Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Imagine you know nothing of Christianity - nothing about Jesus, about Christmas or about Easter. Then suppose that someone tells you of a certain great man who changed the face of Western civilisation, and whose influence is felt throughout the world to this day, some two thousand years later.

You listen, politely at first and then with mounting interest. If this is true, you think, I need to know more about this person. "Where can I find a biography about him?" you enquire. "How do I learn more? What are the facts?"

You may be surprised by the wide variety of responses you receive. All agree that this person lived in the context of a particular civilisation and culture, for a number of years. None will dispute that his name in Hebrew was Yeshua, which is rendered Iesous in Greek and Jesus in English.

"Where was Jesus born?" you ask. Some tell you he was born in a town called Bethlehem and others that he was born in Nazareth. Using the Christian calendar as you do, you suppose that Jesus was born in the year zero. "No," you're told. "Some think he was born four years before then, and others that he was born six years before. Nobody is certain."

At this point you might be forgiven for wondering how reliable other information about Jesus will turn out to be if his followers can't even tell you the year of his birth. After all, their claims for him include startling events such as walking on water and resurrection from death - so what really happened is particularly important to you.

The facts about Jesus are, to your 21st century mind, critical. If we know next to nothing about him, why the fuss? If we know something about him, how reliable are our sources? Do they have the same weight as, for example, our sources for the facts of Napoleon's life?

History is the branch of thought under which such questions fall. Most people think of the historian as someone who finds out what happened, puts the facts together in sequence, and then comments on cause and effect. 

Unfortunately history is not that simple, especially with regard to "the facts" of Christianity.

History in the modern sense did not exist before the 16th century. Accounts of past and present events were written as long ago as the 5th century BC by the Greek Herodotus. Other Greek and Roman historians followed - but only Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War got anything like close to the modern critical, analytical type of history.

History as an account of "what really happened" was retarded for a thousand years with the advent the Christian Church as a major social power in the West. I can do no better than quote Dennis Nineham [1]:

With rare exceptions [the] Christian faith ... was based on unquestioning acceptance of the entire contents of the Bible ... complete credence was given to biblical accounts of the past ... Apart from the need to harmonize a few apparent discrepancies, theologians felt able to accept the biblical story at face value ...

Their acceptance was based upon an underlying belief about reality so deeply rooted as to be almost beyond consciousness. This belief was that our world is only part of a much greater reality. Our dimension merges imperceptibly into what we now call the supernatural. This belief was accepted in much the same way as we accept that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow. We seldom wonder about it, almost never question it, and live our lives as though nothing else is likely to be the case.

Belief in the supernatural implied - and still does for a majority - that a dimension external to the universe can impact us. God, who is master and king of both the natural and the supernatural, constantly intervenes in this world to order the affairs of nature and humankind. Augustine of Hippo built this idea up further with his City of God in the early 5th century. He saw history moving in a single linear direction. God was guiding events towards the last days in which the Christian endeavour would be vindicated. God's city would be founded and Christians would rule over everyone else.

Part of God's guidance of history was, it was thought, a gift to us of the Bible. Some thought that God had dictated its exact contents to those who wrote it down. A more sophisticated opinion granted the Bible's human authors some input - but only in the sense that they accurately recorded "the wonderful works of God" in the world. Once Christianity had reached pride of place in Western civilisation most people thought that the Bible was the final authority on all they needed to know.

This picture of history assumes recurrent divine intervention at every level of human experience. It held the high ground until the 16th century when an entirely new way of thinking gradually made its entrance onto the world stage. What we today know as history then began a rapid advance in scope, technique and theory.

An example may clarify the potential effects of the new historical method. A document called The Donation of Constantine purported to prove that the Roman Emperor had in 314 given great powers to Sylvester, the then Bishop of Rome. These were supposed to have included authority over all other churches, power as supreme judge of the clergy, and even an offer of the Imperial crown.

The Donation was used by the See of Rome for some 500 years to assert ecclesiastical authority over secular powers. Nicholas of Cusa's research in the 15th century into it's origins showed conclusively that the Donation was a fake. His work helped precipitate relatively rapid changes in the balance of power between Church and State in the West. It culminated in the Reformation and the rise of the modern secular state.

