I just got through reading a marvelous article in the March First Things that I wanted to make you aware of, if you aren’t already. It’s entitled “Reading the Bible with the Reformers” by the dean of Beeson Divinity School, Timothy George. His contention is one that is increasingly heard in orthodox circles these days, namely, that we need to recover the practice of reading the Bible with the historic Christian tradition in mind, rather than giving in to a tyranny of the “present.” Back in the 1990s, I wrote an amendment to the Moravian Ground of the Unity (the confession of faith of the world-wide Unitas Fratrum) that embodied this idea, so it isn’t new to me, but George makes the case incredibly well. A sample:
We do well to return to this tradition of Reformation biblical exegesis. C. S. Lewis noted: “We need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present.” For the present can become imperial, seducing us into imagining that the assumptions that reign today have always defined what it means to be reasonable, sensible, and mainstream. Against the tendency toward presentism, Lewis observed that “a man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: The scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.”
We can suffer from a biblical presentism. It is all too common to think of biblical interpretation as answering the question “What is the Bible saying to us now?” This approach, which one finds both in liberal mainline churches and in conservative evangelical ones, owes a great deal to the liberal Protestant theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher. The father of modern hermeneutics, Schleiermacher defined religion as the feeling of absolute dependence and understood Scripture as a detailed expression of the faith that satisfies our need to feel a sense of absolute dependence. With this subjective account of the meaning of Scripture, Schleiermacher displaced the central teachings and dogmas of the Church, putting in its place a phenomenology of Christian self-consciousness. In view of this approach, it is not surprising that Schleiermacher’s entire treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity is contained in a thirteen-page appendix to his nearly 800-page textbook of systematic theology, On the Christian Faith. The important questions, for Schleiermacher, concerned the present influence of biblical preaching and its ability to create in modern men and women a “God-consciousness” that would induce feelings of absolute dependence.
By and large, the modern Protestant tradition has appealed to historical-critical exegesis as a source for objective biblical teaching that can work against the presentism implicit in Schleiermacher’s approach. Unfortunately, for all the important intellectual contributions they have made, historical-critical methods of interpretation were developed as part of a distinctively modern project. The goal, which has been often and vigorously stated since its inception in the late-eighteenth century, was to release the Bible from the shackles placed on it by the intervening two millennia of biblical interpretation. For example, in his famous 1885 Bampton Lectures, Frederic W. Farrar described the long history of Christian interpretation of the Bible as something to be overcome: “How often has the Bible thus been wronged! It has been imprisoned in the cells of alien dogma; it has been bound hand and foot in the grave clothes of human tradition; it has been entombed as a sepulcher by systems of theology, and the stone of human power has been rolled up to close its door.” It was the aim of Farrar and his colleagues to liberate the Bible from its churchly bondage.
They largely succeeded, but the effect has not been to reorient the churches around a revitalized biblical center. The historical-critical approach breaks the Bible down into discrete units to be further dissected in terms of competing hypotheses about authorship, literary form, original context, source of origin, and so forth. This makes for good academic debate, but without a narrative or doctrinal unity the Bible cannot compete with the imperial present. As a result, the history of the Church’s interpretation of the Bible has been swept away, but little has taken its place. As the historical scholars write their monographs, we’re left enclosed within our presentism, reading the Bible only from the perspective of own age and not with the Christian ages.
An imperialism of the present also thrives within a populist evangelicalism shaped by the likes of the celebrated evangelist Billy Sunday, who once boasted, “I don’t know any more about theology than a jackrabbit does about ping pong, but I’m on the way to glory.” A higher level of discourse is carried on in the Evangelical Theological Society, but even this august group of scholars only recently has amended its annually subscribed statement of faith to include, in addition to the affirmation of biblical inerrancy, a required belief in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. If, in Paul Tillich’s terms, Protestant principle has swallowed up Catholic substance in much of contemporary evangelicalism, this is because evangelicals have paid too little attention to the sum total of the Christian heritage handed down from previous ages.
That’s the critique (there’s more, but that gets to the heart of it). For the antidote, continue reading George’s article, and let me know what you think.