Then & There, Here & Now

A friend recently gave me the heads up on an article in the Harvard Theological Review by Paul E. Capetz entitled, “Theology and the Historical-Critical Study of the Bible” (HTR 104 (2011): 459-88). It is a lengthy engagement with three advocates of Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Brevard Childs, Christopher Seitz, and Dale Martin.

Capetz writes from the standpoint of an avowedly liberal theological tradition, and asks why it is that otherwise critically-engaged scholars insist on setting aside critical scholarship when it comes to moving into theology for the church.

He contends that the move from critical to theological exegesis is arbitrary and muddy–and that it does not in fact honor the tradition of the church which it seeks to uphold. For instance: is it really honoring the “orthodox” forebears of the Christian tradition if we simultaneously say, “Yes, they were right that God is Triune” but then in the next breath say, “But no, Paul isn’t a Trinitarian–in fact, he’s a subordinationist” (478-79)?

Are we really honoring the tradition when we, on historical-critical grounds, affirm the exegesis of the heretics while simultaneously affirming the theological conclusions of the proponents of orthodoxy?

These are the very real questions that beset historical-critical study of the Bible. These are the types of issues that have left many snubbing biblical scholarship as useless for the church’s faith, and has led others to conclude that there is no faith worth finding in the Bible.

To my mind, all of this brings us back around to the question Christian Smith is rightly pressing in his book: what does the reality of the struggles entailed in reading the Bible tell us about what the Bible is and thus what we should be doing with it?

Not so incidentally, this is why I also have chosen a narrative model for making sense of both scripture and Christian theology. We need a model for thinking about who we are, and what our book is, that makes room for development, change, and even contradiction.

I find myself drawn in both directions in this debate that Capetz articulates. On the one hand, I agree that one of the most significant things that historical-critical scholarship helps us to is a better reading of the texts. Unlike Capetz, I agree that these texts are the normative rule of faith and life for the church.

Thus, the historical-critical study provides one piece of evidence, one point on the line of the developing narrative that the church continues to live in today.

But historical criticism will not frame its work within a self-consciously Christian narrative. And that is where we must allow it to claim to be an end in itself. Or, better, we must not allow the constraints of segmented OT and NT disciplines to segment the implications of NT historical-critical work. In the latter we discover a practice of rereading the OT in light of the fulfillment of Israel’s story in Christ–a fulfillment that negates many alternative would-be endings to the story than a first OT audience might have anticipated.

So where does that leave us? I want to keep trying to hold the two together as two different players in the same drama of biblical interpretation: the historical critic tells us what the text might have meant to an early, historically contextualized audience, the Christian commitment summons us to contextualize, realize, and sometimes relativize the on-going significance of that text in light of the later, decisive moment of the story and our own continuing participation in it.

23 thoughts on “Then & There, Here & Now”

  1. Both “theology” and historical-critical scholarship share at least one thing in common: each offers proposals to be validated (or rejected) by others. Historical-critical proposals tend to be validated (or otherwise) by the scholarly guild. Theological proposals tend to be accepted (or otherwise) by the body of the faithful. Proposals that receive widespread acceptance over time can be called “dogma.” Proposals that receive “local” (but not universal) acceptance by particular denominations can be called “doctrines.” Proposals that merely represent the thought of a single theologian (plus perhaps a small group of followers) can be called “theologies.” The ancient church had a way of warranting “orthodox” dogma: consensus plus reception (the former being established by bishops in an “ecumenical” council, the later being the confirmation of the “folks back home” after a council published its declaration.)

    My major problem with the historical-critical method as “the decider” is that it really doesn’t know what to do with claims of deepening ecclesial insight whereby, to pick one example, Paul’s “subordinationism” can be taken up into the emerging clarifications of Trinitarianism or Incarnationalism without any inconsistency. There’s no ultimate “external” way of validating the mysteries embedded in the “mind of the church.” The “internal” way (at least for starters) is to “come and see.”

  2. Paul is a dear dear friend. A Brilliant man and the perfect example of a real deal Reformed Christian liberal. I mean this dude is not an academic CHristian but a real churchy one who also has a giant brain and heart for people and God’s mission.

    I also have the audio to this lecture. I’ll find it!

    1. In that tradition, John. Schleiermacher, perhaps, and more pointedly Troelsch in this particular article. By “liberal” here we’re talking about the theological tradition of liberalism, not just a pejorative label for someone to my left that I don’t like.

  3. You asked on twitter if Historical-Critical study had anything to offer for the theology of the church and I think the answer is overwhelmingly – yes.

    It offers the humblest and yet most profound reading of scripture yet accomplished. It teaches us epistemological humility and serves to steer us away from dogmatism, while simultaneously offering an incredible respect for the tradition. No one dedicates decades of study and countless hours pouring over a single passage to mine it for meaning without having a respect for the text and the traditions it belongs to.

