It strikes me now as odd that when I saw the title—Systematic Theology: A Historicist Perspective—on the shelf as I pushed the dust mop by it during my first year of doctoral study, the word that really caught my attention was “a.” This was in the early 70s, a time when the rule about the sound of h- (as in historicist) rather than the presence of an h- (as in heir) was still often abused and I liked it that this Harvard theologian, whom I had never heard of, took the trouble to get it right.
That was then. This is now. Today, the word I want to work on is “historicist.” Why does Gordon Kaufman, whose magnum opus this is, take all the trouble to be “historicist?” What kind of a “history” would matter to a theologian? What kind of outside account would matter so much to a man who makes his living studying an inside account?
Let me take a moment to set up the dilemma; then I’ll give you a little language that I found in Kaufman’s work. I just finished reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. Wonderful book! As part of his account of how we got the kinds of brains we have and to account for the central role of “team sports” like religion (“team sports” in Haidt’s term) in the way our brains work, Haidt gives a perfectly respectable history of the human race from an evolutionary perspective. I accept it in every particular.
I have also just finished listening to David Christian’s forty-eight lectures on “big history,” which begins before the Big Bang and continues to the present. In that process, he too covers what kinds of advantages homo sapiens brought with them—with us—into the new paleolithic world. It included the kinds of luxuries human societies began to develop when they entered the agriculture era; luxuries like a priestly class that could seek the blessings of the gods on the crops, for instance, and who could live in considerable comfort because of the offerings of the gullible villagers. I don’t have any trouble with that account either.
I call those accounts “views from the outside.” Their proponents call them “true” or “evidence-based” or “scholarly.” For a theologian, however, even one who calls himself a “historicist,” you would imagine it would be pretty much beside the point. That raises the question, “Is there another way to look at history—a view that a Christian might call a view from “inside” the community of faith?” Yes. There is. That will be what this post is about.
Kaufman tells a parable of a high school boy who wants to be a physician. He takes the requisite courses and is admitted to med school. But then he drops out. Then he returns. Then he is drafted—this book has a 1968 copyright—and then returns. And he takes a lot of courses in music while he is in school. If at the end, he becomes a musician or a long-haul truck driver, we can look at his checkered history and conclude, with no surprise, that he didn’t, after all, show a lot of diligence in med school. If at the end, he becomes a doctor, we might wonder about the episodes that are harder to understand. We might ask the boy about the things that confused us and learn that he dropped out to earn money to return; that the draft happens to nearly everyone with medical training; and that the music courses were intended to leaven the kind of life he had seen among physicians, which was all work and had no time for music. These all make sense. If we stand back, two things emerge. The first is that the main character in this story never had the sense that his purpose wavered, but he might grant that some things required explanation. The second is that everything makes sense, when you take the explanation as the key to the narrative.
That story illustrates Kaufman’s notion of God’s providence. All these clues, he says: “…remain problematic and dubious unless in one or more of them the purposer himself chose to communicate what he was seeking to do…Such a moment of self-disclosure by the purpose, of course, would never compel credence; we all know well the deceits and conceits with which agents often clothe their activities. One could choose either to believe or disbelieve that the true character of the history had been disclosed.”
That’s the inside perspective in general. There is a revelatory tradition. For many religions (not all) there is a God or gods who could “intend,” so that events that might seem to outsiders to point in all directions, can be seen by insiders all to point in the same direction. Learning that the kid dropped out of school so he could make enough money to re-enroll, for instance, takes behaviors that seems contradictory from the outside and reconciles them as complementary from the inside. In fact, you don’t have to be religious to have an explanatory frame of reference. Haidt says that humans who scavenged for their food had no need for or time for deities. With agriculture, there was both time—a stable set of religious leaders emerged—and need; the prayers for fertility were crucial to the survival of the village. I see nothing at all wrong with that as a perspective.
Here’s the best I can do to illustrate the inside/outside problem. I wrote a short piece about this to my kids ten years ago and the italicized sections are excerpted from that essay. They are the inside perspective. They draw on the revelatory tradition in the same way the student’s family and friends draw on his account of his purposes. The regular font comments following represent the outside perspective which, to my mind, should be embraced without controversy by everyone.
God created beings who would be able to choose a relationship with Him and a setting where they could live. There is, everyone agrees, a habitable earth, and most people (not all) agree that we freely choose the principal commitments of our lives. It is the agent, not the result, that is the “inside view.”
