Sunday, September 30, 2007

Book Review: The Nature of Biblical Criticism

John Barton
The Nature of Biblical Criticism
Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox, 2007., pp. 206, paper back.
Available through Alban Books in the UK and in the USA

In this volume John Barton seeks to defend the purpose and practice of biblical criticism at a time when post-critical approaches like theological exegesis and postmodern interpretations abound. Barton aims to show that biblical criticism is neither rationalistic, nor positivistic, nor anti-faith. John Barton stands in the tradition of the late James Barr (to whom the book is dedicated) and Barton wants to show that Biblical criticism ushers forth out of a desire to read the biblical texts faithfully. He sets forth ten theses about biblical criticism that the book explicates which I summarize below (pp. 5-7 of chapter 1):

1. Biblical criticism is a literary operation that focuses on the semantics of texts.
2. Biblical criticism is concerned with questions related to the Einleitung or Introduction and involves the task of historical reconstruction with the aim of understanding a text’s historical origins.
3. Biblical criticism is said to be a product of the Enlightenment whereas in fact biblical criticism it is motivated by the Renaissance and Reformation catch cry of ad fontes that includes the freedom to read Scripture apart from ecclesiastical tradition and this has roots in Christian scholarship from Calvin to Origen.
4. Biblical criticism is not reductive or skeptical in essence even if some practitioners have been.
5. Biblical criticism is not a scientific study of the Bible as much as it shares with other areas of the humanities a concern for evidence and reason.
6. Biblical criticism requires that the reader does not foreclose the question of the truth of a text before reading it, but only seeks to uncover its semantic possibilities before the question of truth or falsehood are engaged.
7. Biblical criticism is not the only worthwhile way of reading biblical texts and readings with a devotional or liturgical slant are not ruled out.
8. Biblical criticism is ‘liberal’ insofar as it recognizes the validity of secular reasoning, but it is not committed to ‘theological liberalism’. A ‘critical faith’ (cf Gerd Theissen, Argument für einen kritischen Glaube [1978]) is not necessarily a liberal faith.
9. Biblical criticism tried to be objective insofar as it attends to what the text actually says and without importing foreign readings into the study of the text. While no biblical critic can be thoroughly objective it does not mean that the whole enterprise is compromised.
10. Biblical criticism is concerned with the ‘plain’ sense of texts which is not the same as the ‘original’ sense of texts. Rather, biblical critics are equally concerned with what the text meant as well as what it means (following Krister Stendahl).

In chapter one, Barton defines biblical criticism using the OED definition and explains the objective of the book as to nuance what biblical criticism really is (at a time of misconception and caricature by its critics) and to argue for the validity of pursuing the plain meaning of biblical texts. In chapter two, Barton discusses the approach that sees the purpose of biblical criticism as to deal rationally with difficulties that arise in a text. He finds that insufficient because the observation of difficulties is not itself evidence of a critical approach. It depends entirely on how those difficulties are dealt with. On top of that the observation of textual difficulties is not the sufficient or necessary condition of a critical approach to the Bible. Instead, biblical criticism is ‘an inquiry into the biblical text that takes its starting point from the attempt to understand, a desire to read the text in its coherence and to grasp its drift’ (p. 30). In chapter three, Barton discusses the approach that maintains that biblical criticism is concerned principally with the quest for historical truth. He rejects the supposition that biblical criticism is purely a historical enterprise or a methodology, instead it is concerned with ‘a series of explanatory hypotheses’ geared towards texts and textual meaning (p. 67-68). In chapter four, Barton defends the quest for the plain sense of meaning by linking it to semantics and the study of linguistic operations. He distinguishes this from the original sense, the intended sense, the historical sense, and the literal sense. The plain sense is only indirectly interested in these other senses. In chapter five, Barton pursues the historical origins of biblical criticism beyond the Enlightenment and he detects antecedents in the Renaissance, Reformation, classical sources, and in patristic literature. He thinks it profitable to see biblical criticism as less about historical-critical approaches and more about the meaning of words and the genre of texts and in that light biblical criticism has an ancient and honourable pedigree. In chapter six, Barton argues that biblical criticism does not dismiss the task of application but honours the givenness of the text as a precondition to its contemporary appropriation. While many may think that the Bible has become the mainstay of secular and skeptical approaches, Barton identifies with a strand of scholarship that maintains that the Bible is still in the grip of ecclesial authorities.

