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Historical Criticism is not an Operating System

By Ryan Pollock

I completed my undergraduate degree at a small college of the Southern Baptist Convention in Texas. This college prides itself on forming future pastors in the spirit of the so-called Conservative Resurgence, that anti-modernist, almost-armed revolution which set the denomination’s course in the 20th century and for the foreseeable future.

No theological training is required if one wants to plant a church or become a pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention, nevertheless, the students at my school had a hunger for learning Holy Scripture that I haven’t seen paralleled anywhere else, even amongst my M.Div. class in seminary. They knew what a rare privilege it was to be studying at this level at all, many commuting long hours from rural places, their own faith cultivated by pastors with no such opportunities educational or financial. Many of my classmates were overworked, underpaid, blue-collared, bright-eyed, deeply faithful women and men.

But there comes a moment in many a young Bachelor of the Arts in Biblical Studies student’s life, usually when they take a New Testament or Old Testament survey, where they genuinely encounter the historical critical question for the first time, in one of the thousand faces it wears,

What did this biblical text mean in its original context? How did its first hearers receive it? What did the intended audience think it meant? How can we understand its significance for us if not its meaning for them?

For students accustomed to reading the Bible only for personal spiritual growth and enrichment of the inner life, the question hits like a lightning bolt: “I can’t believe my pastor/my church/my neon faux-hawked youth pastor never told me about this! Did they even know about it? Why did I tell so many people that the gospel was about a free ticket to heaven when you die? Why did I waste so much time combing John’s Revelation for coded references to the Iranian Nuclear Deal?” etc., etc.

For many, the question revolutionizes their approach to Bible study, and they are elated to complete the hero’s journey: returning with rich gifts for brethren back home. But for others, the question is utterly destabilizing, and cracks the very foundations of their religion. It didn’t help that a frequent refrain of hermeneutics lectures back then was, “every doctrine up for grabs!” That is, if you yourself could not come up with a 1-1 correspondence between a verse in the Bible and a particular doctrine, you ought not believe said doctrine — and what a heavy burden that is. Good luck finding God’s ousia shared amongst hypostases, you freshmen schmucks!

I had a dear friend who, upon realizing penal substitutionary atonement was neither the content of Jesus’ gospel nor even a minor theme in the apostolic kerygma, felt finally free to come out of the closet, admit agnosticism, end a marriage, and move cross-country. I knew another who, under similar duress, decided now was the time to experiment with ayahuasca, and become a sometime new age guru. If I remember correctly, his hang-up was the parallels between Ancient Near Eastern cosmology and the book of Genesis, with worries about who redacted whom. Countless more had far less dramatic fallouts, but their reasons were the same, “The Bible is not what I thought it was, so much of my worldview depended on it being what I thought it was, and now it’s high time both baby and bathwater get gone.”

Are these extreme and somewhat atypical responses to the question? Yes, though we should be able to empathize with them. How many young people do we know who went off to college and rubbed shoulders with (perhaps for the first time) a cosmopolitan cast of characters and dizzying array of new ideas, and found their intellectual footing a little shaken? One difference of course is that on the average public university campus in late-stage liberalism, a pluralistic, tolerating mood is deeply embedded in the credo, “you do you,” a popular distillation of what St. John Henry Newman called the anti-dogmatic principle: now every bit a dogma itself.

But in a small Southern Baptist college, pluralism and toleration are anathema, and epistemology-shattering questions must be dealt with at once; fight-or-flight kicks in fast.

What can be done about this, assuming it doesn’t just happen in higher learning institutions of the SBC? We must remind teachers to be gentle, and we must remind them what St. Paul says about not wishing to be teachers. Professors at seminaries and Christian colleges have tremendous impact on the trajectory of a student’s life, and their obligations cannot merely be to dismantle sophomoric belief. I can have sympathy for a professor who throws up his hands after a long day and says, “It’s not my responsibility to be their pastor!” but not with one who says, “Therefore, I ought not try.”

