The Babylonian Captivity and the Post-Critical Challenge

Posted on 01 April 2008

(Evangel Summer 2002)

The Babylonian Captivity and the Post-Critical Challenge
It was Martin Luther who, in penning a book entitled the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, highlighted the degree to which ecclesiastical thinking and practice can become enslaved to unbiblical and non-Christian thought patterns and practices that assume a self-evident hegemony over the lives of millions. Post-critical and post-modern thought is quickly exposing the fact that the post-Enlightenment world at large can as easily be seduced into developing frameworks of thought and practice that appear to have a rationally objective character but that merely affirm the values of the power-brokers of society supported by the prevailing ‘thought police’.
The present issue of Evangel, inspired by a number of articles that originally saw light in Stimulus addresses the challenge of these developments in a number of different ways and seeks to offer a way forward for Christian thinking, especially as it relates to the ‘political sphere’. But the challenge needs to be faced elsewhere… not least in the realm of biblical scholarship.
Recently, I attended a lecture devoted to an examination of ‘Jesus and Politics’. It was presented by a prominent British New Testament scholar. Jesus’ thought was uncovered by the now familiar procedure of stripping the various layers off the Gospel tradition to re-discover the Jesus that lay behind the embellishments of the post-Easter church. The criteria by which this was achieved were the standard practices of form and source criticism developed within a framework of tradition history. None of this is new… most Bible College students will recognise the staple of New Testament Gospel studies of the best part of a century. Such, of course, can (and has) been challenged in its own terms as methodologically anachronistic, historically and archaeologically unsupported and, among other things, psychologically implausible. At the same time, one is familiar with the fact that New Testament studies refuses to engage such questions preferring its own idealistic construct to the realities of ‘life on the ground’ while both hiding behind its own assumed objectivity and redefining its theories as ‘tools’.  However, what came as something of a shock was that the presentation appeared totally unaware of the shifting grounds of western philosophical thought.
Realistically, an informed Biblical Scholarship ought to be far more chastened in its presentation. A post-critical environment ought to be sensitive to a world that no longer believes that such idealistic objectivity exists and is deeply critical of claims to ‘assured results’ that are, it plausibly suggests, the reflection of the individual or discipline’s own unacknowledged (and viciously self-serving) presuppositions. Such a world refuses, too, to ‘bracket out’ faith-commitments on the assumed ground of objectivity.
In fact, it is not difficult to recognise that Biblical Studies have been seduced by the post-enlightenment belief in human autonomy and the primacy of the rational and by the long-prevailing dictates of historical method applied in the context of ever-fragmented and unrelated disciplines that have generated their own assumed (but actually fragile) securities. In the cold and harsh light of contemporary philosophy many of the constructs of contemporary Biblical studies can, therefore, appear to be (and are?) built on air.
Whither, then, such disciplines if we are not simply to meet with dinosaurs when entering Biblical Studies departments? Fundamentally, an engagement with the challenges of post-critical and post-modern thinking must be recognised… and seen as bring more than a superficial challenge to current securities. For many it will be difficult to acknowledge that the historical critical method lies in tatters and that claims to objectivity and the bracketing out of faith claims are themselves subjective faith presuppositions. Should such a challenge be faced, it will, however, be recognised that a degree of repentance is required and that the disciplines of Biblical Studies need be taken up and applied in a far more chastened and self-critical manner that is ready to listen others and be informed and shaped by them.
Practically, it would appear that faith-commitments will be recognised and self-critically cherished, that the specific biblical texts will be viewed as texts behind which it is far from easy to proceed, that (for example) linguistic and literary studies and the canonical context of the received authoritative Christian texts will gain greater attention. It ought also to mean that pre-critical readings are no longer sidelined as the opinions of faith-driven and subjective authors but re-introduced into the discourse and analysis of Biblical studies.
... And, specifically, it just may be that shorn of the unsupportable accretions of several centuries of incestuous in-talk within Biblical Studies that the critically realist and honest searcher will discover a Jesus who is far less like a mirror-image of themselves and more like the incarnate deity of the Gospel texts who calls others to follow rather than critique.
Stephen Dray
Editor, Evangel: The British Evangelical Review
Stimulus, sub-titles itself as ‘The New Zealand Journal of Christian Thought and Practice’ and describes its aim as ‘to be part of the gospel imperative to transform minds and put faith into practice.‘  The forthcoming articles by Trebilco, Marshall and Drew are re-published with the kind permission of the author.