By Wesley Hill
Just before the turn of the twentieth century, near the start of the German summer semester, the theological faculty of the University of Breslau in what is now southwestern Poland offered a short course for active clergy. One of the lecturers was Wilhelm Wrede, a celebrated scholar of early Christian literature, and instead of avoiding the potentially divisive issues, he addressed head-on “the far-reaching tension between clergy and university theology which is characteristic of the present time.”
At the time Wrede gave his lecture, “university theology,” as he called it, had positioned itself with increasing indifference or even scorn for the so-called “dead hand of dogma” that was thought to impede the free investigation of the biblical writings as the products of particular human minds and cultures. By the time Wrede’s audience of Lutheran clergy gathered to hear his teaching, German critics had worked for over a hundred years to create what Michael Legaspi has dubbed “the academic Bible” — a Bible liberated from the confines of creeds and traditions and able to be analyzed like any other ancient text. Clergy throughout Europe were aware of this new theological creation but were also largely unsure what it meant for their preaching and pastoral work. Could one remain a believing Christian and a hardnosed scholar while rejecting — or at least holding in abeyance — a doctrine of biblical inspiration, or was there destined to be an unbridgeable gulf from now on between the biblical study that went on in the manse and that which took place in scholarly libraries?
For his theme, Wrede selected the following fulsome title: “The Task and Methods of ‘New Testament Theology.’” His aim, however, was to undermine the very designation “New Testament theology.” He wanted his audience to know that it was “wrong in both its terms.” The documents comprising the church’s New Testament are “not concerned merely with theology, but [are] in fact far more concerned with religion” — with lived experience and pastoral demands. Nor, said Wrede, was the designation “New Testament” helpful in scholarly research, since it presupposes a whole raft of theological judgments about which early Christian texts belong together and which do not. A more appropriate name for the scholar’s object of study, then, according to Wrede, is “early Christian history of religion, or rather: the history of early Christian religion and theology.”
Clergy should be prepared to make something of the judgments of historical scholarship, but they shouldn’t presume to dictate in advance which direction that scholarship should go by citing any creed or confession. Scholarship must remain unfettered: “If a scientific task or method really grows out of the subject-matter, it cannot be refused for the sake of some practical interest, however honorable, without ceasing to be science.” Clergy, take note, Wrede warned: Don’t allow your churchly interests to taint the objectivity of your historical investigations. That way, Wrede thought, lies imprisonment, not to mention a loss of intellectual integrity.
Over a hundred years later and thousands of miles removed from the lecture hall where Wrede delivered these judgments, I find myself planted firmly in the ground he cultivated. I am a seminary professor, and I train my students — most of them future ministers and missionaries — to look for the likeliest “original meaning” of the Bible, rooting it in its ancient Hebrew, Jewish, and Greco-Roman contexts. I train them, in other words, in the methods Wrede would have deemed “historical” and “scientific.”
I do this because, in my own undergraduate and postgraduate training, I received some of the best instruction in the world in so-called “historical criticism.” I still recall with a shiver of excitement the moment when my college Greek professor taught us how to use a Gospels Synopsis — a book composed of the narratives and parables and discourses of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke arranged in parallel columns for easy comparing and contrasting — and said in a conspiratorial whisper, “You’re lucky to be learning hermeneutics here because there are conservative Christian colleges where this tool would be banned.” He was right, of course. In the Evangelicalism of my youth, many pastors and even professors were leery of the findings of modern biblical research and wanted to try to smooth away any of the Gospels’ narrative tensions.
But in the university classroom, we were free to entertain other possibilities. What if, for example, the Gospels’ truthfulness didn’t depend on their conforming to the standards of accuracy observed in contemporary journalism or historiography? The point, in any case, is that, in the university, I wasn’t beholden to what my pastor had always said was true. If the data seemed to point in another direction, that was where I aimed my compass.
There are contemporary Christians, eager to guard the deposit entrusted to us by the church fathers and councils, who seem to want to denounce the whole of this way of reading as theological or ecclesiastical rebellion, but I am not one of them. Believers cannot evade the challenges posed by rigorous, dispassionate criticism that really do, on occasion, call into question long-cherished traditions. The Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas has joked that were he put in charge of seminary education in North America, his first official act would be to fire all the biblical scholars.
Yet biblical scholarship regularly holds the churches’ feet to the fire and asks them “not to go beyond what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6). Ecclesiastical authority can indeed calcify, and doctrines can in fact be wielded like muzzling formulae, predicting and constraining what the Bible must say, rendering it bland and toothless. Wherever this happens, reading the Bible “historically” can feel like taking the bridle off a raging stallion.
Admittedly, though, there’s something near the core of Wrede’s argument that rankles. Like many historical critics, he takes for granted that church doctrine functions as a constraint: “Whether or not this bears any relation to the biblical texts, you have to believe this if you want to be a Christian.” But what if that whole understanding of Christian doctrine is wrong from the get-go?
Doctrines may inhibit biblical understanding, I think. They may forestall any uncomfortable historical inquiries at the outset. But as the biblical scholar R. W. L. Moberly has pointed out, it is another thing altogether to claim that they necessarily always do so. May not doctrines, Moberly asks, “be insights of an ultimate kind into the nature of God and humanity, focused in Jesus Christ, whose role is to enable understanding of God and humanity in any context, not least within the Bible…?”
If doctrines were from their inception hammered out through close reading of the Bible, might it not be a reasonable assumption that those same doctrines could lead their adherents back into that same close reading, that same assiduous attention to the texts from which they’ve sprung?
I think in this connection of a letter by the great American author Flannery O’Connor in which she faces the question of whether her Catholic faith diminishes her art:
I have heard it said that belief in Christian dogma is a hindrance to the writer, but I myself have found nothing further from the truth. Actually, it frees the storyteller to observe. It is not a set of rules which fixes what he sees in the world. It affects his writing primarily by guaranteeing his respect for mystery.
What O’Connor is opposing is perhaps more obvious to many of us than what she’s advocating, since we tend to be familiar with moralizing Christian fiction, in which the “message” overwhelms characterization or the realism of a plot. But consider her positive claim: Christian doctrine functions, above all, as a safeguard for mystery. It holds in flaming tension what would otherwise devolve into drab truisms. The doctrines of humanity’s creation in the image of God and humanity’s fall into sin turn out, in the end, to make O’Connor’s fiction more, not less, complex. And the parallels with biblical interpretation are not hard to see.
It’s a shame that Wilhelm Wrede encouraged an audience of pastors to think of creeds and church doctrines as straitjackets. The good news is that we can learn from and emulate his scholarship and, at the same time, treat doctrine like road back to Scripture that it is.
Wesley Hill is associate professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.