The Historical-Critical Historical/Theological Enterprise: Why Are We Asking These Questions?

I believe we call into question SBL’s legitimacy by allowing the dissemination of explicitly confessional scholarship at its meetings that clearly call into question the very validity of the scientific, or historical-critical, method.

By Kenneth Atkinson
Department of Philosophy and Religion
University of Northern Iowa
January 2012

The recent controversy over Ron Hendel’s now famous letter describing his reasons for resigning from the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) remains the subject of an intense debate, which in part prompted the formation of a special session at its 2011 Annual Meeting titled “The Bible as Sacred and as Secular Literature.”2 Is biblical studies in a period of crisis, as Michael C. Legaspi argues in his recent book titled, The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies?3 Or is the field of biblical scholarship merely undergoing a “profound change,” as recently opined by the editors of the SBL tribute volume to its former Executive Director titled, Foster Biblical Scholarship: Essays in Honor of Kent Harold Richards?4 The debate over not only the future, but the very nature of our field, I believe, is critical to determine whether biblical studies will remain an academic enterprise, or whether the SBL, to quote Hector Avalos’ controversial book, The End of Biblical Studies, will remain the “agent of a dying profession.”5

One problem Hendel has eloquently highlighted is his criticism over the decision to remove the phrase “critical inquiry” from the Society’s mission statement and what this means both for SBL’s present and future. Hendel’s critique is reminiscent of an earlier article by Jacques Berlinerblau titled “What’s Wrong with the Society of Biblical Literature?,” published in the widely read Chronicle of Higher Education.6 Noting that SBL’s promotional literature does not acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of its members work in confessional contexts of seminaries and divinity schools, Berlinerblau comments:

…if nearly all biblical scholarship takes place within an explicit or implicit theological framework, then the discipline itself will flounder. For under such circumstances, critical and heretical appraisals of the Bible emerge infrequently.7

Berlinerblau’s statement raises a related question. Should evangelical scholars and those with deep faith commitments be allowed to participate in SBL? Can SBL remain an academic society without a litmus test, or is any criterion for membership contrary to the underlying principles of intellectual freedom? What I believe is lost in this debate is the very nature of the enterprise we claim to be undertaking, namely SBL”s mission to “foster biblical scholarship.” Or another way to phrase this question is what is the historical-critical versus the historical-theological enterprise and why are we asking these questions? What type of scholarship do we claim to foster?

Throughout its history, biblical scholarship has struggled with the uniqueness of scripture. At issue is whether scripture can be studied in the academy apart from religious influences or agendas. For most of history, the interpreters determined how scripture was understood. Rabbis and the Church, for the most part, held that scripture was of a divine nature and full of all manner of hidden meaning. It was a book of lessons directed to readers in their own day, free of contradictions or mistakes.8 Although many scholars do not hold such these traditional views, there is still a large consensus in the academy that the ancient interpreters were correct in two respects: their acceptance of the Bible’s moral core and the uniqueness of its teachings.9 Those who maintain these traditional beliefs, I propose, confuse the historical-critical enterprise from the theological enterprise.

Since the Enlightenment many have questioned the appropriateness of prior belief in scripture as a prerequisite for academic study. The historian Van Harvey has described this debate as the conflict between traditional Christian belief and the new morality of historical knowledge.10 Whereas the first celebrates faith as virtue and believes doubt to be a sin, the latter extols skepticism and distrusts prior conclusions.

The academic study of religion operates upon the premise that those who adhere to fixed religious presuppositions or fear a critical examination of the biblical text cannot fully engage in critical biblical scholarship. To overcome the dictates and presuppositions of religious approaches, modern biblical scholarship has adopted a criterion for scholarly inquiry into the Bible known as historical criticism. Historical criticism seeks to serve the historian’s need for valid and reliable evidence by enabling scholars to determine whether or not ancient testimony was imparted by a competent and reliable witness.11

The rise of modern historical criticism in biblical study began with the work of the German sociologist of religion, Ernst Troeltsch. Throughout his career, Troeltsch wrestled with the significance of historical criticism for traditional Christian belief and theology.12 He articulated three major principles by which the historical enterprise should operate in order to distinguish it from the theological enterprise.

