Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Seth Heringer responds to my JTI review of his book, "History and Theology"

When Seth Heringer published his important book, Uniting History and Theology: A Theological Critiqueof the Historical Method (London: Fortress Academic, 2018), I knew it was going to be a crucial conversation partner for those of us interested in the relationship between theological truth claims, the articulation of these, and the task of historical-critical biblical scholarship. So I published a fairly robust but very appreciative review in the Journal of Theological Interpretation (2022, Vol.16 [2], 275-292). (I'm proud to say that I managed to smuggle a Father Ted line in, here, so the essay is entitled: "Down with This Sort of Thing: Seth Heringer and the End of the Historical-Critical Method"! 😁). 

I felt, however, that my review deserved a bit of pushback. I am therefore delighted that Seth has agreed to respond to my review. In what follows he usefully clarifies a number of issues and offers me plenty to think about, for example when it comes to my complaint that his brand of narrative constructivism closes down conversations with those outside his own poetic. 

So, let me hand over to Seth to continue this vital conversation. Please feel free to share this as widely as possible! 


I want to thank Chris for his thorough engagement and insightful comments on my book History and Theology: A Theological Critique of the Historical Method in the December 2022 issue of JTI. His article does a superb job of focusing on key critiques in my larger argument against the historical-critical method. I also appreciate the space he is giving me here to offer some clarification of my arguments and to address some of the constructive suggestions he raises on how the book could be improved.

Places of Agreement

First, Tilling is right to point out that my work would have been improved by adding more direct theological argumentation. Many of my criticisms could have been deepened by adding theological reasoning to my philosophical and methodological focus. I am thankful that others have taken up more theologically-focused work.[1]  I think, however, that the title of the book accurately represents my project of leveling a theological critique of the historical method. I use the philosophy of history and historiography to sharpen and develop my argument, but at core, the critique is theological. It is theological because it says that the historical method as currently practiced is incompatible with Christian commitments. Thus, it is asks Christians to let their theology shape their scholarship. The historical method demands the opposite and forces Christians to pretend or dissemble in order to participate. Christians are unable to see the world neutrally, and the Christian faith, and Jesus, demand us do to the exact opposite. The Christian faith does not ask us to hide our faith and beliefs so that we can participate in discussions about what the world would be like if God could not act in the world. Rather, we are asked to live according to a different wisdom, a different story. The old Baptist chorus, “This is my story, this is my song, praising my savior, all the daylong” cannot be sung neutrally. We have a story and song, and Christians should stop pretending that the world works in a way contrary to that story and song in order to participate in “public” discussions of the past. Although I do not engage as directly with theological arguments as I could, the heart of my argument is deeply theological.

Another place of agreement is Tilling’s suggestion that some of my philosophical work could benefit from wider engagement with criticisms of constructivism and a clearer ontology. Agreed. I am conversant in these areas but did not explore them at depth. My arguments would be enriched with further work and clarification here.

Places of Clarification

Despite some of my constructivist language, I think the historical past existed. Events happened in the past and historians can discuss them. I reject Frei’s retreat from history to narrative. I criticize Kähler for not being clearer about his own historical claims. Historical claims are essential to the Christian faith. One cannot tell the Christian story without claims about Jesus’ death and resurrection in history.

My core understanding of history comes in the first sentence of the Introduction: “History is the combination of events we live and the stories we tell about them” (xi). The reason this two-leveled understanding of history so defines my thinking is that I believe one level (events) exists in concrete reality and the other level (narratives) does not.[2] I use a zodiac analogy to explain this (125). When we look up at the night sky, we see a chaos of stars jumbled together against a black background. Some are closer to others, some are clearer, and some are almost imperceptible. If we stare at them long enough our minds start drawing lines to connect them into shapes and patterns. The stars exist in the sky giving off brilliant light, but the patterns and shapes we create do not exist in the same way. They are interpretations we place onto reality to draw connections and make it more interesting. Similar to this, I believe that events exist in a chaos of the historical past like the stars in the sky, some of them being easier to access and others almost impossible to recover. When we stare at them long enough, we create narratives to connect them in interesting and insightful ways. These narratives don’t exist in the same way as events. Humans create them and lay them on top of events as imaginative constructions. A historian, however, cannot dig in the ground, discover one, dust it off, and say, “ah, now I have found a narrative of history.” Narratives are not those sorts of things.  People cannot gather around, examine together, and discuss narratives as they would an ancient manuscript or statue. There is no surface texture, no tool-marks, no ink-formed words that can be agreed upon through observation.

So as to the question of whether I am a constructivist, at the level of events, no, but at the level of narratives, yes. I do not think narratives exist in reality like events of the past. I do not think constructions like “the Renaissance” have existence aside from in the mind of the scholar. You cannot dig it up and dust it off. These constructions are created by historians according to how they understand the world. They are constructed according to a poetic, a hypothesis, a worldview. They are like the lines drawn between the stars in the sky that have an existence only in the mind of the observer. And different observers will draw the lines differently based on how their minds are predisposed to connect events into beautiful and compelling narratives.

