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Exploring the Role of a Canon-Within-the-Canon in Biblical Interpretation, part 4

The Historical Critical Method
As has been frequently pointed out the historical critical method, rooted in the intellectual paradigm of the Enlightenment, is based on assumptions which are no more neutral than those it sought to challenge.[1] Its inception marked the shift from a hermeneutic of trust to a hermeneutic of suspicion. For our purpose here it can be argued that the historical critical method, when used as the primary method of exegesis and hermeneutics, sets as a rule, or canon, a variety of judgements. For example, when reading the gospels, it is assumed a priori that the miracles reported there cannot have a basis in reality as miracles do not happen.[2] This is in effect an inner canon as some parts of Scripture are accepted as being ‘a locus of truth’ and others not. This was seen, for example, in Liberal Protestantism’s focus on the ethical teaching of Jesus, perhaps most notably by Baur and Ritschl.

Sometimes the historical critical method operates with an inner canon in a more subtle way. This is the case with, for example, source criticism. Whilst it would be easy to argue that many source critical theories are highly questionable, there is nothing wrong in principle with examining textual evolution and the relationship of the canonical text with some hypothetical precursors. However, some would use the findings of this type of work to argue for recognition of some hypothetical reconstruction as in some ways normative and a ruler against which canonical texts should be measured.

Another way of looking at this is that one of the underlying dynamics of the historical critical method is fundamentally at odds with the idea that the Bible in some way mediates revelation. It is a truism of the critical method that understanding of the meaning of the text is always provisional[3] and built on hypothetical constructions which by their very nature are transient awaiting the next piece of data; data which often comes from sources outside of the Bible itself. To use and extend Barth’s analogy of the interpreter as a prodigal son[4] the historical critical interpreter who is wholly committed to its core rationale is in danger of not only living in rags and squalor but also of remaining unrepentant in seeking an inheritance as if God the father were dead.

The logical end point of the historical critical approach can be seen in the activities of the Jesus Seminar.[5] Here what might be deemed the authentic words of Jesus, and perhaps judged by some to be canonical, are voted on by a group of self-selecting scholars. One of the members of the Jesus Seminar, Robert W. Funk, has developed this point canonically in suggesting there need to be two new canons, a smaller and a larger one;[6] the smaller canon which is reliable in its historical basis, the larger one being a collection of all extent Christian writing from around the New Testament period. This of course raises two immediate problems which Funk does not entertain, let alone answer:

  1. Such a notion contradicts the general meaning of the term canon, whether it means a selective list or an identification of texts which are in some sense an epistemic norm. Making the larger canon consist of all extant texts is hardly a selective list! As Wright points out using all sources as historical data is good scholarly practice[7] but making them all canonical is at best misleading.
  2. By definition the smaller canon would be highly contested and provisional. How could a changing canon or a range of competing smaller canons proposed by different scholars serve the Church?

Gadamer’s observation that the Enlightenment, in which the historical critical method is rooted, has a “prejudice against prejudice” is apposite here.[8] The Enlightenment’s flawed pretence at objectivity gives, ironically, a different stance of prejudice. By privileging diachronic rather than synchronic relationships,[9] the committed historical critic effectively plays a power game with the text in which the Guild is made king of the text.

The three areas examined thus far indicate that an inner canon is a notion central to large sections of recent, and not such recent, interpretive work. The three areas also exemplify the intimate relationship between inner canons and the presuppositions of the interpreter.

[1] So, for example, Gadamer, Truth, p.277-285, Wright, People, p.15 and Schüssler Fiorenza, Her, p.xxvff.
[2] So Bultmann, Exegesis, pp.290-291.
[3] See Watson, Text, pp.46-53 who explores this point helpfully.
[4] See Barth CD I/1 p.729.
[5] See Wright, Jesus, pp.29-35 for a judicious summary of their activities.
[6] Funk, New Testament, p.555.
[7] Wright, Jesus, p.30.
[8] Gadamer, Truth, pp.270ff.
[9] See Watson, Text, p.34 and passim for the competition between diachronic and synchronic relationships.

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About Me

This blog’s central aim is to explore all aspects of how the Psalter (the biblical psalms) functions as Scripture today.

To this end it will also include book reviews on the Book of Psalms and related topics.

Some posts will reflect more broadly on biblical interpretation or hermeneutics.

If you like what you see here and want to arrange for me to give a lecture, run a teaching event or a short retreat based around The Psalms then contact me so we can discuss how this might work.

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