Politicizing the Bible: The Roots of Historical Criticism and the Secularization of Scripture 1300-1700

I first read this book two years ago and I started rereading it this morning because I can’t get it out of my head.

Here are some highlights from this 2013 book by two Roman Catholics:

* 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 . Since this effort was largely undertaken by those who embraced a new secular worldview, the effect was to subordinate the method of interpreting Scripture to secular political aims. This subordination was essential in the early development of the modern historical-critical method.

* Jon Levenson: “historical criticism is the form of biblical studies that corresponds to the classical liberal political ideal.”

* For Troeltsch, the necessary effect of applying the historical method to Scripture was and is “the disintegration of the Christian world of ideas. . . .” “Once applied to the scientific study of the Bible and church history,” declared Troeltsch, “the historical method acts as a leaven, transforming everything and ultimately exploding the very form of earlier theological methods.” 39 The reason for this disintegration (or explosion), according to Troeltsch, is the irreconcilable difference that exists between the earlier dogmatic method, which presupposes certain historical facts, like the Resurrection, that stand outside a purely secular understanding of history, and the modern historical method, which assumes “secular history reconstructed by critical historiography.” 40 Secular history assumes that miracles cannot happen or at least such miracles cannot be verified by the historical method. More accurately, secular history assumes that all alleged supernatural beings or events can be explained in natural terms.
Since according to Troeltsch the historical method is essentially opposed to the dogmatic, then application of the historical method to Scripture can only result in treating it from the secular point of view—as one would any other artifact in the history of religions. The result would seem to be a complete relativizing of Christianity that, Troeltsch claimed, would indeed be “the consequence of the historical method only within an atheistic or a religiously skeptical framework.” Troeltsch, a liberal Protestant, asserted that he was seeking “to overcome this relativism through the conception of history as a disclosure of the divine reason,” wherein revelation is replaced by a “philosophy of history.”

* “It is difficult to overestimate the significance the nineteenth century has for biblical interpretation. It made historical criticism the approved method of interpretation. The result was a revolution of viewpoint in evaluating the Bible. The Scriptures were, so to speak, secularized. The Biblical books became historical documents to be studied and questioned like any other ancient sources. The Bible was no longer the criterion for the writing of history; rather history had become the criterion for understanding the Bible.”

* The systematic exclusion of the supernatural and the consequent attempt to give natural explanations for events like miracles, theophanies, and other alleged irruptions of the divine or angelic effectively secularizes Scripture, making it one among many other manifestations of religious belief without verifiable substance. It relativizes and privatizes belief, or simply eliminates it as unscientific. In doing so, it removes Christianity as a political force, making of it at best a bearer of nondogmatic moral teachings that undergird the political order. There is no doubt that this transformation of Christianity accords nicely with the modern secular political aims. The question we pose here is: Did this happen by accident or design?

* According to Levenson, the historical-critical approach has an intrinsic aim, not found in Scripture itself, of producing the beliefs that accord with modern secular political aims , where religion is either reduced to mere private belief unsupported or rejected by reason and science, or made to serve as a moral prop for a particular kind of political order. The defining secular political aim is to keep religion from disturbing or significantly determining public life—an understandable aim, given that the modern historical-critical method was largely forged during and just after the great “wars of religion” that so disturbed political order in the late 1500s and a large portion of the 1600s. 45 But to say that it is an understandable aim only highlights the fact that it was an alien one, forced upon the text, rather than derived from it.

* Averroes (or Ibn-Rushd, c. 1126–1198) was a Muslim philosopher [who] argued in his On the Harmony Between Religion and Philosophy that there is indeed one truth, but it is known according to the capacity of the knowers: at the bottom are those open only to rhetorical persuasion, in whom appeal is made to the imagination and the passions; above these are those capable of dialectic, who are satisfied with the probable arguments of theology; and finally, at the top and fewest in number, are the philosophical men who demand rigorous rational demonstration. Needless to say, the hierarchical ranking entails a superiority of the truths of natural reason to those of revelation, but it also includes the notion of control of the masses by the philosophers using the myths of religion.

