Van A. Harvey is an emeritus professor of religious studies at Stanford University. Twice a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow, he is the author of A Handbook of Theological Terms, The Historian and the Believer, and the award-winning Feuerbach and the Interpretation of Religion, as well as many scholarly articles and reviews. This paper originated at the conference, “Scripture and Skepticism” (2007) at the University of California, Davis, under the auspices of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion and the UCD Department of Religious Studies.
The two great intellectual revolutions in modern Western culture were the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century and the awakening of the historical consciousness in the nineteenth century. The themes of the first are familiar to us all: the notion of natural rights, the emphasis on reason rather than faith, freedom of the press, and the separation of church and state. The themes of the second, however, are not as easy to specify, though no less revolutionary:
- Humankind is immersed in history like a fish in water.
- Thoughtforms of ancient cultures were radically different from our own.
- Most important, the recovery of the past requires the work of disciplined, critical, historical reasoning.
The awakening of the historical consciousness gave rise in the nineteenth century to a new discipline that soon took institutional form in the university: departments of history. The study of history became a profession with its own learned societies, journals, and organs of expression, together with prizes and hierarchies of prestige. As an intellectual discipline, history had its own subject matter, categories, and procedures for the identification and adjudication of issues.
Driving the practitioners of this new intellectual discipline was an almost Promethean “will to truth.” The aim of the new historian was, as August Wilhelm Schlegel once wrote in his review of the Brothers Grimm’s Old German Meister Songs, to find out “whether or not something actually happened; whether it happened in the way it is told or in some other way.” This formulation has been criticized by postmodernists, but it should not be forgotten how revolutionary it was. Only when this “will to truth” was consistently and radically followed were we able to separate myth, legend, and actual occurrence, and to realize how so much of what we had previously accepted as fact was, in truth, fiction. We discovered that so many long-trusted witnesses were actually credulous spinners of tales.
It was inevitable that the methods of critical historical inquiry would be applied to the Jewish and Christian Scriptures and that there should emerge what was shorthandedly called “the historical-critical method.” This was not so much a single method but a series of questions that could only be answered by using critical historical thinking.
- When, by whom, and for what purposes were the texts written?
- What sources did the authors use? What do the texts tell us about the self-understanding of the community that preserved them?
- To what extent are the historical narratives in the texts reliable and constitute historical knowledge?
Just raising these questions threatened, naturally, those Jews and Christians who believed the Bible to be divinely inspired and, therefore, historically inerrant. And, since the answers to those questions contradicted traditional answers, the fundamentalists in these religions attacked what they called “the higher criticism.” The Roman Catholic Church established a Biblical Commission to assure that no Roman Catholic scholar would advance any historical conclusion incompatible with church doctrine. But it was not long before liberal Protestant and even some Roman Catholic scholars saw that it was futile to resist the new biblical scholarship, and so they appropriated it, with some even arguing that it placed genuine Christian faith on a sounder historical footing. Lay conservative Christians clung to the traditional view of inspired Scriptures, but historical-critical studies of the New Testament became the standard components in the curriculum of the most prestigious theological seminaries and university-based departments of religion. This more or less remained the situation until the past half-century. But there has suddenly emerged a new set of challenges to the critical historical inquiry of religious texts.
These challenges come not from fundamentalists and evangelicals but from academics and intellectuals of various sorts. Partly under the influence of new philosophical and hermeneutic theories loosely grouped under the unimaginative rubric of “postmodernism,” there has been a backlash against the historical-critical method
It is not easy to generalize about this brand of postmodernism, because it is woven from many intellectual strands that are not always compatible—some are philosophically sophisticated and some are not. Among the sophisticated is the very influential interpretation, since modified, of science by Thomas Kuhn. He argued that science does not deal with facts “out there” to be interpreted, but that facts are only identified within some conceptual framework, some paradigm.
There were other philosophers of science who argued that there can be no representation of facts without some observation language, and no observation language is theory-free. There is, so to speak, no “given” that can be described neutrally and objectively. Along with these philosophical movements have emerged new hermeneutical theories. These theories tend to argue that there is no one “best” interpretation of a text and, consequently, any reading of a religious text depends on the standpoint of the interpreter. The framework of assumptions and conceptions employed by a given interpreter is referred to as a “hermeneutics.” There is, it is claimed, a difference between a “hermeneutics of recollection” and a “hermeneutics of suspicion”: a difference between a sympathetic interpretation that seeks to retrieve religious meaning and a hostile interpretation that aims to debunk it.
This, in turn, has sometimes been formulated as follows: the interpretation of someone who believes in the truth of a given religious text will be different from someone who is a skeptic, and, since there are no objective grounds for preferring one interpretation over the other, a hermeneutics of belief is as legitimate as one of unbelief.
