The Day Theologians Reacted with Great Seriousness — Use and Abuse of the Bible, Part 3

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

Modern historical studies are generally attributed to Barthold Georg Niebuhr (1776-1831) and Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886).

Barthold Georg Niebuhr aus: Meyers 6. Auflage

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:

Deutsch: Leopold von Ranke
von Ranke

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.)

I have discussed von Ranke’s contribution to the historian’s need to distinguish between primary and secondary sources in two earlier posts: See the subheadings

Between Niebuhr and von Ranke historiography turned to studying institutional and larger social forces (Niebuhr) and understanding the principle importance of sources that were physically present in the time in question against sources that appeared later (von Ranke).

Biblical scholars came to see, therefore, that the Bible’s historical narratives could not always be supported by the primary evidence. Nineham does not cite specific examples but he would have been thinking, for example, of the failure of archaeological finds to unequivocally support the story of a Joshua-led conquest of Canaan. The evidence could more validly be interpreted as a gradual migration.

Treating the Bible like any other literature

Theologians responded accordingly:

When it soon became clear to most people that the accuracy of the historical statements in the Bible could not in all cases be defended, the achievements of secular historians such as we have mentioned led theologians to copy their methods in dealing with historical criticism of the Bible.

So far so good. Again Nineham does not give examples but one can see how Old Testament scholars imitated the scholars of the Homeric epics in attempting to study the biblical writings. Again I have posted on this a number of times but the clearest explanation, illustrated, is Did a Single Author Write Genesis – II Kings? (Demise of the Documentary Hypothesis?)

This all sounds quite good and proper. Surely it is the right approach to approach the Bible no differently from any other ancient literature. But one will begin to discern the problem beneath the surface of it all when one reads Dennis Nineham’s next paragraph:

The ways in which this historical activity was related to the religious significance of the Bible may be pinpointed with the aid of a dictum from A.N. Whitehead: ‘Christ gave his Life. It is for Christians to discern the doctrine.’ The revelation, it was said, was given in events, ordinary, actual, unrepeatable happenings not in principle different from other historical events. What was necessary therefore was to establish the precise historical truth about those events, and it would then be possible to draw from them their revelatory content in a form appropriate to the present time. (p. 68, bolding added)

One can see the motive here, and one can begin to discern what lies ahead if events cannot be found to support key Christian dogma. But problems arose from the beginning:

Under the influence of this sort of view a great deal of learned exegesis became almost indistinguishable from historical criticism . . .

We still see that process alive and kicking today.

Use and Abuse of Analogy

Under the influence of philosophers as unalike as David Hume and F.H. Bradley, the theologians we are discussing worked on what is sometimes called ‘the principle of analogy’, the principle, that is, that nothing should be believed to have happened in the past of a kind which is never experienced in the present. To anyone working on that principle a great deal in the Bible narratives was bound to appear so legendary that the establishment of the historical truth about it almost impossibly difficult; . . . .


That sounds sensible to me. Miracles don’t happen today (at least the sorts of miracles described in the Bible do not happen today), nor have they been noted for our attention since biblical times, and everything operates according to understood natural laws, so we have a strong a priori reason for assuming that this is the way the world has always worked. (Later we will be disappointed to read that Nineham does not go along with this reasoning and prefers a philosophical position that allows room for biblical miracles.)

But Nineham at this point of his discussion does point to an obvious misuse of the principle of analogy in historical Jesus studies:

. . . . and it is notorious that many of the allegedly ‘assured results’ of the biblical scholarship of the period were achieved only as the result of filling up yawning gaps by an unconscious process of reading into the texts contemporary attitudes and motivations. In the classic case of the life of Jesus, that has been definitively documented by Albert Schweitzer. (p. 69 — for the neophyte reader, Schweitzer demonstrated that each reconstruction of the historical Jesus had, in effect, really been a construction of Jesus in the image of the scholar who was shaping the clay.)

Failure of wie es eigentlich gewesen (‘as it essentially was’)

So the theologians were not able to reproduce an ironclad history of what really happened beneath the biblical narratives despite all their scholarly methods grounded in updated historiographical methods and contemporary philosophical ideas. The naïve optimism of scholars had been dashed.

But think of the consequences! If a genuine biblical past could not be established by scholarly/’scientific’ means, then it followed that in those cases there could be no religious significance at all to the biblical narrative.

Recall from above the way theologians interpreted the “historical” events of the Bible:

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.

If God revealed himself in historical events that were the foundation of narratives in the Bible, and we could not recover what those historical events really were . . . . .

If the best solution was for scholars to read into biblical accounts “traits and motivations derived from contemporary culture”, then one had to conclude the impossible, that the Bible’s religious significance derived in large measure not from the Bible itself but from modern minds!

