The Need for Historicity: Why Banishing God from History Removes Historical Obligation

Paul Y. Hoskisson

Paul Y. Hoskisson, “The Need for Historicity: Why Banishing God from History Removes Historical Obligation,” in Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2001), 99–122.  

Paul Y. Hoskisson was an associate professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University when this was published.

Key historical events in the scriptures require historicity to give substance to our faith. Since the Enlightenment, however, some scholars have proclaimed that the scriptures lack historicity. In the face of these doubts, some have argued that historicity is not necessary for belief. Latter-day Saints should be wary of the misleading arguments of critics and of simplistic solutions to those arguments.

A small group of critics maintain, contrary to Latter-day Saint belief, that it is not necessary to believe in the historicity of central events in the scriptures in order to have scriptural faith. In some extreme cases they also maintain that clinging to the historicity of certain events impedes understanding and development of scriptural faith. For example, one such critic, Thomas L. Thompson, explains that only when people come to understand “that the Bible does not speak about an historical Abraham, then a recognition of this leads us one step further towards an understanding of biblical faith. . . . In fact, we can say that the faith of Israel is not an historical faith, in the sense of a faith based on historical event.” [1] Thompson concludes that if we insist on believing in a faith grounded in history, then we “have set up an exceedingly serious barrier to any acceptance of the biblical tradition as constitutive of faith.” [2] What he means is that if we insist, for example, that there was a historical Abraham who placed his son on the altar to sacrifice him, then we are making it impossible for people to develop true scriptural faith, at least as he defines faith.

Furthermore, according to Thompson, learning that there never was an Abraham should not bother anyone, because “to learn that what we have believed is not what we should have believed is not to lose our faith.” [3] In other words, just because we do not believe in a historical Abraham who entered into a covenant with God and received the promise of posterity, we should not despair. He contends that we should not have believed the scriptural story of Abraham in the first place! Now that we think we have discovered there never was an Abraham and have thereby been enlightened, as his reasoning goes, we would be free to make something entirely new and different out of the Abraham fiction. We could construct a new, spacious edifice without any historical foundation at all in this world, a wondrous building floating in the air.

As Latter-day Saints, we must reject this insidious view of scripture and scriptural faith. In fact, most Latter-day Saints intuit the strong bond that exists between our faith and historical events. Without reservation we acknowledge, as G. Ernest Wright stated for traditional Christianity, that in scriptural faith “everything depends upon whether the central events actually occurred.” [4] As faithful members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we declare that in our faith everything depends upon the historicity of what Elder Bruce R. McConkie called the three pillars of eternity—the Creation, the Fall, and the Atonement. [5]

In addition to the three pillars of eternity, I believe there are other key scriptural events that require historicity in order to give substance to our faith, including, among many others, the Flood; the near sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham; Moses’ call to be a prophet; the reign of King David; Lehi’s journey to the promised land; the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ; His visit to the more righteous remnant in the land of Bountiful; the First Vision of Joseph Smith; the return of Moroni; the miraculous translation of the Book of Mormon; and the restoration of the priesthood, the gospel, and the Church in these the latter days, just to name a few. [6] As Latter-day Saints we know, at least through intuition, that our faith rests on the historicity of these events. This essay will, however, focus on only a few of these events; but the principles outlined will apply equally well to all the scriptural events we hold sacred.

Because I am aware of the scriptural admonition to reason together (D&C 66:7; and 68:1), I have sought to understand and articulate to myself why critics, such as Thomas L. Thompson, are wrong when they contend that historicity is not necessary to develop scriptural faith, and why Latter-day Saints and others are right in insisting that the historicity of certain central, scriptural events is necessary for there to be substance to our faith. The conclusions I have reached, and the reasons for these conclusions, form the basis for this personal essay. While I am solely responsible for the content, I am greatly indebted to friends, colleagues, and former teachers who have planted ideas, patiently listened to my questions, and given me unfettered feedback. [7]

Three Red Herrings

Before embarking on this journey of adding reason to faith, I need to warn about three red herrings. The first red herring would require that there be historical evidence for all events mentioned in scripture. As Latter-day Saints we believe that central scriptural events must be historical, but we do not require historical evidence in order to develop our faith. In most cases, historical evidence is not available at the present and in some cases may not have been available at the time the events occurred. For example, today we cannot find empirical evidence that Joseph Smith went into the woods on that spring day in 1820. Yet after his visit to the woods there would have been evidence that day and for some days to come of Joseph’s presence. An astute observer could have verified Joseph’s historical presence there. If Joseph had not been in the woods that day or any other spring day in 1820, and that fact could be verified, then great doubt would be cast on the rest of his story about the appearance of the Father and Son to him. Therefore, it is important that Joseph’s presence in the woods that day could have been verified at or shortly after the time he went there, even if such evidence is no longer available.

However, even if we could establish empirically that Joseph went into and came out of the woods that day, we would not have proven the most important aspect of his story, namely, that he actually saw the Father and the Son while in the woods. That kind of historical knowledge, which lies outside the realm of empirical verification, comes only from personal revelation, which we as Latter-day Saints joyfully and dutifully seek. Therefore, as Latter-day Saints we do not necessarily seek for historical evidence that Joseph saw the Father and Son in the woods because historical evidence cannot confirm the historicity of the First Vision. [8] Latter-day Saints do not believe that all scripture must be historically verifiable, because the central event in Joseph Smith’s early history is not the fact that he went into the woods (historically verifiable), but rather that the Father and Son spoke to him that day (not historically verifiable).

