I recently read Thinking Through Our Faith: Theology for Twenty-first-Century Christians (Abingdon Press, 1998) by C. David Grant, a professor of religion at TCU. The book might be described as a short prologue to a 21st-century approach to theology, one that takes full account of science, historical criticism, and pluralism — in short, the sort of book you probably would not encounter in a BYU undergraduate religion class.
While there are chapters covering cosmology, evolution, postmodernism, and feminism, it is the the chapter on historical criticism and historicism (two separate topics) that seems worth discussing. I think everyone agrees that a cultural and historical gulf separates us from the 1st-century world of the early Christians and the ancient world of the Old Testament. Can we bridge that gulf and fully understand what ancient writers and texts are saying? And to what extent can or should a 21st-century reader discount ancient claims in light of modern understanding?
Reading critically. Historical consciousness is a term that refers to our present awareness that we view the world through the lens of our own culture, language, and worldview. Earlier eras were less aware of that problematic process. Those with other cultures, languages, and worldviews — either contemporaries or those in earlier ages — view (or viewed) the world differently. “The revolution in historical consciousness has shown us that the social and intellectual worlds we inhabit are incorrigibly culturally and historically specific” (p. 17). There are two aspects to this recognition. First, the recent emergence of critical history. Historians no longer take prior narratives or sources at face value. Modernly, “a simple reporting of what someone tells us does not make for adequate historical work. The testimony of those whose reports we recount must be critically evaluated, must be judged as to whether we think them credible” (p. 19).
Different Worlds. A second facet of historical consciousness is historicity (no direct connection to the LDS use of the term referring to Book of Mormon narratives). “To be human is to have a history and a culture. This discovery of the sociohistorical character of being human is the discovery of our human historicity” (p. 24). The problem isn’t merely that we view the world differently than ancient writers, but that to understand what they intended to communicate in their writings we must somehow be able to enter into their culture, language, and worldview. So reading ancient texts with a critical eye is not quite enough — if we do not or cannot enter into their way of thinking and their way of seeing, it is unlikely we will properly understand what they said or wrote.
The Bible. So how are these two ideas — critical history and historicity — relevant to 21st-century Mormons? The Bible, like other ancient texts, adopts an uncritical approach to history: it includes accounts of events that we are unlikely to accept at face value. Even most conservative Mormons will reject a literal reading of Balaam’s talking donkey, the wife of Lot being turned into a pillar of salt, and an angel stirring the waters at the pool of Bethesda from time to time. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we all practice a certain degree of critical evaluation in deciding which biblical accounts to accept and which to bracket. The only question is what criteria we use and whether we apply those criteria systematically or arbitrarily. Since the topic is never addressed in LDS public discourse, few LDS have any sense of what criteria guide (or should guide) our reading of biblical events.
LDS scholars weigh in. A full discussion of what criteria should guide our reading of ancient texts is for another post. A better way to end this post is with a couple of quotations from LDS scholars showing agreement with the notion that ancient writings are historically situated and cannot be understood without comprehending that earlier culture, language, and worldview. Both are from the book How the New Testament Came to Be (BYU Religious Studies Center, 2006), the published papers from that year’s Sperry Symposium. I find these statements rather encouraging. Here is Kent P. Jackson, from the first paragraph of his article “Asking Restoration Questions in New Testament Scholarship“:
Like other scholars of the Old and New Testaments, Latter-day Saints who engage in academic research of the Bible seek to come to understand its context, history, meaning, and application to the lives of believers. In doing so — if they are to do it right — they must seek out the best possible professional training, use the best academic tools, examine the best available ancient evidence, be aware of the best of current scholarship, and ask the same hard questions that others ask. Ideally, this means Latter-day Saint Bible scholars must master the historical and cultural sources that pertain to the world in which the Bible came to be, and they must know the languages of the original writers so they can study their words without having to rely on the scholars who translated those words into modern languages.
Voicing similar thoughts is Jennifer C. Lane, in the first paragraph of her article “Jews and Greeks: The Broader Context for Writing the New Testment“:
Understanding the broader philosophical and religious setting for the writing of the New Testament allows us to make more sense out of the topics Paul and other writers chose to address. In examining the key assumptions Jews and Greeks may have had about the doctrines of Christ, we can better understand New Testament writing, modern-day resistance to the gospel, and the essence of the gospel itself.
The bottom line is that modern criticism gives not just scholars but also informed readers the tools to make us all better readers of ancient texts and ancient scripture.
Now, back to those criteria of criticism and when to apply them …