I’m a first year student at Yale Divinity School, where I’m pursuing a Master’s degree in Philosophy of Religion. Most of my coursework falls within that field, but I’m also required to take courses in Bible. For the fall semester I enrolled in an Old Testament interpretation class taught by a well-regarded Bible scholar. This being Yale and not an independent denominational seminary of a more conservative bent, the assigned readings for the course have tended to promote a very low regard for Scripture, especially for its historical veracity. I’m learning a great deal in the class, but the lectures and readings challenge many of my fundamental convictions about the authority of the Bible.
I cannot claim to be surprised; this sort of liberalism dominates biblical and religious studies at universities across the country. What strikes me as interesting is the presumption on behalf of some faculty that this openly skeptical, historical-critical reading of Scripture is suitable for practicing theology.
Let me single out one text as an example of the sentiment common among this school of thought. In A History of Ancient Israel and Judah, J. Maxwell Miller and John H. Hayes, both emeritus faculty at Candler School of Theology, write: “Most present-day biblical scholars approach the Hebrew Bible from a historical-critical perspective, which means that they analyze the biblical materials with the same assumptions and methods with which they analyze any other ancient sources.” This is no doubt true, and one commends the authors for clarifying for the reader the discipline’s methodological commitments. But we should ask whether this approach to biblical studies is best suited to the theologian and seminarian. To put the question another way, are the historical-critical method and theology compatible?
To the extent that theology exists as a distinct discipline at all we should expect to find methods and assumptions unique to its practice. Should we not count among the most basic assumptions of theology a tacit acceptance of god’s existence? Or, more cautiously, should not the practice of theology require at least the suspension of skepticism about god? If these attributes do not characterize the theologian, how else might we distinguish her from, say, the historian of religion, the anthropologist or the psychologist? We can expect some overlap between disciplines, but doesn’t the theologian pursue something distinctly her own, namely knowledge of god? And doesn’t the pursuit of knowledge of god first require assent to the proposition that god exists? If so, then it appears unlikely that theology can be neatly circumscribed within the sphere of the historical-critical method.
Constrained by their narrower set of tools, historians remain silent on some issues that the theologian must address. Miller and Hayes admit as much when they write, “While modern historians do not necessarily reject the idea of divine involvement in history, it is a presupposition of modern historiography that the general cause-and-effect aspects of history are explainable without reference to unique disruptions in natural conditions (such as the waters of the Red Sea rolling back of the sun standing still) or any kind of overt divine involvement in human affairs.” So while the historical-critical method contributes greatly to our knowledge of ancient Israel and Judah, it cannot be the only method we employ if we wish to practice theology. Our pursuit of knowledge of God compels us to investigate His alleged supernatural interaction with humankind in ways that the historical-critical method excludes.
When the methods of historical inquiry cast doubt on biblical accounts of miracles the theologian may rightly shift her approach to accommodate the subject matter. She recognizes the inability of the historical-critical method to account for God’s supernatural capabilities and suspends her historical skepticism to engage the material. In short, she practices theology, not merely history.
This distinction is never raised in my Old Testament class. Instead we are led to believe that the historian’s method must dictate biblical interpretation. This approach seems to ignore the fundamental distinction between theology and history, and to hinder the theologian from drawing on the broader range of presuppositions and methodologies that belong to her discipline. It also ignores the possibility of subsuming the historical-critical approach under a theological framework in order to employ it judiciously, as no doubt many conservative theologians do.
Whatever your position on the historical validity of the Bible, we ought to be comfortable admitting that the theologian is, at critical times, doing something altogether different from the historian. To limit the former to the methods of the latter is to eliminate the possibility of doing theology at all, which seems contrary to the aim of any divinity school or seminary. Theologians may profitably draw on liberal approaches to biblical studies, but they should avoid committing themselves to any historical method that would render their project impossible.