The second red herring proposes that if the historicity of a scriptural event is to stand, every detail of the scriptural record must be historical. Those who proffer this red herring, as A. H. Sayce described the case, insist that “a single error in detail, a single inconsistency, a single exaggeration, a single anachronism, [is] considered sufficient to overthrow the credit of a whole narrative. . . . It [is] expected that an ancient oriental annalist should express himself with the sobriety of a Western European and the precision of a modern man of science.” [9] That is, if in the scriptural record of the event there is one tiny detail that is inaccurate or that cannot be historical, then any historicity of that scriptural pericope must be denied. This either/or proposition assumes that there can be no errors, major or minor, in the report of the Word of God, neither in its initial form nor in parallel versions, nor in any subsequent transmission. If there is a mistake, as the assumption goes, then it cannot be historical.

The assumption that there can be no errors in scripture, even minor ones, is called the doctrine of inerrancy. This doctrine began to assert itself in certain areas of Europe where the Reformation took root. “By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Bible was seen by some Protestants in northern Europe as a deposit of inerrant information, including information about scientific questions, which had been dictated by God. Rather than being a record of events in which God was revealed, scripture itself was viewed as infallible knowledge in propositional form verbally imparted by God.” [10] The doctrine of inerrancy is a red herring because at first glance inerrancy sounds wonderful. However, Latter-day Saints in general, along with most Christians, [11] reject the doctrine of inerrancy. Indeed, Latter-day Saint scriptures inform us of the struggle that some prophets have had in expressing the thoughts they were impressed to write down. Both Nephi and Moroni, the first and last prophets to write for our Book of Mormon, expressed the fear that their writing was not as powerful as their speaking. As Moroni stated it, “Behold, thou hast not made us mighty in writing. . . . Thou hast also made our words powerful and great, even that we cannot write them; wherefore, when we write we behold our weakness, and stumble because of the placing of our words” (Ether 12:24–25; for Nephi’s remarks see 2 Ne. 33:1).

In addition, our scriptures warn us that there may be faults in scripture, particularly by later redactors, but that God is not responsible for such faults (Morm. 8:17). [12] We also believe that while what we have received is sufficient for the moment, there are still many things that God would like to reveal to us (2 Ne. 2:5; 2 Cor. 12:9; 2 Ne. 25:28; Omni 1:11; D&C 17:8; D&C 42:67; D&C 102:23; see also Article of Faith 9). As Latter-day Saints, we have no need to assert the inerrancy or all-inclusive nature of scripture, and therefore we do not feel the need to defend every tittle, jot, word, or phrase. [13] That is why minor inconsistencies, incomplete passages, or slight inaccuracies in the scriptural record of central events are not a problem for Latter-day Saints. We are not forced to choose between absolutely inerrant scripture and scripture we cannot trust at all. The doctrine of inerrancy is a red herring that Latter-day Saints can safely ignore.

The third red herring would require us to accept or reject in its totality the historicity of all scripture. This either/or choice is a false dichotomy because there are other options. For example, there are scripture passages which presumably lack historicity (they may or may not be historical) but which are nevertheless normative. [14] The parables of the New Testament fall into this category because they often draw their efficacy from real-life experiences but do not necessarily claim to report historical events. Yet most Christians believe the parables to be normative. Therefore, the question for Latter-day Saints is not whether all scripture is historical or not, because parts of scripture lack historicity. The question is, rather, which parts of scripture require historicity in order to add content to our faith. Though there may never be complete unanimity among Latter-day Saints concerning which central events of our scriptures require historicity in order to give substance to our faith, I have suggested above a few scriptural events that Latter-day Saints should accept as historical.

With the dismissal of these three red herrings, I can proceed to the first part of this essay, namely, why Latter-day Saints must reject the conclusion of some biblical critics that the historicity of scriptural events is not necessary to develop faith.

Why Revisionist Critics Are Wrong

It is my hypothesis that two successive factors combined to produce the necessary environment in which, for some critics, historicity became irrelevant to the content of faith. First, the traditional theological concept of God (which Latter-day Saints reject) declares that God is not in this world, i.e., that God is transcendent. Second, the transcendence of God allowed the removal of God from history when, during the Modern Period (of which Latter-day Saints should be skeptical), our Western culture began to grow dependent on rationalism. With God removed from the history in scripture, the historicity of scripture no longer had any relevance for faith.

The transcendence of God entered traditional Christian theology in the early days of the Church Fathers, having been introduced into Christianity from Hellenistic/Greek philosophical concepts. In fact, the Hellenization of the Early Church was a natural process that began at least as early as the death of the Apostles. “The voice of the apostles had scarcely fallen silent when the church faced the need to define the faith in terms that intelligent men could understand. . . . Men can reason, however, only with the knowledge and concepts they have. In the ancient world this meant Hellenic (Greek) philosophy and pagan authors. So Christianity was forced by the need of men and the mission of the church into the world of pagan thought.” [15] Under these conditions, the scriptural “conception, for example, of the one God whose kingdom was a universal kingdom and endured throughout all ages, blended with, and passed into, the [Greek] philosophical conception of a Being who was beyond time and space.” [16] Thus, in post-Apostolic (i.e., Hellenized) Christianity, God came to be thought of as neither part of this universe nor in this universe. He did not, does not, nor ever will act in mortal time and corporeal space. [17] Instead, God became “[a] Mind, a form separate from all matter, that is to say, out of contact with it, and not involved with anything that is capable of being acted on.” [18]

