August 20, 2022

Hans Frei: The Good and the Bad

 The following 2,091 words excerpts my erstwhile thesis, in which I discuss the following two points: (1) Hans Frei's excellent analysis of a deeply seated problem with critical readings of biblical narrative, and (2) Hans Frei's regrettable (cough Barthian cough) opposition to all aspects of reading and critical thought which had anything at all to do with factual truth and historical thinking. 

 In my humble opinion, Frei's 1974 analysis of the critical turn is spot on but his anti-historicism, quite sadly, has been incredibly influential among Biblical scholars, including plenty of non-Barthian theologians and some foundational works of the field of NT narrative criticism as well. Alas, however, all that would be two other stories. 

 The last 45 words of section two, below, sum up three ways in which I differentiate my own approach and outlook against Frei's.


(1) From Pre–critical to Historical critical Exegesis

Hans Frei’s intellectual history of biblical interpretation, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, helpfully contrasts two ways of dealing with narrative material by surveying the transition from pre–critical exegesis to historical critical exegesis.[1] According to Frei, pre–critical interpreters believed Bible stories were true because the words “meant what they said,” conveying literal meaning and referring to historical events.[2] The realism of narrative depiction invited a literal reading and the assumption of historical truth.[3] Thus, meaning, truth, and reference were hermeneutically united.[4] This naiveté broke down once the new empiricism distinguished literal meaning from “how the facts really occurred.”[5] The world of the bible now diverged from the world of actual history because “historical critical reading” required “matching the written description against the reconstruction of the probable historical sequence to which it referred.”[6] Wherever the biblical text seemed historically questionable, interpreters redefined the “true history” or “true sense” of narrative material, as needed.[7] In this new paradigm, Frei says, the meaning of Bible stories became something other than the depictions themselves.[8]

   Effectively, “the realistic or history–like quality of biblical narratives, acknowledged by all… was immediately transposed into the quite different issue of whether or not the realistic narrative was historical.”[9] Prioritizing judgments about historical accuracy requires critics to find textual meaning in ways that accord with those judgments. They engage narrativity only after weighing historicity. To illustrate this dynamic we need only recall the previous chapter, where most interpretations of βασιλεύει in Matt 2:22 are logically oriented around the question of referential accuracy: some find Matthew’s writing “confirmed” by Josephus while others explain Matthew’s “incorrect” usage, or claim the word means something else.[10] Prior historical judgment restricts interpretative possibilities. Where pre–critical meaning once dictated truth, assessing truth would now delimit meaning; the dynamic reversed itself, but truth and meaning stayed unified.[11]

   In sum, historical critical exegetes maintained the pre–critical unity of “history–likeness (literal meaning) and history (ostensive reference).”[12] Engaging narrative realism was thought to affirm some degree of historical probability and this correlation was assumed inversely as well.[13]

Those who wanted to affirm their historical factuality used the realistic character or history–likeness as evidence in favor of this claim, while those who denied the factuality also finally denied that the history–likeness was a cutting feature… they thought history–likeness identical with at least potentially true history.[14]

Indeed, this category mistake remains evident when scholars claim that verisimilitude suggests a greater historical likelihood or plausibility,[15] as also when scholars dismiss bits and chunks of material to produce piecemeal readings.[16] That both positive and negative claims demonstrably confuse/conflate narrativity with historicity helps validate these deeper insights of Frei’s unique intellectual history and illustrates the problem with historical critical exegesis.[17]

   The prioritization of judgment in reading implies an assumption that narrative should or must depict past events accurately. While distinguishing particular narratives from the actual past, historical critics continued to conflate narrative depiction with referential accuracy in general. This hermeneutic roadblock is what subsequent narrative approaches attempted to bypass.


(2) “Realistic Narrative Reading”  (Postliberal Theology)

Frei prescribed his own solution via scattered fragments, which cohere logically as follows.[18] He suggests critical readers may “distinguish sharply between literal sense and historical reference” and “allow the literal sense to stand as the meaning, even if one believed that the story does not refer historically.”[19] Exegesis of story content depends on literary realism rather than factuality or truth because “the peculiar way in which realistic narrative means or makes sense” involves “the cumulative rendering of a temporal framework through realistic depiction and chronological continuity.”[20] Realistic stories “mean what they say” whether or not they report history reliably, and realistic readers understand that the world of the narrative is not necessarily the real world of actual history.[21] There is much to commend in these axiomatic assertions.

