This article is dedicated to the seminary student who is troubled by the “methodological atheism” framework of contemporary historical criticism, and is looking for a believing scholarship that is consistent with the Church’s affirmation of the Bible as the Word of God.
To read Part 2 of this article – Reading the Bible as God’s Word: The Redemptive Historical Method and Progressive Revelation. Part 2
I. The Challenge of “Methodological Atheism” and the Historical-Critical Method
Seminary studies is vital for equipping aspiring pastors with skills in biblical interpretation. However, seminary studies may prove to be hazardous for some students when they are introduced to critical scholarship which treats the Bible just like any other Ancient Near Eastern texts. Students are told that the origins of the Bible is obscure because of its antiquity and because the authors of the biblical texts in truth are anonymous. The historical reliability of the Bible is cast in doubt as critical historians (the biblical minimalists) privilege silent excavated artifacts over informative historical texts and declare that the Bible contains more myths than history. Finally, critical scholars conclude that alleged cultural and religious commonalities between biblical stories and ancient mythological texts render questionable, the traditional Christian belief that the Bible is unique because of its divine origins. Students who are overwhelmed by these critical ideas soon lose their passion for preaching and pastoral ministry.
Critical scholarship is alluring because of its claim to be a rational inquiry that continuously advances the frontiers of religious knowledge, in contrast to conservative scholarship that is constrained by dogmatic authority. To be sure, this Enlightenment inspired narrative has been contested by recent scholarship. However, rather than outlining an alternative historiography which can be both intellectually robust and consistent with the biblical worldview, this article shall focus on how critical scholarship based on “methodological atheism” challenges the faith of students.
Lecturers naturally are eager to introduce students to the tools of historical criticism – source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, reader-response criticism, rhetorical criticism, structural criticism, narrative criticism, sociological criticism etc. The Bible is critically analyzed alongside other ancient texts which presumably provide clues for a better understanding of the biblical text. The list of tools keeps extending as the guild of biblical scholars adopts from other academic disciplines the latest fashion in theory formation and analysis.
It is only right to acknowledge that there are benefits arising from the use of the historical critical method. Truth be told, scholars regardless of their theological persuasion apply the fruit of historical research in their daily study of the Bible. They turn to Hebrew and Greek lexicons to determine possible meanings of Greek and Hebrew words. Old Testament scholars consult ancient Ugaritic texts as they try to ascertain the meaning of uncommon Hebrew words. James Pritchard’s classic collection of Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament offers insights into the reasons for intense Old Testament polemics against the idolatry of its neighboring cultures. Unfamiliar history, institutions and literature of the New Testament gain concreteness when the biblical text is read with the aid of Emil Schurer, The History of the People in the Age of Jesus Christ. New Testament scholars can testify how knowledge of the works of Philo, Josephus and Rabbinic exegetical traditions open new vistas of scriptural interpretation.
To give a further example – the value of historical knowledge becomes apparent when it is applied to understand the significance of the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, “There appear to them tongues as of fire, distributing themselves, and they rested on each of them” (Acts 2:3). Readers would be puzzled by the imagery, “tongues of fire”, which brings to mind the theophany of God as the pillar of cloud and fire led Israel out of Egypt into the wilderness (Exod. 13). Something similar was described by Isaiah when he referred to God’s appearance in dense smoke with “His tongue is like a consuming fire” (Isa. 30:27-30). Elsewhere, Philo noted that the Jews of his time believed that God’s voice was accompanied with torches of fire when he spoke to Israel. The 2nd century BC apocalyptic writings, 1Enoch understood the descent of the fire as God descending and dwelling in his temple. The convergence of explanations from these writings suggests that the common knowledge among the Jews in New Testament times was that God would be accompanied by “tongues of fire” as his presence descends upon the temple. Based on these historical sources, the reader may reasonably conclude that Luke in writing Acts 2 is suggesting that God through his Spirit indwells a new temple comprising the followers of Jesus Christ.
While scholars may benefit from the historical-critical method, still, some caution should be noted:
First, the historical-critical method undermines Christian faith when scholars informed by atheistic presuppositions are willing to accept only what autonomous human rationality allows. As Johann Semler, one of the pioneers of the historical-critical method in the 18th century declares,
‘The historical-critical method is the necessary methodological correlative of the rationalist assumption of human intellectual autonomy. Religion rationalistically conceived (“natural religion”) is not dependent for its existence on a set of documents, divinely inspired or otherwise; the possibility of recognizing the truth of its maxims is intrinsic to the one who assents to these insofar as he or she possesses the faculty of reason. Rationalistic religious truth becomes, therefore, the criterion by which the contents of all “positive” religious texts, including the Bible, are determined to be authoritative for the reader.
In effect, the historical-critical method subjects the Bible to critical judgment as any other fallible human text.
Second, handling the Bible as other ancient texts requires a ‘mirror reading’ of the text. That is to say, the biblical writers’ concern is reflective of the historical situation confronting Israel (in the Old Testament) or the Church (in the New Testament). For example, critical scholars keep asserting that the Genesis Flood narrative must have borrowed from the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh even though believing scholars who are equally competent have long offered arguments against such a possibility. Other critical scholars conjecture that the early sections of the Bible known as ‘Deuteronomistic History’ were collated from earlier corpora of Mosaic law and skillfully constructed literary works found in the books from Deuteronomy to Kings. This ‘Deuteronomistic History’ reflects the literary response by the Jewish religious elite attempting to rationalize the tragedy of the fall of Israel, and to bolster the covenant identity of the Jewish community as the Jews was threatened by cultural assimilation while in exile under the Babylon Empire. From the critical perspective, these Old Testament texts are the product of Jewish scribal ‘schools’ in a long process of human creative response to a series of crises or controversies faced by Israel.
