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Theology and the Historical-Critical Study of the Bible*

  • Paul E. Capetz (a1)


One salient characteristic of our current situation is the emergence of a growing consensus among theologians and biblical scholars alike that the time has come to “dethrone” historical criticism as the reigning paradigm of scriptural exegesis for the sake of recovering a theological interpretation of the Bible on behalf of the church.1 To illustrate this new development, I have chosen to focus on the arguments of three prominent biblical scholars, each of whom has made a sustained case about the negative effects of historical criticism upon theological exegesis: They are Brevard S. Childs, Christopher R. Seitz, and Dale B. Martin. All three scholars have close ties to Yale and, not surprisingly, they bear a sort of family resemblance to one another inasmuch as their work partakes of theological themes and concerns that have been prominent at that school in recent decades. Notwithstanding their antagonistic posture toward historical criticism, all three are gifted practitioners of the very method whose dominance they seek to overturn. Since I am not a biblical scholar, I must enter into discussion with them as a theologian who is equally concerned about the relations between biblical studies and theology. At the outset, however, it is necessary to clarify that my own theological orientation prevents me from embracing their call to depose historical criticism. As a liberal Protestant for whom historical-critical interpretation of both the biblical and the post-biblical tradition is constitutive of theology's proper task, their initial premise that historical criticism is somehow inimical to a theological treatment of the Bible strikes me as false and misleading. Contrary to the impression given by their explicit formulations, it appears that the real target of their polemics is not historical scholarship per se but, rather, the normative uses to which it is put in theologies informed by it.



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1 Martin, Dale B., Pedagogy of the Bible: An Analysis and Proposal Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2008) 3.

2 It would perhaps be more accurate to describe my position as “revisionist” (utilizing the typology of David Tracy) so as to acknowledge that it involves a self-critical retrieval of the nineteenth-century tradition and not a simple repristination of it: “[T]he revisionist theologian is committed to continuing the critical task of the classical liberals and modernists in a genuinely post-liberal situation. …The revisionist Christian theologian joins his secular colleague in refusing to allow the fact of his own existential disenchantment with the reifying and oppressive results of Enlightenment disenchantment to become the occasion for a return to mystification, Christian or otherwise. Rather he believes that only a radical continuation of critical theory, symbolic reinterpretation, and responsible social and personal praxis can provide the hope for a fundamental revision of both the modern and the traditional Christian self-understandings.” Blessed Rage for Order: The New Pluralism in Theology (New York: Seabury, 1975) 32–33. Keeping Tracy's helpful clarification in mind, I nonetheless designate my own position as liberal for the purpose of locating it squarely in the lineage of Schleiermacher through Troeltsch as well as of those twentieth-century neo-orthodox theologians (Bultmann, Tillich, and the Niebuhrs) who maintained significant continuity with their nineteenth-century predecessors. Peter C. Hodgson calls for “a revisionary, postmodern liberal theology as opposed to a postliberal, countermodern theology” and adds, “I happen to believe that the term ‘liberal’ is wonderfully appropriate” [emphasis in original]. “Liberal Theology and Transformative Pedagogy,” in The Future of Liberal Theology (ed. Mark D. Chapman; Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2002) 100.

3 Levenson, Jon D., The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism: Jews and Christians in Biblical Studies Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1993) 118. Levenson argues a similar case against liberal Protestantism and historical criticism from an Orthodox Jewish perspective. It was my original intention to include a discussion of Levenson's arguments, but upon further reflection I judged that they merit a more thorough response than can be given here on account of his justified criticisms of anti-Judaism in modern Protestant biblical scholarship. I hope at some point to take up the important issues he raises.

4 Childs, Brevard S., Biblical Theology in Crisis Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970) 39. One of the movement's leading figures, G. Ernest Wright, insisted upon “history as the arena of God's activity” and thus defined biblical theology as “first and foremost a theology of recital” of those historical events (e.g., the Exodus) wherein faith confesses to discern “the redemptive handiwork of God.” God Who Acts: Biblical Theology as Recital (London: SCM, 1952) 38. For Wright, as for his teacher William Foxwell Albright, the study of archaeology was crucial in authenticating the historicity of the events to which the Bible bears witness.

