Politicizing the Bible: The Roots of Historical Criticism and the Secularization of Scripture,
1300–1700
by scott w. hahn and benjamin wiker
crossroad, 624 pages, $59.95

What was once a bold and ­disciplined endeavor to recover the truth of the Scriptures had become, argued Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger twenty-five years ago, a confused, self-defeating enterprise. Critical analysis never arrived at “hermeneutical synthesis.” Modern biblical scholars trying to illuminate the text became lost in a “jungle of contradictions.” To find a new way forward, Ratzinger argued, we must understand the roots of this project. We must carry out a “criticism of ­criticism.”

In Politicizing the Bible, Scott Hahn, a professor of biblical theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, and Benjamin Wiker, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, have attempted to do just that. Citing ­Ratzinger’s famous call for a critical examination of biblical scholarship, the authors take aim at the beginnings of modern biblical study. The essence of the modern project, they argue, is not the search for historical truth but the reformulation of ­political power. 

Early modern interpreters (those writing between 1300 and 1700) were not disinterested scholars but men seeking to remake society—to liberalize it—by circumscribing the power of the Church. Hahn and ­Wiker claim that biblical criticism manifested a deep Erastian impulse to wrest authority from the Church and invest it elsewhere, either in nationalistic governments, powerful princes, or sober-minded individuals. What deserves to be called “modern” in this period is not scientific study of the Bible per se but rather a determination to subordinate biblical interpretation to political ends in order to secularize the social and political order.

This is not a novel thesis, and the authors credit Jon Levenson with the seminal insight. In his 1993 work The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism, Levenson argued incisively that “historical criticism is the form of biblical studies that corresponds to the classical liberal political ideal. It is the realization of the Enlightenment project in the realm of biblical scholarship.” Hahn and Wiker’s contribution is to extend this thesis to the pre-Enlightenment period, showing that the later Enlightenment was actually “the culmination of several centuries of a slowly building new, secular worldview.”

At a general level, the claim that modernity had antecedent conditions is unassailable. The contemporary vogue for genealogies, for example, has yielded rich accounts of the ways our moral and intellectual frameworks depend upon earlier engagements with the Christian tradition. One thinks readily of John Milbank, Alasdair MacIntyre, Louis Dupré, and Charles Taylor. By concentrating on the early modern period rather than the Enlightenment, Hahn and Wiker suggest that historical criticism’s most important features are discerned more clearly in its earlier history.

In order to get clear about the nature of modern biblical criticism, Hahn and Wiker also “go medieval.” Instead of offering up the usual roster of romantic German professors, the authors treat the reader to extensive studies of Marsilius of Padua and William of Ockham, along with an array of later figures: Wycliffe, ­Machiavelli, Luther, Henry VIII, Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Simon, Locke, and Toland.

By shifting focus from the scholarly progressivism of the later Enlightenment to the headier, politically volatile late-medieval and Reformation periods, Hahn and Wiker aim to show that criticism’s core commitments are, in a theological rather than historical sense, anti-Catholic. It may have been, in part and for certain scholars, but this neglects the other impulses behind the critical work.

It is worth asking, in any case, what is gained by the specific attempt to find the antecedents of critical scholarship in a group as large and variegated as this one. In assembling these figures and casting them as secularists of one type or another, Hahn and Wiker show remarkable scholarly determination. They proceed confidently, arguing with thick prose and copious footnotes that each figure contributed importantly to a ­single coherent, inexorable development: secularization through politicization.

Instead of confirming the strength of the thesis, though, the ambitious collection of so many intellectual and political heavyweights under a single idea as big and baggy as secularization may actually weaken it. In this way, the book offers an example of subtraction by addition. 

Hahn and Wiker know their subjects well, and patient readers will no doubt enjoy details and quotations that bring these figures to life. But commendable and, to a good degree, successful attempts at contextualization sit uneasily beside ­concluding sections in each chapter, which acknowledge “complexity” but then zoom out and extract the modern (“politicizing”) bits of each man’s worldview.

The authors offer this book as a historical account of historical criticism. While it is certainly historical in focus, it is better described as, and better read as, a philosophical explication of critical method that is documented with historical examples. 

Like pro-critical scholars of an earlier generation seeking to lionize critical precursors and celebrate the emergence of historical criticism, the authors reify “method,” treating it as a thing with its own history and agency, incarnated in the lives of critical (anti-)heroes. The figures they examine differ in many important respects, but, for Hahn and Wiker, they belong together because, in one way or another, each helped to weaken the Church’s interpretive authority.