* What should be done when the philosophical arguments of Aristotle contradicted the truths of Christian faith? Aristotle could be rejected (the radical Augustinian approach); Aristotle could be corrected and worked into a synthesis (St. Thomas); or the truths of his philosophy could stand, in contradiction, alongside the truths of faith, creating a kind of double, incompatible set of truths, the truth according to reason and the truth according to revelation…

* “The specifically political feature of Marsilius’s Averroism consists in his completely secular approach to all aspects of the state, including those connected with religion, theology, and the church. The Averroist method meant that problems could be investigated by rational procedures alone in complete independence of faith and of the theological tradition founded upon faith.”

* Spiritual authority resides in the Bible, not in the ecclesial hierarchy; yet Marsilius places the authoritative interpretation of the Bible ultimately in the hands of the civil legislator, the legislator humanus. He argues that the power to interpret doubtful passages of Scripture resides not in the pope or any other bishop, but in a general council, one whose members are ultimately determined by human legislators.

* The shift of authority is not from the pope and council to the text itself, but from the pope and council to the expert in interpreting the text.
Herein lie the first awakenings of the modern biblical exegete. In regard to the order of authority, we are far closer in these passages to the nineteenth- and twentieth-century understanding of the role of the professional scriptural scholar than we are to the sixteenth-century attempt to root authority in the biblical text as against the papacy. The “expert” stands in authoritative judgment not just above Church councils and the papacy, but also above the inexpert who are the vast majority of the faithful. He even stands above the text itself, insofar as it is his expertise that unlocks its definitive meaning.

* In rejecting universals, nominalism rejected Aristotelian forms, and this rejection, we recall, was theological at root. The forms, even understood as ideas in the Divine Mind, seemed to Ockham to limit God’s will. But the elimination of forms left reality as a collection of essentially unrelated particulars, each of which, presumably, could then be an object of empirical scrutiny. 128 Yet empirical examination of sheer particularity as such is notably difficult. The human mind understands more by similarity than difference. Rather than being left with an intractable mass of particulars, natural philosophers such as Galileo, Descartes, and Newton would substitute mathematical forms as the new universals, the ideal forms that define the shape and activity of passive or inert matter. For most theologians in the seventeenth century, these mathematical forms were taken to be impressed by God according to His will; they were the “forms” of His commands, or laws, of nature. Since for these theologians the laws had their origin in God’s will, the laws could be otherwise, and so, presumably, would the mathematical forms they took. 129 But again, the theological belief in the ultimate contingency of the laws was short-lived. Within a century, the inner necessity of mathematics was identified with the laws of nature, and nature came to be governed by its own laws, the result being that the “necessitarianism” of mathematics drove out the possibility of divine action (and soon enough, the Divine).

* Ockham’s denial of universals allowed for, but did not of itself cause, the replacement of Aristotelian forms with mathematical forms. The most accurate characterization might be that Ockham’s nominalism left a vacuum that would be filled by another kind of universal. If the modern account of the laws of nature did indeed have its origin in Ockham’s desire to safeguard God’s omnipotent will, 130 these laws would soon enough break away from the will of God (in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), and come to be considered self-subsisting causal powers that either limited or excluded divine action. One can hardly downplay the importance of this development for the judgment of nineteenth-century German scriptural scholars that the miraculous had to be excised from Scripture or be reduced to the mythological.

* Indeed, Wycliffe argues that, however worthy the idea of a Holy Roman Empire is in theory, the universality is impracticable because the vast geographical distances and obstacles (such as mountains and seas) and diversity of languages and customs make such rule impossible; therefore, “the terrestrial Empire ought to be dissolved”.