Between the Renaissance and the beginning of the Enlightenment, the transcendence of God took on new implications. “With Galileo began the development whereby God was to become merely the original creator of the interacting atoms in which resides all subsequent causality. Nature, once created, was considered to be independent and self-sufficient. . . . As attention focused on natural causes, God’s role was gradually relegated to that of First Cause.” [19] Thus the natural philosophers of the Enlightenment, as expressed by the English virtuosi, could say that “nature is a complete and functioning machine that is not itself striving toward any ends, and God is the original First Cause, not the Final Cause.” [20] In this wise, “God became primarily the Designer of the world-machine [the watchmaker], though various attempts were made to find a place for God’s continuing activity within a mechanical natural order.” [21]

What began in the Modern Period as an attempt to provide rational explanations for Christianity would by the end of the Enlightenment prove to undermine Christianity. Philosophers of the Enlightenment “moved away from the Christ-centered orientation of the Middle Ages and Reformation. ‘Rational religion’ had been intended as a support for the essentials of Christianity, but by the next century it was to become a substitute for them. Reason, originally a supplement to revelation, began to replace it as the path to knowledge of God. The change did not come about initially by open conflict but by the reinterpretation of Christianity from within.” [22] This inevitably led to the view that “the world was no longer seen as the purposeful drama of the Middle Ages or even as the continuing object of providential supervision, as for Newton, but as a set of interacting natural forces. . . . The secularization of knowledge in science, as in other fields, meant that theological ideas, whatever their role elsewhere, were to be excluded from the study of the world.” [23]

The result was that God, beginning in the Enlightenment, was also expelled from nature. He had been physically banished from the world when transcendence was imposed on Him many centuries earlier. With the rise of rationalism He was also excluded as a cause or even as a factor when studying about this world. Hume even undermined the argument for God as the First Cause. [24] This Enlightenment wresting of the control of science, with all of its positive and negative consequences, led to the attempts to remove God from the scientific study of nature and also from the study of history. [25] In fact, “God’s wisdom was displayed primarily in planning things so that no intervention would be needed. . . . The rule of law, not miraculous intervention, is the chief evidence of God’s wisdom.” [26]

With God removed from nature and from history, the question then could be raised, “How can God act in a law-abiding world?” [27] How can God, who himself must be law-abiding, interfere in a world that was “assumed to be a complete mechanical system of inflexible cause and effect, governed by exact and absolute laws, so that all future events are inexorably determined” [28] without the necessity of God’s intervention? The answer for many Enlightenment philosophers was that God does not interfere in the world order. In fact, many of the leading intellectuals of the Enlightenment, during the height of deism, “saw natural theology used as a substitute for revelation. The sufficiency of reason was confidently affirmed and scripture was assigned a subordinate role.” [29]

With God removed from science, banned from history and relegated to being the First Cause, at best, and no longer “the continuing ruler of nature,” [30] scholars were free to ignore God as an ongoing cause of anything that happened in the world, because “all things occur in accordance with inflexible laws of cause and effect,” [31] with or without God being the First Cause.

All that is left is to assume—in good Enlightenment style and with the German Christian theologian Ernst Troeltsch—that “historical events are related by a causal nexus, that is, in a chain of cause and effect” [32] that can be subjected to the stark light of Enlightenment inquiry, for good or for ill. The result is that “there are Gospel critics who reject, on principle, any reports of divine intervention in the affairs of the world, anything that God is reported to have brought about other than what would have happened had only natural, this worldly influences been involved.” [33] Notice how the presupposition prejudices the conclusion: if the Enlightenment allows us to remove God from history, then history can be studied the way the Enlightenment requires. For believers to think that this is progress, as our Enlightenment culture would have us believe, is analogous to C. S. Lewis’ cogent remark that “it is surely absurd to regard as specifically Christian in (Saint Augustine) the acceptance of a terrain which had in fact been chosen by the enemy.” [34]

Removing God from all history has led to one of the more important maxims of modern biblical criticism. As expressed by Troeltsch, this maxim states, “In the study of history we can arrive only at probability, not certainty.” [35] The obvious result of this premise is that anyone who builds faith on the historicity of scriptural events can only be building on probability. Such faith, built on probability, can only be tenuous at best and, as Thomas Thompson would say, a destructive faith at worst. We are supposed to exclaim, “Who would ever want to build religious faith on probability, that is, the historicity of scripture?” Faith ought to be built on something more solid than probability! “We need to find a more sure foundation than historicity!” As Latter-day Saints we want our faith to be built on certainty (see Alma 32), but not solely on the certainties allowed by the Enlightenment. We would reject Troeltsch’s premise and the rest of his syllogism, which is based on the Enlightenment extrapolation of the ideas of the transcendence of God. Latter-day Saints believe that we can arrive at certainty, but not necessarily through studying history and nature (i.e., science) the way the Enlightenment would require us to do it.

