Samuel V. Adams. The Reality of God and Historical Method: Apocalyptic Theology in Conversation with N.T. Wright. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015. See here to purchase the book.
A question that has loomed large in post-Enlightenment theology and
biblical studies is whether one can derive theological truths from
history, particularly a historical study of the Hebrew Bible and the New
Testament. Thinkers have pointed out potential barriers to such an
endeavor. There is the contingent, changing nature of human reality,
including the past, which leads many to ask if timeless theological
truths can be derived from history. There is historians’ lack of access
to many things in the past. There are also contradictions between what
certain biblical scholars have concluded from their historical studies
about the history of Israel, Jesus, and early Christianity, and what
religious communities and even the biblical texts themselves claim about
their sacred history. The response to this was a polarity between
history and theology, as a number of theologians focused on a personal
religious experience of the divine, set apart from what historians say
N.T. Wright is an influential New Testament scholar. He is also an
evangelical Christian, although some of his positions, such as his view
on justification, have been controversial among evangelicals. N.T.
Wright has addressed the question of the relationship between history
and theology. In The Reality of God and Historical Method, theologian Samuel V. Adams critiques Wright’s conclusions, methodology, and focus.
N.T. Wright does believe that history is important for understanding
Jesus, for he has sought rigorously to interpret Jesus in light of his
first century Jewish context. Wright is not a rigid Christian
fundamentalist, but he does appear to maintain that the general picture
of Jesus in the New Testament Gospels (at least the synoptic Gospels) is
historically plausible, and he contends, though historical
argumentation, that Jesus rose from the dead. For Wright, Christians
can be inspired and shape their worldview in reference to what the
historical Jesus said and did, and Jesus’ resurrection can provide them
with an epistemology of love, one that does not just look at bare facts
but places those facts in a new light, a light that affirms God’s love
for creation. According to Adams, Wright’s views on history reflect
realism in that they maintain that there is a reality out there that (on
some level) can be accessible to people’s understanding, and yet, like
postmodernists, Wright acknowledges the existence of subjectivity and
the role of narrative in contextualizing data. Wright, according to
Adams, also navigates worldviews: can one account for a Christian belief
by looking at what the Christian community itself says, and how does
that compare with how an outsider might account for that Christian
belief? In addressing such thorny questions as the possibility of
miracles, Wright notes that the people who are being studied, the early
Christians and Jews, believed in miracles, which may be a way that
Wright tries to accept their possibility, while being true to
conventional historical methodology.
Adams’ critique of Wright revolves around the reality of God and
apocalyptic theology. Apocalyptic theology seems to be divine
revelation: God has taken the initiative of revealing Godself through
Jesus Christ, and only those who are spiritually regenerated (born
again) can see the Kingdom of God. Interacting with T.F. Torrance and
Soren Kierkegaard, Adams maintains that humans, by themselves and their
own devices, cannot arrive at a knowledge of God. That belief will form
a significant part of his critique of Wright, for Wright arguably
presents history as a way to arrive at knowledge of God and Jesus.
Adams also believes that Wright’s model neglects important
considerations: that a new reality in Christ has invaded our own reality
and coexists with it, and that this new reality is discontinuous from
history and (unlike history) brings life rather than death.
Adams addresses the question of whether he himself neglects or
negates the importance of history in understanding Jesus. Is Adams like
the theologians who prioritized a subjective religious experience and
divorced it from historical methodology? Does Adams’ apocalyptic model
present God revealing Godself out of the blue, in a manner that does not
relate to what came before (since an event relating to what came before
is significant in conceptualizing events historically)? Adams
maintains that history is still significant, for God did reveal Godself
in a historical person, Jesus; plus, God’s revelation does relate to
what came before, since God prepared the way for the coming of Christ.
For Adams, historical study of Jesus is still acceptable, but it should
be conditioned by an acknowledgment of God’s revelation in Jesus, and
the necessity of spiritual regeneration in knowing God. While many may
claim that such an approach to historical study is biased, Adams states
that all historians have presuppositions and contextualize facts within a
The greatest deficiency of this book, in my opinion, is that Adams
does not show what historical study is supposed to look like under his
model. Is it basically conservative maximalist New Testament
scholarship, which maintains that what the Gospels say about Jesus is
historically accurate and that the New Testament uniformly proclaims
what evangelical Christianity believes (as opposed to there being
diversity in thought within the New Testament)? Would historical
methodology, under Adams’ model, argue rigorously for these views from a
historical standpoint, or simply assume them (since, after all, if you
are born again, you get it, and if you are not born again, you don’t)?
Can historical study, under Adams’ model, even interact with the
conclusions of liberal New Testament scholars, or does it simply dismiss
those conclusions as coming from people who don’t get it? Under Adams’
model, is there some neutral ground on which confessional or
conservative New Testament scholars can fruitfully discuss Jesus and
early Christianity with liberal New Testament scholars, or are people
essentially isolated from each other on account of their different
presuppositions and whether or not they had a spiritual experience?
A fruitful direction in which Adams could have taken his method would
have been to say that God revealed Godself in history through Jesus,
and we can try to understand Jesus through historical methodology,
following wherever the evidence leads. Adams may believe this, at least
partially (I doubt that he would be as open to liberal conclusions as I
am), but he did not flesh this out.
Adams was lucid on some points, and rather elliptical on others. He
thoughtfully articulated Kant’s epistemology (no small task). He did
not focus much on the historicity of events in the Gospels, which is a
significant issue in the relationship between history and theology and
N.T. Wright’s scholarship, even though Adams did seem to refer to that
indirectly (i.e., Adams said that Wright lowered the bar for what counts
as historical). Adams’ discussion of Wright did sensitize me to the
difficulty of trying to arrive at theological truth with what historical
methodology has to offer. At the same time, I wondered at times if
Wright already acknowledges some of the points that Adams makes, meaning
Wright’s methodology is not as deficient as Adams thinks. I one time
heard Wright speak, and Wright was saying that Jesus’ resurrection
marked the beginning of a new week, and that this new week coexists with
the old world. That sounds to me like what Adams is saying.
I apologize for any misunderstandings on my part in reading this book.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.
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