Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Irony of Historical/Critical Scholarship

I've been reading Jason Byassee's Praise Seeking Understanding: Reading the Psalms with Augustine over the last few weeks. I do intend to write a full book review on this book over the next week or so (God, lesson prep and the impending Patristics Carnival permitting), but I thought it might be interesting to reflect a little on one of Byassee's key points from earlier in book: the relationship of historical-critical scholarship to a Christian reading of the Bible.

Without giving too much away, Byassee's main point in this book is that contemporary readings of the Bible are impoverished by the modern dislike of allegorical (and moral) readings of the Bible. He argues that modernist readings tend to limit themselves to putting the Bible within its original historical context and to establish critical readings of the texts based on that context. Byassee argues that this kind of study is good and, certainly, modern scholarship has tools at its hands that the Fathers, including St. Augustine, never had. While cultural familiarity with the world of the Bible, access to now lost oral traditions and the ability to speak or have access to native speakers of the biblical languages offset many of our modern scholarly advantages, there is little room for doubt that modern scholarly readings deserve attention by anyone who is trying to work out what the Bible means.

The problem for Byassee is that we stop there. That is, we moderns think that the only way to deal with the Bible in an intelligent manner is historical-critical scholarship. We tend to ignore the other levels of readings favoured by Christian writers from the Biblical era through the patristic and beyond: the moral, the allegorical and others senses I'm sure I'm neglecting. If you want a fast way to laughed out of a classroom in most universities, allegorical readings will do it because they are considered capricious and bogus. Bayassee's answer is that allegory as practiced by Fathers like St. Augustine had controls on it, most notably the Rule of Faith and orthodox christology. I'll return to this in my projected book review.

I could have saved all this for the review, but what struck me is the irony of something Byassee points in this part of the discussion. He points out that all the historical-critical interpretation at which we moderns excel would be considered by patristic writers as merely operating on the literal level. That is, while the patristic writers valued historical and critical interpretation to sort out historical and linguistic problems in the Biblical text, they believed this was merely the starting point for Christian interpreters. They would, while, possibly, impressed by the technical skill of our historical and linguistic commentary, see our efforts at Biblical interpretation as shallow, scratching only the surface of what we could glean from the well of Scripture.

This struck me as ironic because, on those occasions I delve into biblical scholarship (either reading blogs or in my own private readings), it is not uncommon to pat ourselves on the back for our prowess in historical and linguistic analysis and to, either implicitly or explicitly, assume that we know the Bible and the world better than our poor benighted predecessors in reading the Bible. There is an arrogance in that attitude which I enjoy seeing punctured, so I enjoyed the irony. It really is true that humility should be a characteristic of the Biblical exegete and I'm not sure we moderns (and post-moderns) have always been good at that particular virtue. It is hard to be humble when one believes firmly in a modernist model of progress either in its classical modernist sense or in its more subtle post-modern (or is it late-modernist) guise.

The irony is heightened, I think, because it is also common for Biblical scholars to shake their heads at the readings of the Bible in churches and yearn for 'critical' readings to take the place of the old traditional readings. This isn't to say that these critical readings don't have value, but the kind of yearnings I note are quite out of touch with how Christians read Scripture and the place of Scripture among Christians. Critical readings aren't more popular because they are very much an elitist pleasure and really have little bearing on the spiritual readings on which most observant Christians base their spiritual lives.

This is, of course, the rub. All too often, we find modern Biblical scholarship engaged in approaches which undercut spiritual readings and tradition. I find a challenge as bracing as anyone else, but there are times when I honestly think that much of Biblical scholarship is spent on proving just how these spiritual readings are untrue and at discovering how almost anything in the Bible just doesn't apply to us. There are, I should note, very faithful people writing Biblical scholarship, who pride themselves on supporting faithful readings, but I don't think many could deny that there are also many who seek to distance themselves through this kind of scholarship from God and the Bible. The fault isn't in the practice of Biblical scholarship (or any scholarship-the same criticism could be levelled at scholars of the patristic era or any era), but in how scholarship is employed: to bring one closer to God or to distance oneself.

I think this explains many things about the world of Biblical and Early Christian studies these days. Certainly, the bitterness of the divide between those favouring a more religious studies approach and those who favour a more explicitly Christian approach can be explained both by a fundamental difference in philosophy/theology, but by a visceral rejection of each other's spiritual choices. It is hard to get either side to acknowledge the good of each other's approach, even if they may find each other's findings useful. I don't think it gets recognized enough how often these kind of differences are, actually, not the result of rationally chosen scholarly positions, but emerge out of one's own experience with religion and other believers. That is, I think, an difficulty with which we all grapple.

So, how does a faithful Christian react to this? I think it is by doing what we've done for centuries. Keep reading the Bible, learn from anyone we can about the historical and linguistic elements of the text, but continue to dig deeper into growing in faith and understanding of what God is trying to tell us. For that, we need to read the Bible at many different levels, not merely scratching the literal surface.



Tim A. Troutman said...

Nice post.

Phil Sumpter said...

I'm looking forward to the review. I'm doing a doctorate on Childs' canonical approach and at some point will attempt a canonical reading of Psalms 15 and 24. This book is now on my reading list.

I posted a bibliography on figural reading here and am in the process of exploring the nature of traditional exegesis here (specifically dealing with the literal and spiritual senses here).

Phil Sumpter said...

I just realised you already linked to me in a carnival, thanks!