Learning from history (I)

21 Feb


Why is it that so much teaching seems to involve destruction before (re)building, the unlearning of wrong concepts in order to be able to see anew? This last week, whilst teaching at the Assemblies of God theological seminary in Cordova, Spain, on the historical books of the Old Testament, was no different. Hard work too, though a lot of fun in the process.

The first obstacle to be overcome is quite simply the name we give to this section of our Bibles from Joshua to Esther – the “historical books”. It’s a bit of a misnomer really and automatically projects into our minds a twentieth century concept of history – yes, twentieth century, not twenty first, but we’ll come to that later – along with illusions of historical accuracy and the objective reporting of facts. To demand that the biblical writers worked under the same concerns as modern historians for objectivity and detachment in recounting events is as anachronistic as expecting them to have understood special relativity and quantum physics, been concerned about women getting the vote or been aware of the bacterial causes of disease. Like every other area of life, the biblical writers were people of their time and worked within the confines of that worldview.

As a slight aside, let us be clear that this in no way devalues the biblical record. As the incarnation so eloquently shows us, God is able to inhabit our humanity with all of its limitations without in any way compromising his Word-became-flesh self-revelation. In the same way, biblical writers do not have to hold to current historiographical tenets in order to reveal God’s word to us. It is rather our responsibility to learn to read these writings in a different way and to not impose modern conceptions on texts that grew out of very different mindsets to our own. To not do so is as absurd as reading the poetry of the Psalms as if it were scientific description and then attack its inaccuracies – whoever heard of the trees of the fields having hands to clap with?!

“Historical inaccuracies” in Scripture – i.e. conflicts with secular understandings of history – or contradictions within Scripture – different versions of the same event – need to be dealt with in the same way. It does no good to resort to theological gymnastics or creative interpretations to try and make them go away; we simply set ourselves up for ridicule or create the kind of schizophrenic thinking that has led more than one to eventually give up and abandon ship altogether, throwing the baby of faith out with the bathwater of our own version of “inerrancy”. It is much more productive, as well as in keeping with the nature of biblical revelation, to accept these historical documents as records forged within their own tradition with the aim of communicating God’s mind to us rather than “history” as such, whatever we understand that to be.

historiographyAll this inevitably raises the question of just what we mean by “history”. In popular understanding, history is just “what happened”, no more and no less. In one sense this is true. But the question then becomes “How do we know what happened?”, and that is where “history” becomes historiography, the process by which we know what we know about what happened. Yes, I know that sounds somewhat convoluted, but the point is that in an absolute sense we will never know what happened. Once an event has been and gone, all that is left is collective memory, material artefacts, eye-witness reports and documents that allege to portray information relating to the event. The historian’s task is to sift through all this and draw up her own version of what may our may not have really happened.

Most of us still live under an illusion about what this can hope to achieve. Raised on the scientific certainties that modernity offered we would like to think that we can in fact establish historical truth. Postmodern historiography, which has come of age in this century even though its roots go back well into the twentieth century, would dispute this and has come to accept that an objective retelling of history is humanly impossible. All historians will bring their own bias to the task. The selection of events, the interpretation of events, the relative importance given to these events and the relationship between events – in particular the determination of cause and effect – are all a product of the historian’s inner world, the convictions and prejudices she brings, vastly removed in time and space from the events being portrayed.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the contrast between a Marxist and a liberal reading of modern history. Even with the advantage of such close proximity to events and huge archives of material to draw upon, conclusions and even the very portrayal of events could not be more different.

320px-TargumSo, if the holy grail of historical objectivity is seen as unattainable today, maybe we need to be a little more lenient on the biblical “historians”. And as a result, perhaps we will also start to read them as they are meant to be read, as theological treatises rooted in an understanding of the God who is at work in and through history rather than the simple retelling of historical events. (Which, as we have seen, is in any case quite impossible.) That’s why I for one prefer the designation given to the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings in the Hebrew Bible – the “former prophets” -, so much more apt than our confusing “historical books”.

And that, I believe, is enough for today. We’ll delve deeper into that concept of the historical books being a place to hear the prophetic word of God rather than a record of past events in the next post.

P.S. I know it has been a while since I wrote here. Establishing adequate rhythms in life whilst embracing new roles and responsibilities has been a challenge. Thanks for your patience :-)


3 Responses to “Learning from history (I)”

  1. David Rees February 23, 2013 at 7:23 am #

    Well, you will do it. Teach history? When we were at school we always used to moan to the teacher about history being no use. Anyway didn’t they always say that whoever won the last war wrote the history and there have been an awful lot of wars. Commiserations. Keep smiling! Love from us . J&D

    • eatingwithsinners February 23, 2013 at 9:00 am #

      Yes, indeed, the winners get to write the official version at least. But the losers also leave their mark somewhere. Of any use? As Edmund Burke (1729-1797) said, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” That’s my take on theology through biblical “history”. As for memorizing lists of kings… I think I’d agree with the moans to your teacher!

  2. afruitinseason February 26, 2013 at 11:39 am #

    Great stuff Neil…As God breathed life into common clay so he breathes His same life throughout history into culturally conditioned and situated selves such as you and I. All Scripture is indeed “God breathed.” (and gob breathed!)

    I think that this event of God using the common clay of diverse human culture to communicate ultimate truth is also part of His kenosis…and epistemological distance.

    Nice to read you again…

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