Strange Bedfellows: Fundamentalism and Historical Criticism

Fundamentalist Christianity grew up around the turn of the 20th century, primarily as a reaction to liberal Christianity, critical biblical studies, and scientific challenges to religion. Though it is often characterized as an opposite to these three cultural trends, numerous studies have show how fundamentalism is actually very much rooted to Enlightenment rationality. This same paradigm is also operative in critical biblical studies. A brief comparison shows how both fundamentalism and critical biblical studies actually share a number of assumptions:

1) Both take the Bible literally, that it means what it says
2) Both take the same view of a linear, fixed history which is discoverable
3) Both insist upon coherence and consistency as criteria of truth
4) Both say that the text has one meaning
5) Both identify the “original” meaning as the true meaning

(Of course, there are significant differences as well, including the value of belief and skepticism, the value of harmonization, the issue of inerrancy, etc., but even these show how much both views hold in common. They are not just the mirror image of each other, but also share the same structural logic.)

It seems to me that each of these assumptions is deeply problematic. All of them have been radically critiqued and modified in literary, historiographical, and philosophical discussions. The issue here is where Mormonism does (and should) situate itself with regard to both approaches. In my view, neither is ultimately satisfying intellectually nor does either one really fit with how I was taught to read the scriptures growing up. What, then, are the assumptions and goals of Mormon scripture reading, and what should they be? Where do we find common ground? Perhaps I am incorrect in my assessment and actually Mormonism shares in these same Enlightenment assumptions. Are we all as okay with giving up these assumptions as I am?

7 Replies to “Strange Bedfellows: Fundamentalism and Historical Criticism”

  1. Um, off the top of my head I’m not sure what’s wrong with numbers 2 and 3. The other three don’t seem to fit well with the way we Mormons read the scriptures. And I definitely don’t personally see them that way (although I do really like trying to get down to the original idea).

    I’m not sure what the assumptions and goals of most LDS are when they read the scriptures, I’m not sure that any broad descriptions would be accurate. As for what they should be, I’ve tried sharing this with people before but almost no one agrees with me so I don’t know that I’m terribly qualified to tackle that subject.

  2. #4 is incorrect with regard to modern Biblical studies.

    On edit: #4 and #5 are inaccurate. While they might have been true at one time, they no longer characterize the field now.

  3. TT, great points. When reading 19th-century Mormon history, the only people who impose these criteria (and nearly the only people who rely on any of them) are antagonistic to Mormon truth claims. Why should we be more open to insights from multiple hermeneutics in our approach to recent sacred history than in our treatment of ancient sacred history?

  4. LXX,
    The problem with #2 is that “history” is depicted as a set of discrete events which are related by cause and effect. While there is certainly some amount of history that can be recounted this way, in actuality, history is a much more complicated affair. Even the story of our own individual lives cannot be accounted for by means of a reductionistic explanation, let alone complex historical phenomena.

    The problem with #3 is that consistency and coherency rarely exist in literature, and never in good literature. The historical critical view authors have only one voice requires a degree of consistency that is unrealistic (that said, I consent to the vast majority of source critical conclusions). Fundamentalist readings insist that the Bible is by definition consistent, which leads to some rather forced readings. Of course, the antithesis of consistency and coherency is not nonsense, but depth.

    Just noticed your edit… I agree with you to a certain extent. I think that very few people would admit that they think that there is only one meaning or that the original meaning is the best (or only) meaning because they have absorbed the language of the critique, but I think that in my judgment few have absorbed the spirit of the critique. Many biblical scholars say that they don’t think that there is only one meaning, but in practice they act as if there were.

    You make an interesting point. I agree completely. Some have suggested that Mormon appeals to post-modern (I know, Clark hates this word, but he just has to get over it. It is still quite operative in the academy) epistemologies are self-serving. There may be something to this, but I think (or hope, rather) that LDS intellectual work of the next generation will be able to work through these issues more fully.

  5. Interesting post, I think it is indeed insightful to think about Fundamentalism as a reaction to early historical-critical scholarship, though I confess it’s harder for me to think about meaningful impact in the reverese direction.

    If you get a chance, Jim F. just posted something somewhat related on Mormon hermeneutics here.

  6. Sorry I’m a latecomer to this, but this is a great post if for no other reason than that it points out the wider world of interpretation in the face of a historical-critical ‘hegemony’. So often the debates are characterized as “fundamentalist vs. historian”, when there are so many ways of reading that don’t even play on the same board.

    I was at a conference recently that brought up this very thing–that Bible scholars (whom I generally put on the historical-critical side of things), much like fundamentalists, are concerned to control the range of acceptable interpretations and to marginalize (de facto if not de jure) those whose work puts them outside such a range. I’m not sure that this is an accurate characterization (I’m probably playing right into the paradigm) but I think the observation is keen. I think, as you rightly say, TT, that the great irony is that if these two “camps” structurally related, they sure haven’t recognized it, but rather have been fighting over territory for a long time.

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