A History of Biblical Interpretation, Volume 3

The Enlightenment through the Nineteenth Century

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Alan J. Hauser, Duane F. Watson
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , June
     440 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The third volume of Alan J. Hauser and Duane F. Watson’s A History of Biblical Interpretation treats the roughly two and a half centuries spanning from the middle of the 17th century through the end of the 19th century, which are likely the most cacophonous in the whole of Christian and Jewish interpretive history. Those seeking to dive into these deep waters would do well to seek guidance in a collection of scholarly examinations of material that on its own can often be quite difficult to penetrate. Despite its promising title, this book is not such a reliable guide. The problems with this book are manifold and there is not the space here to adequately discuss them all, so I will endeavor to keep my comments to the most significant ones. 

Instead of a comprehensive introduction to the theme of the volume, giving rationale for its structure and content, the “Introduction and Overview” by Hauser and Watson is nearly seventy pages of detailed summary of the essays that follow, including frequent quotations from the essays appearing later in the book, giving the reader a near constant sense of déjà vu. Because the editors never present a rationale for what they consider to be “biblical interpretation,” the reader might expect a fairly inclusive overview, but this is not so. There is no significant treatment of topics such as Protestant Scholasticism, the rise of dispensationalism, new religious movements in America, Darwinism, the Oxford Movement, the Catholic Tübingen School (Catholicism is generally neglected), and Orthodox Christianity, among others. Nearly every essay addresses the development of liberal academic treatments of scripture by Protestant Europeans. Even within this severely limited idea of what constitutes biblical interpretation there are serious oversights. There is no significant discussion of Neology or Historicism. A search for the names Johannes Weiß or Franz Overbeck will be met with puzzling disappointment. After finding several discussions of the work of Adolf von Harnack (who died in 1930), one would expect to find at least a brief treatment of Ernst Troeltsch (who died in 1923), but he too is ignored. Moreover, despite the tendency of several of the authors to invoke words like “Hegelian” and “Kantian” in a vilipenditory tone,the referents themselves escape any careful examination. 

Throughout the volume there are errors due to insufficient editing and inaccuracies due to insufficient research. The reader learns that Lessing died in 1812 (85), only to find that claim suspect when just a few pages later the date for his death is (accurately) given as 1781 (98). But page 98 is not the place to remain if truth is sought, for there one reads that Lessing personally knew Hermann Samuel Reimarus, implying that it was through that relationship that Lessing acquired the famous fragments on the life of Jesus which he later published. This inaccuracy obscures the vital role that Reimarus’s children, especially his daughter Elise, played in securing the publication of the fragments. To remain with the playwright for a moment, Keuss claims that Lessing’s famous “ugly, broad ditch” is a description of his “difficulty believing many historical events in the Bible” (195). This is false. The ditch between Lessing’s “accidental truths of history” (zufälligeGeschichtswahrheiten) and “necessary truths of reason” (notwendige Vernuftswahrheiten) names the problem of grounding morality and metaphysics on contingent events in history. 

Throughout the volume, religionsgeschichtliche Schule is repeatedly translated as “History of Religions School,” when it should be “History of Religion School,” as scholarship on the movement has established for more than a century (see e.g., Hermann Gunkel, Reden und Aufsätze, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1913, v). While this might seem to be a minor error in translation, it is one that reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the movement’s program.

Arnold and Schreiner rightly point out that Wellhausen’s attempt to reconstruct history without presuppositions has not aged well, noting that “Wellhausen operated under the nineteenth-century assumption that presuppositionless study was obtainable” (266). This is undoubtedly true, but what the authors fail to mention, and no other authors in the book sufficiently address, is that it did not take until the late 20th century for “presuppositionless” approaches to history to be rejected as philosophically untenable. Ritschl’s dissent from the Tübingen School was precisely over the latter’s claim to examine history without presuppositions (voraussetzungslose Wissenschaft), something Ritschl thought impossible (Jaddock does acknowledge Ritschl’s break from the Tübingen School, but does not adequately articulate the methodological disagreement; 180-84). 

Each essay of the book is followed by a bibliography of cited and suggested works, which is an excellent idea. But reading through them is generally disappointing. The scholarship cited is often quite dated and many of the essays and bibliographies do not include essential sources. Rogerson’s essay on de Wette fails even to mention Thomas Albert Howard’s excellent monograph Religion and the Rise of Historicism: W. M. L. de Wette, Jacob Burckhardt, and the Theological Origins of Nineteenth-Century Historical Consciousness (Cambridge University Press, 2000). The work of Johannes Zachhuber, which would have enriched many of the essays, is not cited in the entire volume, even though his monograph Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany: From F. C. Baur to Ernst Troeltsch was published in 2013 (Oxford University Press). While there is always a gap between finishing a volume and it appearing in print, during which time sources relevant to the topic might appear, that gap should be of a reasonable length. But the most recent source cited in this 2017 volume is Helmer’s citation of her own 2014 monograph; it is the only source from 2014 that is cited. The most recent source cited in Keuss’s deeply problematic essay on Strauss and—inexplicably, in a volume on biblical interpretation—Feuerbach is from 1999. Many of the bibliographies cite outdated editions of works or fail to mention that sources, such as Ferdinand Christian Baur’s History of Christian Dogma (trans. Peter C. Hodgson, Oxford University Press, 2014) or Henning Graf Reventlow’s History of Biblical Interpretation, Volume 4: From the Enlightenment to the Twentieth Century (trans. Leo G. Purdue, Society of Biblical Literature, 2010), are now available in English. 

Some of the essays (e.g., those authored by Dunn, Lindberg, Olbricht, and Legaspi) are good introductions to important topics and figures, even if most of these scholars have published similar overviews in other venues. Nevertheless, because of the many errors and oversights, this volume is not a reliable guide to the tumultuous waters of modern biblical interpretation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stephen D. Lawson is a doctoral candidate in Historical Theology at St. Louis University. He researches theological responses to the rise of historical consciousness in European theology.

Date of Review: 
July 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alan J. Hauser is professor of biblical studies at Appalachian State University, Boone, North Carolina. He is also coeditor of Art and Meaning: Rhetoric in Biblical Literature and coauthor of From Carmel to Horeb: Elijah in Crisis and Rhetorical Criticism of the Bible: A Comprehensive Bibliography with Notes on History and Method."

Duane F. Watson is professor of New Testament studies at Malone University, Canton, Ohio. He is also the author of Invention, Arrangement, and Style: Rhetorical Criticism of Jude and 2 Peter, editor of Persuasive Artistry: Studies in New Testament Rhetoric, and coauthor of Rhetorical Criticism of the Bible: A Comprehensive Bibliography with Notes on History and Method."


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