The historical method as developed in the centuries which followed Nicholas of Cusa is one of the many new disciplines which have transformed the world. Its complex structures can be summarised only inadequately here:

  • All historical investigation is prefaced by scepticism rather than prior acceptance of the voice of authority. As many data are collected as possible - but none is automatically accepted as valid, true or useful.
  • History is assumed to be a seamless web of events, a complex system far beyond our comprehension. The analytical process of history is one by which we break up data to yield "facts." These facts stand alone only as an artificial aid to understanding. In reality, we can't know the complete history of anything.
  • Good history is impossible unless the historian is free to think and explore entirely independently of dogma or ideology.
  • All data are potentially useful to the historian. History is field-encompassing in that it can and does use information from all other fields of knowledge [2].
  • All data to be validly used in history must be "tortured". That is, it must be tested to destruction to ensure that it is what it purports to be and that is has contextual validity - that it "fits" the seamless web of history.
  • The historian must therefore justify selection of data and conclusions drawn from it. Statements of opinion don't qualify as history unless backed up by solid data.
  • Historians must submit their work to the judgement first of peers, and then of everyone. Work at first judged as poor may, with new or better data, eventually receive approval. But until a substantial body of peers does approve it, that history must remain in the wilderness.
  • All conclusions of history are by definition provisional. Any may overturned (or reinstated) by new evidence or re-assessment.

Perhaps ironically, the historical method was developed partly by investigation of the historical accuracy of the Bible. If the Church could be shown to have been grossly deceived by the Donation, asked critics, what other foundations of Christianity might now crumble? 

Why, for example, should one skip over internal contradictions in the Bible? And why should events like the Resurrection be accepted as good history even though highly unlikely in the context of modern knowledge? What might the new discipline of archeology contribute to history in the context of the Christian faith? If Darwin's Origin of Species was true, how could the account of creation in Genesis also be true?

My strong impression is that traditional Christianity has been, and still is, constantly on the defensive against the methodology of history. Two examples strike me.

The "faith is all" movement  Scholar after scholar has used analytical methods and new data to question that the Bible is good history. Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century existentialist, in response to this questioning tried to reduce the dependence of Christianity on its historical roots.

Historians rightly maintain that if Christianity claims to be an historical religion, then it is fair game for rigorous investigation. To say that I have faith in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is, they noted, an historical claim. Jesus was a real person who lived, as we all do, within the seamless web of cause and effect we call history. If, for example, his skeleton were to be discovered by an archeologist, anyone who accepts the methods of history would be forced to conclude that Jesus did not come to life again after dying.

Not so, said Kierkegaard. "If the contemporary generation had nothing left behind them but these words: 'We have believed that in such and such a year God appeared among us in the humble figure of a servant, that he lived and taught in our community, and finally died,' it would be more than enough," he wrote.

In other words, Kierkegaard dismissed the problem entirely. He could do so because he claimed - in common with many other Christians then and now - that "there is no disciple second-hand". What he meant by this is that faith comes not from the Jesus of history but from a here-and-now encounter with a contemporary Christ.

All we need, therefore, is a record of our ancestors in the faith, beginning with the disciples and ending with our contemporaries. Even if the Bible isn't good history, it's a record of what others believed about Jesus and that's enough. 

This argument isn't conclusive, however. What if the Bible isn't good evidence even about the disciples? What if our records of past Christians are bad history? That doesn't matter, Kierkegaard would reply. We can achieve faith through life-changing contact with Jesus as Christ today independently even of other witnesses. 

Existentialist theologians typified by Karl Barth in the early and mid-twentieth century took a similar line. The Bible, they said, can and must be "tortured" to sort out good from bad history. We must try to discover "what really happened." But historical methods can take one only so far. A point is reached when only "the eye of faith" can see the truth. Faith, then, can validly take one beyond the limits of historical investigation.

Some theologians in the 21st century propose similar escape routes. J P Meier's A Marginal Jew, for example, faithfully tortures, in searching detail, evidence for the historicity of much of the life of Jesus. But he stops short at a certain point in the torturing process. So, for example, he tests the evidence for Jesus' survival after death. But he then goes on to argue that "the resurrection stands outside of the sort of questing by way of historical, critical research that is done for the life of the historical Jesus, because of the nature of the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus is certainly supremely real. However, not everything that is real either exists in time and space or is empirically verifiable by historical means." 

[1] Historical Criticism in A New Dictionary of Christian Theology, 1983
[2] The Historian and the Believer, Van Austin Harvey, 1966

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