Scriptural Authority and Biblical Criticism in the Dutch Golden Age

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Dirk van Miert, Henk Nellen, Piet Steenbakkers, Jetze Touber
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     464 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


What impact did philology—that is, humanist-inspired textual criticism and historical research—have on the authority of the Bible and ecclesiastical truth claims in the Dutch Republic in the long seventeenth century? The short answer, suggests this erudite and stimulating volume, is that things were complicated. In the hands of heterodox critics, philology could bolster the view that the Bible was merely a collection of time-bound, conflicting, and often corrupted human texts. At the same time many scholars, both orthodox and liberal, deployed critical scholarship to defend scripture as a vehicle of revelation and to expound the meaning of God’s Word. While acknowledging the contributors’ diverse findings, the editors endorse a qualified secularization paradigm, arguing that, whether fueled by motives pious or profane, philology indeed had a corrosive effect on biblical authority in the long run. Most European believers continued to revere the Bible as the inspired Word of God. But among a learned minority, the new criticism sparked a “slow revolution” (15) that would breed “distrust towards the truth claims of traditional religion” (57). Many of the book’s contributors support this conclusion, but a few articles complicate the picture and raise caveats about linking philology too closely to secularization.

Some groups clearly perceived a threat in biblical criticism. Grantley McDonald and Jan Krans investigate cases of “pious fraud,” in which Protestant and Catholic exegetes defended the authenticity of spurious passages or even forged new ones to uphold the doctrine of the Trinity or the authority of the Vulgate. David Kromhout and Irene Zwiep show that Amsterdam’s Jewish community of recently arrived Sephardim largely steered clear of the new philology and focused on medieval Jewish sources as they sought to secure the written Tanakh’s prominence vis-à-vis the Ashkenazi rabbis’ emphasis on Halacha and oral tradition. A notable exception, discussed by Benjamin Fisher, was Menasseh ben Israel, whose attempts to prove the inerrancy of biblical chronologies laid bare discrepancies that could be exploited by radical critics like Spinoza.

Naturally enough, Spinoza cuts a significant profile in this work. Jonathan Israel reiterates his familiar case that Spinoza declared “war on theology and theologians” with his Theological-Political Treatise (1670), whose radical historicizing of the biblical text, Israel claims, provoked frenzied reaction long into the next century. A number of essays, however, temper the inclination to assign outsize influence to Spinoza. Anthony Grafton points to holes in his knowledge of recent biblical scholarship, and several articles imply that his main impact was indirect: his linking of philology with naturalism potentially tainted biblical criticism, forcing scholars to defend its commensurability with Christian faith. Jetze Touber demonstrates that some, such as “scripturarians”—Reformed exegetes who called for historical-contextual Bible study free from predetermined dogma—could actually find much to commend in Spinoza’s hermeneutics.

The project to wed criticism and faith, though, preceded Spinoza and often advanced without reference to him. Several articles illuminate how liberal exegetes reconciled philology with the conviction that scripture carried a divine message. The main strategy was to deny a strict identification of God’s Word with the jot and tittle of the biblical text and to hold that the scriptures spoke clearly on fundamental doctrines pertaining to salvation and ethics. This stance could serve ecumenical aims, as in the case of Hugo Grotius, examined by Dirk van Miert. Kęstutis Daugirdas tells how Remonstrant scholar Philip van Limborch posited a gap between revelatory events and the biblical writers’ takes on them, thus defending the New Testament’s basic historicity while relativizing textual particulars. Another tack was pursued by the Mennonite physician Anthonie van Dale, treated by Scott Mandelbrote, who maintained the coherence of reason and scripture by giving a naturalized account of prophecies and spirits. A unique and still debated case is that of Pierre Bayle, who, as Jean Bernier establishes, only gradually came to embrace biblical criticism. Maria-Cristina Pitassi suggests that while Bayle insisted on the need for “regulating reason” to interpret scripture, his extreme skepticism about the attainability of absolute truth apart from individualized subjective faith “destroyed the self-evidence of the truths necessary for salvation and ended up undermining the very authority of Scripture” (269).

Counterpoints to the “slippery slope” view of philology’s effects on biblical authority appear in several essays, both directly and implicitly. Bernd Roling attests that the genre of physica sacra, which used natural science to defend biblical miracles and criticize the critics, persisted far into the eighteenth century. Martin Mulsow shows how the German Hermann von der Hardt could find contemporary political relevance in Old Testament texts, albeit through a rather bizarre hermeneutics. By contrast, as detailed by Aza Goudriaan, the staunchly orthodox Calvinist Gisbertus Voetius and his followers insisted on rigorous exegesis in light of all available scientific knowledge, even as they denied the capacity of autonomous reason to judge scripture and counseled “learned ignorance” in the face of insoluble problems. The volume’s editors are surely right to claim that “the traditional image of an opposition between, on the one side a vanguard of exegetes attacking traditional beliefs in order to promote enlightened ideas, and on the other a horde of stubborn champions of orthodoxy not yielding an inch, is no longer tenable” (11).

Could one go further and question the premise that there was anything inherently subversive about philology? Clearly, the conclusions early modern exegetes drew from it depended to a great extent on the philosophical and theological stances they brought to the task. Criticism put dogmatists on the defensive, to be sure, and undercut some rigid formulations of biblical authority. But many exegetes found ways of embracing it that fitted comfortably enough with their orthodox confessional commitments. That this rich volume provides enough material to suggest alternative ways of construing the relationship between philology, theology, and secularization is one of its many merits. 

By treating biblical philology as an engine of religious and philosophical innovation, this book adds to a growing body of new work that highlights the thick lines of continuity running from Renaissance humanism and Reformation-era controversies to the Enlightenment. It will benefit not just specialists in early modern biblical scholarship but anyone interested in the intellectual origins of modernity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eric Carlsson is Lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Date of Review: 
June 5, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dirk van Miert is Assistant Professor of Early Modern Cultural History at Utrecht University.

Henk Nellen is Senior Research Member at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences at Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands and Emeritus Professor of the History of Ideas of Early-Modern Times in the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication, Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam.

Piet Steenbakkers is Senior Lecturer of the History of Modern Philosophy in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Utrecht and Emeritus Professor of Spinoza Studies at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam.

Jetze Touber is Lecturer in the Department of Languages, Literature, and Communication at the University of Utrecht.


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