Saturday, 6 October 2007

The Theological crisis of Biblical Criticism

Stefan recently linked to Michael Bird's review of J. Barton's book The Nature of Biblical Criticism. Michael's concern is the role historical-criticism should play in the Church's appropriation of Scripture. He believes that traditional historical-critical theory does not take into account the post-modern critique and suggests that other methodolgies are needed, especially if one is to read the ancient texts in an ecclesial context. To quote:

What is really needed is a realistic epistemology of how we know things from texts, a literary theory explaining how texts do things to readers, a hermeneutical explanation for how authors communicate through the signs/symbols of language, and a definition of history and historiography.
Anthony Thiselton, N.T. Wright, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Scot McKnight are recommended reading for each of these areas.

I'm all for a reappraisal of the way humans know, the nature of texts, the nature of reading and definitions of history (the last being a central concern of Childs'). However, as far as theological reading is concerned, I'm not sure whether the proposed areas of research really get to the heart of the crisis which the church is currently facing, and has been facing for quite some time now. The following thoughts on this issue are taken from C. Seitz's book, Figured Out.

Vanhoozer and Wolterstorff talk of the contemporary crisis as a hermeneutical one. In their works they attempt to address topics such as divine speech, inspiration, and authorship. This is done from the perspective of general hermeneutics (the philosophy of language; speech-act theory). Seitz wonders to what degree they focus on the long-standing problem of the relationship between the two testaments of Christian Scripture. To quote:

"Hermeneutics as a science of reading and interpretation could simply speak about matters of authorship, reader, text, inspiration, divine speech, and so forth, in the manner of Vanhoozer and Wolterstorff, and never once address the difference between Old and New Testaments on historical, theological, canonical, literary/genre, or specified audience/ecclesial grounds. The Bible would be one big book, whatever its differences, and the problems of talking about author or reader or text could go on in general terms without much regard for the divide separating two distinct literatures (Old Testament, or Tanak, and New Testament). And we could still plausibly argue that a hermeneutical crisis existed and buffeted the field and not be wrong.” (pp. 13, 14).
Seitz goes on to point out how a series of crises already existed in biblical studies before the advent of post-modernism and post-critical theology. They focused not on general hermeneutics (text, reader, author, world) but on quite specific matters: the historicality of individual writings, literary methods and their compatibility, dating texts properly, social-historical reconstruction, the history of religion and so forth. Always sitting close to these questions were serious subisidiary or even more up-front concerns. Is there unity to Christian scripture? How is the Old Testament Christian scripture? In what way does the New Testament function as scripture, especially given its fourfold gospel record and what would come to be known as "quests for the historical Jesus" behind this fourfold account?

These questions persisted and were never completely banished from the field. Seitz believes it is proper to call these theological, and not just hermeneutical questions:

"They have to do with the way in which the testaments, each in its own specific historical and canonical way, bear witness to God. In the middle of the last century and for many decades into our own, these questions did not just hover near the fray but were first-order questions demanding first-order answers if the discipline was to have any integrity as a historically oriented one still tuned to the life of the church and an earlier history of interpretation." (14)
Seitz concludes:

"The turn to hermeneutics as a general discipline, then, has not so much offered a resolution of older theological questions, historically considered, as it has changed the subject. We may wish to judge that a good thing, but in so doing there would have to be an admission that what has counted in the history of biblical studies for the past century and a half as central was misguided from the start. The field posed the wrong questions, it would have to be concluded, and therefore got wrong answers and ended up in its present desuetude - call it a "hermeneutical crisis" - as a consequence. A cursory comparison with Westermann's Essay on Old Testament Hermeneutics, produced at a period of general critical (methodological) consensus, shows an array of concerns untouched in recent hermeneutical discussions, and any accounting of our present crisis is obliged to say why this is so." (14, 15)
I should just add that John's post on this topic has started an interesting conversation with Dave from Tolle Lege.


Anonymous said...


