Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Histoical Criticism Is Dead?

My previous post led to some interesting discussion is the comments section. I would like to bring some of that discussion out of the darkness of the comments and into the light of a blog post. I'll begin by posting my the comment from my friend and fellow Truett-ite and Fuller-ite Chris Spinks followed by my response to him. Note well that Chris never said that historical criticism was dead, though there are some today who say it is.

Chris (what he responds to is unbolded and his thoughts are in bold):

"Chris, your points bring into the open the stereotyped nature of this discussion in general, for which I take responsibility. But some of the questions about the validity of ideological readings (including so-called "Christian" or "theological" readings) still remain. Chief among these, for me at least, is the notion of meaning. I agree that my beliefs about God, Jesus, history, myself, etc. influence how I go about understanding a text and ascertaining what it might mean. But I can mitigate these shortcoming to some degree with solid methodology and hopefully some of the rest can be dealt with as well through the community of scholarship."

What do you mean by “validity”?

How are theological readings invalid?

There is a tension in your response. On the one hand, the notion of meaning is chief among the questions about validity; on the other hand, beliefs influence how you go about understanding what a text might mean.

It is disturbing that you think your “beliefs about God, Jesus, history, myself, etc.” are “shortcomings” in need of mitigating. Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and many others were obviously full of shortcomings.

And, how is it that methodology will guard you against yourself?

I’m also disturbed that you rely more on the “community of scholarship” than on the community of Christ to help you deal with these shortcomings.

"But, like Pat pointed out, we can all still view the scarce historical information that we have in different ways. However, those who engage a text historically can have discussions with one another about evidence is handled and interpreted, etc since they all speak the same language and have similar epistimologies."

No one is trying to keep you from having historical discussions. Indeed, such discussions are invaluable for a community’s engagement with its sacred text. But, to believe that such discussions alone will somehow yield THE meaning of the text for the believing community is as much an ideology as any other.

I’d also be willing to bet that there are a good many different epistemologies at work among historical critics. I do not think it is safe to assume similarity there. But, for sure, there is some common language, as there should be for any academic discipline. I’m not denying that. I’m simply questioning two things: 1. that the historical discussion is the only valid discussion one can have about the biblical texts; and 2. that the historical discussion is THE discussion that will yield THE meaning for the Body of Christ.

When engaging in dialogue with someone who explicitly desires to read the text from a particular social location, I have found that this sort of discussion is simply not possible."

Sure it is. You and your friend had just such a dialogue that prompted you to make the blog post. You both shared an assumption that historical criticism is the only valid way to read the biblical texts. That assumption and its history and foundation can be socially located.

"The reason is that whenever a reading of this sort is called into question the validity of reading a text through the lens of that reader's social location is ultimately what is being criticized. (Not to mention that dialogue is next to impossible because of the lack of common methodology, terminology, etc.)"

No arguments about the impasse on methodology and terminology. I agree. I just don’t think that’s such a bad thing. It would be a boring field if biblical studies had only one discussion governed by one methodology. And, I think you might be clumping all ideological readings together and building a straw man to say that all that can be done is to criticize their social locations. Many ideological criticisms have more texture and complexity than you are giving them credit for. But I will not argue that social location is not more important to these ideological perspectives. I would want to call attention to the ideology that lies behind your seemingly methodologically pure historical criticism. Terry Eagleton writes in his masterful, Literary Theory 2nd rev. ed. (1996), "It is therefore difficult to engage such critics in debate about ideological preconceptions, since th power of ideology over them is nowhere more marked that in their honest belief that their readings are 'innocent'" (173).


However, whenever Baur criticized Strauss' method, Strauss may have taken it personally but it was his handling of historical data with which Baur took issue. So while it may feel personal when one's handling of historical evidence is challenged, ultimately it is simply a process of mitigating presuppositions and attempting to arrive at a place somewhere closer to the truth."

