Most of my own published work involves historical investigation of early Christianity and its historical context. But, of course, questions about the relationship of historical investigation and religious meaning of the biblical texts swirl constantly in the field. The following thoughts, often shared in the course I’ve frequently taught on Biblical Interpretation.
Imagine a line representing the continuum of opinion on the question of whether the biblical writings can be considered and can function in some real way as “Scriptures” (i.e., as conveying or uniquely witnessing to divine revelation). At one end of the continuum you have extreme “liberals” and at the other end extreme “fundamentalists”. Although each regards the other as its polar opposite, I suggest that actually both extremes tacitly share the same premiss: If the biblical writings are really historically conditioned they cannot be Word of God. The extreme liberal, noting that the texts are self-evidently historically conditioned, concludes that they cannot be more than historical relics. The extreme conservative, wanting the Bible to serve as scripture, desperately tries to deny or minimize their historically-conditioned nature. They share the same premiss, but draw opposite conclusions from it.
Two comments: First, the shared premiss is a fallacy. There is nothing in principle that requires divine revelation to be unconditioned by history, and nothing that disqualifies historically-conditioned texts from serving as Scriptures. Indeed, one would think that Christians would readily affirm that any true divine revelation must be historically conditioned. The biblical witness is that the biblical deity has acted within history, not apart from it. So, how could there be a divine word/revelation/action that was not conditioned by the historical circumstances in which it came?
Second, both the extreme positions that I’ve mentioned share in another almost unforgivable feature: They’re both fundamentally boring! The really interesting people and positions are those that both try to do justice to the historically-conditioned nature of the biblical texts and also seek to explore how these texts can function as Scripture. In between the two extreme positions that I’ve mentioned, there are, all along the continuum, various people and proposals that involve some creative thinking. These are the people worth reading and pondering. Among them, the following are illustrative:
- Stephen E. Fowl, Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.
- Sandra M. Schneiders, The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament As Sacred Scripture, 2nd ed. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1999.