The Shaping of Biblical Criticism: A Catholic Perspective on Historical Criticism

Nov 8th, 2014 | By | Category: Featured Articles

Reformed Protestantism and Catholicism share common ground in their centuries-long interaction, and often battle, with the historical-critical method of Scriptural interpretation. Protestants and Catholics alike have often viewed this method as a direct threat to the historical and theological integrity of the Biblical texts. Many other Protestants and Catholics have alternatively embraced historical criticism to varying degrees, either by appropriating it to replace traditional interpretive methods, or attempting to harmonize it with those same methods. This article revisits the history of the historical-critical method through a summary and review of Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker’s 2013 book Politicizing the Bible: The Roots of Historical Criticism and the Secularization of Scripture 1300 -1700. We also seek to present a Catholic perspective on this controversial and still potent force in contemporary Biblical scholarship. This article was written by Ray Stamper and Casey Chalk.


A. What is At Stake?
B. The Catholic Response
C. A “Criticism of Criticism”
D. The Scope of Politicizing the Bible
A. Chopping at the Roots
B. Medieval Miscalculations
C. John Wycliffe: Reformation’s “Morning Star or Incendiary to Henry VIII’s Fire?
D. Machiavelli: Exegeting Scripture for the Sake of Political Philosophy
E. Luther: Committed Purveyor of Scriptural Politicization
F. Henry VIII: Erastianism Finds an English Home
G. The Cartesian Shift: Mechanical Mathematics and the Mania for Method
H. Scripture and Christianity Revisited in the Hands of Hobbes and His Leviathan
I. Spinoza’s Philosophic and Methodical Contributions to Historical Criticism
J. Richard Simon: A Catholic Exegete Who Hurts More Than Helps
K. John Locke: Politicizing Scripture for the Sake of Tolerance
L. John Toland and His Radical Exegetical Mission
M. Concluding Chapter
A. The Closing of the Cosmos
B. Consequences of a Closed Cosmology
C. Private “I”s
D. Politicization of Religion and Scripture
E. Catholicism: The Unthinkable Option
F. Mild Criticisms
G. Evaluative summary


The historical-critical method as applied to biblical studies has long been a source of controversy. Does it aid or support Christian convictions, or do its principles and methodology intrinsically tend to work like an acid, slowly eroding the intellectual foundations of Christian theism as a viable worldview? Has historical criticism benefited the lay faithful by improving their understanding of the text and thereby strengthening a living Christian faith, or has the method become associated with technical expertise and specialization such that the average believer avoids the text due to fear of interpretive inadequacy? From a Catholic point of view, has a magisterium of the academic elite been erected to compete with the Magisterium of the Church? Must historical criticism necessarily give rise to oppositions: theological conservatives versus theological liberals, confessionalists versus non-confessionalists? Nor is the question limited to the relation of professional historical criticism to the wider Christian world. For within the academy itself the debate concerning which principles and presuppositions should underwrite historical-critical methodology is often contested. One cause of such contentiousness is the increasingly apparent fact that the particular conclusions generated by the historical-critical method often differ dramatically depending upon which set of broader philosophical presuppositions guide the practitioner in plying his craft.

The difficulty involved in assessing the impact of historical-criticism both within the academy and throughout the larger Christian community is a sign that some ambiguity surrounds the very meaning of the phrase “historical criticism.” A common and seemingly innocuous way to define historical criticism might be to understand the historical-critical method as a particular species of literary criticism that evaluates a text “in the light of historical evidence or based on the context in which a work was written, including facts about the author’s life and the historical and social circumstances of the time.”1 However, such a nominal definition runs the risk of glossing over the fact that evaluation of historical evidences or cultural contexts implies and imports a host of underlying presuppositions, both philosophical and ideological, which inevitably bear upon the practice of historiography, especially when historical conclusions touch upon questions of deep religious significance. It is precisely such background commitments and their relation to the practice of the historical-critical method that have given rise to trenchant disagreements in the areas of both Old and New Testament studies.

In the case of Old Testament scholarship, one encounters the struggle between the so called “minimalists” and “maximalists” with respect to establishing the basic historical reliability of the Hebrew narrative. Minimalist scholars, citing lack of direct explicit evidence for various biblical claims concerning early Israelite history are often skeptical about the reliability of key epochal features of the biblical account such as the lives of the patriarchs, the existence of Israel in Egypt, the Exodus and wilderness wanderings, the conquest of the Canaanites, the stories of the Judges, and even the existence of a united kingdom under David and Solomon. Examples of such scholarship might include Thomas L. Thompson’s The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology And The Myth Of Israel and Giovanni Garbini’s History and Ideology in Ancient Israel. Maximalist scholars, on the other hand, citing the correspondence between the chronological and factual claims of the biblical narrative with the known archaeological, linguistic, and cultural conventions of the Ancient Near East, tend to embrace the essential reliability of the Old Testament. Examples of such scholarship might include Kenneth Kitchen’s On the Reliability of the Old Testament, James Hoffmeier’s Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition, and A Biblical History of Israel by Iain Provan, V. Phillips Long and Tremper Longman III.

With respect to New Testament Scholarship, one finds a similar divergence. On the one hand, there are scholars who are skeptical concerning the historical veracity of large portions of the Gospel narrative, especially where the text touches upon claims of supernatural intervention, including the central event of the Christian story – the resurrection of Christ. One thinks here not only of seminal critical works such as David Friedrich Strauss’s The Life of Jesus Critically Examined or Rudolf Bultmann’s Jesus Christ and Mythology, but also of more recent scholars who continue to work within a similar presuppositional context such as those associated with the Jesus Seminar, or of Bart Ehrman and his recently released How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee.

On the other hand, there is a host of New Testament scholars who, while also trained and practiced in the tools and techniques of historical critical methodology, find the evidence for the essential reliability of the New Testament accounts quite compelling. Here mention might be made of Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God, and the Jesus of Nazareth series by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

A. What is at Stake?

It is important to recognize just how high the stakes really are with respect to a proper assessment of historical criticism. For although some practitioners are more cognizant than others concerning the impact of presuppositions upon the probative force of their conclusions, many scholars conduct their work without sufficient critical reflection upon the implicit commitments that shape their research and findings. In some cases the conclusions of historical-critical scholars are antithetical to Christian theism at a fundamental level. It is not simply a question of better or worse exegetical results, or even the impact of the historical-critical method upon questions of biblical inspiration or inerrancy. When situated within an anti-theistic (or at least anti-supernaturalist) philosophical context, historical criticism can represent a direct threat to the rational foundations of Christianity and the authority of the Church per se precisely because it challenges the basic reliability of the biblical text. In challenging the basic reliability of the texts, this form of historical criticism undermines the traditional apologetic which renders Christian theism and the authority of the Church rationally credible as a cosmic-cultural vision of reality.

That is because the traditional apologetic that establishes the fact of a divine revelation, and therefore a specifically Christian notion of theism, depends upon establishing the basic reliability of the biblical corpus as essentially truthful human testimony, including where that testimony touches upon claims to both the prophetic and the miraculous. The historical accounts of the two testaments, taken as reliable human testimony, serve as the principal non-circular means by which to establish the divinity of Christ and consequently the full constellation of Christian doctrines about man, God, and the cosmos, doctrines which flow from a recognition of Christ’s words as the very words of God. Accordingly, by calling the basic historical reliability of the text into question, historical criticism can be toxic to Christian faith at a deeper level than some orthodox observers perhaps recognize.

It is not enough simply to point out that in an effort to maintain objectivity, academic historical criticism often proceeds with an a priori indifference to Christian philosophical and theological claims. That manner of proceeding is often a condition arising from a deeper conviction. The deeper conviction held by a number of historical critical practitioners both past and present is the belief that what they have discovered about the text via critical tools and methodology has actually undermined the substantial human reliability of the biblical text, which (if that were true) in turn vitiates the fundamental apologetic that underwrites a Christian worldview. In fact, to claim that some historical-critical scholars are operating with an a priori indifference to a Christian worldview is not quite right. Precisely because such scholars think that a traditional Christian cosmology has itself been discredited through the discoveries of the critical method, their refusal to recognize a limiting or supervening confessionalist framework (Catholic, Protestant or otherwise) from within which to conduct their trade is, for them, a matter of intellectual integrity. For all of these reasons, the subject at hand should be of great interest and concern to all Christians.

B. The Catholic Response

What then is one to make of the value of historical criticism when it seems capable of yielding such divergent results? One stance might be simply to reject the value of historical criticism altogether. This approach is sometimes associated with biblical fundamentalism. Another approach on the other end of the spectrum might be to accept the conclusions of historical critical scholars uncritically, overlooking altogether the impact of presuppositions upon conclusions. In fact, operating with a presuppositional blind spot seems to characterize some historical critical scholars themselves, a weakness in no way unique to the field of biblical studies, but rather a common hazard of modern academic specialization wherein islands of intra-guild peer interaction, isolated from inter-disciplinary influences, too often breeds an unhealthy academic parochialism.2 A third and middle approach to historical criticism involves proceeding with caution, paying careful attention to the distinction between the tools and techniques used by the critic and the broader philosophical commitments that establish the context within which such tools and techniques are deployed.

For her part, the Catholic Church has taken the path of cautious assessment and distinction, followed by conditional acceptance of the historical critical enterprise. As the practice of the historical critical method gained ascendancy within the Protestant world during the past few centuries, both its merits and weaknesses became more apparent, as well as its capacity to influence Catholic scholarship for better or worse. Accordingly, the Magisterium of the Church was compelled to take stock of the developing situation in biblical studies and render guidance. Three primary Church documents that bear upon the question of biblical criticism are Providentissumus Deus issued in November of 1892 by Pope Leo XIII, Divino Afflante Spiritu issued in September of 1943 by Pope Pius XII, and Humani Generis issued in August of 1950, also by Pope Pius XII. While each document is worthy of careful study in itself, it is sufficient here to point out three general themes which emerge from the encyclicals. First and foremost comes a warning that biblical studies cannot be carried out in a philosophical vacuum, that its tools and techniques, principles and methods presuppose a cognitive framework. Moreover, the popes have pointed out that the presuppositions underwriting the work of many biblical critics were (and in many cases still are) inimical to Christian faith. A second theme is the recognition that great advances have been made in archaeology, linguistics and many other specialized disciplines relevant to a better material understanding of Sacred Scripture, and further, that such advances in tools and techniques ought to be welcomed and appropriated by scholars for the benefit of the Church. Thirdly, though perhaps more implicit than explicit, is the conviction that there is a crucial distinction between the philosophical presuppositions which undergird biblical scholarship on the one hand, and the legitimate use of modern tools and techniques on the other. The specialized tools and techniques of the historical-critical guild may be deployed by practitioners with diverse, and even opposing, background philosophical presuppositions. Accordingly, the discovery and rejection of one or more insupportable presuppositions does not, ipso facto, require rejection of the tools and techniques utilized by the historical critic. So long as this distinction is kept clearly in mind, the essential benefits of modern advances in historiography might be gleaned without fear of an adverse impact resulting from the embedding of faulty philosophical premises. For a more detailed account of the Catholic Church’s stance toward historical criticism over the last century, along with an extensive list of relevant Catholic documents, see Andrew Preslar’s helpful synopsis Sacred Scripture and the Catholic Church.

C. A “Criticism of Criticism”

Throughout the later half of the twentieth century an increasing number of Catholic scholars entered into the professional arena of historical-critical studies alongside Protestant scholars who had heretofore dominated the field. While the work of both Protestant and Catholic biblical scholars has produced much fruit over the last several decades, the tendency to harness the historical-critical method to various philosophical and methodological presuppositions without sufficient reflection upon the soundness of such presuppositions and their subtle impact upon the guild has continued, and in some cases worsened. As relative newcomers to historical critical academic circles, Catholic scholars have not been immune to what might be termed the “presuppositional problem” despite the admonitions of the Catholic Magisterium concerning the impact of broader philosophical commitments on the deployment of the method.

The growth of this problem within academic biblical studies motivated the presentation of a landmark response from a world-renowned Catholic biblical theologian. In 1988 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger delivered his famous Erasmus lecture titled Biblical Interpretation in Crisis which, while unequivocally recognizing the positive benefits of the historical critical method, highlighted some of the real deformities that threaten the integrity of the discipline. Moreover, the future pope proposed an initial strategy for solving the interpretive crisis by famously calling for a “criticism of criticism:”

“In order to arrive at a real solution, we must get beyond disputes over details and press on to the foundations. What we need might be called a criticism of criticism. By this I mean not some exterior analysis, but a criticism based on the inherent potential of all critical thought to analyze itself. . . We need a self-criticism of the historical method which can expand to an analysis of historical reason itself . . .”3

Cardinal Ratzinger’s “criticism of criticism” seemed principally to be a careful evaluation of the foundational and often implicit philosophical and ideological commitments that inform the modern academic approach to biblical studies, in order to determine the degree to which those commitments influenced the conclusions generated within the guild. In short, his lecture was aimed to disabuse biblical scholars of the myth of neutrality, of a certain naïveté presuming that the tools and techniques of the guild are wielded according to a strict scientific objectivity. However, before the soundness of those philosophical and ideological commitments that influence historical-critical studies can be evaluated on their own merits, we must first identify exactly which philosophical and ideological streams have shaped historical criticism from its inception to the present.

Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker’s Politicizing The Bible: The Roots of Historical Criticism and the Secularization of Scripture 1300 -1700 masterfully supplies precisely this need for deep historical analysis of the genesis and growth of historical-criticism. Indeed, the work is magisterial in its contribution to this effort in at least two ways. In the first place Politicizing the Bible explores the deep roots of historical criticism by drawing attention to the political and philosophical movements which pre-dated and pre-figured the full flowering of historical-critical studies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Hahn and Wiker’s work plows the intellectual and political fields of the four centuries prior to this flowering, and therefore stops where many surveys of the historical critical method begin. Secondly, Politicizing the Bible is not only a history of persons, places and events; but more importantly for the subject at hand it is a history of ideas. Its great value derives principally from its profound exposition and clarification of those seminal philosophical and ideological streams that converged historically to constitute and define the contours of academic biblical criticism as we receive it today.4

D. The Scope of Politicizing the Bible

Politicizing the Bible is truly a monumental research effort, as would be expected given its scope – with four hundred years of scholarship and history to cover – and Hahn and Wiker prove their depth of knowledge and expertise on the subject through 611 pages and an extensive bibliography that demonstrates their familiarity with historical criticism as a discipline, as well as its complex history. The sheer breadth of texts and thinkers addressed is quite astounding, with an extraordinary level of detail concerning many lesser known but critical figures (e.g. Giordano Bruno, a critical influence on early Enlightenment biblical scholar John Toland). In their exploration the authors take the reader on a fascinating historical odyssey requiring a grasp of history, and the history of ideas and their interrelations. This requires understanding the influences of each successive historical figure through a study of their own intellectual development and the important intellectual relationships they formed throughout their lives. Hahn and Wicker excel at this uncovering and explaining of presuppositional and ideological motifs. By taking this “magnifying glass” approach, their work is able to identify the key presuppositions of the historical-critical method. It then extrapolates to the logical and historical consequences of the method, including perceptions of Scripture that follow from an uncritical adoption of the formative presuppositions that underwrite such scholarship.

There are several things Politicizing the Bible is not. For example, it is not a technical evaluation of the cogency or validity of the philosophical or political ideas that shaped historical criticism – though it becomes clear that the authors have deep reservations about them. Thus Hahn and Wiker’s treatment of ideas like Averroism, nominalism, Cartesianism, positivism, and republicanism are primarily descriptive and consequence-predictive, rather than philosophically reflective. For example, in a 50-page chapter on Spinoza and the beginning of the radical enlightenment, only three pages are devoted to a critical assessment of the pantheistic philosopher whom they claim “produced a great shift, perhaps the great shift in the modern politicizing of Scripture, from a politicized exegesis in support of cuius regio, eius religio, to a politicized exegesis in support of liberal democracy.” They argue, for example, that Spinoza held a “severely restricted view of reason,” that was essentially limited to mathematics, resulting in “the most absurd and self-blinding type of pride and idolatry,” since this view of reason deforms nature to fit only what can be “easily understood by human reason.” In the authors’ estimation, Spinoza’s positivism creates a “miracle-proof” mindset that could be overturned by “a single confirmed miracle.” The reader naturally is eager for more, given that the authors have spent more than 45 pages explaining Spinoza and his contributions to the the historical-critical method – surely there is more to understanding and ultimately defeating Spinoza’s system – yet this is the extent of the authors’ critical assessment.

