historical criticism and Christian truth are not–and cannot be–enemies

historical criticism and Christian truth are not–and cannot be–enemies July 17, 2015

Enns_InspirationIncarnThe quote below is from an article by German Old Testament scholar Konrad Schmid, “What Is the Difference Between Historical and Theological Exegesis?” pp. 2-3 (my paragraph formatting; available here).

The article looks at an important and perennial issue in Christian theology: the always complex and often tense relationship between the historical study of scripture and scripture as the source of Christian theology.

One can reasonably argue that the establishment of historical-critical biblical scholarship—despite individual statements to the contrary—is an incomparable success story within theology.

Protestant theological faculties and departments accord a relatively large percentage of professorships within the classic divisions of the faculties to biblical studies devoted to historical-critical methodologies. They are less prominent numerically in Catholic faculties, but since Vatican II at the latest they are—like their Protestant equivalents—required to carry out historical-critical investigation, which itself should not be absent from any Catholic faculty.

What are, then, the substantial reasons for the special place of the biblical-historical disciplines?

It would be deficient to interpret this development merely as the result of the Enlightenment, after which theology simply had no choice but to bow to modern scholarly standards—that is, historical-criticism—in its investigation of the Bible. This would be to conclude, in other words, that theology felt a certain pressure from the street to give into the spirit of the times.

In contrast, it is certainly better to say that the inner impulse towards truth in Christian faith compelled it to enter into dialogue with the academy and to find ways to understand the Bible with the help of rather than in opposition to modern scholarship.

Historical-critical approaches to biblical studies provide a visible index of theology’s commitment to reason and, at the same time, a bulwark against each new manifestation of docetism.

The relationship between the Bible understood historically and theologically is complex, and this is only one quote. Schmid’s thoughts here are also shaped–needless to say–by his European context, where the relationship between the academy and the church is very different than in the American experience.

Having said that, here’s what I like about this quote (and the article as a whole).

1. It is a reminder that the tension between history and theology is not simply felt by evangelicals or fundamentalists, but by mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics–though as I see it evangelicalism and fundamentalism exacerbate the tension by laboring to artificially minimize the distance between history and theology.

2. As the article continues, it is clear that the author seeks to allow that tension to remain–both sides need to be reminded of the other and the dominance of one over the other is not the end game. That point is routinely lost among inerrantists, where theological needs transparently dictate exegesis. From the conclusion of the article (pp. 18-19):

Historical-critical exegesis becomes implausible historically when it misjudges the theological gravity of the biblical texts; theological interpretation of the Bible degenerates structurally into docetism when it relegates the historical X of textual interpretation to a place after a theological Y coefficient. 

. . . [H]istorical exegesis is only then truly and responsibly historical when carried out with theological sensibility. At the same time, theological exegesis cannot be something completely different than historical exegesis and it is best informed when incorporating appropriately the insights of a seriously performed historical exegesis.

As soon as theological exegesis threatens to cut its ties with historical criticism, then suspicion of gnosticizing, docetic tendencies in its interpretation of the Bible are no longer unfounded. The convenient location of biblical studies as part of theological studies remains well supported, yet its potential has yet to be fully developed.

The issue is not so much “balancing” theology with history or vice-verse, but acknowledging the tension and letting that tension inform and fuel our spiritual engagement of the Bible.

3. It critiques the rather simplistic but common evangelical and fundamentalist assertion that the negative influence of Enlightenment philosophy is to blame for the likewise negative methodology of historical-criticism, which then coerced theology to keep up.

4. A theological reading of the Bible that is not historical-critically conversant–that does not take seriously the cultural-historical setting of scripture–is a kind of “docetism,” an early Christian heresy that deemed that Christ was fully divine but only appeared to be human.

(The pervasive problem of scriptural docetism within evangelicalism is a central focus of my Inspiration and Incarnation).

The bottom line for me is and has always been: the truly historical study of scripture, one that is not dictated by and asked to “serve” theology, will inevitably be in tension with that theology. And that tension must be critically respected rather than cut off or neutralized.