5 Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis, 97.

6 Ibid., 102.

7 Childs judged that “Barth remained invulnerable to the weaknesses that beset the Biblical Theology Movement” (ibid., 110).

8 Childs, , “Toward Recovering Theological Exegesis, ProEccl 4 (1997) 1626, at 18.

9 Ibid.

10 Johann Salomo Semler, Abhandlung von freier Untersuchung des Canons (4 vols.; Halle: 1771–1776). A modernized, critical edition of Semler's programmatic essay introducing this multi-volume work was prepared by Heinz Scheible and appeared in the series Texte zur Kirchen- und Theologiegeschichte 5 (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus Gerd Mohn, 1967).

11 Childs, , The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984) 6.

12 Childs, , Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979) 35.

13 Childs, “Toward Recovering Theological Exegesis,” 16.

14 Ibid., 17.

15 Ibid., 25.

16 Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis, 99–100, 104. Childs also faulted the Biblical Theology Movement for “its total failure to come to grips with the inspiration of Scripture” (ibid., 103).

17 Seitz, Christopher R., Word Without End: The Old Testament as Abiding Theological Witness Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2004) 14, 97.

18 Ibid., 63.

19 Ibid., 73.

20 Ibid., 8.

21 Ibid., 104.

22 Ibid., 8. Here Seitz joins forces with Lindbeck, George A., “The Story-Shaped Church: Critical Exegesis and Theological Interpretation,” in Scriptural Authority and Narrative Interpretation ed. Green, Garrett; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987) 161–78.

23 Ibid, 21.

24 Ibid., 17.

25 Ibid., 9. Seitz attributes this notion of doctrine-as-exegesis to Yeago, David S., “The New Testament and Nicene Dogma: A Contribution to the Recovery of Theological Exegesis, ProEccl 3 (1994) 152–64. Childs also makes reference to this article in highly laudatory terms (“Toward Recovering Theological Exegesis,” 16).

26 Martin, Pedagogy of the Bible, ix, 98 [emphasis in original].

27 Ibid., 3.

28 Ibid., 109.

29 Ibid., 18.

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid., 7–8.

32 Ibid., 29–30.

33 Ibid.

34 Ibid.

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid., 31.

37 Ibid., 38.

38 Ibid., 12.

39 Ibid., 33.

40 Ibid., 16; this was an observation made by one of the professors interviewed by Martin in preparation for the writing of his book.

41 Ibid., 39.

42 Ibid.

43 Ibid., 40.

44 Ibid., 47.

45 Ibid., 116 n. 1; the reference is to Frei, Hans W., The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Hermeneutics New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974). Childs invokes Frei's work as “demolishing the familiar thesis that the Reformers and the 19th century critics shared a similar view regarding the literal sense of the text.” “The Sensus Literalis of Scripture: An Ancient and Modern Problem,” in Beiträge zur alttestamentlichen Theologie: Festschrift für Walther Zimmerli zum 70. Geburtstag (ed. Herbert Donner, Robert Hanhart, and Rudolf Smend; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1977) 88. See also Seitz, Word Without End, 97–98.

46 Martin, Pedagogy of the Bible, 43.

47 Ibid.

48 Ibid., 44.

49 Ibid., 28.

50 Ibid.

51 Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis, 79; see Stendahl, Krister, “Biblical Theology, Contemporary,” in The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible ed. Arthur Buttrick, George; 4 vols.; New York and Nashville: Abingdon, 1962) 1:418432.

52 Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis, 93.

53 Ernst Troeltsch clarified that “in the realm of history there are only judgments of probability.” “Historical and Dogmatic Method in Theology,” in Religion in History trans. James Luther Adams and Walter F. Bense; Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 1991) 13.