This work is not an attempt to specify what alternate presuppositions should inform the historical-critical guild. We get tastes here and there that Hahn and Wiker think that the wide-scale abandonment of Aristotelianism and Thomism, beginning with William of Ockham and other medieval thinkers, was a poor choice with deep and wide philosophical implications. Yet they do not make a positive case in any substantial form for either Aristotle or St. Thomas – which is certainly understandable given the scope and breadth of the present project.

Nor do the authors explain to what degree higher-critical tools and techniques might be compatible with the philosophical and theological foundations of Christian orthodoxy. Certainly both authors have been influenced by historical criticism, still find merit in many of its forms, and do not think it should be scuttled and sent to the bottom of the ocean. Yet what are we to make of the many tools and techniques the project employs, especially the most notorious? Is “JEPD” a valid thesis for understanding various influences on the Old Testament texts or do the philosophical presuppositions that underlie the thesis make it untenable? What of the intensive work that has been done on the synoptic Gospels, their interdependency and difference – is there value in furthering that field of study? Yet, what Hahn and Wiker’s work does argue, it argues superbly well, and to that we now turn.


A. Chopping at the Roots

In Hahn and Wiker’s opening chapter, “Getting to the Roots of the Historical Critical Method,” the authors seek to paint the landscape of their study by explaining the nature, purpose, and scope of their argument. The authors observe that, “it is commonplace to see the historical-critical method described as an objective or neutral method,” an assumption they hope to break upon the rocks of the method’s own history by illuminating the deep philosophical commitments to which the method submits.5 Theirs is an appropriately-titled “criticism of criticism,” arguing that it would be “fair to subject the presuppositions of the historical-critical method to the same intense scrutiny as its proponents exercise on the biblical text, ‘suspecting the hermeneuts of suspicion.’”6

Hahn and Wiker lay down the aim they hope to achieve in the following way:

Obviously we intend more than a mere chronology of ideas; we hope to contribute to a critical and historical understanding of the historical-critical method itself. Our argument, to put it all too simply, is that the development of the historical-critical method in biblical studies is only fully intelligible as part of the more comprehensive project of secularization that occurred in the West over the last seven hundred years, and that the politicizing of the Bible was, in one way or another, essential to this project. By politicization, we mean the intentional exegetical reinterpretation of Scripture so as to make it serve a merely political, this-worldly (hence secular) goal.7

The authors go on to clarify the target of their critique by writing:

Here we wish to make clear again that we are not condemning the historical-critical method, but attempting to bring to light why it has particular characteristic effects that undermine or radically transform religious belief and how these effects are related to the method itself.8

More specifically, Hahn and Wiker hope to show that:

. . . we have a good reason to suspect that the historical-critical method is, in significant aspects, defined by motives other than the laudable desire to get at the truth of the biblical text using every available and appropriate means. . . The defining secular political aim is to keep religion from disturbing or significantly determining public life . . . .9

As to the principle philosophical commitments that pave the road for the attainment of this political objective, Hahn and Wiker contend that:

The two . . . presuppositions that contribute the most to achieving this aim through exegetical method are the bias against the supernatural and the notion that the core of Christianity is moral rather than dogmatic. A critical approach and a deeper knowledge of history do not produce these presuppositions, we shall argue. Rather, the presuppositions determine the way that exegetes are critical and the way they use history. We hope to make this clear to the reader as the following chapters unfold. . . . This union of tools with secularizing presuppositions constitutes what is almost invariably meant by the historical-critical method.10

For those familiar with the historical-critical method, particularly as it is taught in undergraduate and graduate religious studies programs, this already sounds terribly familiar. Another and perhaps more concise statement of the authors’ essential thesis is captured well by the following quotation from Jon Levinson whose work is cited repeatedly within the introductory chapter of Politicizing the Bible:

historical criticism is the form of biblical studies that corresponds to the classical liberal political idea.11

In summary Hahn and Wiker’s argument seems to be that while the modern development and utilization of advances in historiographic tools and techniques that deepen human understanding of the biblical text are a welcome boon, as a matter of historical fact, the deployment of such tools and techniques has come to be entangled with a set of philosophical and ideological presuppositions whose intertwining with historical-critical method was woven together, implicitly or explicitly, for the purpose of fostering and securing a secular political ascendency wherein religion is denuded of its transcendental appeal and recast in private and moral terms so as to inoculate the modern project of a secular ordering of society from any other-worldly disturbances.

B. Medieval Miscalculations

In the second chapter, “The First Cracks of Secularism: Marsilius of Padua and William of Ockham,” the authors seek to find in these two medieval personalities the roots of the via moderna, or modern way, that ultimately led to the critical method of modern scriptural scholarship. Ockham, the father of nominalist philosophy, argued against papal supremacy and in so doing, “inadvertently aided Marsilius’s far more radical case for the complete subordination of the Church, theology, and Scripture to the secular political order.12 As we see continually throughout this survey, the context of this sub-narrative is of a Church in strife, particularly during the Avignon papacy.

Marsilius, an Averroist philosopher who believed the truths of natural reason to be superior to those of revelation, was an ally of Ludwig of Bavaria, a pretender to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire, and an enemy of the papacy, including Popes John XXII and Innocent III. (( Hahn, Wiker, p. 23. )) Marsilius, ultimately declared a heretic by Pope John XXII, used Scripture to defend his reordering of secular and sacred authority so that “the priesthood is firmly subordinated to political power,” something that would serve his friend Ludwig well.13 To accomplish this goal, Marsilius in his Defensor Pacis reinterpreted Scripture against the primacy of the Church, arguing that, “it is quite evident that Christ, the Apostle, and the saints held the view that all men must be subject to the human laws and to the judges according to these laws.”14 He also rejected all allegorical and typological exegesis of Scripture, and even rejects natural law, observing that even unjust laws, rather than being no laws at all, are simply “not absolutely perfect,” in that they have the proper form of a “coercive command,” but lack the “proper and true ordering of justice.”15 Even more assiduously Marsilius by innuendo argues that revealed religion always has a natural cause, whether it be, in the authors’ words, “the philosophic few who use religion to control the unruly masses for the sake of good political order,” or at worst, “the cagey priest who dupe the masses to fill their own coffers.” Of course, if this could be true of religion in general, it could also be true of the Bible’s authors, too, a claim we find pervasive in the historical-critical method.16

William of Ockham

Contemporaneously to Marsilius, English nominalist philosopher William of Ockham had also befriended Ludwig, condemning the Avignon papacy and calling for a group of “experts” to assert authority over the papacy and Church councils to interpret the Scriptures properly.17 Ockham argued that the expert “should be preferred to the pope” in interpretation, and that the experts and “those having sufficient understanding of the other written sources” should “judge in the manner of firm assertion” what should be defined as right interpretation.18 Thus exegesis is an “independent skill that can be practiced by anyone with the requisite intellectual abilities and training,” rather than a method which required an ultimate religious authority to guide and define proper interpretation.19

Ockham’s nominalism, which rejected all universals, was also employed in exegesis, as he “severed the real connection between the similar appearance of natural kinds and the actual species-universal in things,” meaning that universals were regarded as having no objective weight, and no intrinsic correspondence to individual, concrete things.20He also rejected the doctrine of analogy, or the idea that certain ideas or objects are analogous to higher realities of being. Ockham, by extension, asserted that natural things do not bear inherent spiritual meanings, since they are not analogical of greater spiritual realities. By consequence, spiritual senses of scriptural interpretation, such as the allegorical, moral, and or anagogical, were downplayed, while the literal-historical sense would be elevated, a development central to the historical-critical method. Scripture was then understood “as signifying in the same way as any humanly written book.”21 We show below the implications of this revising of scriptural interpretation in such later figures as Wycliffe and especially Luther, a monk trained in nominalist philosophy who despised Aristotelianism, and by extension, Thomism.

C. John Wycliffe: Reformation’s “Morning Star” or Incendiary to Henry VIII’s Fire?

Fourteenth century priest and theologian John Wycliffe is often heralded in Protestant circles as a proto-Protestant, making many of the same claims that the Protestant Reformers would ultimately raise several generations later, including the following: the need for wider vernacular translations, the corruption of the papacy, the rejection of transubstantiation, etc. However, in Hahn and Wiker’s third chapter, we find a much more complicated figure who very purposefully furthered the politicization of the Bible by promoting the empowerment of secular authorities to intervene in ecclesial matters, and thereby in some respects providing the intellectual basis for Henry VIII’s eventual establishment of a national English church with the king as its sovereign. Indeed, Wycliffe argued for the “deuniversalization” of the Catholic Church, claiming in his De Civili Dominio that the pope was head only of a “particular Church,” and that the English King Edward III should be head of an English church, since the head of state was in some sense replicating King David’s role in religious matters in the Old Testament.22

Wycliffe’s De Veritate Sacrae Scripturae reflects his strong criticism of nominalism, an antagonism that led him to an almost hyper-realist understanding of the Thomist “analogy of being,” in that his understanding of the analogy between certain things was so strong that the difference between them became almost imperceptible. For example, Wycliffe nearly collapsed the divine Logos (Christ) into the created logos (Scripture) so that they seemed practically one and the same. Wycliffe fashioned a fairly complicated schema of five levels of Scripture, the highest being the incarnate Christ Himself “the Scripture that cannot be destroyed,” and the lowest being the physical, corruptible manuscripts. Wycliffe, the supposed proto-Reformer, argued that “under no circumstances” is the physical, biblical manuscript “sacred, except for the fact that it functions as a guiding process which leads the faithful into the knowledge of the heavenly Scripture,” in other words, Christ. The words and manuscripts, which sometimes have errors, were “only the signs of Holy Scripture, which is the knowledge of the Holy Spirit.”23 The inherent problems in the text then necessitated that a group of skilled theologians must serve to interpret the Scriptures properly to the Christian. This in effect replaces an ordained magisterium, whom Wycliffe derogatively called “pseudo-disciples,” with an academic magisterium who can properly mediate texts.24 In turn this placed the Scriptures, interpreted through these supposedly objective “experts,” as the “default authority against the Church,” in the words of Hahn and Wiker25

However, Wycliffe in De Officio Regis went even further, arguing that the king acts as a kind of shepherd and pastor of the people, as “Christ, according to his deity, gave to the king as His vicar that office before there was a Roman Church.”26 Even more explicitly, Wycliffe argued “the pope ought, as he formerly was, to be subject to Caesar.”27 This divinely-sponsored king thus ruled the men of his kingdom “according to divine law,” and employed “doctors and worshipers of the divine law,” which effectively gave secular authorities both the power to determine who will interpret and teach Scripture, and quite notably, the power to judge cases of heresy.28 Wycliffe’s religious and “politicization” legacy in England spanned many generations, especially through the Lollards, an English religious group that promoted the Disendowment Bill of 1410 that sought to persuade the kings and nobles of disendowing Church possessions.29 Wycliffe is also credited with influencing Bohemian priest and Church reformer John Hus, another opponent of the Church hierarchy, as well as other philosophical movements on the continent.

D. Machiavelli: Exegeting Scripture for the Sake of Political Philosophy

Most people are familiar with Machiavelli as the notorious political realist and cynic whose magnum opus The Prince exposed the great hypocrisy and intrigue of Italian political states (including popes, cardinals, and bishops), and promoted a political theory where ends justify means. Yet the astute Machiavelli understood how powerful Scripture could be, particularly as a force in political philosophy. He thus sought to reinterpret Scripture and re-engineer its focus to serve his own political theories. Through his years as adviser to various Italian political leaders Machiavelli’s came to reject the peculiarly Aristotelian and Platonic notion that the state should conform to “independent rational or moral principles” in favor of a system defined by “knowledge of the means of preserving domination over a people.”30 In such a political schema, Jesus and His message of humility and charity are counterproductive to the well-being of the state. Rather, Moses, Cyrus, Romulus, Thesesus and other pre-Christian figures exemplify the best political leaders.

Moses’ inclusion is telling: by including him, Machiavelli reads the Bible, in the authors’ words, “alongside other ancient historical accounts, in the same kind of historical-critical treatment as one would any other historical work.”31 Moses thus would “not have been able” to make the Jews “observe their constitutions for long if they had been unarmed,” as in the example of Moses’ order to the Levites to slaughter thousands of disobedient, idolatrous Israelites.32 Machiavelli also appeared to believe that the writers of Scripture and leaders like Moses used supernatural events to legitimize their message; indeed, Machiavelli notes that it was a “pardonable fault of the ancients to mix divine things with human things to make the beginnings of cities more august.”33 He further observes, “whoever reads the Bible judiciously will see that since he [Moses] wished his laws and his orders to go forward, Moses was forced to kill infinite men who, moved by nothing other than envy, were opposed to his plans.”34 As seems evident from his biblical analysis, religion finds its telos not in communion with God, but in its utility to maintain political order.35 As Machiavelli himself observes, “all things that arise in favor of that religion they [leaders] should favor and magnify, even though they judge them false… and their authority then gives them credit with anyone whatever.”36 The Bible thus contains a hidden message that discerning men like Machiavelli can see, which enables exegetes to advance some secular goal – a pattern in step with the mission of many historical-critical scholars.

E. Luther: Confused and Committed Purveyor of Scriptural Politicization

Martin Luther is often characterized as the spark that set alight a religious reformation that would spread across Europe and change forever the face of Christianity in the West. Yet, beyond this famous characterization lies an individual deeply wedded to a nominalist philosophy; an advocate of a German national church led by secular authorities; a promoter of the use of temporal authorities to accomplish spiritual goals; and a sower of historical-critical interpretive seeds. These qualities occur within a man who would consistently re-shape his theology in response to external forces, all in a historical context of corruption in the Catholic Church and a rising sense of unique German identity separate from Rome.

Many are familiar with the story of Luther’s roadside decision to become a monk – less are familiar with his previous law training deeply immersed in the nominalism of William of Ockham. Indeed, Luther called the nominalist philosopher, “my master Occam,” “the greatest dialectician,” and his philosophy, “my own school… which I have absorbed completely.”37 This would have far reaching implications for his own theological thought, as we have noted elsewhere. It is particularly evident in Ockham’s rejection of the analogy of being, as Luther himself rejected the traditional fourfold meaning of scripture in favor of his dialectical mode of exegesis, as he placed law and gospel against one another.38 Also deeply influential was Luther’s conception of the invisible church, which essentially privatized religious belief in such a dualistic fashion that it ultimately pitted the subjective realm of faith against the objective world in a form reminiscent of Averroism. This would in turn influence thinkers like Descartes, as well as many historical-critical exegetes.39

Once Luther became professor of theology at Wittenberg, we see his tendencies towards politicization emerge, teaching that, “it would be much safer if the temporal affairs also of the clergy were placed under the control of secular rulers.”40 Like England, Germany was developing a deeper sense of nationalism that chafed under papal authority, particularly the large monies flowing out of Germany to Rome; much popular literature circulating in Germany at the time, sometimes apocalyptic in nature, anticipated a German church separate from Rome and guided by a political ruler. This immediate context explains to some degree the intense German reaction to the papal indulgences sold throughout the Holy Roman Empire, and that provided the catalyst for Luther’s call for reform. In 1520, Luther appealed to the German nobility in a tract that urged the rejection of papal authority and called for the German nobility to step in to effect dramatic religious change.41 This appeal would take a more drastic turn in 1524 when Luther’s antagonism with fellow reformer Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt led him to request that the prince of Saxony expel Karlstadt on account of his more radical teachings.42 In language notably similar to that of Marsilius and Ockham, Luther argued “we are under our princes, lords, and emperors… we must outwardly obey their laws instead of the laws of Moses.”43 This embrace of what became called the erastian solution entailed using secular authorities to mandate the proper interpretation of Scripture; as Luther would argue, “the princes of Saxony sit as governing authorities by God. The land and the people are subject to them.”44

Interestingly, Luther would later backpedal on the role of secular authorities in religion because of his frustration with political authorities who confiscated German New Testaments and Luther’s works, leading him to fashion his “two kingdoms” theory in which the spiritual and temporal authorities should remain separate. Yet even this became later convoluted by arguments made in 1530, when he suggested that rulers should intervene when “papists and Lutherans” disagreed over the meaning of Scripture. As one scholar has observed, Luther “bristles with contradictions and it is impossible to interpret the majority of his statements on the issue as more than impulsive and often thoughtless responses to particular situations.”45 What is perhaps more broadly significant is how Lutheran ideas spread and took hold in Germany, often through city councils’ or princes’ affirmation of Protestant teachings, creating a de facto formula where political leaders were the ones shaping and defining religious belief, oftentimes at odds with Protestant theologians.46 Those familiar with John Calvin’s life will be familiar with this religio-political tension.47

Another important development influencing historical-critical methods would be Luther’s conception of the “canon within the canon,” seeking to determine the “true kernel and marrow of all the books [of Scripture],” a method later exegetes would appropriate in trying to find the true “historical Jesus.”48 As the authors note, “individual books do not provide unanimous affirmation of the chosen kernel,” leading exegetes to resort to “sorting through individual texts, layering them according to authentic and spurious, early and late, pure and tainted passages.”49 Luther’s influence on the historical-critical method can also be seen in his attempts at revising the canon, questioning the apostolic authorship of the epistle of James and expressing suspicion of the book of Revelation.50 Of course, once one begins questioning the canon, it does not take long for others to see the potential “Pandora’s Box” and realize that every book’s authenticity or veracity is up for grabs.