   Unfortunately, Frei sees little value in going “beyond the narrative text” because historical claims are either modest or incredible, and always based on speculation.[22] Historical questions may be important but that does not make them answerable.[23] The impossibility of historical verification takes us back to “the story simply as a story.”[24] Narrative meaning is best identified when suspending judgment about the “philosophical puzzle” of reference; determining how narratives might “refer” requires a type of judgment that goes beyond hermeneutics, so narrative interpretation should ignore “the relation of the text to reality.”[25]

   With these arguments, Frei distinguished his method (“realistic narrative reading” or “narrative interpretation”) from historical critical exegesis, saying the two might both exist “side by side” without disrupting each other.[26] However, when presenting to the Karl Barth Society in 1974, Frei detailed an explicitly subordinate dynamic.[27]

You utilize, on an ad hoc basis, what the historical scholars offer.… Always be a theological exegete and then in particular cases of texts you will find an ad hoc relation [with] the always tentative results of historical criticism.[28] . . . [Barth] felt confident… there was no conflict… provided always that historical critical exegesis was not the governess but was in service of the theological exegete.[29]

Altogether, then, “realistic reading” can utilize and regulate prior judgments, exclude judgment while reading, and suspend future judgment indefinitely. From every angle, Frei’s separation of meaning and truth ensures dominance of theological “truth” over historical facts.[30]

   For all his talk of narrative, Frei rarely did exegesis himself.[31] His straightforward approach to “history–like” material is arguably designed to prohibit subjective interpretations.[32] Indeed, Frei’s fellow Barthians and “post–critical” followers typically cite his work to justify reaffirmations of traditional theology.[33] Nothing in Frei’s approach supports narratological reconstruction, let alone historiography. Thus, in contrast to Frei, my proposed method will suspend judgment temporarily (not indefinitely), contextualize the story world historically (not theologically), affirm that context is determined by audience reception (not by previous dogma), and invite critical judgment to have the last word through historical inquiry.

[1] Hans W. Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 1–16. By “historical critical exegesis,” I indicate readings that emphasize historical judgment. For a nuanced survey of all that “historical criticism” properly entails, see Beth M. Sheppard, The Craft of History and the Study of the New Testament, (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012)., 24–29.

[2] Frei, Eclipse, 1–5.

[3] Frei, Eclipse, 11; Cf. Hans W. Frei, Reading Faithfully, ed. Mike Higton and Mark Alan Bowald, vol. 1 (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2015), 75. According to Frei, Eclipse, 2–7, allegory, figuration, and metaphor constituted a secondary layer of meaning (naturally constrained by the literal meaning) and became “something like the opposite” of literal reading only after the rise of biblical criticism. Cf. Frei, Eclipse, 17–50; Frei, Reading, 1:74–6.

[4] Frei consistently frames his discussion with these three terms.

[5] Frei, Eclipse, 10–11.

[6] Frei, Eclipse, 5–7.

[7] Frei, Eclipse, 8–11; popular interpretative foci included reconstructing events, compositional origin, cultural setting, allegory, myth, and more. See also Frei, Reading Faithfully, vol. 1., 28, 76–7.

[8] Frei, Eclipse, 10–1, 103; cf. Frei, Reading, 31, 100.

[9] Frei, Eclipse, 16; cf. Frei, Eclipse, 51–65; Frei, Reading, 76–7, 100.

[10] See Chapter One, Section 2a & 2b. The exceptions were McNeile and Smallwood, whose assessed narrative meaning contrasted against their own judgments about historical accuracy.

[11] Cf. Frei, Reading, ix–x, xvi.

[12] Frei, Eclipse, 12, decries “the hermeneutical reduction of the former [=meaning] to an aspect of the latter [=reference],” a common refrain throughout Eclipse; see, e.g., 93–104, 138, 141, 160, 220–23, 230, 274–5, 323–4.

[13] Frei, Eclipse, 11–12.

[14] Frei, Eclipse, 12.

[15] R. T. France, “Scripture, Tradition and History in the Infancy Narratives of Matthew,” in Richard T. France and David Wenham, eds., Gospel Perspectives. Vol. 2: Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1981), 255, 59–61, Craig A. Evans, Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2012), 9–10; Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016), 343–4. Leveraged disclaimers are also common; e.g., “While verisimilitude does not guarantee historicity, it is for historians its sine qua non” (D. Moody Smith, quoted by Robert Kysar in Paul N. Anderson, Felix Just, and Tom Thatcher, eds., John, Jesus, and History, (Atlanta, GA: SBL, 2007), 84, cf. 184, 218–9) and “Verisimilitude by itself does not and cannot establish historicity. But it does [make some portrayals] more plausible” (Paula Fredriksen in Anderson, et al, John, Jesus, and History, 269).

