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Dale Allison on the Relationship Between History and Theology

I have just finished Dale Allison's latest book, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History. It is a great book and I'll hopefully write two or three posts reflecting on elements of it. First, I'd like to briefly discuss parts of the last three paragraphs of the book, as for me they were the most significant.
We should be grateful, then, that the so-called historical Jesus is only one of numerous theological resources, and far from the most important. Consider the present volume, which, if the author is any good at introspection, is much more the product of historical curiosity and professional habits of mind than of theological aspirations. Even if, let us say, a Christian reader is cheered by my case that Jesus had an exalted self-conception, christological reflection is much more than what the first-century Jesus is likely to have thought or said about himself. Would that it were so easy. Christology must wrestle with Paul, study the Cappadocians, engage modern philosophy, and do much else besides...To do history is not to do theology.

Although I have no desire to contract the circle of my readers, it seems to me both vain and inane that a book such as this can contribute to our knowledge of God, or that it should draw much attention from the theologians. Even though the quest has served many of us a s a wake-up call from our dogmatic slumbers, it is no substitute for constructive theology. It can be, at best, only prologue.

While it may be an "emotional necessity to exalt the problem to which one wants to devote a lifetime," and while I am proudly a historian, I must confess that history is not what matters most. If my deathbed finds me alert and not overly racked with pain, I will then be preoccupied with how I have witnessed and embodied faith, hope, and charity. I will not be fretting over the historicity of this or that part of the Bible (462).
I won't comment much on this quote except to say that I think it's largely right. To borrow a metaphor from NT Wright, I want to do theology with all of the pieces of the puzzle on the table. That assuredly includes the pieces that result from historical study, even if they're a minority of the pieces. However that does not get us all (or even most) of the way there. We need to remember (as I've written before) that ultimately the Jesus of the church is the Jesus of the canonical gospels, not the Jesus of modern historical reconstructions. So what role does history play in the task of theology? I'll discuss that next time. But for now I'd like to express my appreciation for the work of Dale Allison. I've always found his historical work to be a helpful aid for theological reflection.


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