Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Criticism's Limits

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Criticism's Limits

Article excerpt

Criticism's Limits 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

hat 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 soberminded 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 REVIEWS

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. …

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