On Pedagogy and The Historical Critical Method

Last semester, I was enrolled in an introductory level class in the New Testament. Or at least, it’s entitled “New Testament” officially. The professor tended to think of the class more as a foray into “Early Christian Studies”, but whatever. It was a class about early Christian scriptures. Interestingly enough, the first half of the class was devoted to an introduction to the various critical approaches to reading texts in the field of Biblical Studies. The broadening of the subject material was a better use of our time, since introductory classes focused solely around a single text seem to lose momentum around the 10th week of class anyways, both the professor and the students.

One of the easily discernible themes of the class, even from the first week of class, was the implicit emphasis on the rise and fall of historical-critical approaches to the text. That is to say, the class and professor note the benefits and heritage of historical criticism, but ultimately it seems as if that paradigm has outlived its usefulness as the main approach to the text. Instead, other approaches, such as post-colonial, feminist, queer, and emancipatory approaches have come to the forefront as the rightful inheritors of the throne in Biblical Studies. I don’t want to be misunderstood as lamenting the downfall of historical-critical approaches to text; in fact, I’m glad that historical criticism is being replaced by other discourses. But what seems ironic to me is that, despite the downfall of the historical critical approach as a hermeneutic, historical criticism has remained the primary approach in the pedagogical dimensions of theological education.

Despite talking about how outdated and misguided historical criticism of religious texts is regarding its goals and self-definition, historical criticism is retained in its pedagogical form as the way to teach a student about other forms of approaching the text. Whenever a reading of an essay or a book is presented that is (I use “is” purposefully here) misguided, the method for correcting one’s reading is to get a wider picture of what it was that the author was trying to do. I used “is” because the common reception of odd readings of texts is either a disingenuous exclamation of the originality of the reading, which masks resentment at the disruptive reading, or the reading is genuinely considered wrong and in need of correction. The historical critical method may have been displaced by other reading strategies but the historical critical method still remains the only pedagogical approach to teaching I have ever experienced in theological education. Essentially, these two approaches to a disruptive reading reveal what formal education is actually about: production. The only efficient means of producing students is through the pedagogical simplicity of the historical critical method.

Furthermore, other approaches to texts are put forward as the “replacements” for the old, outdated modes of thinking. Not to say that all modes of approaching the text are equal, but to posit a feminist perspective as a replacement for the historical-critical method seems to imply that feminism is the new historical criticism. It seems reminiscent of an infomercial or a damage control advertising campaign: Feminism is the new, shiny, and better version of our old approaches; the ones that gave you ugly side effects! Or to put it in terms of feminisms, when white feminism continues to expect from black women to remain subservient to the singular struggle of white women in the world, the radical content of feminist hermeneutics seem to be destroyed, or at least subverted, by the reemergence of the historical critical method, i.e. the reemergence of the white Western experience of reality as the kernel of truth to which the student must tend.

So why? Why does the historical critical approach stick around in our pedagogical methods? How can one think that using the historical critical method pedagogically will not affect the results produced by these students? Why is the “cure” presented as just a subtly new form of the old approaches?

In Joel’s previous post, he writes two sentences that seem to lay out a general groundwork for the commodification of thought. First, “Art in the truest sense is that which directly confronts the ideologies of the society in which it is produced”, which highlights the confrontation of the landscape of ideology and production with truly political and subversive hermeneutics. Secondly, “even the most radical ideas and aesthetic objects which may incite important political mobilization will and have become reified (i.e. made consumable, Erfahrung become Erlibnis) and stripped of their political power.” To continue on, the project of confronting becomes itself a justification for a beneficial method of consumption. Controlling the modes of consumption is the function of retaining the historical critical method in theological pedagogy.
To rephrase, one can see why the political and confrontational power of liberation hermeneutics must be corralled within a general system and purpose in education—without strict boundaries on the limits of confrontation and the exact amount of political autonomy to be found in theological education, the production of theological education cannot function efficiently enough to maintain necessary maintenance of the ideology that promotes proper consumption.

A non-historical critical method of teaching, what does it look like? Does it function on a personal level? An institutional level? A community level? Can it avoid the pitfalls of theological absorption of other disciplines and then the subsequent rejection and abandoning of other academic projects and disciplines? Honestly, I can’t even really imagine what it looks like. But whatever it is, one can assume that the production of “properly” trained individuals for controlling and dispensing consumption practices, both confessional and academic, will itself be abandoned.