Our summary of Luther and his influence on the development of the politicization of the Bible as it is catalogued by Hahn and Wiker does not do proper justice to the detail and study they have employed in making sense of Luther’s complex and influential thought. Yet hopefully it is clear how Luther, whether at times knowingly or unknowingly, contributed to the secularization of Scripture and to the appropriation of those texts for purely political goals. Luther, as the authors argue, contributed to a “revolution” in the understanding of the word “secular,” meaning no longer the political order as distinguished from the ecclesiastical order, but a “this-worldly orientation set in antithesis to religion,” which radicalized the distinction between “secular and sacred, body and soul, law and Gospel, philosophy and revelation.”51 Luther’s ideas also undergirded a deepening German nationalism that encouraged the replacement of a Catholic Church with a peculiarly German church. Finally, and maybe most significantly for historical criticism, Luther’s principle of sola scriptura re-focused the interpretation of Scripture away from Church authority, and focused it instead toward scholars who would progressively delve deeper into debates over language, manuscripts, and the true historical meaning of the text. Oddly enough, Luther would probably be surprised and frustrated by the course his reformation took in the generations that followed.

F. Henry VIII: Erastianism Finds an English Home

English King Henry VIII (left)
meeting with Pope Leo X (center)
and Holy Roman Emperor
Charles V (right)

Even many Protestants recognize the seeming hypocrisy of Henry VIII’s turn away from Rome, which gave him the freedom to divorce and marry seven different women, divest Church properties for his own benefit, and ultimately become the head of an English national church. As we have already observed, Erastianism was “in the English air” long before Henry’s declaration of royal supremacy, as evidenced in Wycliffe’s teaching, Lollardism, and Edward III’s Ordinance and Statute of Praemunire, which forbade appeals to Rome over English courts.52 Influenced by these historical developments, and a burgeoning religious reform movement on the continent, Henry would find strong support for the centralization of ecclesial and interpretive authority around the throne.

One of the first steps was his reading of William Tyndale’s The Obedience of a Christian Man, recommended ironically enough by Henry’s paramour Anne Boleyn. This work served as an English apologetic for “caesaropapism.”53 Tyndale argued in this work not only for English translations of the Bible, but also for a rejection of papal authority in favor of submission to secular powers who are “ordained by God” and must be obeyed, even if they “be the greatest tyrant in the world.”54 Henry VIII declared of Tyndale’s work, “this is a book for me and for all kings to read,” and at first sought to have Tyndale translate the Bible into English, though he eventually executed Tyndale for his criticism of Henry’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon.55

At the same time that Henry was embracing Tyndale’s arguments, he was also requesting that scholars find Scriptural support for his divorce from Catherine, a notably clear example of the politicization of the text. He subsequently divorced Catherine with the blessing of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and with the approval of parliament, and passed the Act of Supremacy in 1534 giving him “supreme” headship over the Church of England.56 The authors provide evidence indicating the influence of Machiavelli and Marsilius of Padua on the scholars and theologians surrounding Henry VIII. Thomas Cromwell went so far as to ensure the publication of an English translation of Defensor Pacis. Cromwell’s Act in Restraint of Appeals was likewise deeply Marsilian, declaring England “governed by one supreme head and king,” and declaring all “foreign” intrusions by Rome or anyone else as null and void. This action, and similar ones like the dissolution of monasteries, closure of shrines, and seizure of Church wealth, were all rationalized as religious reform to be necessarily guided by the king.57

Henry followed the Act of Supremacy with the King’s Book, which provided “an official lens through which the English version of the Scripture was to be read,” and would counteract the many varying interpretations of the Bible spreading throughout England. In one striking statement the book declared that individuals must be subject not to any universal church, but to the “particular church” of the region in which they live, and obey the “Christian kings and princes” to whom they are subject.58 Although political leadership should be driven by a sola scriptura model, this would ultimately mean that religious matters would be settled not by a separate church authority, but by the secular state.59 As the authors illuminate through these examples and through the torrid details of Henry’s life of religious hypocrisy, it becomes clear that he was much less a committed religious reformer, and more an “astute politician,” a true Machiavellian who determined that to strengthen the crown, it must “control and drive theology.”60

G. The Cartesian Shift: Mechanical Mathematics and the Mania for Method

Rene Descartes may seem a strange subject to include alongside theologians like Wycliffe or Luther in a study of Scriptural interpretation, but as Hahn and Wiker demonstrate, Descartes’s dualist philosophy, reliant on Marsilian and Averroistic thought, profoundly influenced the philosophical development of the historical-critical method. Like Marsilius, Descartes came to view religion as something entirely separate from the methods of reason and objectivity, religion being “beyond our understanding,” while the natural world explored through mathematical and scientific research can be known and manipulated with certainty. This hypothesis was also indebted to nominalism, as Descartes determined that mathematical forms rather than Aristotelian universals should govern human conceptions of forms.61 This mathematical certainty and truth, however, lay not in nature, but in the person (e.g. Descartes himself), enabling the human person to re-create and refashion nature so that he becomes the “master and possessor” of nature.62 This has important implications: (1) Descartes’s new mathematical-mechanical account entirely removes mystery from nature since the wisdom of God is identical to the wisdom of man; (2) such a mathematical schema naturally becomes progressively more suspicious of the miraculous since it does not easily fit inside such a mechanical epistemological framework; and (3) the technical mastery of nature replaces salvation history as the defining narrative of human development.63

Descartes’s famous maxim “cogito ergo sum” also provided the intellectual platform from which the individual comes to view himself, rather than tradition and one’s forebears, as the authority of what is true knowledge. This in turn fed a “hermeneutic of suspicion” in the mind of the individual, since all information, particularly that which might be acquired from tradition, was highly suspect.64 His method thus introduced a “radical doubt of the senses,” as the mechanistic-mathematical ontology replaced ordinary thinking, language, symbols, and metaphors as the means by which the individual can acquire true knowledge. Furthermore, if mathematical philosophy is the means by which the cosmos is to be understood properly, there is little left for the Bible but to serve as a moral guide – the assessment made by many modern historical-critical exegetes. More fundamentally, Descartes’s philosophy represents a monumental shift from focusing on the text to focusing on the method of interpretation, where the individual is the rational, self-sufficient authority over the text and tradition. Like the natural world, Scripture becomes a ball of “Cartesian wax” to be molded and shaped by the hermeneut and his methodology; it is here that we find the deep philosophical influence of Descartes on modern biblical scholarship.65

H. Scripture and Christianity Revisited in the Hands of Hobbes and His Leviathan

The early Enlightenment political philosopher Thomas Hobbes may also seem an unlikely candidate in a history of Scriptural interpretation. Yet for those who have slogged through the entirety of his Leviathan, it is evident that Hobbes believed a revised interpretation of the Bible was critical to his philosophy of absolutism. The underlying presuppositions of Leviathan include a belief that all human actions could be reduced to purely material and efficient causes, thus making life profoundly deterministic, and ultimately defined by competing human passions and a brute desire for power. Only a powerful state ruled by an absolute monarch can bring order to this chaos. And by extension this leader must have authority to use religion to maintain political order.66

The second half of Leviathan is an extensive assessment of Scripture, in which Hobbes refashions the miraculous as serving to strengthen the authority of political leaders such as Moses, asserts that the canon of Scripture is to be defined by sovereigns, and reduces ecclesial bodies to the jurisdiction of national entities.67 He argues that prophets who speak against the sovereign are false prophets, since they encourage “chaos of violence and civil war.”68 He declares that there is only “one chief Pastor” who is “according to the law of Nature… the civil sovereign.”69 He appropriates the Biblical stories of Abraham, Isaac, Moses, and Solomon to support his political and theological power, all while questioning the authorship of the canon, particularly the Pentateuch, and claiming that the Bible’s purpose was to “convert men to the obedience of God,” or, more particularly, to the obedience of the one who “represent[s] the person of God,” namely, the sovereign.70

Even more radically, Hobbes used his materalist philosophy to weaken religious authorities’ ability to judge the state, rejecting the idea of God being a spirit, and claiming that all spiritual references in Scripture were merely “metaphorical.”71 Demons and demoniacs must likewise go, attributed to the pagan contamination of the texts and Jewish ignorance.72 And finally, so must heaven and hell, Hobbes proposing that the kingdom of God is in truth not an other-worldly reality but a “civil commonwealth” where God rules through his “lieutenant.”73 Hell and judgment are then only metaphorical in nature, Hobbes presenting his belief in annihilationism.74 In this great religious revision, Hobbes also rejects traditional forms of interpretation, arguing that many signs and types discussed in the Bible, from baptism to the Eucharist, were merely pagan contaminations of true religion.75 Here we can see the similarities between Hobbes and the historical-critical scholars who followed him, even if his ultimate goal was to fashion a new Christianity whose most fundamental purpose was to encourage obedience to the civil sovereign.76

I. Spinoza’s Philosophic and Methodical Contributions to Historical Criticism

Baruch Spinoza

Baruch Spinoza, the Jewish pantheistic philosopher known for his promotion of democracy, developed his ideas in a Netherlands teeming with radical thinkers in an intellectual milieu the authors assess had a perceptible though not explicit effect on Spinoza, forming powerful impressions on his own thinking. He praised Machiavelli as “that most farseeing man” while his philosophical conclusions flowed quite naturally out of Descartes’ dualism.77 He lived in circles with various radical thinkers in the Netherlands: Juan de Prado the Epicurean who believed religions were man-made and inferior to reason; Isaac La Peyrere, the Bible skeptic who questioned the Old Testament historical narrative and traditional authorship, and believed the Bible to be filled with errors; Adriaen and Johannes Koerbagh, Dutch pantheists who questioned the Bible’s accuracy and rejected much of traditional Christian teaching; and Lodewijk Meyer, the Cartesian who collapsed revelation into the mathematical-mechanical philosophy and rejected any theology outside the bounds of his conception of reason.78 All of these strains of thought are visible in Spinoza’s own life and philosophical work.

Spinoza was indeed a true pantheist, who “collapsed God and nature, divinizing nature and naturalizing God.”79 These pantheistic tenets led him to completely eliminate supernatural revelation as a possibility, calling miracles a “mere absurdity” whose “natural cause we can explain on the mode of some other, usual thing.”80 Spinoza’s philosophy had a political dimension as well, seeking to create a government that could accommodate the masses who still believed in what he called “superstition.” Scripture would need to be appropriated to fit within this political model. In his estimation, religion gives the “vulgar” masses “pleasures of heaven,” and threatens “eternal punishments” to curb them like horses, since “nothing regulates a multitude more effectively than superstition.”81 Like Hobbes, Spinoza argued for the state to have the “highest right to make statutes concerning religion,” and that “all are bound to comply” with the religious dictates of the state. In his words, “religion receives the force of right solely from the decree of those who have the right to command.”82 However, unlike Hobbes, Spinoza emphasized toleration of others and their private religious beliefs, declaring seven “dogmas of the universal faith” to which all people could easily subscribe, and claiming that “faith does not require true dogmas so much as pious ones.” This is because “there is no commerce and no affinity between theology and philosophy,” given theology’s inherent irrationalism. Thus, people can privately think what they please about religion, as long as they act in accordance with Spinoza’s “universal” religious dogma.83

Spinoza’s contribution to historical-critical scholarship is not just philosophic – he employed tactics that will sound quite familiar to exegetes today. Everything described in Scripture, according to Spinoza, has a natural explanation. Thus a reasonable exegete using the right methods can determine the true realities described in the text.84 Ironically, even Spinoza admitted that sometimes it was difficult to find any natural explanation for miraculous phenomena in the Bible; in such cases, this would reflect that “sacrilegious human beings” had “inserted” such anecdotes into the text.85 As with other contemporary philosophers like Hobbes, Spinoza believed that the purpose of Scripture was to teach morality and “only very simple matters, which can be perceived even by the slowest,” not philosophical truth or “grand theories.”86 Prophets described in the Bible likewise provide only moral guidance, including Christ, whose ministry Spinoza summarizes as being essentially concerned with “teaching moral lessons.”87 As the authors observe, Spinoza’s interpretive project is indeed the historical-critical project, “freeing the mind from theological prejudices” and “human fantasies.”88 Indeed, Spinoza, much like historical-critical scholars, argued that the true meaning of Scripture lay behind complex questions of language, historical context, linguistic ambiguities, and authorship – Spinoza even having asserted that the entire Old Testament was written by Ezra for political objectives.89 In his thought and work we thus find not only philosophical presumptions that have since guided historical-critical scholarship, but the method, as well.

J. Richard Simon: A Catholic Exegete Who Hurts More Than Helps

French Catholic scholar Richard Simon at first glance appears like a devoted defender of the Catholic Church and its unique authority to interpret Scripture. Yet, Hahn and Wiker argue that Simon, in his quest to undermine the Protestant doctrine sola scriptura by questioning the authenticity of the Biblical texts and illuminating the many apparent contradictions, actually furthered Spinoza’s philosophical project, rather than prove the need for Church tradition and magisterial authority.90 In his A Critical History of the Old Testament, Simon calls into question the Pentateuch’s Mosaic authorship by claiming Scripture was written by “public writers,” and noting the “disorder of the biblical text,” as well as its “repetitions and transpositions,” which resulted in corrupted texts that plagued not only the Old Testament Jews, but Jesus and the Apostles as well. With so many textual difficulties, it became all the more important to have some means of determining “authentic” Scripture, something Simon asserts that only Catholic Church authority can provide. However, even the Latin Vulgate, the “authentic” version of the Scriptures, still had faults… but at least, in Simon’s reasoning, it had the stamp of Church approval! Simon goes so far as to acknowledge that, “we have at present no exact translation of the Holy Scripture.” Yet, as the authors observe, by devaluing Scripture, Simon seems to argue that Holy Tradition acts “not in accord with Scripture, but in spite of it,” as if traditio makes sense out of the chaos of the text.91

The New Testament falls under the same degree of skeptical evaluation in Simon’s A Critical History of the Text of the New Testament, which is a “supplement to the defects of those who compile the different readings out of the manuscripts.”92 Of particular importance in this exegetical project was the argument that previous Church Fathers made “manifest errors” in their reading of Scripture, as they were ignorant of what Simon calls the “true laws of criticism.”93 Many problems developed in the early Church regarding the New Testament texts: which texts were authentic, who authored which texts, and how old were they? Again, Simon is skeptical of the Church’s ability to provide any original documentation – thus traditio is again needed to determine a common textual tradition. Even the originals were not necessarily inspired, as the New Testament writers “did not confine themselves in their quotations to the rigor of the letter,” while subsequent copyists made the texts “more clear.” Likewise, allegorical interpretations of the Bible were valid not because of their inherent validity, but because tradition had declared them so.