Troeltsh argued that the first basis of historical criticism is the principle of criticism itself. Any conclusion is subject to revision: inquiry can never attain absolute certainty but only relative degrees of probability. Troeltsh stated that this method of reading texts brings a measure of uncertainty to every single fact: it disconnects religious faith and all particular facts. Troeltsch wrote of its implications: “Give the historical method an inch and it will take a mile. From a strictly orthodox standpoint, therefore, it seems to bear a certain similarity to the devil.”13 Troeltsch emphasized that the scholar of religion must study scripture in a strictly historical fashion and not allow Christian tradition—and one may add Jewish tradition as well—to provide the framework for studying scripture. Troeltsch notes that we do not allow the religious beliefs of the Greeks and Romans to determine our reading of their texts.14 Or, to paraphrase Troeltsch’s thoughts, because we do not require SBL members to believe in Zeus or miracle workers such as the Emperor Vespasian when studying ancient Greek and Roman texts, we should not require a belief in the uniqueness of scripture or its prophets.15

Troeltsch describes his second principle of the historical-critical enterprise as follows: “Analogous occurrences that we observe both without and within ourselves furnish us with the key to historical criticism.”16 Basically, Troeltsch here argues that historical knowledge is only possible because all events are similar in principle: we must assume that the laws of nature in biblical times were the same as now. Many today would recognize this principle as analogous to the scientific method, which generally dominates academic discourse in scientific and humanistic disciplines. Troeltsch argues the principle of analogy means that “…fewer and fewer historical ‘facts’ are regarded as exempt from the exigencies of the analogical principle; many would content themselves with placing Jesus’ moral character and the resurrection in this category.”17 However, true historical-criticism requires that we examine all ancient texts on an equal basis without requiring a belief in the miraculous. Troeltsch’s third principle is correlation. He describes this as follows:

[the] connections between faith and race are themselves not isolated and unconditioned but are most closely correlated with a much larger historical context; they arise out of this context, they share its substance, and they must be understood in relation to it…the personages of Judaeo-Christian history are neither more nor less irrational than those of Greek and Persian history.18

Basically, we cannot regard the figures of scripture as different than those we find in other ancient texts because all share a common humanity.

Troeltsch, in formulating the principles of historical criticism, wrestled with the tensions existing between Harvey’s two conflicting moralities. For Troeltsch, the historical-critical approach was incompatible with traditional Christian belief. He sought to oppose methodologies based upon supernatural intervention as a principle of historical explanation.19 Troeltsch wrote concerning the importance of adopting a historical-critical approach:

The cultured man of to-day is a person who thinks historically, and can construct his future only by means of historical self-knowledge. This holds good for every sphere of life, even for the religious sphere, in which, it is true, such self-knowledge is still opposed by the naïve traditionalism and rationalism of large masses of mankind.20

Richard Rubenstein echoes many of Troeltsch’s statements when he writes, concerning this conflict between faith and history, that:

The objective historian is compelled to place the affirmations of faith in the context of the social and cultural movements out of which they arose. In the light of objective history, no religious position can be privileged.21

The value of the historical-critical method is that it brings to biblical scholarship a manner of critically analyzing a text that is equally available to everyone. It is open to everyone regardless of their faith, as well as to those who have no faith at all.

Historical studies of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament have conclusively demonstrated that the biblical narratives do not convey reliable historical information as we conceive the term reliable to signify. Although the Bible may at times convey historical information, this is not the primary intent of its narratives. Rather, Scripture is concerned with recounting the acts of God on behalf of a nation, a group, or an individual. The truth claims made for a particular biblical passage depend upon the particular genre employed. Since ancient writers did not distinguish between fact and fiction as we do, the recognition of genre is essential to the understanding of the biblical text.22 Historical criticism assists in examining the truth claims that can be made for a biblical passage, or any ancient document, by first delineating its genre. Historical criticism is open to challenging any belief or conclusion. The recognition that much of the Bible is fictional means that the language scripture employs for God is often fictional. A historical-critical approach considers the function of God within each story. Such an approach, moreover, should also explore the use of language for God, or gods, in other ancient writings since the claims of scripture cannot be separated from its larger historical context. The writers of the Bible were just as much products of their times and places as the writers of other ancient texts.

