Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Indoctrination into Historical Criticism

How is one to regard historical criticism of the Bible and defend others from its faith destroying influence? A primary goal of this article is to help readers understand the basic ideas behind the methods of the highly educated historical critics. In the end my hope is that the reader can see that historical critical scholarship is a fragile house of cards, that the only threat historical criticism really poses to historic contextual Bible interpretation as practiced in Confessional Lutheranism is that of hiding the lie behind personality and pride, not of method or of substance.

When I was in graduate school, Odil Steck’s Old Testament Exegesis: A Guide to the Methodology (1998) was required on the graduate reading list at the UW-Madison. My copy from that time is the 2nd English edition translated by James Nogalski from the 13th German edition. It was published by Scholars Press as volume 39 in the Society for Biblical Literature Resources for Biblical Study series edited by Marvin Sweeney. 

The International Review of Biblical Studies , published by E.J. Brill stated “For a quarter of a century, Steck’s guide to exegetical methods as practiced by himself and other German-speaking scholars has served to train advanced students.” (back cover review)

Any Old Testament, Bible, or Ancient Near East degree program in college or university requires the knowledge of German of the student so that the student can become engaged in the current and historical literature of the fields. What this means is that Steck’s book gained wide acceptance as a standard among hundreds, if not thousands, of colleges and universities throughout the world. His presuppositions, definitions, philosophy, and methodologies were not considered bizarre or unorthodox by the academy. Rather, they are widely accepted and shared. Thus, Steck’s book represents a long period of widespread indoctrination into an interpretive orthodoxy shared by a large proportion of historical critics. As such, it is illustrative of the mindset and approach of the many students it influenced.

What I propose to do here is to highlight, sample, and comment on the distinctive traits of Steck’s presentation of scientific historical critical Old Testament exegesis. This is not a discussion of the whole book, nor is this a review of the work. There are several philosophical and theological presuppositions in Steck’s work that are more than a little problematic, even beyond the foundational difference about the possibility of the supernatural.

Steck may not have been the first to propose an interpretive system integrating literary criticism, form criticism, text criticism, tradition criticism, redaction criticism, et al. The Augsburg/Fortress Press series Guides to Biblical Scholarship spanned the years from 1971 to the early 2000s. These guides introduced each topic and method individually, not in an integrated way. John Barton’s 1984 Reading the Old Testament: Method in Biblical Study discussed each method separately and suggested a way to integrate the methods. All of these and other sources have been required reading for many graduate and undergraduate programs. But Steck’s integrated approach was unique.

“Rather than seeing the exegetical components as an eclectic assortment which only ‘specialists’ of the various components can ‘do,’ Steck’s introduction illustrates for them how the perspective provided by each methodological lens adds depth to the whole.” [Nogalski, “Translator’s Preface to the English Version, second printing.” xxiii]

From start to finish Steck’s book presented all techniques in an integrated method under the format of a workbook designed to be used by professors and students for guided instruction in Old Testament exegesis. His “book does not wish to be, indeed cannot be, an introduction to self-study. Rather, it is designed for use in academic instruction.” [xx]

It is not an exaggeration to say that Steck’s view was that without proper training in his method, the interpretation of the Old Testament was impossible and irresponsible. He stated that “mastery of the approaches and the paths” outlined in his book “are essential for exegetically determining meaning.” [xx]  The problem, however, is that his methodology and the practice of the historical-critical method of Biblical interpretation in general gives free reign to irresponsible interpretation which is impossible to objectively substantiate. 

Steck considered his approach to be “scientific exegesis” and that his book “shows one how to approach the historical meaning of Old Testament texts during the period of their productive formation. This meaning is the original meaning…. This meaning must be processed because it is the foundational meaning.” [emphases original, xiii].

Here there is at least lip service given to the concept of a historical meaning that is the original meaning, which must be processed or ascertained by a scientific exegesis.  But what Steck actually means by scientific exegesis actually permits and encourages  the historical critical interpreter to disregard and depart from  the historical meaning of the text we have.