    The problem with Historical-Critical study is that it hasn’t penetrated deeply enough into the church in order to upset our doctrines and liberate God from our slogans and creeds. Pastors and theologians have been looking too hard for a “constructive” alternative to the Historical-Critical method instead of simply allowing the deconstruction to settle into popular consciousness. It may be that there is a “next step” or a complementary form of study which is important to the theology of the church, but we can hardly talk about that when the vast majority haven’t even taken the first step.

  4. If the story of the community is paramount, why should the community up till two thousand years ago take precedence over the continuing story since?

  5. I’m not sure what kind of scholarship Aric Clark has experienced…but ‘epistemological humility’ is not exactly how I would describe the historical-critical method. When the SBL is set up as the arbiter of Christian teaching to which all others must submit, I would hardly call that ‘epistemological humility.’

    And yes, there are other reasons to dedicate countless hours poring over a text: salary, making a name for oneself, dissertation/article/book publication of a new and controversial interpretation, seeking to prove wrong a challenging teaching of the Christian tradition, a love for knowledge that doesn’t necessarily lead one to a deeper obedience, etc, etc.

    I am not saying that all scholars are guilty of these, but just trying to offer a ‘whoa!!! …tone down the enthusiasm!” to Aric.
    There are many other plausible interpretations of the contemporary situation.

    Christian faith/teaching/spirituality is not something ‘discovered’ (by 20th/21st C. biblical scholars) or ‘hidden for two thousand years.’ It is something that is ‘handed over,’ ‘passed down,’ ‘received.’ If something comes about that challenges MUCH of what comes before, then it is most likely to be avoided at all cost. It is exactly the epistemological ARROGANCE that I see in Aric’s comment that leads me to be very wary of any supposed primacy for the historical critical method.

    1. Hi Joel – and everyone else who pointed out that scholars aren’t the most notoriously humble group of people on the planet. Agreed. What I mean is not that scholars are of themselves humble, but that the Historical Critical method itself contains epistemological humility by which I mean specifically – it doesn’t dogmatically assume any interpretation of the text prior to doing the critical work. It has proven itself through constant debate and re-interpretation to be open to being proven wrong. As such using the Historical Critical method to interpret scripture is a way of teaching yourself to let the text be primary.

      Sure there are all kinds of motivations for doing scholarly work, but there are many fields that pay better and are more prestigious than Biblical Studies. Of the many OT and NT scholars I know, none of them are doing it for the prestige. They genuinely love this stuff.

      And who said the SBL is the arbiter of Christian teaching? On the contrary my OT and NT professors in seminary were adamant about it being every reader’s job to approach the text critically. The very reason the PC(USA) requires their seminary students to learn both Greek & Hebrew and take 36 units of Biblicals studies and exegesis is precisely because they think this work is NOT a matter for “the guild”. Learning to study scripture critically is hard, certainly, but the appropriate response isn’t to say it is only for the experts as Charles Twombly does below. The appropriate response is to start teaching it in our congregations.

      Indeed, I’d argue that critical interpretation is far more proletarian than say the allegorical interpretation which dominated the first few centuries of Christian tradition. Critical tools can be taught and applied by almost anyone whereas the allegorical interpreter has to claim special insight.

      I also never suggested that Christian faith was discovered in the 20th c. I said that the historical critical method of reading scripture has given us our deepest interpretations of scripture yet, which I stand by as a reasonable assessment.

  6. Perhaps it’s time we stopped pretending – to congregations and others – that faith hasn’t evolved. Paul changes some of the stuff he’s inherited – he relativises the purity laws, for instance, in 1 Corinthians 10, for instance, and insists that Gentiles have equal standing with Jews. The ideas about Jesus in the NT get turned into Theophilus of Antioch’s concept of the Trinity – still very Jewish – and Greek theologians later turn it into the Nicene conception of the Trinity. And so on. The process needs to continue; nobody but scholars know what a hypostasis is these days. There’s nothing wrong with that; our concepts will always be inadequate to describe God. Trouble is, we either insist it’s all in the Bible, or at least let people go on assuming that unchallenged. What are they afraid of?

  7. Interesting how both “fundamentalist” and “liberal” approaches to Scripture and classical dogma often ignore or reject the ecclesiological dimension as if it were a ball and chain. Two peas out of the same Enlightenment pod, I’d say. The theological interp “movement” (Fowl, Vanhoozer, etc) is developing a much more sophisticated approach. Despite certain reservations, I’d recommend the (re)reading of an oldie: Martin Kahler’s THE SO-CALLED HISTORICAL JESUS AND THE HISTORIC BIBLICAL CHRIST, especially its strictures against the “new magisterium” of the scholars (of any tradition). Spiritual things are spiritually discerned. But the validation of those discernments has to come from the body illuminated by the Spirit. Close, careful, “humble” historical-critical study is part of the mix. But the practical effect of highly specialized biblical scholarship is to place the reading and understanding of Scripture out of reach for all but the “experts.” Lay readers who pick up a learned commentary or a work on dogmatics often walk away discouraged and conclude there’s no good reason to go back. Either that or they attempt to live more ardently in “Bible Land” and pull the daily “promise verse” out of the little box.