These various philosophies and hermeneutical theories have now emboldened religious conservatives and apologists to claim that their interpretations are as intellectually legitimate as those of the historical critic. Everyone has his or her own interpretations, the argument goes. The critical historian presupposes that the supernatural does not ingress in history and that miracle is impossible, whereas the religious believer not only believes this intervention is possible but that it happens in given cases. The conflict between them, then, is not so much a confrontation between naïve religious belief and objective scholarship; rather, it is a hermeneutical conflict. The historian approaches his or her subject matter with the presuppositions of a nonbeliever; the religious person reads it through the “eyes of faith.”
This point of view seems plausible to many laypeople, and, since few of them read biblical scholarship or grasp the structure of historical inquiry, they become hostile toward biblical criticism. Perhaps it was once possible to dismiss this public ignorance of critical historical inquiry, but the events of recent times show that this is no longer the case.
Public ignorance of critical scholarship and the rejection of critical historical inquiry in so many circles now profoundly affects our culture and politics. Many argue that the refusal to submit the Qur’an to critical historical inquiry has been disastrous for Islam. But one might also argue that it is equally catastrophic that the West, which invented historical criticism and employed it for a century, is now confronted by a widespread ignorance and rejection of one of its most impressive intellectual accomplishments.
In what follows, I will not take up all the various versions of postmodernism, or what I label the “everyone has their presuppositions” gambit. Ultimately, the answer to all of these arguments lies in a proper understanding of the nature of critical historical reasoning. But since I could scarcely hope to accomplish that task in this brief essay, I shall concentrate on advancing two related arguments. First, the widely referred-to distinction between a hermeneutics of recollection and a hermeneutics of suspicion is irrelevant to the practice of critical historical inquiry and cannot be used to justify what is called a “hermeneutics of belief.” Second, although the historical critical method does practice methodological skepticism, this skepticism is not necessarily rooted in hostility to religion but is inherent in the logic of critical historical inquiry itself.
The distinction between two types of hermeneutics—one friendly toward religion, the other hostile—was first made by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur in his 1970 book Freud on Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. He called the first “the hermeneutics of recollection” and the second “the hermeneutics of suspicion.” The hermeneutics of recollection names a type of interpretation that is basically sympathetic to religion because it assumes that the religious consciousness is in touch with something real. The best contemporary practitioners of this type of interpretation, Ricoeur thinks, are the phenomenologists of religion, who claim that it is only possible to understand religion if one attempts to “get inside” the religious consciousness and apprehend what it apprehends, albeit, he writes, “in a neutralized mode.” The phenomenologist argues that interpreters of religion must take the religious consciousness and its object—the sacred—with the utmost seriousness; indeed, they must be willing to accept the possibility not only that there is a message imbedded in the symbolic utterances of religion but that this message might even have relevance for the interpreters themselves.
To use the language of Protestant theology, religious interpreters must be capable of living in the expectancy of a new “word” and thus achieving a type of faith, one that has passed through the fires of criticism—a second naïveté, to use Ricoeur’s language.
Practitioners of the hermeneutics of suspicion, on the other hand, regard religion as illusion. Their skepticism about religion is grounded in a theory regarding human nature and behavior that they think explains religion’s origins and persistence. They regard the religious consciousness as a false consciousness; the object of interpretation, then, is to expose this falsity. In order to do this, they rely on some underlying psychological or sociological theory that they think not only explains the origin of the religious illusion but provides the key for decoding the symbolism contained within it. Thus Freud’s theory of childhood dependence on parental figures, or Durkheim’s theory of the collective unconscious guides their interpretative work, explains how the manifest meaning of a religion is really a function of some latent meaning. The aim of these workers is not to understand religious expressions but to demystify them.
It is worth analyzing more carefully this distinction between two types of hermeneutics. When we do, I think it will become clear why it cannot legitimately be used by religious apologists to claim that their faith-based interpretation of scriptures is simply an instance of the hermeneutics of recollection, while the historical critic’s methodological doubt is a manifestation of unbelief and suspicion.
But before considering those issues, it is important to note that Ricoeur’s distinction hardly covers the range of religious studies. Many types of religious inquiries do not fit into either of his categories. They spring neither from an a priori sympathy nor from hostility toward religion, and they are concerned with subject matter other than what Ricoeur calls “the religious consciousness.” Religious scholars might want to know how a given doctrine or belief developed over time. Or they might want to know the status of women in Gnostic communities. Or they may be interested in the concept of heresy. In inquiries such as these, the nature of the religious consciousness and its object might never arise.