Before we look at what Steck  means by scientific exegesis, let us consider his stated goals and the assumptions behind them.

The Purposes of Steck’s Workbook

Steck saw the purpose of his work as an essential and foundational part of the study of theology essential for presenting the biblical texts “in their authoritative significance for a Christian’s faith, doctrine, and life.” [xxv]

“The goal of all theological work is to bring the biblical word of God to life, and to give it dynamic and relevant expression for humanity today.” [emphasis original, xxv]

The assumptions behind this are that the biblical text as it stands now is not dynamic or relevant, but a dead letter, and what Steck proposes as a method is essential for Christian theology and preaching. Without his method the exegete, theologian, or preacher has no ability to speak with “authoritative significance.” Indeed, in Steck’s view the sociolinguistic and cultural distance between the original texts prevents the modern from understanding these texts.

“Therefore, Old Testament exegesis necessarily inquires into the past for the original meaning . The inquiry of Old Testament exegesis into the original historical meaning has fundamental significance if these ancient texts are to be protected from the caprice to which we of today honorably, dishonorably, or unknowingly subject them in order to hear what we want to hear from them. It also has fundamental significance if the texts are to be allowed to speak their own message, in contrast to all later recipients. These statements are true even though, for us today, the inquiry is only a first step on the path of conveying the word of God toward which all theological disciplines must work together responsibly. … it is a fundamental and indispensable approach.” [1-2]

One troubling but common view expressed here is that ascertaining the original historical meaning of the texts “speaking their own message” is “only a first step” on conveying the word of God for us today.This implies that the original historical meaning of the Biblical text is not intrinsically also meant to speak to us today, despite Biblical claims of universal relevance to human beings beyond the ancient Isrealite context in which the Old Testament was written.      

But even worse, when one actually studies Steck’s book,  the “ancient texts” of which Steck speaks are not the books of the Old Testament as they have been handed down to us. He is actually speaking of multiple layers of conjectured oral productions coalesced into discrete single purposed short initial literary documents which were redacted and re-purposed at different times to address various hypothetical cultural, political, and religious events or crises and finally woven together to justify the establishment of a post Exilic priesthood and temple system. It is the purpose of his manual to enable the student to puzzle out these various threads to what Steck calls the original meaning

Thus, Steck’s notion of protecting the Old Testament texts “from the caprice to which we of today honorably, dishonorably, or unknowingly subject them in order to hear what we want to hear from them”  means to protect modern interpreters from reading the Old Testament as its text has actually been handed down to us. 

Consider the implications of this. Now, it is true that many people abuse the Old Testament, selectively choosing the passages they want to fit into their own ideas or the teaching they have invented for themselves. But to put it simply: Steck’s whole book is designed to give students permission to dismiss the text of the Old Testament as it is in order to dissect it into unique discrete components so they can find whatever their imagined original meaning might be in these fragments of imagined ancient texts. One would be hard pressed to find a clearer example of the caprice Steck decries.  And yet his entire method introduces, justifies, and even requires caprice and, to use his own word, fantasy.   

Steck advocated for scientific exegesis as the opposite of capricious methods.

But What is Scientific Exegesis as defined by Steck?

Steck frequently maintained that his method of exegesis is scientific. He spent a few paragraphs in his first chapter on his use of the term. I believe it would be accurate to say that the word scientific implies a naturalistic methodological type of study that is subject to some kind of standards of empirical objectivity and even falsification. In more basic terms, the word scientific tends to imply that the study or results are not personal opinions or biased, but somehow factually true whether one believes it or not. But Steck defines scientific in the context of exegesis as follows: 

“Exegesis is a scientific procedure to the degree that its understanding of a text is grounded exclusively upon knowledge and arguments whose appropriateness to the subject can be evaluated (approvingly or disapprovingly) by others, and whose rationale can be substantiated.” [emphasis original, 3]

By this standard one could take a wilted avocado measure its bumps and relate that to the shapes on human heads mapping those features to personality traits. There is a rationale. There is a procedure and a standard. And arguments can be made “(approvingly or disapprovingly) by others” on the appropriateness of the standards, relationships, and measurements. But I do not believe that most people would find this to fit their idea what the word scientific is supposed to mean. Indeed, astrology, phrenology, radionics, ley lines and many other pseudo-sciences have vast bodies of literature that meet Steck’s qualifications. 