Coupled with the relegation of scripture to a secondary position, “the secularization of knowledge in science, as in other fields, meant that theological ideas, whatever their role elsewhere, were to be excluded from the study of the world.” [36] When these ideas began to spread to what we today call the humanities, historical criticism was born. To begin with, the ideas of historical criticism were applied to the study of the classics, with the result that scholars had to “either accept the legends [of the early history of Greece and Rome] as a whole, like the historians of previous centuries, or reject them as a whole. And historical criticism had little difficulty in deciding which it was its duty to do.” [37] They rejected them outright because, as they reasoned, “small errors of details were sufficient to cast doubt on the credibility of a historical narrative.” [38]

With God no longer involved in history and with scripture assigned a subordinate role, it was only a matter of time before the same principles of historical criticism would be applied to the Bible. After all, “the Scriptures of the Old Testament . . . are historical documents which must be examined according to the same method and upon the same principles as other documents which claim to be historical.” [39] Why should the scriptures be an exception to the rule allowing reason and enlightenment to flood the world with truth? “Inevitably, therefore, the scientific criticism of the Old Testament followed upon the scientific criticism of the Greek and Roman historians, and if its tendency was destructive in the case of the one, it was only because it had already been destructive in the case of the other. . . . Abraham only followed Agamemnon; and if the reputed ancestor of the Hebrew race was resolved into a myth, it was because ‘the king of men’ had already submitted to the same fate.” [40]

The New Testament fared no better than the Old Testament. After Abraham became a myth, it was not long before the miraculous birth of Christ and His no-less-miraculous resurrection were also declared ahistorical. In fact, any biblical story that defied natural explanation, as delimited by the Enlightenment, was denied historical status.

In addition, some critics near the end of the Enlightenment sought to divest Jesus “of the supernatural nimbus with which it was so easy to surround Him, and with which He had in fact been surrounded. They were eager to picture Him as truly and purely human, to strip from Him the robes of splendour with which He had been apparelled, and clothe Him once more with the coarse garments in which He had walked in Galilee.” [41] They sought to prove Jesus a man and not the Christ; and in this wise “Jesus and the Enlightenment worldview made peace.” [42]

The Enlightenment certainly brought about some laudable changes. [43] However, those who accept the battlefield chosen by the Enlightenment as the only possible terrain to discuss religion have often concluded that there must be another way of reading scripture if they are to maintain faith in the historical remains of a Christian religion that has been emptied of divine historicity. Perhaps one of the most influential new ways of reading scripture was proffered by David Strauss, a German scholar writing in the middle of the nineteenth century. [44] In partial reaction to the Romantic movement, which itself was a reaction to the Enlightenment, he sought to provide Christianity with a better footing than the wobbly foundation of fragments remaining from the assault of the Enlightenment. “The great problem which Strauss attacked was, to what extent the New Testament narrative could fairly be said to be historical. This led him ‘to reject the miraculous element in it,’” [45] just as the Enlightenment before him had done. Obviously Strauss had accepted the principles of rationalism when he wrote, “We can indicate a point at which in every instance [the] possibility [of a miracle] ceases, because here every historical analogy deserts us, every conceivability, according to the laws of nature, is at an end. If we begin with the most extreme case, so by a mere expression of blessing, Jesus can never have enormously increased the means of nourishment, never changed water into wine, nor can he in defiance of the laws of gravity have walked upon water without sinking into it; he cannot have recalled any of the dead to life.” [46]

In other words, those parts of the New Testament that cannot be explained by the norms of rationalism established by tenets of the Enlightenment cannot be seen as historically true. Therefore, said Strauss, “Were we in a position to demonstrate historically, and with complete accuracy, all the possibilities upon which the introduction of Christianity might be dependent . . . the result would be that the view which regards the rise of Christianity as a miracle would be found to be erroneous.” [47] Strauss did not mean that there had not been a historical Jesus or a historical movement sparked by followers of a historical Jesus. Rather, he simply denied the miraculous elements in the history of Christ while trying to maintain a belief in the man Jesus. In this Strauss was true to the injunction of Hegel, who said, “The critic’s real object. . . ought to be ‘to keep the faith unadulterated, and at the same time to keep science in harmony with it.’” [48] In other words, there is nothing supernatural in Jesus’ life. It is only important that the followers of Christ practice a type of docetism in that they believe as if there were divine intervention in the life of Jesus. [49]

In the place of a belief in the historicity of scripture, Strauss posited the concept of myth, which grew out of his study of Hegel, particularly Hegel’s “distinction between image or representation (Vorstellung) and concept (Begriff).” [50] As far as the New Testament was concerned, Strauss believed that the myth (i.e., story or Vorstellung) “represented a deficient mode” which the seeker of truth must “stride past” in order to reach the concepts being taught by scripture. [51] In other words, the myth or story, which may or may not be historical, is the means to arrive at some idea or concept. Thus the story could be devoid of all historicity and yet contain an idea or a teaching point that the reader was supposed to imbibe. [52] In fact, the story could even be a hindrance to understanding the concept if the reader paused to take its historicity seriously.