Simon believed that Scripture was inspired not because of the apostolic authorship of the original texts, but because tradition had declared them inspired. In language much more amenable to secular historical-critical scholarship than Catholic teaching, Simon argued that it was “not necessary that all the words” of Scripture be inspired, nor for all “truths and sentences to be immediately indicated by inspiration to the writer,” and that certain texts were not Scripture by virtue of their nature, but because “the Holy Spirit doth testify that there is nothing that is false in that book.”94 In his questioning of the immediate inspiration of Scripture, Simon sought to divide texts into new categories, such as those directly guided by the Holy Spirit, and those indirectly guided by reasoning, as Scripture’s authors “said many things that were not revealed to [them].”95 Of course in a system where some parts are directly inspired and others not, there is little stopping the exegete from calling into question the inspiration of the entire work. Furthermore, as the authors note, Simon’s overwhelming reliance on Holy Tradition at the expense of Scripture provided Protestant critics ample ammunition to question his project, given the complexity and seeming incongruities in traditio as well. By playing tradition against Scripture, Simon unintentionally invalidated both.96

K. John Locke: Politicizing Scripture for the Sake of Tolerance

John Locke was born into a tumultuous period in English history, the English Civil Wars, which were often defined by intense religious power struggles between various Christian sects of high-church Anglicans, Puritans, Quakers, the Independents (or Levellers), and the more radical Leveller sects including the “Diggers” and “Ranters,” who united pantheism with radical politics.97 Amidst this chaos, Locke, like Spinoza before him, yearned for a strong government that would restore order, and actively argued for a state-controlled church and that “toleration be the chief ‘characteristical’ mark of the true church” since religious sentiments were private matters “of the mind.”98 The influence of several figures loom large in Locke’s own intellectual development. Robert Boyle, for example, promoted a mechanist atomist philosophy based on Cartesian thought that labored to lay a “foundation, not of any sect or doctrine, but of human utility and power,” so that man might have “dominion… over the universe.” To accomplish this, a broad religious consensus would be necessary to maintain political peace and gain peaceful stability.99 Locke was likewise influenced by many other religious and political radicals, including liberal Protestant Jean Le Clerc, whose skepticism of Scripture and attempts to treat the Gospels solely as historical accounts earned Le Clerc great praise from Locke.100

Following Descartes, Locke argued that individuals could only have knowledge through “ideas” and “perception” by way of intuition or reason rather than revelation, since faith could have “no authority against the plain and clear dictates of reason,” especially since faith might be “contradictory to our clear intuitive knowledge.”101 Faith, meanwhile, was based on probability, Scripture being one of the lowest forms of probability, given that it relied on a “copy of a copy” that was subject to all manners of “passion, interest, inadvertency, [and] mistake of… meaning.”102 All the same, Locke was not averse to using Scripture for his own political aims, engaging in a debate with absolutist Sir Robert Filmer by appealing to Scripture, particularly Genesis, to attack Filmer’s arguments for absolute monarchy by claiming that the Bible affirmed that paternal-familiar power was transitory, while the desire for self-preservation and property was permanent. The goal of government was then to preserve property. Locke appropriates Scripture to strengthen his “social contract” political theory, since in his estimation mankind was fundamentally the “property” of God.103

Locke further sought to solidify his political philosophy in The Reasonableness of Christianity, which set forth the Biblical foundation for the minimum requirements for the “true Church.”104 In this treatise Locke argued that Christianity could be reduced to the single proposition that Jesus was the Christ, emphasizing Jesus exclusively as a political messiah who demanded civil morality through “plain commands.”105 Interestingly, Locke devotes energy to rebuking the Catholic belief in the Eucharist and the Catholic Scriptural justification of Petrine primacy, as well as claiming that the offices of priest and prophet did not carry over into the New Testament – by in effect making Christ only a king and eliminating the need for priests and prophets in Locke’s own day.106 Locke subsequently wrote critical commentaries of St. Paul in Paraphrase, emphasizing the obscurity of St. Paul because of lost contextual knowledge, the probable tampering of the texts by later authors, and St. Paul’s use of Greek. Locke’s proposed new method of interpreting St. Paul included finding the central “point” of each Pauline letter, which typically focused on tolerance, a theme central to Locke’s political philosophy. Ironically, Locke’s emphasis on tolerance was not to be extended to Catholics.107

L. John Toland and His Radical Exegetical Mission

Early Enlightenment philosopher John Toland

Rumored to be the illegitimate son of an Irish Roman Catholic priest and his mistress, John Toland, like Locke, grew up in the wake of the chaotic English Civil Wars shaping religious and political beliefs that would be steeped in the growing radical heterodoxy across Europe. After completing studies in Scotland, Toland worked as a trafficker of radical texts. These Enlightenment manifestos included The Treatise of the Three Imposters, published by a close friend of Toland’s, which offered a “compendium of heterodox arguments” showing that religion was caused by “ignorance” and fear. It accused Christians of “malice and stupidity” for believing in a book that was “only a tissue of fragments stitched together at different times, collected by different persons, and published on the authority of the Rabbis who decided according to their fancy what should be approved or rejected.” While Moses was “the grandson of a great Magician,” Jesus fooled “imbeciles” into believing that “the Holy Spirit was his Father; and his mother a virgin.108 Toland, in time, gained a reputation for publishing pseudonymous tracts that championed pantheism and materialism, promoted his own radical Whig political philosophy, offered revised interpretations of the Book of Genesis and the New Testament, and questioned Scriptures’ authenticity, given its having been written in “primitive times” defined by “superstition.” Toland was himself a political opportunist, supporting the House of Hanover’s claim to the English throne and maneuvering for a place of honor in the palace court as a royal philosopher.109

In his Christianity not Mysterious (1696) and later Clidophorus, or Of the Exoteric and Esoteric Philosophy (1720), Toland argued that philosophers spoke on two levels, one “internal,” (or esoteric) and the other “external” (or exoteric) which allowed them to speak one way to the masses according to the accepted religion, and the other a “secret philosophy” called “equivocal expression” to the enlightened. Moses’ teaching is one example of this “double philosophy” in practice, as he “accommodate[d] his words, when speaking of GOD himself, to the capacity and preconceived opinions of the vulgar.” This was done to manage “by guile” the ignorant through “agreeable fables,” that they would live in “obedience to their governors.” Toland further argued in his Origins of the Jews that Moses was “truly a pantheist,” who cleverly used religion for political purposes by tricking the Jews into believing in miracles that could actually “be explained by the laws of nature or ordinary means.” Jesus too exemplifies this formula, teaching in parables to disguise “true doctrine” since pearls should not be cast before swine. As with other thinkers, Toland’s approach to interpretation was mediated through his own pantheistic and materialist definition of “reason,” appropriating it to serve a tolerable “civil theology” that incorporates the fables of Christianity and universal philosophic truth. This allows for a society built on tolerance, since it enables people to hold to “one thing…in the heart” or in a “private meeting,” and “another thing abroad, and in public assemblies.”110

Toland in turn launched stinging attacks against any sense of “mystery” in Christianity and the Bible, since this allowed “cunning priests” to contradict reason and manipulate the ignorant through a sacramental system mediated by a priestly class. Meanwhile, other forms of early Christianity exemplified in such apocryphal texts as the Gospel of Barnabas, which promoted tolerance above all else, were marginalized by the institutional church, and thus subverted the “true original plan of Christianity.” These examples demonstrate that Toland’s decidedly politicized interpretation of Scripture and early Christian history foreshadowed the historical-critical method, which as the authors note, would “recreate Toland within the soul of the exegete,” illustrated through such later examples as D.F. Strauss’s Life of Jesus Critically Examined or Barth Ehrman’s Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. As the authors conclude, Toland’s practice of rewriting “fabulous and popular theology” to conform to the “natural,” undergirded by his divinized principle of motion, came to define much of historical criticism as we know it today.111

M. Concluding Chapter

Through four hundred years of the history of Scriptural scholarship from the Middle Ages through the early Enlightenment, a clear trend of elevating politics over theology emerges. As Hahn and Wiker acknowledge, many of the individuals surveyed were reacting to the egregious corruption of Medieval and Renaissance popes, as well as other scandals like the Avignon papacy or the English Civil Wars. Yet rather than urge a better, more faithful application of the Catholic Church’s conception of interpretation, individuals like Luther and Wycliffe sought alternative solutions in sola scriptura or the state, which only compounded the problem. Indeed, power-hungry kings and princes were only too willing to use developments in Biblical interpretation to strengthen their own religious and political power to the loss of the Catholic Church.112 Although each generation sought to offer a neutral, scientific, and objective interpretation of Scripture, the perceptions of the content of Scripture coupled with peculiar methods of interpretation were easily manipulated time and again for political objectives. This progressively replaced an exegetical method that had been founded upon a God-centered cosmology, in which the exegetes, assenting to the historical creeds and traditions of the Church, believed that nature and Scripture manifested a wisdom higher than what humans could grasp, but in the words of the authors, “condescended to human capacities.”113

Through Hahn and Wiker’s analysis, it becomes clear that many scholars associated with the historical-critical method drew much of their method and philosophy from earlier thinkers. Through a brief assessment of early German historical-critical scholarship the authors seek to draw attention to these connections, and encourage future study of the politicization of Scripture in the modern era. For example, Gotthold Lessing and Hermann Samuel Reimarus embraced Machiavelli and Toland, and uncovered the supposed political intentions of Scripture’s authors, drawing a distinction between explicit and implicit truth, and claiming that history moved from ignorant and vulgar beliefs in the supernatural to greater degrees of reason and enlightenment. Also like his predecessors, Lessing promoted a religion of tolerance focused on morality.114 Johann Georg Wachter meanwhile argued that Christianity originated from one of many Jewish sects, the Essenes, while Johann Christian Edelmann’s Christian faith crashed on the rocks of Spinoza’s Tractatus, leading him ultimately to deny the Mosaic authorship of the Bible and claim that the Bible was filled with contradictions.115 D.F. Strauss likewise argued that events in Scripture that he assessed to be “irreconcilable with the known and universal laws which govern the course of events” were not historical, but mythical in the sense of holding some sort of undeveloped kernal of truth. For example, Jesus did not rise from the dead, but his disciples came to believe he did, which, positively, serves as a type of the divine-like power of humanity.116

Early historical-critical scholars like Johann Salomo Semler, Johann Gottfried Eichhorn, Juluis Wellhausen, and W.M.L de Wette similarly affirmed many strands of politicization discussed by the authors. These include promoting the esoteric/exoteric distinction, questioning the canon of Scripture while asserting the varying competing influences on the text, elevating religious toleration and privatized religion (given the inherent irrational nature of theology), naturalizing the supernatural, denigrating the priesthood, and reducing Christianity to a simple moralism.117 All of this served a broader German political objective of using a scientific approach to religion, still needed to maintain public order, while promoting a culture of religious tolerance where Protestants, Catholics, and Jews could co-exist, as well as further the unification of Germany by attacking Catholic theological beliefs still held in predominantly Catholic southern Germany.118 With the development of historical-critical scholarship in 18th and 19th century Germany, we thus come full circle, as scholars appropriated Scripture to serve political aims. Yet as Hahn and Wiker acknowledge, there is still much work to be done in uncovering this political agenda in the modern development of the historical-critical method.


Before evaluating the degree to which the authors of Politicizing the Bible succeed in establishing the argument they set out to advance, it is important to remember what that argument is according to the authors’ own stated purposes, for it is both uncharitable and specious to judge a work according to ends its authors never set out to achieve. As we have observed above, the central premise of Hahn and Wiker’s work is that the historical-critical method has been intertwined with a set of philosophical and ideological presuppositions that either implicitly or explicitly further the fostering and securing of a secular political ascendency. This trend dethrones religion, and indeed theology, as “queen of the sciences,” and fashions religion as a primarily private and moral enterprise, creating an impenetrable wall around the modern project of a secular ordering of society.

In order to evaluate whether the authors have been successful in establishing the cogency of this controversial thesis, we shall in this section gather together and synthesize some of the core philosophical, theological and political elements that Hahn and Wiker have identified and explicated throughout their historical odyssey as shaping the historical-critical method. By isolating these core presuppositional and ideological motifs we hope to highlight their conceptual and consequential interrelations so as to more clearly assess the probative force of Hahn and Wiker’s argument.

A. The Closing of the Cosmos

There is one central and pervasive philosophical paradigm that consistently emerges from Hahn and Wiker’s study; a paradigm which might be characterized as the “closing of the cosmos.” This can be described as a cosmological vision that tends or seeks, implicitly or explicitly, to reject the fact or even the possibility of a divine revelation, of a body of truths speaking to the origin, purpose, and ends of mankind and the cosmos and that transcends the capacities of unaided natural reason to discover. Hahn and Wiker identify a number of key figures, already noted above, who contributed to the development and crystallization of this paradigm within the four centuries leading up to the enshrinement of historical criticism as the dominant method within academic biblical studies. Yet, perhaps the most significant catalyst for the establishment of a philosophical outlook antithetical to revelatory claims was the seventeenth century emergence of a mechanistic vision of the cosmos. Nature, which was previously understood as a multi-layered reality suffused with formal and final causes was supplanted by a reductionist vision focused upon material and efficient causes that could be mathematically quantified and controlled, a flattened ontology operating according to immutable laws. The predictive success and productive wonders of Newtonian physics, whose metaphysical foundations – at least for methodological purposes – squarely presupposed a mechanistic cosmology, fostered a notion of reality as entirely explicable in rational and law-driven terms without remainder. While key figures such as Rene Descartes, Isaac Newton, and other founding fathers of the modern scientific cosmology were practicing Christians who did not explicitly draw such anti-revelatory conclusions, the logic of their adopted methodology was bound to give rise to an explicitly deistic outlook followed by an unsurprising devolution into various forms of monism.

One of the first and most influential of such monisms was the complicated pantheism advanced by Benedict Spinoza (1632–1677). Drawing upon the skepticism of Descartes while fully embracing the new mechanistic and mathematicized cosmology, as well as the sufficiency of human reason thus enlightened to comprehend the whole of reality, Spinoza developed a materialist monism in which not only God and nature, but even the orders of knowing and being were collapsed into one. The immanentist pantheism which is explicated in Spinoza’s Ethics constituted the philosophical framework, and hence the presuppositional commitments, that informed Spinoza’s treatment of Scripture in his famous Tractatus, a treatment that has secured his position as one of the founding fathers of modern historical criticism. With Spinoza one encounters a cosmos entirely closed off to divine intervention not only in fact (as with the Deists), but according to possibility. There is no fundamental distinction between the nature of God and the nature of Nature such that the former might impact the latter, for the two are one and the same. Moreover, what reason knows about one it necessarily knows about the other. Hence in a rejuvenated and emancipated Averroism it is unsurprisingly the philosophically enlightened, as contrasted with the common run of men, who are privy to the truth and therefore responsible for directing human progress accordingly. In the centuries following Spinoza various monisms such as Hegelian idealism, the dialectical materialism of Marx, or modern scientific naturalism, would come to constitute the philosophical milieu from within which many historical-critical scholars would conduct their research. Whether a particular monist cosmology collapses the immaterial and the material orders into one, or simply denies the existence of one order or the other altogether, what remains common and essential is the erecting of a cosmology in which there is no inside/outside dichotomy; a cosmology in which there is no conceptual nor ontological space for a divine revelation.

B. Consequences of a Closed Cosmology

In the course of their historical survey Hahn and Wiker identify a wide array of consequences that flow either directly or indirectly from the embrace of a closed cosmology. To begin with, and to state the obvious, a closed cosmology entails that whatever the sources may be for claims of divine intervention within human affairs, they cannot be the result of a transcendent God breaking in upon that vast network of secondary causes that we call nature. As a result, all historical claims or accounts that imply the notion of divine revelation must be man made. Such accounts may originate from a variety of causes and motives. At best, revelatory accounts might arise from a sort of superstitious innocence among men whereby natural truths about nature and morality are exaggerated and ensconced in religious myths and rituals that make such natural truths easier to instantiate in the day-to-day life of the human race. In the worst case, revelatory claims might be the result of an intentional deception constructed by those in power who, knowing perfectly well that such claims are false, nevertheless foster superstition in order to wield control over the masses. In any case, given the philosophical impossibility of a divine revelation, religion is always and everywhere recognized as an effective tool by which political power may be gained or consolidated. In this way, the embrace of a closed cosmology leads directly to a suspicion of all forms of tradition where appeals to revealed religion are concerned. Given that divine intervention is philosophically impossible, and knowing how easily and often religious myths are put to political ends, traditional claims to supernatural intervention must always be approached with wary skepticism. Herein lies the philosophical root of the so-called “hermeneutic of suspicion”

Moreover, a closed cosmology naturally leads to a cosmic-cultural narrative quite different from that generated by Christian theism. While both a closed cosmology and Christian theism may embrace a progressive understanding of the flow of human history, the former often envisions such progress as involving a gradual emancipation from the social influence of religion, whereas the later envisions human progress in terms of a deepening religious knowledge and practice as mankind advances toward an eschatological goal to which God has ordered the cosmos. In keeping with a nascent Averroism often embedded within the thinking of those who embrace a closed cosmology, the enlightened few clearly see, and boldly embrace, the fact that naturally knowable truths exhaust what man can know about himself and the universe. Looking back upon human history, the enlightened person perceives a drama wherein the greater part of the human race repeatedly succumbs to the power of religious myth and ritual, whether due to superstitious ignorance or intentional deception on the part of political handlers. While such myth and ritual may have past or present value with respect to maintaining social order by fostering a religiously motivated morality, more often than not such myths and rituals serve as means of manipulation by which the powerful retard the long term advancement and maturity of the human race. Moreover, since it is both possible and desirable to champion a socially effective morality stripped of all religious garb, what is needed is a concerted effort by the philosophically enlightened to emancipate humankind strategically from the bondage of superstitions concerned with gods and the afterlife, into the freedom of a clear and honest assessment of reality wherein the good of temporal man predominates.

