By Joshua Martin
When it comes to scriptural interpretation, it’s crucial to take history seriously — or so I’ve read. Many of us, it seems, are simply not taking history seriously enough. But I have rarely read anyone saying that they themselves don’t take history seriously enough. Consciously or not, we all take history as seriously as we think it needs to be taken. This point may reveal that taking history “seriously” is a criterion at best multivalent and at worst incoherent. For the moment, however, I want to focus on different ways of “taking history seriously.”
Most common are approaches that, in some fashion, take history “seriously” by allowing the events of history in themselves to determine and restrict their interpretations. On the other side there are those whose interpretation understands historical events primarily as they are God’s, or are used by God. Because I fall into the latter category, I think that “taking history seriously” in itself is not a particularly fruitful exercise for biblical interpretation. Better is to see each event within its relation to God’s larger purposes and actions in, with, and for history. But let’s look at a few of the most common approaches — those which prioritize the events of history in themselves — before I further unpack what I mean.
It’s no surprise that historical-criticism, given its name, strives to afford history the utmost seriousness. In some ways it does, especially as the meaning of a text for historical-critical scholars is always restrained by its coherence with perception of the text’s own history and reception. That said, much of the work of historical reconstruction is often a preliminary step to interpreting the Bible. For instance, John P. Meier, a well respected historical-critical scholar, has written five volumes over 25 years on Jesus of Nazareth, A Marginal Jew, which he explicitly states is not Christology, but pure historical scholarship. “All a historian, precisely as a historian, can know is a particular circumcised Jewish male from Galilee” (vol. 4, p. 7). This historical work is then often taken up by others who attend more closely to exegeting the biblical text while ensuring these interpretations remain properly associated with all of the nuances of the historical reconstruction of original contexts.
Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart can be our example here, with their highly influential How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (now in its fourth edition and the top seller on Amazon’s “Christian Bible Exegesis & Hermeneutics” category). Fee and Stuart follow a grammatical-historical hermeneutic, paying less attention to the provenance of texts and more attention to the exegetical meaning of the text. Yet, as becomes clear in their critique of theologians like Augustine, they too, like historical-critical scholars, mean to take history seriously by allowing the original historical context to restrain possible textual meanings. When Augustine allegorizes the parable of the good Samaritan, Fee and Stuart are emphatic that “one can be absolutely certain that it is not what Jesus intended” (4th ed., p. 155). The grammatical-historical method takes history seriously by prioritizing the past, original meaning in order to discern the present meaning.
Others “take history seriously,” by seeing history itself as revelation. In this view, held by the linguist and theologian Paul van Buren (1924-98), history is a process in which the present is always taking up the past and reinterpreting it within new and developing present contexts. Each new present is on the crest of this ever-developing historical revelation. So God’s revelation is not restricted to one or to a few times or places. Events of history take on revelatory significance as they are interpreted in the present. This model, which has some similarities to process theology, could be said to take history most seriously in the sense that history itself becomes divine revelation: in historical-critical or grammatical-historical hermeneutics, past history determines the meaning of revelation in the present; in van Buren’s thought history is revelation.
Yet another way of taking history seriously is to see it primarily in its relation to God. Karl Barth, who was sometimes accused of interpreting the Scriptures too figuratively, i.e., without the requisite historical “seriousness,” did this. Yet here, too, history has its own form of seriousness. Individual historical events are not to be taken seriously in themselves, but only within the whole cosmic sweep of providentially ordered history, which is given interpretive priority. Refusing to hold historical events as fragmentary, Barth, in many ways in the company of Augustine, understands events as they point toward their telos within the larger scope of God’s actions in history. In most cases, this telos is clarified as the broad scope comes to focus more narrowly on God’s unique act in the Son, Jesus Christ, the singular act by which all of history is determined. (A particular form of “canonical” criticism might be comfortable with this method as well, but that may be an investigation for another time.)
To those who might say that this kind of figural reading doesn’t take history seriously, Barth seems to allow a helpful response (cf. Church Dogmatics, II/2, p. 366). Historical events were real and remain significant; but their deepest meaning and significance lies in their signification of their own telos. History is not significant in and for itself. Nor do original historical contexts necessarily restrain the meaning of the biblical text.
Barth’s singular Christological focus — like that of many others who interpret Scripture theologically — may relativize the significance of historical events in relation to the Christ event, but that isn’t to say that these events don’t matter without their reference to Christ. The point is that to speak of the Christ event is simultaneously to speak of the whole of God’s actions within history. While each event is directed in some way towards the Christ event, it cannot be seen as identical with it, and is not necessarily subsumed by it. For instance, Kendall Soulen, in The God of Israel and Christian Theology, reminds us that God’s historical acts with and for Israel of old cannot be passed over as insignificant even for the sake of their Christological referent.
As events within history are seen in their relation to God’s actions and purposes with history, only then, I suggest, are we “taking history seriously.” History is only properly significant as it is seen to signify its relation to God, never simply in itself. History is significant as we see what God is doing in and with it, not just once, but throughout history.
Joshua Martin lives in Toronto with his wife, Tricia, and their two (soon to be three!) children. He is pursuing his PhD at Wycliffe College, where he has come to appreciate and care for the Anglican Church of Canada. Joshua teaches Sunday school to seventh- and eighth-grade at Westminster Chapel, the Baptist church he and his family attend.