54 Martin, Dale B., Sex and the Single Savior Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2006) 126 [emphasis in original]. Martin says: “The great bogeyman of historiography… is anachronism” (Pedagogy of the Bible, 7). Shouldn't historians worry about anachronism? Elsewhere, Martin qualifies this taunt by admitting that even he tries to avoid anachronism when operating as a historical critic (Sex and the Single Savior, 162). Then if this is so, why mock the effort of conscientious historians to spot their own culturally-conditioned biases when studying the past by calling concern for anachronism a “bogeyman”? Martin goes on to deny that “the historical-critical method is objective or non-biased” or that it can “provide a reliable foundation even for knowledge of the past.” As with other postmodernists, Martin's use of terms such as “objective” and “foundation” is so heavily freighted with negative connotations that it is difficult to know precisely what is being said. Does Martin assume that the only conceivable alternative to the position he represents is a naïve defense of pure objectivity in historical interpretation coupled with absolute certainty regarding our epistemological foundations? I agree with Richard J. Bernstein that such a dichotomy is “misleading.” Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis (Phila-delphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983) 19. Bernstein points out the irony that the obsessive polemic against “objectivism” and “foundationalism” is “parasitic” upon the very Cartesianism it seeks to overcome. Though desiring to be fair to Martin, I find it difficult to distinguish rhetoric from substance in his writings.

55 Koester, Helmut, Introduction to the New Testament 2 vols.; 2d ed.; New York: de Gruyter, 2000). Wayne A. Meeks has said: “Koester has brilliantly demonstrated here that the historical-critical approach has been neither superseded nor completed.” Review of Helmut Koester, “Einführung in das Neue Testament,” JBL (1982) 447.

56 Martin, Sex and the Single Savior, 30.

57 Ibid., 60–61.

58 Richard B. Hays clearly states his guiding premise regarding biblical authority when discussing Paul's statements in Romans 1: “To take the New Testament as authoritative …is to accept this portrayal [of homosexuality] as ‘revealed reality,’ an authoritative disclosure of the truth about the human condition. Understood in this way, the text requires a normative evaluation of homosexual practice as a distortion of God's order for creation.” Hays then goes on to ask: “Do we grant the normative force of Paul's analysis?” Given his axiomatic assumption that Paul speaks for God in this matter, Hays has thus ruled out the possibility of authentic ethical debate on the morality of same-sex relations that might lead us to answer his question with a “No”! The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (San Francisco: Harper, 1996) 396–97.

59 Martin concludes: “Hays is in the end very much a modernist…. Hays's approach fully assumes not only the validity but even the necessity of historical-critical methods” (Sex and the Single Savior, 30). This statement is only half true: Hays is a modernist insofar as he affirms the indispensability of historical-critical method in biblical exegesis but he is definitely not a modernist insofar as his use of historical criticism is a purely technical one that refuses to draw out the full implications of a consistently historical interpretation of religion—including the Bible as a human product of the history of religion. Troeltsch clearly understood the difference between a genuine historicism and a half-hearted use of historical method that in the end takes refuge in a supernatural premise which “claims an authority that is dogmatic rather than historical, intrinsic rather than based on comparison, immutable rather than sharing the conditions of historical existence. …The miraculous is truly decisive” (“Historical and Dogmatic Method in Theology,” 22).

60 On the historical and theological significance of the Mithras Liturgy, see Betz, Hans Dieter, Gottesbegegnung und Menschwerdung. Zur religionsgeschichtlichen und theologischen Bedeutung der Mithrasliturgie Berlin: de Gruyter, 2001). Betz does not collapse the distinction between historical interpretation and theological assessment.

61 Peter Machinist correctly explains that “historians, try as they might, can never really remove themselves from the history they record. The past is never simply ‘out there’; it is always the past as perceived, as encountered, by someone. This does not mean, however, that there are no boundaries or standards that govern our investigation of the past, for the past is also not merely the (re)creation of its recorder; it is an external reality, which demands attention and care in the way it is perceived, even if the process of perception can not remain neutral.” “The Voice of the Historian in the Ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean World,” Interpretation 57 (2003) 117–18.