The ‘mirror reading’ in New Testament studies has given rise to a cottage industry among scholars seeking to identify the heresy that threatens the Colossian church when Paul writes, “Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions” (Col 2:18). Success in identifying the “Colossian heresy” would give concrete lessons to the church in confronting false teaching. However, despite so much energy given to the task, there seems no certainty beyond the plethora of attempted solutions and speculations ranging from Jewish mysticism, Gnosticism or some Greek eclectic mystery religions.
The inherent uncertainty in reconstructing the background of the text offers scholars much opportunities to display their erudite research as they search extensively over ancient literature and the latest archaeology reports to find some evidence that may resemble the heresy described in Colossians. However, scholars who labored prodigiously to construct the background of the text end up giving less time to attentive reading of the text itself.
Ironically, if the Bible merely reflects its background, or if background research requires bracketing the question of ultimate truth, then scholars cannot take seriously the traditional claims about the unique divine message of the Bible. Furthermore, if the New Testament is focused on a specific contextual heresy, it would be inappropriate to use the biblical text to address contemporary ‘false’ teaching. In either case, the Bible becomes remotely relevant to the contemporary Church. Andy Naselli concludes,
“The mirror is the specific background theory; and when a text is reflected in the mirror of a specific background theory, that theory decisively shapes the text. Perhaps the best example of this process is the spate of recent interpretations of 1 Timothy 2:11–15, the passage in which Paul tells Timothy that he does not want women “to teach or to have authority over a man.” Many of these interpretations assume—rightly—that we must interpret Paul’s prohibition in its first-century context. But they then go on to suggest specific background scenarios that usually have little basis in the text of 1 Timothy and sometimes, indeed, little basis in what we know of the first-century world. Yet scholars following this line of “mirror-reading” conclude that Paul’s advice is not directly relevant for the church today because of one of these theoretical background scenarios.” http://andynaselli.com/mirror-reading
Third, the historical-critical method treats each biblical ‘writer/redactor’ in isolation from the other biblical ‘writers/redactors’. The Bible is seen as comprising a diversity of witnesses with a variety of theologies, in contrast to traditional view of the Bible as embodying a unified message given by a divine Author. This is a natural consequence of “methodological atheism” which requires a naturalistic or non-supernatural explanation of biblical history that rules out the possibility of divine revelation. The skeptical outcome is inevitable – a methodology that rules out the supernatural will end with a judgment that rejects the Bible as the infallible Word of God.
II. The Necessity of a Proper Framework for Interpreting the Bible – Redemptive Historical Method (RHM)
Budding scholars face tremendous pressures to comply with the rationalistic methodology that is dominant within the biblical guilds like the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) or the American Academy of Religion (AAR) as the leaders of these societies control appointments to prestigious academic institutions, availability of research grants and peer-reviewed journals. But surely it is a matter of integrity for the believer to resist the “methodological atheism” that is presupposed by the historical-critical method, and develop an alternative research methodology that is consistent with the Church’s affirmation of the Bible as the Word of God. After all, the historical critical method has been subjected to withering criticism by scholars like Michael Polanyi, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Hans Frei, Paul Ricoeur and Kevin Vanhoozer.
Moshe Greenberg advocates:
“… a holistic interpretation” of the text as, “emphasizing the organic or functional relation between parts and wholes” (Webster). As the religious person approaches the text open to God’s call, so must the interpreter come “all ears” to hear what the text is saying. He [or she] must subjugate his habits of thought and expression to the words before him and become actively passive-full of initiatives to heighten his receptivity. For an axiom, he has the working hypothesis that the text as he has it has been designed to convey a message, a meaning. For if it does have design and meaning, they will be discovered only by effort expended to justify such an assumption. Readiness to find evidence of design and significance is the exegete’s analogue to openness to hear God’s word on the part of the faithful reader.” [Cited by Peter Och in “Returning to Scripture: Trends in Postcritical Interpretation”, Cross Currents 44 (1995)]
Believing scholars need not be apologetic when they strike out an alternative postcritical methodology as they have as much warrant to implement believing scholarship that is accountable not only to the academy, but also to the Church. Most importantly, believing scholarship grants due recognition to the self-testimony of the Bible as a book with a message. Accordingly, the object of research (in this case the Bible as the Word of God) should determine what methodology could be appropriately applied to study the Bible, rather than the case of an autonomously framed methodology deciding on what may or may not be applied to the Bible (I owe this insight to Thomas F. Torrance, Theological Science. OUP 1969.)
The justification of a believing scholarship enterprise would be fruitful research, with an added bonus of spiritual insight that builds faith and cultivation of Christian virtue that is consistent with the message of the Bible. Some of the methods of interpretation of Scripture that look promising for believing scholarship are the Canonical Method, the Drama of Redemption Method and the Redemptive Historical Method. There are common concerns and overlaps in these methods as they seek to incorporate a judicious use of the tools of historical method for a holistic reading that takes the Bible on its own terms.
I shall focus on the Redemptive Historical Method in Part 2.
To read Part 2 of this article – Reading the Bible as God’s Word: The Redemptive Historical Method and Progressive Revelation. Part 2