Frei on Precritical Biblical Interpretation

I’ve been reading Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (New York: Yale, 1974) for the past few weeks.  This book is quite deep and thick and rich – I know for sure I’m only tracking with the main points that Frei is making.  I enjoy it, but it’s going to take one or two more readings for me to fill in all the blanks.  The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative is not for sissies!

In this book, among other things, Frei notes the huge change/morph in biblical interpretation from the pre-critical to the critical period (roughly speaking, before and during the enlightenment).  Here are two elements of biblical interpretation that changed radically.

First: In pre-critical hermeneutics “if it seemed clear that a biblical story was to be read literally, it followed automatically that it referred to and described actual historical occurrences.   The true historical reference of a story was a direct and natural concomitant of its making literal sense.  This is a far cry from taking the fact that a passage or text makes best sense at a literal level as evidence that it is a reliable historical report.  When commentators turned from the former to the latter interpretive use of literal meaning or used the two confusedly, it marked a new stage in the history of interpretation – a stage for which deistic convictions, empirical philosophy, and historical criticism form part of the technical intellectual background” (p. 2).  If I can reword this or comment on it, I think the difference Frei is pointing out is that in the pre-critical era, the text made sense because it described history accurately.  In the critical era, the shift is huge: the text made sense in so far as it described history accurately.  Hence historical criticism grew like a weed.

Second: In the pre-critical era, “if the real historical world described by several biblical stories is a single world of one temporal sequence, there must in principle be one cumulative story to depict it” (Ibid.).  Frei goes on to say that this means the many smaller narratives fit into the bigger or main one.  Hence, interpretation in the pre-critical era consisted of figures/types (which were the smaller narratives and stories) which pointed to the bigger or main story.  “Without loss to its own literal meaning or specific temporal reference, an earlier story was a figure of a later one” (Ibid.).    The OT types and figures were promises that were fulfilled in the NT, which was one huge thing that held the Scriptures together.  What happened in the critical era of interpretation was that the literal and figurative (typological) reading of the narratives ceased to be allies and instead became almost foes.  “Historical criticism and biblical theology were different enterprises and made for decidedly strained company” (p 8.).

To summarize, Frei makes a strong case for the huge and paradigmatic shift from precritical to critical biblical interpretation.  The former (precritical, which includes the Reformers and their scholastic successors) viewed Scripture as historically reliable with types/figures as arrows that pointed to the overarching story of redemption.  When the enlightenment-critical period came, the figural and historical were divorced and almost at odds.  The BT guys focused on the figural, and the critical guys focused on the historical, which resulted in much hermeneutical hay.

More on this later.  For a great study in this, don’t forget to read Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, especially volume two on Scripture.  Muller doesn’t fully chart the above shift, but charts the waters up to and a little into the shift.  It is fascinating to see how rationalism and deism hurt biblical interpretation.  It is also fascinating from our point of view to see how criticism can be done at a “faith seeking understanding” level; we can learn from the critics, even if we don’t adopt their methods.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

3 thoughts on “Frei on Precritical Biblical Interpretation”

  1. Shane, a few relevant quotes from Muller are here.

    I have found von Balthasar’s comments quite helpful as well;

    This concept illustrates how the much discussed relationship between the literal and spiritual senses of scripture is a christological problem, one soluable only on the basis that the two senses are to each other what the two natures of Christ are to each other. The human nature we come into contact with first; it is the medium covering yet revealing the divine element, becoming transparent in the resurrection, but never, in all eternity, to be disregarded or disparaged. The spiritual sense is never to be sought “behind” the letter but within it, just as the Father is not to be found behind the Son but in and through him. And to stick to the literal sense while spurning the spiritual would be to view the Son as man and nothing more. All that is human in Christ is a revelation of God and speaks to us of him. There is nothing whatever in his life, acts, passion and resurrection that is not an expression and manifestation o God in the language of a created being.

    von Balthasar, H. U. (1964) “The Word, Scripture and Tradition” in Explorations in Theology vol. I: The Word made Flesh. Ignatius. pp. 20-21


  2. “Eclipse” is an excellent book!

    Between your first and second reading of Frei, you should read “The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of its Problems,” by Werner Kümmel (esp. pp. 62-143). Kümmel quotes extensively from the main players mentioned in “Eclipse”; Frei just assumes that you have read their works and are familiar with them :)


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