To be sure, this principle [of exegesis in service to the Church] appeared far more evident to the Church Fathers than it does to most exegetes today. The language of theology, like that of liturgy, is ever expanding and developing. New discoveries in the field of literary criticism, but also in the realms of archaeology and other historical disciplines, often seem to call into question findings of earlier generations. It must be admitted, however, that those discoveries have never yet offered “proof” that undermines key elements of Christian dogma. Sociological studies of life in first-century Palestine may lead some interpreters to describe Jesus as nothing more than an itinerant prophet; modern embryology may to some minds offer decisive evidence against the possibility of a virgin birth (“Where did the other twenty-three chromosomes come from?”); and comparisons of Paul’s letters with the various gospel accounts may lead some to the conclusion that Paul, and not Jesus, is the true founder of Christianity. Intellectual honesty, however, requires anyone to admit that the conclusions drawn on the basis of these kinds of scientific studies are subjective. They involve leaps of faith—or unfaith—insofar as the conclusions are not inherent in the discoveries themselves but are rational extrapolations based on those discoveries.
Fr John Breck. Scripture in Tradition: The Bible and its Interpretation in the Orthodox Church (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), p 40.
Fr Breck eloquently (and playfully!) presents a very important point, one that many involved in Biblical Studies need to take more to heart. There is much that one sees, some even here on this blog at times, on the issue of conflict between those who find a whole lot of historical and other value in the Bible and those who don’t, with varying degrees of shading in each camp. Of the two billion Christians in the world, the majority certainly lie in the former camp: three-quarters of that number belong to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and the other quarter to the Protestants, the vast majority of which are conservative in such matters. Their more traditional evaluations of the data are just as valid as those of the most extreme minimalists. In fact, because they are operating in an environment like that described by Fr Beck, one in which their exegesis is subsumed within a more meaningful context than that of individual scholarship and aiming for a bit more than that peculiar immortality via footnote, they are able to find a greater support diachronically for their own positions than any innovator is able to drum up. With such a multi-millennial support system, the balance in fact surely lies with the more traditional approaches and conclusions, regardless of the stridency and volume of its critics. I write here particularly of historical issues. Other issues, involving spiritual matters, simply cannot be addressed by such meager tools as a collection of paragraphs with the appropriate number of footnotes and the properly impressive bibliography. How many angels would soil their feet to dance on the head of any book by the Jesus Seminar? Maybe if it were the last one and they were simply making sure it made its way into the Lake of Fire….
Well, I’m not sure that I’m saying exactly what I want to convey, but the quote from Fr Beck was something that stuck with me all day. I just thought I’d share it here.