Fumbling in the Dark

Yesterday I tweeted the following:

Many times when I read essays tied to the historical-critical method, it sounds like grasping for hope after the world’s gone dark. The irony is, the ones using the historical-critical method turned off the lights on themselves by capitulating to modernity.

I’ve been asked to clarify this statement, so let me give it a shot.

First, by “historical-critical method” I mean the approach to biblical interpretation that is “. . . thought of as the standard way of studying the Bible objectively,”[1]  and that “. . . ‘factually’ divides science from speculation or primitivism.”[2] It typically utilizes such tools as redaction criticism, source criticism,  tradition criticism, and the like. It’s goal, as can be seen in the quotes above, is to provide a “scientifically objective” means of interpretation so that the subjective faith element cannot become a factor in the hermeneutical process. Of course, postmodern/post-liberal/post-conservative/post-whatever biblical scholars have heavily critiqued this latter aim of the method, but they continue to utilize the tools proffered by modernity.

When I read those who capitulate to this approach, even those who deny the ability of the interpreter to be “objective” in their use of the historical-critical tools, I often find that, after the text has been cut to pieces, the interpreter is left grasping for straws as to what the text actually means. This is especially true of what it means for those who read the Bible today. So, for instance, I recently came across an article on 2 Peter 3:1–13 that argued that we should no longer preach from this text because it so clearly communicates cosmic annihilation, perhaps derived from a Stoic view of the world. Here, 2 Peter 3 is not “the Word of God for the people of God,” even though this scholar was explicitly arguing from a liturgically oriented standpoint; instead, it is something to be discarded for its discord with the rest of the NT’s more environmentally friendly teaching. This conclusion was reached partly by using source criticism. Or, in another instance, I read an essay on Song of Solomon that explicitly utilized historical-critical methods and assumptions and asked, given this method and these assumptions, what can we do with this book? The answer, after only a few pages, was, not much. We can’t say that it’s about Christ and the church under the historical-critical method, but we don’t want to say it’s just a sex manual. But what else is there to say? Again, the author didn’t really provide an answer.

This, to me, is fumbling in the dark after you turned the lights off on yourself. The assumptions and philosophical foundations of the historical-critical method effectively neuter the Bible of any Christological or spiritual message. The closed universe of modernity cuts off the supernatural. The Enlightenment rejection of the past and of tradition, in favor of my own autonomous authority, circumcises any connection I once had with previous interpretive communities. The belief that “objective” tools can be used like a sausage grinder means that the text becomes a dismembered, disjointed, bloody mess after we are done cutting it into bits in our hermeneutical machine. There is no sense of the inspiration of the Spirit, the Christological focus, or the transforming power of the text. There’s only a mess of hot dogs, and not the “100% beef” kind either. There remains some sense, because of the tradition that won’t let us go even though we’ve kicked it to the curb, that the text ought to say something to us. But it can’t and it won’t, not because of its own inability or desire, but because we’ve asked the judge for adolescent emancipation from it.

The historical-critical method asks us to deny the supernatural inspiration of the Bible and therefore to deny its textual and Christological unity. What else are we left with after that but fumbling in the dark?


[1] Craig Bartholomew, “Uncharted Waters: Philosophy, Theology, and the Crisis in Biblical Interpretation,” pages 1 – 39 in Renewing Biblical Interpretation (SHS 1; eds., Craig Bartholomew, Colin Greene, and Karl Möller; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 4. I cannot recommend this essay more highly.

[2] Gerhard Meier, Biblical Hermeneutics (trans., Robert W. Yarbrough; Wheaton: Crossway, 1994), 249.

9 thoughts on “Fumbling in the Dark

  1. Great thoughts Matt. I appreciated your tweet and even more your clarification. “The unfolding of your words gives light” (Ps. 119:130). If there are only used matchsticks from a school of thought where there should be blazing light, how great is the darkness?

  2. Hi Matt,

    I think this post asks some great questions. One question I have is the idea of “the supernatural.” The term supernatural comes from originally atheist philosophers like David Hume, as a way of describing God’s activity in the world, God breaking the laws of nature. It’s a little problematic in its own right, I would say. In other words, God makes the rules to begin with (the idea that God is sovereign), therefore God works within God’s on laws, not breaking them.

