The most exposed and vulnerable aspect of the academic critics of scripture is the social location of the critics themselves. It is a neglected area of critique. While they are criticizing the social location of classic Christianity, their own social location has not been carefully enough observed and reported. The telling evidence is that they hold comfortable chairs in rutted tenure tracks, yet from that seemingly secure fortress snipe at all who differ. They plead the ethic of inclusion while they are among all the most ideologically exclusive. These writers have for fifty years focused on the analysis of the social location of the writers and interpreters of Scripture. Now they themselves are vulnerable. That kind of analysis is ripe to be turned upon the social prejudices of the “knowledge elite”–the guild of scholars asserting their interest in the privileged setting of the modern university.
This sort of analysis has often been called the “hermeneutic of suspicion”–a principle of interpretation that reduces ideas and events to their social location or placement within hidden economic interests. Studies of sacred Scripture and tradition have been filled with these socio-economic suspicions during the past half century. This analysis of suspicion now needs to be directed toward the suspicious critics. When will the hermeneutic of suspicion be candidly applied to the social location to the advocates of the hermeneutic of suspicion?
Such a critique of criticism is needed, as has occurred so many times before in church history. Examples are Tertullian against Marcionism, Athanasius against Arius, Augustine against Manicheanism, Luther against the medieval scholastics, and Wesley against antinomian forms of double-predestinarianism.
It must first be shown that these modern critics have belatedly rediscovered a critique that was for centuries familiar to classic Christian teaching. This form of critical reasoning as often been used by Christian apologetics, especially in the pre-Nicene period. It may be found previously in Hippolytus, Origen, and later in Augustine, Luther, and above all Kierkegaard. Yet today it is imagined by some to be a recent invention. Athanasius, long before Marx, argued that the gods had social utility. Chrysostom before Feuerbach realized that the gods were projections of human psychological needs.
The hermeneutic of suspicion has been callously applied to the history of Jesus but to the supposed “history” of the historians. The hermeneutic of suspicion must now be fairly and prudently applied to the critical movement itself” its ideological location within Euro-American politics and economics and upward social mobility among elites. This is the most certain next phase of biblical scholarship–the criticism of criticism. My recent study of How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the Seedbed of Western Christianity, is an example of this sort of criticism. But why has it taken so long?
Bultmann, Kasemann, and Ebeling have argued that historical criticism stands as a bulwark against works-righteousness that destroys false guarantees for faith. In academic practice, however, historical criticism has become for its professorial practitioner a justifying work. It masks itself as scientific and objective.
Biblical criticism “sought to free itself from the community in order to pursue its work untrammeled,” and hence has become “cut off from any community for whose life its results might be significant. . . . The community of reference and accountability became, not the liberal church, but the guild of biblical scholars” who has a vested professional interest in building influence in the university, in perpetuating their schools and methods (Walter Wink).
The impassioned secular bias of much historical biblical criticism has become fixated upon a curious game, seeking to resurrect not Jesus Christ but its own fantasized “historical Jesus” as an object of its historical curiosity, media attention, and upward social mobility. Amid this attempted burial and resurrection, the historian seeks to remain tightly in control of what is admitted as evidence and of judgements about the evidence. No one else besides this high priest may now enter this inner sanctum. “Only the historian can answer” (Bultmann). Only New Testament specialists, according to tis bias, have any right to enter into the Christological arena.
“Bluntly stated, biblical criticism was a certain type of evangelism seeking a certain type of conversion.” It has now, like revivalism, become bankrupt, having been “married to a false objectivism, subjected to uncontrolled technologism, separated from a vital community, and has outlived its usefulness” (Walter Wink). Jesus had a harsh work for such obstructionists: “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering” (Luke 11:52).
The comedy of making secularized proselytism look like scientific inquiry is a little like “those persons who in theaters perform wrestling marches in public, but not that kind of wrestling in which the victory is won according to the rules of the sport, but a kind to deceive the eyes of those who are ignorant of such matters, and to catch applause” (Gregory of Nazianzus).
There still remain in excellent universities courageous scholars who, while sincerely affirming classical Christianity, continue to be deeply engaged in useful critical studies, though often bearing the marks of pariahs among certain self-contained critical elites. They may feel as did Gregory describing his own historical situation surrounding the Second Council of Constantinople, AD 381: “that which the palmerworm left did the locust eat, and that which the locust left did the caterpillar eat; then came the cankerworm, then what next I know not, one evil springing up after another”–all for our “testing and refining.”