Perhaps the reader may think this is too judgmental. Perhaps Steck is really meaning to make the study more objective and empirical. Steck does actually address this concern in the same paragraph just after the above quotation:

“Exegesis certainly does not maintain its scientific character by orienting itself to the experimental and empirical sciences, and by binding itself to their ideal of an ever more precise objective knowledge. Exegesis would then have to limit itself to the analysis and description of the linguistic surface of the texts.” [2]

After 13 editions and over 25 years of opportunity, Steck certainly could have phrased this differently if he had not meant to include a renunciation of the linguistic surface content of the texts, objectivity, and empirical knowledge. But the issues of empiricism and objectivity have always been central problems with historical critical research. 

There are three reasons for saying this. First, there exists no such thing as objective, mutually agreed method or results. Exegetes and theologians in historical criticism might agree on a few general presuppositions, such as, a rejection of any supernatural causes. But the differences between the various literary critics; differences between the interpretations of various form critics; and the wide variety of exegetical results stand as testimony against the objectivity, or even consistency of method. Second, there exists within the schools of historical criticism a body of literature pointing out the lack of objectivity among the various methods. Studies by Whybray, Cassuto, Tur Sinai, Kaufman and others have shown not only this lack of objectivity, but they also demonstrated a lack of connection with the reality of the evidence claimed by literary, oral, tradition, redaction and other forms of historical criticism. Third, recently there has been an effort among practitioners of the historical critical method, albeit a very struggling effort, to provide arguments for or to produce some kind of empirical models that might be used to hold historical critical interpretation to account. 

Here consider The Formation of the Pentateuch . 2016, editors: Jan C. Gertz, Bernard M. Levinson, Dalit Rom-Shiloni, and Konrad Schmid. Published by Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, Germany. This volume is the result of the study group “Convergence and Divergence in Pentateuchal Theory: Bridging the Academic Cultures of Israel, North America, and Europe.” The first part of this volume is titled “Empirical Perspectives on the Composition of the Pentateuch.” Gertz’ introduction to this section highlights that for historical criticism there is an entire lack of external textual evidence as well as any external evidence regarding the circumstances around the formation of the Pentateuch or the writers. Nearly everything in Pentateuchal Theory is based on theoretical reconstructions of each of these lines of evidence. The issue is then to see if there are external sources that can provide “concrete analogies” for the historical critic. “Concrete analogies could function as models of literary development, providing the critic with firsthand experience with compilers’ or redactors’ technique.” These analogies would not be a primary source for the discussion about Israelite literature, but would provide “proof of plausibility.” (Gertz, et al., p. 11-13)

For Steck, however, his scientific exegesis is purely about being transparent in one's use of historical critical method. 

“Scientifically established exegetical work is methodologically transparent work.” [5]

Scientific exegesis is not objective methodology. Scientific exegesis is not necessarily even a widely agreed upon standard for methodology— although that is what his book seems to be attempting to provide. And without these external standards Steck still wanted to maintain that 

“Scientific historical exegesis is thereby an attorney for the original meaning of the text, providing the fundamental contribution for the clarification and enrichment of applied understanding.” [4]

This demonstrates a rather significant cognitive dissonance between what has been openly described as an objectively and empirically value-less method and his claims regarding the method’s value to the exegete.

Prejudices formulated into transparent methodologies are not objective. They are just systematized prejudices. The prejudices are not informed by external objective truth or empirical data. 

Imagination, Fantasy, and Scientific Exegesis

What does the exegete do with this void left by the absence of empirical evidence? Steck asks this basic question providing a clear, honest answer.

