I have been reading Jonathan T. Pennington‘s marvelous new book Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction and it has helped me a lot when it comes to thinking about hermeneutics, particularly the function of the historical-critical/grammatical approach juxtaposed with literary readings and canonical/theological readings. In “Chapter Five: Texts and History: The Testimony of the Fourfold Witness” Pennington examines the historical-critical approach, explains it value, and critiques its weaknesses. For Pennington the danger of putting all our eggs into the historical-critical/grammatical basket is that this is limits our reading of the Gospels, refuses to listen to the Gospels as the Gospels are designed to be heard, and ignores the limitations of the historical-critical/grammatical hermeneutic (as well as recent criticisms from the field of philosophical hermeneutics, exemplified by the likes of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricour to name a couple). The Gospels make claims that presuppose things like the existence of Israel’s God and you cannot appeal to deity when doing critical historical studies. There are some things that can be understood about Jesus through historical-critical study, but one can never reach the theological claims of the church through this approach. This is a danger Pennington thinks we must avoid, but he doesn’t think the answer to the problem of the historical-critical lens is one that abandons the importance of history like a Docetic Christology. He writes:
“If we approach the Gospels only as repositories of grand theological ideas and ideals, divorced from the historical reality of the incarnation and the resurrection, then we lose the history. Yet if we (even as believers) draw near to the Gospels thinking we must abandon all orthodox, creedal, and ecclesial notions and constraints on our reading or, less strictly, at least grow our theological construction in pure historical soil, then we not only fool ourselves in these possibilities, but we also deny the canonical nature of the Gospels.” (Kindle Location 2354)
He concludes that the language of “testimony” as presented by Richard Bauckham is a better avenue upon which one can approach studying the Gospels from a confessional perspective. Testimony honors both the aim of these works as a form of bios claiming to speak about historical events as well as recognizing that the theological claims of the Gospels move into a new frontier making the Gospels a unique subcategory of bioi. Likewise, testimony doesn’t make the mistake of thinking that historiography ancient or modern can ever be anything but interpretive (i.e., never fully objective as some claim). Since all history is interpretation the Gospels as testimony about Jesus care about historical events as interpreted through the apostolic kerygma.
I won’t delve much further into Pennington’s argument against limiting ourselves to the historical-critical approach—because it would be unfair to the author for me to try to condense a very well written, thoughtful chapter into a short blog post—but I will (1) encourage you to read this book; (2) provide a book review on this blog when I finish it; and (3) share the approach Pennington suggest for people who read the Gospels both as testimony of historical events and Scripture.
Pennington advocates reading the Gospels from multiple hermeneutical paradigms. He writes, “…my goal in reading is interwoven with the biblical idea of wisdom more than the modern scientific idea of knowledge, understood narrowly and impersonally.” (Kindle Location 2431) So in “Chapter Six: Reading Holy Scripture Well” he provides “three avenues of reading” that I will share and then use as a way to approach studying the doctrine of the virgin birth so that you can understand where Pennington is trying to take his readers.
First, “Behind the Text” or Historical, which includes redaction, form, and source criticism, social-scientific criticism, historical criticism, grammatical-historical exegesis, and movements like the Quest(s) for the historical (historian’s) Jesus.
Second, “In the Text” or Literary, which focuses on literary criticism, genre analysis, narrative criticism, composition criticism, and intertextuality.
Third, “In Front of the Text” or Canonical/Theological, which includes the history of interpretation, reception, history, Wirkungsgeshichte, biblical theology, redemptive history, theological reading, Regula fidei, figural reading, and intertextuality.