Since Scripture is the product of communal decision, we must be willing to examine and question the decision of those who canonized Scripture. To quote R. G. Collingwood: “so far from relying on an authority other than himself, to whose statements his thought must conform, the historian is his own authority.”23 As long as scholars are willing to examine the very content of Scripture and entertain the prospect that the decisions of those who collected our present canons were wrong, then they are practicing the historical-critical as opposed to theological enterprise akin to any other academic society. Our scholarly peers in the science would not admit into their ranks or allow to speak at their events someone maintaining that the earth was flat. All humanistic endeavors follow the scientific method. Yet, I believe we call into question SBL’s legitimacy by allowing the dissemination of explicitly confessional scholarship at its meetings that clearly call into question the very validity of the scientific, or historical-critical, method.24

As Hendel aptly warned in his article, the SBL has relaxed its standards by allowing the dissemination of work that is not constrained by religious presuppositions. This is especially true, as he highlights, in the SBL’s publication the Review of Biblical Literature and in the increasing number of sessions that are explicitly theological or restricted to a particular interpretation of Scripture.25 SBL, I believe, is a mixed bag: there is great and dubious scholarship at its meetings. Nevertheless, I must agree with critics of SBL that we are in a crisis. To quote one of its former presidents, John Collins, SBL has relaxed its oversight and “[it] does have a regulative function not only with regard to evangelical scholarship but with regard to any evident bias, regardless of its ideological character.”26

Some may object to any litmus test to scholarship or membership, but I believe that one is necessary if we are to become a respectable academic society. I believe that we do have an implicit standard to which we all should rigorously adhere—the Journal of Biblical Literature. Unquestionably one of the elite publications in the field, the Journal of Biblical Literature publishes the best of historical-critical scholarship devoid of any faith perspective. It is open to all contributors regardless of their faith, or lack of faith. All annual meeting sessions, calls for papers, and paper proposals should be regarded as abstracts for a potential publication in the Journal of Biblical Literature. Those not suitable for publication should likewise be considered unsuitable for presentation. This includes all affiliated groups whose meetings, many of which a quick perusal through the list of program units on the SBL website will reveal, are restricted to those who hold particular faiths and beliefs.27 If SBL and biblical studies are to have a viable future, then it is essential that it adopt a thoroughly secular outlook that privileges no particular position or faith but is entirely critical in its nature. It must at the same time separate itself from all related meetings of faith-based communities that engage in theological, not historical-critical, scholarship that is not open to all.

The famous contemporary historian of religion Martin Marty once wrote: “Oppose secularism but thank God for the secular.”28 Some may question whether by secularism am I imposing a form of tyranny to replace more confessional forms of scholarship. What exactly is secularism? By secularism I merely mean that all biblical scholarship must operate within a thorough spirit of critique. This critique even extends to the very foundational principles of the historical-critical enterprise. It is basically the call for the adoption of the scientific method.

SBL as an academic society must adopt a thoroughly historical-critical perspective and not accept Scripture as the infallible word of God nor the word of God as mediated by mortals, but as a humanistic document analogous to the rich worldwide body of ancient historical and religious writings. Confessional or faith-based scholarship has no role at SBL and belongs elsewhere. What this may mean for SBL’s future is uncertain, but it will likely create a great loss in numbers and a dwindling of its financial revenues. I see two choices for the SBL. The first is to continue with the present state of affairs in which SBL is an empire headquartered at the Luce Center in Atlanta.29 This current enterprise grants equality to a variety of historical-critical and theological forms of scholarship and encourages partnerships with a variety of openly confessional and religious organizations, many of whom meet in association with this meeting. The second option, which I believe is the only viable one, is the secular alternative in which only critical biblical scholarship is allowed. Such scholarship should be immediately recognized by our academic peers in all fields of inquiry—from fields as diverse as literature to the hard sciences. It must be based on sound questioning and not faith: it is a call for nothing less than the adoption of the scientific method of questioning that dominates all legitimate academic discourse. To do so, SBL would need to abandon its strategic mission publicized on its website that the SBL seeks to develop resources for diverse audiences that include “religious communities.”30 SBL must be a scholarly, not a religiously-oriented, society.

A thoroughly secular and academic society dominated by the scientific method, I am afraid, would be a much smaller and leaner society. Rather than being housed in the Luce Center, a more secular SBL perhaps may have to be run out of the garage of some future executive director. Such a society would need to explore ways of speaking and investigating the Bible that are not specifically tied to a community of faith, but which our colleagues in other disciplines would recognize as historical-critical scholarship. In closing, to quote Berlinerblau: “We are bound by honor to cast aspersions on the integrity and historical reliability of holy documents.” “The motto of our enterprise might just as well be ‘criticize and be damned!’”31


1 This paper was presented at a special session at the 2011 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature titled “The Bible as Sacred and as Secular Literature.”

