3 for Thursday: Three Reasons History is Not Theology

"Raphael Vision Cross". Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Raphael Vision of the Cross“- Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

This week’s “3 for Thursday”—on why history is not theology—requires a little setup. While it should go without saying that different fields of inquiry ask different questions, engage in specific standards of the discipline, and use different tools, not everyone gets this. For centuries, theology was the so called “Queen of the Sciences,” by which is meant that all other arenas of inquiry ultimately submit to its authority. For many, theology is still the queen, and so it is not unusual to find Christian theologians discussing a “theology of X,” with X being anything from science to sex.

On the one hand I get it; there was a time when I sought to be a theologian and when I wanted to know if there was a theology for approaching just about everything in life. It is understandable for Christians to think this way and so it doesn’t surprise me. But when it comes to my field of study—religious history—I have to say that it is often very annoying.

When I taught on the history of Christianity at a seminary, for example, I often went out of my way near the beginning of the course to let students know this was a history course and not Theology 101. Very often, however, I have a student who is very theologically minded and assumes that behind certain historical events there was a divine purpose, and more importantly, that they can figure out that purpose.

The Protestant Reformation, for example, has been described by students as a special work of God and specifically—to the consternation of Catholic Christians, I imagine—one which intended to end the power of the “anti-Christian Roman church.” And without any evidence for this (aside from being Protestant and wanting God to be for them), the assumption is so strong that it makes its way into their papers and classroom conversation. The theological is so ingrained in them that they often assume the other students are going to accept their conclusions about what God was doing when.

So for this week’s  “3 for Thursday” I’d like to point out for my students three areas theology and history are different.

1) They have different different sources as authorities

Historians do not, or at least should not, make historical judgments about what caused events based on the notion of “a message from God” or based on an interpretation of the Bible. There is a long history of theologians not only interpreting history, but also attempting to predict the direction of the future, based on how they read the Bible. Jonathan Edwards thought the year 2000 would be a millennial kingdom and interpreted the Avignon Papacy through his reading of the book of Revelation. He believed that period of history, which had the pope in France, was a suspension in the timeline of Revelation and this allowed him to discount the incorporation of certain years into his eschatological calendar for the end of the world.

This is theology. It has nothing to do with history.

2) History is by nature limited to the story of this earthly world

Historians do not answer questions like, what is heaven like? We do not decide what God was doing at a given moment in time. Historians, if they are to be as objective as possible, are essentially atheists. We limit ourselves to the story of this world. If you want to know about the place heaven has within history—a history of the notion of heaven(s), for example—then we can help. We aren’t interested in deciding if God destroyed a city with a hurricane because of sin.

This is theology. It has nothing to do with history.

3) Historians are not in service to the church

There are different types of historians working from different fields or perspectives in how to approach their discipline. Presidential historians, economic historians, intellectual historians, feminist historians—these might all engage history by topic or emphasize an historiographical approach. Likewise, the idea of a church historian is someone whose specialization is the history of Christianity. The problem can be that the adjective “church” can become so dominant that some historians might become propagandists for an agenda. They can fail to be historians and take on the role of spokesperson for a theology or become hagiographers.

I write this because it represents my own growth as a thinker several years ago, leaving behind certain thinking in favor of a more objective (though never totally unbiased) approach to religious history. We live with the world as it is to the best we can realizing that information is often filtered through power and every story is subject to revision when the evidence demands it.

We aren’t Glenn Beck or David Barton; we don’t eulogize the history we want to be true. We don’t even care to talk about “heretics” or “arch-heretics,” so as to demonize them.

This is theology. It has nothing to do with history. 

All of this is not to say that historians of Christianity shouldn’t know theology well to understand their field, or that theologians can’t learn from history, or that history doesn’t benefit a theologians understanding of her tradition. It is to say, however, that history is and cannot be theology.

So please, theologians, do not set out to write a theology of history as theological history. That’ll just kill me.

  • Kathryn Helleman

    “So please, theologians, do not set out to write a theology of history as theological history. That’ll just kill me.” Well, there go my summer plans! 😉 All joking aside, this is a helpful clarification of your discipline as it relates to theology.

  • David Odegard

    Sorry for the length; it is an important question for me.

    I once heard Bart Ehrman make a passionate plea that
    history is a completely separate discipline from theology, but how can that be
    true in an absolute sense? If a historian is tasked to find the probable cause
    of a series of events, what if that cause actually was that God intervened in
    the material world? What if a voice did cry from heaven, “This is my son.
    Listen to him.” Shouldn’t that become part of the historical record? If the
    answer is no, then we do have an atheist’s version of history. One in which the
    material world is all that is considered. But what if God really has acted in
    the material world?

    Ehrman draws conclusions based on the material he
    allows into the evidence record. One such conclusion is that the resurrection of
    Christ is among the least likely events to have occurred. Is his conclusion
    historically accurate? What if Luke’s admission of the accounts of people who
    claimed to see him rise are admitted into evidence, though they have
    theological content?

    The New Testament was written as a mixture of
    theology and history. It comes pre-wrapped in an interpretation, interpreting historical
    data in exactly the sort of way that you described a historian should not do. I
    recognize that Luke would not be considered a historian by the definition of
    the modern discipline, but does that make his observations and conclusions
    invalid? Does Ehrman’s refusal to allow spiritual data into his evidence record
    make his observation and conclusions of history (what really happened) more
    valid than Luke’s?

    How about the advent? If I am to report just the material facts alone, they are: “A guy
    in the ancient Roman province of Palestine believed he was God and so did a lot
    of others eventually.” The Gospel writers, however, are all tasked with explaining
    who Jesus really was in space and time. They intended to show that God did
    intervene in the material world by coming in the form of a human.

    Mohammed made claims about an angel speaking to him
    in a cave. We accept this or reject this based on our evaluation of the quality
    of the evidence, but just because something comes from a non-material source,
    we should not say that it belongs to the realm of theology rather than history.
    What if an angel did speak to Mohammed? We cannot validate that claim with
    material sources alone, but what if that is in fact what happened?

    When you say, “This is theology. It has nothing to do
    with history,” I am pensive, I somewhat agree, but not all the way. What if I
    said, “This is anthropology. It has nothing to do with history,” how could that
    be true? If it is completely true, every historian I have read has violated
    this maxim. I have never read a historical inquiry that did not have a slant.

    How does this jibe with your post? Where and how am
    I wrong?

  • I’m on the road, so I’m limiting myself to a short response. Briefly speaking, while it may be possible to say historically that Jesus existed, it is a theological response to affirm the resurrection and miracles. Even eye-witness testimony can simply lead to thousands of people claiming things like this guy is a messiah (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jos%C3%A9_Luis_de_Jes%C3%BAs). His preaching ministry was said to be listened to by millions if you believe the record of his followers. In other words, that can be tricky if one were to put the biblical record against the standards used for any other group.

    That is why some Christian historians are inclined to talk about how someone like Jesus or Moses were “received” by others. In other words, as John Woodbridge once taught me at Trinity. It is sometimes more historically friendly to talk about how others understood, received, interpreted persons, events, and texts than it is to affirm that which is a theological conclusion. How did those during the Great Awakening understand the revivals? That is a very different question from asking whether the Awakenings were acts of God.

    I get the desire to include the theological in the historical, but they are different paths. Make sense? At least, make sense of what I’m saying? I understand you’ll not agree.

  • Sorry to mess up your plans. 🙂

  • David Odegard

    Thank you. That is a helpful clarification.

In search of belief changing ideas