Because the biblical documents were written in ancient times, in different cultures, and to different peoples, an historical approach to the interpretation of the Bible is deemed necessary. This has become so properly basic that it is nearly an axiom that the contemporary interpretation of the Bible is historical interpretation. Without denying that the Bible is the Word of God, the actual task of interpreting the Bible has become primarily an examination of the words of men. Such an historical emphasis makes theology seem less important, or at best a quite distant secondary concern. John Barton suggests as much when he claims, “There is an important sense in which biblical scholars as such are not and cannot be theologians, for a theologian is one concerned directly with theological truth” (People of the Book?, 54).
Helpful here is an obscure essay by the late Sir Edwyn C. Hoskyns (1884-1937) of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University, entitled “Biblical Criticism a Christian Activity” (in his We Are the Pharisees, 74-79). Hoskyns begins by introducing a growing ignorance regarding the historical interpretation of the Bible. Hoskyns attempts to defend a negative impression of the historical nature of biblical interpretation, but more importantly, to correctly explain its often forgotten roots. By definition, historical interpretation is “to apply a nice, exact, accurate, and precise observation to the biblical literature” (75). Hoskyns explains that historical interpretation is widely regarded as being “shaped and perfected in secular studies and then applied to the Bible,” causing massive discomfort in the church. But, interestingly, Hoskyns rebukes this common assumption: “This picture of the invasion of a perfected study into the domain of the Bible, and its supposed results, is almost wholly untrue. The reverse is, in fact, more nearly the truth. A very good claim may be made that a passion for history and for historical investigation is peculiarly Christian” (76). Hoskyns argues that in sharp contrast from the view that the Bible existed safely and securely in a naïve theological state until the evil history came to prominence, the opposite is more accurate: History became prominent not in spite of Christianity, but because of it. Since Christianity is rooted in certain, important events, the study of history, a tool for explicating history, came to prominence. As Hoskyns explains:
"But it is certain that, for the Christian believer, such a recognition of the importance of particular historical happenings is not imposed upon the Christian religion, but is embedded in its very heart. I would venture to hazard the challenging statement that the modern study of history is a direct product of the belief of the Church, and that the passion for history has spread outwards from the Church into the secular field rather than that it was developed outside the Church and then forced unwillingly upon the Christian theologian, and consequently upon faithful Christians" (77, emphasis added).
While some might be quick to oppose this “challenging statement,” Hoskyns is at least correct to point out that for the Christian the impetus for a historical interpretation of the Bible does not entirely stem from history itself. Rather, it is the work of God in the real world that makes the study of history so important to the study of the Bible. Said another way, for the Christian the historical interpretation of the Bible is a theological necessity. The moment the “Word became flesh” (Jn. 1:14), history became essential to the task of thinking about and proclaiming the good news of the Bible, and it became essential for very theological reasons.
In his posthumously published commentary on the Gospel of John, Hoskyns describes the appropriate posture of a biblical interpreter: “It is no less required of a theologian that he should be an historian than it is of an historian that he should become a theologian” (The Fourth Gospel, 172). For the Christian, the one begets the other. Without taking anything away from the dominance of history in the contemporary interpretation of the Bible, it is important to remember that the contemporary church’s historical veracity has been born out of and should be driven by a theological necessity.