Philip R. Vander Ploeg
In seminary, I completed an assignment which investigated the redaction of Jesus’s Parable of the Sower . In this assignment, I compared the accounts of the three synoptic gospel writers and the gnostic writer of the Gospel of Thomas. The purpose of this exercise was to find out at what points the writers decided to diverge from the original oral and written accounts (historically theorized as Mark & Q) in order to preach their own message. While this exercise was enlightening, there were questions that I could not remove from my mind: “What if these accounts are not comprehensive, and what if Jesus told these parables more than once?” The text itself tells us that on this occasion Jesus spoke of many things (Mk. 4:2). The assumption would be that the reader does not have the whole story, or even Jesus’s full explanations. When I posed the question to my professor, he responded by telling me that I was not exhibiting “good thinking.” At first I believed him, and I wondered what it was about my thinking that was not “good”. But after further thought, reading, and conversation with other students and scholars, I found that I was not the only student of the Bible asking these questions. In fact, many have and are asking these same questions. So, why was my thinking deemed inadequate?
In the following paper this question will be investigated further through a number of interpretive lenses. The assertion is that Modern (historical-critical) scholarship seeks to minimize and neutralize other voices by claiming to be the only legitimate voice. Certainly there are many marginalized voices in the world of biblical scholarship, but this research paper will investigate only four: The African-American, global, student, and Euro-American conservative voices.
THE RISE OF MODERN BIBLICAL CRITICISM
The historical-critical method developed over an extensive period of time, before it came to dominate biblical hermeneutics in the middle to late 20th century. A. Johnson begins his analysis of the historical-critical method with the Renaissance: “The Renaissance brought a new sense of freedom to read and explore the sources of traditions and thought. Printing made texts available to all for study... In its wake a new spirit of free inquiry based on the right of private conscience was set loose.” Historian Ronald Wells adds, "[The Renaissance] offered a methodology by which persons could challenge 'authority' in any realm of life. First artists, then literary critics, then historians, then theologians, and finally political thinkers used a method whereby they could rebel against the authority of the 'medieval synthesis'.” The ecclesiastical outcome of this new methodology was the Protestant reformation, which was ultimately the parent of the historical-critical method, since it was originally given birth as a support to the Bible’s authority.
As time progressed and the historical-critical method developed, it fashioned new methods and assumptions that did not have theological or ecclesiastical concerns in mind. A. Johnson asserts, “The historical-critical approach to Scripture has tended to drive a wedge between the historical and theological. Historical concerns dominated Biblical studies and left theology in the wings until the early twentieth century.” This dichotomy led to reactive tendencies within the church and greater believing community (fundamentalism, separatism, etc.). African American and conservative Christian traditions began to distrust the Academy, and, as a result, many of these communities either started their own seminaries or ceased to expect their clergy to be academically trained.
The greatest fallacy of the historical-critical paradigm is it’s assertion that it can be fully objective and unbiased in its interpretations. A modern example might be the Quest for the Historical Jesus. This scholarly expedition boasted the facility to differentiate the truly historical from the mythologized and authorial tainted accounts of Jesus’s life and ministry within the Bible. Theologian Michael Jinkins comments: “The Quest for the Historical Jesus was the search for the founder of [the Christian] movement. But the various attempts to discover the Jesus of history, heroic as they often were, ended in the rather dubious ‘discovery’ of essentially a nineteenth-century moralist (a German-protestant moralist at that) dressed in the clothes of a first century Palestinian rabbi.” Jinkins continues: “…the whole quest for a historical Jesus, cast in the image and reflecting the interests of the researchers who searched for him, has been called into question at the most fundamental level.” The Quest for the Historical Jesus is just one example of the flawed assertion of modern objectivity.
The historical-critical method has repeatedly refused to acknowledge the African American, global, conservative Christian, and student voices; however, post-critical, post-modern and postcolonial biblical criticism has sought to give voice to these interpretive methods, and even those (intentionally or not) which draw more conservative conclusions from the text.
A PLACE OF PRIVILEGE – MK. 10:35-45 and MATT. 20:20-28
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10: 35-45 NRSV)
As with all Biblical narratives, there are numerous contemporary applications for this pericope in Mark’s gospel, but one cannot fail to recognize its relevance to a discussion on the domination and marginalization of minorities in the academy.