Edit: A little bit of clarification about my use of the “historical critical method” term in response to a comment about differentiating between exegetical methods and hermeneutical frameworks:

Interestingly enough, that distinction was part of the course methodology and something I completely forgot to mention in this post. More or less, the “historical-critical” motif should actually function as a symbol for the wider array of hermeneutical frameworks that accompanied the rise and most influential point of the historical critical method. So, the colonial, patriarchal, eurocentric attitudes that accompanied the historical critical method as an accident of history is the true content of critique in this post, i.e. how those frameworks contribute to corralling other foreign hermeneutical frameworks through the tradition of how the historical critical method has dealt with texts thus far.

So, I worked with the example of the disconnect between white feminism and black feminism. Even though both share the same, at least nominally, hermeneutical framework, some white feminists are unable to understand that white feminism is not *the* replacement for the hermeneutical frameworks of the past but *a* part of the replacement of history’s more kyriarchal frameworks. While the exegetical method itself isn’t biased (maybe?), the synthesis of the totalizing dominance-centered frameworks with the exegetical method produces a similar stance at the pedagogical level that kyriarchal frameworks holds towards the experience of reality held by marginalized groups, e.g. women, blacks, disabled, etc. That is, the attitudes of those who pioneered the exegetical method are carried over as part of educational management.

I really should have defined that distinction a bit better (read: should have at least mentioned it explicitly once). But i definitely agree that conflating exegetical methods and hermeneutical frameworks isn’t helpful for looking at the situation.


9 thoughts on “On Pedagogy and The Historical Critical Method

  1. Thanks for this interesting post!

    You said “the colonial, patriarchal, eurocentric attitudes that accompanied the historical critical method as an accident of history is the true content of critique in this post.”

    The word that struck me here is “accident.” Can the set of presuppositions upon which the historical-critical method rests be detached from their eurocentrism? I don’t know the answer to this question but I’d be interested to know what you think.

    It has occurred to me before that comparing historical criticism with, say, liberation or feminist theology is like comparing apples with oranges. Is there any reason they aren’t completely compatible? The results of historical-critical research are more author-centric (admittedly blind to the reader’s own socioeconomic standpoint) and liberationist methods have a more explicit reader-centric agenda, but why can’t one build on the other?

    • I’m going to respond to your second question first because I think my response will make better sense in that order. Firstly (second question), I think they could be completely compatible from a methodological standpoint. That is, the historical critical exegetical method can easily line up to work with the hermeneutical framework of a liberation theology. When I think of ideal readers, those readers are always able to hold multiple approaches, ideologies, and frameworks in tension while reading. So, one could easily hold the methods of literary analysis and historical critical analysis together under the larger project of a feminist theology.

      However, I think that the “accident” of history that combined the historical critical method with eurocentric attitudes is not an accident that can be easily overcome or erased. The lingering dominance of the historical critical method in pedagogy is a relic from a time when eurocentric, patriarchal, and colonial concerns were the only concerns for Biblical scholars. Obviously, those concerns are no longer the only, or even primary, concerns of the field of Biblical scholarship, yet, for some reason, the method has never been consciously examined for traces of the remaining supremacy-complex that comes along with the polarizing and totalizing discourse of historical critical analysis of the text.

      Partly, I think the institutional level problems come from the ideological supremacy of history as a synonym for truth in the Western academy. It’s a question that comes up in seminars and classes regularly: “So… this is interesting and everything, but historically what actually happened?” The end game of institutional education always seems to be focused on answering this question in one way or another. It is at that point of historicity that I think the historical critical method reveals how thoroughly eurocentric it still is today. The method was crafted by Europeans, used by Europeans, and is still practiced in an insitution that is dominated by those same (majority) Europeans or their heirs.

      Ultimately, I think a critical step in addressing the dominance of the historical critical method is not to get rid of it completely but to closely examine its methodological problems that stem from the totalizing dominance of the concept of history in the Western academy. While reader-centric approaches such as feminism or disability criticism begin to rethink the actuality of the historical critical project, the return of another totalizing discourse is in itself a signal for the reemergence of the institutional ancestors of emerging hermeneutical frameworks.

      Thanks for you comment; I really enjoyed your questions.

  2. Zach,

    Really very interesting post, thank you. You topic, as I understood it, dealt with historical-critical method as a form of pedagogy and compared it to a more theory based hermeneutic that has been coming up in the last few decades, noting how it can be used as the new historical-critical method. What I wonder, however, both in the general realm of hermeneutics and Bible translation, as well as in theological pedagogy, is what role could or should pre-modern interpretive techniques have? From at least the time of Origen onward (and really we can see NT authors doing these very things) there has been multifaceted way of understanding Scripture (typically under these terms, historical/literal, allegorical, analogical, and tropological). Would reverting to these, keeping in mind what strides have been made, resolve anything or do you think they would simply muddy the waters?