But, even if we accepted Ricoeur’s dichotomy as exhaustive, we would have to insist that being sympathetic to the religious consciousness is not the same thing as believing in the religious object of that consciousness. We can see this at once if we consider the method of the phenomenologist of religion, which Ricoeur thinks best embodies the hermeneutics of recollection.
Methodologically, phenomenologists “bracket” or suspend their own beliefs and presuppositions in order to “get inside” the believer’s consciousness. Even if it were the case, as Ricoeur claims, that phenomenologists listen to what the religious believer says in the hope of hearing an existentially relevant “word,” listening involves a twofold possibility: that there is something to be heard, but also that there may only be silence. Listening implies openness, which is to say, listening is not yet hearing.
Religious belief, however, is neither listening nor openness. Belief is just the word we use to describe for having already reached closure, for having already heard and accepted. Moreover, religious belief has content. It does not consist of believing in a word in general, but of believing in particular words. The Muslim hears the words associated with Qur’an, while the Christian’s words have to do with Jesus of Nazareth and his resurrection. Insofar as they are believers, neither can be said to be mere listeners—or phenomenologists in Ricoeur’s sense of the term. A hermeneutics of recollection is not a hermeneutics of belief.
When we understand that religious interpreters’ beliefs are quite specific, we can also understand why a certain type of religious believer is not only hostile toward biblical criticism but makes critical historical reasoning impossible. This is quite clear in the case of the fundamentalist but also, as we shall see, in the case of the more sophisticated believer who takes certain narratives to be true on faith. Christian fundamentalists make critical historical inquiry impossible, because they claim to know in advance what any such historical inquiry will yield. They foreclose all the questions for which critical historians seek an answer: What are the various strands of authorship in the books traditionally associated with Moses? How many of the Epistles attributed to Paul were actually written by him? Was there an oral tradition underlying the Gospels attributed to Matthew, Mark, and Luke? Did Jesus claim to be the Messiah? Did the earliest belief in the resurrection of Jesus make any reference to an empty tomb?
Of course most Christians are not fundamentalists, but there is, nevertheless, a very large percentage of them whose faith is bound up with the confidence that most of the narratives about Jesus are true, excluding perhaps some of the less-believable miracle stories. They believe that he claimed to be divine, that his preaching is found in the Sermon on the Mount, that he was crucified, raised again, and ascended into heaven. Insofar as these beliefs are held on faith, they are subject to the same criticism one might make of fundamentalism—namely, that they foreclose historical inquiry.
We tend to think that this confidence in the truth of the narratives of the New Testament apart from any historical inquiry is naive, but Alvin Plantinga, one of the most sophisticated analytic philosophers in the United States, who is known for his work on warrants and the logic of possible worlds, has argued in his lengthy book Warranted Christian Belief that it is not. Plantinga first maintains that epistemological foundationalism—that is, the position that all that we can properly call “knowledge” ultimately rests on certain noninferential truths—is incoherent. (This position is, incidentally, also widely held in contemporary philosophy.) He then argues that it is just as rational to believe in a sensus divinitatis that provides an immediate and noninferential awareness of the truth of theism. Moreover, just as the sensus divinitatis guarantees the knowledge of God, so the Holy Spirit testifies to the Christian that the great things of the Gospel found in the Scriptures are true.
The extraordinary implication of this view, as Patrick J. Roche, one of Plantinga’s critics, has pointed out, is that the ordinary Christian who has no knowledge of biblical languages, textual criticism, theology, or even of history can nevertheless come to know by appealing to the Holy Spirit that these Gospel events are indeed true; furthermore, his or her knowledge need not trace back (by way of testimony, for example) to knowledge on the part of someone who does have this specialized training.
There is, however, a more widespread challenge to historical criticism inspired by postmodernism that does not depend on an appeal to the Holy Spirit. It is what I have called the “presuppositions” gambit, which goes something like this: every historian has a standpoint that rests on certain presuppositions. Christian historians simply have different presuppositions than those of unbelievers. They believe in the possibility of supernatural intervention, whereas the historical-critical method rests on the presupposition of doubt regarding this possibility. This doubt is equivalent to unbelief and suspicion. It determines who the historian will accept as a credible witness and what the historian will count as evidence.
The claim that “every historian has his or her presuppositions” seems initially plausible to educated laypersons, but, when we unpack that generalization, it becomes clear that it cannot be used to legitimize what the religious apologist claims it does. When historical relativists make this claim, they usually mean that every historian’s judgments reflect certain basic general assumptions, say, about human nature or factors shaping historical causation.
