Wednesday, February 25, 2015

On Anachronism and the Literal Sense of Scripture

For years now I've had a running conversation with a friend over the divide between biblical scholarship and theology, and in particular the disjunction between historical criticism and theological interpretation of Scripture. One of the dividing lines between us concerns what "the literal sense" means. My consistent stance is that "the literal sense," as used in the Christian theological tradition, does not mean what historical critics mean when they use the term. This is because "the literal sense" is understood theologically rather than merely hermeneutically or historically.

The reason why this is such a big issue is that Christian biblical scholars who use historical criticism often make the argument that what they are doing is reading for what the tradition has always prioritized: the literal sense. This is often attached to or undergirded by an appeal to the so-called "humanity and divinity" of the text, historical criticism giving us "the humanity," apart from which we have a docetic Scripture, as bad a result as a docetic Christ.

So the disagreement consists in the question, whether or not historical criticism interprets for the literal sense; or, put differently, whether what the historical critic is doing when she offers her reading is giving us the literal sense of the text. My answer, as I said above, is no. Historical criticism reads for what should be called the historical-critical sense: namely, what this text (might have) meant in its original context, either to its author or to its immediate audience. But that is not synonymous with the literal sense—although, given a certain text, it could be, just as it could overlap with a given text's literal sense though not be entirely synonymous with it.

What I discovered in articulating this to my friend was that the simplest way to clarify the disagreement regarding what "the literal sense" means is the issue of anachronism. Traditionally speaking, the literal sense may be, though it need not be, anachronistic. But historical criticism's raison d'être is the elimination of anachronism; the historical-critical sense is therefore by definition anti-anachronistic. For the literal sense to be anachronistic, on historical-critical grounds, is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. But the literal sense, theologically understood, in continuity with the tradition, is not tested at the bar of whether or not it could have been meant by the text's human author at the time he wrote it. The literal sense of the text is not disconfirmed by the accusation (or the demonstration) of anachronism.

In the divide, then, between historical-critical biblical scholarship and Christian theological interpretation of Scripture, anachronism is the rub.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting thoughts. I'm very interested in this, as I'm coming from a tradition that still mainly relies on the historical-grammatical from of biblical interpretation, with no much use of critical scholarship as understood in Mainline denominations. It's important for there to be a theological sense of the text, because the historical-critical method is always trying to reduce the text to a mere expression or reflection of whatever the scholar perceives as the cultural context.