Barton’s task is a noble one and that is to secure the validity of critical study of the biblical texts at a time when it is regarded as passé or antiquated. If one wanted to defend this critical discipline from reproach then this is the book for doing so. Barton shows that biblical criticism is more robust and potentially more useful than what many of its critics realize. I still get the feeling though that Barton is trying to dress up a Dinosaur in a modern garb. Alas, the bridge to Modernity along with its strategies and aims for reading texts has been burned – and with some good reasons too – and the post-critical methods might be the way to overcome the defects and failures of biblical criticism. The days of Baur, Wellhausen, de Wette, Dibelius, Bultmann, and Barr are finished and are no more. It is now the age of Foucault, Derrida, Rorty, Fish, and Eco. In biblical interpretation, the old has gone and behold, the new has come. That said, readers of biblical texts need not wholly embrace the postmodern/post-critical turn nor attempt to reconstruct the shaken foundations of old school biblical criticism. What is needed is a realistic epistemology of how we know things from texts, a literary theory explaining how texts do things to readers, a hermeneutical explanation for how authors communicate through the signs/symbols of language, and a definition of history and historiography. The approaches that I have found the most fruitful in that regard are those of Anthony Thiselton, N.T. Wright, Kevin Vanhoozer, and especially Scot McKnight. I should also acknowledge the works of Markus Bockmuehl and Francis Watson who have shown the advantages of maintaining an ecclesial reading of Scripture in tandem with historical-critical investigation. For those of us who have no interest in or see no purpose for undertaking a Eco-Eskimo-Evangelical reading of Codex Vaticanus, biblical criticism will always have an important place, and Barton’s nuancing and defence of the discipline is welcomed. However, it will take much more than that for biblical criticism to survive the postmodernist onslaught and further modification is required if the discipline is to take serious the postmodernist objections. What is more, while Barton certainly takes the Bible seriously as an ancient text, I remain unsure whether he does justice to it as Scripture or as the principle artifact of the church’s testimony about God. In order to do so, scholars like Barton need to raise the Barr to a whole new level!


Craig said...

Hi Mike,

I'm quite interesting in hermenutics and post-modern and post-post-modern literary theory since it directly relates to two of my passions, art and biblical studies. I've read Wright's NTPG, and loved his section on critical realism, but I'm sturggling to make sense of Thiselton's New Horizons. I'm wondering if you have any suggestions for making Thiselton's work more accessible? Do Vanhoozer and/or McKnight represent a bit of a middle group between the relatively easy Wright, and the much more technically demanding Thiselton?

Michael F. Bird said...

Vanhoozer is alot more readable but a bit more theological than Thiselton.
McKnight is esp. good for postmodern views of historiography.
For a readable account of Thiselton try read his 1 Corinthians commentary.

Craig said...

many thanks,


John said...


thanks for a helpful review. Have you seen Esteban's comment thereto? I build on your review, and Esteban's comments, in a post of my own.

There are of course literary theorists and philosophers beyond your list which may not be postmodernist in the sense you use the term, but still offer the interpreter many insights of use in answering the questions you raise.

Off the top of my head, among literary theorists, Jakobson, Bakhtin, and Harshav come to mind.

Among philosophers, Ricoeur, Levinas, Lacan deserve a careful look.

Like everyone else, I can only draw attention to those I've read myself.

John Hobbins

Bryan L said...

I know this is kind of late but what McKnight book are you speaking of?

Bryan L

Bryan L said...

Oh btw, I thought your review was very good and it helped me to put my finger on some things that I was having trouble with.
You said "I still get the feeling though that Barton is trying to dress up a Dinosaur in a modern garb."

I distinctly got that feeling when reading his book and thought that he was often trying to make biblical criticism a lot more appealing that it was. For instance when he states that it is religious, in fact more religious than other ways and then goes on to give a weird convoluted sense of religious that normal people don't use (he seemed to like to redefine terms and use them as if that is what people are thinking when they use those terms). That was one of the problems I had with the book is that Barton often seemed to want to have his cake and eat it too. He almost seemed like a politician trying to appeal to both sides to garner more votes, when in reality the two sides aren't really compatible and any appearance that they can be held together is just an illusion.

Anyway that was just my impression.

Bryan L