« Prev A. Varieties of Historical Biblical Criticism Next »

A. Varieties of Historical Biblical Criticism

Those who practice HBC, therefore, propose to proceed without employing theological assumptions or anything one knows by faith (if indeed there is anything one knows by faith); these things are to be bracketed. Instead, one proceeds scientifically, on the basis of reason alone. Beyond this, however, there is vastly less concord. What is to count as reason? Precisely what premises can be employed in an argument from reason alone? What exactly does it mean to proceed scientifically? Here I think we find at least three distinct positions.

1. Troeltschian Historical Biblical Criticism

Many contemporary biblical critics appeal to the thought and teaching of Ernst Troeltsch.473473   See especially his “Über historische und dogmatische Methode in der Theologie” in his Gesammelte Schriften (Tübingen: Mohr, 1913), vol. 2, pp. 729–53, and his article “Historiography” in James Hastings, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (New York: Scribner’s, 1967 [reprint of 1909 edition]). Thus John Collins:


Among theologians these principles received their classic formulation from Ernst Troeltsch in 1898. Troeltsch sets out three principles . . . (1) The principle of criticism or methodological doubt: since any conclusion is subject to revision, historical inquiry can never attain absolute certainty but only relative degrees of probability. (2) The principle of analogy: historical knowledge is possible because all events are similar in principle. We must assume that the laws of nature in biblical times were the same as now. Troeltsch referred to this as “the almighty power of analogy.” (3) The principle of correlation: the phenomena of history are inter-related and interdependent and no event can be isolated from the sequence of historical cause and effect.474474   “Is Critical Biblical Theology Possible?” in The Hebrew Bible and Its Interpreters, ed. William Henry Propp, Baruch Halpern, and David Freedman (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1990), p. 2.

Collins adds a fourth principle, this one taken from Van Harvey’s The Historian and the Believer,475475   Subtitled The Morality of Historical Knowledge and Christian Belief (New York: Macmillan, 1966). a more recent locus classicus for the proper method of historical criticism:

To these should be added the principle of autonomy, which is indispensable for any critical study. Neither church nor state can prescribe for the scholar which conclusions should be reached. (p. 2)

Now the first thing to note is that each of these principles is multiply ambiguous. In particular, each (except perhaps the second) has a noncontroversial, indeed, platitudinous interpretation. The first principle seems to be a comment on historical inquiry rather than a principle for its practice: historical inquiry can never attain absolutely certain results. (Perhaps the implied methodological principle is that in doing historical criticism, you should avoid claiming absolute certainty for your results.) Fair enough. I suppose nearly everyone would agree that few historical results of any significance are as certain as, say, that 2 + 1 = 3; if so, however, they don’t achieve absolute certainty. (The only reasonably plausible candidates for historical results that are absolutely certain, I suppose, would be such ‘historical’ claims as that either Caesar crossed the Rubicon or else he didn’t.)

The third also has a platitudinous interpretation. Troeltsch puts the principle like this: “The sole task of history in its specifically theoretical aspect is to explain every movement, process, state and nexus of things by reference to the web of its causal relations.”476476   “Historiography,” p. 718. This too can be seen as toothless if not platitudinous. Every event is to be explained by reference to the web of its causal relations—which, of course, would also include the intentions and actions of persons. Well then, consider even such an event as the resurrection of Jesus from 392the dead: according to the principle at hand, this event too would have to be explained by reference to the web of its causal relations. No problem; on the traditional view, this event was caused by God himself, who caused it in order to achieve certain of his aims and ends, in particular making it possible for human beings to be reconciled with him. So taken, this principle would exclude very little.

