Thursday, December 30, 2010

Is historical criticism a great enemy of preaching?

Anyone who has sat through a graduate/seminary level biblical studies class has invariably experienced a conflict between what they are being told about the Bible and what they were taught about the Bible through preaching. And as we become more and more familiar with the conclusions of higher biblical criticism, it sometimes becomes difficult to listen to preachers or even, perhaps, to be preachers ourselves. Our sources of knowledge seem to be at variance with one another.

My students will often ask me: "what the heck am I supposed to do with the text now that you have deconstructed it"? That is an excellent question which I am not sure that I always give the best answer. It will probably be a lifelong struggle for all of us.

Walter Brueggemann is an example of one who lives in both worlds. He is a biblical critic, but also an outstanding preacher who brings life to the Bible. One of my students, Ryan Gear, has posted a short clip in which Brueggemann suggests that historical criticism has become the enemy of preaching since it makes imagination impossible because it flattens the text by way of explanation. He suggests that preachers should value historical criticism, but put it in its place and move beyond it.

What do you think? Is historical criticism an enemy of preaching? Can the two reside and work together? Or, are they so at odds with one another that they are, in the words of Longfellow, "Two ships that pass in the night"?

How, if at all, do you incorporate the knowledge of historical criticism in your preaching and teaching?


  1. I'm not a preacher but the shelves of my library are filled with books on biblical criticism (liberal, moderate, and conservative), and I also try to read my Bible daily, and do consider it to be the Word of God.

    I'll explain why I don't find the "two worlds" to be all that troubling, and why I think it ought not to be that troubling to preachers.

    When I read the Bible, I'm asking myself questions like "What is the message or meaning of this passage?", "What is this story saying about God and my relationship to Him?", "What does this say about my relationship to others?", etc. I'm looking for a spiritual truth, a source of moral conviction or challenge, or even comfort.

    In contrast to historical criticism for instance, when in that mode, I'm not asking myself "Did Jesus really raise Lazarus from the dead?". I'm trying to understand what the message/meaning of that story is. Unless we assume that God's primary intent in the Scripture is to reveal historical truth, I don't know why whether or not such passages are revealing *historical* truth is even important to the way the average church-goer reads the Bible. Even though they may indeed believe in the historicity of these passages, I honestly doubt the issue even crosses their mind. Every church-going believer that I know is reading the Bible in this mode that I describe. We believe God was in Christ, and how did he teach? Jesus was not a historian. He taught in parables, hyperbole, proverbs, etc. The point was to heed the message in his words, and respond to the calling.

    That is not to say historical, and all other forms of criticism, can't better help us appreciate the meaning of the passage. I certainly believe they can and do. But if modern history tells us this or that event did not occur, was exaggerated, redacted heavily, created de novo, etc. - why assume that the Spirit is constrained by the methods of modern historiography? Even modern people find more meaning in a poem or a fictional movie than they do a dry historical account.

  2. How can biblical criticism be incorporated in a positive way, to aid in articulating the spiritual teachings of the scripture? Simply by enhancing our understanding of the text (revealing socio-historical context, literary technique, nuances of language, etc.).

  3. I refer to:
    My students will often ask me: "what the heck am I supposed to do with the text now that you have deconstructed it?"

    The term "deconstruct" has now become a popular synonym for "take/pull apart syntactic bones and semantic flesh." Here is, arguably, a good definition of deconstruction (I found somewhere, I forget where):

    why did the chicken cross the road:

    Any number of contending discourses may be
    discovered within the act of the chicken crossing the road, and each interpretation is equally valid as the authorial intent can never be discerned.

    In a nutshell, deconstruction is the subversion of the text, where some versions are more sub than others, depending upon where you want to stand on the ladder of detraction.

  4. Alex,

    I my approach is similar to your own. But what I discover is that many people are not able to seperate history from theology. If they conclude that Lazarus was not raised from the dead, they find it difficult to discover the theology.

    I agree that many (most?) people in the pew don't think about this, although I suspect more have these questions than are willing to admit it. But it is pastors where this intersection of preaching and the higher critical method becomes a problem. Many are unsure how to negotiate the two.

  5. Both my husband and I agree on this topic. We save the historical criticism for Bible Study in our church...and preach "inspirationally" to the congregation on Sunday.

    Why? Because we want to move our church in a direction of RELIANCE on the Holy Spirit and Spiritual Growth. We feel that in our congregation the parishioners need to be inspired. Many of them have lost jobs and are struggling to find new ones. To preach on the historical criticism of Lazarus would not be enhancing their walk with Jesus...just their knowledge of the Word.

    This is why we separate the two. In our church people need the Lord, truly and utterly. They need that hope for tomorrow and their hope to be solid in Jesus. It is for this reason that historical criticism is reserved for Bible Study...for those people who want to know more and grow spiritual in the historical analysis and theology. Often our Bible Study is based on the current weeks' sermon. So on Wednesday night our parishioners get the theology, history, and analysis of the text....while on Sunday they get the Word of God in an inspirational manner.

    For us and our church, this seems to work the best.

