The Historical Method of Christian Faith

Our self-consciously historical time accepts the limitations of the historical point of view with a sense of constraint and an air of resignation. In this situation, however, we do well to remind ourselves that the Christian community has usually -- and particularly in times of its greatest vigor -- used an historical method. Apparently it felt that to speak in confessional terms about the events that had happened to it in its history was not a burdensome necessity but rather an advantage and that the acceptance of an historical point of view was not confining but liberating. The preaching of the early Christian church was not an argument for the existence of God nor an admonition to follow the dictates of some common human conscience, unhistorical and super-social in character. It was primarily a simple recital of the great events connected with the historical appearance of Jesus Christ and a confession of what had happened to the community of disciples. Whatever it was that the church meant to say, whatever was revealed or manifested to it could be indicated only in connection with an historical person and events in the life of his community. The confession referred to history and was consciously made in history.

It is true that when Paul succumbed to his unconquerable tendency to commend himself, he spoke of revelation in private visions; when he attempted to defend himself against the assumption of superiority by Corinthian spiritualists he referred to mysteries and hidden wisdom. But when he went about his proper work of demonstrating to his hearers and readers what he really meant he did so in the following fashion:

I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received and wherein ye stand; by which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures; and that he was seen of Cephas and then of the twelve: after that he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.

The great anonymous theologian of the second century spoke in parables of Hellenic wisdom about the gospel of divine grace; but he could indicate what he meant by the Logos, the Light, and the Life only by telling again in his own way the story of Jesus Christ. The sermons of Peter and Stephen as reported or reconstructed in the book of Acts were recitals of the great events in Christian and Israelite history. Christian evangelism in general, as indicated by the preservation of its material in the Synoptic gospels, began directly with Jesus and told in more or less narrative fashion about those things "which are most surely believed among us" "of all that Jesus began both to do and to teach." We may remind ourselves also of the fact that despite many efforts to set forth Christian faith in metaphysical and ethical terms of great generality the only creed which has been able to maintain itself in the church with any approach to universality consists for the most part of statements about events.

We can imagine that early preachers were often asked to explain what they meant with their talk about God, salvation and revelation, and when they were hard pressed, when all their parables or references to the unknown God and to the Logos, had succeeded only in confusing their hearers they turned at last to the story of their life, saying, "What we mean is this event which happened among us and to us." They followed in this respect the prophets who had spoken of God before them and the Jewish community which had also talked of revelation. These, too, always spoke of history, of what had happened to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, of a deliverance from Egypt, of the covenant of Sinai, of mighty acts of God. Even their private visions were dated, as "in the year that King Uzziah died," even the moral law was anchored to an historical event, and even God was defined less by his metaphysical and moral character than by his historical relations, as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Interpretation of our meaning with the aid of a story is a well-known pedagogical device. So Lincoln told his homely tales and conveyed to others in trenchant fashion the ideas in his mind; so Plato employed myths to illustrate philosophy and to communicate visions of truth that ordinary language could not describe; so Jesus himself through parables tried to indicate what he meant by the phrase "kingdom of God." Yet what prompted Christians in the past to confess their faith by telling the story of their life was more than a need for vivid illustration or for analogical reasoning. Their story was not a parable which could be replaced by another; it was irreplaceable and untranslatable. An internal compulsion rather than free choice led them to speak of what they knew by telling about Jesus Christ and their relation to God through him.

Today we think and speak under the same compulsion. We find that we must travel the road which has been taken by our predecessors in the Christian community, though our recognition of the fact is first of all only a consequence of the obstruction of all other ways. We must do what has been done because we have discovered with Professor Whitehead that "religions commit suicide when they find their inspiration in their dogmas. The inspiration of religion lies in the history of religion." Whether this be true of other faiths than Christianity we may not be sure, but it seems very true of our faith. Metaphysical systems have not been able to maintain the intellectual life of our community and abstract systems of morality have not conveyed devotion and the power of obedience with their ideals and imperatives. Idealistic and realistic metaphysics, perfectionist and hedonistic ethics have been poor substitutes for the New Testament, and churches which feed on such nourishment seem subject to spiritual rickets. Yet it is not the necessity of staying alive which forces our community to speak in historical terms. It is not a self-evident truth that the church ought to live; neither the historical nor the confessional standpoint can accept self-preservation as the first law of life, since in history we know that death is the law of even the best life and in faith we understand that to seek life is to lose it. The church's compulsion arises out of its need -- since it is a living church -- to say truly what it stands for and out of its inability to do so otherwise than by telling the story of its life.

