Pretensions of Objectivity
Toward a Criticism of Biblical Criticism
- ISBN: 9781532657382
- Published By: Pickwick Publications
- Published: March 2019
In Pretensions of Objectivity: Toward a Criticism of Biblical Criticism, Jeffrey L. Morrow seeks to respond to Joseph Ratzinger’s famous Erasmus Lecture, “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis,” which called for a critical examination of the historical-critical approach to the Bible. What Ratzinger noted was that the historical-critical method, far from being a purified and objective approach to Scripture, is in fact based on the individual exegetes’ own philosophical presuppositions about the nature of God, the world, and reality. Here, Morrow shows that the historical-critical method is not reduced to merely philosophical presuppositions, but political presuppositions as well. Throughout his book, Morrow traces the origins of historical-criticism to show that they are linked to the origins of modern politics, and for this reason the historical-critical method has led to the politicization of the Bible.
This thesis does not originate with Morrow, as he makes clear. He acknowledges his debt to Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker’s Politicizing the Bible: The Roots of Historical Criticism and the Secularization of Scripture 1300-1700 (Crossroad Publishing Company, 2013). The first and third chapters of Pretensions of Objectivity are a revised and expanded version of Morrow’s review of Hahn and Wiker’s work. Yet, even for one familiar with the work of Hahn and Wiker, these chapters provide an essential overview of key figures (from Marsilius of Padua, William of Ockham, John Wycliffe, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Martin Luther to René Descartes, Richard Simon, John Locke, and John Toland) and their use of the Bible in furthering their political aims. While these two chapters rely heavily on Hahn and Wiker, Morrow is not afraid to diverge from their work when his research leads to an alternative reading of the history.
One such example is Morrow’s calling into question Hahn and Wiker’s contention that Marsilius coopted the Bible for his own secularizing political ends in the tract Defensor Pacis (The Defender of Peace). Morrow, influenced by Andrew Jones’s Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in St. Louis IX’s Sacramental Kingdom (Emmaus Academic, 2017), points out that the modern division between church and state did not exist in Marsilius’ medieval Christendom. Rather, both “lay and ecclesiastical rulers saw themselves as enmeshed in the same sacramental world—fulfilling different roles, but working together for a common goal, both earthly and heavenly, directed at temporal peace and eternal beatitude” (13). Thus, for Morrow, Marsilius’ use of the Bible to bolster the authority of temporal rulers need not be seen as a ploy to have said rulers usurp the authority of ecclesiastical rulers.
Morrow’s second chapter, a thoroughly revised and modified version of a previously published article, seeks to show that the modern skeptical approach to the Bible can be traced back to three main figures, Isaac La Peyrère, Thomas Hobbes, and Baruch Spinoza. Morrow argues that the former two paved the way for, if not directly influenced, Spinoza. These three approached Scripture with methodical doubt in order to advance a theological-political agenda of relativizing the Church and her authority and creating a secular space devoid of God. Thus, Morrow argues, their hermeneutical approach is anything but neutral, and neither is the modern hermeneutical approach that it gives rise to.
In his last two chapters, Morrow shows that the Modernist crisis in the Catholic Church is tied up with the appropriation of the modern historical-critical method into Catholic biblical interpretation. He argues that the history recounted in the first three chapters leads directly to this crisis and finds “its most complete appropriation in the works of Modernists like Alfred Loisy” (77). From Modernists like Loisy come a denial of the full inspiration of Scripture, while at the same time claiming to be neutral and objective. The failure, however, to recognize the impossibility of a neutral approach to Scripture has carried over into the current crisis in biblical interpretation. Morrow argues that “such scholarship does not represent the absence of commitment but rather the relocation of it” (84). Instead of claiming neutrality, Morrow argues that, given Catholic Magisterial teaching on divine inspiration, only a hermeneutic of faith and reading Scripture from the heart of the Church suffices for Catholics to authentically read and live the Scriptures.
Morrow does a fine job of tracing the historical trajectory of the modern historical-critical method from its beginnings in the 13th century to the present and succeeds in providing an incisive critique of biblical criticism and its pretensions of objectivity. Morrow’s command of the sources combined with his compelling case for the importance of recognizing the myth of impartiality in the historical-critical method are such that I was left disappointed, however, with the book’s brevity. Figures such as Johann David Michaelis, Jean Astruc, and Julius Welhausen receive brief mention, but their importance to biblical criticism begs for a greater treatment of their roles as heirs to those covered in the earlier chapters. Despite this lacuna, the book’s brevity also makes it valuable as a succinct response to Joseph Ratzinger’s call for a criticism of historical criticism. Anyone interested in the history of exegesis would do well to begin with this book.
Daniel M. Garland Jr. is the Director of Religious Education for Schools for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte.Daniel M. GarlandDate Of Review:October 29, 2022