African Bible scholar Joe Kapolyo, in his exegesis of this passage, argues that the disciples misunderstood the nature of Messiahship and consequently the nature of discipleship. He observes: “Jesus used the opportunity to give his disciples another lesson on the qualities of leadership in the kingdom of heaven.” African American scholar Michael Joseph Brown observes: “Jesus… set out to reverse the normal status order. The great are now those who occupy the status of slave. To further clarify, Jesus says that the new pattern of status in the community is based on his own actions.” In other words, Jesus was seeking to redefine what positions of influence and authority should look like.
Jesus’s response to James, John and the other disciples presents them with some useful binary oppositions: understanding/lack of understanding, gentile rulers/kingdom leaders, lording over/serving, tyrannical leadership/servant leadership. Jesus’s bottom-line instruction is that the standards of leadership (or any other social and institutional context) in His kingdom are in sharp disparity with those of the unbelieving and largely self-serving world.
Although most modern critical scholars would maintain that they are serving the believing community and the marginalized, the current reality does not support such an assertion. For generations, historical-critical methodology has boasted a privileged place in the interpretive tradition. Like James and John the proponents of the historical-critical paradigm have historically sought a “ruling” post over academic and ecclesial hermeneutics.
This essay is not intended to judge the motives or intentions of modern historical-critical scholars, but it does intend to challenge the current realities exhibited both in scholarly institutions and professional guilds.
Like the other ten disciples, there are those who have become “indignant” with the academy, and not without cause. The academy has made some progress toward acknowledging the short-comings of the modern methods , but it has not ceased from marginalizing interpreters it sees as posing a threat to its long and tyrannical reign. What follows is an evaluation of several of the voices which the modern academy has attempted to neutralize .
THE AFRICAN AMERICAN VOICE
Few scholarly voices have been as marginalized and oppressed in the western academy (United States) as the African American voice. Speaking to the academic environment in which African American’s find themselves, New Testament Scholar William H. Myers states;
It is within the context of an oppressive society – a society that in many ways diminishes the value of African Americans – that the Scriptures have played an important role in helping African Americans to survive and maintain a healthy identity and hope. The African American scholar has not been exempted from such oppressive treatment. As students, authors, and teachers, most, if not all, of these scholars have shared a common history of overt and subtle forms of racism and rejection of the value of the African American believing communities contribution to the interpretive process.
In the above statement Dr. Myers expresses the plight of the modern and contemporary African American Scholar. Although many American colleges and seminaries would allege an equal opportunity for those of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, this assertion is often not supported in practice. Those scholars who have been welcomed by the mainstream in scholarship have done so under a tremendous pressure to conform to Euro-American interpretive methods and strategies.
From it origins the historical-critical method has misleadingly boasted an ability to be timelessly objective and without cultural bias of any kind. “This approach suggests to all students that the Eurocentric way of interpreting the text is the normative way by which all other approaches are to be tested.” The subsequent assumption creates a conflict for the African American student who desires to have a successful and recognized career. In order to attain such recognition he or she must learn to utilize Euro-American methods and answer Euro-American questions. Dr. Myers observes; “In a rather insidious way, this approach creates a dilemma for the African American biblical student. Since the literature is dominated by a Eurocentric approach, the lectures, assignments, and examinations in the discipline of biblical studies tend to prepare the African American student to answer more Eurocentric-oriented questions and concerns.” The African-American scholar has historically been called upon to lay aside the needs of their own culture and even their own cultural identity for the “greater cause” of objective and unbiased interpretation. In other words, modern scholarship has tended to accuse African-American interpreters of being too idealistic and culturally identified to be useful for serious academic research and scholarly dialogue.