Since Strauss first wrote of this mythical concept of reading scripture, many scholars have seized upon it as a way to reconcile Christian faith with Enlightenment rationalism. The result is that “the majority of divine deeds in the biblical history of the Hebrew people become what we choose to call symbols, rather than plain old historical facts.” [53] As mentioned by the critic at the beginning of this essay, the story of Abraham becomes just a story, devoid of history. In fact, “the point” of one of the current methods of biblical criticism “seems to be that we should be so engrossed with the story, . . . that interrupting historical questions are out of place. Whether the story is based on anything that actually happened is irrelevant.” [54] For those who accept the mythological (ahistorical) reading of scripture because God is not in our history, nor has He ever been in our history, neither does He now nor did He ever act in the history of this world, historicity becomes irrelevant at best and a hindrance to faith at worst. Nevertheless, as this imperious view continues, the Bible does contain stories (mythology, divine fiction, or whatever word the current vogue requires) to teach us how to be nice.

With the narrative passages of the Bible now resolved into myth (miraculous or logically impossible) and history (possibly historical), the next logical step was to eliminate the need to buttress the mythological pericopes with Enlightenment-style apologetics. As the Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann has argued, modern man cannot return to miracles or spiritual answers. For Bultmann, modern man “is convinced that the mythological view [by that he means accepting the miraculous passages of the New Testament even though they are devoid of historicity] of the world is obsolete,” because “all of our thinking is irrevocably formed by science” [55] (i.e., Enlightenment strictures). That is, because today we have accepted Enlightenment science as the only possible terrain, we cannot accept as historical the stories contained in scripture. “A blind acceptance of the New Testament mythology [i.e., the historicity of miraculous events] would be simply arbitrariness.” [56]

Nevertheless, Bultmann followed the lead of Strauss when he contended that the mythological Christ depicted in the New Testament may not be identical with the Jesus of history. This bifurcation of Jesus Christ into myth (Christ) and history (Jesus), which had generally been accepted by the critics, led to attempts by apologists to shore up the historicity of Christ. Such apologies were and are misplaced, according to Bultmann. “The task of the historian,” as Bultmann is summarized, “is thus not to prove that God can be proved to the satisfaction of modernity, but rather to prove that God cannot be proved. . . . Any attempt to buttress this decision [to believe] through external means, whether by idea, dogma, or historical science, is illegitimate, since it is motivated by unbelief. The ‘quest for the historical Jesus’ had been nothing but a century-old attempt to give the believer a reason for believing.” [57] For those who follow this line of reasoning, the result is that any attempt to demonstrate the historicity of the miraculous passages of scripture only demonstrates a lack of faith on the part of the apologist and is not a valid avenue of inquiry. We are not supposed to believe that Jesus is the Christ, and any attempts to reconcile the two are misplaced.

Not all Christian scholars capitulated to all aspects of Enlightenment theology. The Swiss theologian Karl Barth “levelled biting criticism against the humanism of current biblical interpretation, and demanded an approach to the text bent to its subject matter. Instead of beginning with the human, with human speech or human thought about God, one had to begin with God, with God’s speech and God’s thought about human existence.” [58] Yet even for the critics of the critics, “it did not mean turning away from modernity [Humanism and Enlightenment world view] and its demands, but a new and more critical encounter with its significance for the life of faith.” [59] The critics of the critics could not simply give up the terrain chosen by the Enlightenment but rather sought to eliminate what they perceived as inconsistencies by creating salients somewhere else on the same battlefield.

At this point, we have come full circle, arriving at the point where this essay began, and which Latter-day Saints reject, namely, that for some critics of the scriptures historicity is not important for the content of scriptural faith because they have drained their faith of all historicity. Thus, their faith needs to be rescued by looking for ahistorical grounds for their faith.

On the basis of the teachings of the Restoration, Latter-day Saints need not become entangled in the rush to rescue a needlessly eviscerated faith. We reject both the transcendence of God and the removal of God from nature and history. We therefore reject their proffered emancipation of a scriptural faith that does not need to be rescued. We do not believe that God created the world out of nothing. As the Prophet Joseph Smith explained, “God had materials to organize the world out of chaos—chaotic matter.” [60] God took chaotic matter and made a world out of it. He continues to act upon this world hourly, if not more frequently, though He may or may not exist in the time and space of this world. God is not transcendent but is rather, for lack of a better word, immanent. [61] He has acted in the history of this world, He does now act in its history, and He will yet act in the history of this world in a marvelous way.

Why Latter-day Saints Believe in Historicity

As Latter-day Saints we can safely reject traditional Christian concepts of God and the theological deductions of the Enlightenment. We can therefore ignore the conclusions of some higher critics. Yet even some Latter-day Saints, while believing that the Restoration produced “a great church . . . [which] enabled its members to reconcile religion with science and higher learning,. . . [and whose] principal concern was with the here and now,” [62] seem nevertheless to have accepted the conclusions of the Enlightenment. For example, one LDS historian has stated, “Because of my introduction to the concept of symbolism [a subset of the myth school] as a means of expressing religious truth, I was never overly concerned with the question of the historicity of the First Vision or of the many reported epiphanies in Mormon, Christian, and Hebrew history.” [63] Because a few committed, active Latter-day Saints naively espouse such views, it is not enough to reject Enlightenment reasoning. We must also give reason for rejecting the conclusions which are based on those deductions (which I have done above) and for insisting upon the necessity of historicity for Latter-day Saint scriptural faith (which follows).