I say the second principle is perhaps the exception to the claim that each has a banal, uncontroversial interpretation: that is because on any plausible interpretation the second principle seems to entail the existence of natural laws. That there are such things as natural laws was a staple of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century science and philosophy of science;477477   Thus Descartes, Principles of Philosophy, part 2:
   xxvii. The first law of nature: that each thing as far as in it lies, continues always in the same state; and that which is once moved always continues so to move.

   xxxix. The second law of nature: that all motion is of itself in a straight line.

what science discovers (so they thought) is just these laws of nature.478478   An opinion preserved among such contemporary philosophers as David Armstrong (see his What Is a Law of Nature? [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984]) and David Lewis (see, e.g., his “New Work for a Theory of Universals,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy [1983], pp. 343ff.). Empiricists have always been dubious about natural laws, however, and at present the claim that there are any such things is, at best, extremely controversial.479479   See, in particular, Bas van Fraassen’s Laws and Symmetry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989) for an extended and powerful argument against the existence of natural laws.

Among the main problems is the alleged necessity of these laws. A natural law is supposed to be a universal generalization. Consider, for example, Newton’s first law: “Every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a straight line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed on it.” The idea is that this universal generalization is in some sense necessarily true. The alleged kind of necessity (‘natural’ or ‘physical’ necessity) is supposed to be weaker than the broadly logical necessity enjoyed by truths of logic, arithmetic, and the like (natural laws are ordinarily thought to be contingent in the broadly logical sense) but necessary in some sense nonetheless. In what sense? That’s not easy to say, but here is a picture. Think of natural necessity in terms of the ordinary semantics for counterfactuals: we imagine the possible worlds as constituting a space—for simplicity, a three-dimensional space; we somehow settle on or at any rate postulate the existence of a distance measure on this space of possible worlds; and the larger the sphere of possible worlds (centered on the actual world480480   Of course a natural law could be ‘more necessary’ in some other possible world than it is in the actual world. Therefore, although a natural law will be true throughout some sphere centered on the actual world, that sphere may be included in a larger sphere whose center is not the actual world.) in which a 393given proposition is true, the more necessary that proposition is. Then the idea would be that natural laws are propositions true in very large spheres (centered on the actual world); they remain true as we proceed outward from the actual world for a very long ways.

This is a pretty little picture (though both metaphorical and highly speculative); still, why saddle the historian or scripture scholar with an opinion on this topic? It is hard to see that the practice of HBC actually requires allegiance to the view that there is such a thing as natural necessity or, that there are such things as natural laws, explained in this way or in any other. Why must the historian take a hand in this philosophical dispute? But perhaps Troeltsch and Collins don’t really mean to insist that the critical historian has to believe in natural laws; perhaps they could put their claims just as well by saying the same empirical generalizations or physical regularities obtained in the past as obtain now. Newtonian physics (at least approximately, and for middle-sized objects traveling at moderate speed) held then as now; special and general relativity were true then just as now (if indeed they are true now); quantum electrodynamics applied at earlier times (at any rate times not too close to the Big Bang) just as at present. And this whether we think of these as statements of natural law, with that peculiar sort of necessity, or as statements of exceptionless regularities, or as regularities holding for the vast majority of cases, or (as in the case of some quantum mechanical regularities) probabilistic.

So Troeltsch’s principles have platitudinous interpretations; but these are not, in fact, the interpretations given to them in the community of HBC. Within that community, those principles are understood in such a way as to preclude direct divine action in the world. Not that all in this community accept Troeltsch’s principles in their nonplatitudinous interpretation; rather, those who think of themselves as accepting (or rejecting) those principles think of themselves as accepting (or rejecting) their nonplatitudinous versions. (Presumably everyone accepts them taken platitudinously.) So taken, these principles imply that God has not, in fact, specially inspired any human authors in such a way that what they write is really divine speech addressed to us; nor has he raised Jesus from the dead, turned water into wine, or performed miracles of any other sorts. Thus Rudolf Bultmann:

The historical method includes the presupposition that history is a unity in the sense of a closed continuum of effects in which individual events are connected by the succession of cause and effect.

This continuum, furthermore,

cannot be rent by the interference of supernatural, transcendent powers.481481   Existence and Faith, ed. Schubert Ogden (New York: Meridian Books, 1960), pp. 291–92. Writing fifty years before Troeltsch, David Strauss concurs: “all things are linked together by a chain of causes and effects, which suffers no interruption” Life of Jesus Critically Examined [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972], sec. 14; quoted in Harvey, The Historian and the Believer, p. 15.)


