I just read an excellent article for my advanced exegesis class on “Presuppositions in New Testament Criticism” written by Graham N. Stanton. This article (it was actually the third chapter from a book of his, but it was the ‘article’ assigned as class reading material) was, in many ways, refreshing and encouraging, and it evidences an awareness in theological circles of the importance of philosophy; in particular it highlights the seminal importance of recognizing and candidly admitting one’s presuppositions, and trying to recognize where and when they inform our conclusions and convictions. In other words, if one has a presupposition, for example against the possibility of miracles, then one might be more tempted than not to assume that the Gospel accounts of miracles cannot be reflective of history. Similarly if one assumes that the most primitive ecclesiology among proto-orthodox communities could not have entailed a hierarchy analogous to, or identical with, a Roman Catholic ecclesiology, then books like Ephesians likely could not have been written by the real St. Paul, and sections of the Gospels (like the twenty-first chapter of John’s Gospel) must be relegated to redaction. Similarly somebody who approaches the scriptures with certain dogmatic presuppositions, such as the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist, or the reformed doctrine of double-predestination, or the United Pentecostal doctrine of unitarianism – is likely to read the text in such a way that its sense is best captured when it reflects the doctrines one already expects to find.
I have long been frustrated with the number of Theological graduates who have been at pains to recognize this point. Time and again conversations surrounding anything from the documentary hypothesis to Johannine Eschatologies hit a wall when my interlocutor, well educated as they may be with respect to theology, fails to recognize their own presuppositions as present or possibly questionable. I have invited them to consider taking some philosophy classes (epistemology for instance) as it may help them better formulate and understand their own arguments; a suggestion which has often been met with disdain and dismissed simply with an appeal to the uselessness or unpleasantness of philosophy.
It is in light of that background that I find the article, which is required reading at the graduate level (for my semester in any case) extremely refreshing. The article identifies the historical emergence of this insight (that presuppositions play a significant role in both hermeneutics as well as textual criticism and other fields relating to biblical exegesis) with Friedrich D. Shleiermacher. The article then, putting the conversation in historical perspective, reflects on the way more modern theologians have become increasingly aware of this need to be aware of one’s presuppositions.
“As C.E. Baaten stresses, renewed interest in hermeneutical philosophy has encouraged exegetes to become self-conscious about their presuppositions.”
The article thus sets out to “consider whether or not exegesis can be undertaken without presuppositions”. The article begins by putting into perspective the fact that most of Biblical criticism has been understood by professionals to be a constant struggle against dogmatic presuppositions: “W. Wrede” for instance, “saw the history of New Testament scholarship in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the constant struggle of historical research to cut itself loose from dogmatic prejudgments.” Thus, as the article later says, the possibility of presupposition-less exegesis “has frequently teased Biblical scholars.” The article, however, quickly turns to Gadamer, and I cannot help but quote at length:
“But, as Gadamer has strongly stressed, a completely detached and unbiased stance is impossible: “Even a master of historical method is not able to remain completely free from the prejudices of his time, his social environment, his national position etc. Is that to be taken for a deficiency? And even if it were, I regard it as a philosophical task to reflect as to why this deficiency is never absent whenever something is done. In other words I regard acknowledging what is as the only scholarly way, rather than taking one’s point of departure in what should be or might be.”
The article also quotes Bernard Lonergan, who called presuppositionless exegesis “the Principle of the Empty Head”;
“On this view” he writes “the less one knows, the better an exegete one will be… Anything over and above a re-issue of the same signs in the same order will be mediated by the experience, intelligence, and judgment of the interpreter.” This is surely correct.
Nevertheless, the article provides two interesting instances where, so it is argued, dogmatic presuppositions have either done violence to exegesis or else to translations of the Bible. In the first:
A completely detached stance is not even possible in textual criticism; whenever the textual evidence is ambiguous the scholar’s decision will be influenced, however indirectly, by his own presuppositions. The Jerusalem Bible provides an interesting reminder that doctrinal presuppositions are at work in textual criticism, even when least expected. At John 1:13 all the Greek manuscripts have a plural verb: it is those who believed in the name of Jesus who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. A weakly attested variant has a singular verb: the verse then refers to Jesus who was born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh… but of God. The variant is almost certainly not original; it is more likely that a reference to the virgin birth has been introduced rather than removed by an early scribe. The Scholarship which lies behind the Jerusalem Bible is generally of high standard, but in this case preference for a most unlikely variant would seem to stem ultimately from a desire to find within the New Testament a further strand of evidence which supports the Virgin Birth.
