Kant and biblical studies: On deactivation

This week, my philosophy of religion course is reading Kant’s Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, whose preface anticipates his arguments in Conflict of the Faculties in favor of viewing the “philosopy faculty” (something like the “college of arts and sciences”) as superior to the other faculties (basically professional schools). In specific, he claims that although the philosophical theory of “pure religion” seems narrower than historical religions, it nonetheless has the right to judge and assess them insofar as it is higher and more universal than them. Kant does wind up claiming that Christianity is uniquely in line with the ideal “religion of reason,” but that claim of Christian superiority is undercut insofar as it is Kant qua philosopher who is entitled to make that judgment.

It seems to me that this move on the part of Kant can shed some light on the place of biblical studies in the university. Biblical studies did historically make claims for Christian superiority just as Kant does, and postcolonial critics have pointed out the ways that critical biblical studies wound up underwriting imperialism, etc. Such things don’t happen as much anymore (at least not openly — for that we need to look to theologians like Milbank), but biblical studies does still claim the authority of the Bible and arguably does so in the interests of the liberal state. It does this by claiming biblical authority only to deactivate it.

Broadly speaking, biblical studies sets itself up as a new magisterium regulating the use of the Bible. And ultimately, it turns out that all possible uses of the Bible in contemporary life are somehow wrong, as indeed all previous historical attempts to use the Bible have been.

In uncovering the “original” intended meaning of the biblical texts, it reveals them to be documents whose true meaning is completely at odds with their familiar historical uses and whose original context was so radically different from our own as to make application seem nearly impossible. The classical instance here is Johannes Weiss’s Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God, where he concludes that the liberal Protestant use of the “kingdom of God” theme is completely wrong and that the term in its original, thoroughly apocalyptic meaning is basically unusable for contemporary life. Yet the pattern repeats itself for every attempt at a contemporary application, whether that attempt happened yesterday or a thousand years ago — in each case, the conclusions drawn are somehow illegitimate.

The basis of this strategy is a fundamentally Protestant view of scriptural authority. Viewing the Bible as the “source” of Christianity — itself a weirdly anachronistic view of how Christianity developed — it goes on to show that the church, the supposed guardian of the Bible, has relentlessly failed to apprehend its true meaning. The only way to gain access to that meaning is through membership in the new magisterium of biblical studies, and that carries with it the price of forever abstaining from any attempt to apply the Bible to public life. The only true meaning of the Bible is the “secular,” historical meaning of its component parts, which must be left in the past in the service of the modern secular public space.

I know that biblical studies has in many ways moved beyond this solely negative view of the tradition — many people working in Hebrew Bible also work with rabbinic traditions and many people getting PhDs in New Testament are effectively doing all their work on early patristics. Yet the policing and deactivating impulses are still in place. For instance, I heard an SBL paper in which the presenter detailed the ways in which public figures routinely misused biblical passages. In the Q&A, I asked her if the answer was for public figures to use the Bible more accurately, and she replied that the answer was actually for them to stop using it altogether. At the time, that struck me as a strange answer for someone who was devoting her career to studying and teaching about the Bible, but that’s the basic impulse of the discipline.

I won’t claim to have a definitive answer here, but this view does call into question several common stances toward biblical studies. First of all, theologians are constantly criticized for failing to take historical studies seriously enough — but how can the theologian truly work with a “deactivated” Bible?

Secondly, it seems clear that many in higher ed view biblical studies as more “basic” or essential to a religious studies curriculum than the history of Judaism or Christianity. Yet it is only through the history of Judaism and Christianity that the Bible has had any concrete effect, including in the present day. Does it really aid understanding for an undergrad’s primary lesson about the biblical religions to be that they have got their founding documents “wrong”? Isn’t the study of the Talmud or of Augustine much more relevant to understanding Judaism or Christianity than a historical-critical study of the sources of the Torah or an investigation of the Q source?

39 thoughts on “Kant and biblical studies: On deactivation

  1. Good post. Sometimes it seems that biblical studies is so set on correcting oftentimes horrible, non-textual/historical interpretations that they throw the baby out with the bathwater.
    I remember being in a class where the prof. started by showing how wrong Origen, Augustine, Calvin, Barth, etc. were about a passage but with the so-called right “tools” one can understand what the Bible meant for Jesus’ audience… I also remember hearing how the theological checks and balances is between OT/NT majors and those crazy, imaginative, non-textual Theology majors.

