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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament [1]

HISTORICAL. 1 . The word ‘history’ is ambiguous. It may mean (1) the course of events; or (2) any record of the events— a history: or (3) the science, History, which understands the whole. Scientific history is comparatively a young thing; but already educated mankind are tending to refuse the name of ‘a history’ to anything under the second head which does not try to fulfil the requirements of science. What fails in that may be a chronicle, or may furnish useful materials to the true historian, but is not really history.

2 . The aims of the science of history are twofold. (1) It must get at the facts; and to do that it must secure, as far as possible, first-hand evidence; (2) it must study the facts in their development or causation or connexion upon all sides. (1) In its search for first-hand evidence, the science of history has different kinds of material to work with. ( a ) The oldest material for history is tradition. All knowledge of past events lived at first in human memory before it assumed any more permanent shape. But tradition, unsupported or unassisted, is a bad witness. And in our own region there is no real historical tradition apart from the Christian records, etc. What is pretended by Catholicism in that sense is a make-believe, to cover over unwarranted innovations. The furthest admission we can make is that scraps of historical recollection, otherwise lost to us, may survive in Church legends, which were reduced pretty early to writing (the Thekla legend?). ( b ) The best of all witnesses is epigraphy. Biblical learning owes something to this, and may come to owe a good deal more—no one can say. ( c ) The main source of historical knowledge is literature,—human speech reduced to the ordinary forms of writing. Less durable (as well as less stiff) than inscriptions, books are more numerous—so much more numerous, that they enjoy probably a better chance of survival. In our own field the Bible writings, though not absolutely isolated, stand head and shoulders above all other materials in point of importance. This is true on purely historical principles, theories of inspiration apart. ( d ) At the risk of making a cross-division, we must mention the importance of foreign testimony . The amount of this is increasing with modern study and research; and the significance generally attached to affinities between primitive Christianity and other civilizations or religions is also on the increase. (2) The most manifest result of study in the field of history is to give a better knowledge of detail. But we must not allow ourselves to suppose that events occur disconnectedly, one by one, and that the mind of the scientific thinker imposes connexions upon them. Science does not create, it elicits the hidden law; and anything that gives us greater knowledge of events increases our knowledge of the relations in which they stand to each other. Facts without theory are ‘blind,’ if theories without fact are ‘empty.’ The ideal goal of historical study, never, of course, to be reached, would be a scientific grasp of every past event in its full significance—reality completely reproduced in the historian’s intelligence. For the facts with which history deals are intelligent acts and intelligible processes. True, the unconscious tendency of the times may count for more than the conscious, perhaps selfish, effort of the great man. Or what he does unwillingly, as the executive of Providence and the Zeitgeist , may be the most significant and durable of all his acts. Yet history is man’s story; surely, then, man can read it!

3 . The Christian study of Bible documents moves for great part of its way, though hardly to the very end [see below], upon historical lines. (1) Its admitted hermeneutical principle, since the days of Ernesti ( Institutio Interpretis NT , 1761), is the ‘grammatico-historical’— i.e. literal and historical —method. Strictly, each sentence has one meaning, and only one—the meaning its human author designed; the meaning its first readers would naturally apprehend. This principle had to be laid down in face of the Church’s age-long hankering after ‘mystical’ interpretation. If the Scriptures may be allegorized, theology and faith itself rest upon a quicksand. (2) Criticism of the text, by all its methods, aims at discovering, with as much probability as can be attained, the original form of words used by the writer in each passage. It has nothing to do—unless with supreme caution, as possible evidence to the fact—with the question, which words appear to the student most seemly or most telling. Nay, there is a recognized principle that ‘the harder reading is probable’; though we must be able to discriminate the sort of ‘difficult’ reading which suggests a powerful while perhaps erratic mind, from that which rather suggests a blundering copyist. (3) Careful study of the text leads to a further set of inferences, chiefly or entirely drawn from internal evidence, regarding probable date and probable authorship. This is the Higher Criticism—‘higher’ because dealing with larger questions than those of the text. (4) Even in Biblical Theology we are still occupied with the historian’s business. Before all things, we are reproducing past facts. Scripture includes great masses of doctrinal teaching; the Biblical Theologian seeks to put these in shape, as they stand—the affirmations of such and such books, or teachers, or ages. The result aimed at is not Divine truth as such, but various Biblical teachings about the truth; not a normative statement regarding realities which are real, but a historical statement regarding what was held or announced to be spiritual reality; historical, not dogmatic .