62 Bultmann, Rudolf, “Is Exegesis without Presuppositions Possible?” in New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings trans. Schubert M. Ogden; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984) 145–53.

63 Seitz, Word Without End, 81 [emphasis added].

64 Ibid., 73, 8. Seitz never tells us where the Bible makes this claim for itself.

65 Martin, Sex and the Single Savior, 1–16.

66 Seitz, Word Without End, 97.

67 Childs, The New Testament as Canon, 45, 39.

68 Seitz, Word Without End, 80.

69 Ibid., 80, 82.

70 Childs writes: “In terms of classic Christian theology, there can be no genuine sensus literalis apart from a commitment to the canon” (“The Sensus Literalis of Scripture,” 93).

71 Childs, Brevard, “Critical Reflections on James Barr's Understanding of the Literal and the Allegorical, JSOT 46 (1990) 4.

72 Warfield, Benjamin Breckenridge, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible ed. Craig, Samuel G.; London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1951) 106, 112.

73 Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament, 665.

74 Childs, The New Testament as Canon, 44.

75 Childs, , Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992) 721. Childs criticizes Luther's exegesis for harboring “an arbitrary and individualistic tendency” that “led in the direction of setting up a ‘canon within the canon’” (Introduction to the Old Testament, 44). Yet if even Luther, whose critique of James is the locus classicus of Sachkritik, does not provide us with a good example of what a theological criticism of scripture might look like, who does? “Preface to the Epistles of St. James and St. Jude,” in Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings (ed. John Dillenberger; Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor, 1961) 35–37. Like Childs, Seitz is equally concerned to insure that Sachkritik is never wielded in such a way as to result in the conclusion that “the church does not stand under the authority of God's Word written (the Bible) so much as under the authority of the Word of God, Jesus Christ.” He remarks that this distinction “bears a superficial resemblance to the Sachkritik logic of Martin Luther as applied to the whole of scripture,” but without explaining why it is superficial (Word Without End, 95–96).

76 Childs, “Critical Reflections,” 4.

77 H. Niebuhr, Richard, The Meaning of Revelation New York: Macmillan, 1941).

78 Childs, “The Sensus Literalis of Scripture,” 92.

79 Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis, 104.

80 Ibid., 105.

81 Childs, “Toward Recovering Theological Exegesis,” 25 [emphasis added].

82 For my critical analysis of Barth, see Capetz, Paul E., “The Old Testament as a Witness to Jesus Christ: Historical Criticism and Theological Exegesis of the Bible according to Karl Barth, JR 90 (2010) 407506.

83 Childs, Brevard S., “Old Testament in Germany 1920–1940: The Search for a New Paradigm,” in Altes Testament, Forschung und Wirkung: Festschrift für Henning Graf Reventlow ed. Mommer, Peter and Thiel, Winfried; Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1994) 246; in spite of his affirmation that God's revelation in scripture transcends the canons of human rationality, Childs does not hesitate to criticize those whose “subjective, confessional stance” leads them to a “construal” of scripture's witness that “lies outside all critical criteria and can be neither proven nor disproven by rational argument” (“Toward Recovering Theological Exegesis,” 23). David Kelsey is a thorn in Childs's side since Kelsey has shown how theologians, including Barth, make a prior theological decision regarding what the Bible is all about and then proceed to interpret it in the light of that construal. Proving Doctrine: The Uses of Scripture in Modern Theology (Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1999); repr. of The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology (Philadelphia, Pa.: Fortress, 1975). Childs dismisses Kelsey's views as “liberal” (“Toward Recovering Theological Exegesis,” 20 n. 8).

