In Praise of Historical-Critical Readings of Scripture

I’ve written quite a bit about the use of Scripture in the church and have from time-to-time taken some shots at the historical-critical method. By historical-critical method, I mean those methods that are used to locate the text within its original context. This would include things like determining the best text out of all the ancient manuscripts, knowing Greek or Hebrew grammar and the literary and rhetorical conventions of the day, understanding the historical background that produced the various biblical writings, and tracing the development of texts and sources over time.

My criticism has been three-fold:

1. Sometimes there is a misplaced confidence in using this method that we can overcome our own biases or confessional traditions and read the text objectively.

2. This approach objectifies the text, or makes it an object for our mastery, thereby limiting our sense that the text is living and active. Consequently, spiritual practices are unnecessary to reaching understanding.

3. This approach fosters an expert culture, making the competencies related to the historical-method, held by only a few in the congregation, the only sure way of naming Christian meaning.

Because a blog is such a limited space, I haven’t fully explained my values related to reading Scripture and have led talked more about the importance of reading in community. I know the response this is likely to evoke in some of my colleagues who spend their careers devoted to historical-critical scholarship: namely that these readings can just be a pooling of ignorance. As one reader commented on a recent post, “I get it. Kind of like Ouija Board hermeneutics. You and me and space for the Spirit in the middle.” (So, the title of my next book was going to be Ouija Board Hermeneutics, but I’ve decided that might be blaspheming the Spirit and you can’t come back from a thing like that).

For me, this is not an either/or thing, but a both/and thing. Both kinds of readings are necessary. In fact, I like to think of ministry as maintaining an ecology in which the Word of God can continuously be heard and spoken. This would involve multiple uses of Scripture and recognize various competencies. One of those competencies would be to explore the world that produced the text.

The fact is, the past few hundred years of historical-critical scholarship have been incredibly fruitful. We know so much more about the Bible than we did before, and this is a good thing, and can even lead to certain consensus understandings that allow certain readings and rule out others. Every congregation should avail itself to the fruit of contemporary biblical scholarship.

I preached this past Sunday from the gospel of John. I made sure that I spent some time with Raymond Brown’s magisterial two-volume commentary to make sure I was hearing John more clearly. I certainly took advantage of literary and rhetorical pieces as I composed my sermon. I brought a level of sophistication to reading to the text that requires specific training and skill. And the congregation was better for it.

Someone, or a group of someones, in every congregation needs to have these skills. The person(s) responsible for doing the main preaching and teaching for the congregation need to have a broad competency with Scripture. And to the extent that they can, these skills should be passed on to others. I think particularly, the ability to attend to literary cues in texts is especially useful and often requires no special training in language. When I was in full-time ministry, I taught a class every Wednesday night on how to read Scripture in these ways.

Some readings are better than others, and often the kind of insight provided by critical-scholarship can indicate which of those readings are better.

Finally, by attending to the “otherness” of the world that produced the text, we are reminded that we are not the same as the text. That our assumptions need to be tested. By considering the first readers, we are reminded that too often we simply read our values into the text.

These positive contributions of the historical-critical school must be a vital part of any congregational ecology. But only a part. The weaknesses I cited are also a part of the legacy of this kind of attention to the text. It’s both/and, not either/or.

One last word. I developed a practice for when I teach at church. I would make a list of the things I thought were important to notice as we considered a passage of Scripture together. These included important critical insights that might not be apparent on the surface of the text. But instead of beginning with my reading, I would ask them to attend to the text around two questions–what is familiar, or what have we encountered before? what is new or unusual? As the class would report, I would cross things off of my list, and often the class would get the majority of the items on my list. And sometimes I would discover that the remaining things were not really that important to developing Christian understanding. A few times, the remaining things, not available to everyone, unlocked new insight and layers of meaning not otherwise available, but this was not the norm. The fact is, we’re not just pooling ignorance when we read together. We’re pooling years of experience in living the Christian story in relation to Scripture. That’s what we are pooling.

About Mark Love

I am the Dean for the School of Theology and Ministry and Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who is a practicing new monastic in Abilene, TX. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and two amazing granddaughters.
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3 Responses to In Praise of Historical-Critical Readings of Scripture

  1. TerryC says:

    “A few times, the remaining things, not available to everyone, unlocked new insight and layers of meaning not otherwise available, but this was not the norm.”

    While this is not the norm, I expect it is that “new insight and layers of meaning not otherwise available” that causes most of the disagreements in our churches. Since it is not from the things that people don’t ordinarily consider in reading the text and, thereby, “not otherwise available”, it becomes new to them. And with that newness comes suspicion that something heretical is creeping in when really it is a truth that has been obscured by our understanding.

  2. Shawn Maxwell says:

    Thanks Mark. I really like the way you practiced this; I will now be stealing your technique tomorrow. I have been looking for ways to quiet my own voice in the midst ‘our’ discussion times at the church I am working with, and this seems like a subtle and effective way to do that; thanks again.

  3. I’ve always thought of the Historical-Critical Method as a kind of appetizer, a prelude to the “main course” of a theological reading. Those who poo-poo such as an “Ouiji board hermeneutic” likely reveal how mired in some form of post-Enlightenment epistemological naiveté they are. I have always found the Hauerwas/Jones volume, “Why Narrative?” helpful here.

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