Historical Narrative And Truth In The Bible -- By: Grant R. Osborne

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 48:4 (Dec 2005)
Article: Historical Narrative And Truth In The Bible
Author: Grant R. Osborne


Historical Narrative And Truth In The Bible

Grant R. Osborne

Grant R. Osborne is professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2065 Half Day Road, Deerfield, IL 60015.

Webster's defines truth as "the property (as of a statement) of being in accord with fact or reality." With historical studies truth is not easily ascertained, for "reality" is the product of historical research into a past that is no longer available. Thus it is a reconstructed reality and always heuristic in its conclusions. Moreover, since all history-writing is interpretive at heart, true objectivity is impossible. The Bible is not just history but theology as well, and there has been a long-standing debate as to whether history and theology can cohere. Moreover, as Kevin Vanhoozer has shown, truth is derived differently depending on the genre employed in Scripture. Yet "the diversity of literary forms does not imply that Scripture contains competing kinds of truth: it shows rather that Scripture is about various kinds of fact (i.e. historical, metaphysical, moral, etc.). A sentence or text is true if things are as it says they are, but as Aristotle said, 'Being may be said in many ways.'"1 In fact, we can assert with Douglas Groothuis that "truth matters most.. .. Despite the truth-allergic pathologies of our postmodern culture, truth remains to be considered, known, and embraced."2

Using speech-act theory, Vanhoozer says that infallible truth in Scripture "means that Scripture's diverse illocutionary forces will invariably achieve their respective purposes."3 This is achieved when (1) the formal condition of a successful speech-act is satisfied (i.e. the speaker believes he is justified in what is said); and (2) the speech acts correspond to reality "in a manner appropriate for their particular illocutionary mode."4 For historical narrative, this means that there are two levels of truth to consider: the correspondence of the event or speech to what happened and the correspondence of the theological message to the rest of Scripture.

I. History And Theology In Historical Research

It is interesting to compare OT and NT scholarly attitudes on this question. Both seem to be moving in a more positive direction than at any time in the past 200 years, but NT study seems to be more optimistic at this point. The reason is obvious: in NT research we deal with a period of 100 years (from Jesus' birth...

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