Faith and History

It is often suggested that ‘faith’ must bridge the gap between what can be known or ‘proved’ by ‘history’ and what ‘must be true’ if Christianity is to survive—or, mutatis mutandis, if it is to be modified or transformed. History, it is said, can take us only so far; we have to travel the rest of the journey by faith. But this is a misconception. All history involves imaginative reconstruction. We seldom, if ever, ‘know’ enough, in terms of positive indubitable proof, to give the kind of account we want to give of any period, incident or character from the past. There is always a leap to be made between the actual evidence and the fully-blown reconstruction. This move could be called ‘faith’; but it has very little to do with any specifically Christian meaning of that word.

The really interesting relation, then, is not between ‘history’ (conceived positivistically as a provable series of events, a collection of mathematically certain data) and ‘faith’ (conceived as a leap in the dark over the gap where such data is not available). It is between real history, in all its complexity of hypothetical reconstruction, and real faith, in all its glory as the constant exploration of, and trust in, a god whom Christians believe to be, among other things, intimately and passionately involved in the historical process itself. And that relationship (between real history and real faith) is not something that can be settled in advance of the quest as a whole. It must be left to be explored as the actual historical task gets under way.

N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 2), London, SPCK 1992. 8.

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