The next two examples come from Germany in the late eighteenth century, and concern scholars who, whole not producing a coherent theological reading of the Old Testament, adumbrated opposing principles that laid down two lines of approach that have been followed many times. They are Johann Philip Gabler (1753-1826) and Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803).
In 1787 Gabler delivered an inaugural address at the University of Altdorf, near Nuremberg. This address, on how to discover a pure biblical theology, has been regarded as a watershed in the development of the discipline of biblical theology (Gabler 1831). Gabler was concerned at the way in which historical—critical study of the Bible was producing results that differed increasingly from the use of the Bible in the dogmatic formularies of the various churches. He was also concerned that a truly 'scientific' study of the Bible should yield agreed results, in opposition to the divergent and mutually exclusive claims made in the dogmatic formularies. Gabler proposed that the study of the Bible should be separated from dogmatic theology. The biblical authors were to be studied within their historical settings, with the aid of philological and grammatical methods. The aim of this would be to identify what truths and principles they had maintained. A further aim would be to separate what had been disclosed from God from what was human opinion. In this way, a series of universal truths or principles would be arrived at, which would represent pure biblical theology. This could then become the basis for dogmatic theologies.
Gabler never worked this programme up into an actual biblical theology; but he is usually credited with having established that biblical theology must be a 'scientific' discipline practised independently of ecclesiastical dogmatic agendas. Whether it would be possible to carry out his programme is to be doubted. How does one distinguish between what is divine and thus universal, and what is human and thus appropriate only to specific times and circumstances? The answer can only be by using human reason. Thus biblical theology depends upon philosophy; and it is not unreasonable to see behind Gabler's enterprise a philosophical problem that has been called an 'ugly ditch' (Brett 1991). This refers to a distinction that was common in the eighteenth century between necessary truths of reason and contingent truths
(i.e. truths limited to specific times and circumstances) of history. Given that a good deal of the Old Testament consists of historical narrative, how could it contain necessary truths that would have universal application? Gabler attempted to answer this question by suggesting that an initial historical treatment of texts could isolate truths which, by God's providence, were of universal application.
A quite different approach is evident in the writings of Herder. If Gabler wishes to study the Old Testament historically in order to isolate intellectual truths, Herder wants to proceed in the same way in order to experience something primal. For Herder, religion is aroused by human appreciation of nature, among other things. Nature awakes feelings of awe, wonder and beauty in the human soul, and these feelings are expressed most profoundly in poetry. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew language and its use in poetry expressed vividly and dramatically the Israelites' encounter with God through nature. Further, God used the processes of nature to educate and guide human reason (Herder 1993).
Herder applied historical criticism to texts in a way quite different from Gabler. Gabler belonged to a 'mythical school' of scholars who believed that, in handling biblical texts, the supernatural trappings should be stripped away because they resulted from the naive and pre-scientific way in which the early human race had conceptualized natural events. Thus, in Genesis 3, the talking serpent, the tree that made Adam and Eve aware of sexual difference and the divine decree banishing the couple from the Garden of Eden were the result of the naive conceptualizing of Adam and Eve and the narrator. The reality was that a serpent had eaten some fruit without being harmed, the couple had imitated the serpent but discovered that the fruit was mildly poisonous, and a thunderstorm had driven the couple from the garden. Although Herder sometimes rationalized narratives he also insisted that biblical narratives had to be read as the products of an ancient society quite different from our own. Thus the interpreter should enter with sympathy and imagination into the language and world of the biblical writers in order to grasp or sense the experience of nature or God that the text was expressing. To be sure, a philosophy lay behind Herder's approach just as much as behind that of Gabler. It was the philosophy of Spinoza, suitably purified (Bell 1984), that enabled Herder to see God as the life and energy of the processes of the natural world; a God speaking to human souls and educating them in countless ways in natural processes vast and minute. But we can also say of Herder's approach that it respected the text much more than Gabler's method.
The differing approaches of Gabler and Herder exemplify the rationalist and the romantic method of interpretation. The first uses the scientific knowledge of today as the criterion for distinguishing between what is of permanent value in the Old Testament and what is not. The second questions whether contemporary knowledge has a monopoly on the truth and looks for insights in ancient and exotic cultures. The first runs the danger of reductionism; the second runs the danger of making the gulf between contemporary Western culture and ancient or so-called primitive cultures so wide that it becomes difficult to see how there can be any translation of ideas from the one to the other.
Was this article helpful?
Download this Guide and Discover How To Find And Monetize on Your Expertise And Strengths. Inside this special report, you'll discover: How positive thinking is one of the key factors in a successful life. Five ways and tools to help you stay positive. Use these to help you keep on track. Case studies that'll inspire you to stick to your dreams. Plus much, much more.