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Politicizing the Bible

Discover the hidden agendas in scriptural interpretation

Scott W. Hahn
Benjamin Wiker

Politicizing the Bible
The Roots of Historical Criticism and the Secularization of Scripture 1300-1700

Penetrating the pretense of objectivity often presented in secular studies, Hahn and Wiker bring to light the appropriation of scripture by politically motivated interests and trace the lineage of today’s theological approaches to the power-mongering of the late Middle ages.

Reviews and endorsements

"In this magisterial work of intellectual history, Hahn and Wiker have tackled the overwhelming bias of modern textual criticism of the Bible by going straight to the Gordian knot of its fractal agenda and cutting it through in a fashion reminiscent of the clarity of the Apostles themselves. As St. Paul (1 Thess. 2:13) put it in his own context, the issue is whether the text is to be received by the Church merely as 'the word of men' or 'as it is in truth, the word of God.' In taking us back to the late Middle Ages for the roots of the secularizing agenda of the discipline, they give us a far more telling analysis of an ideological agenda and motives and than we could have without these pre-Enlightement foundations . . . This is essential reading, and not just for biblical scholars."

—David Lyle Jeffrey, professor at Baylor University and editor of The Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature and The King James Bible and the World it Made

"Hahn and Wiker show how the study of Scripture was transformed by centuries of conflict over the fundamentals of Western civilization. They demonstrate their thesis in minute detail. The Bible clearly emerges as the foundational document of western civilization and its academy."

—Jacob Neusner, professor of religion and senior fellow of the Institute of Advanced Theology at Bard College

"Years ago, then Cardinal Ratzinger called for a thoughtful critique of biblical criticism, and this book is the sort of study I believe he had in mind. As Hahn and Wiker demonstrate, historical criticism did not appear fully formed in the nineteenth century, and its problems are not primarily exegetical, but philosophical. Its intellectual roots reach back to the nominalism of the late middle ages, when subtle philosophical missteps set into motion alternate ways of reading Scripture that were alien not only to the Church and her tradition, but to the classical ways of interpreting texts. Historical criticism has its own history, and its development should be subject to the scrutiny of historical method, as it is in these pages."

—Archbishop Augustine DiNoia, secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship, consultor to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

"Hahn and Wiker have not only given us a notable work in theology, but one of the most compelling histories of political philosophy. I cannot recall any book that achieves that combination as arrestingly as this one. It is, altogether, the most remarkable of works."

—Hadley Arkes, Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American institutions, Amherst College

"Politicizing the Bible is an impressive and provocative account of the unrecognized political presuppositions of historical criticism. It disentangles the legitimate tools and achievements of this method from its various political aims. No theologian, regardless of his denominational tradition, can afford not to pay attention to this sophisticated, clearly written and engaging book."

—Ulrich L. Lehner, professor of historical theology, Marquette University

"The criticism of the Bible by historical critics has been regarded as neutral and ‘scientific’ over against the naïve piety of the faithful. While some have challenged this assumption, situating the tradition of criticism in its own modern context, the authors reach back further to uncover the deeper roots. Their massive research and analysis are well worth the investment."

—Michael Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology, Westminster Seminary California

"Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker have produced a scholarly masterpiece. The authors demonstrate how the roots of modern biblical criticism go back to the late medieval period, even prior to the Renaissance and Reformation. They examine a host of figures, whose names are well known to historians of early modern thought, but rarely enter into discussions of the history of biblical interpretation: Marsilius of Padua, William of Ockham, Wycliffe, Machiavelli, Luther, Henry VIII, Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Toland, and others. Hahn and Wiker bring to light an entire history that is virtually unknown to biblical scholars. The authors also show the influence of Islamic Averroism and how it provided a philosophical framework that powered the early intellectual engines of biblical criticism. Refreshingly, Hahn and Wiker place each of these influential figures within their cultural, political, and philosophical context, providing a rare in-depth glimpse into the wider world that gave shape to their intellectual work. The impressive combination of breadth, depth, and clarity achieved in this book is unrivaled in the field. By showing how these early critical readings of Scripture reflected and reinforced the “secularization” of modern thought, this work will have far-reaching implications on how the Bible is read in universities and seminaries, as well as how it is preached in pulpits.
Politicizing the Bible is the most important work to date on the history of modern biblical criticism."

—Jeffrey Morrow, assistant professor of theology, ?Seton Hall University

"Hahn and Wiker make the case that biblical criticism has been shaped by philosophical and political ideas that are often intrinsically hostile to Christian faith. This is an important work that will force its readers to readjust, and in some cases totally reject, what they had been taught about the objectivity and neutrality of contemporary approaches to God's Word."

—Francis J. Beckwith, professor of philosophy and church-state studies, Baylor University

"Biblical criticism has long been regarded as something scientific, and thus neutral and objective. Recent decades, however, have seen a rising awareness that scholarship is always situated and serves certain ends. In their well-researched, thoughtful, and painstaking study, Hahn and Wiker make a particular and necessary contribution to the history of biblical interpretation in going back not to nineteenth-century Germany, but rather the late medieval period and Renaissance, showing that the Erastian project of subjugating the Bible and the Christian faith to the power of the State has deeper roots and interpretive consequences than is often assumed. A must-read for those concerned with the place of the Bible and Christian faith in contemporary culture."