“But what access does historical exegesis have to the data of the text except the access of questions, observations, and argumentation guided by the methods? Here, the exegete’s imagination plays a decisive role in looking at the selected text, by employing fantasy in the desire to understand a text historically. This fantasy is not obstructed and not yet rigidly controlled by methodological instructions. On the basis of the original hermeneutical unity between the text and today’s reader, one’s fantasy and imagination must thereby move in two directions during constant reading and reflection.” [emphases original, 6]

Steck dedicates nine pages to “imagination and methodological direction during exegetical work” [5-14]. The starting point is a series of questions designed to help toward two goals:

“On the one hand, the exegete envisions how the text offers itself as a component of today’s world , and on the other hand, the exegete envisions how the meaning and the setting of the text in its own historical context are manifested.” [emphases original, 6]

But, again:text does not refer to the text as it is now in the Hebrew Old Testament. Text refers to the words isolated by the exegete out from the context of the Scripture and placed into the imaginative historical framework created by the exegete’s fantasy.

“[T]he goal is to achieve a comprehensive historical conception of the historical arena, origin, intention, meaning and effect of the text in its time, through the employment of fantasy and imagination prior to and alongside the methodological work.” [emphasis original, 8]

Understanding Steck’s Original Stated Goal and the Result

Steck wants to breathe new life into the text of the Old Testament, to make it relevant for today. This, he claimed, is the goal of Christian theological work. The current text of the Hebrew Bible does not work for Steck’s theology. The only way he can find his theology supported by the Hebrew text is to take apart the current text and recreate his own image based on his own fantasy. 

Both Pietism and Historical Criticism can trace their roots back to the secularizing rationalist influences and Reformed influences upon the Lutheran Church in Germany from the 17th century on. Pietism went the direction of overcoming the written word of God by focusing on the internal word in the heart. Historical criticism went the direction of overcoming the written word by creating complex frameworks for self-justifying reason. Both roads permitted their devotees to justify themselves in finding what they wanted from the Scriptures and to feel they have done no wrong in dismissing the rest.

The Old Lie: “Did God Really Say?”

Steck and the historical critics are doing nothing new. One can see pretty clearly that the scientific and imaginative methods of historical criticism are sophisticated arguments meant to justify two things. 

The first thing: to legitimize themselves. They wish to justify themselves, that they alone are the arbiters of what Scripture says. In order to be recognized as legitimate one must acknowledge their authority and their basic philosophical and religious claims. The historical critics defend themselves as an elite priesthood based on their schooling and mutual approval. Their enlightenment and secret knowledge must be gained through certain steps: a novitiate (Bachelors’ Degree); an apprenticeship (Masters’ Degree), and close guidance and tutelage under an authorized priest (Doctorate).

The second thing they wish to justify — and this is actually the purpose of the first reason — they wish to justify denying that the written word of God is God’s Word. They are the possessors of right understanding and interpretation. Anyone who does not hold their credentials is not recognized as a legitimate challenger to their enlightenment. It is very easily understood as a gnostic system.

One might object that professional development has largely consisted of these three stages of proficiency and approval. While that is true, Steck and others have already demonstrated that objective standards and empirical validation have almost no part in the methodology. This is very different from, say, the training of a physician, an architect, a translator, an accountant, a sculptor, or a plummer. 

In the late second century Irenaeus wrote regarding the Marcosian gnostics:

“Besides the above [misrepresentations], they adduce an unspeakable number of apocryphal and spurious writings, which they themselves have forged, to bewilder the minds of foolish men, and of such as are ignorant of the Scriptures of truth.”
[Against Heresies I:20:1 https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103120.htm]

The situation is the same with all the variety of imagined  literary, oral, and redactional sources put forward by the historical critics. Whether the object of study is the Old Testament or the New Testament there is a regular regurgitation of the same tired old arguments recast as new, controversial, and as upsetting the traditional understanding of Scripture.