Historically speaking, the Bible we have presents us with some very serious challenges. Good theology will accept the challenge and understand that simple answers are often wrong and that sometimes, whether we are comfortable with it or not, resolutions will elude us.

[Just a reminder, the 10th anniversary edition of Inspiration and Incarnation is coming out in late August.]


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  • AlanCK

    Very good. And now for the next question: what is the truly historical study of scripture? Would you agree or disagree with the following statement of Karl Barth: “Revelation is not the predicate of history, but history is the predicate of revelation”?

    • peteenns

      Yes, a rather obvious question that needs to come up. If I understand Barth correctly here (does anyone?), I would suggest that the matter is more complex than can be reduced to a statement like this–and I now enough of Barth to know he is hard to pin down. One complicating factor is that revelation is always given in a historical context, which right away muddies the waters. I appreciate the point, though.

      • Andrew Dowling

        Exacto. Any claimed revelation does not exist in a vacuum from its historical context.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Being compelled by “the inner impulse toward truth in the Christian faith” is a wonderful way to address this problem, because it highlights one of the best antidotes to artifice that can be imagined – not to mention being a counterweight to the unacknowledged gnostic tendencies underlying docetism. I read I&I shortly after it came out – probably time for a reread. Congratulations on the anniversary!

    • Ross

      Unfortunately rather too many don’t quite get the principle of “falsifiability” and thereby create the mindset whereby “truth” isn’t allowed to impinge on what “seems to be right and true”. For me I don’t have to worry about venturing beyond a closed mindset/doctrinal pattern, even if it does create quite painful doubts. If Christianity is true, then nothing can destroy it, least of all the truth. If it is not true then it is not worth following. I think St Paul said something along those lines.

  • I don’t know. I think I’m biased because the “theology” side has had a virtual stranglehold on Christian belief for an aeon of aeons. I often wonder what Christian doctrine would look like, today, if the early testimonies had ended up in the hands of historians instead of theologians.

    I don’t feel like playing nice with theology. Maybe if the church were in a different state, I would feel that way. But theology has taken on an abstract, spiritual life all of its own, and now that history is starting to rumble back, the fortress defenses are coming up. In my more gracious moments, I want charitable dialogue, but in my darker moments, I just want the whole thing to burn down so we can start over. The playing field is just not equal, and I don’t know how to keep these guys in equal tension when one voice has completely drowned out the other for so many formative years in church history.

    Also, it just seems to me that theology is so much more contingent in character than history. That might not be right, but it seems that way. It’s not like someone was digging around in Qumran ruins and knocked over a pot of theology. I guess they don’t knock over a pot of history, either, but at least the history is interacting with the data whereas theology is generally more interested in controlling or denying it.

    • AlanCK

      If you are standing at the edge of Lessing’s “broad ugly ditch” may I recommend Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments.

      • peteenns

        Love me some SK–though I don’t think Phil is near any ditch.

      • I got 99 problems, but that ditch ain’t one.

    • Gary

      Help me understand how I’m supposed to give heartfelt respect or trust to individuals and institutions who need to do this.

      • I don’t know that I’m a good person to help you understand that because I struggle with it, myself. In my better moments, though, I’d say the key is compassion. I weep and pray over the state of the church in America, and it has nothing to do with our evangelistic efforts or culture wars. It has to do with our identity and surviving the fires of our current crises.

        • Gary

          I’m becoming more and more convinced that if one believed the world would be inevitably transformed by a cruciform way of being, this isn’t really the group one would align oneself with. That said, I don’t really know who is.

          • peteenns

            What makes you come to that conclusion, Gary?

          • Gary


          • peteenns

            I’m confused. By “this group” I thought you meant “the people on this blog. This blog hasn’t existed for decades.

          • Gary

            Christendom. Maybe not decades, but millennia. I think one of the better questions of a broadening of historical criticism is whether or not history has had a definitive crux. Was it clearly on one trajectory before, and another since?