84 Childs, “The Sensus Literalis of Scripture,” 92.

85 Childs even concedes that there would be serious theological consequences for the interpretation of Galatians “if it could be shown historically that Paul had basically misunderstood his opposition,” adding “such a discovery would certainly call into question Paul's witness” (The New Testament as Canon, 306). Of the three scholars here under discussion, Childs is the one who is most committed to historical-criticism but also the one who is most troubled by its possible theological implications.

86 Bultmann, Rudolf, Theology of the New Testament trans. Kendrick Grobel; 2 vols.; New York: Scribners, 1951, 1955) 2:251. What Bultmann says about the relation between historical and theological interpretation of New Testament texts could just as easily be said about the relation between historical and theological interpretation of texts from the postbiblical tradition of the church. After all, Protestant theologians who are interested in the texts of Luther and Calvin primarily for normative purposes are not indifferent to the question of historical accuracy in their analysis of these texts. The same, of course, could be said about the debates among contemporary theologians concerning how to interpret the texts of Barth or Tillich. Hence, there need be no special hermeneutic in order to build a bridge between then and now when interpreting historical texts, whether biblical or otherwise.

87 We must distinguish the question of a theological exegesis of scripture at two levels: First, at the level of the ordinary believer or church member who hears a sermon or attends a Bible study and, second, at the level of the minister or theologian who has the professional responsibility for reflecting critically on the content and truth of the church's preaching. While historical criticism is obviously not necessary at the first level, it is necessary at the second level. The only way it can be otherwise is if one is willing to surrender all claims of a historical nature in one's theological interpretation of the meaning of Christian faith.

88 Ogden, Schubert M., “Theology and Biblical Interpretation,” in Doing Theology Today Valley Forge, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1996) 48. Note that this way of putting it does not entail that we accept whatever answer any particular biblical writer happened to give to this question! In this vein, I once heard Ogden explain to a group of students at the University of Chicago Divinity School: “When I preach a sermon using a text from Matthew, I'm not preaching on Matthew; rather, I'm preaching the gospel with Matthew.”

89 Ibid., 51.

90 Childs, “The Sensus Literalis of Scripture,” 92.

91 Ibid. [emphasis added].

92 Ibid., 93.

93 Childs, “Old Testament in Germany,” 244.

94 Levenson, The Hebrew Bible, 6.

95 Ibid., 6–7.

96 Luther's opponent John Eck anticipates the position of Childs on the relation of the canon to tradition: “Scripture is not authentic without the Church's authority. …Let the objection immediately be raised against [Luther]: how does he know that these Scriptures are canonical except from the Church?” Enchiridion of Commonplaces against Luther and Other Enemies of the Church trans. Ford Lewis Battles; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1979) 13. Note what the Council of Trent says about how the texts of the Bible are to be interpreted: “no one relying on his own judgment shall …presume to interpret them contrary to the sense which holy mother Church, to whom it belongs to judge of their true sense and interpretation, has held and holds, or even contrary to the unanimous teaching of the Fathers.” “The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent,” in Creeds of the Churches (ed. John H. Leith; 3d ed.; Louisville, Ky.: John Knox, 1982) 403–4. See also Seitz, Word Without End, 17.

97 Pedagogy of the Bible, 21 [emphasis in original].

98 Ibid.

99 Ibid. Note how Martin, like Childs, sets up a false dichotomy that obfuscates the full range of alternatives before us: Either the Bible is a mere period piece or divine revelation. One does not have to believe in the divine inspiration of the Quran or the Upanishads to acknowledge that these texts are much more than mere artifacts of history!

100 Ibid., 40.

101 Ibid., 43, 80, 109, and elsewhere.

102 By extension of the same logic, we can ask whether there are distinctively Christian readings (i.e., interpretations) of the texts (i.e., data) of biology or geology.