  2. Surely for many Biblical Studies people, at least in my experience, the idea that they have a ‘de-activated’ Bible has been long surpassed. Take the fact that an entirely theologically orthodox (soon ex-)Anglician Bishop with basically very conservative stances on most isues, NT Wright is probably the world’s most well known Biblical Studies person. Take someone like Michael F. Bird’s work or that book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses which combines biblical studies with theology. In my personal experience with biblical scholars, it seems that the days of the de-activated biblical studies are for better or worse long gone.

  3. I agreed with the post, but I also must say that the SBL presenter is correct. I am frakking tired of politicians quoting Scripture or invoking God’s name for their pet causes. I remain suspicious of the high church/academic magisterium movement but when it comes to the separation of church and state, I firmly believe in it.

  4. Just to be nit-picky, isn’t it so generic as to be problematic to say that the basis of the deactivating strategy is a ‘Protestant’ view of scriptural authority? Your point is that the academic posture of deactivating is grounded in a sense of the Bible as source of the Christian religion, but your post all but evades the necessary move of tying the ‘new magisterium of biblical studies’ — the quest for ‘original meaning’ as ‘getting it right’ via technical expertise — to the rise of historical-critical inquiry. I agree fully with your diagnosis of the problem of posture of biblical studies vis-a-vis contemporary ‘meaning/application’, but I think it’s worth being more clear about ‘the basis of the strategy’ of deactivation. I don’t have apologetic interests here, but doesn’t that strategy say more about what biblical ‘meaning’ becomes when restricted to the modern university context, and the rise of academic biblical studies, rather than what a ‘Protestant view’ of the bible leads to? The basic presupposition of the strategy you’re diagnosing is that right meaning is derived via technical expertise, not that the Bible is the source of Christianity.

    Also, I haven’t read it yet, but I thought it worth mentioning that Christopher Morse’s new The Difference Heave Makes, which polls all the uses for ‘heaven/s’ in the bible and finds that the most forthright meaning of the ‘Kingdom of God’ is its contemporaneity, begins with Weiss. Morse’s conclusion is precisely the opposite of the deactivating strategy, and thus in my mind, his example may suggest the relevance of a strategy (also, and perhaps more truly, Protestant) of linking exegesis and its relevance to theological interpretation and clarity about contemporary life, rather than grounding ‘application’ in the dogma of an ecclesiastical magisterium or in the historical-critical search for ‘original meaning’.

  5. (I thought ‘nit-picky’ was the way to advance argumentation here.)

    How about what you make of my claim that ‘The basic presupposition of the strategy you’re diagnosing is that right meaning is derived via technical expertise, not that the Bible is the source of Christianity’?

  6. I so thoroughly agree with this that I have just written my dissertation on it. (Perhaps this works like “Kafka and His Precursors.”) Seriously, you start diving into biblical studies a bit, and it quickly gets ideological. (Think of the very enterprise of textual criticism: looking for the “original text” of, say… Genesis? What do you do with JEPD or the fragments that came before them? How can something be original that is so clearly unoriginal? The “original context” is exactly the same thing- what is the original context for Genesis? And so on, until you have a dissertation.)

  7. In other words — it’s not like Calvin and Luther were sitting around leading classes on JEDP and Q. In what sense then is it accurate to say the the ‘basis’ of this strategy is a Protestant view of the bible?

  8. The alternative is “Nachleben” or “Afterlife” or “Reception History” or whatever, but just pushing it all the way down. As in, it’s all reception, even the “original” production of the book of Genesis, even the production of “J,” and even the production of Atrahasis from which the Noah-legend comes, etc, etc… And thus, any context in which one can interpret something is already secondary, and there is no original context in which to deactivate the biblical text. You can do this with the gospels, too. Even the Q-source is a compilation of previous stories.

  9. Alex,

    One is not an ex bishop unless one is defrocked. Bishop NT Wright shall retire. When he does, he will be the retired or Bishop of Durham, he shant cease to be a bishop.

  10. Scott, I agree with that claim. The primary goal of this strategy is to claim that technical expertise is the sole path to meaning. I don’t see how my reference to the Protestant view of Scripture is being taken as somehow central. The practical effect of “disqualifying” all historical/traditional uses of the Bible does, however, seem to me to be following a basically “Protestant” impulse of seeking to assess theological claims based on their groundedness in scripture — but it then radicalizes this principle by essentially ruling that no theological claims whatsoever can be legitimately grounded in scripture.

