A little over a week ago I posted a link to a story in The Christian Century about six Protestant theologians who had recently converted to Catholicism. One of them, Rusty Reno, blogs at First Things and has posted a comment on the article. In it he makes some rather trenchant comments about the historical-critical method of reading scripture. Reno believes the method has generated important insights, but raises some serious questions about its popular applications:
What I can understand, however, is a general reaction against the
cultural tyranny and arrogant ignorance of the tradition and practice
of modern historical-critical study of the Bible. Countless professors
use historical study as a bludgeon to beat up the naive piety of
college students, and they do so with no intention of offering an
intelligent, theologically informed alternative. The majority of
biblical scholars I have met are culpably ignorant of the history of
biblical interpretation, the history of theology, and the history of
their own discipline. They parade their textual judgments as
indubitable facts, and they are ruthless in their ambition to hold
exclusive rights to any “intellectually responsible” interpretation of
For these reasons, far from accepting historical criticism, I have worked to overthrow its pretensions. The new Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible is a forty-volume series of biblical commentaries precisely not
written by the supposed experts. If I had control over faculty
appointments at seminaries and divinity schools, I would establish a
moratorium on the hiring of people with Ph.D.’s in biblical studies.
The past decades have shown that doctoral programs in biblical study
are unable to produce faculty capable of reading the Bible for the
Church. Some succeed in spite of their education. Folks like Richard
Hays are working hard to reform the discipline from within. They
deserve our support. But we need to be hard-nosed in defending our
communities of faith against both the thinly masked ideologies and
intellectually embarrassing positivism of historical-critical study.
I have to say that my experience has been different from Professor Reno’s. I was introduced to historical-criticism through the works of careful scholars like Raymond Brown and John Meier. Brown’s work in particular always struck me as animated by a deep piety (read the conclusion to his Introduction to New Testament Christology for an example). Brown was also sensitive to the need to maintain connections between biblical and dogmatic theology so that the Bible could continue to be read as the Church’s book.
But I readily concede that I might feel differently if my exposure to the critical study of scripture had come from the folks affiliated with the Jesus Seminar or popularizers of the latest “lost Gospel.” Those inclined to react defensively to Reno’s “postliberalism” on this and other matters might do well to reflect on the conditions that engendered it.