There is truth to this characterization, but the authors’ versions of “secularization” and “politicization” are not precise enough to illuminate the complexity of biblical interpretation in the early modern period. For either term to seem even broadly accurate, the authors must choose subjects that confirm the characterization (­Ockham, Luther, and the English Deists, for example) while avoiding other, equally consequential figures who do not (Thomas Aquinas, ­Calvin, and the Christian humanists). 

It would be hard to argue, for example, that Reformed theology, which shaped movements and events in England, France, Germany, and the Dutch Republic, was less decisive for European intellectual history and biblical criticism than was German Lutheranism. Yet the authors leave Calvin out of account, presumably because he cannot be identified so readily with the programmatic elevation of secular power over churchly authority in the way that Luther can.

The secularity and political motivations of all the figures in this book, including Luther’s, are complex. The authors do a thorough job of describing the lives and writings of their subjects, but they fail to maintain disciplined connections between the complicated exegetical projects of these men and the large, ­promiscuous concepts used to frame their legacies. In the end (and in concluding sections for each chapter), they resort to a dogged intellectualism that confidently dissolves the fateful negotiations of interpreters into a series of secularizing, politicizing missteps.

This approach cannot remediate scholarship in the way the authors hope. The baneful effects of a secularizing criticism cannot be undone by criticizing the critics. Ratzinger’s point in calling for a “criticism of criticism” was not to suggest that a new, critical account of criticism could somehow discredit the Church’s opponents through an objective reduction of their work to its political motivations. It was rather to set aside the “absurd abstraction” of pure objectivity and to warn against triumphalism in any form. 

If the critical opponents of traditional Christianity are to be convicted of false objectivity—that is, of reading their own worldviews into biblical history—its defenders must take even greater care not to repeat the error when talking about the history of criticism. The key point here is not that churchly interpreters should turn critical method against itself and beat critics at their own game. The real point of engaging in criticism is rather, as Ratzinger says, to pursue an “honest recognition of what its limits are.”

Hahn and Wiker accurately and helpfully describe these limits. As a method, historical criticism has deep affinities for political and ­philosophical programs designed to contest the authority of the Church and enhance the power of critics and reformers. This is an important point for theologians and historical critics alike to understand. 

Yet we must be careful not to invest too much power in our own abstractions. It should be noted that “politicization” and “secularization” are themselves critical and politicizing terms. When used to structure a narrative about the past, they do not relax the grip of critical method on our scholarship. They strengthen it.

To recognize the limits of criticism would mean abandoning the idea that the sterility of our academic exegesis and the agonic quality of our hermeneutics are, at bottom, an intellectual problem: a reflex of improper method or of one-sided, hypercritical ­historiography. Our deficiencies as modern interpreters have less to do with attaining the correct view of what interpretation is and how it is related to our politics than with our inability to see hermeneutics and politics themselves, complexly and charitably, in terms of perennial realities like the fallibility of human judgment and the imperfection of our institutions and social arrangements.

If any period of history illustrates this well, it is surely the early modern period. To read the rich accounts of major figures offered by Hahn and Wiker is to see how densely ­interpenetrated politics, philosophy, exegesis, and personal intrigues were for these men. 

The authors describe well the perilous fragility of early modern culture: the jaggedness of its moral terrain, the brittleness of its politics, the difficulties of its dilemmas, and the ingenuity of its leading lights. If Hahn and Wiker tend to see our latter-day enemies reflected in early modern politicization or secularization, their work helps us see ourselves in the unstable mix of spiritual aspiration, moral ambivalence, and social concern that still characterizes our lives.

For the most part, Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker refrain from delivering programmatic statements on the future of biblical scholarship. They aim more at description than at prescription. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the tacit point of reference for their analysis of critical method—the unarticulated Other that sits opposite Luther, ­Machiavelli, and the rest—is a churchly Bible mediated to the faithful by a trustworthy magisterium.

Looking at early modern figures from this vantage point, they have shed valuable light on the profound sense of rupture that we, their late modern descendants, still feel. ­Whether this sense is the result, ultimately, of something called the “politicization” of the Bible must remain an open question—and one too important to leave to critical method.  

Michael C. Legaspi teaches philosophy and religious studies at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.

Articles by Michael C. Legaspi

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