    • I think that those methods are useful in as much as they are able to be removed from the non-liberating hermeneutical frameworks that accompanied them. If there isn’t a successful attempt to remove the methodological biases that each individual framework inscribes on the discrete exegetical method, then the same content of critique from this blog post would seem to apply to that method.

      Candidly, I’m not so certain that institutional pedagogy in theological education is concerned with honestly erasing the inscriptions of past oppressive hermeneutical frameworks on the process and subject material found in most seminaries, graduate departments of religion, or the related academic structures. Even more candidly, I’m not entirely certain that those inscriptions can be erased wholly in the first place.

      The multifaceted nature of NT exegesis, theological interpretation, and pedagogical institutions (I’m not really that in to the New Testament, so forgive me for not knowing that much) is subject to the same critique that the historical-critical symbol undergoes in this post. If anything, the resurgence of early Christian hermeneutics is (at best) an attempt to broaden the exegetical foundation for a certain theological interpretation or (at worst) a thinly veiled attempt to project modern confessional theological conclusions in the ancient authority of nebulous figures such as Origen, Augustine, or Philo from the history of the Christian tradition. Pedagogically though, I see no harm in reintroducing the 4 (3?) fold way of interpreting scripture from the early Church; unless as an attempt to elucidate the problem of the historical-critical ideology, the early Christian exegetical methods remain in disavowed contact with the problematic hermeneutical frameworks that methodologically inspired the individual methods.

      Thanks for your comment. I hope that answered your question a bit.

      • Zach,

        Could be more specific about a few things for me. First: In what way is the fourfold method of interpretation oppressive and whom did it oppress? Relatedly, other than their being oppressive in your mind, in what other way(s) is the fourfold method of interpretation a problematic hermeneutical framework? For instance, you talk about methodological biases needing to be removed, what are the methodological biases, in your opinion? Also, what makes figures such as Philo, Origen, or Augustine nebulous, that is, in what way are they ill-defined or mysterious?

        You write in your reply to me: ‘If anything, the resurgence of early Christian hermeneutics is (at best) an attempt to broaden the exegetical foundation for a certain theological interpretation or (at worst) a thinly veiled attempt to project modern confessional theological conclusions in the ancient authority of nebulous figures such as Origen, Augustine, or Philo from the history of the Christian tradition.’ I wonder if you could extrapolate what mean here, beyond what I’ve already asked above. If you mean that what tends to happen is traditions that see themselves in line with the figures you mentioned, or other such figures, use the fourfold method of interpretation to prove themselves right as opposed to other specific groups, I might be willing to agree with you. However, it sounds more like you mean that anyone who calls on these figures, and their interpretative method, as authoritative in any way can only be doing so by either reading themselves back into history, or simply make their own position firmer (over and against other positions), by referring to ancient authorities. If I’m reading you rightly, there seems to be no room for those authors to have been actually right about anything and that their correct understanding could have been correctly passed on and still used today. Am I misrepresenting you?


        • Like I said at the outset of my previous comment, I am by no means a scholar (or even a scholar in training) when it comes to issues of the New Testament, the early Church’s hermeneutical practices, or liberation theology.

          That being said, for a hermeneutical framework or exegetical method to be oppressive it doesn’t even have to explicitly oppress individuals. While the fourfold exegetical methods supporting the hermeneutical framework of the early Church may have been subversive and liberating to some, if the method functions as the exegetical method, that method and the framework behind serve as part of an ideology that necessitates the primacy of the Us and the harmful Othering of the Them. This seems to apply even if the hermeneutical framework and methods employed are “open”, “welcoming”, and “multifaceted.” To think that because a method may not have a history of explicit oppression or that the method is in its essence unable to exploit overlooks the troubling aspects of the weaponization of religious, social, pedadgogical, or any other type of norms. While I wouldn’t be comfortable outlining a list of the methodological biases of the early Church’s exegetical methods, what I would point to as a sign for seeing blind spots is to look at where the concentration of texts discussed, read aloud, or preached in churches. Interpreters have to choose a text out of many to work with, and there just simply isn’t enough time for every single interpreter to adequately deal with every text. Methodologically, it makes sense for methods to be taught through passages that most exemplify the method’s usefulness. But what this methodology tends to promote is a view of the Bible that doesn’t simply have exceptions but is itself an exception. (Though any exegetical method that is taught gives a view of the text that is an exception.)

