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.

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