October 11, 2011

CK Barrett's obit writer confused me

when he said, "but a historian" and "theological character". Here's the full quote, from last Tuesday's Guardian:
“Barrett saw himself as a historian rather than a doctrinal theologian – but a historian with a sensitivity for the religious and theological character of the texts not always so evident as the discipline has become more secularised.”
Putting aside for the moment whether the dichotomy of "historian" vs "theologian" is even appropriate, it's the latter part of the quote that I honestly found so confusing.  First, for the NT texts to have such "character" presumably means that the texts themselves can be characterized as religious and theological. Okay, obviously the NT texts are nearly everywhere characterized that way. But a text itself isn't actually "religious".  It's the people's use of the text that's religious.  Thus, the praise here isn't for being sensitive to the text, but for sensing how most people feel about it.

That's not very scholarly, and yet it's being made to sound as if it were.

Please note, I mean no disrespect to the dearly departed Dr Barrett.  It's the Guardian's phrase.  In this case, the obit writer has chosen to praise someone for sensitivity to the "character of the texts", but what he really means is that Dr Barrett was sensitive to Christian bias and doctrine. Again, this makes no comment on the scholar himself, but I must note he's being praised here in a way that makes political sensitivity sound like textual sensitivity.

It's a shrewd phrase, and the obit naturally is going for positive spin. But my real target here isn't even the writer. My real complaint is that this type of phrasing feels very unoriginal. The writer's not really going out on a limb very far. This type of compliment is probably typical. It sounds vaguely like other vaguely similar statements I've heard many times before.

Btw, the term "theological" is a bit squishier. Strictly, of course, it may only mean that the NT texts are about God. But seriously, what professional scholar can read the NT and ever NOT be sensitive to that simple and obvious fact?  No, "theological" here most likely takes the colloquial meaning, so that to say the NT texts have a "theological character" is to say that the content of those texts are extra sacred because they've been used to make much theological doctrine. The obit writer, again, is saying Prof. Barrett should be much praised because he studied the text but *also* remembered what Christians believe about it.

And none of that is my most serious beef.  Apologies to CK's memory, but he's absolutely none of my real concern here.  This is.

Why can't the writer say that taking the text seriously as a historian INCLUDES taking its theological claims seriously?  Or why haven't I heard anyone write about any scholar who "takes a historical approach that considers the supernatural content of scripture with assumed historicity, for the sake of reconstructing events".  As far as I've noticed, that last sentence probably wouldn't be formed by any writer but me, and I myself ain't much to brag about, yet. Still, there's a blind spot here. That's all I'm trying to say.

To be fair, the obit writer's very next words are, "The relationship of theology and history in New Testament theology is at issue in many of his articles". Indeed, the precise nature of that relationship is the major question still. Obviously. But a truly academic approach would seem to require embracing that the text itself states things which are challenging and often difficult to believe. It does no good to falsely rope off certain elements of the text and preserve them under a "theological" banner.

Unless "I and the Father are One" has historical value, it has no value at all.

At any rate, if scholars are to be scholars, perhaps they should pay less attention to the pressures of religious authorities, and be more sensitive to the text itself. Not to certain aspects of the text, or traditions about the text, or ways in which religious theologians have characterized the text. They should be sensitive to the text itself.

To end with this post's title again, I started out being genuinely confused by the article, a week ago now.  But more and more, when I hear this “historian” versus “theologian” type of language being appealed to, I realize how much we’re constrained by our politics. And that is not at all academic.

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