          As for why Origen, Philo, and Augustine are “nebulous,” I really meant that these legendary figures of exegesis in the early Church are known nominally but are unaccounted for explicitly in the common person’s worldview. That is to say, I’m a masters student at Vanderbilt and if someone asked me to name the three most important contributions of each of those thinkers, I could probably only get one or two of the three. The figures are mysterious both in character and in authority.

          I agree with the former statement in the last paragraph of your comment, but not the latter. I think that there is room for ancient interpreters to have been correct about some things. But the post isn’t about classic interpretation of religious texts, it’s about pedagogy. Historically, I think that the university model has quite a bit of crossover from religious modes of instruction and vice-versa in modern times. While I’m agnostic about the “truth” of Biblical interpretation, I am not trying to remain agnostic about the problems of totalizing pedagogical methods that attempt to mold a classroom according to oppressive, blind, and antagonistic principles contained within an exegetical method. So, if I came across harsh on Origen and Philo, it’s only because I grew up in those churches and was in those classes with professors who taught liberation/historical/literary criticism as if it were the only method of moving forward in theological discussion and education.

          • Zach,

            I also am ‘by no means a scholar (or even a scholar in training) when it comes to issues of the New Testament, the early Church’s hermeneutical practices, or liberation theology.’ I study systematic theology and dabble in patristics in general (not hermeneutics in specific). Nevertheless, I do know something about the fourfold method of interpretation. The only way in which it is considered THE method is insofar as I’m not sure there are other legitimate ways to interpret a text, especially one considered to have both human authors and a divine author. You seem to assume that any kind of establishment of a primary way of doing something automatically creates an US versus THEM dichotomy, but is this necessarily so? Take for instance John Behr’s argument about heresy in the early Church. For Behr, it is not the case that there was a diversity of Christianities in, say the fourth century, with Arian christologies existing alongside Athanasian christologies, but that there was a general consensus and the group now labeled heretics divided themselves from the group now labeled orthodox. Beyond that, again, the method of interpretation in the early Church ultimately had only one rule, based in their understanding of who God is, which was come to by a mixture of tradition and scripture, and that is one’s interpretation of a given text cannot do violence to the text (you can’t read in something that’s not there) nor can it do violence to any other text within the Scriptures. It isn’t as if they decided this and then told everyone who thought otherwise to bugger off, but that this developed into the standard way of doing it. Even most of the early heretical groups used the same or similar interpretive methods.

            Your point about there not being enough time for every interpreter to interpret every text would be valid if it weren’t for the existence of lectionaries which tend to make their way through the entire Bible every few years or so. The fourth century church and on, especially, tended to meet daily in most places, allowing for a vast amount of Scripture to be read. Now its true that most authors in the early and Medieval church did not write entire commentary sets, but many of them would have preached their way through most if not all of the Bible.

            I’m sorry to cover so much above, but I felt it necessary to give some grounding in what early exegesis would have been like. I suppose I understand your hesitation, especially in light of your personal experience. Nevertheless, it seems so very odd to me to try to suggest that the fourfold method of interpretation could really be oppressive. Saying it is the only way to read the Bible is tantamount to saying the only way to read the Bible is to read it. This, however, is something that can only be taught in a faith community. But I don’t grudge it for that. To me, the point of theological pedagogy, especially as shown by the early and early Medieval church, is conformation to the image of Christ, also known as deification, so I have no problem with a method that says the Holy Spirit must be involved in the process, which is essentially what the fourfold method of interpretation is about.


            • Sorry it took me so long to get back to this; I’ve been preparing to go back to school for the past couple of days.

              While I wouldn’t bet fifty dollars on it, the way you describe the early relationships between heretical and orthodox groups is almost opposite the way I was taught it. Also, about a year ago I read Irenaeus’ Against Heresies and I remembered this passage:

              And it is not only from the writings of the evangelists and the apostles that they endeavour to derive proofs for their opinions by means of perverse interpretations and deceitful expositions: they deal in the same way with the law and the prophets, which contain many parables and allegories that can frequently be drawn into various senses, according to the kind of exegesis to which they are subjected. And others of them, with great craftiness, adapted such parts of Scripture to their own figments, lead away captive from the truth those who do not retain a steadfast faith in one God, the Father Almighty, and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

              While Irenaeus was a couple centuries before the situation you described, it seems apparent in his response to heretics that the method of exegesis deriving from the “various senses” of the text is only safe in certain (read: orthodox) hands. This may not seem like an Othering if you are within the faith community that is orthodox, but it does look like, to me at least, the legitimacy of the exegetical method depends on heretics being defined against orthodox believers.