Confessional Lutherans should be aware of the essential philosophical and religious presuppositions historical criticism brings to bear.  And Confessional Lutherans should recognize that those very anti-Biblical presuppositions frame all the works of the historical critics. 1

Luther’s paradigm on reading the Old Testament is drawn from Christ and his Apostles. Luther wrote:

“There are some who have little regard for the Old Testament. They think of it as a book that was given to the Jewish people only and is now out of date, containing only stories of past times. They think they have enough in the New Testament and assert that only a spiritual sense is to be sought in the Old Testament. … But Christ says in John 5, “Search the Scriptures, for it is they that bear witness to me.” St. Paul bids Timothy to attend to the reading of the Scriptures, and in Romans 1 he declares that the gospel was promised by God in the Scriptures. …  [T]he Scriptures of the Old Testament are not to be despised but diligently read. For they themselves [the New Testament authors] base the New Testament upon them mightily, proving it by the Old Testament and appealing to it, as St. Luke also writes in Acts 17, saying that they at Thessalonica examined the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so that Paul was teaching. The ground and proof of the New Testament is surely not to be despised, and therefore the Old Testament is to be highly regarded. … For these are the Scriptures which make fools of all the wise and understanding, and are open only to the small and simple, as Christ says in Matthew 11. Therefore dismiss your own opinions and feelings and think of the Scriptures as the loftiest and noblest of holy things, as the richest of mines which can never be sufficiently explored, in order that you may find that divine wisdom which God here lays before you in such simple guise as to quench all pride. Here you will find the swaddling cloths and the manger in which Christ lies and to which the angel points the shepherds. Simple and lowly are these swaddling cloths, but dear is the treasure, Christ, who lies in them.”
Martin Luther, “Preface to the Old Testament,” in Luther’s Works , vol. 35 (ed. E. Theodore Bachmann; Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1960), 235-26.

The historical critical enterprise denies Christ. It denies the need for Christ. It denies the promise of Christ. And theology, ethics, philosophy, morality, relevancy, history, and teaching derived from historical criticism is at base anti-Scriptural, and therefore anti-Christ. This is true of Wellhausen, and Gunkel and others from the classical period of historical criticism. It is also true of recent historical critical exegetes like Braaten, Jenson, Forde and their followers who dismiss the biblical text as it has come down to us in favor of their own historical critical re-imaginations of Christ and what they think Christianity ought to be.

Thus we say with the Epitome of the Formula of Concord:

1. We believe, teach, and confess that the sole rule and standard according to which all dogmas together with [all] teachers should be estimated and judged are the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures of the Old and of the New Testament alone, as it is written Ps. 119:105: Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path. And St. Paul: Though an angel from heaven preach any other gospel unto you, let him be accursed, Gal. 1:8. 2 Other writings, however, of ancient or modern teachers, whatever name they bear, must not be regarded as equal to the Holy Scriptures, but all of them together be subjected to them, and should not be received otherwise or further than as witnesses, [which are to show] in what manner after the time of the apostles, and at what places, this [pure] doctrine of the prophets and apostles was preserved.
[Ep Summary Content, Rule, and Norm 1-2]

In the end, historical criticism is a baseless appeal to erudition, a class of fallacies based in an appeal to authority where the authority has created a vast network of scholarship giving the appearance of validity. The appeal to erudition also cloaks the weakness of arguments made in the dress of great individual learning and expert accomplishment. But historical critical scholarship still suffers from its unfounded claims, its imagination, its lack of objectivity, is failure to rest on empirical data, and especially its failure to treat the Bible as the actual Word of God.



Footnote 1

Bart Ehrman’s repristination of the Bauer Thesis is a perfect example of historical criticism’s lack of genuine insight as well of its lack of integrity. To society Ehrman looks like an innovator, a maverick moving against the dead orthodoxy of the historical repression of a Christian Church which conspires to keep its members and the world ignorant of the hidden truth. His re-presentation of Bauer’s arguments depends upon the ignorance of those uninitiated into the history of New Testament historical criticism. References to books, articles, and video presentations on this topic are plentifully available at the BIBEL website and the Diatheke website.