Yes, yes. Scholars know all this. So what’s Nineham’s point?

All this is widely recognized; what has not, so far as I know, been marked is the assumption which underlay and motivated the whole enterprise, namely, that if the biblical events could have been reconstructed ‘as they actually happened’, they would have proved to have a privileged religious status, to be religiously revealing and illuminating in a unique way. (p. 70, bolding added)

How could this possibly have been so? asks Dennis Nineham. These were intellectually rigorous leading nineteenth-century scholars, well steeped in the field of comparative religion.

These scholars who believed they could, with certainty, locate Jesus within a defined historical milieu, would, if pressed to explain why they believed Jesus’ teaching was so significant, would have said that it was

the work of what they used to call ‘religious geniuses’, men who towered so far above others in their insight into the nature and ways of God that that insight . . . is still illuminating and authoritative today. (p. 70)

So they justified their studies with the framework of their topic being so relevant today?

Well then, what if we could have asked them why those teachings should be considered relevant to anyone today, Nineham tells us they would reply

what was propounded or narrated in the Bible ‘found’ them; it validated itself in their experience and that of their predecessors and contemporaries. It was just a brute fact that the words, events and personalities of the Bible, and especially the person and activity of Jesus . . . had proved to speak for themselves, to be lastingly true and timelessly attractive. (p. 71)

By uncovering the real historical events, scholars were assuming (even if unspoken) that they were uncovering the real happenings through which God chose to reveal himself to those religious geniuses of old.

By uncovering the words of the personalities of the Bible as spoken in those historical contexts, scholars were assuming (even if unspoken) that these personalities were religious geniuses and that the words spoken were accordingly of timeless value.

That is, these scholars were working upon the unquestioned assumption that

the Bible itself contained ‘the essence of Christianity’ . . . . or at least data so extensive and so firm that Christianity could be constructed on the basis of them . . . . (p. 71)

Probably many readers of this today would be pulled up to read that. I was.

And as for the importance of reconstructing the real history behind the narratives? An unshakable historical basis would be a sure foundation for understanding and interpreting the religious truths conveyed by the Bible. Nothing could surpass the attraction of being able to ground the Bible in unassailable historical and spiritual truth.

Similar responses to the challenges of the natural sciences and history

We saw in the previous post that the early challenges to the Bible from the natural sciences were defended with relative ease by the theologians.

Theologians reacted with similar confidence and ease — if also with more seriousness — in the face of the challenges of ‘modern’ historical inquiry.

The discoveries within the natural sciences did not overturn scholarly assumptions that the Bible was nonetheless a divinely infallible book; the only question was how one defined ‘infallibility’ — metaphorical truth was always there to pick up the pieces if literal truth was shattered.

As for the challenge from historical studies, well, scholars could decide that the authors of the biblical literature were at best

honest, but simple-minded and ill-educated, primitives,

and at worst, as in the case of St Paul,

serious, if unintentional, distorters of the truth, whose accounts had to be heavily discounted in any attempt at historical reconstruction.

What they had in common

They wanted . . . to be able to find in the Bible the essential content or basis of Christianity, and to find it in a form which should be invulnerable to criticism. (p. 71)


There was a third challenge to come, however. That was the challenge of “Biblical Theology” itself. This is where questions about the historical Jesus — or even the Christ Myth — surface in detail. That will be the topic of the next post in this series.

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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “The Day Theologians Reacted with Great Seriousness — Use and Abuse of the Bible, Part 3”

  1. This things it is not only from today – people who don’t believe in existence of God  want at the Biblie be an ENCICLOPEDY! nOT, THE bIBLE IT IS NOT AN  ENCICLOPEDY TO GIVE ANSWER TO ALL WHO SOME ONE WANT to have – Adrian Johnson


    1. Although I’m not quite certain as to what you’re trying to say, if I understood you correctly than this is not the first time I’ve encountered this kind of thinking. One Christian that I’ve talked to, who’s a hardcore biblical literalist, told me something along the lines of that bible is not wikipedia and I should not expect it to contain all the knowledge in the world. I don’t know why certain Christians reach the conclusion that we skeptics think of the bible in this manner. I don’t reject it for not having all the knowledge in the world on every subject, I reject it for being inaccurate on the subjects it does touches.

      1. Spartacus7 has missed the point, of course. The reason he is trying to excuse the Bible for not being an encyclopedia of knowledge is in order to protect it from the charge of being fallible. Remove from the zone of argument all things that might be fallible so the believer can say the Bible is “really about this zone” and “in this zone it is entirely infallible and the word of God”.

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