A number of the key figures noted within Politicizing the Bible are shown to be motivated by just such a project. The philosophical underpinnings of a closed cosmology inform their intentional efforts to shape Scriptural interpretation in a direction that minimizes its revelatory claims while maximizing – at least in the short term – its moral utility within the polis. Such a program of emancipation must evidently be pursued slowly and prudentially since a too rapid or radical attack on Scripture’s alleged divine authority could provoke a reaction that would set the long term project back. Accordingly, a key strategy for recasting Scripture and religion in moral terms at the expense of its revelatory claims is to deploy the language of Christian orthodoxy while carefully altering its meaning in accord with a non-Christian cosmology as exemplified by a critic such as David Friedrich Strauss, whose finale in his famous Life of Jesus Critically Examined is described by Hahn and Wiker as:

“. . . a stunning example of the purposeful use of equivocal speech, wherein the enlightened pastor, like Toland, says one thing but means another. . . For Strauss, the spiritual truth was the esoteric truth of scientific materialism, the truth that had to slowly displace the literal but unhistorical and unphilosophic ‘truth’ of Scripture . . .”119

While Hahn and Wiker effectively argue that the general conception of the meaning and direction of man’s cultural history was radically altered during the four centuries which their study treats, Politicizing the Bible also highlights the concomitant consequences of such a framework for biblical studies in particular.

Theologian and Biblical critic David Friedrich Strauss

In the first place, it is obvious that commitment to a closed cosmology entails an anti-supernaturalism that undermines all accounts of divine intervention in Scripture such as prophecy and miracles. This presuppositional stance is something Christian scholars have long pointed out, and Hahn and Wiker provide no shortage of evidence that the roots of such anti-supernaturalism are tied up with the ascendency of a closed cosmology that arose during the time period they survey. As mentioned earlier, such anti-supernaturalism is destructive not only because it calls into question the basic reliability of the biblical account, but more crucially because in doing so many of the key motives of credibility which underwrite a specifically Christian form of theism are undermined.

More broadly still, a closed cosmology does away with any notion of a divine unity embedded within Sacred Scripture. If there is no transcendent Providence capable of directing the course of nature and the history of men, then the possibility of there being a unified divine message embedded within the codex of books that constitute the Bible is impossible. The conviction that the Old and New Testaments shed light upon one another, or that “knowledge of Scripture is knowledge of Christ” becomes hollow. Nor can there truly be any divinely orchestrated typology in the Bible. From a traditional Christian perspective, not only can God signify by way of natural concepts and words, He can providentially deploy historical things and events to signify revealed truths. As St. Thomas remarks in the Summa Theologica:

“. . . The author of Holy Writ is God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning, not only by words alone (as man also can do), but also by things themselves.”120

In this way, an event such as the passing of the children of Israel through the Red Sea can prefigure Christian baptism, or the ancient rite of Passover on the night before the Exodus can prefigure the sacrifice of Christ and the Eucharist. But clearly if there is no God outside of nature Who can providentially guide or act upon nature, then there can be no divine use of things or events to signify. The bottom line is that given a closed cosmology, there can be no “spiritual” sense within Scripture.

All cosmic monisms do away with transcendence, thereby eviscerating the claim that natural things, or the human concepts that signify natural things, or the human words that signify human concepts, can have any relation to God’s transcendent nature. In this way, a closed cosmology undermines the “analogy of being”. Not only are analogous terms of “proper proportionality” such as unity, truth, and goodness deprived of their transcendental extension, so too are strictly metaphorical phrases such as “God’s strong right arm,” that depend upon some albeit imperfect similitude with sensible realities. Moreover, Scriptural terms directly related to the Godhead such as “Father,” “Son,” and “Spirit,” are also denuded of their transcendent utility since these terms too are taken from the natural order. For the same reason the same can be said with respect to time-honored technical terms developed to clarify the Trinitarian relations such as “paternity,” “generation,” and “spiration.”

As both Aristotle and St. Thomas taught, the first and proper object of man’s intellect is sensible, created realities. Indeed both Aristotle and St. Thomas held that there is nothing in the intellect that was not first in the senses. Accordingly the conceptual treasury of each human intellect, as well as the aggregate conceptual treasury of the human race, is built up over time through the intellect’s apprehension or grasp of sensible, created things. From sensible apprehensions the mind may come to know additional truths through definition, judgment, and reasoning. Nevertheless the foundation of human concepts and therefore of the conventions of human language are rooted in the sensible, created order. Therefore, if man is to grasp and understand supernatural truths that exceed the powers of the natural intellect, such truths will have to be presented to him according to the conceptual categories intrinsic to his nature, for knowledge is received according to the capacity of the knower. Since man’s natural way of knowing is through concepts originating from within the created order, if created realities retained no similitude whatsoever with their Creator, human concepts and human language, the fundamentals of which are rooted in sensible realities, could not serve as vehicles for knowledge of things divine.

In short, a closed cosmology militates against the key truths in the areas of ontology, epistemology, and linguistics that establish theological science as having a real object, as opposed to being a mere word game. From a Christian point of view, if there is no analogical link between creation and the Creator, there can be no knowledge of God’s nature. If the Logos – the Word of God – through Whom and for Whom all things were made, had not seeded finite traces of God’s infinite perfections throughout the created order, there would be no effective communicative medium for God’s self-disclosure to man. As Rene Latourelle wrote so concisely in his magisterial Theology of Revelation:

“If Christ can utilize all the resources of the created universe to make us know God and the ways of God, it is because the word of creation has preceded and left a foundation for the word of revelation; it is because both one and the other have their principle in the same interior Word of God. The revelation of Christ presupposes the truth of analogy”.121

A direct corollary of the undermining of the philosophical framework within which it becomes possible to perceive a unified divine message within the pages of the Bible is that biblical studies become entirely centered upon the literal sense of Scripture and the material dimensions of the text such as the cultural context in which a work was written, its date of composition, authorship, genre, etc. In an attempt to imitate the hard sciences and thereby share in their growing prestige, biblical interpretation may appear adorned with the cloak of an objectivity that seeks simply to unearth the “real “ history and “real” message of Scripture, stripped of all distorting background commitments – confessionalist or otherwise. Proceeding methodologically as if philosophical background commitments had little if any impact upon the “objective” nature of historical criticism, and focusing predominantly upon the archaeological, cultural, linguistic, and other material features of the biblical text, it is only natural that some scholars might come to see in the Bible only a human literary artifact. In the traditional Christian framework, all of the human and historically mundane features of the text are entirely consistent with there being a unified divine message in the Bible, because God condescends to use humble and ordinary means by which to speak to mankind according to his natural capacities. As the second Vatican council stated within its Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation – Dei Verbum:

“For the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when He took to Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men”.122

However, for those working within the framework of a closed cosmology and under the illusion of a methodology immune to distortion by background presuppositions, there can be no divine message instantiated within the humble and human matrix of the Judeo-Christian literary heritage. The biblical text appears little more than a hodge-podge of eclectic and often contradictory religious, historical, mythical, and cultural elements from which some useful moral insights might be extracted.

Finally, the penchant for attempting to model the practice of academic biblical studies according to the standard of the natural sciences leads to an ever growing level of technical and terminological specialization that increasingly erects a gulf between the university scholar and the Christian layman in terms of their respective perception of the meaning of the biblical text. If the scholar and the layman shared the same background framework such that they both recognized a formal divine unity supervening upon the material dimensions of the text, then the scholar could conceivably enhance the layman’s understanding of Scripture by explaining how his academic discoveries illuminate the wider revelatory framework they both share. In that case the scholar would be conducting his research at the service of the wider Christian community. However, if the scholar is working within a presuppositional framework directly at odds with Christian theism, the inevitable result must be the gradual separation of academic biblical studies from the broader biblical experience of the Christian community, a separation resulting in either isolation or conflict.

Such are the principal consequences for biblical studies that flow from the embrace of a closed cosmology. Evidently the historical criticism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as well as significant sectors of current academic biblical criticism have been characterized by such traits. One of the great strengths of Hahn and Wiker’s Politicizing the Bible is the rigorous historical research by which they establish that these consequences and characteristics were forged in the four centuries leading up to the advent of modern historical criticism.

C. Private “I”s

Martin Luther (1533), by Lucas Cranach the Elder

The advent and development of the historical-critical method has been shaped not only by philosophical factors. It has been no less shaped by theological factors, especially those theological concerns and controversies that arose during the Protestant Reformation. Here we focus on two landmark motifs that emerge with Martin Luther and that play a central role in the spread of the early Reformation. The first motif is the theological principle of “private judgment” that arises as a corollary to the core Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura. The second motif concerns Luther’s theological-cum political vision whereby he attempted to reformulate the boundaries between secular and religious authority.123

The principle of private judgment is the Protestant principle that the individual Christian is ultimately responsible for determining the correct interpretation of Scripture. It entails that a Christian has the right, if his conscience demands it, to interpret the meaning of Scripture in a way contrary to the tradition of the Catholic Church, which had heretofore served as the communal context in which Scripture’s meaning was to be understood. The principle of private judgment is captured vividly in Martin Luther’s famous words at the Diet of Worms:

“Unless I am convicted by scripture and by plain reason (I do not believe in the authority of either popes or councils by themselves, for it is plain that they have often erred and contradicted each other) in those scriptures that I have presented, for my conscience is captive to the Word of God, I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me, Amen.”124

But of course if Luther himself could judge the meaning of Scripture without reference to the authoritative pronouncements of the Catholic Church, there was no good reason in principle why others could not do the same. Indeed within Luther’s own lifetime a host of variant and contentious interpretations of Scripture arose not only between Catholics and Protestants, but between competing Protestant factions. And although Luther and other early Reformers continued to cling to various elements of the Catholic tradition with respect to many areas of Scriptural exegesis, the principle by which they rejected certain other elements of the tradition, namely that of private judgment, provided a reasonable basis upon which others would drift much further away from Catholic tradition. The net result of the hermeneutical trajectory set in motion by the principle of private judgment was the growing conviction that there simply was no privileged Tradition by which one’s own interpretation of Scripture must necessarily be formed or moderated.

Moreover, having denied the authority of popes and councils in spiritual matters, and having denied the validity of the sacramental priesthood, Martin Luther naturally rejected the Catholic vision of the relationship between the spiritual and temporal orders. From a Catholic perspective, the Church was understood as being responsible for informing and guiding the state with respect to matters of faith and morals. In place of that vision, Luther put forward his “Two Kingdoms” thesis. Luther’s theoretical answer to the question concerning how the temporal and spiritual orders ought to interact advocated a more complete separation between the spiritual and temporal orders than had been previously conceived. As Luther himself wrote:

“The spiritual government or authority should direct the people vertically toward God that they may do right and be saved; just so the secular government should direct the people horizontally toward one another, seeing to it that body, property, honor, wife, child, house, home, and all manner of goods remain in peace and security and are blessed on earth.”125

According to Luther, on one side are the goods of the soul to be governed by the spiritual authority, and on the other side the goods of the body to be governed by the secular authority. In theory the spiritual government of the people, including the proper interpretation of Scripture, would be left to pastors and their congregations, while the secular authority of kings and princes was to be carried out according to the dictates of the natural law. However, in an effort to achieve his own religious ends, Luther at times advised political powers to cross the line he himself had drawn, encouraging rulers to introduce and enforce religious reforms actively, going so far as to declare that secular power could justly punish those who reject doctrines “clearly grounded in Scripture and believed throughout the world by all Christendom.”126

But exactly which doctrines were “clearly” grounded in Scripture and believed throughout the world by all Christendom? The principle of sola scriptura and its offspring principle of private judgment had rendered that question opaque, if not indeterminable. The broader trouble, of course, was that by advocating the notion that promulgation and enforcement of Reformation doctrines was at least in some cases a legitimate activity of the secular authority, Luther had opened the door for the appropriation of Scriptural exegesis by political powers for political ends. The notion that the state could legitimately enforce religious reform, combined with the doctrines of sola scriptura and private judgment, provided the theological foundation upon which those in power would all too willingly channel the religiously motivated forces of the Reformation to serve their own ambitions, an effort that often ended in military conflict. For example, with reference to the Schmalkaldic and Thirty Years’ Wars, Hahn and Wiker make the following astute observation:

“we should not fall prey to the simplistic and popular notion that these were solely and simply wars of religion. In truth they were just as deeply political as religious, religion more often than not acting as a pretext for political ends and a means of rallying support of the ruled for the sake of the rulers.”127

In what way, then, did these two theological-cum-political motifs originating with the Reformation shape the historical-critical method? In the first place, eighteenth and nineteenth century academic historical criticism was primarily a Protestant phenomena. As such, the authoritative declarations of the Catholic Church wherever these might touch upon matters of Scriptural exegesis enjoyed no binding or supervening force from the perspective of the early practitioners of the historical-critical method. Interpretation, whatever trajectory it might take, was unlikely to move in any direction supportive of Catholic claims. Moreover the spectacle of bloody religious wars ostensibly fought over contentious doctrinal differences rooted in incompatible interpretations of the biblical text and subsequently hijacked by political powers to further their own ends, naturally gave rise to a deep cynicism with respect to confessionalist interpretations of Scripture in general. Such a spectacle also reinforced the growing perception of religion as a tool for manipulation in the hands of the powerful. Such suspicions easily bled over into suspicion concerning the reliability of the biblical text itself.

Did the central events of ancient Hebrew history happen just as the authors, editors, and compilers of the text describe, or are the “real” historical events shrouded by alterations, exaggerations, or even outright falsities designed to secure the power and prestige of the biblical writers or their patrons? Did the New Testament accounts occur as recorded in the Gospels, or were miraculous claims such as the resurrection of Jesus perhaps interpolations foisted back upon natural events in order to elicit the adherence of early Christian communities to the reigning ecclesial order? In fact, both Protestant suspicions concerning the claims of the Catholic Church as well as widespread political manipulation of Scripture help explain the emergence of the so-called “hermeneutic of suspicion” within modern historical critical studies. Combined with the ascendency of the scientific method within the sphere of the natural sciences, one can better understand the tendency among academic historical-critical scholars to reject or discount the notion that there is any privileged context or tradition that can speak to the intended meaning of the biblical text, and to adopt in its place a positivist stance whereby only those conclusions that can be reached through the application of the “objective” tools and techniques of the historical-critical method and its sub-disciplines are recognized as yielding trustworthy knowledge concerning the biblical text.

D. Politicization of Religion and Scripture

Broadly construed, the “politicization of scripture” means the utilization of a hermeneutical approach to Scripture designed to achieve or further some “this-worldly” political end. As Hahn and Wiker develop their tome, a number of different causes are shown to have contributed to the tendency toward politicization of the biblical text. Some such causes were not directly philosophical, while others were explicitly so. Among the non-philosophical causes there was the perennial temptation among those in authority to grasp power and honor for themselves, often using religion as a pretext, as described above. Historically, there has been no shortage of political figures upon the world stage whose political aspirations are driven by little else than a desire to bolster pride and feed concupiscence. For such as these, manipulation of religion or Scripture for the purpose of political gain is hardly a mystery. In some ways Henry VIII exemplifies this type of ruler. However, another non-philosophical cause driving the politicization of Scripture, and one with which it is easier to sympathize, was the emergence of grave scandal among religious leaders and religious groups.