103 Pedagogy of the Bible, 33, 38.

104 Ibid., 40. Note how Martin, in postmodernist fashion, puts the word “facts” in quotation marks.

105 Ibid., 47.

106 Martin says that the “modernist” approach consists in treating the Bible as “basically an answer book or source of information” (Pedagogy of the Bible, 58). Yet I can think of no major liberal or neo-orthodox Protestant theologian in the last two centuries whose handling of the Bible could ever be so characterized. Karl Barth explicitly repudiates this view: “we cannot expect or demand a compendium of solomonic or even divine knowledge of all things in heaven and earth” from the Bible. The Doctrine of the Word of God (trans. G. T. Thomson and Harold Knight; vol. I.2 of Church Dogmatics; New York: Scribners, 1965) 508. Schleiermacher, Harnack, Troeltsch, Bultmann, Tillich, and the Niebuhrs would endorse Barth's statement without reservation!

107 Martin, Pedagogy of the Bible, 58. Martin criticizes “the rejection of the use of allegory” as “overly modernist and Protestant” (ibid., 85). Admittedly, my sympathies are both Protestant and modernist (or liberal). I might add that what Levenson says is certainly true in my case: “not every liberal Protestant values the adjective more than the noun” (The Hebrew Bible, 98).

108 “We cannot in demonstrating pass from one genus to another.” Aristotle, “Posterior Analytics,” 1, 7, 75a, in The Basic Works of Aristotle (ed. Richard McKeon; New York: Random House, 1941) 121. The category mistake consists in likening the laudable aspiration for accuracy in one domain of knowledge (history) to a philosophical doctrine that claims to have set forth the indubitable first principles of all knowledge whatsoever (epistemology).

109 Martin, Pedagogy of the Bible, 30.

110 Ibid., 30.

111 Schüssler Fiorenza, Elizabeth, “The Ethics of Biblical Interpretation: Decentering Biblical Scholarship, JBL 107 (1988) 317, at 14.

112 Martin's 2004 Gustafson Lectures were recorded and are available in the library of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.

113 Martin's charge depends upon his premise that it makes sense to speak of “the Christian meaning” of the Bible, but I question this as has already been pointed out. Another example where I detect a failure of logic is provided by Martin when, in the course of criticizing other scholars for their equivocal use of the words “history” and “historical,” he makes this rather bizarre statement: “there is no particular reason that a religion, just because it arose in history, must have its authoritative texts or Scripture submitted to the analysis of modern historical criticism, a method that, after all, itself arose only in the modern period and long after these religions had been flourishing quite well for centuries. If historical criticism is necessary for studying historical religions, how does one explain the happy existence of those religions before the rise of historical criticism?” (Pedagogy of the Bible, 41).

114 The motto is drawn from the title of Ebeling‘s essay, “Church History is the History of the Exposition of Scripture,” in Ebeling, The Word of God and Tradition: Historical Studies Interpreting the Divisions of Christianity (trans. S. H. Hooke; Philadelphia, Pa.; Fortress, 1968) 11–31.

115 We could also point to Tillich's creative adaptation of Luther's doctrine of justification to address the question of modern unbelief, a question as far removed from Luther's mind as Luther's question was from Paul's mind; yet Tillich was well aware that he was doing something new with Luther's idea that went beyond Luther's own intention: “Luther applied the doctrine of justification only to the religious-moral life.… Tillich applies the doctrine to the religious-intellectual sphere also.” James Luther Adams, “Tillich's Concept of the Protestant Era,” in Tillich, Paul, The Protestant Era trans. James Luther Adams; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948) 292. But I do not conclude from this fact of ever new appropriations of inherited traditions that texts per se have multiple meanings (though some might, e.g., Apuleius, Metamorphoses, which is an allegory intended to be read on two levels at once); rather, I would say that ideas within texts can be further developed to address situations or challenges their original formulators never imagined. Whether such new developments are to be seen as authentic continuations or inauthentic distortions of an inherited tradition cannot itself be decided in a purely historical manner since it involves an evaluative element. So, for instance, we might conclude that Luther's exegesis of Paul is not historically accurate and still judge that Luther's theology represents a valid reconfiguration of certain Pauline themes and ideas. Heiki Oberman proposes “contextual” readings of history that “place ideas in their context and point to their characteristics and their changing structures.” Forerunners of the Reformation: The Shape of Late Medieval Thought Illustrated by Key Documents (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981) 39. The goal of such a contextual reading is to provide “a perspective for measuring the changes in the configuration of questions and answers.” This is a good description of my pedagogical aims in teaching historical theology.