  • Gary

    This: “Acknowledging the tension and letting that tension inform and fuel our spiritual engagement of the Bible…” I don’t think there’s a practical means to engage my pastor to do this. Over time, I’ve tried as factually, clearly, and respectfully as possible. How is doing this even possible? While you may think “dominance of one over the other is not the end game,” it’s a very present, practical, impenetrable reality. No? Are “grin and nod” and “silently not respect” not reasonable [non-]engagement strategies with clergy here? “Enemies” of the blog’s title almost implies some sort of balance. I don’t see it being the case in these matters. There seems to be a side with an upper hand that can even utilize heavy handedness at times. What am I missing?

    • peteenns

      Gary, I understand your predicament, but I am not suggesting you engage your pastor or anyone else over this. Why would you? If people aren’t ready, don’t push it. Old paradigms don’t change easily, and rarely does a “clear/factual” presentation do any good. The commitment to the narrative is too deep.

      And yes, the state of thing sin conservative churches is that dogmatic commitments dominate over historical study. No question. My comment is “that SHOULD not be the end game,” not ” it isn’t the end game.

      • Gary

        Then what–practically, if anything–can be done with your work here?

        • peteenns

          There is much more of practical value than getting pastors to agree with us.

          The value is in promoting an authentic faith where we come to terms without ourselves and our faith in God, and if need be find ecclesiastical or other communities that honor that journey of faith. The value is not in hammering those who are reluctant to change.

          • Gary

            Nobody mentioned hammering. I believe I was referring to respectful, considered dialog. Centering in another faith community would like facilitate broad ostracism. Is this what you’re suggesting?

          • peteenns

            Fair enough. I withdraw “hammering.”

          • Gary

            “Grin and nod” threatens nobody. It merely loses the self.

        • Be a compelling person that that shows a post-Christendom world that Jesus is bigger than evolution debates and gay marriage.

          • Gary

            Never mind God the Son, *I* am bigger than evolution debates and gay marriage.

  • The bottom line for me is and has always been: the truly historical study of scripture, one that is not dictated by and asked to “serve” theology, will inevitably be in tension with that theology. And that tension must be critically respected rather than cut off or neutralized.

    It strikes me that anything that does not serve God (≠ my personal theology) is an enemy to God. If that is the case, foundational assumptions in a discipline which operate etsi deus non daretur—as if God did not exist—will push one away from God, not toward him. A classical example is: “miracles do not happen”. That is roughly equivalent to: “reality always operates as I have observed it to operate”. This explicitly denies “Behold, I am doing a new thing”.

    For decades, human science in the academy denied the centrality of story to human existence. The result was that the theory produced was grossly ineffective to practitioners like psychologists. Get the model of reality sufficiently wrong, and your ability to act in reality is hamstrung. Emil Brunner address this in Man in Revolt:

        The fact that man as a whole cannot be understood from himself, but that, in some way or another, in addition, he must be regarded from a point of view which is ‘above’ man, is the presupposition common to all anthropologies. This conviction lies in the conception of understanding itself. All understanding is co-ordination and sub-ordination.[1] But what this standpoint ‘above’ man may be, from which we may come to understand his nature as a whole, gives rise to views which are radically and irreconcilably opposed to one another. Some postulate this ‘above’ as Nature—conceived more or less in a purely causal and material manner; others postulate it as Spirit or the Idea, others again as a Deity which in some way or another we can learn to know by ourselves. The Christian doctrine of man posits this standpoint as God, as He makes Himself known to us and teaches us to know ourselves in His revelation, the Word of God. (63–64)

    Any “historical study” which presupposes a model of man which is antithetical to scripture (≠ my particular reading of it) seems doomed to error, and error at its very core. Well, that is if scripture tells us the truth about man.

    Now, none of the above may be at odds with your position, Dr. Enns, but it strikes me that you are in danger of omitting the fact that the Enlightenment did include some serious errors, some deeply pervasive errors. Just what those errors were needs explication (e.g. why did Milgram experiment § Results surprise us so much?) instead of vague hand-waving. I like Stephen Toulmin’s Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity on this count. He who controls the story (or myth—2 Tim 4:3–4) controls much. He who controls the ‘ontology of human being’ controls much.