  6. I will have to watch Walter B's video later, but it is my sense that in the discussion above we have failed to define things at various levels. We must first ask what is the purpose of historical criticism, and what is the purpose of preaching? Are the two mutually exclusive, or in inherent contradiction? Since both of these tasks are socially constructed concepts, there is nothing inherent or intrinsic about either of them. Therefore, there can be no inherent contradiction...only a conflict between how a particular individual carries out each of these tasks. My initial feeling is that they are not in conflict, at least not how I see the purpose of each task. HIstorical criticism is not about deconstruction, but about exploring the construction of a text. Preaching is about inspiring the audience (congregation) to worship and serve God, as well as "live in a manner worthy of the calling they received." My studies (while certainly not extensive) of the Bible using historical-critical means have only enhanced my understanding, appreciation, and enthusiasm for the text, the stories, the people, and the historical background of God's word. While some of the results of my studies have challenged, contradicted, and changed some of my previously held views on certain topics (e.g., the nativity story), this has in no way made me less inspired to live out Jesus' commission.
    Some of the views above exhibit false dichotomies. For instance, why is there a need to separate history from theology? It seems to me that theology is reliant upon history. John's comments seem to parallel William Dever's sentiments (see What did the Biblical Writers know and When Did They Know it?), that there can be separate, and apparently conflicting empirical, historical, moral, and theological truths. If Lazarus was not raised from the dead, and the theological truth that is supposed to be drawn from the text is that (I'm going off the cuff here) God is powerful enough to bring people back to is the theological truth even possible if Lazarus was not raised from the dead (granting that the author(s) of that story really intended to portray and believed themselves that Lazarus was actually brought back to life)? Paul's sentiments, that we are quite the fools if Jesus was not raised, seems to speak clearly in this case.
    In any case, deep, historically based study of Scripture should enhance one's ability to affect people with truth about God and about the Gospel.

  7. Yeah, I think I missed the real force of the issue presented. I can only imagine how difficult that is as a preacher, simply because so many people have grown attached to a very simple and extremely conservative view of what the text is, and is about. My pastor would probably get boo'ed off the podium if he pronounced that a certain portion of the Bible was mythological. I go to an extremely conservative Church of Christ (which I really love), and I was shocked to find out one day, in personal conversation, that my pastor did not think the book of Jonah was historical. And I thought then that most people in our congregation weren't ready to hear that.

  8. Jason wrote: If Lazarus was not raised from the dead, and the theological truth that is supposed to be drawn from the text is that...God is powerful enough to bring people back to is the theological truth even possible if Lazarus was not raised from the dead..."

    Alex: Granted that you're going off the cuff, I think there's obviously much more theological import to the Lazarus story than that, and, in fact, that probably is not the point of the passage. Jews already knew and believed that, had OT examples of it, and it is also redundant (and distracting) in light of Jesus' own resurrection.

    But even if that is the theological truth, why would that be a problem if it was a story to illustrate the point? Is God less gracious because the prodigal son was just a parable?

    Note that I honestly don't have a problem with Jesus actually having raised Lazarus. My stance is that, even if it is simply a theological invention, it really wouldn't (or ought not) affect the way the average believer reads the text. We're still looking to get at the spiritual message of the passage when reading the Scripture, as Christians.

    Further, I think it is entirely consistent to say that the story of Lazarus is not historical, but is still true. See Dale Allison's recent lectures and writings on this. Peter steps out of the boat and sinks in Matthew. Alot of scholars think Matthew just added that in. The whole episode gives us a picture of Peter that is very consistent with his character in Mark though. So it is true in that sense.

    Even further, I think we could even still believe that Jesus literally raised Lazarus from the dead, but yet say "It is not historical." That is to say - it cannot be verified using the tools of history. The tools of history can only go so far. And as far as I know, it was never a tenet of Christianity (though some scholars advocate this) that we only believe the Gospel if modern history can verify it. For God to make His message to mankind *solely* dependent upon the fallible and often morally deficient intellect of man, would be reason to doubt the entire process. So Jesus sends another witness after He leaves. This witness of the Holy Spirit needs to play an essential role in any rational/responsible Christian epistemology. Alvin Plantinga gets it right here, IMO.

  9. Perhaps I have not been sufficiently corrupted by historical criticism since I am but a lay person, but it seems to me that the primary problem is when a preacher tries to claim that they have the only true version of truth. In WB's video above, it is those who want the packets of certainty that I think create the biggest problem because the fact is that everyone individually has to come to grips with their beliefs and it is inappropriate for the preachers to claim 100% truth in their views. That's a big part of the reason we have 38,000 different Christianities.

    I am on board with what Katie said, with one caveat. It is OK to preach and acknowledge the controversy. For example, when preaching Lazarus, I think it would be fair to make a statement similar to "of course each of you need to come to your own conclusion about whether this is an actual historical event, but regardless of that, here is what it means to us." I find it distasteful for preachers to lie to the congregation.

    Back to Katie, I also strongly agree that examination of the controversy should be limited to bible study. Just to note that people have to make up their own mind in the service is at least acknowledging their individual worth as a human.