Recently I finished reading N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God. One of his major emphases is the importance of history for right reading. Thus, exegesis is a historical practice, what is needed is pure history, and so on. He devotes a lot of time (and even more space) developing the historical background of Paul, including his thought as a Pharisee, philosophy and religion at the time, etc. To put it plainly: if we want to adjudicate our debates about reading Paul rightly, we simply need to do better history.
Obviously these claims can be a bit overblown and I would want to tailor them in specific ways, but the overall thrust is well and good. I think there is great gain from doing historical work. To give one example that is really helpful for a large segment of Western readers, social-scientific interpretation with its explanation of the cultural milieu like purity, honor, shame, kinship, patronage, and so on clearly helps one see matters in the text that we would often overlook otherwise. So yes, do the historical work and learn how that helps us read God’s Word rightly.
But here I think of a passage from Brad East:
Let me finish my examples with New Testament scholar N.T. Wright. Wright
serves as a nice segue because of his views about the tradition, which is our next
topic. Wright regularly speaks of the church’s tradition of reading the Bible as misguided at best and distorting at worst, and often rhetorically pitches his own
proposals in explicit contradistinction to nearly twenty centuries of Christian
scriptural interpretation. Regarding Wright’s historically unprecedented reading of
the parable of the prodigal son, for example, Richard Hays wryly implies that,
instead of apologizing or accounting for this rupture with the tradition, Wright
seems to see it as a vote in favor of his reading. For a church tradition that ‘has
seriously and demonstrably distorted the gospels’ by ‘screen[ing] out [Jesus’s]
kingdom inauguration’ is an obstacle in the way of responsible interpretation, not an inducement or path to it. Indeed, for this reason Wright can go so far as to call ‘the historical quest for Jesus … a necessary and nonnegotiable aspect of Christian discipleship’. Reading such a claim, I confess I do not know what Wright thinks the church could meaningfully have done with the Gospels prior to the nineteenth century. At times in his corpus one gets the sense that Wright believes that extensive historical-critical knowledge of Second Temple Judaism is a necessary condition for understanding Jesus and Paul – that is, for rightly reading the Gospels and Pauline epistles. Apart from the question of its correctness, such a view has unhappy theological implications. By way of response, then, in support of my
counter-claim that historical criticism is neither necessary nor sufficient for faithful
Christian interpretation of Scripture, let me now say why Christians, including
biblical scholars like Wright, should agree.
First, to pick up a point mentioned briefly in the previous section, and as evidenced in the exaggerated claims of Wright instanced above, the standard view of historical criticism’s indispensability makes nonsense out of almost the entirety of the church’s hermeneutical tradition. The church Fathers, the medievals, the scholastics, the Reformers and the early moderns all fail the exegetical standards of historical criticism. They break every rule, commit every foul, transgress every boundary. Their readings quite literally make no sense on historical-critical grounds. Biblical scholars usually do not trace out the implications of this, if taken to its logical conclusion. The early theological controversies that beset the church occasioned authoritative and consequential decisions regarding matters of great import for Christian faith, such as whether the Old Testament is Scripture; whether God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit; whether Christ is fully God and fully human and so on. Down to this day, these judgements have led Christians the world over to ecumenical agreement. Yet historians and critics often make sport of the Fathers’ reasoning on these matters – a strange thing for Christians to partake in, given the alternative. For if the scriptural and theological reasoning that led to judgements about faith that continue to be confessed and believed today was not only misguided but fundamentally wrongheaded, unjustified, exegetically vacuous – then we might as well throw out the tradition and start with a blank slate. Some people, radical reformers and restorationists among them, have done just that. So it is indeed a live option. But it is important to see clearly that one has to be willing to go all the way in order to stand by the commitment to historical criticism’s necessity.
Second, apart from the theological tradition, consider the consequences for the
church and its relationship to God and Scripture. God must have done a very strange thing indeed in providing the church with the Bible, if it could not be read rightly until a group of European intellectual rebels came along 1,700 years later to provide Christians with the necessary tools to read their own Scripture. Moreover, most of
the world’s Christians today are not informed by the results of historical criticism; consider the village pastor in Tanzania, or the rural priest in Panama or the underground minister in urban China. Might any of these benefit from the knowledge afforded by historical criticism? Undoubtedly. Yet without it, are they lacking something essential for their ability to read Scripture productively for the sake of their respective flocks? I suspect few would want to answer in the affirmative. My point is that, if it is truly the case that such persons (and their churches) are not lost without historical criticism, then the inflated claims made on its behalf – as, say, the sine qua non of legitimate exegesis of any sort – must in turn be deflated; and that, once one starts to take note of the rhetorical pitch and sweeping nature of such claims, the counterclaim – that it is neither necessary nor sufficient for faithful interpretation – starts to assume a good deal more critical force than one may have initially assumed.
I want to take his point on board too. These do not necessarily form a contradiction (as I did not commit myself to the claim that historical criticism is necessary for faithful interpretation), but there is a lot of tension here.
This tension comes to a head when we look at the on the ground reality for a lot of readers of Scripture. One of the responses, I think, we do not want to give is one that makes every whimsical and unstudied reading acceptable. That is, when reading Scripture (and Scripture alone) more closely would lead to faithful interpretation, then we do not want to use the history of the church and the providence of God to justify the laziness of so much Christian reading.
So here are three broad propositions I want to commit myself to, although they might have to be modified as we explore the question:
(1) Both the providence of God and the practice of the church (historically and globally) show that historical criticism is not necessary for faithful interpretation.
(2) Historical criticism is important and can lead to both insights about the text of Scripture and disconfirmation of certain readings of Scripture.
(3) There are unfaithful interpretations borne out of laziness, vice, and neglect of what God has given us.
So that is the goal of this series. Where it will go, I honestly have no clue right now. A resolution could be discerned immediately or it might lead down many winding roads. It’s this exploration that is the reason for this series.
I believe I will continue by looking at each proposition in turn and attempting to refine what is and is not meant.
 Brad East, “The Hermeneutics of Theological Interpretation: Holy Scripture, Biblical Scholarship and Historical Criticism.” International Journal of Systematic Theology, no. 19/1 (2017): 48-50; citations omitted.
 Here I want to think more about Brad East’s comment in ibid., 51-52: “For, notwithstanding its many assertions to the contrary, historical criticism does not, hermeneutically, and could not, theologically, have the power of interpretive
disconfirmation – that is, exegetical veto power.” There is footnote here that reads: “Along the lines of the pattern: ‘X scholar says Y text means Z; but that cannot be
because the original context …’. (emphasis original)