faith and historical certainty? In the conclusion of my thesis (on N. T. Wright’s historical method), I highlight a quotation from Beth M. Sheppard on this relationship. As Sheppard writes, “it is easy for historicism as a method to become conflated with issues of faith on a number of levels, perhaps not least of which is the unspoken assumption that known facts and an objective basis for faith would resolve conflicts of interpretation and result in a unified history, a unitary understanding of the Christ event, and, ultimately, a single faith tradition that would transcend denominationalism” (The Craft of History, 123-4).
In my thesis, I contrast the modernist view of history (historicism or positivism) with a more nuanced view that incorporates some (but not all) of the insights of postmodernism, exemplified by Wright’s critical realism (developed by the Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan and NT scholar Ben F. Meyer). Whereas historicism viewed history as an objective, empirically verifiable science (that is, the scientific method could be used in history just as in biology or chemistry), critical realism insists on an element of subjectivism, especially insofar as every historian comes to the study of history with certain biases and presuppositions.
Historians and philosophers of history, as well scholars from most other fields, moved away from modernist historicism/positivism decades ago. Yet, in many of today’s conservative Christian circles, there is still a pronounced tendency to hold on to modernism’s black and white way of looking at things, especially when it comes to issues of history. “Truth” and “inerrancy” are defined in ways that would be unrecognizable to anyone in the first century (and many, many centuries before and after that).
What is ironic, however, is that despite seeming to offer certainty regarding historical matters important for Christianity, historicism is actually antithetical to Christian faith. Apart from the fact that historicism as a method has been demonstrated to be deeply flawed, even if historicism were able to follow through on its promise to provide objective certainty on matters of Christian history, what then would be the role of faith, central to the biblical understanding of what it means to follow God?
One of the most pervasive ways I have seen historicism manifested in my circles is the belief that by just following the right method (be it a naive inductive approach or a more sophisticated exegetical procedure), one can accurately (and objectively!) interpret the Bible. Just do a proper word study, validation, or background study, and viola! you’re on your way to a correct interpretation. And these are indeed all important, and good, things. I believe in these methods very much. But we are naive if we think that that’s all there is to it. What critical realism demands is an exegetical humility that recognizes the subjective factors involved in reading and interpretation, as they relate to both the text and the interpreter. As noted in my last post, theological interpretation is one means of taking the subjective element of interpretation into account. There are more.
But my point here is merely that a historical method that does not claim absolute certainty, but instead only relative levels of more or less confidence, actually is better for a faith perspective. Whether I judge something on historical grounds to be very, somewhat, or not probable, faith provides the necessary bridge. Those thinking in a modernist paradigm might find this way of thinking frightening or threatening, but in my own experience I have found it to be liberating: I don’t feel like I have to cook the historical evidence to get the desired result at the end, because it’s not certainty I’m after; what I am after is faith.