What modern scholars have typically missed in their evaluation of African American hermeneutics is its contribution to the interpretation of the Biblical narratives. Where Euro-American scholarship tends to gravitate toward the prose of Scripture, African Americans tend to interpret and apply the stories in Scripture. Where Euro-American scholars tend to search for the meaning behind the historical text, African American scholars have been more inclined to look for meaning in the narratives contemporary application. Reflecting on the development of the African American hermeneutic Thomas Hoyt Jr. writes:
Long before theological institutions in the South increasingly appreciated the historical elements in the Bible, blacks had heard and read the Bible through the existential reality of their own oppression in America, and that reality allowed them to identify readily with the historical oppressions recorded in Scripture. Furthermore, when whites preached to blacks, the white preacher and black congregation tended to interpret biblical events differently – the white preacher interpreted biblical events figuratively while the blacks interpreted the events more literally and concretely. When a white preacher referred to a biblical event, blacks tended to view it in terms of an analogous, concrete, historical event within their own experience. Thus the events of the Bible spoke powerfully and directly to their situation, and that led them to shape a distinct and creative interpretation of the Bible.
In this way the African American interpretation of the historical biblical events parallels that of the ancient Israelite. The Ancient Israelite believed in a God who did mighty things for them and for their people. Without these historical events the ancient faith of the Israelites would have lacked substance and impact. In the same way, African American faith has built upon these same ideals. For the African American interpreter the narratives in Scripture are not just historical events, but a means of inspiration for African Americans whose history and experiences parallel those same narratives. Simply put, African Americans by-in-large believe that the God who accomplished such great deeds in the experience of Ancient Israel can, and will, accomplish mighty acts in their experience; and the same God who cared for and acted on behalf of the oppressed in the Scriptures, sees their oppression. While, modern historical-criticism would seek to lock these stories in the past as myth and a part of Israel’s history alone, African American scholars seek to employ these stories as inspiration for those who are oppressed and marginalized in their contemporary context.
There are certainly differences between the typical Euro-American and African American interpretations, but not differences that should have resulted in isolation and marginalization. It would be pretentious for either side to argue that they are not in need of the other. The debate has never been whether African American hermeneutics are orthodox, but whether they fit into the modern historical-critical paradigm. The modern scholar must not only concede their false assumptions of pure objectivity, they must also recognize and legitimize the contribution of traditional and contemporary African American interpretive methods.
THE GLOBAL VOICE
Distinguished professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University Philip Jenkins wrote an article titled, Reading the Bible in the Global South in 2006, in which he addressed the issue of global hermeneutics. He begins with a story:
On one occasion, two bishops were participating in a Bible study [addressing the ordination of homosexuals], one an African Anglican, the other a U.S. Episcopalian. As the hours went by, tempers frayed as the African expressed his confidence in the clear words of Scripture, while the American stressed the need to interpret the Bible in light of contemporary scholarship. Eventually, the African bishop asked in exasperation, ‘If you don’t believe the Scriptures, why did you bring it to us in the first place?’
Notice the difference in interpretive strategies. The American stressed the use of modern approaches, while the African stressed a plain reading of Scripture. Jenkins then added; “Similar disputes surface not just in international meetings, but also in North American religious communities within large immigrant populations.”
One must inquire why such assertions on the part of Christians in the global south and in immigrant communities are being overlooked or ignored. The American Bishop seemingly argued a more enlightened knowledge of the text that he no doubt gained from his application of the historical-critical method. In this way the modern Eurocentric academy has often boasted a more complete knowledge and consequently a place of privilege in the interpretation of the relevant texts.
Interestingly, paralleling these differing views of Biblical authority, is the steep difference in economic opportunity between the Euro-American North and the Global South. Jenkins affirms:
The divisions churches have experienced tend to fall along lines of what has come to be referred to as North and South, with Christians in the generally richer northern countries favoring a liberal interpretation of Scripture, and those in the generally poorer south maintaining a more conservative Christianity and traditional view of Scripture. We often encounter conservative themes in the religious thought of African and Asian Christians, specifically in their attitudes toward the Bible…Even a cursory acquaintance with African or Asian Christianity reveals the pervasive importance it gives to the Bible and biblical stories.
Like the African American community, interpreters in the global south hold a high view of scripture, because it relates to their life. Certainly the financial privilege of the western academy has tainted its view of the Bible narratives. Jenkins affirms:
…the southern Bible carries a freshness an authenticity that adds vastly to its credibility as an authoritative source and as a guide for daily living. In this (Western) context, it is difficult to make the familiar Euro-American argument that the Bible was written for a totally alien society with which moderns can scarcely identify, so that its detailed moral laws cannot be applied in the contemporary world. Cultures that readily identify with Biblical worldviews find it easier to read the Bible not just as historical fact but also as relevant instruction for daily conduct.