—Leroy Huizenga, professor of scripture, University of Mary, Bismarck, North Dakota

“Over the last 20 centuries, no book has been researched, pondered, and prayed over as intensely as the Bible. Dr. Hahn has done all these things himself; but, more importantly, he has studied the work of many generations of Christians and Jews who have gone before him. Then he gathered the best of all that study to help you in your own reading. Because we’re Catholic, we need to become biblically literate. We need to know the Bible well because we hunger for abundant life—because we want to know Jesus, which is the same thing. Scott Hahn does a superb job of feeding his readers with the Word of God in this immensely useful guide.”

—Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., archbishop of Philadelphia

"Dr. Scott Hahn has a way, which is both readable and scholarly, of inspiring his readers to discover the great treasure of Scripture. His insights and contributions to biblical scholarship in this work will not go unnoticed or unappreciated. With the touch of a master’s pen, he explains some very important and yet complex concepts concerning the reliability, efficacy, meaning, and importance of Sacred Scripture for Catholics. We should rejoice and thank God for the wondrous gift of God’s revelation to us in Sacred Scripture. We can also be grateful for scholars such as Scott Hahn, who help us open the Scriptures in continuity with the living Tradition of the Church."

—Donald W. Wuerl, S.T.D., former archbishop of Washington

One could spend a lifetime going through the Catholic scholarship of the last seventy-five years (and the non-Catholic scholarship of the previous two hundred and fifty) to separate the wheat of helpful knowledge about language, genre and historical circumstances from the chaff of conclusions which rest on nothing more than the exegete’s worldview. All sound Catholic biblical scholars today must, in fact, pick good fruit from a legitimate historical-critical study of the text while rejecting all the rotten fruit which so clearly comes from a diseased tree. They must also clearly delineate the limits of the various sub-methodologies, recognizing the sterility of pressing them past a certain point of fatal presupposition, as Pope Benedict attempted to do in his own trilogy.

But there is another task to be performed as well, the task of forcing today’s reigning historical critics to recognize that the techniques of their craft are poisoned by exactly the kinds of historical circumstances and layered presuppositions that they ascribe so gleefully to Scripture itself. It is this truly critical task that has been undertaken by Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker in their 2013 masterpiece,
Politicizing the Bible: The Roots of Historical Criticism and the Secularization of Scripture, 1300-1700.

What Hahn and Wiker do is trace the roots of historical criticism beginning with such figures as Marsilius of Padua and William of Okham in the fourteenth century. Their purpose is to demonstrate that the very figures who developed the method were overwhelmingly motivated by a desire to minimize the influence of the Catholic Church and maximize the power of temporal rulers—or what we would now call the State. This is a massive study of over 600 pages, published in an impressive cloth-bound volume by Crossroad.

In addition to Marsilius and Okham,
Politicizing the Bible covers the entire widely-acknowledged advance guard of historical criticism: John Wycliffe, Machiavelli, Luther and the other Reformers, Henry VIII and his circle, Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, Spinoza, Richard Simon, John Locke and John Toland. These figures established the tradition upon which later and more currently relevant figures have built. Each chapter reads like a monograph on one of these seminal writers, focusing on the interplay between their intensely secular goals and their consequent interpretive methods and conclusions.

As they proceed, Hahn and Wiker detail the historical movements which were based upon or gathered strength from successive secularizations of Scripture, including the Protestant Reformation, the revolution in English thought following “the King’s great matter”, the perception of a secular cosmos as developed under the influence of philosophical skepticism and mechanistic conceptions of the universe, the radical Enlightenment, and the influences of the wars of religion and the English Civil War on the rise of secular revolutionary and republican thought.

The book is far too long and detailed to summarize, but it is brilliantly rendered. It establishes beyond a shadow of reasonable doubt that secular and especially political motivations guided both the development and application of the new ways of interpreting Scripture, creating an approach which subsequent generations of secularized scholars, perhaps naively, accepted as a scientific methodology. This methodology was widely and uncritically heralded as being free of prejudice, giving it a claim to adoption by anyone who wished to see Scripture for what it really is.

To the contrary, as Hahn and Wiker reveal so magisterially, the progressive “demystification” of Scripture was, in the hands of these early “historically critical” exegetes, largely driven by their own need to weaken the influence of the Catholic Church—to undermine its sacraments, its priests, and its focus on the ultimate spiritual meaning of life. These things had to be swept aside in order to provide a justification to various secular rulers who wished to take control of everything in their realms, including Faith, and to sway the unwashed masses in favor of a new secular order of sweetness and light.

Weeds and Wheat

In their conclusion, the authors of
Politicizing the Bible outline briefly how the same sorts of motives can be seen in the golden age of historical criticism, in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, particularly in Germany, where the techniques reached their most highly-developed form. But Hahn and Wiker manage to remain irenic throughout—less passionate, indeed, than I am here, as befits modest scholars in a hostile atmosphere. They insist simply that their exploration of the roots of the historical critical method proves the following:

[There is] every reason to believe that significantly more detailed studies of the politicizing aspects of nineteenth-century scriptural scholarship are called for, and only such studies can hope to disentangle the legitimate tools of the historical-critical method from the various political and secular aims. (pp. 565-6)

We have waited for this disentanglement for far too long. The human soul, whose secrets are hidden, rightly awaits judgment only in the end, at God’s good pleasure. But authentic scholarship, which by its nature must be exposed to careful scrutiny, can advance no claim in favor of delay. Even the best plants must be pruned, and the noxious weeds must be carefully separated, completely uprooted and cast into the fire.

Prejudice ever crowds out real thought. We ought to join Hahn and Wiker in seeking to till a more spacious and fertile field, a field in which the best lines of thought can grow, and blossom, and drop good seed—and spread.

—Dr. Jeff Mirus, Catholic Culture

The Version of this page: 24th June 2018

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