Many other theologians, oddly enough, chime in with agreement: God cannot or at any rate would not and will not act directly in the world. Thus John Macquarrie:

The way of understanding miracles that appeals to breaks in the natural order and to supernatural interventions belongs to the mythological outlook and cannot commend itself in a post-mythological climate of thought. . . .

The traditional conception of miracle is irreconcilable with our modern understanding of both science and history. Science proceeds on the assumption that whatever events occur in the world can be accounted for in terms of other events that also belong within the world; and if on some occasions we are unable to give a complete account of some happening . . . the scientific conviction is that further research will bring to light further factors in the situation, but factors that will turn out to be just as immanent and this-worldly as those already known.482482   Principles of Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977), p. 248.

And Langdon Gilkey:

contemporary theology does not expect, nor does it speak of, wondrous divine events on the surface of natural and historical life. The causal nexus in space and time which the Enlightenment science and philosophy introduced into the Western mind . . . is also assumed by modern theologians and scholars; since they participate in the modern world of science both intellectually and existentially, they can scarcely do anything else. Now this assumption of a causal order among phenomenal events, and therefore of the authority of the scientific interpretation of observable events, makes a great difference to the validity one assigns to biblical narratives and so to the way one understands their meaning. Suddenly a vast panoply of divine deeds and events recorded in scripture are no longer regarded as having actually happened. . . . Whatever the Hebrews believed, we believe that the biblical people lived in the same causal continuum of space and time in which we live, and so one in which no divine wonders transpired and no divine voices were heard.483483   “Cosmology, Ontology and the Travail of Biblical Language,” in God’s Activity in the World: The Contemporary Problem, ed. Owen C. Thomas (Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1983), p. 31.

Gilkey says no divine wonders have transpired and no divine voices have been heard; Macquarrie adds that in this postmythological age, we can’t brook the idea of “breaks in the natural order and supernatural intervention.” Each therefore, is ruling out the possibility 395of miracle, including the possibility of special divine action in inspiring human authors in such a way that what they write constitutes an authoritative communication from God. Now it is far from easy to say just what a miracle is; this topic is connected with deep and thorny questions about occasionalism, natural law, natural potentialities, and so on. We needn’t get into all that, however. The Troeltschian idea is that there is a certain way in which things ordinarily go; there are certain regularities, whether or not due to natural law, and God can be counted on to act in such a way as not to abrogate those regularities. Of course God could, if he chose, abrogate those regularities (after all, even those natural laws, if there are any, are his creatures); but we can be sure, somehow, that he will not. Troeltschian scripture scholarship, therefore, will proceed on the basis of the assumption that God never does anything specially; in particular, he neither raised Jesus from the dead nor specially inspired the biblical authors.

A thousand questions arise about these regularities: what sort are we thinking of? Suppose there has never been and never will be a combination of three dimes and two nickels in my pocket, or a freshwater lake the size of Lake Baikal surrounded by mainly Japanese speakers, or heavily glaciated mountains in Australia contemporaneous with a Dutch-speaking population, or dinosaurs and humans at the same time: are these the sorts of regularities in question? Presumably not. What about the fact that none of the Great Lakes has ever been or ever will be filled with single-malt Scotch whiskey? Or that there has never been or ever will be a sphere of gold a mile in diameter? Probably not. How about the fact that there has never been a sphere of plutonium a mile in diameter? Probably so: such a sphere would contain a quantity of plutonium greater than the critical mass and would therefore have exploded. How, precisely, do we characterize the regularities we are talking about? That’s very difficult. At any rate the idea is that there are such regularities; and among them would be that human beings, once they are dead, do not come back to life, that water doesn’t change into wine, and that human beings are not specially inspired by God in such a way that what they write is properly regarded as divine speech and revelation.

