The Nature of Biblical Criticism By John Barton (Westminster John Knox, 2007)

The Nature of Biblical Criticism (Paperback)
by John Barton

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The book is a print version of the author’s Croall Lectures at the Universityof Edinburgh(2005), dealing with the definition of biblical criticism. Barton considers biblical criticism the equivalent of literary criticism as applied to the study of the Bible—exclusively an exercise in general hermeneutics, employing principles valid for the examination of any literature to arrive at “the plain meaning of the biblical text” (3).

At the outset, Barton takes issue with those who assume, a priori, the unity and integrity of the canon—the governing assumption that parts of the canon cannot disagree with each other (an application of special hermeneutics that recognizes the uniqueness of Scripture). Those who deal with the Gospels, for instance, are criticized “as providing raw materials for the harmonizer to work with,” rather than handling these texts independent of each other as they would any other discrete literary work (12–13). One can partially concede Barton’s point: the kind of writing that each individual text is must be respected—the evangelists must be regarded as theologians, not merely as joint “collectors of tradition” (20). Each one’s unique theological thrust must be considered. However, Barton’s claim that the modern critic recognizes “honestly that the Gospel accounts are incompatible” (20) goes too far. That assertion disregards the construal of the church that this opus is canonical and, consequently, fails to search for and recognize the unity of the canon. Such a search and recognition is not, as Barton thinks, a neglect of the intrinsic genre and “generic” integrity of any given text (25–26). In fact, this (special) hermeneutic principle of singularity perceives Scripture as belonging to a novel genre—the canon, divinely inspired, internally coherent. In other words, the church’s acknowledgement that each Gospel functions uniquely is not equivalent to holding that those accounts are irreconcilable or contradictory, as Barton alleges.

By Barton’s reckoning, a biblical scholar of orthodox persuasion cannot be labeled a “critic.” The author is particularly concerned that critics bracket questions of truth when dealing with a text. “When we attend to the meaning of a text before asking whether what it asserts is true, we are in a sense applying a procedure—a postponement of an evaluation of the text’s truth” (58). But why cannot a critic approach the biblical text with a faith-stance on the Author’s veracity (employing a special hermeneutic) and, accordingly, seek its meaning, accepting the canon as unified and congruent? Without that assumption, the question of whether biblical criticism is a worthwhile endeavor for the faith and practice of the church must be raised. Barton declares: “A prior conviction that anything that is in the Bible must be true (in some sense or other) blocks the normal way of reading a text ….” (172). No, it does not. In fact, a charitable “prior conviction” of an author’s trustworthiness is the normal way of reading a text. There is no hermeneutical contradiction in ascertaining meaning grounded on such an a priori assumption. While for Barton, “confessional” approaches are out, and “value-neutral” approaches are in (27), I doubt if such filters can ever be seriously applied. After all, whose approach is “value-neutral”?

In chapter 4 (“The Plain Sense”), Barton dissects out “original,” “intended,” “historical,” “literal,” and what he names “plain” sense. He claims that the term “‘original sense,’ taken to refer to the meaning of the earliest textual strata, does not capture very much of what biblical criticism has been concerned with” (71). We would agree. The homiletical undertaking, in particular, ought to be focused upon the text at hand, not on putative proto-canonical textual ancestors. Neither is the object of preaching the historical event behind the text (“what really happened”); rather, it is the Holy Spirit-inspired account of that event that is to be exposited.

Barton also doubts that “a concern for the author’s intention is a defining characteristic of biblical criticism” (73). He adduces the case of the book of Proverbs, asserting that “Proverbs are the epitome of authorless texts” (74). Hardly. If there is a text, there is an author (whether writer or, in the case of Proverbs, a compiler). And if there is an author, there is an intention. Moreover, intentions exist, even at the level of the secondary genre, the canon; its organic storyline and the interdependent theological motifs attest to the unity of its intention. Insofar as they can be determined from the text (and to a great extent, they can), such intentions must be carefully attended to. Barton does emphasize the importance of the “macrosemantics” of texts—the momentum of the whole, how the parts fit into the whole, and vice versa (26). In essence, this is a nod to authorial intention; macrosemantics seeks to discover what the author was doing with the text (in linguistic parlance, the “pragmatics” of the text, as opposed to semantics—what the author was saying). Barton is quite right; this aspect of textual interpretation, vital to subsequent application, has oft been neglected in biblical criticism and, consequently, in preaching.

Towards the end of the book, Barton confesses his bias: “[W]hat I am proposing is no less religious than approaches such as the canonical one, but … it is actually more so” (181; also 186). Indeed! All approaches have “religion” in them; all have assumptions and convictions. Mine happens to be that this Book is true, tried, and trustworthy. And I dare say that that is the more charitable conviction. Barton, on the other hand, fails to give the canonical corpus due respect as a unique genre and language-game, a text sui generis. The unique properties of this inspired text must be considered in tandem with the characteristics it shares with other typical literary products. In other words, a special hermeneutic must be interwoven with a general hermeneutic. They go hand in hand, an approach which Barton, unfortunately, rejects (181).

Bibliotheca Sacra 165 (2008): 493–494

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