An Observation About Biblical Studies

It is fascinating to me that many biblical scholars today deride their discipline’s captivity to modernity and modernity’s methods while they at the same time continue to accept conclusions about the biblical text that are clearly tied to a modernistic approach. I’ve recently read articles and monographs by TIS proponents, biblical scholars approaching their topic from a “postmodern” perspective, and evangelicals that argue we should move beyond a modernistic model of biblical scholarship. This in and of itself is a welcome proposal, given modernity’s quest for objectivity, focus on the particulars at the expense of the whole, and dependence upon a whole host of philosophical underpinnings which clash with a Christian worldview. But this proposal is almost always accompanied by a concession to modernistic biblical scholarship’s conclusions about the text, whether it be date or authorship or transmission or redaction.

How does this make any sense? With our left hand we ask the guild to stop capitulating to modernity’s methods, and even sometimes, among the most careful of thinkers, to stop building on its philosophical foundations, while with our right we hold tightly to what we have received from it. Why do we not say instead, “Modernity’s philosophical foundations are suspect, and therefore so are its methods. We ought therefore to reconsider all of its conclusions, and especially those that arise from the so-called historical critical method and its tools.”

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.