It is interesting that Stanton does not seem to be aware of his own presupposition here – that the more doctrinally loaded a reading is the less likely it is to be original rather than the product of later interpolation or transformation; not a bad presupposition generally, but has he forgotten about exceptional cases like the Genealogy of Matthew?
The second example, I will also quote at some length:
The Parables of Jesus have always been central in hermeneutical discussion; this is not surprising since the meaning of a parable is rarely made explicit in the gospels, but it is left for the hearer or interpreter to discover for himself. Hence presuppositions can influence exegesis of the parables even more easily and strongly than other parts of the Bible. Allegorical interpretation of the parable of the good Samaritan was all but universal in the early church and in the middle ages, and it has persisted until modern times. Origen’s interpretation is a good example of allegorical exegesis. For Origen (who lived from c. 185-c. 254 A.D.), the man who fell among thieves is Adam. As Jerusalem represents heaven, so Jericho, to which the traveller journeyed, is the world. The robbers are man’s enemies, the devil and his minions. The priest stands for the law, the Levite for the prophets. The good Samaritan is Christ himself. The beast on which the wounded man was set is Christ’s body which bears the fallen Adam. The inn is the Church; the two pence, the Father and the Son; and the Samaritan’s promise to come again, Christ’s Second Advent.
Why will this simply not do? Such an interpretation presupposes that the original hearers of the parable were already completely familiar with a systematically organised summary of “classical” Christian doctrine.
It seems to me that here once again Stanton’s own presuppositions are coming out to play while he seems oblivious to them. Origen’s interpretation does not require that the original audience had such an account of Christian doctrine, but that Christ’s audience in general would. Moreover, Origen’s interpretation only implies that it existed in the mind of its author (Christ), but not that this allegorical interpretation was exclusively what the author had in mind to convey (plausibly Christ intended to convey any number of mutually complimentary things with those words). Though these things are all still possible without assuming anything of the divinity of Christ or the divine nature of classical Christianity, it is certainly easy to see that if one were not keen on adopting those presuppositions it would seem rather far fetched that, for instance, Jesus of Nazareth would have envisioned a future ecclesiological body of believers having worked out such an allegorical interpretation. In any case, it seems to me that even if Origen thought that his interpretation was the primary sense conveyed by Jesus’ parable to his original audience, our accepting Origen’s allegorical interpretation as reflective of the intention of Christ does not commit us to such an exclusive position.
I suppose at this point I should have realized that the author of the article wasn’t going to, in my estimation, do this topic of ‘presuppositions’ justice, but for whatever reason (perhaps naivety) I was shocked at how he ended his chapter. He concluded that “Such a study underlines the need to refrain from allowing a doctrinal framework to dominate the text” and he goes on, in his concluding paragraphs, to suggest some ways in which scholars can at least minimize the significance of their presuppositions. A “safeguard is the historical critical method. This at once rules out, for example, fanciful allegorical exegesis.”
Although this review is incomplete, as Stanton does explore interesting avenues in discussing Bultmann’s work on presuppositions as well as Stauffer’s failed project of providing a completely unbiased reconstruction of the figure of Jesus in the minds of the evangelists, still the review I provided here was not intended to be exhaustive. Rather, I wanted simply to note that, for all the good which Stanton does do in his article, his ending seems, to me, to be antithetical to the whole project of recognizing the ‘significance’ of presuppositions. If we cannot avoid presuppositions, then the only thing left is to train ourselves to think according to different sets of presuppositions regularly, as well as find philosophical or theological reasons for preferring one set of presuppositions over another. Therefore, it seems to me that a theologian is well within her rights if she adopts classically Christian presuppositions to best understand the person of Christ or the character of Jesus in the account of the canonical evangelists – these presuppositions may even inform biblical historiography legitimately.
If somebody is to ask how useful one’s presuppositions born of faith are going to be for their work in biblical criticism, I think the answer is self-evident: they are going to be as useful as they are true. Or, in other words, they are going to be useful precisely to the degree that they are true – and the same can be said for ALL presuppositions. Ultimately I would argue for the legitimacy of using what I call “the methodological use of the analogy of faith.”