Samuel V. Adams. The Reality of God and Historical Method: Apocalyptic Theology in Conversation with N.T. Wright. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015. See here to purchase the book.
A question that has loomed large in post-Enlightenment theology and biblical studies is whether one can derive theological truths from history, particularly a historical study of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Thinkers have pointed out potential barriers to such an endeavor. There is the contingent, changing nature of human reality, including the past, which leads many to ask if timeless theological truths can be derived from history. There is historians’ lack of access to many things in the past. There are also contradictions between what certain biblical scholars have concluded from their historical studies about the history of Israel, Jesus, and early Christianity, and what religious communities and even the biblical texts themselves claim about their sacred history. The response to this was a polarity between history and theology, as a number of theologians focused on a personal religious experience of the divine, set apart from what historians say about Jesus.
N.T. Wright is an influential New Testament scholar. He is also an evangelical Christian, although some of his positions, such as his view on justification, have been controversial among evangelicals. N.T. Wright has addressed the question of the relationship between history and theology. In The Reality of God and Historical Method, theologian Samuel V. Adams critiques Wright’s conclusions, methodology, and focus.
N.T. Wright does believe that history is important for understanding Jesus, for he has sought rigorously to interpret Jesus in light of his first century Jewish context. Wright is not a rigid Christian fundamentalist, but he does appear to maintain that the general picture of Jesus in the New Testament Gospels (at least the synoptic Gospels) is historically plausible, and he contends, though historical argumentation, that Jesus rose from the dead. For Wright, Christians can be inspired and shape their worldview in reference to what the historical Jesus said and did, and Jesus’ resurrection can provide them with an epistemology of love, one that does not just look at bare facts but places those facts in a new light, a light that affirms God’s love for creation. According to Adams, Wright’s views on history reflect realism in that they maintain that there is a reality out there that (on some level) can be accessible to people’s understanding, and yet, like postmodernists, Wright acknowledges the existence of subjectivity and the role of narrative in contextualizing data. Wright, according to Adams, also navigates worldviews: can one account for a Christian belief by looking at what the Christian community itself says, and how does that compare with how an outsider might account for that Christian belief? In addressing such thorny questions as the possibility of miracles, Wright notes that the people who are being studied, the early Christians and Jews, believed in miracles, which may be a way that Wright tries to accept their possibility, while being true to conventional historical methodology.
Adams’ critique of Wright revolves around the reality of God and apocalyptic theology. Apocalyptic theology seems to be divine revelation: God has taken the initiative of revealing Godself through Jesus Christ, and only those who are spiritually regenerated (born again) can see the Kingdom of God. Interacting with T.F. Torrance and Soren Kierkegaard, Adams maintains that humans, by themselves and their own devices, cannot arrive at a knowledge of God. That belief will form a significant part of his critique of Wright, for Wright arguably presents history as a way to arrive at knowledge of God and Jesus. Adams also believes that Wright’s model neglects important considerations: that a new reality in Christ has invaded our own reality and coexists with it, and that this new reality is discontinuous from history and (unlike history) brings life rather than death.
Adams addresses the question of whether he himself neglects or negates the importance of history in understanding Jesus. Is Adams like the theologians who prioritized a subjective religious experience and divorced it from historical methodology? Does Adams’ apocalyptic model present God revealing Godself out of the blue, in a manner that does not relate to what came before (since an event relating to what came before is significant in conceptualizing events historically)? Adams maintains that history is still significant, for God did reveal Godself in a historical person, Jesus; plus, God’s revelation does relate to what came before, since God prepared the way for the coming of Christ. For Adams, historical study of Jesus is still acceptable, but it should be conditioned by an acknowledgment of God’s revelation in Jesus, and the necessity of spiritual regeneration in knowing God. While many may claim that such an approach to historical study is biased, Adams states that all historians have presuppositions and contextualize facts within a story.
The greatest deficiency of this book, in my opinion, is that Adams does not show what historical study is supposed to look like under his model. Is it basically conservative maximalist New Testament scholarship, which maintains that what the Gospels say about Jesus is historically accurate and that the New Testament uniformly proclaims what evangelical Christianity believes (as opposed to there being diversity in thought within the New Testament)? Would historical methodology, under Adams’ model, argue rigorously for these views from a historical standpoint, or simply assume them (since, after all, if you are born again, you get it, and if you are not born again, you don’t)? Can historical study, under Adams’ model, even interact with the conclusions of liberal New Testament scholars, or does it simply dismiss those conclusions as coming from people who don’t get it? Under Adams’ model, is there some neutral ground on which confessional or conservative New Testament scholars can fruitfully discuss Jesus and early Christianity with liberal New Testament scholars, or are people essentially isolated from each other on account of their different presuppositions and whether or not they had a spiritual experience?
A fruitful direction in which Adams could have taken his method would have been to say that God revealed Godself in history through Jesus, and we can try to understand Jesus through historical methodology, following wherever the evidence leads. Adams may believe this, at least partially (I doubt that he would be as open to liberal conclusions as I am), but he did not flesh this out.
Adams was lucid on some points, and rather elliptical on others. He thoughtfully articulated Kant’s epistemology (no small task). He did not focus much on the historicity of events in the Gospels, which is a significant issue in the relationship between history and theology and N.T. Wright’s scholarship, even though Adams did seem to refer to that indirectly (i.e., Adams said that Wright lowered the bar for what counts as historical). Adams’ discussion of Wright did sensitize me to the difficulty of trying to arrive at theological truth with what historical methodology has to offer. At the same time, I wondered at times if Wright already acknowledges some of the points that Adams makes, meaning Wright’s methodology is not as deficient as Adams thinks. I one time heard Wright speak, and Wright was saying that Jesus’ resurrection marked the beginning of a new week, and that this new week coexists with the old world. That sounds to me like what Adams is saying.
I apologize for any misunderstandings on my part in reading this book.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.