4 . An attempt was made by a great theological leader, Schleiermacher, to bring even dogmatic theology under the same rubric. It was to be a branch of Historical Theology. Ceasing to be (primarily) a statement of truth, it was to be a statement of what a certain Church in a certain age has come to hold for true. The suggestion was ingenious, and avoided certain difficulties; but it led to other and worse difficulties. If Christian theology, in its central department, cannot pretend to set forth truth , it proclaims itself bankrupt. It can live upon nothing less than the truths regarding God and His purposes which He has been pleased to make known to us.

5 . What shall we say, then, of the remainder of the Biblical territory? We were dealing, until the last paragraph, with stages in a process of historical study. We found that even doctrine was treated in Biblical Theology as a historical study, although on the systematic or dogmatic side it required us to occupy a different point of view from the historian’s. But what are we to say regarding the history of Israel? Or—coming closer to our ground—regarding the life as distinct from the teaching of Jesus? Or, in general, regarding the origins of Christianity? That which was higher than man or than history has appeared once for all upon the plane of human history. The Word became flesh . Unless this be denied, we have come to a point where the contents of our study burst the bonds of ordinary historical investigation. Difficulty arises in two forms. First, there is the minor difficulty connected with physical miracles. Can history adjust itself to them? If so, how? If not, what are we to conclude? But, in the second place, substantially the same question, issuing in substantially the same alternatives, repeats itself as regards the very kernel of the Christian faith. Have we in Christ, and, to a lesser degree, in His antecedents and environment, a unique Divine revelation, a unique Divine redemption? Then how is the historian to deal with Christ?

6 . The question is more familiar in its less formidable shape, as regards miracles. (1) It may be held that facts convince us of miracle. History makes its investigation, and bears witness. It cannot demonstrate, but it announces a satisfactory probability. This is the attitude generally taken up by British scholars, e.g. in Dr. Sanday’s recent Criticism of the Fourth Gospel (though he has the wider as well as the narrower problem before him). (2) Secondly, there is the claim of dogmatic naturalism—‘miracles do not happen’; for history, the miracle narrative is an interesting and instructive problem, the miracle itself a hallucination a priori , be the alleged evidence what it may. This mood of mind is sometimes confessed, but much oftener is silently at work behind a disguise. (3) There is an attempt by Harnack to strike out a tertium quid  : ‘The historian cannot regard a miracle as a sure given historical event; for in doing so he destroys the mode of consideration on which all historical investigation rests.’ Belief in miracle is due to the ‘unique impression’ of Christ’s person, though ‘there has seldom been a strong religious faith which would not have drawn the conclusion’ that Christ wrought miracles ( Hist. of Dogma , vol. i. English translation p. 65, note). This seems to mean that history is prevented from dealing with miracles by limitations of its own,—limitations which do not necessarily imply the absence of miracle from the world of real events. (4) Against the point of view which excludes miracles a priori , we might set a point of view which welcomes them a priori as congruous to a Divine revelation and Divine redemption. They are only signs—not the Divine content itself; but are they not fit signs?

