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Biblical scholars can be wonderfully predictable. John W. Martens, a biblical scholar at the University of St. Thomas, is not happy with my observations last week about our need for an approach to the Bible more closely coordinated with Church teaching¯and a theology more engaged in biblical interpretation.

Weighing in on the America magazine website, he declares the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible ¯“Reno’s project”¯“antagonistic and ill-advised.” “We do not need scholars such as Reno doing an end-around on biblical scholarship,” he continues. Time to call the police and get those troublemakers off the streets.

Did I mention that the Brazos project makes biblical scholars angry? Martens thinks a firm, dismissive response is required. “Biblical scholars are antagonistic because” in their high citadel of expertise, they judge that “some people recruited to write in the series do not know what they are doing with the biblical text.” The result of having unqualified naifs writing about the Bible, the Brazos Theological Commentary “is an anti-intellectual exercise.”

You can’t pay people to provide better evidence of the wagon-circling, guild mentality of so many contemporary biblical scholars. Martens wonders how I¯a mere theologian, not a biblical scholar¯know that the modern historical critical project has run its course. Funny he should ask, because that was the part of last week’s reflection that I had to cut so that I didn’t go on and on, and bore my readers.

In 2005, the prominent Old Testament scholar John J. Collins published The Bible After Babel: Historical Criticism in a Postmodern Age . In the book, originally a set of lectures, Collins sets out to provide “an account of some of the main changes in the study of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament in the last third of the twentieth century.” The result is a clear picture of how at least one very influential biblical scholar¯he has taught at Notre Dame, Chicago, and Yale, and is a past president of the Society of Biblical Literature¯views his discipline.

Michael C. Legaspi, a colleague of mine at Creighton University, wrote a long and perceptive review essay, published in the Journal of Religion & Society. A recent Ph.D. trained in Harvard’s near-eastern languages and civilizations program, Legaspi thinks that Collins covers the important trends that have fragmented and brought all sorts of new voices to biblical scholarship in recent decades (hence the title, The Bible After Babel ). There are no evasions, no effort to sweep challenging postmodern enthusiasms under the rug.

Collins sets out to define the main thrust of the historical-critical project so as to include feminist, post-colonial, and other newfangled methods of interpretation. By Legaspi’s reading, “Collins does so by recasting, fatefully, the nature and purpose of historical criticism itself.”

One would think that historical criticism is primarily concerned with, well, history. It isn’t. As Collins makes his case for the continuing central, authoritative role for the historical—critical tradition, writes Legaspi, “What was once an intellectual project for making sense of the Bible appears to have become a sociopolitical proposal for regulating dialogue.” Biblical scholars are important primarily as gatekeepers. They are academic officials who designate what does and does not count as “responsible” interpretation of the Bible.

One would think that a scholar like Collins, committed to the main lines of the grand tradition of objective historical study, would be rather antagonistic toward what he calls “postmodernist criticism.” One doesn’t need much theoretical sophistication to see that a feminist or Foucaultian reading of the Bible brings many of the highly moralistic concerns of the present to bear on the biblical text. Yet, as Legaspi observes, although Collins trims a bit here and there with cautionary criticism, he invariably finds the ideological agenda of postmodern criticism congenial to the main thrust of historical criticism.

How can this be? Isn’t the essential feature of historical criticism a close analysis of the Bible in order to discern the meaning in its original context? In his own close analysis, Legaspi shows that Collins makes interpretive autonomy the central commitment of historical criticism, not interpretive accuracy . And what is the main threat to this central commitment? Easy answer: religious belief.

As Collins writes in an approving summary of the history of his discipline, “Where medieval culture had celebrated belief as a virtue and regarded doubt as a sin, the modern critical mentality regards doubt as a necessary first step in testing knowledge and the will to believe as a threat to rational thought.” The postmoderns may exhibit certain regrettable excesses, but they are good guys. They can be welcomed into academic debates for one simple reason: They help undermine belief and sow religious doubt.

What about those who believe that the teachings of the Church are true and illuminate the Scriptures? Well, you guessed it, those folks are the bad guys.

Legaspi puts his finger on the crucial conceptual move:

Collins conveys the idea that historical criticism, in the first instance, involves normative claims about the inward disposition and outward conduct of the critic. This is a highly significant maneuver as it shifts emphasis away from an intellectual program for making sense out of the Bible and toward a means for evaluating the personal qualities of the interpreter. In the realm of “historical criticism,” the key qualification is not what is proposed but what kind of person is making the proposal.

Legaspi’s analysis pretty much explains John W. Martens’ call for the riot police. The wrong kinds of people are interpreting the Bible.

Legaspi has a keen eye. Collins is worried about fanaticism. As he writes, “The Bible has contributed to violence in the world precisely because it has been taken to confer a degree of certitude that transcends human discussion and argumentation.” This is a common modern diagnosis. It’s not that the Bible has been wrongly interpreted; it has been wrongly believed.

Collins’ diagnosis, notes Legaspi, “dramatizes the moral imperative of the biblical critic, who is called to respond to this situation using the critical tools not so much to foster understanding as to avert the moral and political dangers of certitude.” As Collins himself says, the main role of the biblical critic is to show that “certitude is an illusion.”

Whither, then, historical criticism, at least in the mind of John Collins? Legaspi gives us a helpful summary answer:

Postmodern interpretive frameworks pose fundamental challenges to conventional biblical scholarship, and Collins has attempted to meet them. In responding to perceived challenges, Collins returns to what he believes are the foundational commitments of historical criticism and steps forward to offer not a robust defense of history or of historical inquiry, as one might expect, but only a plea for liberal academic values. Collins’ true scholarly mode reveals itself to be academic criticism and not historical criticism. He believes in the power of historical criticism to supply a convenient epistemology for academic dialogue and to shore up the community of scholars by providing a common language for the “otherness” of the Bible. Historical criticism, as we have seen, is also essential to Collins because it combats fundamentalism and stems religious violence by eroding certitude.

Unlike so many academics who trim, equivocate, and tell people what they want to here, John Collins is a fearless, forceful man who speaks his mind. His discipline’s primary intellectual value is negative: It undermines belief in the authority of the Bible. Its primary institutional value is political: It provides the academy with a cadre of professors who share liberal values that is able to include the latest academic, postmodern fashions while firmly excluding religious belief.

There are many, many biblical scholars currently devoting their lives to the Church, and thankfully so. We need their linguistic expertise. We benefit from their serious and sustained encounter with the historical depth of the Bible. The mind of the Church is enriched by their undying loyalty to and love of the Scriptures. However, as John Collins helps us see, in its current and dominant form the academic discipline of biblical studies has come to a dead end.

Perceptive, faithful biblical scholars¯Richard Hays, Chris Seitz, Ellen Davis, Joel Green, Gary Anderson, and I could name many others¯sense the spiritual poverty of their discipline and are working very hard to rethink, reorient, and renew biblical scholarship. I wish them every success. The biblically impoverished tradition of modern theology¯my discipline¯desperately needs their expertise, their insight, and their support.

R.R. Reno is an associate professor of theology at Creighton University and features editor at First Things .


No Country for Biblical Scholars ,” by John W. Martens

What Ever Happened to Historical Criticism? ” by Michael C. Legaspi

The Bible After Babel: Historical Criticism in a Postmodern Age , by John J. Collins

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