              Secondly, the presence of a lectionary is great for expanding knowledge of the text. However, lectionaries don’t make their way through the entire Bible. For example, only two passages from Ecclesiastes are read in the entire lectionary cycle. The two passages are the only two passages you would expect to come from Ecclesiastes (3:1-8 and 4:9-12). These are the only two acceptable passages for exegesis given the presuppositions that the hermeneutical framework imposes on the practice of reading and teaching the Bible.

              But all of that isn’t really that important to me or to the subject of critique in this post, and the more I think about your suggestion of the fourfold method of interpretation realigning the foundational presuppositions of the pedagogical method, the more I think that the foundational presuppositions are always going to be there, regardless of method.

              Slavoj Zizek has the line (and I think he’s quoting Jameson) that it’s much easier to imagine the end of the world than a radical change to capitalism (paraphrased). This blog post was in essence an extension of that idea, the idea that theological pedagogical methods are designed in such a way, perhaps not even explicitly designed this way, that students are presented with a set of concerns, questions, texts, and tools that have been inherited from previous generations– each with their own problematic tendencies. Are the individual professors or TA’s or deans culpable in these problems? Honestly, I don’t know, because the entire process seems to function on a level that doesn’t even require individual volition anymore.

              I’ll bring this all together, I promise.

              Now at the end of your comment, you said

              ” To me, the point of theological pedagogy, especially as shown by the early and early Medieval church, is conformation to the image of Christ, also known as deification, so I have no problem with a method that says the Holy Spirit must be involved in the process, which is essentially what the fourfold method of interpretation is about.”

              “Conformation to the image of Christ” is equivalent to, in the context of this blog post, conformation to the image of theological education. While for some, the image of theological education is conformation to the image of Christ, for others the image of theological education is not conforming to the image of Christ. Others see problems in the presented images of Christ, normalcy, historicity, or goodness that populate the landscape of theological education. Installing a new hermeneutical framework or adopting a new exegetical method merely changes the participants in the struggle against this conformation. So, whenever it appears that the situation of pedagogy in seminaries and Graduate Departments of Religion is in turmoil because of students turning their backs on the prevalent methods and presuppositions of the academy, what one can really say about the power dynamics in pedagogical circles is that students are no longer treating themselves as commodities to be refined. That is to say, students (who are the one’s being “worked on” by professors and educators) are themselves working on the systems of exegesis, pedagogy, and praxis as they relate to the subversion and critique of the system as it stands.

              • Zach,

                On the issue of heresy formation: Even in the passage cited from Irenaeus, what John Behr, at least, would say, is that there was already a general tendency for interpreting Scripture and the heretical groups from within Christianity separated themselves from the common view/interpretive method. So the argument is that any Othering that occurs is actually being done by the heretical groups and not the Orthodox. Of course, one can make all sorts of arguments beginning with cliches like ‘History is always written by the victor’, but it doesn’t change the fact that most of the evidence, even if one-sided and potentially biased, points to the fact that what heretical groups tended to do was take the common approach and do something different. Marcion, for instance, took the standard Bible and removed the Old Testament and references to it in the New. Arius pitted himself against Alexander of Alexandria, calling him a Sabellian, before anyone called him out. Any way, this is only slightly related, but important since it shows that the way one reads history changes how one understands the formation of orthodoxy and what role oppression plays in all this.

                If what you’re striving for is a presuppositionless way of doing theology, you’ll never find it.

                In the end you take my comment about the end goal for theology and, interestingly, make it about commoditisation of the students, when I said nothing about who was being conformed. Certainly would I see there being a certain amount of the teacher helping the student to be conformed to the image of Christ, but this isn’t a transactional relationship (or shouldn’t be), but reciprocal relationship. The student also helps the teacher to be conformed to the image of Christ. It is a relationship in which both parties give, willingly, to the other. When there is a breakdown here, for instance when people actively seek theological education so as to deconstruct the received images of Christ, I would say this a breakdown in the educative relationship, or at the very least bad theology. Also, I should have clarified my statement about theological pedagogy being for conformation to Christ to all theology, not simply the methods by which one teaches it.

                Anyway, an excellent post and discussion. Thanks, Zach.


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