Monday, February 16, 2009

Whence the Assumptions?

Henry Parry Liddon, in a letter to Charles Gore in 1889, writes:
Criticism is an equivocal term, and is applied to very different kinds of Textual or Exegetical work. Dr. Pusey in one sense was a great critic; in another, Strauss and Bruno Bauer and Feuerbach were. What the young “exports”, such as Professor Cheyne, mean by criticism now, is, I suppose, that kind of discussion of doctrines and of documents which treats the individual reason as an absolutely competent and final judge, and which has the most differentiating merit of being independent of church authority…. Criticism with Dr. Pusey was… the bringing of all that learning and thought could bring to illustrate the mind of Christian antiquity, which really guided him. All criticism, I suppose really proceeds on certain principles, preliminary assumptions for the critic to go upon. The question in all cases is, Whence do these preliminary assumptions come?… Certainly these placita which abound in the new “Old Testament criticism” do not appear to come from the text itself; they are imposed on it from without. (Cited in A. G. Herbert, The Authority of the Old Testament, 27.)
"Whence do these preliminary assumptions come?" This really is the essential question when approaching the findings of modern Biblical criticism (or, for that matter, of any sort of academic criticism).


Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

"Whence do these preliminary assumptions come?"

Mostly from drunk Germans. See John Sandys-Wunsch, What Have They Done to the Bible? A History of Modern Biblical Interpretation (Liturgical Press, 2005). And as much as the development of modern (Renaissance onward) historiography developed directly out of interaction with the Bible, more on the development of assumptions behind the writing of history itself is found in the third edition of Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern by Ernst Breisach (Univ of Chicago, 2007). Both of these books are particularly helpful, the first to show how Biblical Studies developed after the abandonment of a Church/Christ-centered reading of the Scriptures, and the second to describe the turn away from the Bible as the foundation of all knowledge (at least for European writers) and the subsequent development of modern hitoriographical practice. The first is also quite funny in places. The author truly enjoys the subject.

Felix Culpa said...

Thanks very much for those recommendations. The first looks especially interesting; I'll order a copy as soon as I have some spare schekels. Do you happen to be familiar with John Barton's 'Reading the Old Testament: Method in Biblical Study' (1997)?

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

I can't say that I am. I'm pretty sure I've got some articles by him somewhere. Otherwise, I do have the Oxford Bible Commentary that he co-edited with John Muddiman. Their goal was to include a number of younger up-and-coming scholars as authors of the various books' commentaries, so I suppose that reflects his interest in the variety of approaches currently in play (reflecting too much of an inclusion for inclusion's sake, perhaps). Myself, I found the end result distinctly uneven, and in the end, not very useful. That's a drawback with single-volume commentaries, though. I was more impressed by the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, which is much more even, a good reflection on the editors.

Felix Culpa said...

I ask about Barton because Robert Alter, in the bibliography to one of his books, describes Barton's book in these words:

"A lucid critical survey of the various modern scholarly approaches to the Bible that sets them in a context of general intellectual history."

That's just the sort of book I've been after for some time -- and it seems to overlap with the book by Sandys-Wunsch you recommend.

I've read and enjoyed Barton's "Holy Writing and Sacred Text: The Canon of Early Christianity," which was an assigned text in an exegesis class in seminary along with Frances Young's "Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture."