Official Blog of the Bishop of Durham

The Bible is not History-without-Theology, and the Bible is not Theology-without-History

Posted by NT Wrong on July 31, 2008

The knowledge gained about the Old Testament and its ancient world(s) over the last two centuries, or so, is sometimes apologetically dealt with either by:

    1) reducing it all to literal ‘history’, or
    2) reducing it all to ‘theology’.

Both attempts misrepresent the content of the Old Testament. Sure, the Old Testament contains a lot of historical falsities. But this fact does not justify treating the Old Testament merely as theology — attempting to get around this problem by ignoring the historical claims that are interwoven with, ground, explain, and are integral to that theology. Conversely, the Old Testament contains a lot of abhorrent, evil theology. But it is impossible to read the Old Testament as something that is merely historical, in the past, without at the same time addressing the theologies or ideologies which provide the lens for its historiographies or presentations of history. This is so, even though these biblical theologies often differ greatly from or even contradict modern Jewish and Christian theologies. Biblical history and theology stand or fall together.

But Augustine said it first. Augustine comments on how we should interpret the story of Noah’s flood:

Non tamen quisquam putare debet aut frustra haec esse conscripta, aut tantummodo rerum gestarum ueritatem sine ullis allegoricis significationibus his esse quaerendam, aut e contrario haec omnino gesta non esse, sed salas esse uerborum figuras, aut quidquid illud est nequaquam ad prophetiam ecclesiae pertinere …
… sed magis credendum est et sapienter esse memoriae litteris mandata, et gesta esse, et significare aliquid, et ipsum aliquid ad praefigurandam ecclesiam pertinere.

Yet no one ought to suppose either that these things were written for no purpose, or that we should study only the historical truth, apart from any allegorical meanings; or, on the contrary, that they are only allegories, and that there were no such facts at all, or that, whether it be so or no, there is here no prophecy of the church …
… we must rather believe that there was a wise purpose in their being committed to memory and to writing, and that they did happen, and have a significance, and that this significance has a prophetic reference to the church.

City of God 15.27 [2.495; 497]

The modernist separation of history from theology imposes foreign categories on the biblical text.

2 Responses to “The Bible is not History-without-Theology, and the Bible is not Theology-without-History”

  1. Bill said

    Good Sir “Bishop”, I like a lot of this. As a believer who’s interested in history, I’m mystified and frustrated by both camps of those who (to use your terms) are apologetically “reducing it all”. Some may think I’m ignorant and naieve, but I’m FOR an interwoven view because I WANT to see scriptural events as events.

    However, aspects of your conclusion are unclear to me. Are you suggesting that interweaving will succeed apologetically (for either camp) where “reducing it all” cannot?

    And when you say “stands or falls together”, are you referring to the Bible as a whole or merely saying that each passage, episode, claim and statement must stand or fall [as an interwoven historical/theological case] on its own, irregardless of other Biblical content?

    For instance, if I admitted the OT contained some “historical falsities”, would you expect me to therefore deny the whole Cannon? Or what, instead?

    I hope this doesn’t sound at all polemical. I’m honestly trying to understand your conclusion here. And for the record, I have mixed feelings about christian apologetics, but I’m not here to proselytize.

  2. ntwrong said

    Thanks for your comments, Bill.

    Both the attempt to reduce the Bible to history and the attempt to reduce it to theology must fail, because they both fail to appreciate their object correctly. Both camps fail. That is, a great portion of the Bible (e.g. esp. Gen-Chron) does really do both history and theology (understood emically), at the same time. That is the claim in those parts of the Bible, and that claim must be taken seriously — whether it results in us either denying or affirming its histheology. To ignore the nature of the object of study by reducing it either to ‘history’ or ‘theology’ is to impose a modern dichotomy on the text.

    When I said “stands or falls together” I was only thinking about individual passages. (There may be resulting consequences for related biblical passages, but if so that would need to be demonstrated in turn.) For example, the facticity or non-facticity of the exodus either provides proof or disproof of the theological election of Israel at that time. But it doesn’t say much about the Babylonian exile.

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