The Theological Necessity of an Historical Interpretation of the Bible

By Edward W. Klink III Feb. 15, 2011 12:09 a.m. Biblical Exposition, New Testament, Theology

Because the biblical documents were written in ancient times, in different cultures, and to different peoples, an historical approach to the interpretation of the Bible is deemed necessary. This has become so properly basic that it is nearly an axiom that the contemporary interpretation of the Bible is historical interpretation. Without denying that the Bible is the Word of God, the actual task of interpreting the Bible has become primarily an examination of the words of men. Such an historical emphasis makes theology seem less important, or at best a quite distant secondary concern. John Barton suggests as much when he claims, “There is an important sense in which biblical scholars as such are not and cannot be theologians, for a theologian is one concerned directly with theological truth” (People of the Book?, 54).

Helpful here is an obscure essay by the late Sir Edwyn C. Hoskyns (1884-1937) of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University, entitled “Biblical Criticism a Christian Activity” (in his We Are the Pharisees, 74-79). Hoskyns begins by introducing a growing ignorance regarding the historical interpretation of the Bible. Hoskyns attempts to defend a negative impression of the historical nature of biblical interpretation, but more importantly, to correctly explain its often forgotten roots. By definition, historical interpretation is “to apply a nice, exact, accurate, and precise observation to the biblical literature” (75). Hoskyns explains that historical interpretation is widely regarded as being “shaped and perfected in secular studies and then applied to the Bible,” causing massive discomfort in the church. But, interestingly, Hoskyns rebukes this common assumption: “This picture of the invasion of a perfected study into the domain of the Bible, and its supposed results, is almost wholly untrue. The reverse is, in fact, more nearly the truth. A very good claim may be made that a passion for history and for historical investigation is peculiarly Christian” (76). Hoskyns argues that in sharp contrast from the view that the Bible existed safely and securely in a naïve theological state until the evil history came to prominence, the opposite is more accurate: History became prominent not in spite of Christianity, but because of it. Since Christianity is rooted in certain, important events, the study of history, a tool for explicating history, came to prominence. As Hoskyns explains:

"But it is certain that, for the Christian believer, such a recognition of the importance of particular historical happenings is not imposed upon the Christian religion, but is embedded in its very heart. I would venture to hazard the challenging statement that the modern study of history is a direct product of the belief of the Church, and that the passion for history has spread outwards from the Church into the secular field rather than that it was developed outside the Church and then forced unwillingly upon the Christian theologian, and consequently upon faithful Christians" (77, emphasis added).

While some might be quick to oppose this “challenging statement,” Hoskyns is at least correct to point out that for the Christian the impetus for a historical interpretation of the Bible does not entirely stem from history itself. Rather, it is the work of God in the real world that makes the study of history so important to the study of the Bible. Said another way, for the Christian the historical interpretation of the Bible is a theological necessity. The moment the “Word became flesh” (Jn. 1:14), history became essential to the task of thinking about and proclaiming the good news of the Bible, and it became essential for very theological reasons.

In his posthumously published commentary on the Gospel of John, Hoskyns describes the appropriate posture of a biblical interpreter: “It is no less required of a theologian that he should be an historian than it is of an historian that he should become a theologian” (The Fourth Gospel, 172). For the Christian, the one begets the other. Without taking anything away from the dominance of history in the contemporary interpretation of the Bible, it is important to remember that the contemporary church’s historical veracity has been born out of and should be driven by a theological necessity.

 

  

Comments

  • Matt Wilcoxen Feb. 15, 2011 at 8:28 AM

    Good stuff! This understanding goes far in making biblical studies relevant to the churches and vice versa.

  • Gary Manning Feb. 15, 2011 at 3:35 PM

    Great article, Mickey! Good reminder that historical work is not only helpful in the exegetical task, but theologically necessary.

  • eric oldenburg Feb. 16, 2011 at 6:53 AM

    "... The impetus for a historical interpretation of the Bible does not entirely stem from history itself. Rather, it is the work of God in the real world that makes the study of history so important to the study of the Bible."

    Beautifully stated, Dr. Klink. It's too bad that so many of Christianity's critics stereotype Christians as valuing theology at the expense of history, and that so many Christians act in accord with the stereotype.

  • Edward Klink Feb. 17, 2011 at 8:07 AM

    Eric,

    You make a good point. I am also concerned, however, about the reverse: that too many Christians value history at the expense of theology, especially a history dominated by the discipline of the historical sciences.

  • Daniel Clark Feb. 17, 2011 at 2:36 PM

    Very interesting thoughts.

    The accuracy of the Bible also testifies to the fact that history is so important to the Christian. Throughout the centuries we have preserved the most accurate historical documents the world has.

  • Edward Klink Feb. 17, 2011 at 3:15 PM

    A very good point, Daniel.