The way you have focused the question here helps bring some clarity—at least for me.
It seems to me that it would be wrong to characterize the crisis in biblical studies as either theological or philosophical. And I’m quite surprised that you would say that “as far as theological reading is concerned, I'm not sure whether the proposed areas of research really get to the heart of the crisis which the church is currently facing, and has been facing for quite some time now.” From what I understand, scholars such as Tom Wright, Thiselton, Vanhoozer are exploring issues of general hermeneutics in order to renew a distinctly theological hermeneutics. As I see it, one of the main problems with evangelical biblical scholarship is that it works with an Enlightenment epistemology and does not account for the role of the reader in interpretation.

What’s more, it’s ironic that many of the issues that Seitz raises, e.g., the historicality of biblical events, literary methods, the issue of the four gospels, the so-called quest for the historical Jesus, all at their core have to do with hermeneutics or epistemology or historiography.

I have to give some thought to the question of the unity of the canon and the relationship between the Old and New Testament. But even this has been discussed in the context of philosophical hermeneutics. For example, Ricoeur regarded the closing of the canon as a fundamentally “structural act which delimits the space for the interplay of forms of discourse and determines the finite configuration within which each form and each pair of forms unfolds its signifying function.” Personally, I don’t find this adequate to the challenge of articulating the unity of the Scriptures, but it’s interesting.

I’ve never quite understood Seitz’ aversion to general hermeneutics. Anyway, thanks for continuing the conversation.

Phil Sumpter said...


I appreciate your comments. I'd love to respond immediately, but a friend is down and we're about to go off for a two-day hike through the vineyards of the Ahr valley (it's harvest time!). I'll get back to you as soon as poss, Tuesday at the latest.

If anyone else wants to add anything, feel free! I think this is a fundamental issue and needs to be dealt with by those wanting to witness to Christ in the 21st century ...

stc said...

I appreciate the quote from Seitz, and his focus on the relationship between the two Testaments as a test case for the limitations of the new methodology.

But I would respond with this: the quest to get at the historical facts through historical-critical inquiry has reached an impasse. It isn't that scholars were asking the wrong questions, or that the methodology was completely misguided. But the methodology only took scholars so far, beyond which further consensus has proven to be impossible.

I am thinking in particular of the quest(s) of the historical Jesus. Dale Allison's book on Jesus as "Millenarian Prophet" openns by demolishing the criteria scholars had hoped would lead to assured results. It's his starting point for an admittedly more subjective, less certain reconstruction of Jesus' life.

If new methods have been generated, that's a healthy development, a constructive response to the impasse that has emerged.

I don't think the best scholars have abandoned the insights of historical criticism. Some progress has been made; some light has been shed on shadowy issues.
Maybe one day we'll be able to triangulate the results of several methods to achieve a deeper level of agreement.

Alternatively, maybe some of the questions are simply unanswerable. And I think there's an element of that in the new methodologies, too: a recognition that Christian faith cannot be reduced to an objective science, whether by historical-critical method or by any other academic technique.

To make such an admission is liberating for some of us.

Phil Sumpter said...


I've copied and pasted your post to the location of our previous conversation here. I appreciate the need to keep the coversation from being buried. However, although I admittedly didn't make it clear in this case, new posts (the substantial ones) are almost always intended to contribute to ongoing conversations in some way. To save having more conversations then necessary on one thread, perhaps you could keep to the old thread unless you feel an explicit connection can be made to the new post? In this case, for example, my post shows that we both have a similar diagnosis of the problem, i.e. it is theological. In your case, your definition of the kerygma has prescriptive implications for defenitions of Christian truth (though, admittedly, I don't see how that squares with your statement that your theology is derivative of a prior commitment to truth in general, before faith, but more on that in my response below).In my case, as I make clear in the post here, the key theological crux to be figured out, before talking about Christian definitions of truth, is the question of the unity of a two-testamental Scripture and the question of its centre. This has the result that 'figurative' readings get pushed into the limelight. I find it interesting that we both try to ground our approaches in the kerygma. Perhaps the next step is to define it ...

I will resond to Dave and Stephen tomorrow.

Phil Sumpter said...

