Posted by: dacalu | 10 May 2012

Scientific History

A friend asked me to say something about scientific history – the largely 19th century idea that one objective narrative of past events may be found and that all reasonable, intelligent people, when presented with sufficient data, will arrive at the same conclusion about it.

The context here has to do with the Bible and whether pre-Modern (<1700 AD) readers would have interpreted it as a scientific-historical account.  I maintain that they would not have, that pre-Modern Christians could and did think it true, important, and salvific – but would not have even asked questions of “objective history.”  I hope they would have been primarily interested in it’s import for their relationship with God and neighbor.

Here is my response, which I thought you might find useful as well.


Probably the core of what I’m talking about can be found in the positivism of Auguste Comte (1798-1857), called the “Father of Sociology.”  For him, things could be positively and objectively asserted about reality.  This is not to say that earlier historians thought their statements were fictitious, simply that they did not think in terms of knowledge independent of context and observer.  “Fact” and “Fiction” in their modern usages date back only to c. 1600.  “Truth” is a much bigger concept that, once again, was probably construed to have meaning in relation to the individual.  Positivism in philosophy and history of science was weakened by Carl Popper (1992-1994) and destroyed by Thomas Kuhn (1962).  In sociology, people like Peter Berger (1929+) maintained that while reality may be independent of observation, religion is in the (necessary) business of shaping how we view reality and no model of history can escape the socially constructed and conditioned worldview.  Kuhn and Berger exist on the edges of the movement called Post-Modernism, which, in philosophy, represents the rejection of a “privileged meta-narrative” or perfect, unbiased perspective from which to view the universe.

In Biblical studies, the important action occurs around the so called “Higher Criticism” or the “Historical-Critical” method of scriptural interpretation.  Medieval scholars thought Biblical interpretation was a communal activity that could only be done by church authorities with the aid of tradition.  Protestants introduced the idea that scripture could be understood individually and began developing systems that avoided outside sources and focused only on the text (hence “Textual Criticism.”)  In the 18th century, modernist Christians (seeking a single preferred meta-narrative) felt that scientific and historical accounts should agree with Biblical accounts.  The higher criticism attempted to use historical and scientific knowledge to refine our understanding of biblical stories.  Many Pentecostal and Reform Christians replied that, no, biblical narratives should inform our science and history.  This got wrapped into Fundamentalism.  (Note how both sides require one winning perspective.)

Roman Catholics (pre-Modern) still think interpretation is contextual and hence tend toward “systematics,” relying on revealed traditional and scriptural dogmas.

Reform Theologians (Modern), especially Carl Barth, tend to think in terms of “dogmatics,” relying on Bible derived dogmas, but constructing a systematic theology.

Fundamentalists (Modern) desire to construct their interpretation solely from the Bible and export the learnings to history and science.  They are highly suspicious of any imported knowledge from history, science, or reason, which can only be corrected by scriptural information.

Mainline Protestants (Post Modern) have generally accepted the higher criticism as a useful critique of the Biblical text, which they believe allows them to see the underlying message better.

Of course, all four lineages of Christianity involve many, many people and wide variation exists.

My thoughts have been informed, largely by college classes on comparative religion, including

Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy
William Paden’s Religious Worlds
Jean Baudriallard’s Simulacra and Simulation

seminary classes on Bible and Theology, including

Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastic Polity
L William Countryman’s Interpreting the Truth
Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God

teaching science and religion, including

Augustine of Hippo’s De Genesi ad Litteram
“The Inspiration of the Bible” The Fundamentals


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