2. Duhemian Historical Biblical Criticism

Not all who accept and practice HBC accept Troeltsch’s principles, and we can see another variety of HBC by thinking about an important suggestion made by Pierre Duhem. Duhem was both a serious Catholic and a serious scientist; he was accused (as he thought) by Abel Rey484484   “La Philosophie scientifique de M. Duhem,” Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale 12 (July 1904), pp. 699ff. of allowing his religious and metaphysical views as a 396Christian to enter his physics in an improper way. Duhem repudiated this suggestion, claiming that his Christianity didn’t enter his physics in any way at all and a fortiori didn’t enter it in an improper way.485485   See the appendix to Duhem’s The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory, tr. Philip P. Wiener, foreword by Prince Louis de Broglie (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954; first published in 1906). The appendix is entitled “Physics of a Believer” and is a reprint of Duhem’s reply to Rey; it was originally published in the Annales de Philosophie chrétienne 1 (October-November 1905), pp. 44ff. and 133ff. Furthermore, the correct or proper way to pursue physical theory, he said, was the way in which he had in fact done it; physical theory should be completely independent of religious or metaphysical views or commitments.

Why did he think so? What did he have against metaphysics? Here he strikes a characteristic Enlightenment note: if you think of metaphysics as ingressing into physics, he says, then your estimate of the worth of a physical theory will depend on the metaphysics you adopt. Physical theory will be dependent on metaphysics in such a way that someone who doesn’t accept the metaphysics involved in a given physical theory can’t accept the physical theory either. And the problem with that is that the disagreements that run riot in metaphysics will ingress into physics, so that the latter cannot be an activity we can all work at together, regardless of our metaphysical views:

Now to make physical theories depend on metaphysics is surely not the way to let them enjoy the privilege of universal consent. . . . If theoretical physics is subordinated to metaphysics, the divisions separating the diverse metaphysical systems will extend into the domain of physics. A physical theory reputed to be satisfactory by the sectarians of one metaphysical school will be rejected by the partisans of another school. (p. 10)

Duhem’s main point, I think, is that if a physical theorist employs metaphysical assumptions or other notions that are not accepted by other workers in the field, and employs them in such a way that those who don’t accept them can’t accept his physical theory, then to that extent his work cannot be accepted by those others; to that extent, furthermore, the cooperation important to science will be compromised. He therefore proposes a conception of science (of physics in particular) according to which the latter is independent of metaphysics:

I have denied metaphysical doctrines the right to testify for or against any physical theory. . . . Whatever I have said of the method by which physics proceeds, or the nature and scope that we must attribute to the theories it constructs, does not in any way prejudice either the metaphysical doctrines or religious beliefs of anyone who 397accepts my words. The believer and the nonbeliever may both work in common accord for the progress of physical science such as I have tried to define it. (pp. 274–75)

Duhem’s proposal, reduced to essentials, is that physicists shouldn’t make essential use of religious or metaphysical assumptions in doing their physics: that way lies chaos and cacophony, as each of the warring sects does things its own way. If we want to have the sort of commonality and genuine dialogue that promote progress in physics, we should avoid assumptions, metaphysical, religious, or otherwise, that are not accepted by all parties to the discussion.486486   Of course this proposal must be qualified, nuanced, sophisticated. It makes perfect sense for me to continue to work on a hypothesis after others have decided it is a dead end; science has often benefited from such disagreements. But in these cases there is ordinarily a deeper agreement as to what the aims of science are, what counts as genuine science, and what the proper methods to be employed might be. Furthermore, the disputes can often be settled on the basis of this deeper agreement; it is possible for one of the disputants to turn out to be right in a way that is recognized by all the disputants.

