Monday, July 23, 2012

Three Standard Principles of Enlightenment Historiography

Vern S. Poythress has clearly outlined three fundamental principles that govern historical research within the Enlightenment (Aufklärung) context. These are the principles of criticism, analogy and causality. I will review and offer suggestions on each guiding principle.

(1) The principle of criticism essentially states that no ancient document should be accepted without requisite judiciousness. Whether the text in question is the Bible (Old and New Testament), Homeric poetry or Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, the first principle indicates that all truth-claims must be evaluated circumspectly by established historical methods. Of course, as Luke Timothy Johnson points out, modern-day historians should realize that empirical data is filtered through human cognition which inescapably partakes of creaturely finitude. Historical studies consequently have their epistemic limitations. Critical evaluations of ancient literature should thus be undertaken with checks and balances on the relevant historiographies.

(2) According to the principle of analogy, past events must be similar to contemporary occurrences: what happened in the past must reflect that which occurs in the present. This principle significantly affects one's understanding of miracle narratives or accounts of preternatural events. If no miracles are being witnessed today, what reason do we have to believe that supernatural events took place in antiquity? But it remains an open question as to whether the past is wholly analogous with the present. The second principle assumes that nature is basically uniform. Nevertheless, it seems that a genuinely critical approach will vet this common metaphysical assumption.

(3) A third related principle involves causality. In essence, the causality principle entails that all events have an antecedently immanent and sufficient reason that accounts for their existence. The implications of this guiding precept are that the historian advisedly must bracket divine intervention in past human affairs from the outset (ab initio). If all causes are "immanent," then no cause is transcendent in relation to historical events (no causes originate from outside the closed space-time continuum). The logical outcome of this claim is that miracles which Jesus of Nazareth performed or divine acts like splitting the Red Sea do not come under the purview of historical criticism. But despite its claims to scientific objectivity, the historical-critical approach to ancient texts is laden with philosophical assumptions that seem to determine what counts as "history" from the outset. This methodology is ostensibly a view from nowhere (standpointlessness). In reality, however, principle three represents a value-loaded postulate.

Source Material:

Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels (San Francisco: Harper, 1996).

Vern Poythress, "Science and Hermeneutics" in Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation (edited by Moises Silva), page 442.


aservantofJehovah said...

I find it amazing that scientists who would have no difficulty conceiving of the existence of alien civilzations with the technology to manipulate entire galaxies,or abiogenesis by purely random means(wonders far grander than any performed by the bible's prophets)Would dismiss out of hand as being unworthy of inquiry the existence of an immortal superhuman intelligence with the technology to produce the universe and life,or that said intelligence could intervene from time to time in history,producing effects that are beyond our understanding.
It seems to me that it is not skepticism about miracles,per se,that is the stumbling block for modernists.

Edgar Foster said...

A Servant:

What do you think motivates these skeptical attitudes? Thanks!

aservantofJehovah said...

@ Foster:Preapprehensions about the implications,Remember that line in the introduction to "war of the worlds"about man's supreme confidence in his empire over all matter.The notion that man may not be at the top of the food chain is unsettling to people.As long as Jehovah God is confined to the realm of the abstract that's fine.
Some won't even settle for that.

aservantofJehovah said...

P.S.I would also add fear of the rise of the religious right in politics,east and west.

Edgar Foster said...


Very helpful remarks. Thanks!