Challenges To The Historical Approach

Not surprisingly, such an outcome of the reign of the historical method has been detrimental in the eyes of many. Where people have looked to biblical scholarship for spiritual guidance, disappointment has been unavoidable. Predictably, the dominant position of the historical approach has been challenged from various quarters: conservative theology, pastoral psychology, contextual theology, and literary criticism.

Conservative theologians have stressed the alleged theological unity of the two Testaments and striven towards a canonical, pan-biblical theology (Childs 1992; Stuhlmacher 1992). The enterprise has required them to iron out obvious differences not only between the Testaments but also within each one. Stuhlmacher demands that 'agreement' with the text be included among the guiding principles of historical criticism, but such a requirement runs counter to the rules of sound scholarship which must never let its hands be bound in advance. It is absurd to require that one should always 'agree' with the text one is treating. None of those who make such claims for the study of the Bible would plead for the same programme, say, in the study of the Koran, nor would they apply it to all books of the Bible itself (say, Leviticus). An attempt to set a 'new paradigm' for biblical study was made in the

1970s by Walter Wink who opened his programmatic booklet with the claim that 'historical biblical criticism is bankrupt' (Wink 1973:1). This statement is often quoted out of context. Wink used 'bankrupt' in the exact sense of the term, making it clear that we are 'not holding a wake'. A bankrupt business 'is not valueless, nor incapable of producing useful products'. The only thing wrong is 'that it is no longer able to accomplish its avowed purpose for existence'. Historical criticism of the Bible is, Wink claims, 'incapable of achieving what most of its practitioners considered its purpose to be: so to interpret the Scriptures that the past becomes alive and illumines our present with new possibilities for personal and social transformation'. But it is precisely the issue, whether this should be considered the purpose of historical study of the Bible (rather than, say, the purpose of some branch of practical theology). If one practises exegesis 'seeking insights about living', one is likely to be disappointed.

Wink intentionally blends the historical task of exegesis with that of contemporary application in sermons and workshops. His Jungian approach is a valuable tool in therapeutic group work. But it transcends the realm which exegesis may meaningfully inhabit to ask (in connection with Mark 2), Who is the 'paralytic' in you? (Answers: 'It is the way I've been over-academized', 'the suppressed power I have as a woman', etc.; Wink 1973:56.) These are valuable applications, but it is hard to see what the gain would be if historical exegesis were replaced by this kind of internalizing. By contrast, there is no reason why work with the Bible should necessarily stop at the historical level. But a division of labour between the historian and the pastor (who need not be two different persons) would clarify the task of each. It is not the task of historical exegesis any more than it can be the task of Church history to 'enable personal and social transformation' (ibid.: 61), though exegesis can well serve as an incentive for such transformation. Still, it is quite possible that insights reached at the level of application will in turn enrich the historical work in that they suggest questions to be asked and possibilities of interpretation to be explored. These questions, however, can also imply criticisms of the texts. It is not just that the texts can enable transformation; personal transformation may also presuppose a liberation from the grip of some texts through a critical confrontation with them, say, in a therapeutic group.

Many biblical interpreters in the Third World find likewise that historical exegesis does not answer their questions. High expectations are indeed directed to exegesis, if 'the quest for the historical Jesus lies not only in finding the truth about the man of Nazareth, but also in fighting for the truth that will liberate mankind' (Sugirtharajah 1991b: 436). But the problematic nature of such expectations is pointedly disclosed when the same interpreter states: 'The primary concern of an interpreter lies not only in transforming social inequalities.. .but also in bringing racial and religious harmony among peoples of different faiths' (Sugirtharajah 1991a: 363). These goals are admirable, but, ironically, it is very hard to find the ideal of inter-religious harmony in the Bible which is rather militant with regard to non-biblical faiths. Moreover, in trying to demonstrate the liberating character of Jesus' mission, Third World theologians easily fall into the old trap of Christian triumphalism, painting the Jewish society of Jesus' time in very dark colours as the 'background' against which the liberating message shines forth. The consequences to which this approach has led in history should by now ring a warning bell.