    • peteenns

      You make a lot of assumptions here, Luke, that would need to be examined–like (1) “new thing” and “miracle” are the same thing. (2) what do you mean by “a model of man which is antithetical to scripture” (what IS the “model of man in scripture??!!!). (3) I am in no way “in danger of omitting the fact that the Enlightenment did include some serious errors.” Not sure how you got that, but I think I said the opposite in the post./

      • (1) Note that my argument was

             (a) “miracles do not happen” ≈ “reality always operates as I have observed it to operate”
             (b) “reality always operates…” ⇒ ¬”Behold, I am doing a new thing”

        So, it isn’t the case that I say “miracle” = “Behold, I am doing a new thing”. It would be more precise to say that the current conception of ‘laws of nature’ seem to preclude events such as the Incarnation. I might also pull in Amos Funkenstein’s argument in Theology and the Scientific Imagination that the growing belief in univocity of the divine attributes led to us thinking that we understand how reality works much more precisely (see Locke’s “clear and distinct ideas”) than we actually do.

        (2) My comment did not imply that there is only one model of man in scripture, but merely that one can come up with models which are antithetical to scripture. If scripture does not likely rule out any models of man, then how can it possibly say anything about man? An example model is espoused by Alistair McFadyen’s Bound to Sin: Abuse, Holocaust and the Christian Doctrine of Sin. He argues that humans can manifest pathologies which cannot be rectified from their own resources—a source of help outside is required. This militates against Pelagius’ and Erasmus’ view of sin and the free will, and toward Augustine’s. McFadyen looks at real-world situations and asks whether they can be better understood via a fairly orthodox understanding of original sin.

        (3) Strictly speaking you did not omit Enlightenment distortions (e.g. positivism in the human sciences), but your lack of specifics (e.g. fundamentalists should stop being vague in their criticisms of Enlightenment influence and pick specifics, such as X, Y, and Z) made it seem like you think any distortions weren’t worth mentioning in any detail (or linking to another post of yours on the topic). I would love to see you pick out specific criticisms to contrast with fundamentalists’ simplistic criticisms.

    • Hey Luke,

      The issue of “story control” is a big one. The problem is, you can’t just look at traditional theology and, since they are attempting to be faithful to Scripture, uncritically allow them to control the story. Otherwise, how would their efforts be meaningfully critiqued?

      In my opinion, historical criticism is doing the most these days to recover the story. That’s not to say it has always done that or even that, at some point in the future, it will be as valuable as it is right now. But right now, our “story” is pretty anemic, and people are leaving the church because, among other reasons, we don’t have a viable one and/or one that anyone ought to care about more than any others. Historical criticism is helping to dig that back up, pun intended.

      I like that you took pains to note the difference between Scripture and your reading of it (would that all God’s people did that), but at the same time, all we have to work with are -someone’s- reading of Scripture. There has to be some way we can interact with those readings and sift them without simply countering with our own readings. That’s the state of 99% of theological discourse, today, and it gets nowhere much of the time.

      Take, for instance, Leithart’s recent articles and notice how Enns’ response was not, “Wow, I’ve been defiant to Scripture all this time.” Because what is being contested is the story.

      • I am in agreement on your “story control” contention; I sometimes wonder whether the modern conceit that “all stories are false” is an underhanded way to prevent discussion of culturally dominant stories, such that they can be manipulated behind the scenes. Somewhat relatedly, I am reminded of George Herbert’s A Dialogue–Anthem, which I fell in love with upon first exposure in a church bulletin.

        However, I’m not sure the anemic nature of our story is due to lack of historical criticism, nor that historical criticism is as much of the solution as you might intend. I’m actually more inclined to blame various Enlightenment dogmas, which culminated in the disenchantment of reality, the “iron cage” predicted by Max Weber, and the social atomization of political liberalism which nicely mirrors reductionist natural science where the fundamental particles of nature are governed by omnipresent laws of nature. Our single-minded focus on instrumental rationality and Ralwsian reticence to talk about what we really believe is true makes discussion of where we are and should be headed quite anemic.