    The notion that a basically Protestant view would be lurking in the background shouldn’t be surprising, given that critical biblical studies was for so long an exclusively Protestant endeavor.

  11. Scott, you should read the chapter in John Barton’s “The Nature of Biblical Criticism” called “The Origins of Biblical Criticism.” It’s pretty clear that the “deactivation effect” is in many ways a product of the Renaissance Humanist system of thought, of which Luther is a fine product.

  12. BB — I’ve read the chapter, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the issue, for me. Luther lectured on biblical texts and wrote many commentaries, knew languages well, yet I think it’s quite a stretch to equate his sense of ‘right interpretation’ with renaissance humanism and the presuppositions informing the rise of modern biblical studies. It’s part of it, yes — and Adam, in that sense your claim is of course unsurprising. Rise of Protestantism and rise of modernism go hand and hand. Story checks out, but nuance is needed.

    I agree with BB’s point about all interpretative context being ‘secondary’, but my point is that the magisterial Reformers, at least, had a specific sense of what kind of ‘secondary context’ right interpretation happened in, because they tied the true ‘Word’ of God to a certain kind of contemporary agency (Christ/Spirit) that exceeded the given text (Christ/Spirit). The differences between such a view of ‘scriptural authority’ and the presuppositions of historical-criticism/fundamentalism that real ‘meaning’ is derived from information about the ‘original historical setting’ of a datable text seems to me to make all the difference in the world.

  13. So the nuance that you’re eager to add here is that in classical Protestantism, you’re allowed and indeed encouraged to apply the Bible to the contemporary setting (specifically the church)? Okay, granted. Referring to the focus on biblical authority as “Protestant” neither implies that it is the whole of Protestantism nor that the people appropriating this particular aspect of Protestantism are thereby also claiming the rest.

  14. My point is not simply distinguishing ‘which Protestantism’ leads to this strategy of policing/deactviation, it’s getting clear on what actually is its ‘basis’ — and you did claim ‘a Protestant view of biblical authority’ to be that basis. I’m suggesting it’s not that at all, but rather a specific sense of where ‘meaning’ lies, that has less to do with Protestantism at even the most generic level, and more to do with humanism and technical mastery.

  15. Okay, the basis of their claim of authority is their technical mastery, etc.

    The basis of their strategy of cutting down the claimed authority of the church is the (Protestant) presupposition that the Bible should be the basis of Christianity, but that the church has failed to understand the Bible.

    Claiming their own authority is obviously the logically prior move, but then they also needed to disqualify other claimants — and the Protestant logic of sola scriptura provided the necessary leverage. Obviously it’s not authentic to the full richness of Protestantism. It’s an opportunistic move.

  16. It’s true that the standard origin narrative told within (Hebrew Bible) biblical studies is pretty decidedly empiricist: Spinoza took a new look at the Bible, then we found a whole bunch of stuff in the ground that negates or calls into question much of what tradition tells us about the Bible. I wonder what biblical studies would look like without this kind of ideological narrative. I mean, we still did find the stuff in the ground. Very, very good cases can be made for the following: Daniel speaks to the Hellenistic, not Babylonian era; the Book of Joshua isn’t an accurate account of the origins of Israel; Deuteronomy comes from the time of Josiah. To what extent does acknowledging and pulling apart the ideology that underwrites biblical studies affect these kinds of arguments (and I might even say “discoveries”)? Is this stuff just trivia? That’s not meant to be a rhetorical question, by the way.

  17. That is a very good question that I don’t know the answer to. I think that the results of historical-critical scholarship are something we need to take seriously and that the accuracy thereof is a separate issue from the institutional power play of the biblical studies guild — though not unrelated, obviously. I don’t advocate “going back,” obviously, and I don’t even know what that would concretely mean.