  8. Addendum to my recent comment: As a guy who has shelves loaded with “highly specialized” works of bibical (and theological) scholarship, I don’t want less of such; in fact, we need more! And better too. But we’ve moved into a world in which the Bible is as inaccessible to a “Bible believing evangelical” as it was to a pre-Vatican II Catholic. And, within the guild itself, sub-fields become so specialized, that scholars in other sub-fields fear to open their mouths. Lots of “bibliography bashing” (“What? You mean you haven’t read Prof Smedley’s study of Deutero-Pauline pneumatology?”), chronological snobbery, and “privileging” secondary works over primary texts. In short, we can be a pretty unattractive, unedifying bunch. Evagrius Pontus said (famously), “To pray is to be a theologian; to be a theologian is to pray.” That’s good for a laugh, isn’t it.

  9. I find that ordinary church people can be very critical readers, when they’re given permission to be. I put it like that because so many people have been taught that it’s wrong to read critically. It can be an uphill job getting them to read with their brains in gear, rather than just ‘believing’ what somebody’s told tem the text ‘means’. At present, one of the ladies who attend the prayer/Bible study group at church is reading critically, and asking very intelligent questions, while another gets a bit threatened by it. I just wish that liberals would get in the pulpit and preach their understanding of the Bible!

  10. Aric, one of the effects that were noted decades ago when the attempt was made to teach the “historical-critical” study of Scirpture to congregations (either through preaching or through commentaries like the old Interpreter’s Bible)was that lay people lost confidence in being able to read a biblical book (say, Genesis) as a continuous narrative. If you’re plowing through the IB and being told this or that verse (or half-verse!) is J or E or P and you try to make sense of the narrative as a whole while bearing in mind the various splicings, you can easily give up. I guess this is why the efforts of Brevard Childs and others to approach the text in a canonical “final form” way was so liberating for many, pastors and lay people alike. Childs didn’t deny the long and complicated development/editing of biblical texts; he “merely” saw the canon as the finished product of a/the community of faith and tried to read the text as an “insider.” At the opposite end is someone like Burton Mack, whom I once heard say that he wished he could turn biblical studies at his school (Claremont?) into a department of ancient oriental studies or something similar. (We are increasingly being made aware that “pre-critical” readings of Scripture are a lot richer and more sophisticated (yes, even the allegorizing!) than our “chronological snobbery” might allow. Patristic exegesis in particular is a gold mine waiting to be explored more fully. As for allegory, biblical scholars should pay attention to what Henri de Lubac, Andrew Louth, and others are finding. Some may come to scoff but remain to pray–to coin a phrase.)

  11. Trying to teach the average congregation that stuff would be a bit daft, but I had some lessons on the Synoptic Problem when I was 11, and it stuck well enough to help me avoid fundamentalism later. You could, for instance, encourage them to look at the different Synoptic versions of a story side by side, and ask why they’re different. On a simpler and possibly more useful level, you could look at some of the really awful stuff – Psalm 137, for instance – and ask whether God really does bless infanticide. Or look at the different creation stories, and see how the story evolves. Once they start asking questions like that, they’re on the way.

    1. Robert, good suggestions. I’ve used all three (synoptic parallels, Psalm 137, Genesis 1-2) with students at a women’s college and got generally enthusiastic responses. It helped many become more attentive readers of other passages as well. Yes, “they’re on the way.”

      The problem with doing the same thing in congregational settings (for me at least) is that biblcal literacy is often so low (even among ardent biblicists) that most of one’s time is taken up with helping the “audience” reach a very basic, elementary familiarity with supposedly familiar passages.

      1. Perhaps we can all agree that the prequel to introducing more intense historical-critical scrutiny in a typical congregation is to get learners to move beyond reading the Bible as if it were all like Proverbs (10-30), ie a string of verses separable from what surrounds them.

        If people submit their attention to the narrative flow of, say, Matthew, then the fun can begin. I like introducing that gospel by starting in a couple of odd places: the concluding verses (Mtt 28:16-20) and the “Jews only” sections of chapters 10 and 15. The “great commission” passage has all kinds of fore-shadowing going on in the first three or four chapters; the “only to the …. house of Israel” passages have a kind of counter foreshadowing going on in the same opening chapters: lots of hints that the gentiles are going to be brought into the story, early and late, including the “all the nations” of chapter 28. One can do similar things with the Moses/Israel subtext of Matthew too. Helping folks see these themes and make these connections can really fire up their enthusiasm.

        What’s not so good (at least in my opinion) is when one uses criticism (deliberately?) to shock and unsettle, a tendency among many seminarians and recent graduates who want to “share” their own initial discomfort with others.

  12. It’s never a good idea to make people uncomfortable if you can avoid it. I once did an NT course designed for people from different cultures, often from Pentecostal churches, many without any academic background. The Synoptic Problem was introduced by putting passages about Jesus’ family side by side and asking what the different evangelists thought of them. The point, of course, was that no church has any dogma built on Jesus’ attitude to his family!

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