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What’s Wrong with Historical Criticism of the Bible?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 19, 2014

When Pope Benedict XVI wrote his trilogy of works on Jesus of Nazareth, one of his purposes was to blend the useful aspects of historical criticism with a neglected tradition of Patristic exegesis. He wanted to suggest the limits of modern historical criticism and call new attention to the importance of interpreting Scripture in a context of faith. In his Foreword to the first volume, the Pope identified the problem he wished to address:

The gap between the “historical Jesus” and the “Christ of faith” grew wider and the two visibly fell apart…. As historical-critical scholarship advanced, it led to finer and finer distinctions between layers of tradition in the Gospels, beneath which the real object of faith—the figure of Jesus—became increasingly obscured and blurred. At the same time, though, reconstructions of this Jesus…became more and more incompatible with one another…. [T]hey are much more like photographs of their authors and the ideals they hold. [pp. xi-xii]

“This is a dramatic situation for faith,” wrote the Pope, “because its point of reference is being placed in doubt: intimate friendship with Jesus, on which everything depends, is in danger of clutching at thin air” (p. xii).

Historical criticism is, to be sure, a complex business. There can be no question of the value of studying the Biblical texts in their historical contexts: learning to recognize the various literary genres and how those genres were understood in their own time; exploring, where possible, the lives of the various authors and the particular needs and interests of their communities; discovering in as much detail as possible the historical circumstances in which the text was composed and the consequent preoccupations of the human author; paying close attention to older texts which may have been incorporated into the Biblical account; comparing manuscripts and seeking to correct textual errors that have crept in over the centuries; and of course understanding all the nuances of the original languages.

All of these things shed light on the literal meaning of the text. And since the literal meaning is always the foundation for the prophetic, moral, spiritual and even eschatological meanings which can be discerned with the eyes of faith, even the most orthodox Scripture scholars are eager to learn as much as possible of the historical and textual circumstances.

But subjecting the text to this sort of rigorous analysis carries with it certain dangers. If the scholar approaches the Bible as if it is just like any other ancient text, without recognizing that it is inspired by God, he will rule out any inter-textual connections which would require such inspiration, and he will exclude from the “authentic” text anything which presupposes a supernatural causality which he is not prepared to admit.

Pointing in Reverse

We do not accept Biblical inspiration because of the proofs which may be adduced from the text itself but rather from the testimony of the Christian community under the authority of the Church. This inescapable fact alone is sufficient to discredit the sola scriptura theory, and in fact one of the few Catholics who became a “father” of historical criticism, Richard Simon (1638-1712), was initially motivated by a desire to demonstrate how textual difficulties undermine the naïve Protestant claim that Scripture is as plain as a pikestaff. Sadly, Fr. Simon did not seem to recognize the limits of his methods, which quickly escaped the bounds of orthodoxy.

In any case, if we accept the testimony and the authority of the Church, we find that all of Scripture points forward, first toward the Jews and their unique relationship with God, and then through the Jews to the fulfillment of their history and covenant in Jesus Christ and the Church, and then in and through Our Lord and His Church to the eschatological reality of the end times—the ultimate triumph of God and His saints for all eternity.

But if we presume that the text is of merely human origin, it becomes necessary to read it backwards. Assuming that God does not exist, or that He played no role in the formation of Scripture, or that He must for scientific purposes be set aside, the exegete is forced to seek alternative explanations for everything which appears to involve a supernatural agency. Moses can hardly be an archetype of Christ, nor the Chosen People of the Church. The prophets cannot speak of anything beyond their own time. Miraculous corroborations of Biblical truths must be late accretions designed to further some selfish interest of the community.

What the secularized exegete must do, in other words, is to push Scripture as we have received it ever backwards to the pure original text. The interpreter’s task is to strip away successive editorial “layers” which must be assumed to have been devised long after the original text was formed. These layers can be identified either because they seem to foreshadow things that happened only later, or because they go beyond nature in their understanding of causality. Such additions burden an original text with signs and portents which are “obviously” designed to justify later political claims.

Again and again, the historical critic assumes it to be impossible that something which serves Christian claims so well now could have been part of the text in any era before those claims were first advanced. The entire historical critical method easily degenerates into a quest to uncover an archaic, primitive, prosaic, and generally disjointed literal substratum—a substratum of little power and less interest. Thus is Faith undermined by a method which, in its very presuppositions, refuses to accept the supernatural. The circularity of the argument ought to be obvious.

Benedict’s observation is most apt: Each successive historical critical “interpretation” looks exactly like a photograph if its author’s face. The method too easily grants a license to recreate Scripture in one’s own image.

The full range of modern historical criticism was developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, mostly by non-Catholics. As Benedict noted in his Foreword, Catholic exegetes tended to make only very judicious use of it until “the situation started to change in the 1950s” (p. xi). It is hardly surprising that, as Modernism came to fruition in the Catholic academy in the first half of the twentieth century, and as secularizing influences blasted through the Church as a whole under the pressure of the massive cultural shift which began in the 1960s, even Catholic Scripture studies were rapidly dominated by historical criticism. This criticism was undertaken from the perspective of, at best, an extremely attenuated faith.