Renaissance Pope Alexander VI

There can be little doubt that injustice and moral deprivation among Church leaders (including popes) during the time period Politicizing the Bible surveys bred a deep cynicism toward traditional religious outlooks on reality. The formation of Machiavelli’s ideas within the context of his longstanding observation of the papal courts of Sixtus IV and Alexander VI is a good example of the way in which intellectual formation can be skewed by scandal.128 As mentioned above, another source of scandal traced throughout Hahn and Wiker’s work was the outbreak of the grueling religious wars arising in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. Incessant warring between rival political powers in the name of religion naturally weakened the broader public conviction concerning the practical benefits of religion within the social order. In the minds of many observers, religion came increasingly to be seen as a negative force, as a threat to social stability because of the strong passions naturally elicited when deeply held religious commitments are unleashed within the political sphere. Such religiously-motivated conflict quite understandably contributed to an increasingly cynical view of religious truth claims. In part the efforts of intellectuals such as Spinoza to limit the influence of religion and Scripture to the moral and private spheres as a way of securing social stability in the form of liberal democracy was a reaction to the scandal of religious wars.

Besides power seeking and moral scandal, the tendency to politicize Scripture and religion was also the product of philosophical causes. Insofar as one’s philosophy tends to minimize or eliminate any transcendent or eschatological vision of human history, one is more likely to see religion and Scripture as obstructions to the achievement of this-worldly ends, or else as tools for the advance of such ends, since allegedly those are the only kinds of ends there really are. Among such philosophical causes traced within Politicizing the Bible was a sort of subtle intellectual pride that sees in religious history, ritual, and texts an inferior form of knowledge designed to satisfy the ignorant masses. Scripture and religion on this view are inferior or perhaps even negative forces juxtaposed against the deliverances of sophisticated philosophical wisdom. Such a position naturally facilitates the subordination of religion to “higher” political ends for which the intellectual elite unsurprisingly see themselves as best suited to determine. Hahn and Wiker trace this theme from Averroes through Marsilius, Machiavelli, Descartes, Spinoza and others. Nevertheless it should be said that many of the actors within Hahn and Wiker’s tome seem to have held their philosophical position more or less sincerely. Moreover, to the degree that Christians failed to present a persuasive macroscopic narrative concerning the origin and destiny of human history, secular worldviews naturally swept in to fill the intellectual void.

The non-philosophical and philosophical causes of the politicization of Scripture often run together. While it is true that philosophy began in wonder, as Aristotle notes, it is also true that man’s philosophical speculations have a direct relation to his understanding of the goals that should drive the ordering of individual and social life. When religious leaders and movements give widespread scandal and simultaneously fail to provide a robust intellectual defense of a religious worldview, seeking souls might look elsewhere to find answers to fundamental human questions about life’s meaning and purpose. Accordingly, the key players which Hahn and Wiker highlight were not one-dimensional, as if guided simply by either power-lust or intellectual pride. Along with these natural human tendencies, the subordination of Scripture and religion for the achievement of strictly this-worldly ends, is a logical step for men who had come to believe that this-worldly ends are the only ends which one is intellectually justified in pursuing.

Finally, such broader trends and causes of the politicization of Scripture could not help but have a direct impact upon the dispositions with which scholars would approach the biblical text in academic circles. The results of several centuries of obvious interpretive abuse of the biblical text for purposes of gaining or consolidating political power, which interpretive abuses Hahn and Wiker highlight so clearly, understandably led the earliest practitioners of the historical-critical method to suspect political or quasi-political ends on the part of all “traditional” accounts of the data of revelation, including data internal to both the Old and New Testaments. The same could be said with respect to ecclesial and patristic testimony concerning the early life of the Church and the formation of the biblical canon. While the politicization of Scripture from AD 1300 – 1700 does not account for all of the features that have come to characterize the historical-critical method, it does shed light on the origin of “suspicion” as a methodological stance. Scholars in their strong distrust of all traditional accounts and interpretations of revelation often envisioned themselves as recovering the “real” and “historical” meaning of the text from the machinations of the traditional politicizers, including religious confessionalists and perhaps above all, Catholic confessionalists.

E. Catholicism: The Unthinkable Option

This brings us to another motif that winds its way through Hahn and Wiker’s narrative. That motif is an agreement among all key players, whether kings and princes, or moderate to radical intellectuals, that Scripture’s meaning and interpretation must by all means be wrested from the traditio of the Catholic Church. Given the philosophical and political streams discussed above, the reasons for this are easy enough to see. Catholicism uniquely represents both a philosophical and political threat. Catholicism is a cosmic-cum-cultural narrative, a macroscopic vision of the origin and destiny of the cosmos that bears down into the warp and woof of history, planting its feet firmly in the social order with global structure and organization. This synthesis of cosmic purpose and visible presence renders Catholicism a dynamic force capable of vying for the allegiances of men alongside of, or even in resistance to, the state. Catholicism is a tangible reality, a world presence, a society embedded within the diverse societies of the world, yet pointing all the while to a transcendental Truth and an eschatological end. In this sense it is supra-political, very much capable of disturbing and subverting the goals and proclivities of the state when those goals conflict with the Church’s transcendental vision and mission.

On the social plane the Catholic Church has property, buildings, rites, a law, her own art, literature and music, and a time-tested hierarchical organization. On the intellectual and philosophical plane Catholicism is the repository and protector of the philosophia perennis, bringing together and coordinating ancient Greek philosophy with Judeo-Christian revelation in a profound synthesis honed and bequeathed to the Church by the scholastic tradition. Catholicism champions a realist epistemology and non-reductionist ontology capable of striking at the epistemological and ontological roots of both skepticism and a closed mechanistic cosmology. She holds as a matter of dogma that God’s existence can be demonstrated by natural reason. Given all of these traits, despite whatever political and philosophical differences might exist among the powers that lay beyond her borders, there remains a solidarity among her enemies whereby the Church is recognized as a force to be reckoned with in the socio-political order. This sentiment is well captured by H.G. Wells, one of her outspoken literary critics, writing during the turmoil of the Second World War:

As this present world war goes on, and even if there is some sort of temporary half peace before it degenerates into a tangle of minor wars, it will become plainer and plainer that it is no longer a geographically determined warfare of governments, nations and peoples, but the world-wide struggle of our species to release itself from the strangling octopus of Catholic Christianity. Everywhere the Church extends its tentacles and fights to prolong the Martyrdom of Man. Through St. Cyr and de Gaullism it assails the fine liberal tradition of France; it dominates the policy of the British War Office and Foreign Office, and through these the B.B.C. and the press; by a disciplined Catholic vote, a casting vote in endless elections and a sustained organisation of menace and boycott, it silences the frank discussion of its influence in America. It works counter both to the old nationalisms that broke away from it at the Reformation and to the emergence of a scientifically guided world commonweal . . . Like an octopus it has . . . only an instinct to survive. In Ireland, Spain, Italy, reactionary France, North and South America, Japan, and wherever it can stretch a tentacle, it seeks allies in every element that is socially base that will help it to continue its struggle against the awakening liberalism of the ‘United Democracies’. . . .129

Moreover it should be noted that since Catholicism explicitly and self-consciously operates on both a temporal as well as a transcendent plane, a Catholic vision of reality supplies the biblical exegete with the philosophical and theological resources necessary to avoid a one-sided approach to Scripture that might lead either to exaggerated allegorization or else a reductive politicization of the text. On the one hand, Catholic teaching recognizes that God’s revelatory condescension, as recorded in Scripture, involved the use of a multitude of concrete cultural realities as vehicles of divine communication; vehicles such as human concepts and language, rites and rituals, historical and political events, etc. Hence, the Catholic exegete recognizes a responsibility to carefully study the material dimensions of the text and highlight the literal sense of Scripture, which sense properly grounds further allegorical insights. On the other hand, Catholic teaching emphasizes the fact that the language, concepts, cultural monuments, and events of biblical history, despite their humanness, bear the treasure of God’s Word to man. Therefore, exclusive attention to the literal sense would risk missing the unity of Scripture and its spiritual sense. Hence, operating within a Catholic context the exegete is free to utilize the full range of historical-critical tools and techniques in an effort to maximize his understanding of the human and material dimensions of the Bible, while in no way undermining his recognition of Scripture’s divine authorship, and his consequent commitment to the reality of a spiritual sense.

F. Mild Criticisms

For all its benefits Hahn and Wiker’s monumental analysis still suffers flaws and weaknesses – something difficult to avoid in a work with such an incredibly wide historical scope. Structurally the overwhelming detail and study that define their work are in some sense a two-edged sword. While extensive footnotes, sourcing, and historical asides provide the essential evidence and context to substantiate their broad claims and move the narrative forward, these sometimes have the opposite effect of slowing down the story or providing unnecessarily detailed background that complicates an already complex book. A prime example of this tendency is found on page 49 of the hard-copy edition, which has only two lines of text; the rest of the page is a massive footnote on the historiography of William of Ockham. Other times the authors provide extensive biographical details on the “politicizers” that a more skeptical reader might interpret more as “scoring points” than providing necessary detail to build their case. Henry VIII’s perennial philandering, for example, is news to few; certainly it has a place in the politicizing narrative, given that the English king’s complex sexual relationships provided some basis for his break with Rome and his need to reinterpret Scripture to justify doing so. Yet the reader is repeatedly exposed to Henry’s hypocrisy in maintaining so many illicit relationships that some might find the presentation to be overkill.130

As for their own historical method, Hahn and Wiker many times use arguments based on personal connections (one individual spent time with another individual, who was influenced by yet another individual, therefore we can see the connection between people and streams of thought), personal libraries (one figure had a copy of a specific book in his library, therefore he was influenced by that work), or personal travels (he spent time in this town, which was crawling with people of a certain philosophical persuasion, therefore he was influenced by that philosophy). These arguments may be valid – indeed, they are often quite telling and informative – but they seem inadequate, or at least conjectural, in seeking to prove definitively the influence of one individual or idea upon another. This weakness doesn’t necessarily invalidate the authors’ broader thesis, but rather calls into question the intricate web of influencing agents and ideas Hahn and Wiker create.

Most of the book is spent on the “bad guys,” or more appropriately, the “bad ideas.” Yet not enough time is devoted to discussing what an alternative approach might look like, perhaps Aristotelianism or Thomism in philosophy, or a re-emphasis on Catholic Tradition and Patristics in exegesis, etc. Without a more thorough discussion concerning what other options were available at the time, or of the good to be found in the exegetical approaches that preceded the historical-critical method, it is sometimes difficult to understand what would have been a better historical road for Scriptural interpretation to take. Although we get tastes here and there, including a brief paragraph on page 545 that presents an alternative approach based on a “God-centered cosmology,” the offering is hardly adequate. Of course, the book’s declared scope and current length make such an addition difficult to imagine, though an appendix could have served such a beneficial purpose.

In addition some critics may claim that the authors paint with too broad a brush in their characterization of such a diverse set of philosophers, theologians, and political leaders as all contributing to a single and coherent project of secularization through politicization.131 This is a fair objection, given, for example, that Luther’s goals were certainly much different than Spinoza’s, and that Luther had what one might call a “love-hate” relationship with secular authorities in Germany. Likely, Luther would roll over in his grave if he knew he could in any way be placed in a category with the pantheistic Jewish philosopher. Furthermore, individuals like Luther and Wycliffe would take umbrage at being characterized as serving “the intentional exegetical reinterpretation of Scripture so as to make it serve a merely (emphasis added) political, this-worldly (hence secular) goal.”132 In truth, these men and other pre-modern Christian thinkers viewed themselves and their intellectual projects as furthering the other-worldly kingdom of God. Richard Simon, a Catholic cleric who sought to be a clever apologist for the Church and Holy Tradition by highlighting Scripture’s weaknesses, was almost certainly not intentional in contributing to the politicization narrative. It may be more precise to say that some of the individuals covered in Hahn and Wiker’s narrative unintentionally furthered the politicization of Scripture, or furthered it with varying degrees of intentionality.

Scottish Reformer John Knox admonishing Mary, Queen of Scots

In addition, the authors largely ignore Reformed theology, in spite of Reformed theology’s strong contribution to Biblical scholarship. Indeed some critics would argue that in some respects Reformed theology can be construed as advancing a counter-narrative to the politicization project. Calvin, for example, endured a notably tumultuous relationship with the political leadership in Geneva, viewing them more as an obstacle to his authority, which he believed should be viewed as ultimate, seemingly seeking to create a separate magisterium around himself and his theological followers.133 One thinks likewise of John Knox and his attempts to play an almost prophetic role in criticizing Mary, Queen of Scots, telling her that he communicated his “judgment to the world” in criticizing her Catholic practices, condemning the “vanity of the Papistical Religion, and the deceit, pride, and tyranny of that Roman Antichrist.”134

In their laudable thoroughness pinpointing the philosophical and theological errors that defined the shift towards historical criticism, the authors also unintentionally give the impression that there was little lacking in the pre historical-critical approach to Biblical studies. Many scholars have noted the heavy use of allegorical interpretation in the Patristic tradition, so much so that the immediate contextual point and purpose of certain passages were obscured or ignored. Consider for example Origen’s treatment of the passage in Psalm 137 which declares “Happy shall he be who take your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” Origen’s treatment of this text is no doubt spiritually illuminating. He writes:

“In this sense also we understand the language of Psalm 137 . . . For, “the little ones of Babylon” (which signifies confusion) are those troublesome sinful thoughts that arise in the soul, and one who subdues them by striking, as it were, their heads against the firm and solid strength of reason and truth, is the person who “dashes the little ones against the stones”; and he is therefore truly blessed.”135

Nevertheless the use of historical-critical tools and techniques can shed additional light on this passage by highlighting the social and political context within which this stark expression was evoked. There is, therefore, much to affirm in historical-critical scholarship. And although the authors agree with this sentiment, their characterization of the politicization narrative can appear so decidedly negative that there seems to be nothing to praise in the Reformation era calls for ad fontes. For example, modern tools and techniques have uncovered a profound level of complexity involved in determining authorship of texts and studying literary forms (e.g. historical narrative, poetry, apocryphal literature) in order to understand properly the context and meaning of specific writings. The fields of linguistics and archaeology have also shed great light on Biblical interpretation. Even Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in his 2010 exhortation, Verbum Domini, noted that the historical-critical approach could help clarify “dark passages” of the Bible:

“In discussing the relationship between the Old and the New Testaments, [we must consider] those passages in the Bible which, due to the violence and immorality they occasionally contain, prove obscure and difficult… [W]e should be aware that the correct interpretation of these passages requires a degree of expertise, acquired through a training that interprets the texts in their historical-literary context and within the Christian perspective, which has as its ultimate hermeneutical key ‘the Gospel and the new commandment of Jesus Christ brought about in the paschal mystery.’ I encourage scholars and pastors to help all the faithful to approach these passages through an interpretation which enables their meaning to emerge in the light of the mystery of Christ.”136

Moreover Scripture has in some sense always been politicized since Christianity itself, especially in its Catholic manifestation, is a religion with political consequences, encompassing a body of teachings and practices that have immediate political repercussions. The Scriptural narrative is charged with political implications – from St. John the Baptist’s very public condemnation of Herod for cohabiting with his brother’s lawful wife, to the socio-economic implications of Christ’s parables, to His death at the hands of Roman soldiers, or to the Apostles’ refusal to submit to Jewish or Roman authorities’ demands that they cease spreading the Gospel. Beyond the Apostolic age, the history of the early Church includes a political struggle between Christian orthodoxy and a host of heterodox threats: Gnostics, Arians, Docetists, Donatists among many. Sometimes, such as at Nicea, the Church used political authority to assert its dominance over theological dissidents. In other circumstances, orthodoxy faced incredible opposition from Arian-influenced authorities who sought to co-opt the Church’s mission and power. And although Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians profess goals that transcend this-worldly political aspirations, to the extent that those transcendent goals have implications within the temporal order, Christianity becomes a force within the political arena with its own vision for the proper ordering of society in accord with its eschatological understanding of the goal and purpose of human history. Christians are, after all, in the world – even if they are not of the world.

