The many historic disputes concerning the new Testament Resurrection narratives reveal something prominent concerning the nature of interpretation that the theory of hermeneutics (the study of interpretation) must soberly ponder.
Any historical event contains elements of action that far exceed the capacity of reportorial narration to embrace. Moreover, the attempt to embrace all the action of an event far exceeds the limits of the historical aspect of experience. In other words, much of the action occurring in an event is irrelevant to the historic meaning of the event. It is not narratively viable to report action tangential to the central historic meaning of the event without rendering it cluttered, “busy,” and all but obscure by the excess. [For further background contributing to my understanding of the nature of history, refer to “Dooyeweerd’s Theory of History and Progress“.]
In the case of the events reported in the New Testament documents, the guiding aspect of the events founded in the historic aspect of experience is fiducial. In other words, the historic facet of the events is used to establish trust in something beyond the mere confession that the alleged events actually happened and that they were decisive for historical progress. That transcendent meaning, of course (i.e., in line with expectations raised by earlier promises and predictions in Scripture), is that Jesus is indeed the only-begotten Son of the only true and living God, Jehovah, come in the flesh, anointed as the Christ/Messiah, and has hence been made the Lord or Master of all, and is worthy of our worship and unconditional obedience. The fiducial meaning of these historic events is clinched by the use of the term fulfillment to describe them. That they were fulfillments of earlier inscripturated prophecies means they were not isolated, fortuitous happenstances, but connected to prophecies the fulfillment of which was intended to certify the almighty power—the very Deity—of the Personage represented by the prophet. These events, in other words, were intended to verify the identity of the true God Who alone has history at His disposal and under His control, outliving every human generation.
Therefore, to miss the meaning of the New Testament events as fulfillment, is to misunderstand the whole point of their reportage. This cannot but have profoundly deleterious effects for any “hermeneutic of suspicion.” We can see this when we consider that any reportorial narrative is necessarily a selection of actions presumed to be relevant for establishing historic import. And in order to understand the meaning of the selection, the aspectual identity and unity underlying the selected actions must be perceived. In the case of the Resurrection narratives, for example, the reader must see that every action points to the assertion that Jesus is alive, having been really dead, and this is the sign that therefore he is the chosen Christ of God. Only in the connection and full context of preceding history and Biblical prophecy, as well as of Jesus’ whole career and stream of claims, can this be grasped, which is precisely why New Testament Scripture emphasizes these matters (contrary to the Hellenized dogmatic theologies that cropped up like mushrooms in post-apostolic times to infest both the Eastern and Western church).
A “hermeneutic of suspicion”—of distrust—will see in any such selection many “contradictions,” because once the point is lost for their choice, the unity of their joint witness disintegrates. And then each partial account of the full events (as, in fact, any fiducial selection must be, so as not to lose the point of the event) will be viewed as the “contradiction” of complementary fuller accounts (which, in their turn, will display paucity of reportage in other respects, depending on which fiducial emphases they may have in view).
This all means that even a small grain of trust in such a fiducial narrative will tend toward the opening up of understanding or the manifestation of the intended meaning in the narrative. Thus a hermeneutic of trust will be carried along by the proof manifest in the connection of the alleged historic actions with their prior Scriptural prophetic explanations. Such a hermeneutic will take for granted the existence of “many other signs” (Jn. 20:30) that could not for evident practical reasons be included in a handy narrative. This undertaking may therefore be inclined to reconstruct the entire event from the various selections of well-attested actions having evident fiducial importance. And this may have its value. But against the predilections of a hermeneutic of prior suspicion and enmity, such efforts will be, by and large, ineffectual. For distrust of the fiducial meaning of the narrative (i.e., its character as fulfillment, in order to identify the true God, the point of which is to enlist human obedience to Him and achieve authentic maturation) will lead necessarily and compulsively to a deconstruction of the narrative so as to discredit the presupposed historic events supporting the fiducial superstructure. Hence the unity of the selected actions will become invisible to such a hermeneutic; only disparate and seemingly contradictory allegations will remain. [02/20/96]
Nevertheless, as Wolfhart Pannenberg observes, “What is decisive in historical argument is not some isolated piece of evidence, but rather the convergence of all the available evidence and of the interpretations that can be based on such evidence.” (In his response [pp. 125-35] to Gary R. Habermas and Antony G. N. Flew, Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?: The Resurrection Debate, ed. by Terry L. Miethe [San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987], p. 130. Emphases added.) So even though, for instance, the fiducial significance of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus is discounted by denying their status as fulfillments of many prophetic Scriptures, nevertheless their status as actual history remains assured due to the indisputable witness of clear convergence of all available evidence. And this actual historical character of the resurrection of a man named Jesus from a death by crucifixion will singlehandedly force a reconsideration of its fiducial meaning, resistance to which can only be maintained at the cost of posing the insoluble historic enigma that a man has been positively demonstrated to have returned from certified death in a state of rather unusual vigor and superhuman capabilities—a circumstance otherwise entirely unknown in historical records—and for no particular reason whatever! The person who can stay comfortable with such cognitive dissonance stands ready to buy some bridge in Brooklyn.