2 Ronald S. Hendel, “Farewell to SBL: Faith and Reason in Biblical Studies,” Biblical Archaeology Review (July-August 2010): 28, 74. Hendel’s article has elicited considerable reaction. Some of the most notable include an unsigned response on the SBL website ( and a letter from SBL’s Executive Director, John F. Kutsko, on the Biblical Archaeology Society website ( Both links include additional responses. (Note: all links are current as of January 1, 2012.

3 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

4 Frank Ritchel Ames and Charles William Miller, “Preface,” in Frank Ritchel Ames and Charles William Miller (eds.), Foster Biblical Scholarship: Essays in Honor of Kent Harold Richards (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010), p. xi.

5 (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007), p. 316.

6 (Published November 10, 2006).

7 Ibid. (italics in original printed edition).

8 See further James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (New York: Free Press, 2007), pp. xii, 14-16. For a critical reaction, see Benjamin D. Sommer, “Two Introductions to Scripture; James Kugel and the Possibility of Biblical Theology,” HTR 100 (2010): 153-82. See further Hector Avalos, “Slavery, Abolitionism and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship: Reflections about Ethical Deflections,” (November 2011), The Bible and Interpretation

10 The Historian and the Believer (New York: Macmillan, 1966).

11 For a succinct summary of historical criticism, see Edgar Krentz, The Historical-Critical Method (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975).

12 For Troeltsch’s life and the development of his hermeneutical principles, see Hans-Georg Drescher, Ernst Troeltsch: His Life and Work (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993).

13 “Historical and Dogmatic Method in Theology,” in James Luther Adams and Walter F. Bense (translators), Religion in History (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), p. 16.

14 Ibid., pp. 17-18.

15 For Vespasian’s miracles, see Seutonius, Vespasian, 7.2-3; Tacitus Histories, 4.81.

16 Troeltsch, “Historical and Dogmatic,” p. 13.

17 Troeltsch, “Historical and Dogmatic,” p, 14.

18 Troeltsch, “Historical and Dogmatic,” p. 17.

19 Harvey, The Historian, pp. 3-37.

20 Ernst Troeltsch, “Historiography,” in James Hastings (ed.), Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (New York: Scribner, 1914), 721.

21 My Brother Paul (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 21.

22 For this observation, discussions of Troeltsch’s principles of historical criticism and extensive bibliographies on this topic, see further John J. Collins, The Bible after Babel: Historical Criticism in a Postmodern Age (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), esp., pp. 1-25. See also Kenneth Atkinson, “Biblical Historical Criticism: A Basis for Jewish-Christian Dialogue,” Paradigms: Theological Trends of the Future 10 (1995): 6-9; Paul E. Capetz, “Theology and the Historical-Critical Study of the Bible,” HTR 104 (2011): 459-88. For an opposing approach, see Jon D. Levenson, The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1993).

23 The Idea of History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1946), p. 236.

24 For this issue, with examples, see further Jim Linville, “Society of Biblical Literature’s Damnably (un?)Holy Alliance with Belief,” (November 29, 2011). http://

25 See “Farewell to SBL.”

26 “Faith, Scholarship, and the Society of Biblical Literature,” in Foster Biblical Scholarship, p. 78.

27 For the most recent observations on one SBL affiliate, see Jacques Berlinerblau, “An Afternoon With The Society For Pentecostal Studies,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (Published November 22, 2011). For a list of current SBL affiliate organ-iza
tions, see

28 “Thank God for the Secular,” Christian Century 121 (2004): p. 21.



31 Jacques Berlinerblau, The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 7 (italics in original).

Comments (6)

Kenneth, many of us read your fine article thinking, "it's about time we faced this once and for all." Ron Hendel and others have already contributed constructively to this discussion, and we are all in their and your debt. Apart from the theoretical and methodological issues that you and the others have clearly articulated, I think we must also carefully address the economic issues.

While I seriously doubt that excluding the faith-based organizations from association with the SBL would leave us running things out of anything like the Executive Director's garage--the SBL enterprise is much to complex for that--there will surely be some economic fallout from the separation, and we need to have a clear idea of what that might be. I for one would like to see someone drill down a bit on those numbers.

