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The quote below is from an article by German Old Testament scholar Konrad Schmid, “What Is the Difference Between Historical and Theological Exegesis?” pp. 2-3 (my paragraph formatting; available here).

The article looks at a crucial and perennial issue in Christian theology: the always complex and often tense relationship between the historical study of scripture and scripture as the source of Christian theology.

One can reasonably argue that the establishment of historical-critical biblical scholarship—despite individual statements to the contrary—is an incomparable success story within theology.

Protestant theological faculties and departments accord a relatively large percentage of professorships within the classic divisions of the faculties to biblical studies devoted to historical-critical methodologies. They are less prominent numerically in Catholic faculties, but since Vatican II at the latest they are—like their Protestant equivalents—required to carry out historical-critical investigation, which itself should not be absent from any Catholic faculty.

What are, then, the substantial reasons for the special place of the biblical-historical disciplines?

It would be deficient to interpret this development merely as the result of the Enlightenment, after which theology simply had no choice but to bow to modern scholarly standards—that is, historical-criticism—in its investigation of the Bible. This would be to conclude, in other words, that theology felt a certain pressure from the street to give into the spirit of the times.

In contrast, it is certainly better to say that the inner impulse towards truth in Christian faith compelled it to enter into dialogue with the academy and to find ways to understand the Bible with the help of rather than in opposition to modern scholarship.

Historical-critical approaches to biblical studies provide a visible index of theology’s commitment to reason and, at the same time, a bulwark against each new manifestation of docetism.

The relationship between the Bible understood historically and theologically is complex, and this is only one quote. Schmid’s thoughts here are also shaped by his European context (which need not be belabored), where the relationship between the academy and the church is very different than in the American experience.

Having said that, here’s what I like about this quote (and the article as a whole).

1. It is a reminder that the tension between history and theology is not simply felt by evangelicals or fundamentalists, but by mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics–though as I see it evangelicalism and fundamentalism exacerbate the tension by laboring to artificially minimize the distance between history and theology.

2. As the article continues, it is clear that the author seeks to allow that tension to remain—both sides need to be reminded of the other and the dominance of one over the other is not the end game. That point can be lost on both sides, and routinely so among inerrantists, where theological needs transparently dictate exegesis. From the conclusion of the article (pp. 18-19):

Historical-critical exegesis becomes implausible historically when it misjudges the theological gravity of the biblical texts; theological interpretation of the Bible degenerates structurally into docetism when it relegates the historical X of textual interpretation to a place after a theological Y coefficient. 

. . . [H]istorical exegesis is only then truly and responsibly historical when carried out with theological sensibility. At the same time, theological exegesis cannot be something completely different than historical exegesis and it is best informed when incorporating appropriately the insights of a seriously performed historical exegesis.

As soon as theological exegesis threatens to cut its ties with historical criticism, then suspicion of gnosticizing, docetic tendencies in its interpretation of the Bible are no longer unfounded. The convenient location of biblical studies as part of theological studies remains well supported, yet its potential has yet to be fully developed.

The issue is not so much about “balancing” theology with history or vice-versa, but acknowledging the tension and letting that tension inform and fuel our spiritual engagement of the Bible.

3. It critiques the simplistic but common evangelical and fundamentalist assertion that the negative influence of Enlightenment philosophy is to blame for the likewise negative methodology of historical-criticism, which then coerced theology to keep up.

4. A theological reading of the Bible that is not historical-critically conversant—that does not take seriously the cultural-historical setting of scripture—is a kind of “docetism,” an early Christian heresy that deemed that Christ was fully divine but only appeared to be human. (The pervasive problem of scriptural docetism within evangelicalism is a central focus of my Inspiration and Incarnation).

The bottom line for me is and has always been: the truly historical study of scripture, one that is not dictated by and asked to “serve” theology, will inevitably be in tension with that theology.

That inevitable tension must be respected rather than cut off or neutralized.

Historically speaking, the Bible we have presents us with some very serious challenges. Good theology will accept the challenge and understand that simple answers are often wrong and that sometimes, whether we are comfortable with it or not, final theological resolutions will not be forthcoming.

[Comments are moderated and may take as long as 24 hours. In the meantime, the world will keep spinning and President Trump will surely have done something to distract you while you wait.]

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.