Let’s examine the doctrine of the virgin birth from these angles. First, the “Behind the Text” approach aims to understand not the message of the text itself alone, but the culture within which it was proclaimed. Honestly, if we use traditional historical-critical criteria as found in academic discussion we will not arrive at a virgin birth because solutions that cannot be reached by means of methodological naturalism are disqualified immediately. In other words, when doing history in this context, we cannot say, “Well, yes, it is impossible for this to happen, but God…” This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, if we acknowledge the “language game” in which we chose to partake if we do academic history. If a scholar of Islam happened to be a confessing Muslim we Christians would question his academic biography on the Prophet Muhammad if when s/he reached the tradition about the Prophet’s ascent into heaven s/he begged-the-question by telling readers, “This happened because Allah…” This is not to say that it is impossible in reality that Allah accepted the Prophet into heaven, but rather that there are limitations on doing academic history that attempt to prevent any and every suggestion from having the same value (e.g., the abduction of a famous person is easier explained as having a human protagonist, even if the mystery is never solved as to who did it, than it is an alien from space, even if the alien theory is theoretically possible it is not the most probable).
On the other hand, historical-grammatical readings of the text might have more wiggle-room when it comes to discussing the doctrine of the virgin birth. In fact, I propose that most evangelical scholars who delve into historical research do so from a historical-grammatical angle rather than a historical-critical one. In the words of Gadamer the difference is between approaching a text with the hermeneutical of suspicion over against the hermeneutic of trust. Christians, even when engaging these texts as historians, tend to give the authors to benefit of a doubt in a way that a scholar who is not a Christian is not likely to do. This is not to say that one is better or more objective in my opinion. There are strengths and weaknesses to both approaches. For example, if Jesus did not resurrect from the dead a confessional scholar is not likely to see this because of the presuppositions brought to the study of the proclaimed event. Likewise, a skeptical scholar is not likely to come to affirm the reality of the resurrection, even if it did happen, because of the presuppositions brought to the study of the proclaimed event. I don’t mean to say that it is “all relative”, but it is subjective, always.
The historical-grammatical reading aims to make sense of a proclaimed event by means of studying the historical context in which it was proclaimed (e.g., the resurrection can be understood as a event proclaimed to have happened in first century Judea, near Jerusalem, under Roman governance, and so forth, and honestly, the presuppositions with which one approaches this topic will likely inform how this historical data “functions”, just compare the works of people like Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan to others like N.T. Wright or Michael Licona). So when one studies the doctrine of the virgin birth through a historical-grammatical lens it might be one and the same with the historical-critical, or it may be from a confessional standpoint where the virgin birth is understood as something that did happen, and then the study of everything from ancient womanhood, birth practices, first century Bethlehem, and other factors will be considered.
The “In the Text” is not concerned with the historical events within which the doctrine of the virgin birth is proclaimed. Even the Synoptic Problem falls into the first category better, though there are points of contact. This second approach may study things like how the doctrine of the virgin birth is proclaimed in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and how this claims fits into the immediate narrative and how that narrative fits into the larger message of the Gospel. This approach can be used by the atheist scholar who doesn’t find these Gospels to produce much truth as well as the pastor who is preparing a sermon for Sunday and who wants to make sure that s/he proclaims a particular text in such a way that the literary message is received by the audience. One could discuss how the doctrine of the virgin birth fits into the message of the beginning of the Gospel of Luke without ever discussing the archaeology of Bethlehem, the socio-cultural role of “shepherds” in the first century, and other elements that are “Behind the Text”, though very helpful to understanding the text itself.
Finally, we have the approach that is “In Front of the Text”, i.e., an acceptable presupposition that informs how we read a text. For example, if one reads the Gospel of Matthew from approaches one or two it doesn’t matter all that much whether the Old Testament canon ends with Malachi as we find in the Christian tradition or Chronicles as it does in most versions of the Hebrew Bible. In this third paradigm it does matter though because Malachi ends with a proclamation to remember the Law of Moses and a promise to send the prophet Elijah before the “Day of the Lord” (4:4-6) whereas the Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy of “Jesus the Messiah” (1:1), describes his birth of a virgin, the visit of the magi, the flight into Egypt, the slaughter of the innocents, and then we have “Elijah”, or John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness. If you use approaches one or two you want to read Luke-Acts together, but if you read it canonically you know that John recreates the contexts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke and ends the fourfold Gospel transitioning to Acts which moves through the sequence of three main figures—Jesus to Peter to Paul—which then escorts the reader into Romans, the gateway and interpretive key to the Pauline corpus. Canonically Matthew transitions readers from the Old Testament to the fulfillment of the Old Testament, Jesus. Acts transitions from Jesus to his authoritative apostles, including Paul, and validates the Pauline corpus that comes next (I owe these insights to Brevard Childs).
