Trinitarian-Theological vs. Historial-Critical Interpretation of the Old Testament

An erudite methodological point by Craig Bartholomew from his contribution to the book Hearing the Old Testament: Listening for God’s Address (eds. Bartholomew & Beldman; Eerdmans, 2012):

The fragmentation of the Old Testament at the hands of historical criticism is no new problem, and scholars concerned with theological interpretation deal with it in different ways. Barth’s approach was to acknowledge its legitimacy but to position it in the context of a larger theological hermeneutic. The problem with such an approach is that a nature/grace (historical criticism/theological interpretation) dichotomy remains uneasily at work in such scholarship. The most serious challenge to the fragmentation of historical criticism has come from literary readings, but before this could be fully appropriated the postmodern turn was upon us with its wild pluralism. A curious result is that much of the historical-critical paradigm lingers as a sort of lowest common denominator for academic biblical studies.

In my opinion the sort of trinitarian hermeneutic I articulate in Chapter 1 in the present volume provides a helpful barometer for measuring the extent to which historical criticism has helped us attend to the voice (or voices) of Old Testament wisdom. While there are many things to be grateful for in terms of the historical legacy in Old Testament wisdom studies, when it comes to attending to these books for God’s address one is generally confronted with the aridity of historical criticism. On all accounts books like Job and Ecclesiastes are great literature, but in Old Testament studies our energy is directed toward speculative determination as to whether the earliest Israelite wisdom was secular, the different layers in Proverbs, whether Job 28 is original to Job, how many different voices there are in the epilogue of Ecclesiastes, and so on. Academic rigor is nonnegotiable, but there is a real sense in which a consistent historical-critical reading and a literary, final-form, theological reading are incommensurate paradigms. Each needs to tell its stories of these Old Testament books as best it can, and then the results can be compared and, perhaps, real discussions begin. In favor of the latter paradigm it should be noted that all historical criticism depends upon an initial reading of the text as we receive it, even if the conclusion is that the text does not make sense as it stands and that speculative critical reconstruction is therefore essential. Surprisingly, this initial reading is rarely foregrounded in historical criticism, a move one would think essential in the light of literary readings.

Craig Bartholomew, “Hearing the Old Testament Wisdom Literature: The Wit of Many and the Wisdom of One,” in Hearing the Old Testament, Pgs. 303-304 (bold emphasis added).

R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA