Two truths in theology and history

I’m fascinated by the intersection of historical claims and the Christian faith, but not enough to do the hard work of figuring out how history works. There does, however, seem to be a tension between history and theology, even while the Christian theology has an essential and irreducible historical core (and this in all the senses of “history”, not just “”concrete facts in the past” but “the inquiry into and exposition of past facts”)

Assume we have, say, rock solid evidence that Pilate was a no-nonsense judge, with no scruples about killing anyone for the sake of order (I’ve heard historians modify or contest this, but assume that it is firmly established). Turning to the Gospel accounts, we see a much more sympathetic Pilate, with a clear pragmatic side, but with genuine human feeling for Christ. Furthermore, obvious motives suggest themselves for why the early Church would want to make Pilate more sympathetic. So there is a tension in the accounts. So it seems we have evidence that, to bluntly avoid euphemism, the Gospel writers made stuff up. It’s of course not logically impossible that the Gospel accounts are true – perhaps Christ was an unusually sympathetic character to deal with, perhaps Pilate felt uncharacteristically soft and merciful on that chance day in April, etc. But history can’t move forward by allowing everything that is logically possible to be taken as a real possibility. This would utterly cripple the historian, and it is a bizarre criterion in itself. And so history seems to require taking the probable as the reasonable, and, in the case of Pilate, this seems to make it reasonable to assume the Christians made things up.

Now, of course, this is utterly repugnant to orthodox Christianity, so what then? The Christian can point to the fact that it is possible that the accounts are true, but is it necessary that he be able to transmute possibility into a historically reasonable claim? So do we have some sort of “two truths” doctrine here? In fact, if historical truth is what the theologian calls a probable opinion, and the theologian can admit that some historical facts need not be the ones that are most probable given the historical evidence we have, is there even a tension between the two truths? Why can’t something that is in fact false be what is most probable given the historical evidence that we have?


  1. NOT The Philosopher said,

    April 29, 2012 at 8:53 pm

    I think the simple answer to this is whether or not we think there is solid historical evidence that, 1) The Resurrection of the Son of God is true, and 2) The Catholic Church was founded by this historical Christ, who is the Resurrected God.

    If history backs up these claims than the inerrancy of the Bible falls into place since the Catholic Church, which is the Church (given our premises) that God established, infallibly declared it so.

    Thus, if we see a discrepancy (or possible discrepancy) between the historical record and the Bible as long as history backs up those first two claims than we must conclude that the historians, not the evangelists, made the mistake.

    • April 30, 2012 at 11:24 am

      First, Some nits:

      1.) The mention of the resurrection is superfluous to your argument. If Christ speaks with the voice of God, then his words are infallible, resurrection or not.

      2.) That a Church was founded by Christ is not sufficient. It must be the final church (it’s authority could not pass to another) and it must speak for Christ, always, at least in some clearly definable domain of pronouncement; and this domain must include the determination of the canon. Other qualifications are necessary too. But this is a pretty involved list of requirements.

      Now, more fundamental points:

      You give a conditional argument: i.e. if the historian can…etc. then… this is fine, but this leaves the question of what the historian can know unaddressed. I’m raising a question whether it is possible the “two-truths” doctrine that St. Thomas so definitely refuted in the tension between theology and philosophy repeats itself, in a different way, in the tension between theology and history. There are crucial differences between philosophy and history that make it impossible to simply assume that STA’s arguments can simply be addressed to historians without some modification.

  2. CB said,

    May 5, 2012 at 10:10 pm

    Sure, the most probable interpretation of the evidence can be false. That’s why criminals attempt to frame people for their crimes, for example. And the historian shouldn’t be very put out if in a particular, unusual event some character did not act in complete accordance with a two-dimensional summary of his character. Egregious discrepancies would be another matter, but how does Pilate actually react? He resents the Sanhedrin’s attempt to manipulate him, he fears the popular response to killing a widely-acclaimed hero, and he is hardly put at ease by his wife’s warnings. So he has a man he knows to be innocent brutally tortured and ultimately executed. How does that make him “uncharacteristically” sympathetic?

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