Religious Apologetics and the Loss of Narrative Reading

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The left-wing opponents of meditating and supernaturalist theology had of course to deny that these texts had to be read in this particular way, grounding religions in factual historical assertions. But mediating and left-wing parties were agreed that the criteria for what makes sense, as well as what can be religiously or morally significant, were general: whether or not the Bible provides us with reliable factual information, and whether or not this information is what the texts providing it are really all about, the Bible does not provide us with special canons by which religious ideas or claims become meaningful that wouldn't make sense in a wider context of meaning. It is no exaggeration to say that all across the theological spectrum the great reversal had taken place; interpretation was a matter of fitting the biblical story into another world with another story rather than incorporating thai world into the biblical storv.

No one who pretended to any sort of theology or religious reflection at all wanted to go counter to the "real" applicative meaning of biblical texts, once it had been determined what it was, even if one did not believe them on their own authority. Hence the right-wing and mediating theologians agreed that the New Testament made the affirmation about Jesus being Savior literally, and that it was to be understood that way (though this agreement did not always cover either the miracles he was reported to have performed or those with which he was purportedly associated, especially the virgin birth; nor, as we have noted, did it cover literal acceptance of such Old Testament accounts as the six-day creation or the fall, in the Book of Genesis). And those on the left of course denied that one either has to or can take this affirmation literally. Hence they denied th.it this is the real meaning of the texts, or they said it is impossible to find out from the texts the real shape of the occurrences to which they refer, e.g. what Jesus was really like or what he thought of himself, so that there is no way of checking the claim against the facts. Hence (once again) the texts must have meaning in some wav other than literal or factual.

But almost no one, left, right, or center, wanted to be in the position of affirming at the same time that Jesus as the unique, indispensable Savior is the explicative sense of the texts, and that this affirmation is irrelevant or of merely anachronistic interest. If one affirmed the

Messiahship of Jesus as the explicative sense of the story, one aiso affirmed it applicatively. If one denied this application one usually also denied it as the explicative sense. In this respect left-wing thinkers like Lessing and Strauss were apologists for the gospel narratives just as much as mediating or supernaturalist theologians: the explicative sense of the gospe! stories is finally not their reference to a literal Messiah; this is only the stage of historical consciousness they represent. Their outward form or their real explicative sense is more general and harmonizes with universal religion. To have claimed otherwise would have meant saying not only that the authority of the Bible for belief is gone, but also that this portion of the Bible makes no religious sense at all, or else that its explication may have no carry-over whatever to application. It would have suggested that the truth claim cannot be affirmed and, additionally, that what it means is clear, and it is something that cannot have a negatively or positively significant religious meaning for anybody today. This position was universally rejected among theologians and non-theologians. One either claimed that the texts really do mean what they state, that salvation comes through Jesus Christ alone and that this is a significant ana not an anachronistic statement; or else one said that this, taken literally, would be an insignificant statement and therefore cannot be what the texts mean. And so it has, by and large, remained to the present day among those who have thought about the matter.

The question is: Why should the possibility be ruled out that this is indeed the meaning of the texts, and that it may well be religiously anachronistic or at least without direct religious consequence for anyone today? At one level the answer is very simple: whereas historical criticism had had from its beginning a religiously neutral basis—no matter whether in fact any historian did, or for that matter can, keep his religious and moral convictions from interfering with the course and outcome of his investigations—the situation was very different in her-meneutics which was, as we have seen, apologetically implicated.