This is an interesting suggestion. Although Duhem himself didn’t do so, it can obviously be applied far beyond the confines of physical theory, for example, to scripture scholarship. Suppose we say that Duhemian scripture scholarship is scripture scholarship that doesn’t involve any theological, religious, or metaphysical assumptions that aren’t accepted by everyone in the relevant community.487487   It may be difficult to specify the relevant community. Suppose I am a scripture scholar at a denominational seminary: what is my relevant community? Scripture scholars of any sort, all over the world? Scripture scholars in my own denomination? In Western academia? The people, academics or not, in my denomination? Christians generally? The first thing to see here is that our scripture scholar clearly belongs to many different communities and may accordingly be involved in several different scholarly projects. Thus the Duhemian scripture scholar wouldn’t take for granted either that God is the principal author of the Bible or that the main lines of the Christian story are in fact true; these are not accepted by all who are party to the discussion. She wouldn’t take for granted that Jesus rose from the dead, or that any other miracle has occurred; she couldn’t so much as take it for granted that miracles are possible because these claims are rejected by many who are party to the discussion. On the other hand, of course, Duhemian scripture scholarship can’t take it for granted that Christ did not rise from the dead or that no miracles have occurred, or that miracles are impossible. Nor can it employ Troeltsch’s principles (taken nonplatitudinously); not everyone accepts them. Duhemian scripture scholarship fits well with Sanders’s suggestion that “what is needed is more secure evidence, evidence on 398which everyone can agree” (above, p. 388). It also fits well with John Meier’s fantasy of “an unpapal conclave” of Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, and agnostic scholars, locked in the basement of the Harvard Divinity School library until they come to consensus on what historical methods can show about the life and mission of Jesus.488488   A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. 1, pp. 1–2. Among the proposed benefits of Duhemian HBC, obviously, are just the benefits Duhem cites: people of very different religious and theological beliefs can cooperate in this enterprise. Of course this is not a reason for thinking the results of Duhemian scholarship are more likely to be true or closer to the truth than, say, traditional biblical commentary; still, although in principle the traditional biblical commentator and the Troeltschian biblical scholar could discover whatever is unearthed by Duhemian means, it is, in fact, likely that much will be learned in this cooperative enterprise that would not be learned by either group working alone.

3. Spinozistic Historical Biblical Criticism

Troeltschian and Duhemian HBC do not exhaust HBC; one can be a practitioner of HBC and accept neither. You might propose to follow reason alone in scripture scholarship, but think that the Troeltschian principles, taken in the strong version in which they imply that God never acts specially in the world, are not, in fact, deliverances of reason. Reason alone, you say, certainly can’t demonstrate that God never acts specially in the world, or that no miracles have ever occurred. If so, you wouldn’t be a Troeltschian. But you might reject Duhemianism as well: you might think that, as a matter of fact, there are deliverances of reason not accepted by everyone party to the project of scripture scholarship. (The deliverances of reason are indeed open to all; nevertheless, impeding factors of one kind or another can sometimes prevent someone from seeing the truth of one or another of them.) Then you might yourself employ those deliverances of reason in pursuing scripture scholarship, thereby employing assumptions not accepted by everyone involved in the project, and thereby rejecting Duhemianism. You might therefore propose to follow reason alone, but be neither Troeltschian nor Duhemian. Suppose we use the term ‘Spinozistic HBC’489489   According to Spinoza, as we saw, “The rule for [biblical] interpretation should be nothing but the natural light of reason” (above, p. 386). to denote this last variety of HBC. The Spinozist concurs with the Troeltschian and Duhemian that no theological assumptions or beliefs are to be employed in HBC. She differs from the Troeltschian in paying the same compliment to Troeltsch’s principles: they too are not deliverances of 399reason and hence are not to be employed in HBC. And she differs from the Duhemian in holding that there are some deliverances of reason not accepted by all who are party to the project of scripture scholarship; hence she proposes to employ some propositions or beliefs rejected by the Duhemian.

A final point: It is clearly inaccurate to suppose that every scripture scholar falls neatly into one or another of these four categories. Not every work of scripture scholarship is either a clear example of traditional biblical commentary or else a clear example of HBC. Not every work of HBC is a clear example of just one of Troeltschian, Duhemian, or Spinozistic HBC. There are all sorts of halfway houses, lots of haltings between two opinions, many who fall partly into one and partly into another, and many who have never clearly seen that there are these categories. A real live scripture scholar is unlikely to have spent a great deal of thought on the epistemological foundations of the discipline and is likely to straddle one or more of the categories I mention.

« Prev A. Varieties of Historical Biblical Criticism Next »
Please login or register to save highlights and make annotations
Corrections disabled for this book
Proofing disabled for this book
Printer-friendly version


| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |