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Fowl on History and Historical Criticism, pt. 4

This is the fourth in an eight-part series of excerpts from Stephen E. Fowl’s forthcoming volume in the Cascade Companion series. Theological Interpretation of Scripture will be released later this summer by Cascade Books.

Theological Interpretation of ScriptureContents
Introduction: What Sort of a Companion Is This?
One – Scripture: Its Nature and Place in God’s Drama of Salvation
Two – Theological Interpretation and its Relation to Various other Concerns
Three – Practices and Habits of Theological Interpretation
Four – Prospects and Issues for the Future
Five – Guests at a Party

The series of posts will follow Fowl’s sustained discussion of history and historical criticism in the second chapter. Feel free to comment.

Part one Part two Part three

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Although people often speak of historical criticism as if it is a single organized whole, it really reflects three recurring and interrelated issues. The first issue concerns the policing of the scholar’s confessional stance. Once “the historical” is presumed to be an autonomous realm it is a small step from presuming that realm is providentially ordered (whether by the Christian God or the Deist’s god) to presuming that history itself must provide its own standards of meaning and intelligibility independent of one’s confessional stance. Once this step is taken historical critics must seek to root out any seepage from their own or another scholar’s confessional commitments into their historical work. This forced the vast majority of biblical scholars to learn how to separate their historical research from their private confessional commitments in order to participate fully in scholarly discussions.

The second issue concerns questions of the historical reliability of the biblical texts. Initially, this issue addressed the nature and scope of evidence about Jesus. Scholars focused on the character of the evangelists and their honesty. Very soon, however, the focus of this question shifted to the gospel texts themselves as scholars tried to develop a variety of methods for getting behind the final form of the gospel texts to find data about what really happened. Further, as more extra biblical sources became available, they too became part of the mix of possible pieces of evidence. Rather than being a set of lenses for interpreting the world theologically, the biblical texts become relatively discrete pieces of evidence for a variety of historical questions ranging from concerns with the authors of these texts and the sources they used to the insight these texts might provide into particular periods in the history of Israel and the church.

The third issue concerns the interpretive schema used to organize the evidence. Once history is thought to be an autonomous notion with its own set of methods for establishing intelligibility or meaning, then scholars must not only figure out which pieces of information will count as evidence, but they will need to develop ways of ordering and interpreting the evidence.

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