Again, I am not questioning the validity of historical discussions as historical discussions.

What do you mean by “closer to the truth”? Is truth somehow the sole property of the historical critic whose presuppositions have been adequately mitigated? When do we know if and when one’s presuppositions have been put at bay enough? What are the criteria?


I guess what I am saying is that everything that is said about the Bible cannot valid, including some of the things that I say about it...just as it is not possible that all the things which are said about "Romeo and Juliet," the Civil War, the Watts Riots, the OJ Simpson trial, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer are valid."

Still not sure what you mean by “valid”? I’m not sure what are the criteria for validity. How do you know when you’ve said something about the Bible that is invalid? (These questions should not be interpreted to mean that I believe all statements are valid. I raise them out of a genuine desire to know. I think this notion of validity may be the fly in the ointment for us.)

I’m not comfortable putting Scripture in the same category with Romeo and Juliet, the Civil War . . . Buffy the Vampire Slayer. None of these things constitute a community that holds them to be sacred texts containing the story of God with God’s people. I do not believe Christians ought to read their Scripture as they read anything else, at least not as they read it for their ongoing life in community and with their God.


Some understandings of historical events or texts (fictional or not) are simply better than others."

No argument here. But I still wonder what are the criteria for making these judgments. And I wonder if those sorts of judgments are the ones that are best for the life of the Body. If they are, how so?

"While a person from a particular social location may have an interesting take on JFK's shooting after watching the video, at the end of the day his/her social location doesn't change the evidence. The same is true of the Bible. Where we are located socially may affect how we understand, apply, live out, etc. what we read in the Bible but not the actual historical evidence found therein."

Social location certainly makes a difference about what we take to be historical evidence and what we don’t. And so, historical critics can continue to have discussions. I don’t want them to stop. I do want them to understand what it is they are NOT doing. They are NOT discovering THE meaning. They can and do contribute to the meaning, but they should call what they are doing what it is—understanding the authors intentions, or situating the text in its social environment, or whatever. The question then becomes is what it is they are doing the (only) thing to do for the ongoing life of the Church.


Otherwise all of us are simply going around and around a circle of ad hominem arguments that gets us no where."

I think this is partially because we too often believe discussions can only happen when there is a point of disagreement to needle at, a question to answer, a problem to solve, a mystery to uncover.

Where is it you actually want to get? What's wrong with interpretations that shape, mold, discipline, challenge, etc.? Do we always have to have a "where" to get to?

Here's my response:

Chris, here are a few responses:

By "valid" I mean that which can honestly be said about a text keeping in mind its place in space and time. I am convinced that some readings which explicitly utilize a- or non-historical lenses tell us more about the lens than they do the text.

What I am really saying is that I do not understand how reading the Bible as a Christian or in community (which I do by the way) sans historical research is any different than simply and naively affirming our beliefs or creeds. Is there room in these readings for the beliefs/creeds to be challenged? Or is the lens too important? And if a challenge comes is it from the text of the Bible or the culture in which the reader finds him/herself. The same criticism can be made about other ideological readings as well.

It seems to me, and many others like me, that many scholars today want to skip the historical step in understanding a text and jump straight to the hermeneutic question. Me saying that the historical step is important (not all important mind you but important nonetheless) is not saying that the question of what a text means in relationship to a community does not matter. What a text means to a particular community does indeed matter, but that particular community does not have a stranglehold on what a text means.

I also want to be clear that engaging in historical criticism does not guarantee that one will arrive at a text's meaning, since different historical critics using sound methodology come to different conclusions. However, simply throwing out historical criticism altogether (which I know you are not arguing for but there are many who do) or devaluing it because of this is not helpful. Without a historical understanding of a text there is no anchor, there are no parameters, there are no limits.

