Friday, December 28, 2007

Principles of Historical Criticism, Part I

[Part four in the Scripture and History series.]

At the end of "Miracles and History" I quoted this:

The result is that miracles are not logically absurd, nor historically impossible and therefore the wedge between history and theology (i.e. the supernatural) is unfounded. This does not mean that every report of a miracle is as probable as the next. One must critically examine the historical evidence. As concerns the Gospels this is a welcome study. Many principles have been enumerated for doing historiography and critically examining the miracles recorded in the Gospels. In the next section we will briefly state some accepted, sound guidelines for doing historiography . . .
from "The Historical Veracity of the Resurrection Narratives" by Greg Herrick (see An Introduction to Christian Belief: A Layman's Guide for his systematic theology). This is the primary article I am going to follow for this, and the next, parts of the series. Right now we start out with . . .

Ernst Troeltsch

Herrick examines Troeltsch's principles from "On Historical and Dogmatic Method in Theology" [definitions from "Bibical Miracles: Fact or Fiction?"]:

  1. methodological doubt and criticism: “ the realm of history there are only judgments of probability, varying from the highest to the lowest degree, and that consequently an estimate must be made of the degree of probability attaching to any tradition” (Troeltsch). Brantley, in the linked article:
    Obviously, this approach precludes the possibility of complete, historical accuracy of the biblical text.
  2. analogy: the key to historical criticism. This idea suggests that all legitimate, historical phenomena must have a present-day analogy. Underlying this principle is the uniformitarian assumption that all events in history are similar. Consistent with this assumption, a historian dismisses as unhistorical any recorded event that transcends the experience of contemporary humanity. [Troeltsch] rejects a priori the factuality of unique, miraculous events such as Jesus’ resurrection, since no analogous event occurs today.

  3. correlation: “...knit together in a permanent relationship of which everything is interconnected and each single event is related to all others” (Troeltsch). In other words, all historical events form a unified web of immanent causes and effects. Every event must be interpreted “...within the context of the whole of history in terms of its causes and effects, its antecedents and its consequences”. Brantley again:
    This principle views history as a closed continuum of natural causes and effects, which eliminates the possibility of a transcendent God’s entering into
    human history. Yet, that is what the Bible is all about
Herrick had far less difficulty with principles one and three - methodological doubt and correlation - than Brantley did:
Most [historians] would agree . . . that historical knowledge is only probable . . . and that the principle of correlation makes sense out of past events, causes, effects, internal probabilities, etc
His problem with analogy is only if it is taken as an absolute:
The principle of analogy . . . states that all events in present experience are similar to those in the past, otherwise the study of history would be impossible, since it proceeds by way of comparison of the present with the evidence from the past. To this principle all would agree except when uniformity is exalted as an absolute. To this few would subscribe. This leads to an a priori ruling out of certain kinds of evidence.

The point of view that applies Troeltsch's principles to the historical evidence allowing only for natural causation is known as historicism . . . As Krentz says, "The historicist view, modeled on the laws of natural science, expresses itself in the exclusion of God as a causative factor and in the denial of the possibility of a miracle." Now, we have already argued above that such an a priori stance against the supernatural is dogmatic in nature, indefensible and indeed an illusion.
Herrick deals with two criticisms of a methodology which does not a priori remove the possibility of the supernatural:
  1. "it will destroy historical inquiry since it undermines the principle of analogy." Herrick quotes C.S. Lewis from On Miracles:
    But if we admit God, must we admit a miracle? Indeed, indeed, you have no security against it. That is the bargain. Theology says to you in effect, 'Admit God and with him the risk of a few miracles, and I in turn will ratify your faith in uniformity as regards the overwhelming majority of events.' The philosophy which forbids you to make uniformity absolute is also the philosophy which offers you solid grounds for believing it to be general, to be almost absolute. The Being who threatens nature's claim to omnipotence confirms her in her lawful occasions. Give us this ha' porth of tar and we will save the ship. The alternative is really much worse. Try to make nature absolute and you find that her uniformity is not even probable . . . You get the deadlock as in Hume. Theology offers you a working arrangement, which leaves the scientist free to continue his experiments and the Christian to continue his prayers (italics [Herrick's] except in the case of the term "almost")
  2. "miracles are so contradictory to human experience so as to be absurd. This is false and remains the premise among many who deny miracles. If miracles were contradictory or absurd, we would not be able to identify them or talk about them at all. A better idea is that they are contrary to normal human experience, but not contradictory or absurd, logically speaking" - Herrick
Next time, we will look at what Herrick calls "A Better Approach":
The principles that Troeltsch outlined, when practiced from a worldview that allows for the supernatural, are extremely helpful in evaluating the evidence in order to reconstruct the past.

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How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
1. The Golden Rule
2. You cannot read minds
3. People are not evil
4. Debates are not for winning
5. You make mistakes
6. Not everyone cares as much as you
7. Engaging is hard work
8. Differences can be subtle
9. Give up quietly