My narrative constructivism has one exception: the plan of God that runs from creation to new creation. This narrative exists because God is the one drawing the lines that connect events together. When God draws the lines, they determine reality in a way entirely unique and unrepeatable by humanity. The problem for humanity is that we have no way on our own to test the narratives we create with this narrative that God has created. I have little confidence that some historians are so skilled and so objective that they can shed their distorting lenses better than everyone else in the world so as to give them privileged access to God’s narrative. And even if they could, we would have no way to know this on our own, for such an assessment needs privileged access to God’s narrative so as to compare it with what historians create. To do this, we need help. We need to see with supernatural wisdom how events are connected. In other words, we need revelation. We need God to reveal to us how the past, present, and future are connected in God’s larger story. This story, once revealed, can and will appeal to many. But it is not one that just arises on its own for it will appear as foolishness to the world. Other stories will fit better with secular minds; naturalism will appeal to their aesthetics.

Places of Minor Disagreement

Tilling has raised the issue of whether narrative constructivism will close down conversations with those outside my own poetic? In other words, have I limited my conversation partners to only other Christians? To answer this question I draw on the work of Hayden White by saying all narratives enter into a contested space seeking a hearing. Each narrative is shaped by the poetic of its creator. So, Christians should enter into this contested space and offer their own, unique poetic that is shaped by the Christian story. If some refuse to hear Christian stories because they do not follow their expected rules for acceptable poetics, there is nothing Christians can do to force the wider public to give their narratives a hearing. What they can do is offer an alternative poetic with unique narratives that connect the events of the world according to what God has revealed. I believe the Christian narratives will offer a broader, more vibrant, meaningful, profound, and exciting view of the events of history. They give the world purpose and erect boundaries around human actions by placing everything in relation to God. Yes, both Christians and non-Christians can agree on some surface-level criteria to judge narratives such as how well they account for historical events, their simplicity, or their beauty. But these criteria will only matter if the larger poetic by which a narrative is created will receive a hearing. The historical method rejects the Christian poetic and the price it extracts on Christians to gain a hearing is too high.

Tilling has some concerns about my use of the word “public” could use refining and perhaps broadening. I use it to reference the state of academic historical inquiry in the world today. I agree with him in that I don’t want the public space to be naturalistic, but it currently is. The historical method as practiced outside theological circles is intractably naturalistic. No supernatural acts or explanations are allowed. So, I would welcome a wider definition of “public,” but I worry that that desire only comes from the Christian side. Academic historical inquiry is not interested in making such a move. Public history requires a poetic that is explicitly anti-Christian. It requires Christians to set aside their central beliefs in order to play by the required rules.

Another inquiry is whether if I have committed a to quoque fallacy by pointing to the practices of some of my interlocutors and saying those actions demonstrate that their arguments are wrong. Although this may be a logical fallacy, it has real-world weight. For example, if one holds that the environment crisis is the greatest crisis humanity faces and then that same person flies repeatedly all over the world for vacation, the sincerity of that belief come into doubt. Or, if one believes that historical investigation is done according to a certain method, but then one fails to follow that method, then we have to ask why and if there is a problem with the method itself. The ease by which beliefs translate into reality, and how well methods are followed, gives insight into how strongly beliefs are held and how well methods work.


I have not responded to every point Tilling had made, and I am truly thankful for his engagement with my work and the suggestions he has made for paths forward. I hope to follow up on many more of his suggestions in future work. The best way to end this response is to quote from the Conclusion of my book because these words summarize what why my argument is theological and why poetics and narratives matter for how we think about history as Christians.

This book has shown that that an explicitly Christian replacement is needed for the historical method. The patterns it draws between the events of history form a very different picture than the patterns drawn by the Christian hypothesis. Or to return to my earlier analogy, when Christians look up at the stars of the past, one of the pictures we see is a king that revolves around the Polaris-like star Jesus Christ. When the historical method looks at the stars of the past, Jesus’ star does not shine with any particular splendor, and the picture of the king is nowhere to be found. So when Christians speak of history, we should speak about the fire we see in the sky and the beauty of the lines that connect it, not set aside our star and our king so that we can participate in a method that will never allow its practitioners to see either. The cost of such pretending is too high, for eventually the new star-gazer will approach, point to Jesus, and ask, “But what do you see?” And here, hopefully, the answer will come in the form of the Christian story, not scientific neutrality (210-11).

[1] As Tilling had pointed out, one book more explicitly theological is Adams, Samuel V. The Reality of God and Historical Method: Apocalyptic Theology in Conversation with N.T. Wright. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015. Another book that offers a theological argument against naturalism in historical investigations is Sarisky, Darren. Reading the Bible Theologically. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

[2] Tilling encourages me to think more about the ontology I am working with in this distinction. I agree more could be said here. In short, although I acknowledge that non-physical things exist, I am making a distinction here between things that exist apart from the human mind and things that exist as constructed by the human mind. At times the boundaries can blur, but surely this distinction has some explanatory power.


At 4/26/2023 3:42 AM, Blogger Deane said...

"We need to see with supernatural wisdom how events are connected"

Ah - so you advocate doing theology and not history. Back to the future!

At 4/29/2023 9:55 PM, Blogger Shaunna said...

What a great example of people with differing perspectives who can challenge each other through respectful dialogue. This type of interaction between author and critiquer is a lost art and so refreshing....we all benefit from this type of exchange.

Great feedback/rebuttal Seth. I appreciate the conclusion you quoted from the book! Excellent work!


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