Recovering and criticizing the past

A major feature of modernity has been its concern with history. Underlying this is a heightened awareness of change and innovation. The tools that have served this are new methods of research and new criteria for historical reliability. These, together with the greatly increased scale of historical study and research, have had the most obvious effects on theology. The Bible (see especially chapters 17 and 31) and the rest of the Christian heritage have been examined afresh and traditional opinions often challenged. But that has been just one manifestation of a more comprehensive problem.

Modern historical consciousness recognizes that meaning is closely bound up with changing contexts and that today we are also conditioned by many factors as we try to understand the past. Is the whole enterprise of "true" interpretation possible?

For Christian theologians, it has seemed unavoidable to attempt it, and the most fundamental reason for this is that Christianity (and it is not alone in this) cannot do without the authority of the past in some form. So a great deal of attention has been paid to what is often called hermeneutics, the art and theory of interpretation (chapter 17). How do we cope with the "hermeneutical circle," the problem that in understanding the past we tend to draw conclusions based on our own presuppositions, interests, and involvements? Is the meaning or truth of a text such as a gospel necessarily bound up with its being historically factual? There are very broad questions about language and self in relation to reality (there has been a great deal of reflection on metaphor, narrative, objectivity, and subjectivity), and other questions about genre, the intention of the author, or the relative roles of disciplines such as philology, literary criticism, sociology, psychology, comparative religion, philosophy, and history. And often there is a divergence between those who see much of the Christian past as on the whole worth recovering, and others who see it more as something from which liberation is needed and who use a "hermeneutic of suspicion" to do so.

The themes of suspicion, doubt, and radical critique are constantly present in modern thought, raising most sharply the issues of authority and reliability. For many, the very discipline of theology has disintegrated and lost its intellectual integrity in the face of all this. So most theologians discussed in these volumes are engaged in a recovery of Christianity in the face of unprecedented devastating, sophisticated, and widely disseminated dismissals of both Christianity and theology. That, at least, is the situation in the West and in those influenced by it. But some, such as Latin American liberation theologies (chapter 27), try to redefine the concerns and context of theology so that the confrontation with doubt, agnosticism, atheism, and the intellectual world of the modern West takes second place to serving a praxis of liberation.

In addition (and sometimes, as with Marx, accompanying a fundamental strategy of suspicion) there has been the challenge from modern overviews of history as alternatives to the much-criticized traditional Christian story stretching from creation to consummation. Does Christian theology need a renewed overarching conception of history? Pannenberg and Rahner would say so, but Bultmann would see such an idea as dangerously mythological, and many others too have serious reservations.

That and all the issues mentioned thus far can be seen as aspects of a pivotal modern theological concern: the relationship of faith and history. In continental European Protestant theology this was a fundamental matter dividing Barth and Bultmann. When they were found wanting by successors such as Pannenberg and Moltmann it was again this issue that was central. It has likewise been a dominant concern in much British, North American, and Evangelical theology, and many new challenges in theology also focus on it in their own ways. It is perhaps in Roman Catholic theology that the implications of modern thinking about faith and history are most sharply underlined. This is partly because it was only in the third quarter of the twentieth century that Roman Catholic theologians could use modern historical methods without official disapproval. So, since World War II, there has been a hectic period of assimilation, reinterpretation, and controversy. It is symbolized in Schillebeeckx's journey from a tradition in which philosophy, not history, was the main partner of doctrine, through ressourcement and hermeneutics to a massive and controversial treatment of the main topic in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century debate about faith and history: Jesus Christ.

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