Theology is not history

I am back to thinking about theology and history this morning because I just spoke to an adult education group about the problems of writing history from theological texts, and how these problems are confounded when one writes in a field that has privileged New Testament materials, treating them as genuinely more authentic and accurate in terms of history than non-canonical works.

In the process of that conversation (in which I was questioned harshly on whether it is necessary to separate theology and history, as if history were the good guy and theology the bad) I realized anew something about contemporary Christianity. Christian theology has been marketed as historical fact in the churches, and this is the real issue at stake. So what are theological doctrines (virgin birth, resurrection, miracles of Jesus) have to be perceived as facts in order for the faithful to remain faithful. I'm not sure what to do with this, except to put it out here as an observation.

As for history and theology, I continue to maintain that we must perceive these as separate fields. Theology is not history and history is not theology. Theology is a hermeneutic which attempts to take old authoritative texts and read them doctrinally, with the big question at stake: what does this text say to me about my life as a Christian? Theology isn't "bad." Defining it next to "history" just recognizes that "theology" has a different goal than "history". It also has a different set of assumptions, and one is that the laws of the physical world can be suspended: as in dead people can be resurrected and virgins can give birth. The quest for truth operates in a completely different arena from the historical quest for truth, approaching more the realm of philosophy and philosophy's criticism of history than anything else.

History isn't unbiased nor does it give us "the" truth. History is a different pursuit. I am reminded that in Europe, historians like myself characterize their research and writing as "scientific". I have stayed away from this characterization myself, feeling that "science" is the field of biology and physics. So I have used "historical" and "academic" to distinguish the non-apologetic and the non-theological approach to history. But perhaps this has been wrong. Perhaps my European colleagues have it right. History, or perhaps better "the scientific approach to history" is the pursuit that wants to know what happened in the past. The historian is meant to take a position that is not apologetic of a particular past. Its hermeneutical goal should have nothing to do with what the texts mean to contemporary belief patterns, nor should it be apologetic toward those beliefs.

I realize now that this is hard to hear for some believers because the church has fostered the position that its theology is historical fact. This theological position is dangerous in a society where intellectual discussions and historical knowledge is so easy to access. Perhaps the Genesis story has it right after all, that the fruit of the tree of knowledge is the downfall of us all!