Continuing from Part 2 of this series. . . .
In the previous post we followed the way theologians accommodated themselves to the challenges the natural sciences presented the belief in the infallibility of the Bible. They didn’t find it too difficult. After all, the Bible has very little to say about the structure of the solar system, the age of the earth and biological mutations.
A far more serious threat came from the historians:
When doubts began to be case on the historical statements of the Bible, theologians reacted with great seriousness. (p. 67)
Historical statements are central to the Bible. They are not confined to the opening chapters of Genesis.
Many of these [historical statements] were given great prominence in the Bible, and it was felt that they form the heart of the matter inasmuch as it is in and through the events they report that God principally revealed himself and established his redemptive relationship with the world.
Consequently . . . when the historical statements of the Bible came under fire, theologians reacted with great seriousness, and a great deal of attention was concentrated on them. (p. 67)
Historical studies as we understand them are a very modern development. There have been evolutionary changes in the way history has been approached and I will need to follow up this series with further discussions of the influence of postmodernism in New Testament historiography. For now, however, we need to follow Nineham’s concern that we should understand the character of history in the nineteenth century when it first raised challenges to the Bible.
Nineham does not explain Niebuhr’s contribution but it is important so I include this from Wikipedia:
More than all, perhaps, since his conception of ancient Roman story made laws and manners of more account than shadowy lawgivers, he undesignedly influenced history by popularizing that conception of it which lays stress on institutions, tendencies and social traits to the neglect of individuals.
He does encapsulate Leopold von Ranke’s significance:
von Ranke’s aim [was] to uncover the past . . . ‘as it actually happened‘, in distinction, that is, from the embroideries and tacit interpretations of it in the later sources. In historiography as he and his like understood it, there was a high premium on the discovery and identification of the earliest sources and the discounting so far as possible even in them of all elements of elaboration and Tendenz. (p. 68)
(That famous von Rankean phrase wie es eigenltich gewesen here translated “as it actually happened” has been very often tendentiously misinterpreted quite contrary to its evident meaning in the way von Ranke used it; we see this so often as Tim has been pointing out in his posts: New Testament scholars all too regularly appear to rely upon what they hear others say about the concepts they address without any understanding of what their originators meant. Happily in this passage Nineham is focusing instead on von Ranke’s contribution of a discriminating approach to the sources.) read more