If God expects us in the time and space of this world to submit to ordinances and other physical requirements, then the scriptural passages which exemplify and instruct us concerning those actions must be historical. Surely, the premier example in scripture for such action is the precedent Jesus Christ set by His own baptism, as recorded in the New Testament. The Book of Mormon, in commenting on His baptism, clearly explains how Christ’s example applies to all people. Because Christ submitted to the priesthood ordinance of baptism during his life on earth, all of God’s children must also be baptized:

And now, if the Lamb of God, he being holy, should have need to be baptized by water, to fulfil all righteousness, O then, how much more need have we, being unholy, to be baptized, yea, even by water! And now, I would ask of you, my beloved brethren, wherein the Lamb of God did fulfil all righteousness in being baptized by water? Know ye not that he was holy? But notwithstanding he being holy, he showeth unto the children of men that, according to the flesh he humbleth himself before the Father, and witnesseth unto the Father that he would be obedient unto him in keeping his commandments. Wherefore, after he was baptized with water the Holy Ghost descended upon him in the form of a dove. And again, it showeth unto the children of men the straitness of the path, and the narrowness of the gate, by which they should enter, he having set the example before them (2 Ne. 31:5–9).

If there is no historicity in the account of Christ’s baptism, if He were not baptized in the waters of the Jordan River, then neither can we be required to be baptized in water in this life. If, on the other hand, Christ Himself was baptized, then we cannot escape its necessity and must also be baptized. Only when the historicity of this central, scriptural account is asserted does the doctrine that we must be baptized “by immersion for the remission of sins” become a belief with content that can be required of all people (Article of Faith 4). If the historicity is deemed irrelevant or nonexistent, then the baptism of Christ becomes not a necessary act to which we must submit, but rather, at best, a nice story which illustrates how we also might want to demonstrate our contrition or humility if we so desire. As John 14:12 clearly implies, [64] we too are supposed to perform the acts of Christ, in which case, the historicity of Christ’s acts indeed becomes a necessity.

If Latter-day Saints believe that the scriptures are about becoming, as well as about doing, then historicity is also necessary because the historicity of scripture determines the depth and breadth of our becoming. No better illustration of this exists than the story of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son, a horrific act by any worldly standard. For Abraham it was doubly horrendous for two reasons. First, he himself had nearly been sacrificed. Second, he had been promised posterity without number, Isaac apparently being the fulfilment of that promise. Indeed, Abraham had very good reasons for doubting the necessity for the sacrifice.

Yet Abraham had faith that “whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.” [65] With that faith, “Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son” (Heb. 11:17). It was Abraham’s trial of faith to be asked to sacrifice his only heir; and he passed the test. He demonstrated by his actions the person he had become—obedient, faithful, and trustworthy. As James states the case, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?” (James 2:21–22). To state this in terms of this discussion on historicity, Abraham proved his faith by his works in this world. It is not enough to simply have abstract faith, because “faith, if it hath not works [in time and space], is dead” (James 2:17).

Without the historicity which Abraham’s example provides, we have little reason to believe that the depth and breadth of our becoming must be on the same scale. Yet this is exactly what must happen in our life. As the Prophet Joseph Smith said to his contemporaries, “God hath said that He would have a tried people, that He would purge them as gold,. . . and we think also, it will be a trial of our faith equal to that of Abraham.” [66] Years later, President John Taylor would quote Joseph Smith as saying, “It is quite as necessary for you to be tried as it was for Abraham and other men of God, and (said he) God will feel after you, and He will take hold of you and wrench your very heart strings, and if you cannot stand it you will not be fit for an inheritance in the Celestial Kingdom of God.” [67] Therefore, Abraham, in developing strong faith, becomes the example we should follow if we expect to receive the promises made to Abraham.

If, however, there is no historicity to the sacrifice of Isaac, but it is simply a nice story (divine fiction at best, at worst it would have been a cruel, malicious joke), which illustrates the fact that we all must develop some kind of abstract faith, then we cannot be required to demonstrate our faith by our actions in this world. But if we desire to follow in Abraham’s footsteps and receive the promises given to him, which the Restoration teaches are available to all those who are faithful (see D&C 132:49–50 [68]), then we too must have our trials of faith. We too must demonstrate here and now, as Abraham did in his day, that we are willing to become what the Lord wants us to become by doing whatever the Lord requires of us. It is the historicity of Abraham’s sacrifice that compels us to develop the same depth and breadth of faith that he did, though the trials we are called upon to pass through may be different than were Abraham’s.

In addition to the becoming and the doing as reasons for the necessity of historicity in scripture, there is a third reason. Perhaps no event in God’s recorded word is more important than the resurrection of Christ. He arose from the dead, and therefore all people, regardless of what they have done or have become, will also rise from the dead. “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22). Every individual ever born will resurrect; there is no choice; no one can escape the resurrection.

If Christ be not raised from the dead, then we as Christians would have no basis for our hope of a resurrection. And if there is no resurrection, then why should we believe and have faith in the other trappings of the gospel? As Paul says, it is not worth it in this mortal life to be a Christian if Christ were not resurrected. “Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not. For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (1 Cor. 15:12–20). Christ resurrected, and the historicity of that event means that we will resurrect. The historical reality of the resurrection of Jesus also gives meaning and content to the rest of our Christian faith.