They didn’t choose Him, however, and the choice they did make (autonomy) produced disastrous results for both the creatures and the setting. There is no question that “codes” of law and ethics emerged among humans and that they used these codes to define and decide what was “right.” Kaufman asserts that there must have been a prior time—whenever it was—before these codes emerged. The Christian tradition identifies it mythically as a time when humans could have lived by obedience, rather than by self-determination. You should be thinking of “Adam” and “Eve” and “the apple.” Anthropologists have no idea what loyalties there might have been in such a time. Kaufman doesn’t either, but he links the empirical emergence of self-government with the Christian myth of the Fall.
So God set about restoring his creatures. This is Kaufman’s assertion of the purposiveness of the next steps–steps theologians will call, collectively, “redemption.” Obviously, there is no outside confirmation of this.
To begin this redemption, God made a culture—or waited patiently until a culture appeared (there is no reasonable way to choose between these two mechanisms)—in which social cohesion was very strong and in which the notion of “binding agreements” was honored. No covenants can be made with people who don’t understand just how binding a binding agreement is. No secular historian is going to want to deny that the people of Israel took the notion of a “binding agreement” as the central commitment to “their deity” or to “the God they imagined had rescued them.” Those beliefs are facts, at least in principle. The purposiveness of God in bringing them about is a hypothesis.
He revealed Himself to these people as a desert despot, like their own leaders: someone with whom personal relationship is everything and binding agreements or “covenants” could be made. But He was not a desert despot. He was other. He was “the one God.” He was autonomous, holy, loving. Any historian could follow the development of “religiosity” generally, but tracing the development from small and temperamental local gods to exclusive monotheism is commonplace. That happened. The meaning of what happened, or whether there was a meaning at all, is not a question that can be decided from the outside.
He identified Himself to them by bringing them out of slavery and settling them in a land of their own and he made a new covenant with them. There were several waves of emigrations of Hebrews from Israel. They may not have been “a people” in Egypt. Probably a more general ethnic integration occurred between Egypt and Palestine. Further integration certainly occurred as the tribes conquered Palestine. Without question, they wound up living in Palestine and having a capitol city in Jerusalem.
This was a new kind of covenant: “I rescued you from Egypt not because you were worthy, but because I loved you. You will be my servant people, containing and protecting the light I gave you, so that eventually it can be shared with everyone.” This understanding of what the covenant with God implied was always in tension with other understandings. There is no question that both understandings were there and that they were in conflict with each other. Whether either was true is an inside question, not an outside question.
It turned out to be a hard sell. And centuries of conquest by their more powerful neighbors didn’t solve the problem. It did, however, produce a myth of a messiah; an anointed one—God’s own choice—who would arise from among them and cast off the hated imperial armies. There is no question that there were messianic expectations among the Jews after their return from Babylon. The successful revolts of the Maccabees fed those expectations but, given the geopolitical realities of the time, did not satisfy them.
Then God sent them the messiah the myth foretold, but not the messiah they were expecting. This messiah was not a military leader; he was a rabbi. And it turned out that the goal was not restoring this “covenant people” to power, but to open, through them, a whole new category of people who would belong to Him in a new way. It is not an ethnic group, but a new category–people who will come to the light Jesus held up and will live in that light. It is people who will ask to be followers, but who will become family. There is no way to verify the messiahship of Jesus, of course, but the description of the “new category” reflects the preaching of the early Christian missionaries and is unquestionably the direction Christianity took as early as the midpoint of the First Century. “The church” became “a gentile church” very quickly.
In this way of looking at things, “the facts” are not in question. “The details” of the sacred accounts are not only in question, but are sometimes refutable. More commonly, they are unknowable. Did the Israelites take Jericho, for instance? Yes. Did Jericho have walls? No one had found them the last I heard and it wasn’t for any lack of looking. Did “a handful of trumpet players” (Harold Hill’s phrasing in The Music Man) take down the “famous fabled walls of Jericho?” Any history shows that the facts essential to the story—the large plot elements—are there. The history that begins with God’s intentions accepts those facts and weaves them into a fabric of meaning.
It seems to me that a very nice dance could be arranged where the insiders bow to the outsiders on the facts and the outsiders curtsy to the insiders on meaning. Writing a line like that makes me feel like I’m trying to arrange a nice little dance between the Sharks and the Jets.
 Whether you would want to call it “revelatory,” a term Kaufman uses for whatever is taken to be the key to understanding the larger pattern, is another question, of course. For Kaufman, the empiricism offered by the Enlightenment is “revelatory” if it is taken as the fundamental level of meaning.
 I have heard a joke I like about the fall of Jericho. Joshua arranges his “band of trumpet players” in a formation seven across and marched around the city and had them blow their horns. Nothing. Then he organized them in a formation fourteen across and when they blew the trumpets, the walls came a’tumblin’ down. Moral: With enough bandwidth, you can do almost anything.