Certainly this was true for Protestant thought before the beginning of the period of our investigation, even though the cutting edge of the apologetics was different then, namely, to maintain against Roman Catholics that the Bible made sense (usually literal sense and/or figurative sense) without interpretive assistance either from the Church's magisterial office or from its accumulated doctrinal heritage. But it was true in a different sense in the eighteenth century. The specter now barely visible on the horizon was that important, indeed hitherto central portions of the Bible, no matter if they made referential sense, did not make abiding religious or moral sense at all, so that they are in effect really obsolete. And the accounts concerning Jesus as Messiah might be among these. What appeared, but not even sufficiently distinctly to be noticed by anyone but a few Deists who were mostly regarded as disgruntled cranks, was the suspicion that the accounts mean what they say, but that what they say is not only untrue or unverifiable but is an insignificant claim as well—except as an ancient superstition about miraculous and personal divine intervention. That is to say, for instance, that the texts concerning unique redemption exclusively through Jesus cannot (in the barbaric jargon of a twentieth-century school of theology) be demvthologized, because they have no other meaning than what they say. And what they say may no longer mean anything religiously significant. To explicate them properly is to erect a formidable barrier to any possible applicative sense. That was the impossible option which no thinker across the religious spectrum would have countenanced then or, for that matter, today.

With regard to the gospel narratives, the apologetic impulse from left to right meant that they could finally be interpreted only in two ways. Either their explicative and applicative meaning {for Super-naturalist and mediating theologians) is that of reference to Jesus as the Messiah in historical fact, or (for Rationalists and their successors) this is only their mythological form, their substance being something else, e.g. the presentation of the individual, paradigmatic form of a message about true human life as God intended it. This message is rendered byway of a shape of life and a teaching authentic in quality and so compelling in authority that to grasp this possibility, to understand anything about it, is identical with deciding for or against the message.

Now two options were automatically eliminated by this apologetically motivated disjunctive alternative. First, there was Reimarus's claim that the story means what it says and is a lie. But second, the disjunction eliminates the explication of these accounts as primarily "narrative"— that they tell a story of salvation, an inalienable ingredient of which is the rendering of Jesus as Messiah, and that whether or not he was so in historical fact, or thought of himself as Messiah (i.e. whether the story refers or not), or whether the notion of a Messiah is still a meaningful notion, are different questions altogether. To the "narrative" perspective, these latter questions would have to do not with meaning or hermeneu-rics but with an entirely separable historical and theological judgment Hermeneutically, it may well be the most natural thing to say that what these accounts are about is the story of Jesus the Messiah, even if there was no such person; or, if there was, he was not in fact the Messiah; and quite regardless of whether or not he (if he did exist) thought of himself as such; and regardless finally of the possible applicative significance of such a story and of the messianic concept to a modem context. Many elements may enter into the way a story makes sense, but its sheer narrative shape is an important and distinctive one which should not be confused with others—especially that of estimating its abiding religious meaning and that of assessing the narrative's cultural context or the reliability of the "facts" told in the story.

The apologetic urge from left to right, for which explication and application had to walk in harmony, was only one reason for the strange eclipse of the realistic narrative option in a situation in which many observers actually paid heed to that future. Hermeneutics stood between religious apologetics and historical criticism, and these two worked against the narrative option. The historical critics in particular were the beneficiaries of the definition of meaning as ostensive reference, an early triumph of which we observed in the conflict over the fulfillment of prophecy.

Unlike the religious apologist, the historian as such had no interest in applicative interpretation but only in explication. For the historian the meaning of historical or history-like statements is the spatio-temporal occurrences or conditions to which they refer. His business is to reconstruct the most likely course of these putative events or, if he finds evidence that there were none, to give credible historical explanations for the accounts having been written in their specific way. In the process he must appeal to the ordinary, i.e. nonmiraculous, experience of men, to the cultural conditions under which the accounts were written, to the most likely specific motives for writing them, to the process by which they came to be, and finally to any parallels he may discover to the specific writings he is analyzing. These are the explanatory' procedures one applies in rendering what counts as a satisfactory historical explanation. The explication of the statements is either their ostensive reference or a historical situation accounting for, and in turn illumined by, the statements. The real history of the biblical narratives in which the historian is interested is not what is narrated or the fruit of its narrative shape; rather, it is that to which the story refers or the conditions that substitute for such reference. In short, he is interested not in the text as such but in some reconstructive context to which the text "really" refers and which renders it intelligible.

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