Thursday, September 30, 2010

The End of Historical Criticism?

This is the focus of an essay on The Bible and Interpretation by Michael C. Legaspi (Phillips Academy) which is excerpted from his new book The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies (Oxford, 2010) in which he examines the rise of biblical studies as a discipline. Here is the description from Oxford Press.

In this book, Michael Legaspi examines the creation of the academic Bible. Beginning with the fragmentation of biblical interpretation in the centuries after the Reformation, Legaspi shows how the weakening of scriptural authority in the Western churches altered the role of biblical interpretation. In contexts shaped by skepticism and religious strife, interpreters increasingly approached the Bible as a text to be managed by critical tools. These developments prepared the way for scholars to formalize an approach to biblical study oriented toward the statist vision of the new universities and their sponsors.

And here are some excerpts from the essay.

For over a millennium, Western Christians read and revered the Christian Bible as Scripture, as an anthology of unified, authoritative writings belonging to the Church. The scriptural Bible was neither reducible to a written “text” nor intelligible outside a divine economy of meaning. It was not simply the foundation of the Church’s academic theology; it also furnished its moral universe, framed its philosophic inquiries, and fitted out its liturgies. It provided the materials for thought, expression, and action, becoming what Northrop Frye famously called the “great code” of Western civilization. As the book at the center of Western Christendom, the Bible functioned scripturally.

Modern biblical criticism is not a rival to the kind of religious faith once invested in confessional Bibles; it is a successor to it. Though we are in the unfortunate habit of equating biblical studies with “historical criticism,” a long view of the modern enterprise shows that its principal task was the post-confessional management of the Bible’s cultural authority—not the scientific analysis of its historical contexts.

But in our time, an age of low biblical literacy, diminished belief, and weakened religious commitment, there is less and less cultural authority for biblical scholars to manage—and, therefore, less reason for those still interested in the Bible to pay close attention to them. Those setting out on a journey look for guides not policemen. First-order questions now bear explicit examination. The question today is not ‘What is the real cultural valence of the Bible I grew up with?’ but rather, after the decline of Christendom and the long, slow deconversion of elite culture in the West, “Why have a Bible at all?”

To this question theologians no doubt have differing answers. Historical critics, I fear, have no answer at all.

Has anyone read this book yet?


  1. I have not but it sounds extremely interesting.

  2. This goes on the list. His conclusions seem to point to a bleaker future in terms of Scriptural influence - a sort of deconstruction and absorption I think.