Official Blog of the Bishop of Durham

Histheology: Neither History-without-Theology nor Theology-without-History

Posted by NT Wrong on July 31, 2008

Let’s read the Bible as History-Theology, or Histheology, understood as the Bible’s own mixed category of assertions of factuality about the historical past written through the lens of its theology/ies.

It is widely recognised that the ‘fundamentalist’ method of interpreting the Bible is both a reaction to and a product of modernism. The fundamentalist, fact-centred approaches to the scriptures treat them less as texts to be read for their own sake than as instruments to support their own modern historical-factual agendas. So, as the parade example, Genesis 1-2 is interpreted as though it were a modern scientific textbook presentation of the creation of the universe. And so, the fundamentalist interpreter will advocate that Genesis 1-2 should be taught alongside Darwin as an equal (or, in fact, better) contributor to the field of science.

Those with a greater appreciation of the nature and genre of Genesis 1-2 will rightly object that Genesis 1-2 was never, and should never, be treated as a scientific textbook.

But it is less well recognised that the common alternative — the treating of the Hebrew narratives merely as stories making theological points rather than also as presenting scientific-historical facts — can be just as much a product of modernist conceptions.

Sometimes, the common alternative (which has its champion in Karl Barth) can be just as much a result of the modernist dichotomy between fact and tradition. But rather than reading the ancient science or historiography in light of modern science or historiography (as the fundamentalists do), the presence of ancient science or historiography is simply ignored or denied. I would say that the Barthian approach is as much entrenched within the confines of modernist thought — and as unlikely to provide an exegesis of the text — as the fundamentalist hermeneutic.

How so? The common alternative manages to respect modern scientific findings by removing the issue from the text — while refusing to entertain the possibility that the authors of Genesis 1-11 could also have been interested in doing their own (early) “science” or “history”. This is not a history or a science as ‘we’ would do it, but it dominates the texts nonetheless. It always pays to remember that Genesis 1-2 does, in its present form, begin a long history that culminates in the books of Kings. The Enneateuch (nine books of theology-history) is arguably as interested in the science(s)-history(ies) it presents as it is interested in the theological significances of the world(s) it creates. Politics of identity are every bit as important in the books as the economy of Yahweh – sometimes more so, sometimes less. And this requires the assertation of facts. The facts being asserted are wrong, as it turns out, but facts are still being asserted.

I strongly suspect that the (one-sided) interpretation of Genesis 1-2 as dealing with theological meaning, and not history/science, has to do with a very modern dichotomy, not an ancient one. The attempt to interpret Genesis 1-2 for its deeper, theological meaning — and kick away the form that presents it — will always result in another (modernist) misreading.

To my mind, the true sublation of these opposite (yet equally modernist) misreadings must eliminate the modernist dichotomy altogether. The ‘history versus theology dichotomy’ simply did not exist as such in the paradigmatic matrix that formed the backdrop to Genesis-Kings. The works are history-theology, or Histheology — a category which is reducible neither to ancient history nor ancient theology.

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