Wednesday, July 21, 2004

A book review: "Beyond Liberation Theology"

Beyond Liberation Theology Humberto Belli & Ronald Nash, 1992, Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids Michigan.

I wanted to bring attention to this book's critique of biblical interpretation. I find myself in resounding agreement with the chapter, "Liberation Theology and the Bible", even as I recoil in sadness at some of the book's political and moral worldview as it relates to poverty, economics, and low intensity conflict in Latin America. As a disclaimer, the two authors are Humberto Belli, a former Nicaraguan contra, and Ronald Nash, a man who wrote Why the Left Is Not Right: The Religious Left : Who They Are and What They Believe a book filled with misinformation about politically liberal Christians. Thus, I do not endorse the entirety of the book.

The authors however have made an assessment of the use and abuse of biblical criticism that I highly endorse. Like any tool, it can be put to noble or to silly and ignoble purposes. I write this review ultimately as a Christian who strives for a high view of scripture and this review is offered as a response to those who might believe in a "necessity" of using the tools of biblical criticsm and not understand how these tools are widely abused in Cristendom.

What follows below is a long quote from this chapter. I have added blue emphases to places where the authors cite the beneficial uses of biblical criticism and red emphases to the places where the authors cite the detrimental uses.

The question is ultimately the authority of scripture.

------begin quoted material


According to form criticism, the Gospels are not simply historical narratives about Jesus. They are the end result of a long process of oral tradition that was collected, preserved, and edited. ... For the form critic, the Gospels were an important source of information about what the chruch believe about Jesus at the time the Gospels were formulated.
Several positive contributions from form criticism stand out. For one thing, the stress on a period of oral tradition prior to the writing of the Gospels countered an earlier emphasis on exclusively written sources for the Gospels and sought to move beyond problems of that approach. It also drew important attention to the fact that the community of the early church had a practical interest in the tradition it transmitted. Form criticism helped clarify how the practical concerns of the early Christian community shaped and preserved its memories of Jesus. ...
It is important to distinguish between the neutral method of form criticism, which can be useful in a number of ways for understanding Scripture, and the presuppositions that some of the form critics insist on bringing to their use of the method. ...
Form critics who became captive to [the] destructive presuppositions used their method to undermine the historical credibility of the Gospels. ...
By itself, form criticism does not force one to conclude that the early church invented its stories about Jesus. The method can be used by people who believe the stories were recollections of what Jesus actually did and said, recollections that were preserved because of their relevance for some later life situation in the church
. ..
The problem then is not with form criticism per se but with the undefended assumption that the Gospels witness primarily to the life situation of the church at some later stage of its history and only secondarily to the historical Jesus...
Instead of assuming that the early church fabricated stories about Jesus to help it deal with its problems, it makes better sense to assume that considerations about practical relevance led the church to preserve statements originally made by Jesus.
A pivotal issue in the debate concerns proper placement of the burden of proof.
The skeptics argue that the burden of proof rests on those who regard the sources as authentic.
But as New Testament authority Joachim Jeremias asks, "Why should the burden of proof not fall on the skeptic?"


As easy as it may be to notice theological interests at work in the Gospels, it requires a whole set of additional presuppositions
to conclude that the Evangelists produced only imaginative interpretations of Jesus with loose or even nonexistent historical ties. As Stephen S. Smalley points out, the radical claim that there is not connection between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history presupposes: "that the evangelists themselves were unaware of the distinction betweeen history and faith, and were prepared to disregard the former completely in the interests of the latter."
In other words, redaction criticism and form criticsm are not necessarily incompatible with either a high view of scripture or the conviction that the New Testament picture of Jesus is grounded on historical information. Conservative use of redaction criticism suggests that the Evangelists started with the historical information available to them and "drew out the theological implications of history which they recorded." Starting with the apostolic tradition about Jesus, the Evangelists expressed their own theological understanding of the tradition by the arrangement of their Gospels and by the seams that tied the various units of tradition to one another. Used with care, redaction criticism provides students of the New Testament with several advantages. It can help them see the interrelationship between faith and history in the early Christian community. The Gospel writers were not interested in recording bare facts. The Gospels reflect their writers' interaction with and theological interpretation of studying the Gospels as wholes... Redaction criticism can help identify what the Gospel writers themselves contributed to their source material.

But many redaction critics perform highly conjectural and subjective analysis. Redaction criticism should not imply the creation of new material.


According to Migeuz-Bonino, the Word of God should not be understood "as a conceptual communication but as a creative event, a history-making pronouncement. Its truth does not consist in some correspondence to any idea but in its efficacy to carrying out God's promise or fulfilling his judgement." Theologically liberal Protestants realized they could make Christian communities much more pliable to their imaginative, subjective reconstructions of Christian belief if they could dissuade the people in the pew from the old idea that divine revelation was in any sense some "conceptual communication". Interpret the Word of God in any way you like, as inward personal experience or as "creative event" perhaps, but never as a communication of truth! Over the past two hundred years, much non-orthodox theology has tried to deny Christians any acces to divinely inspired truth. ...
Whatever else religion can and possibily should be, it can never [in this view] be grounded on revealed information from God. The consequences of this are far reaching. For one thing, it explains the tendency in so much contemporary Christendom to equate Christian religion with whatever "Christians" happen to believe or practice at the moment. Since there is no divinely revealed truth, we may believe whatever we want.

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