In its December 2011 issue Christianity Today carried an interview with Craig Keener, a New Testament historian teaching at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is the author of a recent book, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts. Keener has a quarrel with most of his colleagues, who tend to dismiss these accounts as legends rather than actual facts. He recommends jettisoning the “naturalistic tradition” of modern historical scholarship and dealing with miracles as alleged facts to be investigated for their veracity just as all other facts that historians come across. He points out that the “naturalistic tradition” originated in Europe in the modern era, when none of these scholars had ever witnessed a miracle. The situation is different today. Keener spent time in Africa, where Christians claim to witness miracles in their everyday lives: “Extraordinary things are taking place around the world”.
I am not concerned at this moment with whether miracles are to be taken as empirically real, be it in New Testament times or in Africa today. Rather, I want to address the question of the “naturalistic” assumptions of modern historical scholarship. Keener is of course quite right about this: For the last three hundred years or so historians have come to think of their craft as a branch of science. This means an intellectual discipline with specific canons of procedure. Among these is the norm that every statement about the empirical world should be subject to falsification: The historian must allow others to examine and, if indicated, to reject the evidence on which he has based this or that statement. Obviously this presents a challenge to a historian who, as a believer, regards the text under examination to contain divine revelation. This challenge constitutes the great drama of modern Biblical scholarship.
Can the Bible (or for that matter any other text claimed to be revelatory) be studied in any other way? It definitely can. The theologian will extract from the text propositions that cannot be falsified. So will the preacher, who has to address an audience with no interest whatever in scholarship. There could also be an individual, perhaps an agnostic, who is interested in the text simply for its literary quality. The historian, who defines his approach as scientific will come to the text in a very distinctive way.
Modern science has achieved high credibility and prestige, not only for its intellectual plausibility, but because of its immense practical successes. Modern science, and the technology it has made possible, has fundamentally changed the circumstances of human life on this planet. One result of this has been the ideology of scientism, which asserts that science is the only valid avenue to truth. On the part of believers there has been the understandable impetus to present belief itself as being based on science. The prototypical figure in this has been Mary Baker Eddy, founder of a denomination aptly called Christian Science, with Jesus transformed into someone called Christ, Scientist. Not only does this do violence to the Jesus found in the New Testament, but equally so to science as an intellectual discipline. In the same line there have been attempts to establish a Christian economics, a Christian sociology, and so forth. Such constructions are as implausible as a Christian geology, or a Christian dermatology.
But there is something more fundamental involved in all of this: The refusal to accept the fact that there is more than one way to perceive reality.
The most eloquent expression of this fact is the opening paragraph of Robert Musil’s great novel The Man without Qualities (in my opinion one of the most important novels of the twentieth century, because it painstakingly seeks to describe the nature of modern man and the possibility of religion in the modern world). The paragraph begins with the sentence “A barometric low hung over the Atlantic”. It then goes on in the tones of a scientific weather report, to end with the sentence “It was a fine day in August 1913”. The point here is both simple and profound: There is no way of deducing the last sentence from the meteorology that precedes it.
Currently, at least in America, the drama of science and religion has played out in the controversy over evolution. Christians who believe that the account of creation in the Book of Genesis is literally true have sought to discredit the theory of evolution—and they have called this exercise “creation science”. This worldview is hard to maintain in the face of the empirical evidence, but whatever it is, it is not science. Things are a bit more complicated with a follow-up approach—that of “intelligent design”. This centers on the proposition that it is impossible to look at the exquisitely constructed physical universe without concluding that there must an intelligent creator at its foundation. Now, this is a proposition that any believing Jew, Christian or Muslim will agree with. Even an agnostic physicist might be swayed by it. But the proponents of ID have called their conclusion “scientific” and have gone to court insisting that it should be taught in public schools as an alternative to conventional evolution theory. I think a federal court was right in rejecting this claim, calling ID not science but a thinly disguised affirmation of religious faith.
Back to the historian: If he wants to claim the status of “science” for his discipline, he has no alternative to following in the “naturalistic tradition”. The acts of God (miraculous or otherwise) cannot be empirically investigated or falsified. How the historian then looks at the same phenomenon, such as a Biblical account of ancient events, will obviously depend on his theology. If he believes in Biblical inerrancy—every sentence is literally true—he will definitely have some serious problems. But there are other, more flexible ways of looking for revelation “in, with and under” the Biblical text. In that case, even the most rigorous historical scholarship cannot undermine the approach of faith.