Exegesis # 4 - Critiquing Biblical Criticism

Monday, November 23, 2009

You've no doubt heard the stories of how people lose their faith in seminary. I'm pretty sure I know why people make this complaint. Biblical scholarship is often times not only detached from faith, it is hostile to it. Let me begin with a personal story to illustrate:

The class was Intro to the Old Testament. One of the first things our professor told us was that the historical accounts of the OT - the story of the exodus, the promised land, the whole meta-narrative of the people of Israel which is the foundation of the Jewish self-understanding in the OT was a big lie. None of it happened, he said. Archeology has proven it. He didn't go into any details about how exactly archeology had done this, nor did he give us any other perspectives of scholars who might disagree with this assertion.

You'd think that since this a seminary training future pastors that at some point he would come back to this and tell us how we should approach the Bible in light of that. Why it was still meaningful. Nope. That was it. The OT is a big lie, so let's study it. At this point I asked if we were going to be looking at these stories from a theological point of view then, trying to understand their meaning? Nope. We would only be approaching them from the point of view of the neutral historian. In other words, the plan was to read a book from an exclusively historical perspective, that did not happen historically.

I dropped the class.

This is sadly not at all uncommon in biblical scholarship. The common stance is that one needs to remove themselves from a faith perspective in order to do biblical scholarship. As Michael V. Fox writes in an article on the Society for Biblical Literature, "faith-based study has no place in academic scholarship... Scholarship rests on evidence. Faith, by definition, is belief when evidence is absent. " The idea here is that faith would make one dogmatically biased, and thus the only right way to read the Bible is a-theistically, by detaching oneself from faith. Faith gets in the way of truth, so the argument goes.

Now of course Fox has completely misunderstood what faith is about, making it the enemy of reason, which would be forgivable for a secular scientist. But these secular scientists who think faith=stupid are the teachers teaching the church's teachers. The result is that a great deal of people who practice and teach the study of the Bible either have no faith at all, or are hostile to faith seeing it as a hindrance to their profession. Again, what is disturbing about this is these are the people training the world's future pastors.

What happens is that seminarians are given all sorts of sophisticated tools for determining things that no one really cares about (like whether Matthew was based on a hypothetical work called Q), but are not given any tools for interpreting the Bible's normative significance - what it means, why it matters, how we should respond. Any normative implications are avoided as unscientific. So when it comes to interpreting Scripture as a pastor in a faith community, the seminarian with this kind of training is given zero tools to do this. They are not being educated. As Joel Green writes, in the introduction to Eisenbraun's recently launched Journal for Theological Interpretation,

"Biblical scholarship in the modern period has not oriented itself toward approaches or development of means that would enable us to tune our ears to the voice of God. How do we read these texts as Christian Scripture so as to hear God’s address? The methods of choice have generally focused elsewhere: the voice of the reconstructed historical Jesus, the voice of the redactor of the Gospels, or the voice of the “community” behind the text, for example. Maybe, then, it is not surprising that Wesley Kort can offer this commentary, 'At one time people knew what it meant to read a text as scripture, but we no longer do, because this way of reading has, since the late medieval and reformation periods, been dislocated and obscured.' "

Okay, ready for some good news? There is a growing movement to read Scripture as Scripture. This may seem like a no-brainer, but actually the majority of exegetical methods do not take this approach. Narrative criticism reads the Bible like literary fiction. The historical-critical method reads it as a historical artifact. Reader-response reads it from our own individual subjective perspective. So the idea of reading the Bible theologically - asking what it means, what God may be saying to us is within biblical scholarship a crazy idea, and all I can say is "thank God!"

Some proponents of theological interpretation are Brevard Childs, R.W.L. Moberly, Christopher Seitz, Francis Watson,
Luke Timothy Johnson, Ellen Davis, Douglas Harink, Karl Donfried, Markus Bockmuehl, Stephen Fowl, Kevin VanHoozer, and NT Wright. Some journals include the Journal of Theological Interpretation, Pro Ecclesia, Ex Auditu, and Horizons in Biblical Theology. All of these folks are big time scholars from places like Yale, Duke, Princeton, and Durham.

So what does this approach look like? Theological interpretation is reading Scripture as Scripture, and asking what God is wanting to say to us through it. As R. Moberly writes, interpreting the Bible as Scripture indicates "a frame of reference for biblical interpretation that, while not taking the Bible as less than a historical artifact, clearly takes it as more than a historical artifact; and that more is in some way given content by the notion of the self-communication of the living God - a notion to whose breathtaking implications we are too easily dulled." (JTI 3.2 (2009), p. 162. Emphasis in the original).

In other words, they don't ignore insights from history, literary analysis, or ideological critiques. But they recognize that the Bible is a book where somehow God is wanting to speak to us through it, and try to listen to what God is saying as well. They approach the text not just with their minds open, but with their hearts open too.

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At 11:30 AM, Blogger Michael said...

Seems to me that this is dancing around an issue. Why do these words get special status as opposed to all other collections of words.

If you deny historicity as the reason why these words get special status, what are you left with? WHY are you reading these words theologically and not some other set of words.

I don't have an answer to my question, or suspect your answer or anything. I am really just wondering aloud.

At 2:24 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

I'm not following you here... what "words" with a "special status" are you referring to here? Did you mean to post this comment on another post maybe?

At 7:08 PM, Blogger Agnikan said...

I think the Misfit is referring to the words that make up the Bible. If such words are not historical, why give them more significance than, say, the Iliad? Why not read Shakespeare in Church, then?

At 10:15 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hmm, okay. I'm not sure where I denied the historicity of the Bible. I was actually complaining about that in the above blog post.


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