Looked at from this perspective, Politicizing the Bible raises some broader questions. Perhaps, ultimately, the real concern is not so much the politicizing of the Bible per se if one simply means using Scripture for political objectives. Perhaps the broader question raised by the politicization of Scripture is “what paradigm should inform our understanding of what Scripture is” and what import ought it to have within the temporal sphere? Is it the written instantiation of a divine revelation, or is it merely the human record of one people’s religious history? Accordingly, the impact of Scripture upon the public sphere will either be driven by a secular state or else by some religious authority. If the latter, whom? Does the Catholic Church, for instance, have the authority, and in very real sense, the political authority, to define and interpret Scripture? If it does, then certain politicizations of the text become both inevitable and warranted, even if such politicizations remain always subordinate to the transcendental truths and goals with which the Church claims to be entrusted by God. Of course Hahn and Wiker’s tome is not designed to address these larger questions to which their work gives rise. As they humbly acknowledge, they hope only to start, or possibly revive, a wider discussion on the history of interpretation.

G. Evaluative Summary

Earlier we summarized Hahn and Wiker’s argument as follows:

“Hahn and Wiker’s argument seems to be that while the modern development and utilization of advances in historiographic tools and techniques which deepen human understanding of the biblical text is a welcome boon, as a matter of historical fact, the deployment of such tools and techniques has come to be entangled with a set of philosophical and ideological presuppositions whose intertwining with historical-critical method was woven together, implicitly or explicitly, for the purpose of fostering and securing a secular political ascendency wherein religion is denuded of its transcendental appeal and recast in private and moral terms so as to inoculate the modern project of a secular ordering of society from any other-worldly disturbances.”

We have expressed some reservations about the way in which the interplay between political and philosophical commitments is construed with reference to this or that historical figure, as well as some concerns about narrative over-simplification, and a wish that more positive alternatives to the negative dimensions of historical-criticism had been presented. Yet by-and-large the evidence that the authors present to establish the conclusion that a whole host of philosophical-cum-theological presuppositions and associated political motivations were part-and-parcel of the formation of the historical-critical method seems incontestable. Moreover, their implication that the tools and techniques of the historical critical method, as well as many of its findings, can be effectively distinguished from background commitments that are not essential to the method itself, seem eminently reasonable – even if the authors do not pretend to explain exactly how that disentanglement ought best to be achieved. Accordingly we believe that Hahn and Wiker have largely succeeding in establishing the argument they set out to defend. In doing so they have rendered an inestimable service both to the Church and to the academy.


In light of the penetrating historical analysis that Hahn and Wiker have contributed to the larger project of a “criticism of criticism,” it is apparent that the historical genesis and formation of academic historical criticism has been very much shaped by various philosophical, theological and political forces. In particular, the macroscopic context within which the historical critic conducts his work is marked by broader philosophical presuppositions whose truth or falsity cannot be decided solely by way of the tools, techniques, or historical subject matter of which the historical critic treats. It is crucial to demythologize the “myth of neutrality” with respect to the practice of biblical criticism. Of course, recognizing the presence and influence of background commitments in no way entails that historical-critical methodology does not produce stable and trustworthy results. It is simply a recognition that, like any other applied science, its contextual principles and presuppositions are generally borrowed from a broader supervening science which cannot avoid having some bearing upon the interpretation of results. The key need is to recognize this fact forthrightly so that the distinction between the tools, techniques and data on the one hand, and the background philosophical notions that frame the methodology on the other, is kept clearly in mind when assessing the probative force of conclusions.

Perhaps one helpful way to conceptualize the relationship between the tools and techniques of the historical-critical method on the one hand, and whatever philosophical framework informs the outlook of the historical-critical practitioner on the other, is the classical distinction between a thing’s form and matter. As an analogy, while all types of music rely upon the same matter (sound waves, etc.), the formal musical structure that supervenes upon the matter determines the harmony perceived on the part of the hearer. Or consider the natural sciences. While the methodology and research findings emerging from modern physics, chemistry and biology are generally quite indifferent to the philosophical presuppositions of the scientist, the broader interpretation of those findings – as bearing upon man’s macroscopic vision of reality – is very much dependent upon which metaphysical schema informs the physicist, chemist or biologist. Hence, while both a philosophical theist and a philosophical naturalist might – as physicists – be equally capable of producing the highest quality peer reviewed research, when questions concerning the broader ontological or metaphysical meaning of such research arises, contention often ensues due to incompatible metaphysical commitments.

The same can be said with respect to historical criticism. While the tools and techniques related to the various sub-disciplines that fall under the umbrella of historical-critical studies may be used equally well by those who hold to a closed cosmology as by those who affirm an open cosmology, the interpretation of the philosophic or macroscopic import of particular historical-critical discoveries will often depend upon those background presuppositions that determine the interpretive options. Keeping in mind the distinction between the tools, techniques, and subject matter that comprise the material dimensions of a science on the one hand, and the background presuppositions that frame the formal context within which such tools and techniques are wielded on the other, can serve as a useful conceptual device for neutralizing the myth of neutrality.

A. Completing the “Criticism of Criticism”

Finally, given that the findings generated by application of historical-critical methods are susceptible to a widely divergent range of interpretation depending upon which background commitments make up the cognitive landscape of the historical-critical practitioner, it seems evident that in order to complete a successful “criticism of criticism” both a critical and a constructive philosophical-cum-theological task is urgently required of Christian scholars. By way of critique, it is essential that Christian scholars recognize and refute those philosophical commitments holding sway within the academy which are both false and corrosive of Christian faith. This will require hard work and heroic effort by well-trained Christian philosophers and theologians who are also familiar with the inner workings of the historical-critical guild.

However, it is not sufficient simply to criticize or even refute those problematic philosophical commitments that often inform academic historical-criticism. Equally if not more important is that Christian philosophers, theologians, and scientists work together to present a broad macroscopic apologetic for the claims of Christian theism. What is required is a unified macroscopic account of reality, the truth and beauty of which demonstrates its superior ability to integrate and proportion the vast influx of knowledge arising from mankind’s ever-increasing grasp of the material dimensions of the universe and human history. Only through the championing of an alternative framework possessed of such superior philosophical and theological credentials and integrative power, will the nascent naturalism which often contextualizes historical-critical studies be unseated.

Lord God, we ask on this feast day of St. Leo the Great, who so faithfully sought to teach in accord with your Holy Scriptures, that we may seek always to pursue Scriptural interpretation that is pleasing to our Lord Jesus Christ, and is faithful to His will. Amen.

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica Online, s. v. Historical Criticism. []
  2. Ian Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 3-97. Pages 3-97 supply an in-depth analysis of crucial presuppositional problems within modern historical-critical studies. []
  3. Ratzinger, Cardinal Joseph. Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The 1988 Erasmus Lecture. (accessed September 16, 2014). []
  4. Readers may also be interested in Biblical Errancy: An Analysis of its Philosophical Roots (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981) edited by Norman Geisler and featuring contributions from various Evangelical scholars; a work which overlaps some of the same historical and conceptual territory as Politicizing the Bible. []
  5. Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker, Politicizing the Bible: The Roots of Historical Criticism and the Secularization of Scripture 1300-1700 (New York: Herder & Herder, 2013) p. 1. []
  6. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 14, 8. []
  7. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 8-9. []
  8. Hahn, Wiker, p. 9. []
  9. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 11-12. []
  10. Hahn, Wiker, p. 12. []
  11. Hahn, Wiker, p. 11. []
  12. Hahn, Wiker, p. 17. []
  13. Hahn, Wiker, p. 26. []
  14. Hahn, Wiker, p. 35. []
  15. Hahn, Wiker, p. 36. []
  16. Hahn, Wiker, p. 58. []
  17. Hahn, Wiker, p. 45. []
  18. Hahn, Wiker, p. 46. []
  19. Hahn, Wiker, p. 59. []
  20. For a more extended reflection on Ockham and his philosophy, see Joshua Lim’s post Post Tenebras Lux []
  21. Hahn, Wiker, p. 56. []
  22. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 61-72. []
  23. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 75-77. []
  24. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 79-84. []
  25. Hahn, Wiker, p. 80. []
  26. Hahn, Wiker, p. 92. []
  27. Hahn, Wiker, p. 92. []
  28. Hahn, Wiker, p. 93-95. []
  29. Hahn, Wiker, p. 106. []
  30. Hahn, Wiker, p. 128. []
  31. Hahn, Wiker, p. 132. []
  32. Hahn, Wiker, p. 135. []
  33. Hahn, Wiker, p. 138. []
  34. Hahn, Wiker, p. 139. []
  35. Hahn, Wiker, p. 140. []
  36. Hahn, Wiker, p. 141. []
  37. Hahn, Wiker, p. 148. []
  38. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 176-177. []
  39. Hahn, Wiker, p. 184. []
  40. Hahn, Wiker, p. 153. []
  41. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 170-171. []
  42. Hahn, Wiker, p.192. []
  43. Hahn, Wiker, p. 195. []
  44. Hahn, Wiker, pp.196-197. []
  45. Hahn, Wiker, p. 206. []
  46. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 212-216. []
  47. We direct readers to Dr. David Anders article “How John Calvin Made me a Catholic” for a deeper discussion of John Calvin’s religious and political ideas. []
  48. Hahn, Wiker, p. 199. []
  49. Hahn, Wiker, p. 201. []
  50. Hahn, Wiker, p. 200, 208. []
  51. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 217-218. []
  52. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 222-223. []
  53. Hahn, Wiker, p. 226. []
  54. Hahn, Wiker, p. 227. []
  55. Hahn, Wiker, p. 226-230. []
  56. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 234-236. []
  57. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 241-243. []
  58. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 246-248. []
  59. Hahn, Wiker, p. 251. []
  60. Hahn, Wiker, p. 253. []
  61. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 265-268. []
  62. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 270-271. []
  63. Hahn, Wiker, p. 274. []
  64. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 279-280. []
  65. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 279-284. []
  66. Hahn, Wiker, p. 299-311. []
  67. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 313-317. []
  68. Hahn, Wiker, p. 321. []
  69. Hahn, Wiker, p. 317. []
  70. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 318-319, 323. []
  71. Hahn, Wiker, p. 325. []
  72. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 327-328. []
  73. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 329-330. []
  74. Hahn, Wiker, p. 332. []
  75. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 334-335. []
  76. Hahn, Wiker, p. 337. []
  77. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 343-344. []
  78. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 344-356. []
  79. Hahn, Wiker, p. 358. []
  80. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 362, 363-365. []
  81. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 370, 384. []
  82. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 382, 386. []
  83. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 378-387. []
  84. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 366-367. []
  85. Hahn, Wiker, p. 368. []
  86. Hahn, Wiker, p. 369. []
  87. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 371-373. []
  88. Hahn, Wiker, p. 374. []
  89. Hahn, Wiker, pp.375-376. []
  90. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 396-398. []
  91. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 405-411. []
  92. Hahn, Wiker, p. 412. []
  93. Hahn, Wiker, p. 413. []
  94. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 414-419. []
  95. Hahn, Wiker, p. 422. []
  96. Hahn, Wiker, p. 422. []
  97. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 426-432. []
  98. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 432, 446-447. []
  99. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 432-438. []
  100. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 443-445. []
  101. Hahn, Wiker, p. 451. []
  102. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 453-55. []
  103. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 455-461, 462. []
  104. Hahn, Wiker, p. 467. []
  105. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 469-472. []
  106. Hahn, Wiker, p. 470. []
  107. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 476-480. []
  108. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 505-514. []
  109. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 495-505. []
  110. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 488-495, 520-528. []
  111. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 533-541. []
  112. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 543-545. []
  113. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 544-545. []
  114. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 547-553. []
  115. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 549-550. []
  116. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 553-554. []
  117. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 555-565. []
  118. Hahn, Wiker, p. 565. []
  119. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 539-540. []
  120. ST I, Q1, A10. []
  121. Latourelle, Rene, Theology of Revelation (Stanton Island, NY: Alba House, 1966), 367. []
  122. Vatican Council II. Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation – Dei Verbum. (accessed September 16, 2014). []
  123. For readers who may be interested in a deeper study of the Reformation’s impact upon the modern intellectual landscape, of which historical-criticism is but a part, we recommend Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. []
  124. Hahn, Wiker, p. 187. []
  125. Hahn, Wiker p. 202. []
  126. Hahn, Wiker, p. 205. []
  127. Hahn, Wiker, p. 217. []
  128. Brief historical accounts of Sixtus IV and Alexander VI that note their guilt in propagating corruption and immorality, can be found here here and here. []
  129. Wells, H. G. Crux Ansata: An Indictment of the Roman Catholic Church. (accessed September 16, 2014). []
  130. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 223-225, 235-236, 245-246. []
  131. Criticism’s Limits. []
  132. Hahn, Wiker, pp. 8-9. []
  133. For a more thorough analysis of Calvin’s “Reformed Magisterium” in Geneva, see David Anders’ “How John Calvin Made Me Catholic.” []
  134. John Knox Interview with Mary Queen of Scots. []
  135. Ramage, Matthew J., Dark Passages of the Bible: Engaging Scripture with Benedict XVI & Thomas Aquinas (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2013), 182. []
  136. Verbum Domini, 42. For an excellent example of how Benedict XVI’s proposal might be carried out, we direct our readers to Dr. Matthew Ramage’s 2013 book Dark Passages of the Bible: Engaging Scripture with Benedict XVI and St. Thomas Aquinas which carefully examines Old Testament themes which seem to endorse polytheism, promote violence, and reject an afterlife. Ramage effectively appropriates the historical-critical method in conjunction with the patristic-medieval approach in a way which reconciles these “problems” with official Catholic teaching. []
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  1. Was this review written for an academic journal? Because if the book in question is even remotely as complex as the review, I cannot imagine the audience for whom the either review or book is intended beyond the eggiest of eggheads. And I also think in a consideration the Higher Criticism in Catholicism, to ignore the very influential modern proponents of its method like Brown and Fitzmeyer we are dodging the pressing questions of inerrancy and inspiration that motivate the entire conversation. Especially odd given Hahn’s very vocal advocacy of both Inerrancy and Pope Benedict XVI’s exegesis, two things which on the surface appear at odds. So other than establishing that hermeneutics as a field is definitely influenced by philosophy, something I think we already know, I am not sure I understand the book’s signal contribution.

  2. Hi Joe (#1),

    Thanks for the comment.

    I cannot imagine the audience for whom the either review or book is intended beyond the eggiest of eggheads. And I also think in a consideration the Higher Criticism in Catholicism, to ignore the very influential modern proponents of its method like Brown and Fitzmeyer we are dodging the pressing questions of inerrancy and inspiration that motivate the entire conversation. Especially odd given Hahn’s very vocal advocacy of both Inerrancy and Pope Benedict XVI’s exegesis, two things which on the surface appear at odds.

    The book would only be “dodging” contemporary debates of inerrancy and inspiration if this were within the scope of Hahn and Wiker’s book, which it is not. See, for example, the title of the book: “Politicizing the Bible: The Roots of Historical Criticism and the Secularization of Scripture 1300 -1700.”

    As for pitting Hahn and Pope Benedict XVI against one another as if their positions on Holy Scripture are in opposition to one another, do you have any evidence to substantiate that claim?

    So other than establishing that hermeneutics as a field is definitely influenced by philosophy, something I think we already know, I am not sure I understand the book’s signal contribution.

    Any argument ever made has been “definitely influenced by philosophy,” in that all arguments rely on certain philosophical presuppositions. If you assess that this is all the book or our review of the book propose, it may be worthwhile to read a bit more closely. in Christ, Casey

  3. Hi Joe,

    In addition to what Casey wrote, I would like to add some egg-headed thoughts. There has been among some practitioners of historical-critical method a tendency to treat application of the method as a strictly objective enterprise conducted in imitation of the modern natural sciences. Since the “objective” natural sciences are considered the gold standard in human knowledge nowadays, to the degree that some academic specialty is identified with that standard, the greater its probative force is thought to be. Therefore, there remains a need to explicitly point out the role and impact of background presuppositions upon the conclusions which historical-critical scholars reach through application of the tools and techniques of their trade. Secondly, and given the import of such background presuppositions, it may be that many of the philosophical commitments which underwrite historical-critical studies in the academy are in fact dubious. If that is so, then various conclusions currently holdings sway within the academy may be errant. However, as we pointed out within the introduction of the article, in order to assess the probative force of the philosophical commitments which tend to accompany the practice of modern historical criticism, those commitments must first be clearly identified. That is the key contribution of Hahn and Wiker’s work (as well as our review).

