As expressed in the book's subtitle, the ambitious goal of Terrence Tilley's History, Theology, and Faith is "dissolving the modern problematic" of the relationship between religious belief and the conclusions and methods of critical historical research. Taking his cue from Van Harvey's influential The Historian and The Believer, Tilley claims that the classical formulations of the problem (including Harvey's) have been so broadly construed that they have obscured the true nature of the issues involved and have, therefore, missed possible solutions. He believes that a more careful analysis will reveal a cluster of distinguishable issues and problems rather than one overarching problem.
"Dissolve" can be taken in at least two senses. Most straightforwardly it can mean to break a complex entity into its component parts; in a derived sense, it can mean to eliminate or destroy. Breaking the compound into its component parts often destroys it. Following the tradition of philosophical analysts, Tilley proposes that dissolving the modern problematic in the first sense will dissolve it in the second (i.e., eliminate it or at least mitigate its harmful effects).
Tilley proposes three important distinctions that he believes will achieve this end. First, he distinguishes among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as facing different faith/history problems; second, he distinguishes theologians from ordinary believers, each of which, in his view, has different responsibilities in confronting the challenges of modern historical research; third, following Lindbeck, he distinguishes between the "principles" of religious traditions, which are in some sense immune from the results of critical historical research, and the "expressions" of those principles, which are not.
In distinguishing between the cognitive-ethical responsibilities of ordinary believers and those proper to theological specialists, Tilley draws upon Harvey's criticism of W.K. Clifford's formulation of an "ethics of belief." Harvey had argued that Clifford overlooked the fact that cognitive-ethical responsibilities are role-specific. Using Clifford's famous example, Harvey claimed that ship's captain has duties of investigation that an ordinary passenger does not have. Tilley turns Harvey's point against The Historian and The Believer, arguing that Harvey failed to see that different "believers" have different responsibilities. The most important chapters of Tilley's book deal with the cognitive-ethical responsibilities of theologians when confronted with the challenges and standards of modern historical research. Tilley believes that this distinction will help to "dissolve" the modern problematic at least as far as ordinary believers are concerned.
Furthermore, Tilley draws several other distinctions to show that, that while the results of historical research are relevant to credible theological work, they are not sufficient to call into question the heart of the theological enterprise. First, he distinguishes between historical descriptions of events and theological interpretations of those events. Theological interpretations of events ("God led the Israelites out of Egypt") can be neither confirmed nor disconfirmed by historical evidence; thus, they are beyond the reach of historical investigation. He concedes that historical research, however, can force a drastic revision in the description of an event. (When viewed through the lens of critical historical scholarship, the events of the Exodus seem a lot smaller than the traditional biblical account.) Such a revision is, in his view, compatible with a traditional theological interpretation/explanation of it. Second, following Lindbeck, he distinguishes between the "principles" of a theological tradition, which are immune from historical criticism, and the various "expressions" of those "principles," which are not. Using the CTSA controversy between Gary Macy and Avery Dulles concerning Eucharistic theology as illustration, Tilley claims that the governing "principle" of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (based on the more fundamental "sacramental principle" of the Catholic imagination) is beyond the scope of historical investigation in a way that a particular "expression" of that principle (the doctrine of transubstantiation) is not. In another of his examples, the "principle" of the Divine foundation of the Church is beyond the scope of historical research in a way that the belief that Jesus founded the Church is not.
Third, in at least one case, Tilley recognizes that Christian theologians have liabilities that theologians in other traditions might not have. I am not sure if the alleged resurrection of Jesus counts as a "principle" in his view. If it does, it seems that Tilley believes that it falls within the scope of historical research in a way that the theological interpretation of the Exodus does not. To create some bargaining room here, he explores some of the assumptions and debates of modern historical research. He notes the debates between relativist and objectivist historians, though I am not quite sure how well this serves his overall purpose. More to the point, he criticizes followers of Troeltsch who have failed to realize that his axioms of historiography, which are guides to research ("rules of thumb"), are different from ontological principles, which would arbitrarily rule out the possibility of the Resurrection of Jesus a priori. Once again, careful distinctions will "dissolve" the problem.
History, Theology, and Faith is a thoughtful book written by a hard-working scholar. Readers who want to take part in the modern conversation about historical criticism and its impact on religious belief and theology will need and want to read this book. It is conversant with much of the discussion in current theology and Biblical criticism. Tilley's presentation will raise many questions, in particular, whether his "dissolving" (analysis) of the problem into smaller units has successfully resolved it or has merely shifted the burden from the "believer" to the theologian without lifting it from the community of believers. That is a subject for a longer essay.