How important is this gentleness also in less formal educational settings, even for those of us without letters after our names? When my family is livestreaming a “prophecy update” by a dispensationalist pastor with an unintentional Seth Rogen stage persona, it does not help for me to sit in the corner and blithe, “Well, I suppose if you totally ignore original context, reception history, and enjoy non-falsifiable word association games, this is totally plausible!” How can I put this winsomely? If I’m going to pull the rug out from under someone’s worldview, maybe charity demands I offer them a hand up afterwards. By that time, I hopefully will have invested enough relational capital such that a minor withdrawal won’t feel like robbery.

I grew up a Southern Baptist in a family of lapsed Catholics, and after nearly a decade of seriously happy ministry amongst Episcopalians, could no longer ignore the summons to enter full communion with Peter’s See (my story is analogous to the hero’s journey only in its curious circularity). As such, my opportunities to speak into the lives of these kinds of folk have been in steady decline for a while. What can be done about this? Perhaps little from my vantage point, which is partially why I write. I suppose I can also encourage us all to spend a little more time with Walter Hilton’s Ladder of Perfection, which is golden on this point,

Great scholars, who, through long study and travail in holy Writ, attain to this knowledge more or less by the abilities of their natural reason…This knowledge is good, and may be called a kind or part of Contemplation, inasmuch as it is a sight of verity and a knowledge of spiritual things. Nevertheless, it is but a figure and shadow of true Contemplation…of this kind of knowledge St Paul speaketh thus: If I knew all mysteries and all knowledge, and have not charity, I am nothing.

Nevertheless, if they that have it keep themselves in humility and charity, and according to their might fly worldly and fleshly sins, it is to them a good way, and a great disposing to true Contemplation if they desire and pray devoutly after the grace of the Holy Ghost.

…therefore, if they that have it would humbly offer it up to our Lord, and pray for His grace, He would by His blessing turn their water into wine, as He did at the prayer of His Mother at the marriage feast; that is to say, He would turn their unsavoury knowledge into true wisdom, and their cold naked reason into spiritual light and burning love, by the gift of the Holy Ghost.

Hilton here acknowledges and celebrates the kind of knowledge of the Scriptures available to us through what would later be called higher criticism, the work of scholars devout or secular. This is the sort of passage one could use in the spirit of St. Thomas Aquinas’ classic prayer before study. The language of disposition there is critical: approached rightly, this kind of work prepares the scholar for the work of offering – of worship. That microscopic examination of pericope on which her whole dissertation depends is not an end in itself; it’s end is on the altar! “What use is a few scraps of broth and bread?” Gideon might wonder. Perhaps little, until an angel turns it into fire.

Nevertheless, for my friends in the biblical studies guild with ears to hear, and with ears to hear tech analogies (there may be literally dozens of you!), historical criticism simply isn’t powerful enough to be an operating system. You can’t run programs through it like “public worship,” “sacraments,” “epistemology,” “dogma,” “ethics,” or “ascetics” without the whole thing crashing. Take it from St. John Henry Newman, addressing issues not dissimilar in his letter to the Duke of Norfolk:

For myself, I would simply confess that no doctrine of the Church can be rigorously proved by historical evidence: but at the same time that no doctrine can be simply disproved by it. Historical evidence reaches a certain way, more or less, towards a proof of the Catholic doctrines; often nearly the whole way; sometimes it goes only as far as to point in their direction; sometimes there is only an absence of evidence for a conclusion contrary to them; nay, sometimes there is an apparent leaning of the evidence to a contrary conclusion, which has to be explained; — in all cases there is a margin left for the exercise of faith in the word of the Church. He who believes the dogmas of the Church only because he has reasoned them out of History, is scarcely a Catholic. It is the Church’s dogmatic use of History in which the Catholic believes; and she uses other informants also, Scripture, tradition, the ecclesiastical sense or [phronema], and a subtle ratiocinative power, which in its origin is a divine gift. There is nothing of bondage or “renunciation of mental freedom” in this view, any more than in the converts of the Apostles believing what the Apostles might preach to them or teach them out of Scripture.

In short, the historical, critical method is not an operating system, it is an ancillary program on an OS called Church. Do use it, profit from it, and let it be what it is.

Ryan E. Pollock is the Director of Parish Life and Senior Ministry at St. Theresa of Lisieux Catholic Church in Austin, Texas, and a Doctor of Bioethics student at Loyola University Chicago.



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