Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Is Historical Criticism Damaging to Faith?

This was a question that I was asked to explore a couple of years ago in This Rock magazine. The question was posed for me again this weekend, and it happens that I am re-reading Henri de Lubac's Medieval Exegesis right now and thinking about this difficulty. I won't bore you with the whole argument (again, I refer you to what I have written earlier), but I have this observation to share for today.

In a discussion of the evolution of the term disputatio from an explanation of a difficult point in the Scriptures into a debating point for scholastic theologians and philosophers, de Lubac notes that the goal of early exegesis was to tease out the harmony of the one Spirit and one Faith from what had the appearance of discordance.

"How many passages there were, it seemed, that were 'so different as to be mutually contradictory'! This being the case, it became necessary to show that their differences were not irreducibly 'discordant,' that in reality they were, according to the received formula, 'different but not contradictory'..." (M.E. p. 60)

Thus we have the intense work of allegorical interpretation to bring the meaning of the Old Testament into clear accord with the New, and the ancient genre of gospel 'harmonies'. While non-Christians (Celsus comes to mind) ridiculed the Scriptures for these discrepancies, in the Middle Ages, this was seen as:

"An inexhaustible stimulant to thought: 'There is no discordant note in the way these matters are worded, but our intellectual enthusiasm for researching them is kindled, just as if they were in fact discordant' [Julian of Toledo]." (ibid.)

Now at first glance, the methodology of historical criticism seems to be flatly opposed to this process of harmonization. In particular, source criticism--the technique of examining postulated pre-existent sources behind the final editing of the book we have now--is based almost entirely on discerning contradictions in the text and using them as evidence of two or more sources. Most famously, the two 'different' creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2 are taken as coming from the Priestly source (chapter 1) and the Jahwist source (chapter 2). More problematic, and from this same impulse, is the effort to determine the ipsissima verba, the most verifiably true statements of the Jesus of history. How would we, at 2000 years distance, know that there are things in the gospels that Jesus did not actually say? We would look for sayings that seemed not to harmonize with what happened, plausibly, in Jesus' lifetime. Perhaps the most famous example in this case is Matthew 18: 15-20, in which the Lord says that if a sinner refuses to listen to two or three witnesses, "tell it to the church." Now, say those who are looking for sources other than the Lord, surely the church did not yet exist, and (crucially) Jesus 'must not have intended' to found a church, and so this must be an example of the early church shoring up its authority by a post-resurrection appeal to Jesus.

In any case, the enterprise rests on an effort to tease out more discordance.

These efforts can easily lead to a frame of mind in which one is habitually skeptical about the coherence of the Biblical witness, and I think that the Church has rightly warned about the dangers of this method. I wouldn't offer this sort of scholarship to persons who are wavering in faith (or whose faith is simple), nor I dare say, is this the sort of scholarship that prepares one to preach, unless it be supplemented by the work that de Lubac is highlighting, the work of demonstrating the truth of the Faith, which implies its coherence.

That said, might it not be possible that the enterprise of historical criticism might not ultimately lead, in Julian of Toledo's words to new apparent discords so that 'our intellectual enthusiasm for researching them is kindled, just as if they were in fact discordant'? If the more obvious difficulties present in Scripture served as a spur to the great Fathers like Origen, Jerome and Augustine to practice ingenious spiritual exegesis, might not the new difficulties produced by honest scholarly effort lead to a new generation of great spiritual exegetes?

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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