        But perhaps I am actually making a case for historical criticism, for seeing that there is a diversity of thought in the Bible which could nonetheless build toward a unity is something sadly lacking in today’s world. All too often, different perspectives are demonized, ridiculed, and dismissed. It is as if we believe God didn’t actually want that much diversity to exist! It is as if we want a cleanroom world, not the Incarnational one sketched by Dr. Enns in I&I.

        Still, one cannot avoid taking some stance on the laws of nature and the ontology of human being, in the scholarly exercise of historical criticism. I suggest that these stances be articulated and exposed to criticism themselves, to the variety of conceptions of how reality works and how people work which have been put forth over the ages. Otherwise, we risk participating in the Enlightenment’s attempt to sunder ourselves from people in eras past, shattering the community of saints in the process.

        • The Enlightenment is a popular target, but I actually go back much earlier to the appropriation of the Christian faith by Greco-Roman theologians attempting, by and large, to establish Christianity as anti-Judaism. Our story becomes anemic very early on and basically becomes a tale of how people can save their souls from Hell.

          I believe part of the remedy for this is to recover the Jewish thought-world that Jesus entered into, and historical criticism is currently at the forefront of doing that. I’m not saying there aren’t other ways to do that, or even that historical criticism will always be that helpful, but right now it’s sort of the only kid standing up to the bully on the playground right now.

          • I’m not at all opposed to there being antecedents to Enlightenment thought; it seems that very little new thought gets added at any point in time. Do you have suggested reading on this “Our story becomes anemic very early on”? Also, what are some good exemplars of historical criticism “standing up to the bully on the playground”?

          • Well, most of the people involved in the project would be exemplars, although some seem to feel constrained to still end up with roughly the same systematics.

            My favorite exemplar is Andrew Perriman who pushes very bold theses against the dominant theological story, and a good introductory article that illustrates this is here: http://www.postost.net/2015/04/stories-we-get-so-animated-about complete with Monty Pythonesque animations.

            I don’t know offhand any specific readings that deal specifically with the Greco-Roman assumption of the Jewish story. Maybe Peter knows some good ones. I just tend to think of primary source material like Justin Martyr’s “Dialogues” and other early Christian lit.

    • It’s interesting that you cite Emil Brunner in this instance. Brunner was by no means an inerrantist; Barth records him as saying of the bible:

      “It is full of errors, contradictions, and misleading views of various circumstances relating to man, nature, and history. It contains many contradictions in its report of the life of Jesus; it is over-grown with legend, even in the New Testament.” (The Gottingen Dogmatics)

      Elsewhere, he states,

      “There is no doubt that legend has intruded even into the Gospel narrative–to see this plainly we need only look at the Apocryphal Gospels–and that now and again elements of this legendary material have penetrated into the canonical Gospels.”

      (Dogmatics: Volume II – Christian Doctrine of Creation & Redemption)

      Not that Brunner did not have a high view of scripture, he simply did not consider it essential to his faith that it be free of error:

      “There are no absolute, fool-proof criteria at our disposal by which we can distinguish a legend from a credible miracle story. Here the subjectivity of the judgment of faith is given a great deal of play. This, however, does no harm; no one becomes a Christian by believing in all the recorded miracles. And no one ceases to be a Christian because he does not believe in all the recorded miracles.”
      (Dogmatics: Volume II – Christian Doctrine of Creation & Redemption)

    • Andrew Dowling

      You seem to be fooling yourself with your “not equal to” signs. And also to have a fairly confident idea about how God operates . . .

      • Odd; I did not get a notification of any response to my comment except Dr. Enns’.

        Anyhow, what way is there to test my ‘≠’s other than via observing changes in (i) my personal theology; (ii) my particular reading of scripture? As to my allegedly thinking I know something of how God operates, we have Eph 5:17 “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” I take this as meaning, at least, that I am to know enough to execute my poiēma, plus what is required to synchronize with enough others. There is also the first chapter of Colossians.