On Tuesday 31st/January/2012, I gave a seminar to a group of postgraduate students at the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham. The topic of my talk was The Muslim Jesus of Islam and the Divine Jesus of Christianity: historical and theological perspectives. I discussed the similarities and differences between the images of Jesus in the Qur’an and the New Testament. I also addressed related concepts in the Old Testament and other Jewish scriptures, and which image of Jesus has more backing in history.
One topic I discussed was the doctrine of Trinity. I noted that when the first version of the Christian Creed of Faith was formulated at the first Ecumenical Council in Nicea in 325 CE it referred to the Holy Spirit only in passing in terms of the necessity to believe in it. The second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in 381 CE gave the Creed its final shape and, significantly, addressed the status of the Holy Spirit and, thus, the Trinity.
In the Q&A session that followed the presentation, one student suggested that even though the status of the spirit Holy Spirit was mentioned in passing in the Nicean formulary, it was already known and accepted by all Christians. She argued that the Constantinopolitan version only recorded what had already been known.
My reply was to highlight a category error in this statement. The student confused an “assumption” — probably different by faith — with “historical fact.” The suggestion that the status of the Holy Spirit as expressed in the Nicean-Constantinopolitan Creed was already believed by Christian at the time of the Nicean Creed is an “assumption” not “history.” There is no historical evidence to back this view.
Now, when we deal with ancient history and when there is a lack of resources, the historian often find themselves having to rely more on assumptions. There is nothing wrong with this and it is certainly a legitimate approach. However, the researcher must clearly distinguish assumptions that are being used to reconstruct history and facts which are the intrinsic building blocks of history.
Of course, this does not mean all assumptions are equally valid and logical. The clear identification of the assumptions used must be followed by a logic supporting the adoption of the specific assumptions, as opposed to alternative ones. In addition to the need to be consistent with each other, the preferred assumptions must be shown to be more reconcilable with historical facts than other assumptions.
If we take the case above, historical sources show unequivocally that the nature of Jesus and the three main doctrines of the Incarnation, Redemption, and Trinity developed over time and were always the subject of contention. Also, we need to look at the suggestion that all that happened at Constantinople was for the convening bishops to write down what the bishops who met in Nicea did not bother to write and ask: is this really more credible than the view that the status of the Holy Spirit developed in the six decades between the first two Ecumenical Councils? This latter view is certainly more consistent with what is known from history about the development of the elements of the Christian faith.
Confusing facts with assumptions is one common methodological error that is found in every discipline. Yet it is a critical duty and responsibility of the researcher to make clear to themselves and to others what assumptions underline their work with facts. This is particularly important when the researcher is addressing an audience who might not be able to see that for themselves.