  18. Well, let’s take the book of Daniel as an example – chapters 2-6 are different stories, and probably come from different places in the diaspora, all within the Persian period, but as Collins notes, they circulated separately (and possibly with different names for some of the characters). And then chapters 7-12 are clearly written in Jerusalem about the time of the disturbance in 167 BCE. So… in what context should we read Daniel? For example, chapter 7 clearly takes chapter 2 as its model, but chapter 2 was written in a very different context than chapter 7, and so we have to ask ourselves: did chapter 7 read chapter 2 out of context, thus creating a wormhole of misreading in the very text of the Bible? You could ask the same questions about Genesis, or Proverbs, or Psalms… There are, to be sure, wrong answers to the question “Is Joshua historically accurate?” But I think it’s impossible to answer the question, “In what context should everyone read Genesis?”

  19. BB (Brenn@n, right?), I would probably go with some kind of Jameson-ian move — the original context may not be controlling, but it always lingers and can’t be fully ignored (and so with later contexts as well). ‘Original context’ is always of course the product of creative guesswork, but I don’t see that as a problem. This implies — and here’s where I risk showing myself to be flagrantly wrong — that parts of the subsequent tradition are engaged in a forgetting or even repression of history and I feel OK with critiquing that at times. I think it’s useful to think about a historical ‘horizon’ for ancient texts. That’s me speaking, though, not ‘biblical studies.’ The standard biblical studies answer would be that it’s not useful to talk about a single text at all, but that kind of answer is hardly in fashion either anymore.

  20. Sean, I do agree with your Jamesonian move, as long as, like Jameson says, this context-within-the-text functions like a Deleuzian virtual: it isn’t a positive thing per se, but more like a form or a structure that enables certain capacities of the text to manifest themselves. So, saying that the book of Jonah teaches us that foreign people are inherently evil without possibility of reform would be a clear misreading. But there are many ways in which the book of Jonah may function that are consonant with its formal structure, and many perspectives from which to read it: reading Jonah from the perspective of a Palestinian living in East Jerusalem would open a different set of interpretive potentials than are available to, say, a Zionist in a nearby settlement. I think that’s a more helpful way to think of reading than asking, “Which context is the right one?” I mean, texts are only useful insofar as they allow humans to read things out of their context. Shouldn’t we own up to that?

    And, by the way, thanks for the rye at SBL. It was delicious, dude.

  21. To Sean Burt,

    I would say such “discoveries” (and many other “facts” delivered by the usual historical criticism anywhere across the liberal-conservative spectrum), while not “trivia,” are not anything like baselines or foundations for theological interpretation. They may be useful in certain rhetorical contexts, but not in others. Faithful interpretation of scriptural texts, and discernment of interpretations as faithful or not, is guided by other things like creedal summaries, correspondence to a christological pattern, the interpreter’s living participation in that pattern and in a community that seeks to embody it (all of which combined might also provide the appropriate leverage against the politicians’ prooftexting). By these criteria Origen is clearly a faithful interpreter in a way that many SBLers are not.

  22. Doug, you present your comment like it’s a universal fact that interpreters should read the biblical text through the creeds, the church, and christology, but surely you would admit that Sean would have to have already joined your interpretive community to even begin to agree with you, right? I mean, what if he’s, you know… Jewish? He’s just S.O.L., right? He can’t read them then? It’s too bad, because you’re closing yourself off to many fantastic biblical readers.

  23. BB,

    But what if Sean’s name is actually Peter Ochs, and he’s engaged in ‘Scriptural Reasoning’ with Christian scholars coming basically from Doug’s perspective? He doesn’t seem to be SOL in that case.

  24. Let me quote from Doug: “Faithful interpretation of scriptural texts, and discernment of interpretations as faithful or not, is guided by other things like… correspondence to a christological pattern…”

    Ochs is, in that case, SOL.

  25. My point isn’t that you can’t read from within the perspective of a particular tradition. That’s fine. But saying that people at SBL aren’t faithful interpreters because they try not to think about the creeds when they read texts seems ridiculous.

  26. BB,

    You took the term “faithful” more generically than I meant it. I was speaking of Christian theological interpretations (which seemed obvious), but I should have made that explicit. I do not know Sean Burt. If he is Jewish he will no doubt have his own construal of faithful interpretation, to which I would be very attentive. There is no generic SBLer either, but for many “faithful” would mean keeping faith with the traditions and norms of the modern critical methods that Adam was raising questions about, and asking of all other interpretations whether they honour those traditions and meet those norms.

    Of course there is also a great deal of debate about what constitutes faithful Christian theological interpretation. I am putting out some criteria that seem reasonably to have laid claim upon my own interpretation. Nothing “universal” there, and certainly arguable.