116 Jewish biblical scholar Marvin A. Sweeney asks: “To what extent does Christianity have the right unilaterally to impose Jesus Christ and the New Testament on the reading of the Old Testament without acknowledging the continuing theological validity of Judaism and its reading of biblical texts?” Review of Seitz, Christopher R., Prophecy and Hermeneutics: Toward a New Introduction to the Prophets, TJT 24 (2008) 116. Since none of my three scholars would deny the continuing validity of Judaism altogether, I have to wonder what claims they are really making on behalf of a christological interpretation of the Old Testament. Should Jews accept it? Why or why not? Childs tries to hold together both a non-Christianizing reading that does “justice to the discrete voice of the Old Testament according to its true historical context” and a canonical reading that treats both testaments as “a unified witness bearing testimony to one Lord, Jesus Christ.” Then he asks: “Are not these two approaches in irreconcilable conflict?” (“Toward Recovering Theological Exegesis,” 20–21). My answer is “Yes, they are in conflict.” Note the utter confusion in the equivocal use of the word “context” in this statement by Childs: “The Old Testament within the context of the canon is not a witness to a primitive level of faith, nor does it need to be Christianized. Within its historical context it is a witness to Jesus Christ” (Biblical Theology in Crisis, 111).

117 Martin, Pedagogy of the Bible, 40.

118 Ibid., 21.

119 I agree with the position on hermeneutics set forth by Tracy, David: “When all historical work completes its judgments of historical probability, we do not end but begin anew our proper task of interpreting. For interpreters, now historically informed, must return to the task of understanding by conversing with the claim to attention of classic texts and events. No amount of historical reconstruction can spare us that further effort. If all classic claims to attention are not to become historical period pieces, then history …must have the first but not the last word in all interpretation.” Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, Hope San Francisco: Harper, 1987) 39. Why cannot Martin affirm this statement?

120 Martin's understanding of theology is difficult to grasp. In one place Martin says: “Theology is thinking about how faith statements are true—or not. Or even more accurate: theology is the explanation of how faith statements may be sensible or rational” (Pedagogy of the Bible, 72). In another place he states that the task of theology is “to make Christian, rational sense out of Christian beliefs” (ibid., 89). The former statement suggests that Martin may be willing to subject the truth of Christian beliefs to critical challenges arising from non-theological perspectives as represented by other disciplines in the university (e.g., science, history, philosophy). By contrast, the latter statement implies the opposite view that theology is solely an internal affair of the church and thus immune from external challenges, as when Martin speaks of how an interpretation can be “Christianly true” or “Christianly false” (ibid., 90) Since he defines “theological hermeneutics” as addressing “how to interpret Scripture Christianly,” I assume that in his view theology is beholden only to criteria of rationality and truth that are already defined by Christians themselves (ibid., 80). But my confusion increases all the more when I later read that theology does not have to presuppose faith since “I have known agnostics and even atheists who make, in my opinion, quite good theologians” (ibid., 117). I wish Martin had taken greater care to be more precise.

121 B. A. Gerrish helpfully clarifies that Luther and Calvin gave a two-fold answer to the question: “Wherein lies the authority of Scripture?” On the one hand, they can say that “Scripture is authoritative because it bears witness to God” and, on the other hand, that “Scripture is authoritative because it is the verbally inspired Word of God.” The former answer represents the new element in the Reformers’ theology whereas the latter answer is a continuation of the medieval tradition: “And if there is no necessary contradiction between the two answers, neither is there any necessary connection between them: they do not stand or fall together.” “The Word of God and the Words of Scripture: Luther and Calvin on Biblical Authority,” in The Old Protestantism and the New: Essays on the Reformation Heritage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982) 56, 64. This distinction is important for understanding how the seeds of both conservative and liberal Protestantism were sown in the Reformation. Whereas conservative Protestants held fast to what the Reformers had in common with the medieval tradition, liberal Protestants seized upon what was new in their doctrine of the Bible since it provided a theological rationale for the Bible's importance that allowed for the unreserved appropriation of the results of historical criticism.

