When I introduce the Old Testament to my students at Campbell University Divinity School, I begin by explaining why they must grapple with methods of Bible study that go beyond what they’ve picked up in Sunday School or a straightforward devotional reading of the Bible.
I then introduce them to methods of Bible study that generally fall under the term “biblical criticism,” in which the unfortunate term “criticism” simply means “analysis,” rather than implying pejorative judgment.
I spend time on things like text criticism, source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, and rhetorical criticism, the basic toolbox of one who wants to dig deeply into the meaning of the biblical text. I also point to newer, postmodernist approaches such as structuralism, deconstruction, and reader-response criticism from various gender, ethnic, cultural, or political points of view. I personally find the postmodernist approaches to be less helpful, as they are considerably more subjective.
Yet, adherents to the postmodernist approaches hold that their views own the day, while the traditional biblical criticism that seems so jaw-droppingly new to my students is hopelessly old fashioned. While writing a review of John Barton’s The Nature of Biblical Criticism (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), which defends the value of biblical criticism, I was struck by the dichotomy. The same approach that strikes many students as a mind-blowing new method of study is considered by many contemporary scholars to be not only outdated, but defunct.
I like Barton’s book, in which he insists that the aim of biblical criticism is to arrive at the “plain sense” of the text. In doing so, he sets forth ten theses related to biblical criticism and then fleshes them out. If I have any criticism of Barton’s approach, with which I have much sympathy, it is that he works so hard at clarifying and qualifying the “plain sense” that the result is less than plain.
Adherents to postmodernist critical methods may find Barton’s work to be little more than the recycled detritus of a long-dead methodology, but the book effectively demonstrates the considerable and essential contributions of biblical criticism to an informed understanding of the Bible. Biblical criticism may not be the last word in understanding scripture, but for responsible readers, it is the foundational word.