The Asian theologian S.J.Samartha who makes a strong plea for interfaith dialogue also criticizes traditional attempts to establish a direct correspondence between our situation and the situations of biblical writers speaking of other religions. Such assumptions, he says, forget the gap between past and present (Samartha 1991:43). This is an interesting criticism, for it runs counter to the assertions of Third World theologians like Sugirtharajah who see in the postulation of such a gap the original sin of historical method (Sugirtharajah 1991b: 436). Yet when it comes to a fair assessment of non-Christian religions, it is Asian theologians themselves who point out the gap and in the interest of an earnest dialogue in effect relativize the biblical message which seems, on this issue, to be based on too limited experience of life (Samartha 1991:43). It would seem quite helpful to distinguish between historical elucidation of the Bible and contemporary theological attempts to relate Christian experience to non-Christian experience. The same, of course, applies to feminist theology: being a thoroughly patriarchal book, the Bible offers little that is directly of help to feminist concerns; feminists are bound to read the texts with a critical eye, among other things by locating them as closely as possible in their social settings. In this, historical criticism with a social-scientific flavour is indispensable.

Though some liberation theologians tend to establish straightforward analogies between ancient and modern situations, others find them problematic. Clodovis Boff (1991:33) frankly states that the relationship with Scripture 'ought to tend more to the acquisition of a hermeneutic habitus than to immediate practical applications', in effect approximating a division of labour between historical work and present-day application.

Liberation theology, however, would be impossible without historical criticism of the Bible. It is precisely a historical—critical interpretation, to be sure an interpretation informed by a certain kind of social-scientific analysis (Norman Gottwald's interpretation of the origins of Israel), on which it is built. For it is clear—the point is made by many liberation theologians themselves—that not all of the Bible is liberationist, though parts of it are. An additional problem is that the historicity of the main 'liberating' events praised in the Old Testament has become very suspect; this kind of contextual theology then faces problems similar to those which eventually undermined the once-popular 'biblical theology' of the 'God who acts' type. What liberation theology needs is a selective attitude to the Bible, though some of its exponents are reluctant to admit this. Again, it is hard to see what is gained by fusing the historical task with the application; distinguishing between the two levels of interpretation would seem very helpful precisely from the point of view of contextual theology.

Perhaps the most formidable challenge to the historical approach comes from the side of literary criticism. Under this umbrella a rich variety of approaches can be assembled, such as structuralist analysis, rhetorical criticism, narrative criticism, reader-response criticism, even deconstructionist criticism. Their growth is often perceived as a paradigm shift designed to render the historical approach obsolete. Others feel that they should be accommodated to the old paradigm to sharpen its focus yet again. If it turns out that these new approaches cannot be integrated with the historical paradigm, the outcome can hardly be the death of the latter. Rather, one would then have to reckon with two (or more) quite different approaches to the biblical texts, each legitimate in itself, each capable of handling one type of question and incapable of handling others. They would not be in competition with each other, because they would fulfil different functions.

The new methods are not without inherent problems of their own, though. In their 'holistic passion' (Malbon 1992:35) they tend to assume a priori that texts like the Gospels are coherent wholes of 'one cloth'. Their practitioners are also inclined towards an uncritical admiration of the literary accomplishment of the evangelists. They duplicate the exaggerations of some redaction critics on a slightly different level: whereas the former saw Mark as a very subtle and sophisticated theologian, literary critics tend to conceive of him as a masterly story-teller. Narrative critics are, as any interpreter should be, often eager to know as much as possible about the cultural contexts of the texts; yet they claim to be wary of 'interpretations based on elements external to the narrative' (Malbon 1992:28). It is not at all clear how these two aims could be served at the same time, and, in fact, narrative critics do resort to 'external' elements, often in an uncritical modernizing manner at that (for instances see Raisanen 1990b: 14-37, especially 34f). Moreover, the enthusiasm for 'rhetorical persuasion' covers up the possibility that all kinds of ends can be reached through efficient rhetoric; rhetorical skill does not remove but enhances the need for a critical scrutiny of the message.

If ahistorical readings avoid such shortcomings, they are fine as far as they go; yet they do not go very far. If one sticks to story worlds, one will end up with a dozen or more New Testament story worlds. Yet 'nagging questions about the truth and value of realities envisaged in the Bible, refined as they are by sensitive readings, rightly continue to haunt the reader' (Davies 1990:405). With respect to the relation between exegesis and theology, the replacement of the historical method through a set of ahistorical ones would not solve anything, for Christian theology has been fundamentally concerned with historical matters. It is in this area that many of its burning problems lie and it will not help simply to brush the issues aside. It is possible (and in my view, desirable) that historical issues may eventually be found to be insignificant, but this amounts to such a major shift in theology itself that it should not take place without a thorough wrestling with the issues.