  • eric oldenburg Feb. 19, 2011 at 12:05 AM

    You are right, Dr. Klink. I think there is a bit of a divide between the more academic side of society and those that don't have much of a connection to academia. If you are in the academic stream then the temptation might be to value history over theology in order to combat the Bart Ehrmans and Richard Carriers out there. But if you aren't in the academic stream, you may value theology over history because you don't sense any reason to be occupied with history or think that history is something only for those "secular university types." You are clearly on the academic side and so are called to help those that are too focused on history to remember theology. I largely work with people who see the academy as the enemy and so I am called to help them see why history is valuable, even necessary. Quite the balancing act, I'd say.

  • Edward Klink Feb. 19, 2011 at 1:45 PM

    I agree, Eric. It is a balancing act that both sides need to do. Part of my reason for writing this article was to make a connection point.

  • Ben Wilson Feb. 20, 2011 at 12:48 PM

    Nice post Dr Klink! It's the inbreaking of God into history that makes historical interpretation both essential and intelligible...I came across Hoskyn's 'Riddle of the NT' at a used book sale a while back and thought of you.

  • Tyler Fox Mar. 1, 2011 at 9:18 AM

    In no way does Christ or the epistle writers, who; "delivered the faith once and for all", ever state that we need, nor sets up a theology. In fact Christ did much to tear down the theologians of his day (Pharisees).
    Rather Christ thanks God for revealing the truth to the humble and not to those who are wise.
    I agree that a historical and LITERAL interpretation of the scriptures must be taken upon all Christians, or they cannot be Christ's disciples.
    We must examine the Ante-Nicaean writings (all 100 volumes) as an example of how certain scriptures were understood by the Apostolic and Primitive Churches, prior to the Council of Nicaea. If more Christians took the bible literally, they would be more in line with Christians who died for their faith.
    We can easily see how they felt about entertainment, sports, divorce and remarriage, almsgiving, widows and virgins, modest dress, the veiling of women and the uncovered headship of men.
    All inclusively we can easily get a sense of how they viewed the world, and how they literally had to be different than it, in how they behaved, spoke and dressed.
    Early Christians such as Polycarp, Tertullian, Ignatius or even John, James and Paul would never recognize this current trend of Evangelical "selfish salvation" as Christian at all, but rather as Gnostic.
    Would the Theologians please sit down.

  • Al Cummings Mar. 1, 2011 at 1:11 PM

    In interpreting Scripture certain guidelines need to be followed;

    (1) The understandable and natural meaning is usually the correct interpretation
    (2) If the interpretation of Scripture makes the meaning seem absurd, then the interpretation is wrong
    (3) If the interpretation contradicts the general body of scriptural truth, then it is wrong.
    (4) If the Bible is approached with a preconceived thought or idea, the interpretation will not be true.

  • Edward Klink Mar. 1, 2011 at 1:59 PM

    Tyler,

    Your comments suggest that you are very much a theologian. Please take the word in its Christ-centered sense, that right thinking about God is the calling of every man and woman who serves Christ.

    Al,

    You said a lot in your four points. Your first three, however, push strongly against your fourth. It is true that we must not bring something (anything!) foregin to the Bible. That is for certain. However, I wonder if there is a greater danger for which we have no defense: the cultural and personal assumptions we think are quite "understandable and natural" that are actually quite foreign to a good reading of the Bible. It is for this reason, primarily, that we think about what we think about regarding the Bible. It is because we believe in Genesis 3 that we are self-criticial the moment we begin to read Genesis 4.

  • dave ducker Mar. 1, 2011 at 2:50 PM

    The Christian Post is presenting this blog as tackling Biblical Illiteracy. But as a Christian layman the above post is next to worthless and does nothing to improve my Biblical literacy. I get that we should consider the historical context when interpreting Scripture but you offer no evidence to support your point of view, Unless you are really just engaged in a debate with your fellow bloggers and maybe students how about some examples? Give us lay people five places were a historical interpretation makes a difference.

  • krau Mar. 1, 2011 at 8:08 PM

    Dr. Klink,

    I'm not sure where to post this, but I would like to know your thoughts on progressive revelation. What does it mean to Christianity? And does Islam see it as part of their theology?

    Where might I read about progressive revelation in a Biblical context.

    Thank you very much.

  • Edward Klink Mar. 2, 2011 at 9:51 AM

    Dave,

    The article is articulating the evidence for the need to consider the historical context of Scripture: God became flesh. I am not arguing how historical interpretation makes a difference, but that it has become necessary the God entered human "history." Examples of how history is helpful, etc, is a different topic altogether.

    Hope this helps.

  • Edward Klink Mar. 2, 2011 at 9:55 AM

    Krau,

    On progressive revelation read books on biblical theology. You might want to read the dictionary article on "Revelation" by R. Yarbrough in New DIctionary of Biblical Theology.

