Uniting History and Theology

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Seth Heringer
  • New York, NY: 
    Lexington Books
    , June
     2018.
     260 pages.
     $105.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781978700369.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In this provocative book, systematic theologian Seth Heringer challenges Christian scholars to rebel against the modern historical method that “sees itself as the only proper way to access the past” (xvi). He is well aware that in order to do public history, the historical guild has banished revelation and the supernatural in favor of methodological naturalism. But Heringer is not content with a situation in which methodology functionally dictates ontology. The focus of his concern is not really with the state of academic history writing, though ordinary history deprived of any meaningful reference to the supernatural certainly troubles him. It is, rather, with a state of affairs that finds “much of biblical and theological work … so soaked with the practices of the historical method, so geared toward its public understanding of historiography, that it has abandoned any Christian understanding of the world” (xvii).

The following sentences capture the main argument of Uniting History and Theology: “If a historian wants to propose a supernatural cause for a historical event, historical criticism will not withhold judgment; rather, it will destroy such a proposal in its methodological gears. Thus, Jesus cannot have risen from the dead, walked on water, or multiplied loaves. The historical method has clear negative answers to the historical veracity of these stories, for doubt, analogy, and correlation conceptualize a world where such things do not happen and could only be the mythical inventions of primitive people” (178). 

In developing his criticism of the modern historical method, Heringer takes readers on a circuitous intellectual journey. He devotes a chapter to a detailed discussion of how the modern historical method became a “scientific and naturalistic enterprise” as a result of a selective reading of Leopold von Ranke and Ernst Troeltsch. His next chapter explores ways in which representative theologians Martin Kähler, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and N. T. Wright have attempted to combine the historical method with theology. Their efforts have failed, Heringer contends, because neither of them have “explicitly rejected the historical method as a public space from which all historians can work together” (xviii). Then he discusses how several philosophers of history—Arthur C. Danto, Roland Barthes, Hayden White, and Frank Ankersmit—have moved beyond a Rankean historical methodology. While Heringer is not fully persuaded by their constructivist approaches, he draws inspiration from them for the project of articulating a specifically Christian understanding of history.

Heringer appreciates that moving away from critical, public scholarship will be greeted with skepticism and suspicion—indeed, with strong opposition. He anticipates—correctly—that many will consider any attempt to interpret history theologically to be beyond the bounds of respectable historical inquiry. But that does not deter him from arguing that Christians should not concede to the historical guild “exclusive power to determine the rules that control the possible.” Christians, he argues, must reject the historical method, whose “gears … turn with the grease of naturalism,” and “begin to offer theological interpretations of history” (177–78). For Heringer, it all boils down to “whether we will see the world from the viewpoint of Scripture or from the [reductionistic] viewpoint of the historical-critical method” (179). 

Heringer does not advance a theological interpretation of history, much less a full-blown Christian historical method. That would require a major project drawing on the expertise of Christian scholars from across the disciplines. But he does offer a number of markers to guide the future development of a distinctively Christian approach to history. These include: (1) a recognition that history has two levels: events and the stories that historians construct to weave these events into a narrative; (2) a rejection of the notion that the writing of history can ever be neutral or objective (despite the historical method’s more humbled claims that historians’ biases and prejudices can be limited to “acceptable distraction” [192]); (3) an appreciation for the interconnection of the past, present, and future (a linear view of history based on the historical method “blinds itself to realities that connect the world when it limits itself to narrating history only through scientific causation” [201]); and (4) an embrace of historical writing that does not pretend that God does not exist and adopts historical representations “that are “boldly Christian” in their “alignment with the Christian hypothesis and Scripture” (210). 

Uniting History and Theology is based on an impressive reading of texts from both theology and philosophy of history. Heringer’s understanding of historical methodology, however, relies heavily on what could be called the History and Theory perspective (referring to the premier journal of the philosophy of history). He would have benefited from greater familiarity with the work of “practicing historians” who have dealt extensively with matters of Christian faith and history: people like Herbert Butterfield, George Marsden, and Mark Noll, to name but a few. The absence of any reference to the work of Carlos Eire (who challenges the anti-supernaturalism embedded in the historical guild) and especially Robert Orsi (whose History & Presence [Belknap Press, 2016] examines evidence of “abundant” or seemingly supernatural events that convince so many ordinary people that “the transcendent broke into time”) is disappointing.

Heringer reflects a noteworthy scholarly sentiment—which I welcome—that challenges the prevailing reductionistic and naturalistic orthodoxies of the academy. Philosophical theologians Paul Tyson and Michael Hanby, for example, are advancing sophisticated arguments that in some ways parallel Heringer’s overall approach. Academic history does not exhaust what can be meaningfully said about the past. And we need a thoughtful theological interpretation of history that embraces the strangeness and messiness of a past and acknowledges that “the transcendent has indeed broken into time.” In pointing the way for this, Heringer should be commended. But it also must be noted that it is far easier to talk about a new historical method than to produce a work demonstrating convincingly how it can be employed.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Donald A. Yerxa is Editor of Fides et Historia and Professor Emeritus of History at Eastern Nazarene College.

Date of Review: 
December 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Seth Heringer is Assistant Professor of theology and scripture at Toccoa Falls College.

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