122 In this respect I share completely what Franklin I. Gamwell calls interchangeably “the modern commitment” or “the humanistic commitment,” which is the “affirmation that our understandings of reality and ourselves in relation to it cannot be validated or redeemed by appeals to some authoritative expression or tradition or institution. In other words, our understandings can be validated only by appeal in some sense to human experience and reason as such. Because it is identified by this latter appeal, the modern commitment may also be called the humanistic commitment.” The Divine Good: Moral Theory and the Necessity of God (San Francisco: Harper, 1990) 3–4. For the sake of obviating possible misunderstanding, Gamwell distinguishes “between the modern commitment in the formal or minimal sense I have identified and any material or substantive convictions that claim to be justifiable or valid. To affirm that understandings of reality and ourselves in relation to it can be redeemed only by humanistic appeal leaves open to further deliberation and argument the material understandings that can be so redeemed” (ibid., 7).

123 A moral consequence of this commitment to the historical study of religion is the requirement that Christians tell the truth about other religious traditions. So, for example, I believe that what the best historical scholarship teaches us about Judaism should profoundly alter traditional Christian beliefs about Jews and their religion, even if these beliefs have the sanction of the New Testament behind them. I cannot imagine a responsible theological exegesis of the New Testament for our time that looks upon such scholarship as optional.

124 Gunkel, Hermann, Water for a Thirsty Land: Israelite Religion and Literature ed. Hanson, K. C.; Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 2001) 4.

125 Given this premise, Seitz must seek to exonerate the Bible from any complicity in American slavery. Word Without End, 324–25 n. 4.

126 I fully agree with Levenson when he suggests that Christians could learn something of great value from Judaism in this regard: “I suspect that Judaism is somewhat better situated to deal with the polydoxy of biblical theology than is Christianity...most of the Talmud is a debate, with both majority and minority positions preserved and often unmarked. This is very different from most of the theological literature of Christianity. A tradition whose sacred texts are internally argumentative will have a far higher tolerance for theological polydoxy (within limits) and far less motivation to flatten the polyphony of the sources into a monotony” (The Hebrew Bible, 56) Such an approach to pluralism within the Christian tradition could occasion a new spirit of theological debate that moves away from the traditional “orthodoxy/heresy” model that has been so destructive of genuine conversation, even argument.

127 Troeltsch, “Historical and Dogmatic Method in Theology,” 13. Ironically, Seitz appears to agree with Troeltsch's assessment of the implications of historical criticism for theology (Word Without End, 35 n. 11). He quotes this statement from Troeltsch: “Historical method, once …applied to biblical study, is a leaven that transforms everything, and finally shatters the whole framework of theological method as this has existed hitherto” (Troeltsch, “Historical and Dogmatic Method,” 12; reproduced here in the translation used by Seitz). Seitz then comments: “Whether one judges this a good thing is another matter, of course.”

128 Collins, John J., “Biblical Theology and the History of Israelite Religion,” in Encounters with Biblical Theology Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 2005) 2433., at 33.

* This article is a revised version of a lecture delivered to the Hebrew Bible Graduate Research Workshop of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University on 7 December 2009. I wish to thank Christine Thomas Freedberg for making my visit both possible and immensely enjoyable. She, along with the other graduate students in this group, welcomed me in a warm and most gracious manner. I am also indebted to Professor Peter Machinist for his thoughtful and stimulating response to my lecture. Finally, I am grateful to my friend and colleague James A. Sanders (Claremont School of Theology) for his critical and constructive comments on an earlier draft of the manuscript.

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Harvard Theological Review
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