* Wycliffe’s participation in English messianic nationalism lent tremendous weight to the establishment of a national Church, one (again) in which the king ruled, in the style of David and Solomon, the priesthood. Since the focus is on the nation, the English nation, Wycliffe’s exegesis in support of a national Church could not help but involve a politicization of Scripture. If England is the new Israel, salvation history as found in Scripture must be reinterpreted with English history as its culmination.

* For Wycliffe, Scripture alone could only mean Christ alone, for He and He alone is the “Book of Life,” the “Scripture that cannot be destroyed.” The difficulty with this position is that the high-flying metaphysical realism that makes it intelligible cannot easily pass into common coin (and, indeed, becomes suspect anyway with the condemnation at Constance). The “decay” of the position into a simple notion of sola scriptura, in which the individual reader of the text claims immediate access to its truth, was inevitable, and indeed occurred in Lollardry. In fact, it was inherent in Wycliffe’s original argument. Where else was Christ to be known but through the Scripture? And if the Church and the hierarchy were not only corrupt, but likely among those damned by predestination, then all authority of interpretation was thrown back upon the individual believer. Since multiple interpretations will then naturally arise, the confusion will call for an authoritative clarification. Wycliffe would have this done by properly trained theologians, but since they are in service to the state, the remedy for clarification falls to the secular power. The practical effect will be for the state to settle theological disputes arising from multiple interpretations according to exigencies of state.

* Machiavelli is legendary as a teacher of evil, a man who counseled princes to cast away all notions of right and wrong and do whatever furthers their political causes, no matter how brutal or duplicitous.

* Machiavelli was deeply concerned with the interpretation of the Bible insofar as it served his purposes. It is central to his project, as a self-conscious founder of “new modes and orders,” that he must treat Holy Scripture in a most unholy way. The reason for this treatment is profoundly political, or to say it another way, fundamentally secular. In The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy, Machiavelli asserts that, in contrast to the ancient, pagan vigorous and manly love of freedom, Christianity makes citizens effeminate and hence incapable of the rigors of true political freedom.

* Christianity is just one more religion, and as such can be treated with the same detached curiosity as the ancient pagan religions were treated by ancient sages. For Machiavelli—partly from his own character but also from witnessing the morally decrepit state of the lives of churchmen—this detached curiosity assumes that religion is a false but politically necessary and powerful tool for irreligious rulers to control their subjects. This is as true for popes as it is for great religious leaders (such as Moses) who appear in Holy Scripture.

* In order to understand Machiavelli’s intent, we must do that which is forbidden and, following Machiavelli’s lead, “reason about Moses.” We must treat Moses’ actions as we would those of Cyrus, Romulus, Theseus, and any other merely human, merely historical example. To do so, we must read the Bible alongside other ancient historical accounts, in the same kind of historical-critical treatment as one would any other historical work. This implies that one is considering the Bible’s author as one among equals with Livy, Polybius, Plutarch, Xenophon, Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus, and other eminent ancient pagan historians.
It is difficult to overemphasize the momentous effect of this great shift in the consideration of the Bible. The recovery of ancient texts in the Renaissance—in the deepest sense of recovery: a reading of pagan authors on their own terms, a consideration of what pagan sages said independently of Christianity and even in antagonism to it—contributed far more as a catalyst to modern secularization than many historians would lead us to believe. Our concern with Machiavelli in particular is the way he uses pagan authors as guides to reading the Bible as one would any other historical work, a mode of approach that contributes to the later historical-critical assumption that the Bible must be treated as one text among others. The assumption in both instances is that faith in the Bible as revealed actually obscures its real meaning, so that its real meaning can only be recovered, or better uncovered, by laying aside faith and deferring to history as known by reason. Machiavelli provides a template, an exercise in exegesis, which works to alert Christianized minds to long-buried pagan truths.

* Interestingly, Cyrus the Great is the only prince in the list found in both sacred and secular sources, both in the Old Testament (primarily in the prophets Isaiah and Ezra) and also, most notably, in Xenophon’s Cyropaedia. That gives the reader a chance to compare the two accounts.

