Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Michel Barnes on the Seven Criteria By Which to Judge a Historical Reading of a Text

"There are, I propose, seven different criteria by which one judges a historical reading (or interpretation) of a text. A given reading is more credible as a work of scholarship in direct proportion to its degree of success in fulfilling these criteria. First, the reading must locate the text (or topic) in its original context, and use that context to 'unpack' the meaning or sense of the text. Second, the reading must identify the presence and hence, effect of tradition in the text (or topic), and use that presence to identify the meaning or sense of the text. Third, the reading must identify and place the content of the text in a larger 'external' narrative which supports the reading(s) derived from the previous steps by making such a content possible (or even, happy day, likely). Fourth, the reading must utilize a knowledge of scholarship on the author, text, and topic; the broader and more detailed the engagement with scholarship the more sophisticated the reading. Fifth, there must be close reading or exegesis of the text which uncovers the key steps in the author's logic or expression. Sixth, the reading must identify, and show a fluency with, those conceptual idioms that are the key building blocks of the author's logic or expression. Seventh and finally, judgements on the sense of any part (a sentence, a phrase) of the text must relate that sense to the text as a whole (and test that proposed sense against the whole text). Such a relating of the part to the whole is necessary to avoid the danger of a 'historical fundamentalism' (akin to 'biblical fundamentalism') in which sentences or phrases are interpreted apart from the text within which the words stand. Steps such as these (and there is nothing definitive about this list or the order) are, I would argue, necessary for a credible reading of any theological (or philosophical) text, but it is enough for now to identify with such criteria the credibility of the reading of a text which falls under the rubric of 'historical theology'."

--Michel Barnes, "Rereading Augustine's Theology of the Trinity," in The Trinity: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Trinity (ed. S.T. Davis, D. Kendall, and G. O’Collins; New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 150-51

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