Being Critical of the Historical-Critical

Eamonn Clark

I am watching some lectures on Scripture which were put out by Yale’s divinity school – it is quite an interesting experience. After many years of formation in what might be called “catechetical Scripture studies,” from CCD, to a Catholic university, to seminary, to a Roman pontifical university, encountering at length the material presented at an Ivy League school is like being thrown into a tornado.

It’s not that the material is altogether new or revolutionary – although some of it is certainly quite new and interesting to me, even edifying – it is the attitude which undergirds it which strikes me as bizarre. I have known a long time that this approach is out there, especially in higher education, but it’s my first time really having meaningful exposure to it.

Without making accusations of the professors I am watching, (and I have not even come close to finishing the courses,) a few characteristics leap out at me of this way of teaching and studying Scripture. Each follows the other.

  1. It is dogmatic. The conclusions tend to guide the argument – the texts can’t be harmonized, the stories can’t be historical, the authors must be pseudonymous, etc., etc. It seems the grand conclusion which is protected by these kinds of conclusions is that God can’t really be entering into creation. Further, there is a dense wall of “scholarship” which protects these conclusions, and because this scholarship is the newest and most popular, it must be the best. It seems rather off-limits to use “traditional” sources in a serious way. In one word, it is Modernist, or at least has strong Modernist tendencies.
  2. It reverses the mysterious character of the Judeo-Christian story. By taking away the traditional positions on questions of historicity, authorship, dating, etc., a veil of mist is put over the text – “What does it mean? Who wrote it? When? Why? Where did they get their material from?” These questions occupy the student, while the mystery of the Living God presented by the text is basically ignored.
  3. It is purely didactic. There is not a further purpose to understanding the history of the Scriptures. They are merely items of curiosity – a bit like how Herod enjoyed John the Baptist, who is easily seen as the representative of the entire prophetic tradition… Interesting? Yes. Convicting enough to cause a personal conversion? No, not here. And when the call comes to sacrifice its integrity for the pleasure of the world, of the academy, or of one’s own personal life, there will perhaps be reluctance, but there will be obedience. The quest for the “historical Jesus” is no grander than the work of any historian; it is just more dangerous to discover and hold fast to the truth. Since historical-critical exegetes are, by and large, not in it for a real encounter with the God of Abraham, the danger isn’t really worth it. Not all that long ago, probably even at Yale, to enter a program of theological studies required faith. That is to say, if the school were Methodist, one had to be a Methodist in order to study theology there. Anyone else, so the thinking went, was wasting their time.

So why continue watching? Well, I enjoy knowing what the “others” are up to, so that when I meet them I know where they’re coming from. Second, there certainly are plenty of real insights presented. Third, it is better than watching cat videos.

We need to use the historical-critical method in the right way – as an aid to what might be called the “spiritual method.” For example, to know that there were other Flood narratives in the Ancient Near East (and well beyond, even into the Americas, might I add,) is probably helpful to understand the composition of the text of Genesis, but knowing the differences helps us to know something – really to know something – about how our God is different. In this case, one major difference is that Noah is saved because of his virtue rather than his cleverness or strength…

In the past few months, I have become especially interested in the world of myth and how it relates to salvation history. Therefore, I have decided to start a series on the topic, called “True Myth,” that title of Christ shared with C. S. Lewis by Tolkien. Stay tuned for more, and be sure to subscribe.

One thought on “Being Critical of the Historical-Critical

  1. I’m interested to hear your take on Tolkien and Lewis. I teach Tolkien to my Catholic High School students. I would love to form an entire class around Mythopoeia and Christian ‘sub-creating’ as Tolkien called it.
    Great commentary on the Historical Critical method. I find it tough to avoid in modern theological discussions but Scott Hahn is doing a great job revitalizing it.

    Liked by 1 person

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