Personally I could well tolerate walking past a room hosting some confession-based organization if I knew that their financial contribution to the overall enterprise clearly kept costs down for the SBL meetings, publications, etc. I don't really care what they do in the privacy of their own meeting rooms. I could even hope that their affiliation with SBL might in some way engage them more widely with the Academy, and that is surely the intent of the current inclusive approach. These organizations do not direct the SBL, and I see no evidence that their affiliation has affected the SBL publications.

Alternatively, if all confessional organizations are to be excluded in an effort to craft a truly humanistic/secular SBL, then we will surely need to put our money where our mouths are and be prepared to pay for that opportunity. I would just like to see the numbers before embarking on that course. I am not saying that the break should be determined by finances alone, but it seems to me that especially during these trying economic times when philanthropy is at a low ebb, we should not be taking steps, however intellectually appealing they may be, that might potentially compromise the overall financial integrity of the SBL's important enterprise.

#1 - Ed Wright - 01/17/2012 - 00:50

A very fine contribution to an important topic. One minor quibble -- I would say that modern historical criticism began with Spinoza, who carved out the epistemological space and procedures for modern biblical scholarship (and, indeed, for the modern conception of history). Troeltsch seems to be unpacking and codifying this (already established) scholarly practice. The core issue, as Atkinson observes, is the degree to which scholars (mostly evangelical) can repudiate these practices while still participating in a learned society that is predicated upon them. And whether a learned society that fails to acknowledge this problem subverts itself.

#2 - Ron Hendel - 01/17/2012 - 03:57

Spinoza was an important pioneer but credit should also be given to Hobbes, who started out rather earlier.
I'm not a member of the SBL, though I'm a paying member of the Royal Institute of Philosophy and attend its lecture series. I would think that there were ethical problems about organisations like the SBL or the RIP attempting to promote both material whose production is specifically organised around sustained advocacy of a certain point of view and material specifically organised to avoid any such sustained commitment. I suppose you might publish one under a green and one under a blue cover, or something, but everyone would be uneasy about where the demarcation lay and what influences flowed across the line.

#3 - Martin - 01/18/2012 - 16:32

Dr. Atkinson is to be thanked for his acute observations. He is part of a growing number of scholars who desire that biblical scholarship be like every other field in the humanities.

The key is methodological naturalism, which can still allow for much diversity. Biblical scholarship, of course, can study theological approaches historically, but it should not practice them as part of the discipline.

Historically, biblical studies is the last of the humanities disciplines to give up on the supernaturalism and religiocentrism that began to die by the late 19th century in almost every other area of the humanities and the sciences.

As long as biblical studies continues to use theological approaches in any degree, it will continue to be, and should be, excised from public universities, and relegated to seminaries.

#4 - Dr. Hector Avalos - 01/20/2012 - 15:37

There seems to be an unacknowledged assumption (perhaps "unacknowledged assumption" is a redundancy, but that is beside the point) that "secularism" is ideology free; that is it purely objective. Its like the last 60 or so years of postmodern thought has been completely ignored in this whole discussion. I am not advocated the anything goes idea of the earliest stages of post-modernism (often called "hyper-modernism" by more current philosophers). Is the assumption that "secular historical-critical" scholarship is free of ideology, and as such wont stifle lines of critical inquire, warranted? And how is this drive for "secularism" (which seems to be defined soley in Western epistemological terms) not intellectually imperialistic as it would demand that, regardless of cultural background, one must buy into the project as defined by the intellectual elite of the Western World?

#5 - Justin James King - 01/27/2012 - 15:43

In reading this, it strikes me that underneath the anxiety about confessional commitments in biblical study is a fear of the methodological questioning of the historical critical enterprise. I'm not aware of other academic societies (at least in the humanities) that carry such loaded methodological freight, i.e. a philosophical society would not say "only utilitarians need apply." What concerns me in this proposal isn't so much confessional commitment, but that, in the apparent drive to make SBL an "academic" society, there is a hegemonic lack of diversity in interpretive approaches that is decidedly unacademic. So, for instance, it seems to me that if a scholar wanted to do, say, reader response interpretation of biblical texts, then they too would not really find a home in this "academic" version of SBL, since what is advocated for here is strictly "historical" study. Which makes me wonder if the real anxiety here isn't academic integrity as much as it is anxiety over the philosophical erosion of the historical critical project in the light of post-Enlightenment epistemologies.

#6 - TS - 02/16/2012 - 20:48

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