    I think you addressed my concern about “apophatic bibliogies” or negative theologies of the Bible in liberalism and modernity, they have so much negative things to say, claim that we should not say anything at all. what’s the purpose of Scripture? Why are they even studying it then except to make money professionally? Seems like they are profiteering on others’ religious devotion. Sounds like the prosperity gospel to me in many ways.

    • Thanks for commenting Rod. I understand your point point about the term “supernatural”; perhaps a better way to put it is that modernity operates within a closed universe. I do often wonder about the motivation of some scholars, since sometimes their sole desire seems to be to undermine others’ faith. But then I’m sure that many are just interested in the Bible as literature, so I don’t want to characterize all of them that way. Still, your connection to prosperity preachers is one worth pondering.

  3. Thanks for this Matt. I agree with the basic premise. We are fumbling in the dark because of the methods we have embraced. We are asking questions of the text that the text never intended to answer. So, as you say, we are left with little more than fragments that we don’t know how to use constructively. In all honesty, I often find myself in the dark.

    I struggle because I wonder if earlier interpretations only seem to shed light because they have been repeated so many times. What if, in fact, everything just seems clearer because it is familiar (much akin to the way that some will advocate for the rich theology of hymns, but I digress).

    Or what if the interpretations feel comfortable because they constructed a metanarrative? The metanarrative works, but it does not take away the fact that it was constructed. I am going out on a limb here, but I am not so sure that the tradition has been a reliable arbiter of truth (I hate to even say it out loud, without the tradition we are really left with very little to hang our hats on). Just because the story is coherent it does not necessarily follow that it is right.

    These are my initial (probably wrong-headed) thoughts. Let the conversation continue!

    • Thanks David for commenting. I suppose there are two things I’d say here as far as an initial response –

      1) In my view, the story is coherent because the writers of Scripture meant it to be. This is why, for me, intertextuality is so important – the writers of the Bible continue to build on previous material so that it forms an interconnected whole. This means that the metanarrative is not something imposed on the text but inherent in it.

      2) While there are many places in the Great Tradition that we could call off the mark, the major movements have consistently affirmed the same “big ideas” (e.g. the Trinity, the hypostatic union, “for our sins,” … Nicaea basically).

      I know these are both complicated points and the ability to hash them out in a comment thread is probably beyond optimistic on my end, but those are some initial considerations for me. Feel free to follow up.

  4. Matt,

    I think this is a very interesting piece insofar as it is clearly meant to facilitate a broader discussion. I think my question regarding this is how, if we reject most critical methodology, do we avoid lapsing into a fideist’s argument?

    The strategy, as with a lot of evangelical apologetics which engage ‘postmodern’ thought (or as my prof. John Milbank would call it post-post-modernity a la immanence ) appears to be one in which we expose how/why Enlightenment thinking is reductive in a non-cohesive way and then jump straight to theological assertion. In the end though this sort of logic ignores the nuances of modernity, i.e. the theory of plural modernities, the proper advances we practically affirm that arise because of enlightenment thought/mentality, which really is a mentality toward utopic spirit (Bloch), and seems to recourse back to an authoritarian epistemic model, specifically in just simply asserting that the Bible is so and so way because “insert creedal statement”.

    “The historical-critical method asks us to deny the supernatural inspiration of the Bible and therefore to deny its textual and Christological unity.”

    I am not sure that to so assert in the positive, or confessional, sense is any more appropriate once the stipulations you have placed upon the critical scholar are utilised in a self-reflexive manner.

    • Lucas, thanks for your comment. My goal here is not to collapse into fideism, or even into pre-modernity (the latter of which isn’t possible, much less desirable). Instead, I suppose we could say that I am promoting a hermeneutic of charity rather than one of suspicion. In approaching the text, my aim is to, using modern tools like historical background, lexical aids, and even a modified redaction criticism, understand how the Bible speaks of Christ. This combines using modern exegetical tools with a faith-ful approach. We can’t avoid approaching the Bible through some lens, and in my opinion the lens with which we ought to approach is provided in the text (e.g. Luke 24:27, John 5:46, etc.). That lens is corroborated, for me, by an intertextual, narrative approach to exegeting the OT, one which, again, is supported by a close textual reading. It is, in other words, a hermeneutically driven methodological spiral.

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