Speaking of Latin American Biblical interpretation, James M. Dawsey observes;
Interpretation takes place in the midst of the people. Meanwhile, the people can hear the Word of God because they understand themselves to be its intended audience. For … liberation theologians, the people are not a group of human beings, gathered at random. Rather they make up the faithful community which is oppressed and dominated but nevertheless looks to God for help. The people are the people of God, the poor of Latin America, one with the Exodus community and the New Testament church. They understand the Bible because the Bible belongs to them.
Biblical interpretation in the Global South is largely dependant on the Bibles ability to serve a purpose in the context of their immediate circumstances. Certainly, authorial intent does have value to “Southern” scholars, but not as much value as God’s word for them, through His word, and for today. One contribution that interpreters in the Global South offer to the greater interpretive community is a reminder that just because the Bible context is so different from their interpretive context, that does not mean that the stories are not true, or not applicable. Modern scholarship’s critique of the Global voice would be its misuse or disuse of the historical-critical method. They might assert that these interpretations have devotional value; they would not, however, identify these as legitimate meanings for the texts.
THE EURO-AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE VOICE
One cannot discuss the topic of Western conservativism without first addressing the matter of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism in essence was a reaction to the growing influence of liberal critical thought in the academy towards the end of the nineteenth century. Though there are still a great many churches in the west that would consider themselves to be fundamentalists (meaning those who adhere to the five fundamentals), there are many that will only mention the title in order to separate themselves from it. Recent scholarship, which is still reacting against fundamentalism, has used terms like “reclusive”, “adolescent” and even “anti-intellectual” to describe it. Note the implications in the above accusations. These terms imply a privileged knowledge against scholastic inferiority. There have been those who considered themselves to be fundamentalists that have made unreasonable and even unbiblical claims, but the academy’s reaction to it has been so strong that fundamentalism has in many ways become the whipping boy for theologians and scholars of every stripe. There are many that would criticize fundamentalism who do not really understand what it is, even though evangelicalism in America was at one point inseparable from it. David H. Wenkel recalls: “At the beginning of the century most evangelicals understood themselves to be fundamentalists, but this eventually changed. Differences arose around the 1950s with the presence of new or neo-evangelicalism. While recognizing the deep differences over doctrines such as separation and perspectives on culture, both hold to some form of the doctrine of inerrancy. While historical taxonomy is a difficult matter, it is not incorrect to maintain that evangelicals are historically related to their fundamentalists cousins.”
The truth about American Christian Fundamentalism is that it was formulated under the widely accepted “five fundamentals”; the inerrancy of the Scriptures, the virgin birth/deity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the second coming of Christ. Over time though, the term “fundamentalism” has come to be associated with less agreeable convictions both theological and political.
The struggle for conservative Euro-American scholars lies in their potential for being labeled as fundamentalists (in the broader less agreeable sense), if they assert a more conservative approach to hermeneutics and Biblical authority. Such categorization of persons is a common practice of imperialism. Postcolonial scholar R. Sugirtharajah asserts: “The key to power is knowledge, and true power is held with the conviction that the ruler knows better than the ruled, and must convince the ruled that whatever the colonial master does is for the benefit of the ruled. The assumption undergirding this thinking is the belief that ‘knowledge of subject races [or interpreters] is what makes their management easy and profitable; knowledge gives power, more power requires more knowledge, and so on in an increasingly profitable dialectic of information and control” Simply put, labeling a person or group, is a way of attempting to control, manage, or suppress them. Labeling conservative interpreters as “fundamentalists” is always a defensive move aiming to neutralize and delegitimize their voice. Such attempts at suppressing and controlling the voices of others can be a dangerous enterprise. The danger posed by a contemporary “fundamentalist” witch hunt is two fold: First, it marginalizes legitimate and scholarly voices, both American and Global; and second, it limits the greater interpretive enterprises’ ability to be fully-critical of its own assumptions.