7 . On a first inspection, none of the views named is definitely anti-Christian unless the second. Naturalism, which refuses miracle out and out, is plainly pledged in logic to deny revelation. But, as we have said, the importance of the whole matter lies in its further implications. The same difficult decision is called for—not face to face with miracle, but face to face with the Christ. And the logic of the third position—the logic which leads Harnack, while believing in revelation, to ban miracle as a thing the historian must not touch—will inevitably be applied by others to Jesus Himself. They will repeat or extend the claim to be historians, thorough historians, nothing but historians. They will describe the teacher of Nazareth, the martyr of Calvary; but the Christ of God will be a magnitude as inaccessible to them as physical miracle is to Dr. Harnack (cf. art. ‘Jesus’ in Encyc. Bibl .). And if he is in the right, who can say that they are wrong? Analysis must go on to the end, and that great stumbling-block, the supernatural, be revealed plain in our path. Even if not formally declared an impossibility, supernatural revelation or redemption will be politely waved aside as irrelevant to the historian .

8 . There is no question more important at the present moment than this. What is, e.g. , a ‘historical’ view of the NT? Is it a view of the NT in its historical actuality, looked at round and round? Or is it a view hampered by the limitations of one of the special sciences? Ambiguity is always dangerous. People omit the Divine ‘Word’ under pretext of the second definition—That lies beyond the historian’s province! But presently they are found implying the first definition. History tells us everything! There is no Divine ‘Word’ at all—no supernatural salvation.

9 . If history does not give full truth, what does? We shall probably be told, Metaphysics. The only court of appeal from ‘scientific fact’ is ‘metaphysical reality.’ Metaphysics is certainly pledged to many-sidedness, to all-sidedness. But the question remains, How far can metaphysics discharge its task? And, again, Can it do justice to the Christian origins? Idealistic interpreters of Christianity are very willing to undertake the championship of the Christ idea ( e.g. Pfleiderer), but their patronage is not extended to the Christ fact. At any rate the majority, and those who know their business best, are found reducing Jesus of Nazareth to a symbol , very vaguely connected with any abiding spiritual reality. To a philosophical interpreter it remains ‘foolishness’ that the Divine Word literally and in deed became flesh . If the professional historian verges upon Ebionism, his philosophical colleague rarely escapes Docetism. Neither of these positions amounts to historical Christianity, which, amid increasing uncertainty in detail, may and ought to have increasing certainty in the fundamental outlines.

10 . In the present writer’s judgment the attempt to make history a special science, too coy or too scientific to deal with a (possibly real) supernatural, is hopelessly artificial. Scientific history must deal with all the demonstrable, nay, with all the probable, events of the real past. This may interfere with the rounded symmetry of the science; small loss, if it gives us wider and truer knowledge! Further, the writer’s own belief is that (not a Christian bias , but) a Christian interpretation is indispensable; or, that experience bears its witness (cf. the fourth position, § 6, as against the first; still, he recognizes that many Christians and many useful theological workers will find themselves able to maintain the first position, and will prefer it). It is perfectly true that faith misleads and over-idealizes (Dr. Moffatt); yet that is a half-truth, or rather it is much less than the half. Better a dazzled faith than ‘blind unbelief.’ Amid superficial errors, Christian faith grasps the essential truth. Amid superficial accuracies, non-Christian historians (and non-Christian philosophers no less) throw away the kernel. The vraie vérité —to a Christian—lies neither in metaphysics nor in the abstract findings of historical science, but in the fellowship of Jesus Christ the living Saviour. ‘This is the true God and eternal life.’

11 . One form of putting this appeal sets the evidence of later Christian history, with its known developments, against the academic modern study of Christian origins. Christ has founded, and must have meant to found, a worshipping Church! The Germans can put this in a phrase—‘der geschichtliche Christus’ versus ‘der sogenannte historische Jesus’ (Kähler). There is a measure of truth in this. Indeed, it is bad history to forget, in studying origins, whereunto the origins grew. On the other hand, the appeal, put forward without qualification, helps the High Churchmen, if not the Ultramontanes. The Church of history is saccrdotal! Protestant evangelical Christians are forced by their faith, by their experience, into a fruitful alliance with sober all-round history. Like the Reformers, we must go back to the primary revelation. Christianity, as the world knows it, is not the measure of Christ, nor His worthy interpreter. ‘Hear ye Him!’

Robert Mackintosh.

Webster's Dictionary [2]

(a.) Of or pertaining to history, or the record of past events; as, an historical poem; the historic page.