Politicizing the Bible

One could spend a lifetime going through the Catholic scholarship of the last seventy-five years (and the non-Catholic scholarship of the previous two hundred and fifty) to separate the wheat of helpful knowledge about language, genre and historical circumstances from the chaff of conclusions which rest on nothing more than the exegete’s worldview. All sound Catholic biblical scholars today must, in fact, pick good fruit from a legitimate historical-critical study of the text while rejecting all the rotten fruit which so clearly comes from a diseased tree. They must also clearly delineate the limits of the various sub-methodologies, recognizing the sterility of pressing them past a certain point of fatal presupposition, as Pope Benedict attempted to do in his own trilogy.

But there is another task to be performed as well, the task of forcing today’s reigning historical critics to recognize that the techniques of their craft are poisoned by exactly the kinds of historical circumstances and layered presuppositions that they ascribe so gleefully to Scripture itself. It is this truly critical task that has been undertaken by Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker in their 2013 masterpiece, Politicizing the Bible: The Roots of Historical Criticism and the Secularization of Scripture, 1300-1700.

What Hahn and Wiker do is trace the roots of historical criticism beginning with such figures as Marsilius of Padua and William of Okham in the fourteenth century. Their purpose is to demonstrate that the very figures who developed the method were overwhelmingly motivated by a desire to minimize the influence of the Catholic Church and maximize the power of temporal rulers—or what we would now call the State. This is a massive study of over 600 pages, published in an impressive cloth-bound volume by Crossroad.

In addition to Marsilius and Okham, Politicizing the Bible covers the entire widely-acknowledged advance guard of historical criticism: John Wycliffe, Machiavelli, Luther and the other Reformers, Henry VIII and his circle, Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, Spinoza, Richard Simon, John Locke and John Toland. These figures established the tradition upon which later and more currently relevant figures have built. Each chapter reads like a monograph on one of these seminal writers, focusing on the interplay between their intensely secular goals and their consequent interpretive methods and conclusions.

As they proceed, Hahn and Wiker detail the historical movements which were based upon or gathered strength from successive secularizations of Scripture, including the Protestant Reformation, the revolution in English thought following “the King’s great matter”, the perception of a secular cosmos as developed under the influence of philosophical skepticism and mechanistic conceptions of the universe, the radical Enlightenment, and the influences of the wars of religion and the English Civil War on the rise of secular revolutionary and republican thought.

The book is far too long and detailed to summarize, but it is brilliantly rendered. It establishes beyond a shadow of reasonable doubt that secular and especially political motivations guided both the development and application of the new ways of interpreting Scripture, creating an approach which subsequent generations of secularized scholars, perhaps naively, accepted as a scientific methodology. This methodology was widely and uncritically heralded as being free of prejudice, giving it a claim to adoption by anyone who wished to see Scripture for what it really is.

To the contrary, as Hahn and Wiker reveal so magisterially, the progressive “demystification” of Scripture was, in the hands of these early “historically critical” exegetes, largely driven by their own need to weaken the influence of the Catholic Church—to undermine its sacraments, its priests, and its focus on the ultimate spiritual meaning of life. These things had to be swept aside in order to provide a justification to various secular rulers who wished to take control of everything in their realms, including Faith, and to sway the unwashed masses in favor of a new secular order of sweetness and light.

Weeds and Wheat

In their conclusion, the authors of Politicizing the Bible outline briefly how the same sorts of motives can be seen in the golden age of historical criticism, in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, particularly in Germany, where the techniques reached their most highly-developed form. But Hahn and Wiker manage to remain irenic throughout—less passionate, indeed, than I am here—as befits modest scholars in a hostile atmosphere. They insist simply that their exploration of the roots of the historical critical method proves the following:

[There is] every reason to believe that significantly more detailed studies of the politicizing aspects of nineteenth-century scriptural scholarship are called for, and only such studies can hope to disentangle the legitimate tools of the historical-critical method from the various political and secular aims. (pp. 565-6)

We have waited for this disentanglement for far too long. The human soul, whose secrets are hidden, rightly awaits judgment only in the end, at God’s good pleasure. But authentic scholarship, which by its nature must be exposed to careful scrutiny, can advance no claim in favor of delay. Even the best plants must be pruned, and the noxious weeds must be carefully separated, completely uprooted and cast into the fire.

Prejudice ever crowds out real thought. We ought to join Hahn and Wiker in seeking to till a more spacious and fertile field, a field in which the best lines of thought can grow, and blossom, and drop good seed—and spread.

An appeal from our founder, Dr. Jeffrey Mirus:

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jun. 05, 2014 7:05 PM ET USA

    Well, you have methods on the one hand and motivations on the other. No matter how well trained the specialist, it is the motivation that determines the final product, its conclusions, and its recommendations for ongoing research direction. Catholic exegetes must constantly bear in mind B.K. Majer's pastoral concern for the man in the pew.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - May. 19, 2014 9:34 PM ET USA

    All legitimate methods to study scripture, used by trained people, are valid. Accuracy of the analytical results is dependent on alignment with Tradition & Revelation. If such results signficantly call into question validity of Tradition or Revelation, there's a problem. With the use of sophisticated techniques comes the responsibility to make the results plain in understanding for the average person in the pew. If the results do not deepen our relationship with Jesus, what's the point?

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