What Athens needs from Jerusalem: the theology of facts vs the theology of rhetoric writ large (part I of III)

12 Sep
Some better, some worse, all wrong?

Some better, some worse, all wrong?

For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”—Acts 17:31

And that goes for the philosophers as well.  Here it is particularly noteworthy that it is within the context of a discussion of the resurrection and the publically known fact of Jesus’ empty tomb, in Acts 26, that Paul insists that what he is saying is “true and reasonable”.

I think this is the most ambitious and far-reaching argument that I have attempted to make thusfar on this blog.  I hope for some interaction.  In short, this series posits that it is only the Christian church, among seriously vying intellectual competitors, that avoids the philosophical extremes, seen in ancient and modern times respectively, of “essences without history” or “history without essences”.  I even think that this helps to make sense of the “analytic vs. continental” divide in the discipline of philosophy that was recognized about a century ago (hear this program for a primer on this).

“though the Bible is many things, it is substantially a work of history.” –Encyclopedia Britannica

“though the Bible is many things, it is substantially a work of history.” –Encyclopedia Britannica

Now, despite the title of this blog, I think it is possible that the series which follows could get me labeled as some kind of rationalist (or romantic!), so let me start by reiterating something I said not long ago:

I trust God, by the power of His Holy Spirit, through the words spoken by the Church, which is in line with the Church of the past (particularly “Apostolic Fathers”), which is in line with the Apostolic Deposit in the Scriptures, which is in line with the Old Testament prophets.”* (you can add the “Apostolic Deposit [come down from Jesus Christ] in the Scriptures” there.  If you want to hear more about and see the context of that remark, see the two posts here and here)

Let me start with a bit of prolegomena (this is a “preliminary discussion”). Consider this quote from Hans Ulrich Bumbrecht, professor of Romance languages at Stanford University, from his 2004 book “Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey”:

What I want to say….is that there is probably no way to end the exclusive dominance of interpretation, to abandon hermeneutics… in the humanities without using concepts that potential intellectual opponents may polemically characterize as “substantialist,” that is concepts such as “substance” itself, “presence,” and perhaps even “reality” and “Being”.  To use such concepts, however, has long been a symptom of despicably bad intellectual taste in the humanities; indeed, to believe in the possibility of referring to the world other than by meaning has become anonymous with the utmost degree of philosophical naivete – and until recently, few humanists have been courageous enough to deliberately draw such potentially devastating and embarrassing criticism upon themselves.  We all know only too well that saying whatever it takes to confute the charge of being “substantialist” is the humanities on autopilot (bold mine, quoted in Armin Wenz, Biblical Hermeneutics in a Postmodern World: Sacramental Hermeneutics versus Spiritualistic Constructivism, LOGIA, 2013)


In other words, almost no one today in the academic world is a “substantialist”, or we might say “essentialist” –  to suggest that there are things in the cosmos that have firm categories of being, or essence, or substance, is anathema, for the universe is in flux.  To suggest that some of these things have an objective meaning or purpose we can discern takes even greater hutzpa.  Now, it is likely that some in the fields of the humanities see what has become their arch-nemesis, science, as being “essentialist”, however one notes the primacy (and difficulty) of interpretation in the modern sciences as well: to speak of essences is to speak of atomic particles, and not things we regularly see and experience in the cosmos, like males and females, and marriages and children, for example.  More importantly, the particles and assemblies of particles might “mean something” in a purely material sense – showing themselves to have a certain order and predictability – but a greater purpose in those things that contain them can only be a total mystery (I talked about the despair this creates here).

In many respects, the intellectual realm is no longer a battle over ideas about what things mean at all – for they either mean nothing or cannot be discerned by us – but merely over economical and political power for ourselves and those we choose to associate with.  Beyond any similar impressions we might receive from the cosmos, we have no common categories of intrinsically meaningful things, and ultimately, we – our wills – are the endgame (see this excellent recent piece by First Things editor R.R. Reno).  The notion of a fate-overcoming progress in a history that is “going somewhere” – untethered from its Biblical roots – leaves us with no other salvation.   Which of course, as will be more readily discerned in more difficult times, is damnation.

Let us keep this in the background as we move forward…

Where did I come from?

Where did I come from?

“Where did I come from?” 

As kids get older, those given to moments of reflection understand that where we come from – even beyond biology – is one of life’s central questions.  We need to be indoctrinated – ironically often by “universities” (from the Latin “universitas” – pertaining to the whole) – to think otherwise, namely that this historical question does not need to be connected to everything else in life.

Therefore, when, for example, the “happy atheist” P.Z. Myers asserts that there is no evidence Jesus Christ ever existed (hear the soundbyte here) – much less that He really did and claimed to be One with the Creator God and rose from the dead – should the Christian apologist who responded to him find his “appalling” lack of historical knowledge surprising?  After all, ever since the “scientifically minded” began to appear on the world scene, the role of accounts of the past handed on through time, were, relatively speaking, not very important to them.  Generally speaking, the question “What does Athens have to do with Herodotus (the “Father of History” according to Cicero)?” is a good one.  Part of the appeal of philosophy, known as science in its day, was that it could produce knowledge of real significance apart from trusting historical accounts that seemed suspect and even harmful to close observers of the material world and human nature (particularly certain mythologies).*

P.Z. Myers: No serious theologian will agree that the Gospel accounts were written by men contemporaneous with Jesus.

P.Z. Myers: No serious theologian will agree that the Gospel accounts were written by men contemporaneous with Jesus.