    By the way, I have no idea what SOL means?

  27. It seems to me to be too often in the nature of base-level Biblical Studies instruction that deconstruction of the common attitudes of assumed knowledge of scripture is a precursor to being able to access the texts as they stand, but I don’t know of another way at the problem. Every field I know of where common knowledge precedes study, especially linguistics, finds itself obliged to unteach before it can teach. And as we advance, the question is always about what the text says, however we take that question. It is in the nature of the guild to privilege direct “original language” interpretation, especially innovative interpretation, over repetition or confirmation of vernacular understandings. Distance from NRSV in critical sections, for example, is a useful metric for whether your students have done their homework.

    To some degree, as a mathematical thinker, I’m obliged to think of this as moving from coarser to finer approximations, an asymptotic approach to the text at best. Perhaps that helps get at the “wrong usage” problem as it stands in common scriptural use — just like in physics, people have a fairly coarse experiential model of how the system works, and a correspondingly coarse understanding of its theory. Theology is in this way a modeling language. But true errors in physics are easier to find and correct — if the world simply doesn’t work that way, your language about it is not a rough approximation; it is incorrect. Theological coarse models are based on how people have been *told* that the system works, and what people have been *told* that the system is in the first place. There are far fewer points of contact with reality, because so much of religious “reality” appears empirically to be psychosomatic and idiosyncratic. (Enter Reformed Epistemology.) And if we don’t accept falsifiability on the basis of religious experience, we fall back on dogmatic canons, including the “authorial intention” trope.

    Scientific falsifiability pushes us from the basic opening attitude of rejection of the vernacular to your sense that “all possible uses of the Bible in contemporary life are somehow wrong,” particularly along modernist lines in which there is one right usage. What you describe in the academy is just as dogmatic in its opposition to theological canons as those canons themselves. But whether it is for the sake of the newest text-faithful reading barring all historical understandings, or the newest tradition-selective reading incorporating historical understandings, we are to some degree moving along the state of the art in terms of access to materials and understanding of them. A non-rhetorical reading of Romans will have little traction today; a non-oral reading of its rhetoric is coming to enjoy similar position. The deeper I get in work on a Biblical text and the state of the art in interpretation, the more intolerable the myriad little “errors” in the standard translations become — but these are of two kinds. One, is the question of a coarse approximation where I’m working at a much more fine-grained level (and making very particular choices with high impact on how the text reads); two is the question of how much (and which) external factors (such as theological a priori assumptions) have dictated text-internal decisions.

    It’s easy for me to follow from that three basic kinds of rejection of the use of the text as “wrong”: 1) disagreements in usably correct interpretations; 2) disagreements in theological assumptions about the text and its necessary meanings; and 3) plain contextually-inappropriate use of textual fragments. That last is the first thing we try to break as a bad habit in the discipline, and it seems to me the ground of the referenced desire to deactivate the Bible for public secular use. I don’t need any Christian cultural imperialism to use it, and in point of fact I’d be tempted to it as a means of breaking Christian cultural imperialism that doesn’t come out of the texts as contextually-rounded wholes. Further, I see no reason that the strategy of attempting to prevent blithe misuse of scriptural texts in the public arena should lead, as you suggest, to the ineligibility of approaches that apply the texts to life, as long as they operate from within magisterially approved critical frameworks.

    As a “Protestant” ploy, I see what you describe as more of a move against Fundamentalism and the commonly associated strategies of literalism and prooftexting. The point is not that the Bible is deactivated for the theologian, but that as a tool, it is removed from hands that “misuse” it, and committed to hands that will use it “properly”.

  28. Yes, that was a long comment. I do understand the need to get away from “common sense” understandings of the Bible to get a more informed view, but at the same time, from my relatively informed position, things like rhetorical criticism (and now the “oral” nature of the text) seem to be very much in the realm of “diminishing returns” — and in fact, I experience them more as boundary policing gestures (“You can’t responsibly talk about the text until you take into account this thing we only noticed three years ago”). This is especially the case since almost all biblical studies people who tell me I’m not taking the rhetorical nature of the text into account then proceed to… not tell me anything about what a rhetorical focus is supposed to add. I guess I just have to plow through 1st-century rhetorical handbooks myself.

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