From the point of view of theology, then, literary criticism tends to confirm the pluralistic picture already painted by redaction criticism. For instance, Matthew can be seen as a 'resisting reader' of Mark's Gospel; 'the Gospels are far more in competition with each other than is commonly suspected' (Fowler 1992:79, 81). These insights of reader-response criticism—actually a new version of the insights of redaction criticism—may still be of some direct help in preaching, for a preacher can concentrate on one text—and thus on one narrative world—at a time. He or she can be greatly stimulated by studying Matthew's way of wrestling with Mark's text. Theology, by contrast, is concerned with the question of how the different text worlds hang—or do not hang—together. Separate narrative worlds may well be juxtaposed in 'Introductions' to the books that together make up the New Testament. But they will not answer questions about the religious and theological convictions which lie behind the different narratives, and it is these that are the ultimate concern of theology. 'Worlds' other than the narrative world are at least as relevant for the task of the interpreter: the 'real world' in which the author lived, and both his own and his community's 'symbolic world' (the shared values, ideals and convictions that gave coherence to their world-view and are in many ways reflected also in the narrative world; see Syreeni 1990:126-32).

It is hard to avoid the suspicion that ahistorical approaches are sometimes cherished because one wishes to get rid of problems connected with the foundations of a religion which claims to be firmly grounded in history. Some narrative critics may choose an ahistorical approach because of a religiously based fear of such critical issues, while others may find theological questions simply uninteresting. Ahistorical work may, paradoxically, offer a ground on which fundamentalists and secularists can meet, the price paid being that it fails to ask the questions most pressing to those who stand somewhere inbetween.

There is one challenge, however, that will undoubtedly stay: that of ideological criticism. It asks about the interests behind the texts which are viewed as ideological documents that serve some particular group. While such a criticism is not new in itself, 'what is new is the emphasis on the partisanship of every text' and on the demand to press beyond mere description of the ideology of the texts to a critique of it. This orientation to the texts has both a historical and an ahistorical dimension, and so may represent a new alliance between the historical and the literary approaches to biblical studies.

(Clines 1993:84).

This kind of criticism has so far been more practised in Old Testament study, but it should prove fruitful in New Testament studies as well. It has been applied to the New Testament in the form of feminist criticism. It can be applied to other issues as well. Philip Esler's studies on 'legitimation' as a Lukan concern could serve as an example: Luke legitimates Jewish—Gentile table-fellowship by radically re-writing the history of early Christianity relating to this subject (Esler 1987:107). In other New Testament books too, strategies used to legitimate practical decisions can be found. Paul's complex discussions of the law can be seen as attempts to account for the decision to abandon the concrete demands of the Torah while simultaneously trying to uphold some continuity with it. A sound interpretation must not adopt Paul's position a priori, but must try to do justice to different positions (such as those of his more conservative critics) as well (see Raisanen 1992a: 267-77).

The net effect of an ideological—critical approach will be 'to relativize the biblical text and make it less malleable to theological reconstruction' to a greater degree than mere historical criticism has been able to do.

When the partisan character of the biblical texts is more extensively uncovered. theology is going to have to come to terms with a Bible far different from the confessional document preserved by 'believing communities' and then by the church. It is going to have to busy itself with a tendentious document that says what it says not because it is true but because it paid to say so. And the Bible may become, under those conditions, what it always should have been—the object of theological (or ideological) scrutiny rather than, in some sense, its source or guide.

(Clines 1993:85f.)

It could well be that the most interesting prospects for biblical studies lie precisely in reading against the grain of the texts, in bringing to bear on our texts our own cultural and historical and personal positions, and in evaluating the texts against the hundred and one yardsticks that the pluralist world of international biblical scholarship will inevitably suggest.

The challenges to the historical approach, then, do not endanger the relevance of the historical approach to the New Testament nor do they allow theology to circumvent that approach in considering what to do with the Bible. Study of religion must be distinguished from the acting out of religion. Assessed realistically, historical—biblical scholarship may be able to sketch a picture of 'how it all began'. Knowing from where we come may aid us in orienting ourselves to where we are now, but the yield is bound to be very indirect.

But it is not the case that exegetes should act as new popes who determine which application of the Bible is right and which is wrong. It might be claimed that the exegete only has 'the right of veto', the right to protest if an application seems to distance itself too much from the range of possible original meanings. Ideological criticism adds the possibility of a moral veto, opening up a wide range of possibilities for constructive theology in critical confrontation with the texts.

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