Why “history” matters in the Scriptures

I’ve seen notice of a podcast with an LDS scholar, which will apparently discuss the issue of genre within the Bible, and which apparently makes the claim that:

Despite comfort with parables, some Christians become unsettled thinking about elements of the Bible as being non-historical. [The guest] points out that this hesitancy is inherited from Enlightenment thinking, which regarded revelation as truth and truth as scientific or historical fact.

I’ve seen this claim and ones like it multiple times; I briefly touch upon some of these claims here. Related claims tend to revolve around the idea that ancient peoples did not adhere to modern standards of historiography, that the “truth” or spiritual value of scriptural events does not depend upon them being “historical”, and that this is simply a matter of modern biblical scholars learning about different genres and their literary markers.

As a summary of the issues, however, this is incomplete and distinctly less than accurate. Indeed it seems to omit precisely what is of most importance to people and what is of most consequence to our understanding of the scriptures and God

It’s true that many people in the past didn’t adhere to modern standards of historiography. But that’s also irrelevant: when most moderns talk about “historicity”, they’re not talking about historical conventions, or even about accuracy in the details, they’re talking about whether particular events actually happened or not.

Now, on some topics, the reality of particular events may not have much consequence, and we may indeed be able to be inspired equally whether that thing happened, or whether it is simply like a parable. However, there are some subjects where the question as to whether something happened or not matters. If, for example, there were no historical person called Moroni, then who appeared to Joseph Smith? If the Nephites or Lamanites did not exist, how can their descendants be spiritually and physically restored? If Christ did not appear post-resurrection at Bountiful, than how can the Book of Mormon be an additional witness of his resurrection? And if Christ did not rise from the dead, then how can we be resurrected and what hope is their in the Christian gospel?

That last concern, of course, was famously discussed by Paul (1 Corinthians 15:14-19), who lived some time considerably before the Enlightenment. The eternal significance of some events depends a great deal on whether they happened or not, and people have indeed considered this issue long before the Enlightenment rolled around. Claiming people’s concerns are simply an artefact of the thinking of that era is a way of dismissing, rather than addressing, the issues involved, issues which can have significant consequences on our understanding of the gospel, or whether there is a gospel at all.

It is also less than accurate to depict academic biblical studies as simply following generic markers. There are varying views within the academy on a range of such issues. However, key individuals within biblical studies have sought to depict events like the resurrection as non-historical, and these arguments have not rested solely on the issue of genre. Indeed, in some cases, their ideas of biblical genre have been considerably influenced by their other ideas and beliefs. Rudolf Bultmann’s rejection of a literal resurrection and his project of “de-mythologising” the New Testament, for example, rested in significant part on his conviction that modern peoples (presumably including himself) could not believe in such events (or as he put it: “We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament”).* It is as inaccurate to characterise this approach as emerging simply from genre of the New Testament writers, as it is to depict such issues as having no real spiritual consequence.

 


* Some of Bultmann’s successors (at least amongst some internet commentariat I’ve come across) seem to believe that ancient peoples could not possibly believe such things either. However, as far as I’m aware, biblical studies generally still accepts that many past peoples believed in supernatural events, and of course later ancient readers, including Jesus himself, certainly did.

 

The Conductor of History

And now I say, is there not a type in this thing?

(Alma 37:45)

When reading the scriptures, types and typology are perhaps one of the most elusive but rewarding things we can discover. Particularly when reading those passages others might dismiss as simply “stories”, we should pay attention not only to what principles those stories might teach us, but also the ways that people, objects or events may be a ‘type’ that prophetically prefigures a future or eternal ‘antitype’. Thus ‘all things which have been given of God’, such as the Law of Moses or the bronze serpent of Moses typify Christ (2 Nephi 11:4, Alma 25:15, Alma 33:19). The Liahona not only guided Lehi and his family to the promised land, but serves as a type of ‘the words of Christ’ which can guide us ‘beyond this vale of sorrow into a far better land of promise’ (Alma 37:38-45).