Without the historicity of the central events, scripture becomes little more than a manual for ethical living, illustrated with quaint, sometimes strange, and often implausible stories, stories that have no more value than any other form of literature. As a noted historian has attempted to explain, “One can find philosophical and religious truths in a Shakespearean tragedy even though the characters and events are wholly fictional.” [69] If “questions of historicity and authorship should not be raised so that the moral message can reach [us] unimpeded,” [70] then we are free to teach Isaiah no differently than we would teach Shakespeare or Lorca or Pushkin or Kayam. The New Testament “myth” of Christ’s resurrection would be the literary equivalent of the rescue of the goddess from the underworld in the “Descent of Ishtar.” [71]

If Christ were not baptized, then our baptism would be no more efficacious than any other ritualistic act. Indeed, all ordinances would be irrelevant. If Abraham did not prove who he had become by his willingness to offer Isaac, then our faith need neither plumb that depth nor span that breadth. We could expect no trying of our faith. If there be no historicity to the resurrection of Jesus, then we could have no hope of a resurrection for us. Certainly there is no more fundamental element to Christian faith than the resurrection for us. Without Christ’s historical resurrection there can be no Christian faith. And that is the point. The scriptures are not just about truth, religious or otherwise. The scriptures are also about doing what God requires, becoming what God desires, and looking “forward with an eye of faith” (Alma 5:15) to that glorious day when we will be brought into God’s presence and exclaim, “Holy, holy are thy judgments, O Lord God Almighty” (2 Ne. 9:46). The historicity of the central events of scripture is absolutely necessary for there to be content in our doctrine, substance to our faith, and reason for our hope.


[1] Thomas L. Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1974), 328–29. See also his newest book, The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel (New York: Basic Books, 1999). I have not yet had access to this book.

[2] Thompson, Patriarchal Narratives, 327–28.

[3] Thompson, Patriarchal Narratives, 328.

[4] G. Ernest Wright, God Who Acts, Biblical Theology as Recital (London: SCM Press, 1956), 126.

[5] Bruce R. McConkie, A New Witness for the Articles of Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), 81.

[6] See note 4 in “Introduction” to this volume for J. Reuben Clark’s short list of scriptural events that Latter-day Saints must believe actually happened.

[7] I want to thank particularly C. Terry Warner, who, in the beginning of my struggle to understand what until then I had only intuited, helped me realize again that the presuppositions we begin with prejudice (and therefore limit) the range of possible conclusions.

[8] Ian G. Barbour, in his book Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997), 142–43, stated the case well: “Christian ethics do not consist of applying principles in discrete moments of decision but in our ongoing patterns of response shaped by stories. Character and vision are embodied in stories rather than in concepts or principles If no Exodus took place, and if Christ did not go willingly to his death, the power of the stories would be undermined. . . . Jesus of Nazareth was a historical person. . . . But in calling him Christ and in testifying to his redemptive role we are making statements of faith that are not historically provable, though they are related to historical evidence” (emphasis in original).

[9] A. H. Sayce, The “Higher Criticism” and the Verdict of the Monuments (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1894), 15.

[10] Barbour, Religion and Science, 13, emphasis in original.

[11] The cogent remarks of A. H. Sayce, written nearly one hundred years ago in Monument Facts and Higher Critical Fancies (New York: Revell, [1904]), 124–25, are still applicable: “There was a time when the Christian regarded his Bible as the orthodox Hindu regards his Veda, as a single indivisible and mechanically-inspired book, dictated throughout by the Deity, and from which all human elements are jealously excluded. But heathen theories of inspiration ought to have no place in the Christian consciousness. Christ was perfect Man as well as perfect God, and in the sacred books of our faith we are similarly called upon to recognize a human element as well as a divine. The doctrine of verbal inerrancy is Hindu and not Christian, and if we admit it we must, with the Hindu, follow it out to its logical conclusion, that the inerrant words cannot be translated into another tongue or even committed to writing. Nevertheless, between the recognition of the human element in the Old Testament, and the ‘critical’ contention that the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with myths and historical blunders, pious frauds and ante-dated documents, the distance is great.”

[12] Title page of the Book of Mormon, “If there are faults, they are the mistakes of men.”

[13] This is why authorized changes in the LDS scriptures do not, and should not, annoy Latter-day Saints who understand the revelatory nature of all scripture. Neither should Latter-day Saints be agitated by supposed or actual revisions in the LDS temple ceremony.

[14] By normative I mean the passages provide the guides or norms by which we are required to order our lives. Thus, the story of the Good Samaritan, though perhaps lacking in historicity (but not in historical detail of the times), is normative in that in more recent tradition it has taught us whom we are to regard as our neighbor and what our behavior vis-a-vis our neighbor should be. Some critics use the derisive term “divine fiction” to describe normative stories that lack historicity.

[15] Bruce L. Shelly, Church History in Plain Language, 2d ed. (Dallas: Word, 1995), 78.

[16] Edwin Hatch, The Influence of Greek Ideas on Christianity (New York: Harper &Row, 1957), 239.

[17] Oxford English Dictionary, 2d ed., s.v. “transcendent,” 5: “Originally often connoting the denial of Divine action or interference in mundane affairs.”

[18] Hatch, The Influence of Greek Ideas, 241, with n. 1, “The above is taken from the summary of Aetius in Plut. deplac. Philos. 1. 7, Euseb. Praep. Evang. 14. 16.”

[19] Barbour, Religion and Science, 15.

[20] Barbour, Religion and Science, 20.

[21] Barbour, Religion and Science, 21.

[22] Barbour, Religion and Science, 21.

[23] Barbour, Religion and Science, 35.