This “Athens vs Herodotus” point is also true for the stunted step-child (in that it inherits philosophy’s all-encompassing claims) of ancient philosophy, modern science (based on experiment and observation in the present).  When Darwin developed his theory, for instance, it certainly made the importance of giving an account of the past more important, but no kind of controlling narrative could be hoped for that had been reliably passed down through history.

A good metaphor for knowledge of the ancient past (“prehistoric”) if seen only through modern science

A good metaphor for knowledge of the ancient past (“prehistoric”) if seen only through modern science

In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy it talks about how the discipline of the “philosophy of history” asks the following questions:

“(1) What does history consist of—individual actions, social structures, periods and regions, civilizations, large causal processes, divine intervention? (2) Does history as a whole have meaning, structure, or direction, beyond the individual events and actions that make it up? (3) What is involved in our knowing, representing, and explaining history? (4) To what extent is human history constitutive of the human present?” (

There are questions that will seem unavoidable to many of today’s serious thinkers…  Curiously, the entry also says the following:

The concept of history plays a fundamental role in human thought. It invokes notions of human agency, change, the role of material circumstances in human affairs, and the putative meaning of historical events. It raises the possibility of “learning from history.” And it suggests the possibility of better understanding ourselves in the present, by understanding the forces, choices, and circumstances that brought us to our current situation. It is therefore unsurprising that philosophers have sometimes turned their attention to efforts to examine history itself and the nature of historical knowledge.

What is surprising though is that no serious philosopher seems to have really seen these matters as really significant when it comes to doing philosophy until about the 18th century, or arguably, a bit later (particularly with Hegel) – when the Enlightenment (and Romanticism after it) ran with the Christian idea that man was not subject to the blind forces of fate (and today: essences/nature itself?).  Again, for them, historical problems were one of the reasons for doing philosophy.  It was those who produced the Bible, not the earlier philosophers, who practiced something resembling the kind of history Herodotus and other Greek historians practiced (particularly, but not limited to, the Biblical author Luke).

Circumstances rule men; men do not rule circumstances. —Herodotus, Histories 7.49

Circumstances rule men; men do not rule circumstances. —Herodotus, Histories 7.49

The sub-title of this post speaks, in part, of the theology of facts and the theology of rhetoric.  What does this mean and how does history figure in to it?  This is what the next post will explore in more depth, but here is a start: for the mid 19th century Lutheran theologian August Friedrich Christian Vilmar, a passage like Acts 17:31, seen above, would not just be used in the process of creating theology, but would be theology itself.  It is such simple and humble theology that saves.

He writes: “The knowledge of God which calls itself theology is at the same time a speaking from God.  And speaking from God goes forth into the world, into human life.”  This is the theology of “facts”.


Now, as has been briefly mentioned – or alluded to – in some recent posts (see here, here, and here), insofar as we are dealing with the matter of the concrete real world mattering, Aristotle is to be preferred to Plato among the philosophers.  Again however, there is an area where Plato, Aristotle, and most all modern philosophers fall down, and that has to do with the matter of how physical matter is not only important, but is so in a way that is tied in with what has happened in past time, and with particular knowledge of the past that has come down to us.  What this means is that the knowledge that is important – that is of very real weight and significance – cannot just be gained in the present from universally recognized principles – or the “universals” as opposed to the “particulars”.  Rather, the past also holds us accountable – and has very serious implications for the question: “how shall we then live?

?!: the destruction of historical security is necessary in order to reach pure faith and certainty of salvation-Bultmann student Gerhard Ebeling, early in career (Wenz, Armin)

?!: the destruction of historical security is necessary in order to reach pure faith and certainty of salvation-Bultmann student Gerhard Ebeling, early in career (Wenz, Armin)

Make no mistake about it: there is a bold certainty here – what in many quarters will only be dismissed as arrogance informed by idiocy – that is at odds with most of the modern skeptical world… The following words, simultaneously convicting and uplifting – thank God Jesus alone reveals the true face of God! – are lost

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)

…And when he comes, [the Helper, i.e. the Holy Spirit] will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer;concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. (John 16:8-11)

…And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among menby which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)

…[God] has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:31)

…I am speaking true and rational words… for this [resurrection of the Christ] has not been done in a corner (Acts 26:25,26).”

To many of us, these are beautiful statements, made by One Beautiful Voice.  And yet, to others – particularly those in elite quarters – they are opposed to everything that is, as Plato said, “good, true, and beautiful”. 

Mark that and remember, O Christian. 

In tomorrow’s post, we will look more at August Friedrich Christian Vilmar’s view of history, which goes hand in hand with his “theology of facts”.


Part II

*Still, note that many Greek historians were also eager to overcome the weaknesses of Greek historical accounts.  The Encyclopedia Britannica tells us that “Hecataeus of Miletus, the best known of the logographers, defined his task in his Genealogia (c. 490 bce) as follows: “I write what I consider the truth, for the things the Greeks tell us are in my opinion full of contradictions and worthy to be laughed out of court.””

Image credits:

Philosopher montage picture credits: Plato: ; Aristotle: ; Confucious: ; Socrates: ; Kant: ; Hume: ; Plotinus: ; Hegel: ; Heidegger: ; Descartes: ; Nietzsche: ; Wittgenstein: ; Berlin: ; Locke: ; Dewey: ; Buddha: ; Aquinas:

Where did I come from?: ; P.Z. Myers: ; Easter island: ; Herodotus: Wikipedia ; Ebeling:

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Posted by on September 12, 2013 in Uncategorized


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