* Was Moses really offended by idolatry at Mt. Sinai on behalf of God, or did he merely order the slaughter of those Israelites who opposed his rule? Was Moses really guarding the priesthood in opposing the rebellion of Korah (Numbers 16), or eliminating his political opposition? Machiavelli later informs the reader, “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.”

* Religion provides political order, but political order is always particular, founded on particular soil with a particular people and with particular religious beliefs and rituals. What is essential, Machiavelli notes, is not the truth or falsity of each religion, but the power of its particular historical formation on a people, and the prudent prince should do everything he can to maintain it.

* Given the moral caliber of popes and cardinals, their use of Scripture to justify their indulgences, indiscretions, immorality, and naked political ambitions was an egregious, even epic, example of politicization—one that was clear to all of Europe. This hypocrisy not only stained the Roman Curia and brought about the splintering of Christianity in the Reformation (which had its own politicizing effects upon Scripture), but even more, served for centuries to come as an exemplar illustrating the alleged fundamental duplicity of all priests and all “organized” religion. In regard to modern scriptural scholarship, the effects will be multiple: the rejection, downplaying, or downgrading of the Old Testament priesthood as a corruption of the true religion (the true religion either embedded in a submerged layer of the Old Testament, or contained only in the New Testament); the exegetical excision of all nonmoral aspects of the Old and New Testament as harmful accretions, in an effort to purify Christianity of its harmful historical accidents; and finally, the treatment of the Bible itself, by those who have given up their faith entirely, as an earlier illustration of the corruption found in the Renaissance Roman Curia.

* His discovery of the “key” to the underlying motives of biblical figures created a new mode of exegesis, and Machiavelli therefore can rightly be considered as one of the earliest, and certainly the most influential, sources of the hermeneutics of suspicion. Even aside from Machiavelli, this suspicion defines itself against tradition. Since the orthodox treatment of the text assumes a unity of appearance and reality, orthodoxy itself becomes suspect, and the hermeneutics of suspicion thereby defines its exegetical approach against the traditio of interpretation.

* it is ultimately misleading to designate the historical-critical method as historical and critical, since history is understood according to the critical framework of a quite particular philosophy. Machiavelli’s treatment of Scripture as a history according to the mode of Livy is the founding paradigm.

* an especially notable trait of modern biblical exegesis is its adherence to some quite practical, this-worldly political or moral system that defines the exegetical framework by which the enlightened hermeneut parses the text. Using this framework, he finds (at the end of his labors) that some key figure in the Bible (be it Moses, Jesus Himself, or St. Paul) is really a Stoic, a common sense Englishman, a Deist, a Hegelian, an existentialist, or a Marxist revolutionary. All the passages that seemingly contradict such a surprising interpretation can be put down to the cleverness or benevolent condescension of the key figure in hiding his true identity, or the stupidity of the masses as manifested in the key figure’s disciples (who being unable to grasp the truth, embrace and then embellish a religion built upon a mythologized account of the key figure, complete with miracles).

* What makes Luther’s challenge historically significant is the combined force of his particular theological reformulation and the peculiar political context of his time. As some historians have remarked, if not for that political context, Luther’s challenge would likely have remained a merely local affair, quickly contained and diffused by the joint efforts of the emperor and the pope, and with the help of the German electors.
As R. W. Scribner and C. Scott Dixon rightly note, it is clear that “From the very beginning, the question of religious reform was so inextricably linked to political issues that it could never give rise to an unpolitical Reformation.” Nor to an unpolitical exegesis of Scripture.

* This substitution of the individual soul for the Church—which does indeed follow from his doctrine of justification by faith alone—eliminated in one stroke the necessity of the Church as the essentially distinct counterpart to the state, and by consequence, allowed the state to assume the structure of ecclesiastical authority over the individual believer-citizens.