[24] See Barbour, Religion and Science, 42–43: “David Hume (1711–76) held that only the reliable human knowledge is based on sense impressions. . . . Hume was thus led to assert that a scientific theory or law is simply a convenient summary and correlation of individual observations [With regard to the idea of causality Hume says,] we cannot observe necessary connection or any kind of compulsion or power that one event has over another. We observe only repeated temporal succession among sense impressions Thus ‘laws of nature’ are not prescriptions of what has to happen, and scientific knowledge is never universal or certain. Laws are only human expectations based on previous experience. If causality is only a habit of expectation, Hume argues, then the argument for God as First Cause is undermined.”

[25] See Fackenheim’s remarks as summarized in Bernhard W. Anderson, The Living Word of the Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1979), 57.

[26] Barbour, Religion and Science, 22.

[27] Barbour, Religion and Science, 31.

[28] 35.

[29] Barbour, Religion and Science, 36.

[30] Barbour, Religion and Science, 8.

[31] Barbour, Religion and Science, 16.

[32] Ernst Troeltsch, as summarized in Anderson, The Living Word, 54.

[33] William P. Alston, “Biblical Criticism and the Resurrection,” in The Resurrection: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Resurrection of Jesus, eds. Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall, and Gerald O’Collins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 182.

[34] C. S. Lewis, “Historicism,” in God, History and Historians, ed. C. T. Mclntire (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 229, emphasis in original.

[35] Ernst Troeltsch, in Anderson, The Living Word, 54.

[36] Barbour, Religion and Science, 35.

[37] Sayce, The “Higher Criticism,” 12–13.

[38] Sayce, The “Higher Criticism,” 22.

[39] Sayce, The “Higher Criticism,” 26.

[40] Sayce, The “Higher Criticism,” 17.

[41] Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, trans. W. Montgomery (London: SCM, 1996), 4–5.

[42] Roy A. Harrisville and Walter Sundberg, The Bible in Modern Culture: Theology and Historical-Critical Method from Spinoza to Kasemann (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 204.

[43] For example, the same conditions that brought about the Enlightenment also brought about the idea of the separation of church and state. This idea was certainly fostered by the Enlightenment. Without the separation of church and state, the Restoration would hardly seem possible.

[44] For an assessment of Strauss’s place in theological history and his impact on Christian theology, see Harrisville and Sundberg, The Bible in Modern Culture, 89–110. See also the succinct biography in Gerald Bray, Biblical Interpretation, Past and Present (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1996), 330.

[45] Translator’s Preface in David F. Strauss, The Life of Jesus, trans. J. L. M’Ilraith (London: Temple Company, n.d.), vii.

[46] Strauss, The Life of Jesus, 171–72.

[47] Strauss, The Life of Jesus, 1.

[48] Strauss, The Life of Jesus, ix.

[49] See Anderson, The Living Word, 53, “The notion that the Bible is only story, or that revelation (if we dare use the term) is only a mental event, sounds suspiciously like a new kind of docetism.”

[50] Harrisville and Sundberg, Bible in Modern Culture, 103.

[51] Harris and Sundberg, Bible in Modern Culture, 103–4.

[52] There is some value in this approach. However, when the vehicle that carries the concept is always deemed inferior to the concept, as Thompson and others would maintain, I believe important content can be lost.

[53] Gilkey, as quoted in Anderson, The Living Word, 55.

[54] Anderson, The Living Word, 53.

[55] Rudolf Bultmann et al., Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate, ed. Hans Werner Bartsch, trans. Reginald H. Fuller (London: S.P.C.K, 1960), 3, emphasis in original.

[56] Bultmann et al., Kerygma and Myth, 3–4. This does not mean that Bultmann would necessarily deny the historicity of all scripture. He would not deny the probability that the unmiraculous passages could be historical.

[57] Harrisville and Sundberg, Bible in Modern Culture, 222–23, emphasis in original.

[58] Harrisville and Sundberg, Bible in Modern Culture, 210.

[59] Harrisville and Sundberg, Bible in Modern Culture, 211.

[60] Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1938), 351.

[61] I suspect that the proposition that God is either transcendent or immanent is a false dichotomy. The Restoration may be offering us another alternative to this either/or proposition, and we have never articulated it.

[62] Leonard J. Arrington, “Why I Am a Believer,” Sunstone 10, no. 1 (January 1985): 38.

[63] Arrington, “Why I Am a Believer,” 37.

[64] See also the commentary on this verse in the Lectures on Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), 7:12.

[65] Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 256.

[66] Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 135–36. See also D&C 101:4–5, which states that the members of the Church “must needs be chastened and tried, even as Abraham, who was commanded to offer up his only son. For all those who will not endure chastening, but deny me, cannot be sanctified.”

[67] Journal of Discourses (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1886), 24:197.

[68] I thank Robert L. Millet of Brigham Young University for this reference.

[69] Arrington, “Why I Am a Believer,” 37.

[70] Such is the stated opinion of a friend and former colleague; typescript in the possession of the author.

[71] For this myth, see any newer translation, such as Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 154–62. In fact, recently Simo Parpola equated parts of the “Descent of Ishtar” with what Latter-day Saints would call the “Plan of Salvation.” He wrote, “The first half of the myth outlines the soul’s divine origin and fall, the latter half its way of salvation through repentance, baptism and gradual ascent toward its original perfection” (Assyrian Prophecies, State Archives of Assyria IX [Helsinki: Helsinki University Press, 1997], p. xv).