Albert L. Roper, explains in his book, Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?: A Lawyer Looks at the Evidence (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1965; pp. 16-17, emphases added):
An honest inquiry into the truth of any event should have as its purpose to recreate the surrounding circumstances out of which the event emerged. Is that not, for instance, the function of a trial at law? Through the testimony of witnesses, judge and jury should be brought to relive the actual moments and scenes of the event at issue, passing judgment upon the witnesses, their character and sincerity, and the reasonableness of their testimony. Did the witness have an opportunity to observe the incidents, the facts to which he testifies? Is his testimony a simple, direct statement of what he saw? Is his testimony such as to negate any suspicion of collusion on the part of several witnesses?
It is fundamental that judge and jury shall be convinced that the witnesses themselves believe the facts to which they testify, and that their testimony is reasonable. If the trial has been properly conducted, it should result in such a re-enactment of the events to which testimony has been adduced as to cause both judge and jury to see those events through the eyes of several witnesses.
The same method of approach and the same standard of inquiry should be exacted of all seekers after truth. The purpose should be to translate ourselves back a month, a year, or two thousand years, in order that we may, in mind and spirit, relive the scenes about which we inquire, seeing events and incidents through the eyes of witnesses to the facts. From our estimate of the character of the witnesses and the reasonableness of their testimony, we should be enabled to draw our conclusions as to the truthfulness of the facts or incidents which the record presents.
Now if all the actual witnesses collectively agree to the death and resurrection life of Jesus of Nazareth such that our recreation of the surrounding circumstances and re-enactment or reliving of the attested events and scenes comports with our own collective experience (as “jury”) of human behavior and observational possibilities, then belief is not merely possible, but is therewith actually generated and, indeed warranted. Therefore, not the collusion of witnesses (which, to be sure, would detract from the credibility of the alleged events) but the “collusion” of the events themselves with one another, is the active ingredient that evokes belief in their historicity. And it is the historicity of unusual events, such as these, that arouses the insistent search for further meaning than their bare historical facticity can furnish.
The circumstance, in the above case, that the fiducial meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection were ready made and long before resident in ancient Scriptures which were, nevertheless, not understood by the witnesses of these events until after the occurrence of the events they explained, is added testimony to the ingenuous character of those witnesses. For only if a highly trained mentality such as the Apostle Paul’s had witnessed those events firsthand might we be justified in suspecting that he had either skillfully conspired to bring about such events himself, so as to manipulate a plausible “fulfillment” of Scriptures, or that he had somehow fabricated a redaction of authentic testimonies that he had himself craftily solicited.
However, the twelve disciples were not scholars like Paul. They were not disposed by training or inclination (if we may judge from their literary remains) either to think deep or to write long. They were, after all, neither Greeks nor Romans, but mainly working-class Jews. And Paul, though reared in Tarsus, a center of Hellenized civilization, and though trained in the Jewish Torah at the feet of Gamaliel, had first to be converted out of a Judaistic hermeneutic, and without the advantage of firsthand observation of Jesus’ career, before he could apply himself to understanding the true fiducial meaning of that career as revelatory of the promised Messiah.
Even Luke, Paul’s long-time, medically-trained associate, had not been among the original disciples, and would doubtless not have taken up his historical task but for that extraordinary association.
These attending circumstances therefore rule out any legitimate suspicion of human collusion either in the course of events or in their fiducial interpretation. [02/21/96]
However, there is still more to be said. A hermeneutic of trust in the New Testament is reinforced by the added promised witness of the Wholesome Spirit to be poured out in power on those who trust that fiducial interpretation. The particular selection of fiducial elements we know as the “New Testament” is therein given the simple label “Evangel” or “Gospel” or “Proclamation” (evangelion), and it is attested by God’s own testimony from on high, over and above the witness of those first and founding apostolic commissioners. The signs and miracles of the Wholesome Spirit are intended to be an abiding witness to the written testimony of those specially selected witnesses to Christ’s Resurrection. So that where that Spirit is quenched and denied its proper function, the advancement of the Proclamation of God’s Kingdom and the teaching about Christ are impaired.
It is urgent, therefore, to redress our past losses by a return to the clear instruction of the Gospel concerning the testimony of God’s own Wholesome Spirit to the Proclamation of His Kingdom. Knowing now that God Himself desires to confirm the apostolic Explanation with the added corroboration of “signs and miracles and various powers and partings of Holy Spirit” (Heb. 2:4), we may feel free to invoke from God this “indescribable gratuity” (2 Cor. 9:15) upon our proclamation. And, appropriately, we must prepare ourselves and our listeners to expect such fresh outpourings as God may desire to bless us with.
Mutual repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation appear clearly to be prerequisites for such “seasons of refreshing…from the face of the Lord” (Acts 3:19). The mutuality of love, peace, and unity of the saints—itself the fruit of God’s Holy Spirit—is a powerful drawing force by which God may add more believers as they are saved. This is the necessary infrastructure for a lasting work of God. Into such “silos” God may pour abundant new harvests of young believers. [2/20/96]