A Critique of Reading the Bible Through History Instead of Christian Dogmatics

There seems to be a move among younger biblical studies students that privileges the clear and straightforward teaching of scripture over Christian Dogmatics or theology. I fully believe in the Reformer’s perspicuity or clarity of the scriptures (inner and outer in tact), and I would think that it is this kind of sensus literalis or sensus normalis mode that these younger biblical studies (and older, like N. T. Wright) folk are really appealing to; although it Bible Pagemight also be that these younger biblical studies folk are appealing to some sort of rationalist ego of omniscient and universal reason that somehow sits aloft and allows said student to make interminable judgments about the text of scripture and its theology without really attending to the living voice of scripture that has been present throughout the church’s history. So maybe, these younger students are just engaging in an ideal like John Calvin worked with when reading scripture, or maybe it is more sinister, maybe these younger students are really quite suspicious of any kind of power play (so Postmodern), and thus the church and its developed beliefs and theology can be dust-binned for something newer and shinier, based upon this kind of absolute, universal alter ego available to them that somehow objectively stands over against the church’s reasonings, in a way that is able to discard the tradition or sacred doctrine of the church in favor their new and improved readings of scripture based upon their chosen and various readings and reconstructions of the history and milieu in which scripture was given (so these reconstructions and deliberations become the driver which most prominently shapes the way these younger readers engage with the text of scripture).

But, there is a problem. Say, for Calvin, he certainly read scripture “literally,” but he did so in a very theological-exegetical way (have you read his commentaries?). Calvin, as a Christian Humanist was all about ad fontes and back to the sources, but do you know what ‘back to the sources’ meant for the Christian Humanist? Not only did it mean to re-engage scripture on its own terms, and through the original biblical languages; it also meant re-engaging the scriptures through the Patristic’s readings of the text of Scripture. So sacred doctrine, and church tradition were very much so attendant to and impinging upon the way the Reformers (like Calvin) read scripture. For example here is how even the scholastics Reformed engaged with scripture, in a literal mode:

[T]herefore, these texts had to be explained with reverence (exponere reverenter), that is, not in historical conformity with a tradition or with the author’s expressed intention but in conformity with truth, i.e., reverently denoted in correspondence with established theological and philosophical truth. This method of reverent exposition involved a hermeneutical procedure that went back to the patristic period. To be sure, there was room for some exegesis but, as de Rijk has noted, the scholastics used the hermeneutical norm of objective truth (of the debated subjects: veritas rerum) in addition to a kind of philological exegesis employing semantic criteria for interpretation. This resulted in an incorporation of the authoritative text into one’s own conceptual framework. [Scholasticism Reformed, p. 40]

This does not really seem to me to fit with the way that someone like N. T. Wright & co. or his younger students are actually engaging the text in their kind of literal and critical-historical way of interpreting scripture. So I can’t conclude that these younger students are really all that concerned with retrieving or recovering what they often claim to be; that is, what we have inherited from the Protestant Reformers, as far as reading the Bible and making interpretive decisions. No, the Reformers, and even the Scholastics Reformed, actually engaged in theological-exegesis, literally, for their way of biblical interpretation. They believed that there was an inner-logic at work, which was constituted by the God who has given scripture; and they weren’t so much given to this ideal that scripture could be interpreted or was subject to the latest reconstruction of the history in which scripture was given (as if the history itself was solely determinate for accessing scripture’s reality and meaning).

And so, this leaves us in a dilemma. All I can conclude is that these younger bible students of today have collapsed God’s life into the creation, into natural history; and as such, God and who he is, and how he acts, have been determined to be who he is, not by himself, but by us and how we are able to reconstruct the history in which God has revealed himself. So for these younger students, what becomes determinate for biblical adjudication and meaning is a kind of naked history, but in fact it turns out not to be naked at all; instead this kind of revised history becomes code for God himself, such that God and his life and meaning become contingent upon a kind of abstract nature (creation), which really, in the end (forget these fears about Docetism–which are unfounded), becomes Pelagian, and not Christian.


If there is an inner-logic/theo-logic that funds the occasional writings of scripture (in all their historical contingencies), then what must take priority is not the contingent, but the non-contingent, who gives the contingent its meaning. In other words, God and his life revealed in Jesus Christ, must have the right to provide the categories and shape of Scripture and its meaning, and not a revised or reconstructed history that is given its reality by us. It is more Christian to interpret Scripture through Dogmatic categories (even though these are also provisional), than it is to stand on the sandy-lands of historical reconstruction (which really, in my view sounds much more like the way Mormons understand revelation, than Christians do).

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