But, because of the generality of these assumptions, they are reflected in the historian’s work whether they are writing about the American Revolution or the rise of the papacy. The historian’s assumptions apply across the board of history, so to speak. A Marxist’s interpretation of the Protestant Reformation, for example, will differ from that of, say, a Freudian.
But, when Christian apologists eager to defend the uniqueness of the Christian perspective use the term presupposition, they generally refer to something specific, like supernatural intervention in history. In the former case, the force of the word presupposition is quite different from that when it is used by the historical relativist. In this case, the Christian is not using the term to refer to a set of general assumptions that apply across the board of history but, rather, to exempt one narrow stretch of history from all those general assumptions that historians of various stripes use in their historical inquiries. The religious apologist is using the term to justify the suspension of all those assumptions we normally use when interpreting our experience and those of others. The point is that the alleged sacred events are so unique that no normal presuppositions apply.
It is important to distinguish between these two uses of presupposition, because only one of them permits rational assessment of historical claims. Marxists and Freudians may disagree in their interpretation of the causes of the Protestant Reformation, but they can still rationally discuss whether Luther did, in fact, draw up the Ninety-five Theses, or whether he had the childhood experiences that Erik Erikson claims he had. They will argue over the relevant evidence, but, if one of them claims that an angel dictated the Ninety-five Theses, the argument will come to a standstill. In fact, even if two historians have the same religious presupposition—say, that divine intervention in history is a possibility—they will still have to pore laboriously over the evidence in order to decide whether any given event did, in fact, happen. In most cases, the presuppositions of historians are broad enough not to weigh the scales in favor of any particular factual argument. But, if we identify presuppositions with certain specific beliefs arrived at on faith about particular events, then there are no general principles to which one can appeal when differences of opinion arise.
But any sophisticated answer to the presuppositions gambit must stem, I believe, from an understanding of the aim and methods of critical historical inquiry itself. As the philosopher A.O. Lovejoy wrote:
Though the inquiries of the historiographer, especially if they relate to events remote in time, are often more difficult, and sometimes at a lower level of probability, than the inquiries of courts, they have the same implicit logical structure, which is simply the structure of all inquiry about the not-now-presented; and if they are historical inquiries, and not criticism or evaluation, their objective is the same—to know whether, by the canons of empirical probability, certain events or sequences of events, happened at certain past times, and what, within the existential limits of those times, the characters of those events were.
The Christian apologist, of course, will argue that it is just this appeal to “empirical probability” that is at issue, because the events in the New Testament are admittedly empirically improbable. They are, in the nature of the case, unique and, therefore, require faith.
The critical historian could probably surrender the language of “empirical probability” if that seems overly restrictive, but what the critical historian cannot surrender is the notion that the inquiries of historians, although they relate to events more remote in time, have the same logical structure as all inquiries regarding the not-now-presented—which is to say they resemble the same sort of inquiries that take place in our law courts, newspapers, and investigative panels of all sorts. We think historically when as parents we try to ascertain who scribbled all over the bedroom walls, or when as journalists we try to ascertain the origins of the decision to attack Iraq, or when as detectives we attempt to solve a crime. Historical thinking is an ingredient in all of our thinking.
To acknowledge this, however, is to acknowledge that the judgments we make and the arguments we use to support them solicit the assent of minds like our own that share our same general understanding of reality. For the most part, we make no use of technical terms except those that have become a part of our knowledge. Our causal explanations are pragmatic and usually unscientific. Our arguments and the warrants we use in coming to our conclusions are grounded in the best present knowledge we possess—a knowledge informed by the intellectual disciplines of our educational system. As many modern philosophers have shown, we get most of our beliefs and what we call “knowledge” from our culture, and it is this fiduciary framework that influences our concepts of necessity, possibility, and improbability.
The sciences are a part, but not the only part, of this cultural heritage and background. We presuppose the physics of ballistics when we engage in arguments about the velocity and range of rifles used in the Battle of Gettysburg. We presuppose biology when, as jurors in a rape trial, we decide that the DNA of the defendant is incompatible with the evidence brought forward by the prosecution.
We presuppose astronomy when we evaluate a passage in the Hebrew Bible reporting that the sun stood still. And we presuppose physiology when we assess a medieval narrative about a saint who picked up his head after his execution and marched into a cathedral singing the Te Deum. It is against this background of present knowledge that we reject stories of snakes talking, the claim that the world is only six thousand years old, and the notion that Muhammad’s camel leapt from Jerusalem to Mecca in four giant steps.