The preachers and theologians of the modern church must do what New Testament evangelists did because their situation permits no other method. From the point of view of historical beings we can speak only about that which is also in our time and which is seen through the medium of our history. We are in history as the fish is in water and what we mean by the revelation of God can be indicated only as we point through the medium in which we live. When we try other methods we find ourselves still in the old predicament. Since all men are in nature, though their histories vary, we think we may be able to direct them to the God we mean in preaching and worship by pointing as Jesus did to the rain, the sun, the sparrows and the lilies of the field, or to those subtler wonders which microscope and telescope and even more refined instruments of intelligence discover in the common world. As natural rather than historical theologians we try to divorce nature from history and ask men to listen to its praise of the Creator. But such theology is also implicitly historical. Being in Christian history it looks on nature with the mind of Christ, as even Jesus himself, pointing out God's care of beasts and flowers, did so as one whose eyes had been instructed by Moses and the prophets. We cannot point in space to spatial things or in a general time to generally temporal things, saying that what we mean by word of God and by revelation can be known if men will but look together at stars and trees and flowers. It is with Kant in his time-space we must regard the starry heavens, and with Jeremiah see the blossoming almond, and with Jesus behold the lilies of the field before we can read words of God in nature's book. Nature regarded through our history is indeed a symbol of what we mean, a pointer to God; but nature uninterpreted through our history and faith, or torn out of this context and placed in another does not indicate what we mean. It means various things according to the point of view from which it is regarded and the context in which it stands -- utter indifference to man and all his works in the context of despair, a blessing upon brutality from the point of view of confidence in military might, and a dominant interest in mathematics in the context of faith in mathematical thought as the only road to truth.

If nature uninterpreted through our history affords us no symbol of what revelation means, Scripture, nature's rival in theology, is in the same position. It may be said that though we are historical beings we can still contemplate from this moving point we occupy a super-historical word of God. So many early Protestants seemed to think in so far as they equated Scriptures with revelation. Yet the Reformers knew -- though less vividly it may be than their successors -- that the Scriptures as a collection of tales and observations about religion and life, of laws and precepts, as a book containing moral, political, astronomical and anthropological ideas, reveals nothing save the state of culture of the men who wrote its parts or of the groups who related the legends recorded in later time. We cannot point to Scriptures saying that what we mean can be known if men will but read what is there written. We must read the law with the mind of the prophets and the prophets with the eyes of Jesus; we must immerse ourselves with Paul in the story of the crucifixion, and read Paul with the aid of the spirit in the church if we would find revelation in the Scriptures. A history that was recorded forwards, as it were, must be read backwards through our history if it is to be understood as revelation. Doubtless we are confronted here by an ancient problem of the church which appears in all the discussions about law and gospel and about spirit and letter. Yet it is evident that when the church speaks of revelation it never means simply the Scriptures, but only Scriptures read from the point of view and in the context of church history. The Scriptures point to God and through Scriptures God points to men when they are read by those who share the same background which the community which produced the letter possessed, or by those who participate in the common life of which the Scriptures contain the record. Doubtless the Bible differs from nature, being the external form in which our history is preserved and so being indispensable to a community whose history is nowhere recorded in nature, as the history of purely natural communities is. But like nature the Bible can be read in many different contexts and will mean different things accordingly. Translated and read in the nationalistic community it does not point to the Father of Jesus Christ but to blood and soil and tribal deity; read by those whose minds are filled with the history and memories of democratic society it does not point to the intrinsically good God but to the intrinsically valuable individual, and the word that comes through it is a word about liberty from political and economic bondage rather than about liberty from slavery to self and sin. In Protestantism we have long attempted to say what we mean by revelation by pointing to the Scriptures, but we have found that we cannot do so save as we interpret them in a community in which men listen for the word of God in the reading of the Scriptures, or in which men participate in the same spiritual history out of which the record came. The latest movement in New Testament criticism, Form Criticism, underlines this fact for us -- that the book arose out of the life of the Church and that we cannot know an historical Jesus save as we look through the history and with the history of the community that loved and worshipped him. A Jesus of history apart from the particular history in which he appears is as unknown and as unknowable as any sense-object apart from the sense-qualities in which it appears to us.