A crucial thing about types is that these are not allegorical or symbolic readings, an artifact of either the writers or the reader. Rather the idea of types is founded on the conviction that – just as God can communicate directly through revelation – He can also reveal Himself and His works through everyday and historical events. Thus God on some level orchestrates these events so they may teach His intended messages, in some cases to audiences very far removed in space and time from the original events.

This idea of God orchestrating events to this level might be a trifle unsettling to Latter-day Saints, who obviously also have a conviction of human agency. Some might wonder how, even with God’s perfect foreknowledge of all things, God can be ultimately in charge of what happens. The idea of God as the ultimate ‘author’ of human history may appear to give insufficient acknowledgement that – unlike the fictional characters of an author who think, feel and act at the author’s whim – God has permitted us the power and ability to act for ourselves.

I was thinking about this when my mind lit upon an analogy that I feel fits better, that of God being the conductor of history. He, through His own choice, doesn’t control the musicians as puppets and we are not mere extensions of His will. But he knows us, and has past, present and future continually before His eyes. And thus, though he grants us agency, he remains in control of the final piece because he does dictate when and where we play.

The Myth of Progress

Very often – both in mainstream news commentary and in the undergrowth of internet comments – one hears remarks about the ‘right side of history’. Likewise there are frequent assumptions about ‘progress’ – that certain things will be utterly accepted a hundred years from now, or rejected or whatever. Underlying all this is an assumption that history is progressing in a linear direction towards some destination. This is not a new assumption – both the Whig and Marxist theories of history did the same thing, and both arguably took religious predecessors and stripped them of their theology. Yet the assumption is also false.

The idea of continuous and inevitable progress can’t even be sustained in the field of technology, where perhaps one could make the greatest case. It takes longer to get to New York from London than it did 30 years ago, and technological progress in aviation was far more startling in the 40 years from 1929 to 1969 than in the 40 from 1969 to 2009. Technological improvements have their sudden spurts, but also have their plateaus. They also have their regresses, as the loss of certain techniques following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire demonstrates.

The assumption of ‘progress’ in political or social fields is even more questionable. Something can be socially acceptable in ancient Greece, unacceptable in Medieval Europe, and accepted again centuries later. Which was the move in the ‘right’ direction? Democracy can appear in ancient Greece, be disdained as akin to anarchy for millennia, and then reappear again – is it on the ‘right side of history’? Empires rise, but they also always inevitably fall. The very assumption that one set of political or social standards is ‘right’ presupposes an absolute scale of values – but many of those who use such language reject the existence of any transcendental being or state that would necessarily have to underpin those values.

For those of us who do accept such a transcendental reference point, there’s nothing to imply that humanity is always moving in that direction. To take a more specific example, the scriptures show a humanity that drifts in every which direction – a humanity that fell from the presence of God, and then moves even further away as mankind becomes ‘carnal’ and ‘devilish’ (Alma 12 & Moses 5). A mankind that then engages in a cyclical pattern of history of pride and apostasy, on a national and I would argue an individual level. Neither the Deuteronomic History nor the Book of Mormon depict an ‘onward and upwards’ glorious pattern of progress, but rather an constant cycle that if anything trends downwards. Nor are the scriptures positive of our own period in history (D&C 1 & 45), and likewise the record of our own recent history should humble us: the record of totalitarian genocide in the 20th century and the world wars are a stumbling block to anyone who concludes we’re inevitably making ‘progress’.

Appeals to ‘progress’ or the ‘right side of history’ are founded on a myth, and attempt to short-cut any arguments of reason or morality by effectively arguing ‘this is inevitable, this is the way it’s going to be, why fight it?’ But history twists and turns on itself, and just because something is going to happen doesn’t make it right, or mean we should concede to it, or mean that ultimately there is no turning back. And – however long it takes (and it may take centuries or millenia), sometimes it takes turning back to make ‘progress’, if one has been moving in the wrong direction.