  • William Chung Mar. 2, 2011 at 12:10 PM

    You the man Dr. Klink

  • krau Mar. 2, 2011 at 12:48 PM

    I will check out that article. Thank you, Dr. Klink.

  • krau Mar. 2, 2011 at 7:59 PM

    More books on biblical theology than I thought! Would you have a suggestion for your top two or three?

  • Edward Klink Mar. 3, 2011 at 9:43 AM

    Hello Krau,

    There are not too many whole-Bible BT books. The two NT theologies I like best are by T. Schreiner and G. Ladd. I do know that Schreiner is writing a whole-Bible BT, but do know know when it will come out. For OT Theology I am less satisfied, simply because I find they often ignore the NT. A popular one, however, might be the OT Theology by W. Kaiser. My colleague and I are writing a book entitled "Types of Biblical Theology" that will be out (hopefully) by the end of next year. That will help you undersdtand the nature and practice of BT as it is currently being practiced.

    All the best.

  • Alice C. Linsley Mar. 24, 2011 at 12:44 AM

    At my seminary this was called Sitz im Leben, knowing the historical setting. It is an important aspect of serious scholarship. That said, many Evangelicals tend to read rabbinic sources when attempting to understand the Hebrew Scriptures and frankly, this is often counter productive, since the rabbis have diverted us from the true Sitz in Leben of Abraham's ruler-priest caste.

  • Edward Klink Mar. 24, 2011 at 9:38 AM

    Hello Allice,

    Yes, a concern for the "life-setting" (Sitz im Leben) of the original documents is often the MO of biblical exegesis. My entry, however, is making sure that the reason the history of the Bible is important is because God entered history. Said another way, history is important for theological reasons. Thus, what facilitates my interest in historical things is not history per se, or history in and of itself, but God and his actions in history. This is very different than the merely beginning with a document and its historical context.

  • Alice C. Linsley Mar. 30, 2011 at 3:45 PM

    And you are quite right, Dr. Klink.

    Among Abraham's people, history was told using king lists, such as we have in Genesis. Analysis of these genealogical segments reveals that the men named were historical persons. That is the only explanation for the consistency of their complex kinship pattern and how it can be traced to Jesus, the Son of God. In other words, the pattern of the ruler-priests must be historical since that pattern could not have been written back into the texts at a latter date. You might be interested in this:
    http://biblicalanthropology.blogspot.com/2011/02/genesis-king-lists.html

  • Edward Klink Mar. 30, 2011 at 9:22 PM

    Alice,

    Thanks for the link!

  • Cathy Cooper Nov. 5, 2011 at 10:30 AM

    I am shocked that you seem to imply that recorded history is due to the influence of Christianity. Have you not studied Chinese history--which is thousands of years in the making--long before the bible came into being? Have you not studied the Sumarians, the Egyptians, the Babylonians who are some of many groups who have a longer recorded history than the Jews? Besides that fact, the so-called "history" of the bible is more likely just stories handed down--as there is no evidence or outside sources which corroborate any claims made.

    Christianity is not rooted in any "events" per say, as none can be shown to have taken place outside of the bible. To be considered history, an event must have "outside sources." The bible does not. Why, even the Romans, who were meticulous record keepers, have no record of Jesus existing.

    How bizarre--that a professor has chosen to ignore the recorded events, i.e. "history"of other groups by implying their religion started it all--when this is not the case at all. The modern study of history is rooted in the recorded events of many groups of people--not just the Christians and Jews.

    And then you say: "...for the Christian the impetus for a historical interpretation of the Bible does not entirely stem from history itself."

    Meaning that history is not really relevant to interpretation of the bible--but then they say it does. Which makes if bizarre that you claim modern historical scholarship is due to the influence of Christianity, when you also say that history is not really all that relevant to the interpretation of the bible. Again, how bizarre.

  • Edward Klink Nov. 6, 2011 at 8:01 PM

    Cathy,

    You seem to have misread and misapplied my statements. In short I am speaking much more about theology than history, and even this is within the context of contemporary Christian hermeneutical discussions.

  • Joshua Justice Sep. 23, 2015 at 10:27 AM

    Dr. Klink,

    Thank you for this article! I am currently starting a teaching series on the life of Flavius Josephus (and his histories) at my church and this article has been most helpful in the introduction of why such a study has importance in today's world. I was wondering if you had any tips on books or scholarly articles which may help me pursue this teaching.

    P.S. I was also curious as to the claims of some that Josephus was himself a christian and as such his works do not count as extra-biblical evidence for scriptural history. I have not found any evidence that he was a christian myself... Do you have any knowledge in this area yourself or know any place I can turn for such answers?

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