chapter  13
Towards a critical realist historiography
Pages 18

Both the philosophical tradition of natural theology that culminated in eighteenth-century Deism, and the Abrahamic tradition of revealed theology that gave birth to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, claim to discern God in the structures of the natural, aesthetic and moral order-of-things. However, according to the latter, God is more clearly discernible in historical events: divine agency operating within creation reveals God more fully than the imprint of the Creator visible in the structures of the created order. The claim that God was incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth means that Christianity is inextricably grounded in historical events that are open to historical scrutiny. According to orthodox Christianity, the life of Jesus was not merely symbolic of an eternal ideal; rather, it constituted, embodied and actualised a unique spatio-temporal event that ontologically established and defined, once and for all, God’s relationship with creation. Consequently history matters to Christians, and does so deeply and profoundly. This partly explains, though perhaps does not excuse, the positivist insistence by fundamentalist Christians that the Bible constitutes throughout a literal record of past events. From the outset orthodox Christianity recognised the diversity of literary forms contained in the Bible: myths and legends, poems and songs, parables and folklore, prophetic pronouncements and wisdom sayings take their place alongside historical narratives. The first Christians were also aware of the complexities of historical reportage, and recognised that it involved seeking to explain the causes of events rather than merely constructing a factual chronology. Thus they adopted four Gospels into the New Testament canon because of the perceived value of their theological explanations of historical events, fully aware in doing so of the problems involved in harmonising their different accounts of the life of Jesus. To say that history matters to Christians is not to suggest that Christian faith is reliant on the results of historical scholarship. The writing of history is, after all, a fallible process, and any work of historical scholarship is open to revision. It is, however, to suggest that the results of historical investigation, grounded in the judgemental rationality of historians, constitute one important thread in the multi-stranded cord through which Christianity strives to affirm its coherence and integrity and clarify its self-understanding. Critical realism has had a relatively limited impact upon historiography, as compared to its influence in other fields such as natural science, sociology and

theology. Gregor McLennan’s critically realist study of Marxism and historical method has not to date generated sustained debate among historians, and surveys of historical methodology and the philosophy of history engage with critical realism, at best, only tangentially (McLennan 1981; Bentley 1999; Burns and Rayment-Pickard 2000; Lemon 2003; Day 2008). Historical study of the New Testament is an exception to this pattern: two scholars, Ben Meyer and Tom Wright, have sought to develop a critically realistic historiography applicable to the historical investigation of the life of Jesus and origins of Christianity (Meyer 1989, 1995; Wright 1992). Their efforts have generated an extensive methodological debate, and stimulated a raft of substantial historical studies utilising the insights of critically realistic historiography (Meyer 1979; Sanders 1985; Borg 1993, 1998; Wright 1996, 2000, 2003; Newman 1999; Denton 2004; Stewart 2008). Neither scholar appears to have a direct relationship with the school of philosophical critical realism inaugurated by Roy Bhaskar; instead, both draw inspiration from the parallel tradition of Christian critical realism: Wright draws directly from Thomas Torrance, and Meyer from Bernard Lonergan. In this chapter we will draw from the work of Meyer and Wright to establish the contours of a critically realistic historiography, using the broad traditions of positivist and idealist historiography as counterpoints in order to tease out its distinctive features. In Chapter 14 we will explore and critique the impact of positivist and idealist historiography on the modern ‘Quest for the historical Jesus’. In Chapter 15 we will present the fruits of Wright’s attempt to develop a retroductive historical explanation of the life of Jesus of Nazareth and its relationship to the emergence of the early Church.