MODERN HISTORICAL CRITICAL SCHOLARSHIP IN PEDEGOGY
The modern historical-critical method has thrived in academies where the environment tends to be one of “learned impartation and passive reception”. Distinguished Postcolonial scholar Fernando F. Segovia, speaking of the historical-critical method in the past tense to aid his point states:
This was a pedagogical model of learned impartation and passive reception, highly hierarchical and authoritative in character, with strong emphasis on academic pedigree (who studied under whom) and schools of thought (proper verses improper approximations of the text). Readers had to learn how to read texts correctly but did not have to read themselves, except of course for a mandatory surfacing of theological presuppositions so that these could be duly obviated. Not surprisingly, such an educational model closely paralleled the interpretive model, with students/readers dependent on teachers/critics for an account of the text and its meaning.
Under this pedagogical model, the opposition or challenge is neutralized. Students are no longer encouraged toward intellectual honesty, unless that intellectual honesty points them to the same ends as their teachers (see the introduction). It is in these environments where dialogue is shut down, and arguably, honest reflective education is impracticable. One cannot be intellectually honest while having the utilities of debate and challenge removed. Certainly students must be teachable and open to reflect upon the views of others, whether or not they agree with them, but it can be argued that the same should be expected of the teacher. Teachers are respected, not because they wear their PhD on their sleeves, but because they can support their arguments and reason in ways that reflect their academic pedigree.
Students may challenge the traditional historical-critical pedagogical model by asserting that “passive reception” is not the best way to learn or be intellectually honest. In the future, academic institutions must allow students to think for themselves, understanding that students may or may not draw the same conclusions.
The four marginalized voices that have been addressed in this essay, though different in significant ways, reflect some similar concerns. All are concerned about the historical-critical methods function as the only legitimate scholarly interpretive method, and all have experienced the neutralization of their voices under the same. The hope of any marginalized people is that their voice will one day be heard, and that their arguments will be evaluated on their own merit. This remains the hope of those who question the privileged position of the historical-critical paradigm in the European and North American academies.
Brown, Michael Joseph. “Matthew” In True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, ed. Brian K. Blount. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.
Dawsey, James M. "The Lost Front Door Into Scripture: Carlos Mesters, Latin American Liberation Theology and the Church Fathers." Anglican Theological Review 72, no. 3 (June 1, 1990): 292-305. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed May 14, 2010).
Gundry, Robert. Jesus the Word According to John the Sectarian: A Paleofundamentalist Manifesto for Contemporary Evangelicalism, Especially its Elites, In North America, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002.
Hoyt Jr., Thomas, “Interpreting Biblical Scholarship for the Black Church Tradition” In Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation, ed. Cain Hope Felder, 17-39. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991.
Jenkins, Philip. "Reading the Bible in the Global South." International Bulletin of Missionary Research 30, no. 2 (April 1, 2006): 67-73. ATLA Religion Database, EBSCOhost (accessed May 14, 2010).
Jinkins, Michael. Invitation to Theology: A Guide to Study, Conversation and Practice, IL: IVP Academic, 2001.
Johnson, Alan F. "The Historical-Critical Method: Egyptian Gold or Pagan Precipice." Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 26, no. 1 (March 1, 1983): 3-15. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed May 14, 2010).
Kapolyo, Joe. “Matthew” In Africa Bible Commentary, ed. Tukunboh Adeyemo. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.
Myers, William H. “Interpreting Biblical Scholarship for the Black Church Tradition” In Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation, ed. Cain Hope Felder, 40-56. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991.
Patte, Daniel. “The Contextualized Character of Male, European-American Critical Exegeses” In Reading from this Place: Social Location and Biblical Interpretation in the United States, Vol. 1, ed. Fernando F. Segovia and Mary Ann Tolbert, 35-55. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995.
Segovia, Fernando F. Decolonizing Biblical Studies: A View From the Margins, NY: Orbis Books, 2000.
Sugirtharajah, R.S. Postcolonial Criticism and Biblical Interpretation, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Wenkel, David H. "A Survey of Evangelical Criticisms of Protestant Fundamentalist Hermeneutics: 1994-2004." Didaskalia (Otterburne, Man.) 19, no. 1 (December 1, 2008): 113-126. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed May 14, 2010).