How do faith and history relate to one another? We have been discussing this in an online course on the Exegesis of Exodus that I am teaching for Asbury Theological Seminary this summer. During the early part of the course, we study and discuss archaeological research and historical reconstruction of the events in Exodus. Many scholars doubt the historicity of the Exodus event. This offers a challenge to faith. It begs the questions: Is a historical Exodus necessary for Christian faith? What would be lost if the Exodus from Egypt never really happened? What is the relationship between faith and history?
Asbury Seminary is an evangelical seminary so most students are fairly conservative in their approaches to the results of historical-criticism. But many react to historical questions by arguing that they are irrelevant to a life of faith. In most of the recent sections, I have had to argue for the importance of asking historical questions and of historicity in general. Regardless of where one stands, it is critical for us to think clearly and critically about the relationship between faith and history.
Here is how I have responded to students who would prefer to ignore historical based questions.
I have been intrigued by our preliminary discussion of the “historicity” of the Exodus account and the apparent willingness of many of us to reckon such matters as “unimportant to faith.” I offer the following comments not to be unduly polemical, but because I think deeply about these issues on an almost daily basis and I want to grow in my own thinking.
Ironically, a denial of the importance of history for faith makes it seem as though Rudolf Bultmann has been reincarnated. In his day, he was tired of the endless “Quest of the Historical Jesus.” During his reign as major figure in New Testament Studies, there was essentially “No Quest” because Bultmann had tried to buttress faith against historical research by declaring the Quest to find the historic Jesus “historically impossible” and “theologically illegitimate.” Impossible because of the problem of adequate evidence and illegitimate because, so Bultmann alleged, it would make faith a work. I wonder sometimes if our recent shift away from historical study marks not a “post-modern” move that frees us from modernism but rather moves us into a purely fideistic theological construct in which our faith moves away from a risen Lord to a faith in a story about a risen Lord.
I am by no means advocating a purely historical approach to faith. I completely agree that our authority is bound up in the final form of the biblical text and thus our exegesis should focus on the final form (and it will for the vast majority of this class).
I, however, simply cannot get around the historical elements in both the Creeds and in the biblical materials. Have you ever pondered the line in the Apostle’s Creed “suffered under Pontius Pilate?” What an odd affirmation we make! Yet it roots the events of eternal importance in 1st century Palestine to the time of a two-bit Roman official.
1 Corinthians 15 is the great chapter in which Paul defends the actual bodily resurrection of Jesus as foundational for Christianity. Part of his appeal is to the church’s earliest kerygma (see vv. 3-5 in particular which by the way may date to within two years of Jesus’ death/resurrection). Paul is not merely recounting a story; he is declaring historical events. These events Paul says were witnessed to by OT Scripture.
I appreciate the way that N.T. Wright describes the relationship between faith and history. In his popular book co-written with Marcus Borg, Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, Wright describes a “faith divorced from history” as being indicative of one imprisoned in the attic whereas “history divorced from faith” is an equally problematic bondage in the dungeon. Writing about his historical research on Jesus, he can write, “The more I find out about Jesus historically, the more I find that my faith-knowledge of him is supported and filled out” (26).
Allow me one more extended quote from Wright on this topic:
History, then, prevents faith from becoming fantasy. Faith prevents history becoming mere antiquarianism. Historical research, being always provisional, cannot ultimately veto faith, though it can pose hard questions that faith, in order to retain its integrity precisely as Christian faith must struggle to answer, and may well grow strong through answering. Faith, being subject to the vagaries of personality and culture, cannot veto the historical enterprise (it can’t simply say -I don’t like the Jesus you write about, so you must be wrong’), but it can put hard questions to history, not least on the large topic of the origins of Christianity, and history may be all the better for trying to answer them. (26-27)
How does this relate to the question of the historical reality of the Exodus?
In brief, the Exodus functions typologically not only for describing the Second Exodus (Return from Babylonian Exile - See Isa 40-55) but ultimately for shaping the narrative of Jesus’ ministry and passion. Obviously, Jesus’ bodily resurrection represents the absolute bare minimum of “facts” needed as a foundation for faith, but I would say that the Exodus serves a similar function for the revelation in the OT. The rest of the OT narrative moves forward by understanding itself in light of God’s salvific acts found in Exodus (Exodus from Egypt and Covenant at Sinai). Israel certainly believed that these events happened in human space and time and not merely in the world of story created by some human author. Does this not suggest that historicity remains an importance issue today?
Many persons in the West are well acquainted to the historical-critical issues/problems involved in biblical study. Network and Cable television routinely air programs that deal with the historical background of the Bible. The shows typically shoot for balance via a compendium of video clips from scholars of diverse backdrops, but there is little consensus. It is vital then for followers of Jesus to be aware of the issues involved so that they can dialogue with outsiders to the faith if historical questions arise in the course of conversation.
What do you think?
Copyright 2007 Brian Russell