(Still) No Country for Biblical Scholars

R.R. Reno has judged me in a new post today (http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/?p=1324) to be an example of the "wagon-circling, guild mentality of so many contemporary biblical scholars." More than a circler of wagons, though, my earlier response to him is the equivalent of a clarion call: "Time to call the police and get those troublemakers off the streets." Indeed, it is "John W. Martens’ call for the riot police. The wrong kinds of people are interpreting the Bible." Now, I am no psychologist, and by virtue of this I am not willing to write a commentary on psychology, but the images of siege and police strike me as indications of someone who feels under attack. I promise to call off the police, if he promises to use new metaphors.

With respect to biblical studies, however, Reno has stubbornly refused to listen to me. Let me put this as simply and directly as I can, by using the words of the late, great Ben F. Meyer: "In a century of technological brilliance and of mendacious and murderous ideology, the gospel for millions has been like a letter undelivered, lost in the shuffle. Hermeneutics, of course, is no more than a philosophic discipline. The task of New Testament hermeneutics, however, is sublated by the Christian missionary task: to open, to keep open, or to reopen access to the Gospel; to remove the blocks that stop the flow of meaning and extinguish the light of truth. New Testament hermeneutics is not an emergency task, but it does become most meaningful when, in one way or another, things have gone awry with New Testament interpretation" (Reality and Illusion in New Testament Scholarship: A Primer in Critical Realist Hermeneutics. A Michael Glazier Book; Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1994, p.xi).


This is the task of New Testament interpretation as I see it: "to open, to keep open, or to reopen access to the Gospel; to remove the blocks that stop the flow of meaning and extinguish the light of truth." I think that even Reno could accept this as the task of interpreting the Bible! It is true, however, that not every New Testament scholar would see this as their task, and Reno spends a lot of time haranguing J.J. Collins as indicative of New Testament scholarship "gone awry." Like B.F. Meyer, and like Reno, I also adjudge that much New Testament scholarship has gone awry. Yet, one cannot judge the whole of a discipline on the basis of one example of a scholar whose work one deems to be poor, problematic or even off of the rails. Again, as I noted in my first response to Reno, one could do the same with any other theological discipline, though I used the example of moral theology. This approach, however, is a mug’s game; there is no end to it. I can choose scholars whose work I approve, you can choose examples of scholars whose work you reject. You can choose scholars whose work you admire, I can choose scholars whose work I adjudge to be wretched. So be it; that is the nature of scholarship. The point that Reno assiduously ignores is that biblical scholarship cannot turn from historical critical study of the Bible, nor should it.

Historical consciousness is part of our understanding of the world around us, and so it must be a part of the way in which we understand texts, especially ancient texts that arose in cultures and societies long distant from us. We cannot reject an historical study of these texts, both because it would be an a priori rejection of how we understand the world, and so necessarily the "meaning" of these texts, and because it would subvert the missionary task of the Church, which must explain the Bible in comprehensible terms to the world around it. The historical study of the Bible is not the end of the study of the Bible, often it is only a precursor to its continuing study, but it is a necessary part of the study of the Bible. It cannot be jettisoned and a lack of training in the historical study of the Bible does not prepare one in some special way to study the Bible.

Yet, Reno is on to something, which he cannot articulate, and which leads to his wholesale rejection of biblical scholarship. In the ancient Church there were two "schools" of interpretation, one represented by Alexandria (whose focus was on allegorical interpretation) and one represented by Antioch (literal interpretation). Both are necessary, and when one withers away, there is a lack of nourishment in biblical interpretation. The focus of historical critical scholarship is on Antioch; Alexandria is not only out of focus, but often not in one’s horizon. This impoverishes the study of the Bible. "The ideals of the schools –respectively, sober commitment to the literal sense (Antioch) and affirmation of the intelligibility and cohesiveness of salvation and of the scriptures that attest it in celebration and hope (Alexandria) – can be served simultaneously. There is no room here for either rationalism or the pretense of comprehensive knowledge; there is plenty of room for the claims of the biblical text, the claims of the integrity of faith and the claims of human authenticity. The capacity and will to meet all three claims is what the proposed new synthesis of Antioch and Alexandria means" (Reality and Illusion, 180-81).

In practice this means paying attention to the primacy of the literal sense, that is, the intended sense of the text. It means that one cannot in practice accept "premature and artificial interpretative solutions" in the interpretation of texts, however tempting they might be (Critical Realism and the New Testament.Alison Park, PA: Pickwick Publications, 1989, p. 46). Finally, it means that, for the ecclesial interpreter, one accepts the revelatory unity and cohesiveness of scripture. These claims cannot be met, however, by banishing the study of history and the Bible, however bad the results might be on occasion. And even where the scholars in question operate under bad hermeneutical principles, bad theories of history, or a rejection of revelation, one still might garner nuggets of truth and reality. I reject nothing that is true in the work of biblical scholarship, regardless of its source. I might note in passing that I have learned much from J.J. Collins’ studies of apocalyptic literature, while disagreeing with his hermenuetical project.

The reason to continue to work in the academic discipline of historical study of the Bible is just this: where the historical study of the Bible unearths what is true, whatever the source, the truth makes a claim on us. It is because the truth makes a claim on us that I find it my task "to open, to keep open, or to reopen access to the Gospel; to remove the blocks that stop the flow of meaning and extinguish the light of truth." This is good work and all who reject it reject not only its excesses, but its manifold successes and its necessity in the Church’s missionary task. The Bible is for all people and the task of any intepretative project must be to explain the text in every way necessary so that all people can encounter the Bible. This even includes people who take history seriously.

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