This is one of the issues we discussed in our New Testament seminar the other day, focusing on the so-called Quests for the Historical Jesus.
The relationship of Christian faith to history is complex. Consider the first male disciples, when they heard the news from the women who had come from the tomb: they did not content themselves with their reception of the angelic announcement of resurrection, but ran to the tomb to investigate. That is, they pursued historical enquiry (as, it should be noted, those who had been appointed as key witnesses of Jesus’ ministry). But it is a particular sort of historical enquiry. The sort of historical enquiry that is limited to measurable results of probability will, by definition, never issue in belief in a miracle. So this historical enquiry – that of the disciples who ran to the tomb – was open to the possibility that God had in fact acted in history in a way that defied the probable.
This illustrates the issue: must we bracket out the existence of God in historical enquiry? If Jesus rightly believed himself to be God’s Messiah, how may we investigate this historically? How do we navigate between faith and history, if God has acted in history?
In our class the other day, I pointed to the approaches of two figures who have tried to take these sorts of questions seriously:
- Martin Hengel, who enters into things via the relatively measurable issue of Jesus’ self-understanding: It is historically defensible that Jesus believed himself to be in a unique relationship to God; thus it is historically responsible to consider Jesus in relation to God-categories
- Pope Benedict XVI, who argues more directly that the historical Jesus must be understood in relation to God if we are to understand him at all.
I then raised the question of future ‘quests,’ and pointed to the important recent work of Roland Deines: Acts of God in History: Studies Towards Recovering a Theological Historiography. In the introduction to that collection of essays, Deines explains:
These essays… ought to be understood as a contribution to striving towards a theologically motivated historiography that has as its basic task the exploration and description of the reality of this world and her history under the premise that God, as witnessed in the Holy Scriptures of the Judeo-Christian tradition, is really creator, sustainer, and the fulfilment of this world and its history. (xv)
Anyway, a few days ago I heard that Benedict XVI has recently been in touch with Deines, expressing gratitude for the direction of his study! How I long to have a pope grant their endorsement of my work! (Let that be a humble hint to any pope who is reading this blog…) So there you have it – this is a work worth engaging with if you are grappling with these questions.