A Word About The Historical-critical Method

R R. Reno made this comment in the June/July issue of First Things. Printing it here is a public admission of personal doubt--perhaps just a small one, a question, a confusion, or perhaps not--concerning the interpretive method of my schooling, namely this historical-critical (grammatical) one. Reno says,

For more than two centuries, the tradition of historical-critical study of the Bible has sought authoritative readings of the Bible that distill key normative theological concepts out of many studies of particular strata of the biblical text and it's history. Because of the mathematics of conditional probability, these efforts cannot succeed. Historical judgments about discrete portions of texts and slices of ancient Israelite history can discipline and enrich our larger-scale, traditional interpretations of the Bible. But the techniques of modern historical analysis that provide critical insight lack the creative, synthetic power to generate canonical readings. (7)

I am not an expert in hermeneutics or in the interpretive tradition, but I have had a little schooling. I know enough to know that Neoplatonism and the four-senses tradition were put aside, when Enlightenment science picked humanity from the navel of the cosmos. History replaced metaphysics. And method overcame genius, pragmatic wisdom, or contemplative and mystical insights. German criticisms sometimes hilariously gave us the historical-critical method and conservative scholarship wiped out the critical part and replaced it with the word "grammatical"--as much a political as academic move. It has held an easy peace in the burned over landscape of dead trees and souls that remain after the total war between fundamentalists and modernists, a war presided over by the janus god Modernity. This peace has held for nearly half a century, but, today, that peace is slipping. There is R. R. Reno's observation, above, but the sensibility behind it can be observed in growing calls for theological exegesis. I should observe that R. R. Reno is general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible.

Where I am concerned, I have long wondered how to make the "well, if you understand the historical situation" results of exegesis and the well-worn "Bible says" truisms stand together. Paper after paper and commentary after commentary discover new readings based on historical and grammatical science--findings that are shared in the classroom and discussed at conferences but rarely--at this point--make it into pulpits and sunday school curricula. These finding are not hostile to the text, as were the assaults of the Tuebingen school, but they are different, nevertheless. And, slowly but surely, they will collectively reshape confession.

I am mostly glad. Perhaps we are seeing the fruit of the Reformation--the gospel message restored to the church after so much cultural accretion. But if these results are based in history alone, if these results are arrived at by a method born of science, then how can they be completely trusted as dependable by the church of Jesus? This method removes the Bible from the churches. It is the Bible of the schoolmen--no matter how devout. Can this Bible be trusted? Does God call ministers without first making them historians? To ask such questions sounds like American anti-intellectualism. It is not. Mine is a question about the role of the Spirit and a growing certainty that Jesus's reign should extend even to method.