When we have found these ways of circumventing our historical situation and of abandoning our historical point of view obstructed, we may be tempted, with the individualists of all time, to seek a direct path to what we mean through inner religious experience. Can we not say that when we speak of God and revelation we mean events which occur in the privacy of our personal, inner life or what we feel to be basic in our moral consciousness? Yet once more we discover that visions, numinous feelings, sense of reality, knowledge of duty and worth may be interpreted in many ways. We cannot speak of inner light at all, save in ejaculations signifying nothing to other men, unless we define its character in social terms, that is in terms which come out of our history. The "true" seed within, the "right" spirit, can be distinguished from false seeds and evil spirits only by the use of criteria which are not purely individual and biographical. We discriminate between the light within and spiritual will-o'-the-wisps by reference to a "Christ" within. But the word "Christ" comes out of social history and has a meaning not derived from individual experience. Religious experience and moral sense are to be found in many different settings and can be interpreted from many different points of view. The sense of the numinous accompanies many strange acts of worship; it may have been far stronger when human sacrifice was offered to pagan deities than it has ever been in Christianity. High moral devotion and a keen sense of duty point many men today to domestic and tribal gods. What the unconquerable movements of the human heart toward worship and devotion really mean, how their errors may be distinguished from their truths, and how they are to be checked cannot be known save as they are experienced and disciplined in a community with a history. Obedience to moral imperatives, worship and prayer are indispensable and inescapable in the Christian church; they are inseparable from the listening for God's word. But what they mean, what their content must be and to what ends they ought to be directed we cannot understand save as we bring to bear upon them our remembrance of an obedience unto death, of the imperatives which have come to us through history, of the Lord's prayers in the garden and on the mount, and of a worship in a temple whose inner sanctuary was empty. Religious and moral experience are always in some history and in some social setting that derives from the past. They also offer us no way of avoiding the use of our history in saying what we mean.

This necessity is a source of scandal in the Christian church, which is a mystery to itself at this point. To live and think in this way seems to mean that we navigate the oceans and skies of our world by dead reckoning, computing our position from a latitude and longitude determined nineteen hundred years ago, using a log that is in part undecipherable and a compass of conscience notoriously subject to deviation. Objections arise in the crew not only because other vessels claim to possess more scientific apparatus for determining where they are and whither they are going, but because revelation, if it be revelation of God, must offer men something more immovable than the pole star and something more precise than our measurements of the winds and currents of history can afford.

Revelation cannot mean history, we must say to ourselves in the church, if it also means God. What we see from the historical point of view and what we believe in as we occupy that standpoint must be two different things. For surely what is seen in history is not a universal, absolute, independent source and goal of existence, not impartial justice nor infinite mercy, but particularity, finiteness, opinions that pass, caprice, arbitrariness, accident, brutality, wrong on the throne and right on the scaffold. The claims of the evangelists of historical revelation seem wholly inconsistent with their faith. When they speak of a just God they point to a process so unequal that only those born in a special time and space receive faith in him while all who lived before or in cultures with a different history are condemned to ignorance of what they ought to know for the sake of their soul's health and life.