With regard to reading the Bible like other books, I really like what Hagner says on the topic: "We should read the Bible like any other book while keeping in mind that it is not any other book" (I've heard him say this dozens of times in different classes). I think that his quote encapsulates the position of many historical critics who also profess Christ and belong to Christian communities. The Bible contains words written be people who lived in the past to other people who lived in the past. Understanding as much as possible about the words, the people, the transmission of the text, etc is vitally important, just as it is for Dante, Mark Twain, or Joss Whedon. But a faith commitment that the Bible is the Word of God means that we believe that the Bible has a different sort of impact on us than other texts and that the continued illumination by the Spirit of God (both individually and corporately) helps us when discerning how the text can challenge, encourage, inspire, mold, discipline, etc us.

All that I am saying is that to skip or devalue the historical step seems irresponsible to me. I agree, however, that historical critics who ignore hermeneutics are equally irresponsible.

I just realized that I did not answer Chris's last question. The where I want to get to involves understanding what the Bible actually says and applying it to my life and the life of my faith community. I can't see this happening sans historical investigation of the text because I know of no other way to understand what it actually says since a- or non-historical readings of the text teach me more about the respective readers than the text itself. The where I want to get to necessitates that I understand the Bible in its historical context before applying what it says to my life or that of the community of faith of which I am a part. So there's nothing wrong with readings that shape, mold, discipline, etc, so long as they are rooted in what the text might have meant to its original hearers/readers. Otherwise we are simply reading ourselves, our wishes, our cultural values onto the text.


Anonymous said...

Reading your self is excatly and only what you are always doing.

Theologians are highly over-rated.

All of theology is entirely useless and never really changes anything at a DEPTH level---cant change anything in fact.

The various authors that wrote the books of the Bible (Old and New Testaments) were not theologians.

Nor were the people who wrote the Sacred Texts or Scriptures of the other Traditions---all of which are now freely available on the internet.

None of the great religious and Spiritual art of any of the Traditions was produced by theologians. On the contrary they were founded by Illuminated Realizers---Saints, Yogis, Mystics and Sages.

None of the Traditions, East or West, were started or inspired by theologians.

Nor were the great practising schools of esoteric Spirituality in the Eastern Traditions.

Nor were the various Monastic schools within the Catholic and Orthodox Traditions.

J. Matthew Barnes said...

It depends what you mean by "theologian." If by that term you mean a cold, unbelieving scholastic more interested in small details rather than honoring God, then you are right. However, that is not the only way to define "theologian." At its base a theologian practices theology, namely thinking about God. I would certainly say that I engage in thinking about God and I would also contend that I do so in order to worship God, bring him glory, and better understand the Bible. Just so you know, under this second more fair-handed definition every author of the Bible is a theologian as well as countless other Christians who have greatly influenced the faith from the earliest days until now.

I'm not sure when it started, but assuming that being a Christian means checking one's brain at the door is entirely unhelpful.

David Carr said...

"We should read the Bible like any other book while keeping in mind that it is not any other book"

Why should we "read the Bible like any other book" when you begin with the presupposition that it is NOT any other book?

J. Matthew Barnes said...


We should read the Bible like any other book because it is a book coprised of various documents written by different people, in different genres, at different times, for different purposes, to different audiences. Why not use the tools that we have that help us understand poetry in general when we read the Psalms? Why not analyze the plots of Genesis, 2 Kings, and the Gospels like people analyze plays and novels? Why not investigate how Paul argues his points in a similar way that people study how Plato uses rhetoric?

Frankly, because I believe the Bible is like no other book (which I fully admit is a presupposition that is dependent on a faith response) I should read it like any other book - meaning that I should earnestly seek out what it really means. If some other way of understanding literature helps me better understand what the Bible says, then I am going to pursue that end.

But of course the second part of the statement in question is sticky for many academic sorts. And I completely get that. I often operate with the "prove it to me" mentality as well. But as a Christian New Testament scholar I can't lay aside my convictions totally. Instead it is my explicit goal to use all of the tools available to help me better understand Scripture so that I can do a better job of teaching it to others.