Yesterday I read the first 70 pages of A History of the Christian Church (Williston Walker, 1918. Revised 1956). It’s a solid enough textbook, and, perhaps for that very reason, not an enjoyable read unless you happen to be interested in “names and dates” more or less for their own sake. It’s obvious that Mr Walker (and editors) is trying very hard to be as objective and responsible a scholar as possible. Among online reviewers, those who were primarily looking for a text compiled by a careful and scrupulous historian scored this history very highly, and those looking for something that would provide insights that could only come from a strong interpretive perspective, or which vividly communicate the source material, were disappointed.
I find myself more in the latter camp. I can respect Mr Walker’s scrupulosity, but find that it doesn’t produce a book that I have any particular reason to read. Even then, on the few occasions I was struck by what was said, it was not by the history itself, but by the way the author dealt with it. For instance, I flagged the section discussing the appearance of the four canonical Gospels. It’s sort of jarring, because of the speculative way the author ascribes motives to the gospel writers. After summarizing a historical-criticism understanding of the Apostle Paul’s theology (a dangerous task in itself), he continues:
Within half a generation of Paul’s death, however, a differing interpretation appeared, probably representing an independent line of thought. It was the Gospel of Mark. The writer knew nothing of Paul’s view of Christ’s pre-existence. In his thought, Christ was from His baptism the Son of God by adoption.
Now, I may not be a historian, nor nearly so knowledgable as Mr Walker, but even I can tell he’s going a bit out on a limb here by not qualifying those assertions. In the next paragraph, he continues:
Mark’s view was evidently unsatisfactory to his own age. It had no real theory of the Incarnation. It does not trace back the sonship far enough. If that sonship was manifested in a portion of Christ’s life, why not in all His life? That impressed the writers of the next two Gospels, Matthew and Luke. Like Mark, they had no trace of Paul’s doctrine of pre-existence — their authors did not move in Paul’s theological of philosophical realm. But they make the manifestation of Christ’s divine sonship date from the very inception of His earthly existence. He was of supernatural birth.
I’m willing enough to let scholars be scholarly, but this is putting up all kinds of red flags. It’s one thing to be non-committal about whether the Gospels are, in fact, inspired. And to suppose that they are influenced by the particular interests and concerns of their writers. So I can imagine saying that there was a substantial oral history alive in the early church, some stories being much more credible than the others, and that credibility was in large part guided by who one understood Jesus to be. I remember hearing that there are still all sorts of stories floating around and written down about Jesus’ childhood, which may show up in popular piety, but aren’t taken very seriously theologically. The Church, for instance, suggests that Luke spoke to Mary, and that’s why he can give a much more detailed account of the virgin birth. But that’s not what Mr Walker is saying. He seems to be following a much different line of thought, starting from theology and building or selecting stories based on that (which seems a very dangerous thing to be doing), rather than encountering stories and memories (and noticing who is telling them, and how, and with what significance), and looking for the theology in them.