[16] Dale C. Allison, The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2009), 35–42, 54–8; Nolland, Matthew, 120–1, 121n.151; cf. Brown, Birth, 615. The Jefferson Bible is only rare as a printed publication; by preserving one man’s piecemeal reading, it exemplifies something more typical.

[17] For further validation of Frei’s meta critical claims, see Tom Thatcher, “Anatomies of the Fourth Gospel,” in Tom Thatcher and Stephen D. Moore, eds., Anatomies of Narrative Criticism (Atlanta: SBL, 2008), 2–6.

[18]  Hans W. Frei, The Identity of Jesus Christ: The Hermeneutical Bases of Dogmatic Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975). 60–1, eschewed the word “method” and declared his own theory “minimal… enough to elucidate what is actually being done in exegesis.”

[19] Frei, Eclipse, 11. Elsewhere in Eclipse, Frei’s own vision is conveyed obliquely by repeated laments against what others failed to see or do; e.g., 156, 181–2, 198–9, 217–8, 220, 235, 269–70, 273–4, 277, 280, 322–4.

[20] Frei, Identity, 106, 145; Frei, Eclipse, 150–52.

[21] Frei, Identity, 59–61.

[22] Frei, Identity, 103–4. The full quotation says historical reconstruction “forces us to rely [on] the independent power of our own interpretative devices to unlock the significance of the story,” as if historiography amounts to exegesis.

[23] Frei, Identity, 176.

[24] Frei, Identity, 133, 145–6, 165, 175, 177.

[25] Frei, Reading, 40, 44, takes narrative texts “to refer translinguistically or representationally” (as if representation is a sub–category of reference), and suggests integrating correspondence and coherence theories of truth into a “super–theory.” Cf. Frei, Reading, 99 and 104–5, which goes on about “symbolization,” semiotics, “reality–laden” symbols as “trans–hermeneutical concerns,” and “that representationalism all of us want to avoid,” again conflating reference with representation. Frei, Reading, 40, 44; cf. 99, 103–5; cf. notes 25 & 28, above.

[26] Frei, Eclipse, 135–6.

[27] Hans W. Frei, “Scripture as Realistic Narrative: Karl Barth as Critic of Historical Criticism,” in Thy Word Is Truth: Barth on Scripture, ed. George Hunsinger (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2012), 54–5. See also the editorial remark by Mike Higton and Mark Alan Bowald in Frei, Reading Faithfully, vol. 1., 49.

[28] Frei, “Scripture as Realistic Narrative,” 55, positing slight nuance between Barth’s early and later work.

[29] Frei, “Scripture as Realistic Narrative,” 59; Cf. Hans W. Frei, Theology and Narrative: Selected Essays, ed. George Hunsinger and William C. Placher (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993): “depending on what we do, one kind of reading will have priority.” For more confessed religious motivations, see Frei, Reading, 37–9, 106–7.

[30] Frei, Reading, ix–xi, 28, 37–40, 44, 104–5.

[31] The prominent exception being Frei, Identity, 145–83.

[32]Cornel West, “On Frei’s Eclipse of Biblical Narrative,” USQR 37 (1983): 299-302; Stephen Prickett, Words and The Word: Language, poetics and biblical interpretation, Reprinted. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989)., 194–5; Mark I. Wallace, The Second Naiveté: Barth, Ricoeur, and the New Yale Theology, Studies in American Biblical Hermeneutics 6 (Macon, GA: Mercer, 1990), 41–4. These critics, responding to Frei’s standard rhetoric (e.g., Eclipse, 218: meaning = “the realistic, fact–like depictions themselves”), perhaps overlooked rare exceptions e.g., Eclipse 181–2 (meaning = “the event and its interpretation”) and Eclipse 2–3, 6 (typology = “an extension of literal reading”) and Frei’s actual practice of using depiction as a springboard for theological analysis; still, by and large, their criticisms are fair.

[33] On his lifelong engagement with Barthian hermeneutics, see Frei, Eclipse, viii; Lance B. Pape, The Scandal of Having Something to Say (Waco, Tex: Baylor University Press, 2013), 15n35, 18, 41; Frei, Theology and Narrative, 3, 5–7, 9, 256–7 (cf. 186, 208); Cf. David Ford, Barth and God’s Story (Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 1981). On Frei’s lasting influence, see, e.g., George Hunsinger, “Postliberal theology,” in Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 42–57; Jason A. Springs, Toward a Generous Orthodoxy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

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