    If one is going to challenge some of the reigning notions within the historical-critical guild which are inimical to Catholic faith (whether radical challenges to the truth of Catholicism as a whole, or to particular doctrines such as inspiration and inerrancy), one will have to carefully identify the philosophical streams which motivate the reigning notions (which is what the book and our review accomplish) and subsequently show where those streams are in error (which neither the book nor the review claim to do). In other words, to make a credible case that some of the reigning orthodoxy within historical-critical circles rests upon faulty or weak presuppositions, one cannot merely hand wave about naturalism, scientism, et al. One needs to specifically identify the influences which shaped the field, and that involves some heavy historiographic lifting. Only then is one in a position to critique those particular shaping influences which cannot stand historical or philosophical scrutiny. There’s simply no getting around the details and difficulties, both historical and philosophical, in meeting the challenges which some forms of historical critical scholarship present to Catholic faith. To defend the faith of the Church with respect to sacred Scripture (which is a much needed service to both scholars and lay persons), I’m afraid some egg-headedness is unavoidable. Finally, I too would like to see evidence that anything about the exegesis of Benedict XVI is incongruent with Hahn’s work. Nor are we ignoring scholars like Brown or Fitzmeyer. Both of those men have done excellent work in the field of historical-critical studies, even if one wishes to argue that one or both men seem (in some parts of their writing) to remain unduly influenced by presuppositions common to their area of specialty which require closer inspection.

    Pax Christi,


  4. Dear Casey Chalk:
    I was delighted to find your review of Hahn and Wiker. I am interested in how
    Catholic journalism has promoted historical criticism in order to weaken and supplant
    orthodox teaching. Keith Ives in his biography of the great Protestant editor shows
    how the Protestant downgrade took place at the turn of the 20th century especially
    in Britain: Voice of Nonconformity WR Nicoll (2011). David F. Wells 1993 book, No Place
    for Truth shows how modernism speeds theological corruption Kind regards, Anthony

  5. Just an observation on the statement: “Indeed both Aristotle and St. Thomas held that there is nothing in the intellect that was not first in the senses.”

    That statement holds in the ordinary case, apart from extraordinary divine intervention such as in the case of the Visitation of St. Mary to St. Elizabeth, when St. John the Baptist learned of the presence of the Word of God made flesh while he and Jesus were in the womb of their respective mothers.

    As an aside, an additional motive of relevance for this particular case is that it provides the basis for a speculative thesis on a way for infants dying without baptism to reach the Beatific Vision, the “illumination theory” as described by Fr. John Hardon in:

  6. An observation on the term “closed cosmology” is in order: given the scholarly quality of the article, it may be necessary to state, right at the first use of that term, that it is meant in the sense “metaphysically closed cosmology”. Because “closed cosmology” is an established term in relativistic physical cosmology, meaning a finite universe with positive curvature and spherical geometry.

    While the concept is more often denoted by the term “closed universe”, “closed geometry” and “closed cosmology” are acceptable terms that have unequivocal meaning in that context, as can be verified by searching for them in conjunction with “universe” in

    As an aside, a closed cosmology (in its relativistic meaning), with its implication of a finite universe, is more suitable to Christian Revelation than a flat (Euclidean) or open geometry, which imply a spatially infinite universe, as clearly a finite universe fits better with the notion that the universe was created for the sake of human beings. Besides, a closed geometry has the additional advantage of ruling out the framework of the eternally inflating multiverse, which is the pseudo-scientific model usually proposed by atheists as an alternative to creation of this universe out of nothing. This was demonstrated in 2012 by these two papers, the second of which is co-authored by one of the fathers of the theory of cosmological inflation: – “Spatial Curvature Falsifies Eternal Inflation” – “What can the observation of nonzero curvature tell us?”

    To be clear, according to the current state of physics, with flat or open geometry an eternally inflating multiverse may or may not be the actual case, but with closed geometry an eternally inflating multiverse is ruled out.

  7. Richard Carrier claims in a recent debate with Trent Horn over the historicity of Jesus:

    To use the gospels, you have to establish that there’s at least one passage that says something about an earthly Jesus that you can establish as more likely true than not. And I have failed to find anyone who has been able to make a sound argument in that way. The closest they can get is 50/50 and that surprised me.

    The claim is right at the 1 hr 49 minute mark at this link:

    I realize this is not directly relevant to the above thread. However, I found this statement interesting because it sounds like Carrier uses the ILD principle and other historical probability tools to make arguments against the existence of Jesus. This got me thinking: does the ILD principle lead to agnosticism regarding many historical claims (since Carrier argues it cannot even be established that there’s one fact more likely true than not)? How can the ILD principle be misused in historical debate? How much should we rely on probabilities as percentages (e.g. 25/75, 50/50, 90/10) and is there any meaningful way to place numbers on the probability of ancient events?

    John D.

  8. John,

    Thank you for your comment. When Carrier uses the phrase “that you can establish as more likely true than not”, one must ask what criterion he has in mind for determining that which is “more likely than not”. The gospels explicitly state within multiple passages that Jesus existed (place of birth, mother and father named, accounts of his early upbringing, his travels, personal interactions, trial, crucifixion, etc). What is it about the gospels, considered merely as historical documents, which bring into question the veracity of those multiple passages attesting to the existence of Jesus of Nazareth in first century Palestine? It seems that Carrier does not wish to allow the gospel texts to count as historical data which could be incorporated within an ILD type evaluation, but why not? Without addressing that question he cannot construct a useful ILD comparison. Hence, I am unclear about what relevance you think his comments within the video have to the application of the ILD principle?

    Moreover, when Bryan, Barrett, and myself enumerated the preliminary principles which underwrote our historical approach within the Catholic Faith and the Bishops of History article, the ILD was just one of four principles, each of which may accompany the others in enabling the historian to arrive at principled historical conclusions. For instance, within that very article we resolve some evidential stalemates resulting from application of the ILD principle by bringing to bear the principle that “Proximate evidence informs underdetermined evidence”. Accordingly, the ILD principle need not stand alone in determining the most reasonable stance vis-à-vis some historical question, from which it follows that the ILD principle need not entail historical agnosticism generally speaking, although it may entail as much with respect to this or that historical hypothesis, if or when other principles of historiography cannot be conjoined to it in a principled way. Finally, as an anecdotal point, I note that the position which holds that Jesus of Nazareth was not a real historical personage is an extreme outlier among historians of all stripes, including religious skeptics such as Bart Ehrman.

    Pax Christi,


  9. Gentlemen:

    Thanks for you charitable responses.

    Rereading the review, I conclude I will have to read the book myself. But from revisiting your words, it does appear to me that the Hahn and Wiker labor to establish what is rather obvious: liberals and conservatives approach the text from rather differing spheres of ‘politics.’ I guess I am just surprised this is seen as revelatory versus a given. It’s a situation Evangelicals have been well aware of and dealing with for decades, witness the back catalog of InterVarsity Press. And if it’s considered ‘news’ in Catholic circles, we really are guilty of functioning in a bubble. (But I don’t think it has always been so: Years back George Kelly laid out the problems quite clearly in his “New Biblical Theorists,” and Hahn at one point supposedly tried to talk Ignatius Press into reprinting it. But Brown inexplicably remains the toast of the Academy, even, disturbingly, esteemed by Ratzinger.) As for a cleavage between Hahn and Ratzinger in terms of exegesis, after reading Ratzinger in his Commentary on Vatican II, and listening to Hahn’s tapes on Inerrancy, well, there are two very different takes on inspiration and ‘limited inerrancy’ in those two sources, to say the least. But each person will have to judge for themselves. That may not have been the subject of this book, but it is part and parcel of the connected conversation.

  10. Hello Joe (#9),

    Thanks for the comment.

    Rereading the review, I conclude I will have to read the book myself. But from revisiting your words, it does appear to me that the Hahn and Wiker labor to establish what is rather obvious: liberals and conservatives approach the text from rather differing spheres of ‘politics.’ I guess I am just surprised this is seen as revelatory versus a given.

    Hahn and Wiker’s thesis is not that “liberals and conservatives approach the text from rather differing spheres of ‘politics.'” I am a bit baffled as to how you’ve concluded that this is their thesis or the point of our review. The thesis of the book, as we explain in II.A, is that historical criticism is “entangled with a set of philosophical and ideological presuppositions whose intertwining with historical-critical method was woven together, implicitly or explicitly, for the purpose of fostering and securing a secular political ascendency wherein religion is denuded of its transcendental appeal and recast in private and moral terms so as to inoculate the modern project of a secular ordering of society from any other-worldly disturbances.” As the title of the book suggests, this is a “politicization” of Scripture, by seeking to wrest it from the interpretive authority of the Catholic Church and place it in the hands of secular, and often political authorities. There are all manners of interesting and important points that stem from this, many of which are quite problematic for Protestantism’s own self-understanding, as we note in such sections as those on Luther and Henry VIII.

    As for a cleavage between Hahn and Ratzinger in terms of exegesis, after reading Ratzinger in his Commentary on Vatican II, and listening to Hahn’s tapes on Inerrancy, well, there are two very different takes on inspiration and ‘limited inerrancy’ in those two sources, to say the least. But each person will have to judge for themselves.

    You still haven’t presented any evidence to substantiate your claim of a supposed contradiction between Hahn and Ratzinger. Your comment is mere hand-waving. Also, for what it’s worth, we could say that the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of John have “very different takes” on the life of Jesus, or that St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Therese of Liseux have “very different takes” on spirituality. Yet having “very different takes” does not necessitate contradiction (though it certainly could), but may simply be a case of different but reconcilable perspectives on the same truth. Without any evidence for your claim, it’s impossible to make an evaluation.

    in Christ, Casey

  11. Ray (re: #8),

    Thanks for your reply. It’s been a while, but I thought I’d send something back today.

    What is it about the gospels, considered merely as historical documents, which bring into question the veracity of those multiple passages attesting to the existence of Jesus of Nazareth in first century Palestine? It seems that Carrier does not wish to allow the gospel texts to count as historical data which could be incorporated within an ILD type evaluation, but why not? Without addressing that question he cannot construct a useful ILD comparison. Hence, I am unclear about what relevance you think his comments within the video have to the application of the ILD principle?

    Admittedly, I have not read Carrier’s scholarly work. I have heard (in a couple debates) that he argues the Gospels are contradictory, contain a boatload of discrepancies, and have types of mythical-fiction/allegory weaved throughout. My throughout is that this is the basis for why the data cannot be viewed as more likely true than not, because it’s just as likely that it’s part of the contradictory, mythical-fiction/allegorical edifice that is the Gospels, under his view.

    Finally, as an anecdotal point, I note that the position which holds that Jesus of Nazareth was not a real historical personage is an extreme outlier among historians of all stripes, including religious skeptics such as Bart Ehrman.

    It’s my understanding that Ehrman is a textual critic, not a historian by trade. Also, if you watch the debate with Trent Horn, Carrier certainly makes it sound that his is no longer a minority position in academia. Perhaps it is still a minority position by headcount, but regarding peer-reviewed articles and such, it seems that academia has become much more sympathetic to that position. It is also interesting at the end of the debate when Carrier points out there are no scholarly, professional-level works from the Jesus-really-existed perspective compared to his scholarly book on the mythical view.

    Just more food for thought.
    John D.

  12. CtCers who enjoyed this post may also enjoy the following lecture by John Finnis entitled “Who said: ‘Blessed are the Poor’?”

  13. John D #11,

    I was perusing the comments here today and came across your comment. You said,

    Carrier certainly makes it sound that his is no longer a minority position in academia

    Carrier may make it sound that way, but the mythicist Jesus is a far-cry from serious scholarship.

    Bart Ehrman strongly expresses his frustration with such a position in this video:

    Larry Hurtado argues,

    nothing of any weight has been produced in the last two weeks of discussion here to call into question the dominant judgement of scholars that “Jesus of Nazareth” is a real figure of history who generated a following during his own lifetime, and was executed by crucifixion.

    Regarding your concern of the “ILD principle” you have brought up legitimate concerns that it can be badly misused and overextended. Moreover, it is a subjective criteria in the sense that an evaluation of the evidence is needed before seeing if the ILD principle applies. Only retrospectively can one claim that someone is violating the ILD, but the danger with invoking the ILD is that it presupposes that one’s exegetical conclusions are correct.

    That’s not to say that the ILD principle does not have some semblance of validity, but such a charge only makes sense if one agrees with your assessment of the data. As such, the ILD principle is as valuable as your assessment of the data.

  14. Brandon (re: #13),

    Thanks for the reply. You said:

    Carrier may make it sound that way, but the mythicist Jesus is a far-cry from serious scholarship.
    Bart Ehrman strongly expresses his frustration with such a position in this video:

    This is in response to my paragraph.

    “It’s my understanding that Ehrman is a textual critic, not a historian by trade. Also, if you watch the debate with Trent Horn, Carrier certainly makes it sound that his is no longer a minority position in academia. Perhaps it is still a minority position by headcount, but regarding peer-reviewed articles and such, it seems that academia has become much more sympathetic to that position. It is also interesting at the end of the debate when Carrier points out there are no scholarly, professional-level works from the Jesus-really-existed perspective compared to his scholarly book on the mythical view.”

    You play into Carrier’s hands by citing Ehrman as your source, since Ehrman is not a historian by trade. Carrier has also went back and forth with Ehrman on the internet (though I have not read their exchanges). The statement I bolded is key to Carrier’s claims since he is saying that regarding current academic study, his position is no longer a fringe minority. This cannot be refuted by citing Ehrman or just another NT scholar. However, I am not aware of the current academic scene or Carrier’s peer-reviewed articles, so I can’t evaluate this claim well either.

    Thanks for your comments!

    John D.

  15. John D,

    By citing Ehrman and then citing Hurtado, I’m (very!) briefly attempting to give you a sense of how people on different “ends” of the academic spectrum approach the topic. Both Ehrman (who is certainly a historian by trade–text critics are historians!) and Hurtado judge the thesis unpersuasive and agree that none of their colleagues find the thesis persuasive either. There is serious incredulity to the narrative Carrier is peddling, mainly because, according to Hurtado, he is trotting out refuted arguments from 150 years ago. One may not like Hurtado and/or Ehrman, but when both of these men agree about something in biblical studies and cannot name one colleague who disagrees, you’ve got a good idea of academic consensus.

  16. Here’s a working link to the Finnis talk:

  17. Casey,
    I am curious why the authors did not include a chapter on the Kulturkampf, Bismark and the promotion of the primacy of Mark’s Gospel over Matthew’s because of the troublesome 16th chapter. That was certainly a case of the state meddling in the affairs of religion for its own political purposes.

  18. Hello,

    I wanted to add my 2 cents on a couple of things that have come up. Firstly, in academic scholarship, the Historical Critical method is accepted when it comes to exegesis. Given the fact that the “best and brightest” are people such as Brown, Fitzmeyer, Harrington, etc, should be indicative of this fact. Once again, talking about scripture scholars and exegesis.

    On another note, I’m fairly surprised that people here are demanding evidence that there is a hermeneutical difference in the approach of Hahn and Ratzinger. Quite honestly, a familiarity with the writings of the two should prove this obvious. However since it’s not here, let me say the following: Ratzinger utilizes findings of the HC method, however wraps them in Canonical conclusions. I have yet to read something from Hahn that seriously takes such findings into account. In fact, I’ve read Hahn give a defence of only paying attention to the canonical narrative of the text. If you want specifics, read Hahn’s introduction to the Ignatius Study Bible’s entry on Genesis and then read Ratzinger’s “In the Beginning…” One uses the findings of academic scholarship and takes those findings at face value in a way that works with them. The former will not prepare anyone for an academic engagement with the text. Also contrast to the far superior Jerome Study Bible. Look up Hahn’s explanation of the difference between the synoptic gospels and John in regards to when the Last Supper and the Crucifixion took place. Then contrast this with the second Volume of “Jesus of Nazareth” written by Ratzinger which accepts the difference and takes a stand.

    From my readings, Hahn minimalizes the method and essentially, and delicately, argues against its use. Ratzinger highlights its shortcomings as a total theological approach, however the essential nature of the use of the tools themselves. Quite frankly, I’m surprised at the response to the suggestion that the two approaches are very different, and though not broadly logically contradictory, one is nuanced and multi-faceted while the other is quite simply literalistic.

    Once again, sorry I haven’ t read everything that came before me, and I’m not a regular contributor to this community, however came across this and wanted chip in on something I read.

    God bless,


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