Does Theology Bring Death to Biblical Studies?

(Previous posts here and here.)

I’m still digesting Hector Avalos’ The End of Biblical Studies, and would like to address some points made in the chapter on biblical theology. At one point Avalos criticizes Jon Levenson for maintaining that scripture’s nature is to be reinterpreted, and that readers inevitably, and should, recreate meaning to the extent that it doesn’t matter much what an author originally meant (pp 265-267).

“In essence Levenson champions the legitimacy of ‘recontextualization’ and ‘reappropriation’, which claims that a text can and should mean whatever a faith community needs it to mean to keep the community alive. For Levenson, recontextualization is legitimate even when it might contradict what an author originally meant.” (p 265)

This is of course a common position advocated in the past by theologians like Hans-Georg Gadamer and Krister Stendahl. Distinguishing what the bible means from what it meant is what we were all taught to do as fledgling students of the bible. But it’s that basic distinction Avalos exposes as so problematic:

“Levenson’s argument (and that of Stendahl) is seriously flawed. First, it relies on relativism, which Levenson denounces elsewhere. If senses other than the original are to be allowed, then why argue against any of those other senses at all?” (p 265)

I agree. If, for instance, we’re going to say that the Lutheran view of Paul is fine in a contemporary faith setting, even though we know it’s historically bogus, why not say the same for (say) the Nazi-Aryan view of Jesus? Why can’t anything go? As Avalos asks throughout the entire chapter, what is our criteria for judging what counts as legitimate interpretations of scripture? He continues:

“Another flaw is that [Levenson’s] allowance of senses other than the original one would render superfluous his own warnings not to misunderstand him. For example, he says, ‘My point would be misunderstood if it were taken to be that only a religious affirmation can justify the presence of biblical studies in a curriculum.’ But what if two hundred years from now, someone makes Levenson’s own book into some sort of scripture that recontextualizes his words to mean exactly the opposite of what he says he wants readers to understand? Would he allow ‘room for other senses’ to his own work, especially if such senses were the complete opposite of what he intended. Would he argue that since people do engage in such reinterpretations all the time, it is therefore proper for them to treat his work that way? I suspect he would find that unethical, and so the same applies to any recontextualization of the sort he allows to faith communities.” (p 266)

Again I agree completely, and have used this argument myself many times, particularly against those who resent being misunderstood in the slightest. For it’s these grievants who often insist that the bible carries many legitimate meanings, and who are we to say one is better than the other? But how would Isaiah feel about this? How would Paul? Wouldn’t they be as outraged as we are when our words are “recontextualized” for different purposes? We hate being cited out of context; we hate being misrepresented; we hate having our thoughts massaged into different paradigms. And we know from his letters that Paul did too.

I can’t go along with Avalos’ conclusion, however:

“Levenson’s own reappropriation program carries the seeds of the destruction of biblical studies. When considering the meaning of a biblical text for faith communities, two positions can be identified for those who believe there is even such a thing as authorial intent:

A. Authorial intent is the only one that matters.

B. Authorial intent is not the only one that matters.

If one chooses A, then biblical studies has been highly unsuccessful. We often do not possess enough information to determine what an author meant, even if we believe authorial intent matters and should be the primary goal of interpretation. If one chooses B, then the only result is chaos and relativism that renders scholarly biblical studies moot and superfluous. Faith communities do not need academic biblical scholars to inform them about any original context in order to keep the Bible alive for themselves. So what is the purpose of academic biblical studies in such a case?” (p 266)

I agree with his point about B, but not A. Biblical studies has been far more successful in getting at original meanings than he allows (see my review of Jacques Berlinerblau’s The Secular Bible for a related critique). And once we realize this, we won’t copy the mistakes of Gadamer, Stendahl, and Levenson. We needn’t agree with scripture to be engaged by it, or even live by it in a faith-based context. We don’t need to make the bible say something it never did. The theological approach of someone like Philip Esler becomes a viable alternative. In New Testament Theology Esler slams Gadamer, and says that Christians should meet the biblical writers on their alien terms, disagreeing with them whenever necessary. This is preferable to (and more honest than) paying disingenuous homage to original intentions and then polymorphing them into something more relevant. Paul’s letter to the Galatians stands as a lesson of how not to behave/believe in a faith-based community — and it belongs in the Christian canon all the more for this. Romans, by contrast, shows Paul learning from his errors and dealing with ethnic conflict in more commendable ways.

If more theologians heeded Esler’s call to listen critically to their ancestors in the faith — to honor original meanings as much as humanly possible, even when in disagreement — then I would see no need to sound the death knell of biblical studies on account of theology. Just the opposite: theology needs the historical-critical method.


3 thoughts on “Does Theology Bring Death to Biblical Studies?

  1. When you ask what Paul and Isaiah would make of our reinterpretations and contextualizations of their writings, I suspect that the answer depends on how aware they were that they themselves were doing the very same thing to earlier writings and traditions. And it is widely agreed that the process of reinterpreting and contextualizing both the writings of Isaiah of Jerusalem and the Apostle Paul already begins within the canon itself.I find the two extremes of naive realism and pure relativism both unattractice and unpersuasive. I believe there is a real world out there, but am humble about whether or not I have actually perceived and described it accurately. I think it is meaningful to speak about what Paul or Isaiah <>meant<> even if we cannot be absolutely certain that we have accurately uncovered it. The main point is that it is useful to <>try<>, because it can helpfully check our tendency not merely to read the text in light of our own cultural context and horizon, but our tendency to read texts that carry some weight or authority as saying what we want them to say, however much in tension that might be with some details in the texts themselvs.

  2. I think that the main problem historical-critical folks are having is that they refuse to understand that communities accept holy texts and not vice-versa.Obviously creedal communities accept texts as their own, and are only going to accept them on the communities’ terms. People come to faith for a variety of reasons, and are going to read the scriptures in light of those committments.The NT shows exactly the same movement. It is not concerned with the historical-critical issues of modern scholarship in its engagment with the OT. It appropriates the OT images in order to say what the authors already believe in light of Christ. But the answer of Christ was accepted before the OT Scriptures are opened to articulate him. I do not think the choice is as clear-cut as accepting the texts as having supreme authority in the minds of their original authors, or being hopelessly bastardized by modern sensibilities. There is a discipline even within a creedal context, but that discipline begins with a stated First Principle, rather than pretending naively to be objective.

  3. Thank you so much for your views. I just came across the blog. I believe that to a large extent it is important that the integrity of the original text be maintained but I do not necessarily think that this is divorced from the art of making the text relevant and appropriate for today. Futhermore, we always run the risk of seeing text as canonised versus inspired. I think that a large extent depends on the premise on which we begin the discussion. May God’s living Word and lived Word in Christ of Nazareth continue to inspire you.

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