Thursday, January 22, 2009

Historicity and the Bible

Art Boulet, a student at Westminster Theological Seminary, has an interesting quote from N.P. Lemche's Prelude to Israel's Past over at his blog: finitum non capax infinitum.

[as an aside the blog name: 'the finite cannot contain the infinite' is a wonderful line with a heritage in Reformed theology--it is quite applicable to among other things: Christology. But that's another blog post]

I won't reproduce the whole excerpt from Lemche (read it here)... but here are a few pertinent points.

It should at the same time be underscored that the members of this research school do as a matter of fact attempt to create a new basis for the Bible’s legitimacy or its larger place in the Christian consciousness. Thus Christians continue to see the Bible as an inspired source of information for themselves as the people of God, although the formerly undisputed historical rationales for their beliefs have been effectively destroyed...
If the narratives of the Pentateuch have nothing to do with history but are no more and no less than what they promise to be—namely, stories—this does not mean that these narratives are not true in their own intention. AS long as they do not claim to be history in the modern sense—something their authors obviously never intended—the idea of reading them as literature will cause no serious trouble....
As far as historicity is concerned, critical scientific analyses of the Bible prove that its claims to absolute authority and undeniable truth cannot stand. Yet its dialectic importance remains intact inasmuch as it presents ideas and thoughts that are just as valuable to present-day readers as to the audience for which it was originally written. It only demands that its readers accept its testimony. Not everyone today considers the Bible an unshakable or unassailable authority...

There is much that could be said about this 'minimalist' view of history. Certainly we should interpret the OT based upon the intentions of the authors but there are certain things in the text that destroy a Biblical faith if the "historical rationales for their beliefs have been effectively destroyed".

Art sums up this way:
I think this is a good example of how people have not understood minimalism. The ‘pop’ understanding of minimalism is that ‘minimalists undermine the authority of the Bible.’ I think Lemche shows here, as well as in other places, that that understanding is not only unnuanced, but completely false. What minimalism does, in my opinion, is read the Hebrew Bible on its own terms and affirms, or seeks to affirm, only what the Hebrew Bible meant to affirm. It’s more of a deconstruction of modernist assumptions of the Hebrew Bible than of the Hebrew Bible itself.

Since Art asks for any thoughts, I decided to weigh in. Here's what I said:

I think we have to be careful that we do not use ‘literary artifice’ to undermine historicity.

I agree that there are some who have not understood “minimalism” and I agree we should read the text with the intention of the text in view–including it’s genre. I also agree that biblical history is not dispassionate, unattached, “objective” history. But that’s not the same as saying it’s ‘non-historical’.

I think Lemche gives way to much credit to the ‘neutrality’ of the historical critical approach as if it is just “following the facts”. In my estimation, in this quote, Lemche throws way too much out. We shouldn’t say that because the ancients didn’t see themselves as writing history in the modern sense that they didn’t see themselves recording past events that actually occurred. Of course they had a vested interest in how they told the account and the perlocutionary effects they sought to achieve. Yet, they also had a vested interest in whether or not these things happened–take Exodus as an example.

Historical study of a document should seek to understand the document the way the ancient reader understood it. Yet if the ancient reader said “This happened” (and assuming we are in narrative-historical passages not an obvious parable or the like)– if we are going to take the Bible as authoritative, we have to take it as referential to actual history.

Lemche himself seems in this quote to fall into a modernist trap by saying let’s interpret the Pentateuch as stories and therefore not historically referential. I think it is too tall of a case to substantiate that the ancient reader would have understood this as community forming stories that were at the same time referring to things that did not happen. In redemptive history the power and effect of the accounts is often dependent on the actuality of their occurrence.

I mean what if the Hebrew Bible is actually affirming that these things actually occurred? I would point out that many minimalists (perhaps not all) would say there are points where the Hebrews did believe this happened or pointed to an event but we now know that it didn’t happened (at least as recorded). This would then to undermine Biblical authority.

I do think that on the one hand the minimalists openly speak of retaining Biblical authority, the problem is twofold: (1) there is a redefinition of Biblical authority. Lemche himself is quoted as saying "it remains authoritative, that is, a valid and respected source of information and guidance for people who accept it as their Bible". Yet if the Bible records a 'redemptive history' that is filled with referents to things that actually occured--then there is no redemption without the history. (2) This redefinition of authority actually undermines authority at key points. As Lemche points out: "The Bible presents a way of understanding itself, God, and the world: we may affirm this view or reject it, for we—like Martin Luther—should not submit slavishly to everything in it (Prelude to Israel’s Past, 230-32).". I concur--but then should we not submit to the points where it makes historical claims? To fail to do so is to fall to actually submit to Biblical authority.

I am sure that Art has more readers than I do, but any thoughts?

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