What seems to be ignored by the religious apologists who use the presuppositions gambit, especially those in the scholarly world, is that these apologists employ ordinary reasoning grounded in present knowledge when they are serving on juries, reading newspapers, writing histories, and, especially, assessing the scriptures of other religions as the critical historian does. The reasons for this are clear—in all these areas, they are soliciting the assent of minds like their own that share the same general understanding of reality. It is only when interpreting their own scriptures that they suspend those criteria that they use in their ordinary thinking and reasoning. But, we must ask, on what grounds is this suspension consistent and justified?
It is this same present knowledge that justifies our methodological doubt in relation to both witnesses and narratives. As the great historian Marc Bloch once pointed out in The Historian’s Craft, it was not long ago that three-fourths of all reports by alleged eyewitness were accepted as fact. If someone said that an animal spoke or that blood rained from heaven, the only question was not whether it happened but what significance it had. Not even the steadiest minds of our predecessors, Bloch argues, escaped this credulity.
If Montaigne reads in his beloved ancients this or that nonsense about a land whose people were born without heads or about the miraculous strength of the little fish known as the remora, he set them down among his serious arguments without raising an eyebrow. For all his ingenuity in dismantling the machinery of a false rumor, he was far more suspicious of prevailing ideas than of so-called attested facts. In this way . . . old man Hearsay ruled over the physical as well as the human world. Perhaps even more over the physical world than the human.
In short, methodological doubt is not some a priori presupposition but, as Bloch puts it, a practice that has been arrived at “by the patient labor of an experiment performed upon man [with] himself as a witness. . . . We have acquired the right of disbelief, because we understand, better than in the past, when and why we ought to disbelieve.”
Indeed, it is just this right to disbelieve that R.G. Collingwood marks as the Copernican revolution in historiography. Previously, it was assumed that the historian had the responsibility to compile and synthesize the testimony of witnesses. The historian was regarded as a believer and the person believed was the authority or witness. But this was “scissors and paste,” not critical history. “In so far as an historian accepts the testimony of an authority and treats it as historical truth,” Collingwood wrote in The Idea of History (1946), “he obviously forfeits the name of historian; but we have no other name by which to call him.”
It is just because the critical historian makes his judgments against the background of present knowledge that the concept of miracle has all but vanished from the work of professional historians. The reason does not lie in some philosophical presupposition that miracles are impossible; rather, it lies in the nature of historical argument and the grounding of most of our warrants in present knowledge. Critical historians confronted with an alleged miracle as an explanation for an event or even as a description of an event have, first of all, no way of deciding whether the event is a miracle or not. They have no way of judging whether some alleged supernatural reality—a jinni, angel, or deity—is the cause of the event. They have no way of judging what would constitute evidence for attributing an event to this or that supernatural cause, and evidence is crucial for the critical historian. It is evidence that bears on whether such an event can be said to have occurred, and it is evidence that bears on what causes, if any, explain that event. At best, all historians can say is that such an event was anomalous. Reflective historians say this not because they are unbelievers, but because they are critical historians. They would hold with Collingwood that “History has this in common with every other science: that the historian is not allowed to claim any single piece of knowledge, except where he can justify his claim by exhibiting to himself in the first place, and secondly to any one else who is both able and willing to follow his demonstration, the grounds upon which it is based.”
Critical historical thinking in general, and its application to religious scriptures in particular, is one of the great intellectual achievements of Western civilization. It has its heroes stretching from Benedict de Spinoza through Julius Wellhausen and Albert Schweitzer to Rudolf Bultmann and Gerd Lüdemann. It is not a hermeneutics of suspicion rooted in hostility to religion. Indeed, it takes as its motto that scriptural injunction that “ye shall know the truth and it will make you free.”
But coming to know the truth is no easy matter, especially when the objects of one’s inquiry are treasured religious beliefs. As Friedrich Nietzsche, the anti-Christian thinker who nevertheless acknowledged his debt to Christianity, observed in The Antichrist: “At every step one has to wrestle for truth; one has to surrender for it almost everything to which the heart, to which our love, our trust in life, cling otherwise. That requires greatness of soul: the service of truth is the hardest service. What does it mean, after all, to have integrity in matters of the spirit? That one is severe against one’s heart . . . that one makes of every Yes and No a matter of conscience.”
Bloch, Marc. The Historian’s Craft. Trans. by Peter Putnam. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1954.
Collingwood, R.G. The Idea of History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1946.
Harvey, Van. The Historian and the Believer: The Morality of Historical Knowledge and Christian Belief. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996. See especially chapter 7.
Lovejoy, Arthur O. “Present Standpoints and Past History.” In The Philosophy of History in Our Time, edited by Hans Meyerhoff, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1959.
Plantinga, Alvin. Warranted Christian Belief. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Ricoeur, Paul. Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. Trans. by Denis Savage. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970.