Does “Historical Criticism” Even Exist?

theological theologyTheological Interpretation of Scripture (TIS) is a relatively young, diverse movement in the academy right now. I’ve tried to introduce some broad themes and some helpful guidelines for how to go about doing it, but in a nutshell, it involves explicitly reading the Bible as if it were a theological text (Holy Scripture), in many ways unique because of its divine authorship, with our theological cards on the table. Predictably, not everybody is as sanguine about the proposal (and to be fair, some are better and worse), but this especially is the case of a certain kind of advocate of more mainstream, “historical critical” biblical scholarship. To a certain kind of biblical critic, TIS advocates are interlopers, threatening to pervert the text with their dogmatic presuppositions, colonizing it with their unscientific means of interpretation.

Francis Watson, eminent interpreter of Paul in the New Testament (Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith, Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles), tackles this adversarial relationship in a provocative fashion in his essay “Does Historical Criticism Exist? A Contribution to the Debate on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture” in the recent festschrift Theological Theology (307-318). This early paragraph gives you a taste of the argument:

It is widely assumed that the biblical scholarship characteristic of the modern era may properly be labelled ‘historical criticism.’ One may welcome the dominance of historical-critical scholarship or one may deplore it, but few seem to doubt it. In spite of this consensus, my aim here is to detach the label ‘historical criticism’ from the ongoing reality of interpretive practice. I shall argue that this label is not only misleading and limiting but also that it systematically distorts the reality it claims to represent (emphasis added). ‘Historical criticism’ is to be understood not as a neutral characterization of modern interpretive practice but as a rhetorical figure mobilized for transparent ideological ends. (307-308)

His aim in forwarding such a controversial claim is to show the way “historical criticism” is in many ways just as ideological, presuppositional, and so forth, as TIS. In which case, its advocates’ complaints and criticisms of TIS are no more than a form of misleading, special pleading, and disciplinary gamesmanship.

While I can’t give you the whole argument, certainly not the details, I thought I’d outline it since (a) it’s interesting for me, and (b), it’s becoming a live issue.

Historical Criticism As Novum

Watson begins his case by briefly reviewing the history of biblical scholarship, noting that in the 3rd Century CE, Origen was already compiling various Greek translations with the Hebrew test to make textual comparisons (Hexapla). Eusebius did comparative gospel parallels. Augustine develops an elaborate hermeneutical treatise, advocating original-language study, text-critical scrutiny, and interdisciplinary work, as well as devoting himself to comparative Gospel work. Of course, all of this was done with an eye towards preaching in the Church and the love of God (308-310). The question Watson raises here is to call attention to the “pre-modern genealogy of many interpretive issues”, despite the difference in idiom and agenda from the modern period.

“Yet, we are often told, our biblical scholarship is not just different from the scholarship known to Augustine, as it obviously is, but fundamentally different.” According to Watson, the proposed difference that we moderns are “critical” and they were “pre-critical.” They are confessional and we fit right at home in secular universities. “Historical-critical” scholarship is obviously very different because it’s not the sort of thing they practiced and we do.

And here’s where Watson goes on the offense to looking at the way the term is used beyond its neutral signifier by advocates and foes as indicating what modern scholars do differently that pre-critical scholars. He points out that the term functions as a polemical device, as a “declaration of war” against “church” interpretations; it is “anti-dogmatic” in tenor and “therefore anti-ecclesial insofar as the church remains the natural habitat of inherited dogma.” In this role, it is a weapon for modernizers against traditionalists, “an assertion of modernity, with secularity, of participation in a world come of age which has outgrown confessional certainties.”

In case this seems like bluster, he footnotes pertinent quotes by James Barr, who openly worried that new literary approaches (as opposed to source-critical, compositional methods), might undo the gains made by historical criticism if they fall into the hands of conservatives. Or Heikki Raisanen who wondered aloud at the end of his work Beyond New Testament Theology: “Will [biblical scholars] remain guardians of cherished confessional traditions, anxious to provide modern man with whatever normative guidance they can still manage to squeeze out of sacred texts..” (p. 141). The answer is, “maybe”, but that’s not what academic scholars should be concerned with.