Moreover revelation cannot mean both history and God any more than it can mean both nature and God. The events of history to which Christian revelation refers may be regarded from the scientific, objective, non-committed point of view as well as nature can be. So regarded they have no greater value than other events. They can be studied in their cause-effect relationship, in their cultural, geographic, economic and political contexts; when this is done it is apparent that the scientist has as little need for the hypothesis of divine action as Laplace had in his astronomy. The birth of Jesus and the legends about it, the Sermon on the Mount, the miracles and parables, the crucifixion and resurrection stories, the institution of the sacraments -- all these may be explained by noting their place in a series of other events in

Jewish and Hellenistic history or in the development of religious, philosophical, political and economic movements. At best such historic description will make use of the category of individuality, pointing out the uniqueness of each event and the particular way in which general principles are made concrete in it. But such uniqueness is a characteristic of all events in time and the unique Jesus does not differ in this respect from the unique Socrates and the unique Hitler. Objective history cannot, without denying its method and its point of view, require a consideration for the life of Jesus differing from that which it brings to bear on other individual events. It can only record another unique fact -- that the church and Western culture have attached great religious significance to Jesus. It may seek further to account for this new individual event by reference to some general tendencies in human nature and to their unique manifestations in the first and later centuries of the Christian era.

So it appears that if revelation means history it cannot also mean the object of faith, save in this purely factual and wholly opaque sense that certain people have attached transcendent value to certain events.

The problem presents itself to the Christian church in a third way. If revelation means history, is not faith in revelation identical with belief in the occurrence of certain past, divine events and is not such an identification an actual denial of faith in a living God? Concentration on history in the church has led to repeated revolts by men of piety and good will for whom God was not a "then and there" but a "here and now" and for whom faith was not belief in the actuality of historical events but confidence in an abiding, ruling will of love. Trusting in God now, seeking to obey his present commandments, struggling with contemporary evil, such men have rebelled against the equation of historical belief with Christian faith and against the identification of present moral commandments with precepts given to Jews or to Pauline churches in ancient times. They have refused to make the forgiveness of sin a juridical act of the past rather than a contemporary experience; they have insisted on the present reality of the Holy Spirit as more important to Christians than a Pentecostal miracle in the early church. Such vital faith, seeking contact with a present Lord and Giver of Life, must always revolt against historic antiquarianism even as it must reject a futurism for which God, forgiveness and moral obedience are only future possibilities without present validity.

Revelation in history involves other difficulties. Questions about predestination and freedom, eternity and time, progress and decline, and many others of like sort assail the mind of the Christian in his dilemma of historic faith. Though he concedes the fact that he must speak as an historic being and also that the church has always thought in historical terms, he is puzzled by the relation of faith and history. History seems always to lead to doubt rather than to faith.

In the bewilderment which assails him in this situation the modern Christian, like many a predecessor in the church, is tempted again and again to drop the history and to hold fast to the faith, to give up the Jesus of history while affirming afresh his loyalty to the Christ of faith. But faith is a strange thing; it is not sufficient to itself and will not work alone. It is like the eye which cannot perceive the depth and distance and solidity of things save as it has a partner. Or it is like Adam who seeks a helpmeet among all the creatures and cannot be fruitful in loins or mind until an Eve is given him for conversation. And Christian faith, having tried many other partners, has found that these can speak with it of its God only if they have been schooled in Christian history. Nor are there any among them that speak a universal language; if they do not speak in Galilean accents some other province not less small in the infinite world has shaped their voices and minds in its own way. Philosophy, as historical in all its forms as religion, can indeed share and strengthen the life of faith, but only when it speaks out of a mind that has been filled with Jewish and Christian memories. The church is not ill at ease with Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Berkeley and Kant; but then the God of whom these philosophers write is always something more than their conceptual systems have defined. As Professors Gilson and A. E. Taylor have again reminded us recently, the God of modem philosophers is more than the God of their philosophies; he could not mean so much in their thought if he did not mean more than their thought about him expresses. He is always the God of history, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or the Father of Jesus Christ and not only the God of abstract thought.

It remains true that Christian faith cannot escape from partnership with history, however many other partners it may choose. With this it has been mated and to this its loyalty belongs; the union is as indestructible as that of reason and sense experience in the natural sciences. But though this is true the question remains, how can it be true? How can revelation mean both history and God?

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