Friday, September 2, 2011

Story and History--The Role of Historical Investigation for Faith

In his essay, “Knowing Jesus: Story, History and the Question of Truth,” Richard Hays critiques N.T. Wright’s method of knowing Jesus as described in his book Jesus and the Victory of God (JVG). Hays (a Barthian) argues that Wright’s method is doomed to fail from the start and that the “historical” Jesus is unknowable apart from the confessional Jesus.

What role does historical investigation play in the life of the church?

In JVG, Wright paints a portrait of Jesus based on critical realism and scientific investigation of history. While his method and conclusions differ from other historical Jesus scholars, his aim is basically the same—to discover the “Jesus of history” apart from the “Christ of faith” (Wright wouldn’t state his aim in those words, but his book does the same thing as others written by people who do use those words). The genius of JVG is that by using the scientific method for historical investigation, Wright is able to unveil a “Jesus of history” who looks remarkably similar to the “Christ of faith.” Wright demonstrates that the church’s confessions about Jesus stand up to the rigors of historical investigation.

Hays has two significant critiques of Wright’s method:

1. Wright is not as objective of an observer as he claims. Hays points out that Wright does not approach Jesus as an unbiased observer, but as an Anglican bishop and a lifelong follower of Jesus. Wright may be testing a hypothesis in JVG, but it is a hypothesis derived from his life in the church.

2. The “truth” of the story affects the method by which we investigate history. In order to remain “scientific” and “unbiased,” Wright has to table the church’s confessional claim that Jesus is the second member of the trinity. At the end of his investigation, Wright concludes that there is good reason for the church to confess what it does, but Hays notes that this changes the way we evaluate the data. If Jesus is God, then history cannot be evaluated in the same way that it can if he is merely a man.

Hays writes:

In a significant essay in Seeking the Identity of Jesus, the theologian Robert Jenson confronts exactly this issue and asks a provocative question: ‘But what if the church’s dogma were a necessary hermeneutical principal of historical reading, because it describes the true ontology of historical being?’ Let me paraphrase that: if it is true that Jesus was the incarnation of the Word, the fleshly embodiment of the one through whom all things were made—and if it is true that he was raised from the dead by the power of God and now reigns over the whole world (whether the world acknowledges it or not)—then it follows that the historical figure of Jesus cannot be rightly known or understood apart from the epistemological insight articulated precisely in the confession that Jesus is Lord—Jesus is the kyrios. This is where we ought to begin in we want to know the truth about Jesus.

This is the insight that Tom’s whole historical Jesus project doesn’t ever quite take on board. The ‘hypothesis’ that Tom seeks to verify by pulling together the evidence of the Synoptics is not a naked inference from uninterpreted data. Rather, the hypothesis that Tom is testing is already encoded in the New Testament texts themselves as proclamatory stories, and already imbedded in Tom’s own worldview by virtue of his lifelong participation in a community that continues to retell the story. So the hypothesis-verification model can’t escape the hermeneutical circle. Nor should it. Precisely because the church’s dogma names a truth the world does not nor cannot know, it rightly describes the truth about history in a way that secularist history is bound to miss. (Richard Hays, “Knowing Jesus: Story, History and the Question of Truth,” Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright, ed. by Nicholas Perrin and Richard B. Hays [Downers Grove: IVP, 2011], 60-61.)

Note what Hays is saying (like Barth): the true Jesus cannot be known by natural means, so using natural means to know him is destined to fail. What do you think? Does historical investigation (think also of apologetic works like Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict) have a role in the life of the church, or does Jesus identity as the incarnation of the Word render that kind of investigation moot?

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