Book Write-Up: The Historian and the Believer, by Van A. Harvey

Van Austin Harvey.  The Historian and the Believer: The Morality of Historical Knowledge and Christian Belief.  New York: The Macmillan Company, 1966.

I learned about this book back when I was at Harvard Divinity School.  A friend of mine told me the story of how he was one time browsing at a bookstore, and he was looking at The Historian and the Believer.  A man came up to him and asked, “Are you going to buy that?”  It turned out that the man asking this was Van Harvey, the author of the book!

I decided to buy the book years ago because it looked interesting, and I thought that it might tackle questions of significant concern to me, such as how one can be a historian and a believer in Christ at the same time, when historical scholarship seems to undercut the historical reliability of the Old and New Testaments, in a number of areas.  I didn’t read it until now, however, because I did not have the time, and the book intimidated me a bit: I wondered if it might be too deep for me to read.

Well, I just finished it.  It was actually quite lucid, to be honest with you.  I’m not sure if I grasped everything that Van Harvey said, but I was amazed by how much I was following his discussion.

Let me say this: Throughout the years, I have been dissatisfied with how many people—-in different places of the theological spectrum—-have addressed the conflict between the Bible and history.  Allow me to give you some examples:

—-There are conservatives, who either act as if the conflict does not even exist, or who believe that proving that something in the Bible happened amounts to demonstrating the truth of the entire Christian faith, as if the event somehow has encoded within it the meaning that they ascribe to it, when actually different people can probably interpret it differently.  Moreover, on more than one occasion, when I have listened to the British radio program Unbelievable, and a Christian apologist glibly remarks that (say) the resurrection of Jesus from the dead has as much evidence supporting it as have other events in history, a thought has been in my head: “Maybe, but I’m not being asked to make life-changing decisions based on Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon!”  I’m probably thinking along the lines of a particular point-of-view that Van Harvey discusses in his book, a view that questions whether one can root theological certainties in history, which largely rests on probabilities.

—-Then there are more liberal Christians or Jews who act as if history is not important at all for theology, and thus it should not matter for the person of faith if the Exodus or the virgin birth did not happen.  On some level, I respect such a position, for I tend to be repulsed from fundamentalist notions that the entire Bible has to be internally consistent, without error, and historically accurate for one to have a legitimate appreciation of spiritual values.  At the same time, it seems to me as if common liberal positions are too hasty.  In short, I would have to read a more developed articulation of them for me to accept them, rather than people just blithely saying “History doesn’t matter to theology” as if that should be self-evident to everyone.  How can history be irrelevant to Jewish and Christian theologies, when they traditionally purport to be based on God’s activities in history, such as the Exodus or the incarnation of Jesus?  History seems to me to be very important to the writers within the Bible.  Within the Hebrew Bible, there is the notion that the Exodus was a concrete historical example of God’s power and love for Israel, which is why Israel can have assurance: God has demonstrated God’s power and concern for Israel in the past.  In I Corinthians 15, Paul affirms that, if Christ did not rise from the dead, the Christian faith is in vain.  Whether or not that event occurred was obviously important to Paul!

—-There are people who try to base a theology on historical-criticism.  I remember reading a book by Hans Kung years ago, and it seemed to me as if he was trying to do this: he would sift through the Gospels and identify what he thought was historical, and his view about Christ would rest on that.  The problem is that historical-critics have so many different views about what Jesus said and did, and they disagree with one another.  Can I really build my life on what a scholarly book says about Jesus, when another scholarly book may offer reasons to believe something totally different?  Now, in my fundamentalist days. I would say that this shows that we cannot trust in historical-criticism, and thus we should simply accept the Bible in its inerrancy.  But this approach isn’t exactly reliable either: Why should I assume that the way that I subjectively patch together the different stories and traditions about Jesus somehow gets at how Jesus really was?  I get sick of Christians who dogmatically proclaim that they know Christ, for it’s hard enough for me to know what makes another human being in the here-and-now tick, let alone someone whom we know about from ancient documents.

—-I’m somewhat leery at liberal scholars who dismiss conservative scholarship.  Granted, conservative scholarship may have an agenda, but it does present arguments.  Why not focus on analyzing conservatives’ arguments, rather than simply dismissing conservative scholars as biased?

—-Philosophical naturalism has long bothered me.  I’m referring to the idea that there can be no miracles.  How do we know that there can be no miracles?  And would the existence of miracles necessarily undermine the notion that there are natural laws that generally work?  I get the impression that Van Harvey believes that, if we accept the possibility of miracles, that means anything goes: we had might as well accept every absurd miracle story that has been put out there.  But I wonder if we have to be so rigid, not just in our evaluation of miracle stories in the Bible, but miracle stories in other religions and cultures as well.  Could there be ways for us to determine when a miracle-story is legendary and when it is reliable—-not fool-proof ways, mind you, but ways that look at probability?

Well, these are the sorts of issues that Van Harvey tackles in his book.  After dismantling all sorts of attempts by Christian scholars to deal with the conflict between history and faith, making me wonder in the process if my only option is to say that I can’t be a Christian because the Bible is unreliable, and we can’t even access the historical Jesus, Van Harvey near the end of the book seeks to be constructive.  To be honest, I’m not sure where exactly he ends up landing.  He seems to say that we can live life based on things that we know about the historical Jesus—-that Jesus preached a kingdom and reached out to sinners.  Van Harvey is not a total skeptic, for he appeals to the criterion of embarrassment (without calling it that) as a way to arrive at the impression that the historical Jesus made on people.  Yet, Van Harvey also appears to suggest that stories that are not historically-accurate—-and elements of Christian theology—-can help us to live spiritual lives of humility and appreciation of God and God’s creation.  While Van Harvey seems to believe that people can live spiritual lives outside of a specifically Christian context, he apparently upholds Jesus in the New Testament (and perhaps even in Christianity) as an example to some people of what a genuine spiritual life can look like.  I can somewhat appreciate this, for I am a person who needs concrete examples.  I am also the sort of person who would feel a bit better if religion or spiritual “truths” could be grounded in some foundation or authority.  I’m not sure if we have that after Van Harvey is through, notwithstanding his attempts to be constructive.

Excellent book, though!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
This entry was posted in Bible, History, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.