* In Luther’s alternative ecclesiology, in which there is no real distinction between priest and lay, 187 the Church as a necessary, permanent, and divinely intended body of Christ that visibly mediates salvation has been made secondary and derivative to what becomes the primary relationship of salvation, the promises of God known through the biblical text to the individual soul.
Without this move, the characteristic privatization of religion in modernity, and hence its increasing removal from the public realm, would not have been possible, and even more, the religious affirmation of modern individualism, which gave it such strength as it arose in the seventeenth century, would have been far less powerful. But the most important effect was the removal of the Church as a visible entity, which allowed the state to fill the vacuum.

* Luther: “Everybody is not to be toyed with. Therefore God would have authorities so that there might be order in the world.”

This was a startling admission by Luther, especially in light of his notion of the priesthood of all believers and his earlier hopes that translating the Bible into the vernacular would finish the work he had begun. Luther was not the only one worried about Mr. Everybody. A magistrate’s report given during the Hanseatic Diets of 1525 complained that “everybody, and above all the uneducated, even women, dare to preach the Gospel and the Word of God . . . and using Christian freedom as a pretext, they live according to their own will and fancy, disregarding the ordinances and regulations. . . .” At the heart of the problem was exegesis: the “everybodies” were interpreting the words of the Gospel wrongly, twisting them “from what they really meant in order to please the common people . . . and this would lead to carnal freedom, which would be followed by revolts against the magistrates and bring about the ruin of towns.” 234
Exegesis soon became a widely recognized political and a theological problem. This is made quite clear in the debate between Luther and Karlstadt in regard to images. The direct implication of Luther’s position is that proper interpretation of the commandment against idolatry, and more important, its enforcement, must necessarily become a civil matter for “we are under our princes, lords, and emperors,” and “we must outwardly obey their laws instead of the laws of Moses.” 235 It is not surprising that exegetical divergences from Luther would soon be politically suppressed, and the proper interpretation politically impressed.

* We cannot overestimate the effect Luther’s public judgment of the canon had upon future scriptural scholarship. Ranking the books of the Bible according to a “true kernel,” thereby creating the “true touchstone for testing every book,” will take many forms over the next centuries, often in imitation of Luther’s emphasis on St. Paul, but sometimes in direct opposition, where St. Paul is the great distorter rather than illuminator of the “true canon.” Because it will become increasingly obvious—as it did for Luther’s own critics, both Protestant and Catholic—that individual books do not provide unanimous affirmation of the chosen kernel, exegetes will increasingly turn to sorting through individual texts, layering them according to authentic and spurious, early and late, pure and tainted passages, a tendency that will reaffirm the above-mentioned attempt to recover the original Gospel proclamation from the Scriptural text witnessing the decline.

* Luther’s goal was not to create the modern secular state, but to remove religious authority from the governing powers. While faith is to be grounded sola scriptura , the secular power does not use the Bible to govern. 265 The secular power governs by reason and the natural law, which do not pertain to the realm of the spirit, but do pertain to the realm of the flesh. Yet, as Cargill points out, this demotion of reason to merely secular concerns, and the elevation of faith completely above reason with no analogical connection between the two, bring about a kind of Averroism, however unintended. Faith is irrational rather than supernatural, and reason is entirely independent and thoroughly natural.

* Luther’s division of the sacred from the purely secular also prepared the way for acceptance of the modern assumption that the state is entirely a-religious and concerned only with the well-being of the body, and that religion is purely an inner, spiritual, and private concern (which we will see played out in John Locke). Luther thereby contributed to the West’s reception of a purely secular, materialistic notion of politics adumbrated by Marsilius and Machiavelli, and later enunciated by Hobbes and Locke, where government is defined solely by external coercion, bodily preservation, and physical comfort.

* Luther’s theological efforts seemed to ignite political rebellion among the lower orders. Luther well understood how politically combustible his theological position was. As he himself said, “Had I desired to foment trouble, I could have brought great bloodshed upon Germany. Yea, I could have started such a little game at Worms that even the emperor would not have been safe.”

* As moral conditions declined, rather than improved, with time, “Luther preached more and more to emphasize the law.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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