It's now tomorrow!


having returned from my hike I can now address your comments (for which I am, of course, grateful!).
You said that you would not characterize the current 'crisis' as either theological or philosophical. How would you characterize it?

As for Tom Wright, Thiselton, Vanhoozer etc., are they proposing a theological hermeneutics per se? Their proposals are certainly useful to theology. Seitz does not deny that, and he does not have an “aversion to general hermeneutics” either. Rather, the point of the quote is that he sees the past few generations of scholarship approaching the Bible from whatever angles our cultures deem useful (historical-critical, reader response, canonical etc.) and suggests that, as Stephen put it, they be “tested” against their ability to solve the central theological issue of the unity of the testaments. Given the nature of our Scripture and the theological claims of Jesus and the early church (“it is written”/“do not think I have come to abolish the law and the prophets”), this question of the unity of our two-testamental Bible is a 'first-order question'. Questions of “hermeneutics” and “epistemology” (recent concerns), or “historicality” and “authorship” (less recent ones) need to be brought into connection with this concern. This would include recent insights into “the role of the reader in interpretation”.

This can be illustrated in relation to Ricoeur's statement (which you also note is inadequate theologically). It is one thing to talk about the semantic consequences of reading texts in connection with each other within a fixed boundary, it is another to talk about how to do that. In fact, Ricoeur's proposal sounds very similar to a quote on John Hobbins' blog from Levinas (Talmudic scholar and philosopher: here). Such an approach sounds midrashic, which Childs actually came to criticize on theological grounds by contrasting it with allegory, a more Christian mode of biblical appropriation! In his criticism of G. Steins' 'post-modern' exegesis in his Die Bindung Isaaks, Childs states that his fusion of author, text, and addressee vitiates the Christian claim that there is a divine address in Scripture that continually breaks through “the filters of human consciousness” (2003: 176), that it contradicts the Christian and Jewish concept of canon, which was concerned to maintain some form of authorial intent (Moses, David, Matthew, Paul) as well as the coherence of the biblical message (both concepts constitutive for the Bible's authority). Childs criticises concepts of canon canonical context which see it “as a monolithic, unstructured theological construct from which intertextual resonances can be freely garnered” (179). The ultimate reason for this is Childs' distinction between midrash and allegory, in which “midrash works at discerning meaning through the interaction of two written texts, allegory ... finds meaning by moving to another level beyond the the textual” (183). What is significant for my point is that his hermeneutical distinction is grounded theologically, and as we will see in the development of my thread, this theological concept of allegory is pivotal for understanding the unity of the two testaments.

So, your statement that you need to give the unity of the canon more thought is exactly what Seitz is calling for. The caveat is that this should be a first order priority from which other concerns are derivative (he himself develops a “hermeneutic of estrangement overcome” in his book Word Without End, though it's anything but 'general' [particularity is his starting point]).


we're pretty much in agreement. How do you feel about Seitz's constructive proposal, at least concerning the direction that 'theological' exegesis needs to be going in? This is something that Brueggemann doesn't do at all. To use allegory and claim that the Old Testament speaks of Christ at all would be an act of supercessionism, as far as he is concerned. He proposes that the Old Testament not be read in connection with the New at all, so that the question of the unity of the Christian Bible (i.e. two-testamental) or the relation between these testaments is not even relevant.

Anonymous said...

A quick response for now.

What I meant by my statement is that the current “crisis” has both theological and philosophical dimensions.

To the next question, I guess I’ve never questioned that what Thiselton et al are after is theological hermeneutics, that is one that helps readers hear the voice of God.

As for the question of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments (something I have indeed given a great deal of thought to and I come from a tradition which has recognized the vital importance of biblical theology)—it seems that to “test” all approaches to biblical interpretation “against their ability to solve the central theological issue of the unity of the testaments” is far too reductionistic. There is no question that this is a central concern for biblical/theological interpretation; however, to a culture that is skeptical about the very existence of meaning and truth (and the contemporary church is no exception), it would be absurd to relativize the importance of hermeneutics, or subordinate these matters to the problem of the relationship of the testaments (as important as that is).

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks for your thoughts Dave. I look forward to your longer response.