What is biblical criticism? Part I

What is Biblical Criticism?

If you read a book on biblical criticism, you are likely going to be confronted with a large number of terms which describe various types of biblical criticism. For example, I just finished reading To Each its Own Meaning, which dedicates one chapter each to different types of criticism. Here are the chapter titles: source criticism, form criticism, tradtion-historical criticism, redaction criticism, social-scientific criticism, canonical criticism, rhetorical criticism, structural criticism, narrative criticism, reader-response criticism, poststructuralist criticism, feminist criticism, and socioeconomic criticism. That’s a lot of criticism! As I read the book I started looking for commonalities; why can so many things be called criticism? I think they all share three basic assumptions regarding epistemology, univocality/multivocality, and methodology.

The epistemology that they share is that the neither ecclesiastical authority nor tradition are valid grounds for claiming that a particular interpretation is valid. In place of tradition and ecclesiastical authority Biblical critics substitute Enlightenment values of good reasoning combined with empirical evidence. It’s no coincidence that biblical criticism started in earnest in the late 18th century, at the height of the Enlightenment.

Related to rejecting ecclesiastical authority and tradition, biblical criticism also rejected another assumption that all churches up to that point shared in common, that the Bible was univocal. With few exceptions all church theology before the Enlightenment assumed that the Bible spoke with one voice, that there was an overarching theme and set of unconflicting teachings that one could derive from the Bible. Of course each church read the Bible differently and came to different conclusions, but most people assumed that “we read the Bible right, everyone else reads it wrong.” No one seemed to suspect or believe that the Bible itself might contain differing opinions, teachings, and outright contraditions. Tradition, allegorical readings, and just plain ignoring stuff one didn’t like smoothed over problems and allowed people to continue to believe the Bible was univocal. Biblical criticism takes a different route. It allows for the possibility that the Bible contains lots of differences. The differences might or not be reconcilable, but they are always important to biblical critics and provide some of the sharpest and best clues to try and understand the Bible. By allowing the Bible to disagree with itself biblical critics are able in many instances to provide clear and compelling readings of the Bible, readings which are lost when one attempts to read the Bible as a unified whole.

Methodologies for reading the Bible are not new inventions of the biblical critics, they simply use different methodologies than did interpreters in the past. In ancient readings of scripture there were allegorical methodologies, monastic methodologies, scholastic methodologies, etc. These methodologies used in the past were every bit as rigorous as modern methodologies, so one can’t claim that biblical critics are somehow more rigorous or smarter than past biblical interpreters. Methodologies, both past and present, are related to one’s commitments to epistemological and univocal/multivocal assumptions. For example scholastic methodology was a response to people realizing that ecclesiastical authorities (including the Bible) conflicted with each other. This of course was a bad thing because it was foundational that they could not conflict. Scholasticism was developed to figure a way out of the mess. In some cases scholastics showed that the conflicts were only apparent, in others they provided a mediating position which reconciled authorities in conflict, and most drastically in some cases they had to concede that there was a conflict. In those cases one authority was taken to be superior to the other in a particular matter (and therefore correct) which led to a ranking of authorities. However, the Bible was always at the top and the univocality of the Bible was maintained at the expense of any other authority.

Current methodologies try and reinforce good reasoning, in light of empirical evidence, and allow for multivocality in the the Bible. A good summary of current methodologies might be to say that each reads the Bible using the same tools and techniques that one would use in reading any other book. In fact, many of the methodologies, such as source criticism and narrative criticism, are stolen from others fields. Others rely heavily on conclusions imported from other fields, such as social-scientific criticism. Each methodology has different goals and procedures, but each supports and reinforces the basic assumptions of modern biblical criticism.

I plan on doing more posts on biblical criticism in the near future. I will probably write two more this week where we can all dip our feet in the waters of biblical criticism, and it will be in keeping with the Christmas season. However I wanted to end by asking some questions. Has anyone ever seen these assumptions applied to LDS scriptures (apologetics does not count here)? What prospects are there for applying these assumptions to LDS scriptures? Is it possible to do this publicly while remaining a member in good standing?

Part 2

7 Replies to “What is biblical criticism? Part I”

  1. Hermeneutics in general got their start with Biblical criticism. There was always a pretty interesting interplay between scriptural hermeneutics, legal thought, and general hermeneutics perhaps culminating in the philosophical hermeneutics of the 30’s through the 60’s.

  2. Just to add, despite your asking not to mention apologetics, I do think there are lots of good examples of these assumptions in apologetics. Unfortunately there really isn’t in the LDS tradition a genre of general scriptural analysis that isn’t at least partially raising the issue of apologetics. Well, there’s devotional literature but we can ignore that for now. The only example of “rigorous” scriptural hermeneutics that has no apologetics tends to be the more critical naturalistic readings that one finds in writings by folks like David P. Wright or others.

    If one rejects the “even a little drop of apologetics contaminates the whole” then I think you can find a lot of interesting stuff. One I like is Richard Rust’s Feast Upon the Word.

  3. Clark,

    You are correct that there has been a give and take between philosophical hermeneutics and more applied biblical hermeneutics over time. I think this may have been more productive in the past than now.

    As just one example, Derrida is a name that is thrown about, but I am pretty sure that most biblical types get their Derrida via literary types. That is they don’t go read Derrida and all of the associated philosophical background one needs to understand what Derrida is saying, nor do they deal with criticisms of Derrida. The reason for this is obvious, one would have to spend years reading most of the European and Anglo-American philosophical traditions for the past 250 years to really “get” Derrida, which is just plain impossible to do along with acquiring the necessary knowledge of biblical language and cultures. Hence, I stay away from Derrida, I don’t know enough about him, nor do I have the time to acquire the info I need. From what little I do know about him, I have to believe that most people really have no idea what he is up to, and this includes most literary types. I.e. there is Derrida and then there is Derrida simplified through the American literary establishment. I fear most biblical interpreters when they speak of Derrida are speaking about the latter, not the former.

  4. Clark, I noticed that Richard Rust gave a favorable review of James Duke’s more recent book: The Literary Masterpiece Called the Book of Mormon. Have either of you looked into that book, and if so, do you have an opinion of it?

  5. David while I agree with what you say about Derrida I think he’s a more minor figure. I was more thinking of people like Gadamer.

  6. Just to note. I said Gadamer but he’s more the 50’s and 60’s. For someone who goes up through the 80’s I’d say Ricouer is pretty influential especially in Biblical studies. In more philosophical/theological aspects you have the rise of the so called theological turn in French philosophy. While Derrida was definitely a part of that and it definitely influenced many theologians (and thus indirectly Biblical studies) I don’t think you can say it has the problems you mentioned. (Which I largely agree with) However the more interesting effect on Biblical studies was less Deconstruction or even post-structuralism and related movements than the more general hermeneutics approach. In a way it’s the culmination of what Biblical studies had ushered in during the 19th century. Add in semiotics which encompasses both hermeneutics and poststructuralism and I think there’s a lot of interesting work done.

    Now one can dispute how much this effects the kind of readings most people notice. But I think it’s indisputable there has been a major influence. I think Pauline studies in particular have benefitted from these movements. Even in the Jewish tradition I’ve noticed a lot of interplay between Biblical hermeneutics and philosophical hermeneutics. (Someone expected given the place of Levinas) I think philosophical hermeneutics really moved readings forward over the rather (IMO) simplistic structuralist readings common in the first half of the 20th century (and that I think in the LDS tradition are characteristic of Nibley and some that mimic his style)

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