The problem posed by the historical-critical method might be posed as the difference between what the text meant and what it means. Once this dichotomy is sharply posed, we find ourselves in a crisis of authority. How does Scripture exercise authority in the Church if its meaning is restricted to what the original authors meant? And indeed why should anyone care about Scripture if its meaning is so restricted?
In his book The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism, Jewish scholar Jon Levenson argues that the historical-critical method destroys the sacred nature of Scripture because it asserts the ultimate authority of historical context at the cost of sacrificing the wider “literary contexts that undergird the traditions that claim to be based upon them” (p. 4). What does Levenson mean by “literary context”? He explains:
Much of the polemics between religious traditionalists and historians over the past three centuries can be reduced to the issue of which context shall be normative. When historical critics assert, as they are wont to do, that the Hebrew Bible must not be taken “out of context,” what they really mean is that the only context worthy of respect is the ancient Near Eastern world as it was at the time of composition of whatever text is under discussion. Religious traditionalists, however, are committed to another set of contexts, minimally the rest of scripture, however delimited, and maximally, the entire tradition, including their own religious experience. Their goal is not to push the Book back into a vanished past, but to insure its vitality in the present and the future: “The word of our God endures forever” (Isa 40:8). … Underlying the literary context affirmed by religious traditionalists is the conviction that the text is somehow the expression of a reliable God. Harmonization is the exegetical counterpart to belief in the coherence of the divine will. The uniformity of scripture reflects the uniformity of truth. The alternative to this traditional religious position has never been stated more boldly than it was by a great pioneer of the historical criticism of the Bible, Baruch (Benedict) de Spinoza (1632-1677), when he wrote that “great caution is necessary not to confuse the mind of a prophet or historian with the mind of the Holy Spirit and the truth of the matter.” For Spinoza, the excommunicated Jew who never became a Christian, the idea of inspiration was simply another shackle constricting the exegete. No longer need exegesis take place within the believing community. Scripture must be followed wherever it leads, come what may. The author of a biblical text will be the person who wrote it; its meaning will be what that person meant, not what God means, and no intellectually responsible exposition of it can take place without locating the text unshakably within the historical circumstances of its composition. Jews and Christians can participate equally in the Spinozan agenda only because its naturalistic presuppositions negate the theological foundations of both Judaism and Christianity. (pp. 4-5)
“Its meaning will be what that person meant, not what God means”—here is the problem and challenge of the historical-critical method.
In 1973 Walter Wink protested the divorce between the Bible and the believing community. He described historical biblical critics as the “Wehrmacht of the liberal church.” By their methodology the world was unshackled from the constraints of Scripture and tradition. The guild of biblical scholars became the custodians of the Bible’s true meaning and the Church was liberated for accommodation to modernity. Three years earlier, the renowned Old Testament scholar, Brevard Childs, while acknowledging the necessary role of historical inquiry, asserted that the method is inadequate to the life of the Church:
Surely some will object to this line of argument by asserting that the exegete’s only task is to understand what the Biblical text meant, and that the critical methodology is alone capable of doing this correctly. The historical reading is exegesis; everything else is “eisegesis.” Our response to this type of objection is by now familiar. First, what the text “meant” is determined in large measure by its relation to the one to whom it is directed. While it remains an essential part of Biblical exegesis to establish a text’s function in its original context(s), the usual corollary that the original function is alone normative does not follow. Secondly, the question of what the text now means cannot be dismissed as a purely subjective enterprise suitable only to private devotion and homiletics. When seen from the context of the canon both the question of what the text meant and what it means are inseparably linked and both belong to the task of the interpretation of the Bible as Scripture. To the extent that the use of the critical method sets up an iron curtain between the past and the present, it is an inadequate method for studying the Bible as the church’s Scripture.
Childs would then go on to subsequently develop his theory of canonical criticism, which unfortunately has had few followers. Yet the issue of canon is a critical concern for the interpretation of Holy Scripture. The writings of the Bible come to us precisely as canon. Canon is never generic or universal. It is always Jewish or Samaritan or Catholic or Protestant. The only reason these writings have been saved for posterity is because of the commitment of the religious communities to them as Holy Scripture. The existence of the canon challenges the primary presupposition of historical criticism that a given text is to be interpreted only within the historical context in which it was written. “The very existence of a canon,” Levenson notes, “testifies to the reality of recontexualization: an artifact may survive the circumstances that brought it into being, including the social and political circumstances to which so much attention is currently devoted. Indeed, it can outlive the culture in which it was produced. Even when this happens, as in the case of the texts that came together in the Bible,… that original culture continues to inform the text, nonetheless. Because the Bible can never be altogether disengaged from the culture of its authors, historical criticism is necessary (though not necessarily in accordance with Troeltsch’s principles). But unless one holds that the Bible does not deserve to have survived its matrix—that the history of interpretation is only a history of misinterpretation—historical criticism alone cannot suffice. For were the meaning of the text only a function of the particular historical circumstances of its composition, recontextualization would never have occurred, and no Bible would have come into existence” (pp. 122-123). Levenson is not suggesting that the critical study of the biblical texts be abandoned. What must be abandoned, though, are the totalistic, hegemonic claims of critical historiography: “Critical scholars must no longer pronounce other interpretations altogether erroneous simply because they take the texts out of their first historical context—simply because, that is, they permit the texts to survive the ancient civilizations in which they originated” (p. 123).
How ironic that critical historiography has developed a way of reading the Bible from which no divine Word can be heard. And because it seeks to detach the biblical writings from the communities that these texts have served, it inevitably must saw off the limb upon which it sits. Ultimately, the questions are raised: Why should these texts be privileged? Will the canon be Tanakh or Old Testament-New Testament? If either, how can rabbinical or patristic methods of interpretation be excluded? If neither, if the interests and hermeneutical principles of the religious communities which preserved and revered these texts are discounted, why should the texts be studied at all?
Critical scholars brilliantly and ruthlessly break apart the Scriptures, yet their very method prevents them from restoring the texts as Scripture.
Early in seminary I was persuaded that the historical-critical reading of Scripture was absolutely crucial. I have subsequently come to realize that instruction into this way of reading the Bible is a form of indoctrination. The novices are introduced to the new gnosis, a gnosis unavailable to the uninitiated, and are reborn as enlightened Christians detached from the authority of their ecclesial communities. Or as Wilfred Cantwell Smith commented in 1971, “The courses actually available, and the training of men actually available to teach them, are on the whole calculated to turn a fundamentalist into a liberal.” By its uncritical embrace of criticism, the Church has unintentionally created a cadre of scholars and pastors dedicated to the destruction of Christianity.
We cannot undo what has happened nor can we deny the knowledge we have gained about the biblical texts; yet we cannot stay in this place where Scripture is only text to be criticized and never Word to be heard, reverenced, and obeyed. How do we move forward? Once Humpty Dumpty is broken, how do we put him back together again?
(This is an edited version of an article originally published on my old blog Pontifications on 13 June 2006)