Is there a way (singular) to approach the Gospels? Pennington will suggest “no” if you are a Christian. I concur. If you are a Christian willing to discuss the “historian’s Jesus” then you must enter that language game knowing what you can and cannot say and prove about Jesus. The goal and aim is to show that some really important things can be said about Jesus, even through the limitations of modern critical historiography, e.g., Jesus was a first century Jew; Jesus was remembered as a miracle worker and an exorcist; Jesus was crucified; Jesus’ followers did not disperse but became convinced for some reason that the eschatological resurrection of the dead has an “already, but not yet” exception in Jesus of Nazareth and they were willing to die for their believe. All of this is fantastically interesting, but you can’t secure the confession that the Spirit has raised Jesus from the dead, or that Jesus has been made Lord and Christ, or that Jesus is the Logos of God, or that Jesus is the second person of the one God as Trinity.
I think the historical-critical method is immensely valuable, as does Pennington, but it does have limitations. It is a matter of epistemology (what can we “know” through the restraints of academic historiography?), rather than objective truth (the dozens upon dozens of historical Jesus models you will find should be sufficient evidence of this). Sometimes the use of the Gospels to get “Behind the Text” to the historical Jesus misleads us into misreading the Gospels themselves. We ignore the message of the evangelists about Jesus for some piece of solid footing upon which we can reconstruct Jesus. Again, this is good and necessary in certain venues, but it doesn’t determine truth.
Likewise, the third approach tells us a bit about how Christians should read Scripture as Christians in the ancient-to-contemporary community of the faithful. If we use the historical critical approach we may conclude that Mark as the earliest Gospel shows no interest in a virgin birth, so he did not know about it or (from a more skeptical view) the myth had not been invented when Mark was composed. Matthew received or invented the tradition somewhere. Luke received it somewhere, maybe from Matthew. John’s Logos Christology doesn’t need a virgin birth as long as you affirm that Jesus is the Son of God come from God the Father in heaven. A canonical/theological reading realizes that Mark doesn’t need the virgin birth if it doesn’t fit the literary message because the Spirit has provided this proclamation in Matthew and Luke, already, and that John’s Logos Christology should be interpreted canonically, meaning, the Logos of God entered this world through the virgin birth—this is the beginning of how Christians discuss Christology in the language of faith.
All three approaches have value. Where we Christians struggle at times is realizing that these different approaches are different language games sometimes intended for a variety of audiences. When we try to use the historical-critical method apologetically to “prove” something like the doctrine of the virgin birth we have gone the wrong direction, not because it didn’t happen in space-time history, but because historical-critical methodology includes the presupposition of methodological naturalism, something that can never “discover” a virgin birth anymore than one may have been able to discover Jesus was born of a virgin if his DNA was studied to examine the genetics of his “father”. We can believe in the doctrine of the virgin birth from a confessional perspective, and we may have decent reasons for believing it happened historically (e.g., Matthews awkward use of Isaiah 7:14 leads me to think Matthew already believed in the doctrine and he sought a passage of Scripture to support it, rather than he happened to read Isaiah 7:14 one day and thought, “This proves Jesus was born of a virgin!”), but we cannot prove it historical-critically, and that is OK. We must recover some comfort with speaking the language of faith and sometimes faith demands that we speak of things catholically, rather than individualistically, as if something can be true if and only if I can verify it through means that make me the final authority, rather than the church and the Scripture of the church.