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The pros and cons of biblical criticism

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 4 December 2009

I have been reading Hans Frei’s classic book on biblical interpretation The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative. To my delight he deals with fundamental changes that were brought about by Anthony Collins in England in the 1720s, right in the middle of my research interests.

Collins was a Deist, a close confident of John Locke and was influenced by one of the major figures in English Deism, John Toland. With the backing of Locke’s understanding of language as referring either to things in the world or objects in the mind, Collins proceeded to dismantle the tools of medieval interpretation whereby much was understood figuratively or by allegory.

Collins insisted that the biblical authors were real people who referred to real historical events and who had points of view of their own. Furthermore, he insisted that what had been taken as the fulfilment of Old Testament Prophesy in the New Testament contravened the rules of normal language. For example it was nonsense to believe that the prediction in Isaiah 7:14 of a woman bearing a son who shall be called Emmanuel finds its fulfilment in the birth of Jesus (Matt.1:23). The author of the Isaiah text was referring to a birth in the reign of King Ahaz of Judah, not to a birth several hundred years later. He argued that the Old Testament prophesy was directed to local events and that to extend them to the New Testament was playing with the truth.


Thus Collins insisted that there was an authorial voice in the Bible and that it had to obey the normal of rules of language and refer to things in the world that we all know and see. Thus all statements, including those in the Bible, must be judged by a reality outside of the text that is common to all people. One could no longer use figurative or typological or allegorical interpretations because one could make up any meaning that one desired. This was upsetting to the clergy of the time who believed that the Bible was divinely inspired by God and was thus the foundation of Christianity.

This was the beginning of historical criticism and all of the other kind of criticisms of the Bible. Simply to assert that biblical authors had a voice of their own was huge move away from the idea that the text of the Bible was inspired by God.

The intriguing thing about Protestant exegesis of the period was that God was understood to be both the author of the Bible and the governor of the events described therein. Biblical exegesis was done under the idea of divine providence; God was the cause of all worldly events. This produced some interesting conundrums. Why should God, in his inspiration of biblical texts, disguise his meaning to the extent that ordinary language was inadequate to decipher it? If he wanted us to see into the future, why did he not speak plainly?

Collins’ attack on traditional exegesis was in part an attack on those like Isaac Newton who searched the apocalyptic passages of the Bible for secret information about the future of the world. It also undermined the notion that the Bible was inspired in some super-naturalist fashion that made its authors unconscious mediators of the divine mind. This was a great breakthrough because now the Bible could be investigated like any other book.

While this seems all well and good, the result for biblical interpretation was mixed. Yes, many of the medieval interpretative methods were unreasonably stretched and on reflection it is obvious that New Testament writers used the Old Testament, not as proofs of the truth of prophesy, thus supporting the idea of providence, but as a way of indicating how events described in the New Testament were the fulfilment of Old Testament hope.

The canon of Scripture was understood as a continuous narrative that ran from creation to the end of the world and medieval interpretation was used to hold that vision together with sometimes stretched connections. When it was recognised that biblical authors had their own voice and intentions this continuity was fractured. The Bible became a collection of writings and the understanding that a continuous narrative was being woven from creation to fulfilment was broken.


This set the stage for modern biblical criticism in which specialists could burrow away in their own particular areas free from an overarching narrative. The canon of scripture that was held together by figurative and typological understandings is now dissected into smaller and smaller parts. This is what Fie means by “The eclipse of biblical narrative”. While there is no way back, biblical criticism is part of the theological scheme of things, unless the overarching narrative is held together the faith is terminally wounded. The only way to hold it together is to recognise that the individual authors themselves understood the various collections of books and genres as belonging to a whole and to see with their eyes. This does not mean that we have to return to medieval exegetical methods or to believe in providence or the fulfilment of prophesy, but it does mean that the texts are judged by their own ethos and not one outside of them as is often the case under the influence of modernity.

Preaching has been a casualty of the loss of biblical narrative. If students are taught their biblical studies without a theology that holds together the tendency to fragmentation inherent in critical studies, then they will be speechless in the pulpit. For preaching cannot be about what Paul’s attitude to circumcision is, or the context of Roman occupation in the time of Jesus: it must use figurative and typological techniques to hold the narrative together across individual texts.

There is a sense in which Christ is the new Adam and in which baptism is a sharing of the death of Christ and the elements of the Eucharist are the body and blood of Christ. These are all examples of figurative and typological speech without which the church has nothing to say. Indeed most of the language of the liturgy is of this kind.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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