Wednesday, 9 July 2008

History, ontology and politics

Halden of inhabitatio dei has asked, "what is the theological role of historical criticism? Do we really need it at all?"

Brilliant question!

As usual, his query has generated a learned response in the comments from a number of fellow bloggers (D.W. Congdon opens with an eloquent reference to Ebeling). I'm hoping to find time to add my own thoughts on this issue, especially as they involve references to subject areas I really know very little about (such as the regula fidei). In the meantime, I was delighted to read the following thoughts from a certain Tim F., author of the blog The Moving Image. This chimes in with a book I recently posted on (with an ethnographical afterthought here). Here are his thoughts (which prove, by the way, what a useful hunting ground Halden's blog is for other interesting blogs).

A question always lurking in the conversation regarding the role of historical criticism in theology is: does historical criticism, or modern historical methods in general, have ontological presuppositions? I think they do, especially regarding time and therefore its relationship to eternity. For example, historical criticism must see the past as gone and immutable; it divides past from present in order to give itself an object to study. However, we do not experience this break between past and present in our ordinary life. What are the implications of this? I’m still working on this in my personal research.
One more thing, it is often forgotten that the discipline of modern history arose to relativize the medieval church. At its origins, history was quite a political act; one that led to the rise of modern nation states and their so often touted “advance” of separation of church and state. Some would argue that to practice modern history as a political act requires one to affirm the liberal subject.
Finally, a difference between modern history and ancient forms of history must also be noted here. My disseration is on Bede who wrote biblical commentaries and history, and I’m trying to work through there relation to each other to help answer some of these questions. Sorry that I didn’t offer anything that solid; I think I just muddied the waters more.
One more thing, we need to be careful not to affirm that we are better readers of Scripture than our forbears who did not have historical criticism. Perhaps some want to make that case (and I’d like to hear it), but it should not simply be assumed as a general posture.


Bob MacDonald said...

There must be synchronicity - you ask this question just after I received Memoirs II by Küng in which he writes: Ratzinger argues for a historical-organic theology which hardly takes seriously the breaks in development and deviation from the origins, which allows criticism only in the framework of Hellenistic dogma, ... By contrast I advocate a historical-critical theology which investigates both the Bible and the history of dogma critically and takes the original message, figure and fate of Jesus as a criterion.

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks for the quote Bob. I haven't got round to reading Küng yet, though I'd like to. His introduction to Judaism is sitting on my shelf ...

I'm not sure how either Ratzinger or Küng relate to the synchronic/diachronic issue. Even in the Pope sees organic continuity through all stages of developement, in terms of exegesis that could still mean a diachronic exegesis in traditio-historical categories. For me, a synchronic reading of the Bible takes the literary shape of the final form of the text, which is often narrative in form, as the framework and norm for interpretation. In that sense, I differ to both Ratzinger and Küng (though I disagree deeply with Küng's concpetion of the theological task of exegesis!).

These two scholars were sworn enemies in Tübingen. I heard that Ratzinger even managed to get Küng removed from a certain position at the university, though I'm not sure of the details. I also think Küng has been excommunicated, though that was before Ratzinger morphed into a Bendict!