Watson goes on to note the way that a simple appeal to “historical criticism” is used ideologically to shut down any suggestion that the doctrine of the Trinity could have any exegetical basis in the text, despite the sophisticated exegesis one finds in patristic writers. But they’re “pre-critical”, so off-limits. (For an alternative, theologically-attuned approach, see Wesley Hill, Paul and the Trinity). Or again, it often functions to limit the horizon of interest for the text, since historical criticism is worried only with the “original historical contexts”, which is a subtler way of ideologically cutting off the questions of current theological interest, with the assumption that we inhabit totally different worlds from that of the text.

The point is, “historical critics” are just as ideologically-motivated in their aims and methods as “confessional” readers, if not as willing to acknowledge the fact.

History and Exegesis

This brings him to issues of “history” and “criticism” in “historical criticism”, beyond its function as an ideological signifier. Watson is convinced there are a number of confusions at this point.

Take history. First, Watson notes that historical critics are not pure historians. They also need to be exegetes looking at things like internal structure, literary shape, etc. which are trans-historical in accessibility. In which case, they might give historically-informed readings, but they are still readings.

Second, historical critics often appeal to the great historical distance between our time and the historical circumstances of the texts in order to distance us from it. But the past is not wholly different from the present and contextualizing as a practice serves more to bridge the gap, bringing us closer to understanding the world we share with the humans on the “other side” of the gap, so to speak.

Third, Watson suggests that there are a number of historical contexts beyond the “original” that interpretation might profitably engage. Yes, they ought to be informed by the original contexts, but there’s no reason to not expand the context wider in various directions beyond simply what precedes the text.

The Radical As Norm

The other key term is “critical.” The term, as most know, originates with the practices of textual criticism, but then gets identified with the 19th century “higher” criticism of identifying textual prehistories like Priestly, Yahwistic, Elohistic, and the rest of the alphabet soup the Germans gave us. Beyond that, though, Watson says that “critical”, as a term, goes beyond textual restoration. It is not “scholarship that is critical of received opinion about the biblical texts and their significance” (315). Like Descartes, doubt is the order of the day.

From there, Watson gives an interesting genealogy of the critical Gospel scholarship noting the ideological way that Schweitzer told the story to make Reimarus’ the hero: a German who, like himself, saw Jesus as a son-of-David-Messiah type, and didn’t mind critiquing and putting aside Christian dogma  from his rationalist, deistic view in the process. Watson notes that, in fact, the sort of “life of Jesus” project both Reimarus and Schweitzer were embarked on, began much earlier in the pre-critical era with the works of the histories and harmonies of Jean Leclerc (1699) or Bernard Lamy (1699). Reimarus did little to get anything going and was handily dealt with by noted, biblical scholar Johann Salomo Semler.

Watson’s point is “to indicate how the aura of radical chic” to which life-of-Jesus research “lays claim—from Reimarus to the ‘Jesus Seminar’—has been manufactured.” No, beyond the story many tell themselves, “Iconoclastic assault on cherished beliefs is not a constitutive element in modern biblical interpretation.” When that sort of thing happens, it’s usually the biblical scholars doing damage control who make the real gains in scholarship.

Wrapping Up

He closes things out by noting that it is possible to find scholarship that pretty much conforms to the “picture” given by the term “historical criticism.” By and large, though, it’s misleading with respect to the majority of what’s going on. Stick to “biblical interpretation”, “modern”, or even “critical” (when methodologically appropriate), but leave the rhetorical sledgehammer of “historical criticism” to the side as fairly unhelpful.

Finally, he suggests that with this sort of “loosening” the ties between historical criticism, so-called, and standard interpretive practice, gives breathing room for TIS to not worry and “locate itself on the margins” of biblical scholarship. TIS practitioners should not let themselves be pushed around by people attempting to maintain ideological, disciplinary hegemony, but lay claim to the mainstream and engage, drawing on the variety of disciplines and resources found there.

And this is a wise way to end. TIS, done properly, I think should not be cordoned off from the riches of historical studies, of which there are many. But they don’t need to be scared of the critical project, especially since so many of its presuppositions have been exposed. For those interested, I’d commend Kevin Vanhoozer’s essay in the same volume, or Daniel Treier’s  Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scriptureor something like Peter Leithart’s commentary on 1 & 2 Kings in the Brazos series.

Soli Deo Gloria

2 thoughts on “Does “Historical Criticism” Even Exist?

  1. Pingback: Afternoon coffee 2016-04-27 – Historical criticism and language games | Mangy Dog

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