“On the Fear of Knowledge and Evangelical Hermeneutics:
Who’s Afraid of Critical Theory (CT) and Critical Race Theory (CRT)”?
The exploration of knowledge from multiple sources and springs beyond the biblical text and tradition still remain for some Evangelicals an intellectual threat to the truth and reliability of the Christian Scripture. The intellectual tragedy lies in the inability for some evangelicals to reconcile the two forms of knowledge: “secular knowledge” and “sacred knowledge” or “revealed knowledge.” Generally, evangelicals differentiate these two spheres that represent two distinct worlds, two opposing and contrasting ways of life, and two dialectical modes of knowledge. They view secular knowledge with human suspicion and with a sense of intellectual fragility; by contrast, they construe sacred knowledge as an unfailing and dependable phenomenon. Thus, they often interpret sacred knowledge as the highest form of knowledge and therefore secular knowledge is subservient to it. Although they believe that both types of knowledge should be regarded as gifts, sacred knowledge, because it is originated from God as they claim, is a higher and more precious revelatory gift. By contrast, secular knowledge is a project of human wisdom and construct (i.e. social construct), which often contradicts what is from above and of God. By consequence, secular knowledge represents an inferior form of knowledge as compared to that which is revealed and awarded by God.
This understanding of the role knowledge plays in the created order and in the human experience has been a long complex intellectual battle in Christian theology and hermeneutics. It has been so since the publication of Saint Augustine’s influential book The City of God about 426 A.D., which contrasts and compares two systems of knowledge, two opposing worldviews undergirded by an epistemology of difference: the city of God and the city of man. This issue brings me to the relevant conversation about the contemporary debate about the deployment of Critical Theory (CT), a complex form of knowledge and epistemological links, in contemporary American Evangelicalism, especially among the SBC community and family.
For many individuals, the current debate surrounding the use and prohibition of Critical Theory, especially Critical Race Theory (CRT), in Evangelical scholarship and especially among the #SBC19 attenders is quite embarrassing and has become quite frankly an unreasonable and illogical intellectual intercourse. This debate has created an intellectual distance and alienation among (SBC) Evangelical Christians who believe in the divine authority of the Bible and confess the same God, the same Spirit, and the same Savior-Lord Jesus Christ. This debate has become so intricate and intellectually fragile to the degree that it reflects the closeness of the Evangelical mind, to borrow a phrase from Mark Noll and Allan Bloom.
To proceed with this conversation, I will share a personal experience. In the subsequent paragraphs below, I would like to direct your attention about my encounter with critical theory and my experience with literary criticism, correspondingly—both as a doctoral student at a secular public university and an M. Div. student at an Evangelical seminary.
My Personal Experience as a PhD Student
When I was working on my PhD in Intellectual History, which I eventually changed (after a year of coursework) to (English) Literary Studies, at the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD), I took two specific doctoral seminars on Hermeneutics: the first was on “Philosophical Hermeneutics,” in which we read Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutic by Jean Grondin; The Hermeneutics Tradition: From Ast to Ricoeur edited by Gayle L. Ormiston and Allan D. Schrift; Truth and Method by Gadamer, and Introduction to the Reading of Hegel by Alexandre Kojere; and a bunch of seminal articles on the subject matter. Correspondingly, in the second class on “Critical Theory and Literary Criticism,” our main text was The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism edited by by Vincent B. Leitch, William E. Cain, et al., and the Professor also assigned numerous influential articles (some two dozen of them) on the subject matter.
In this particular course, we began our intellectual journey in classical theory and criticism and ended it with the development of postmodern theory and criticism. For example, we studied some selected texts by Georgias of Leontinit (ca. 483-376 B.C.E), which initiated classical (Greco-Roman) critical theory and literary criticism, and our last sets of selected readings were written by Stuart Moulthrop (b.1957). Further, we read about various schools of thought and theories, including Cultural Studies, Deconstruction and Postructuralism, Feminist Theory and Criticism, Formalism, Gay and Lesbian Criticism and Queer Theory, Marxism, New Historicism, Phenomenology and Hermeneutics, Postcolonial Theory and Criticism, Psychoanalysis, Race and Ethnicity Studies, Reader-Response Theory, Structuralism and Semiotics, etc. We engaged those ideas embedded in those schools of thought by giving oral presentations in class, writing short papers (2 to 3 page precis every meeting), and eventually writing a very detailed and exegetical 25-30 page publishable research paper.
In addition, the Professor also strongly recommended The Theory of Communicative Action: Lifeworld and System by Jürgen Habermas, Of Grammatology by Jacques Derrida, In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and The Political Unconscious by Frederic Jameson. In addition to the two general classes on Hermeneutics and Critical Theory mentioned above, I took two specialized doctoral seminars on Gender and Critical Race Theory, and Art History and Critical Theory. My Professors at UT Dallas encouraged us to engage those texts with a critical eye and he made sure we understood the thrust of the author’s argument and the major premises of each critical school. This phenomenon was inevitable and integral in our own intellectual formation and training as some of use aspired to become future professors, writers, and researchers. In summary, we were learning academically about various forms of knowledge and types of epistemologies, as well as their origins and how each one has become part of the intellectual discourse in the academic world.
In the subsequent paragraphs, I would like to direct your attention to a complementary experience of mine, just two years prior to my beginning of the doctoral studies at UTD. As a word of preface, I was already exposed to some of these theories as an M.A. student at the University of Louisville, but at the doctoral level, the study was more rigorous, analytical, and exhaustive.
My Personal Experience as a Seminary Student
Before I became a doctoral student, I was pursuing an Advanced Master of Divinity (Biblical and Theological Studies) degree at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. At the seminary, I took the required class on “Biblical Hermeneutics” with the eminent New Testament scholar Robert H. Stein. We read his popular book on Hermeneutics, Playing by the Rule: Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible, and An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus also by Stein, along with two other additional texts: Validity in Interpretation by E.D. Hirsch, and Introduction to Biblical Interpretation by William W. Klein, Craig Blomberg, and Robert Hubbard, Jr. He also strongly recommended three other influential texts, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation by Grant R. Osborne, New Horizons in Hermeneutics: Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading, and The Two Horizons: New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description by Anthony C. Thiselton.
In this particular class, I was introduced to various methods of interpretation and principles of hermeneutics, including Jewish interpretation, Protestant interpretation, and various modern approaches and literary models, ranging from literary criticism to social-scientific approaches to Scripture. All of these hermeneutical models had to be studied within the canon and translations of the Bible, some suggested general rules of hermeneutics and the understanding that the Bible is composed of different genres (i.e. narrative, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, apocalyptic, parable, epistle). In a more specialized class on Pauline Hermeneutics and Early Christian Hermeneutics, this time I was working on a Th.M. in New Testament, the Professor, E. Earle Ellis, assigned three of his books on the subject matter: Prophecy & Hermeneutic in Early Christianity, Paul’s Use of the Old Testament, and The Old Testament in Early Christianity: Canon and Interpretation in the Light of Modern Research. We studied various hermeneutical perspectives and textual theories such Midrash pesher, prophecy, targum, form criticism, as well as various presuppositions (textual and ideological) including eschatology, typology, corporate personality, charismatic exegesis, etc.
Other courses on Hermeneutics I have taken in seminary included theological (i.e. Christological) hermeneutics and various approaches and theories concerning the scholarship on the Historical Jesus. All of these courses dealt with various fields of knowledge and the epistemological condition.
In sum, just like my experience at the University, the Seminary experience provided me with various tools of analysis and interpretive models to make sense of the world of the (Biblical) text and my world, as well as the relationship between the (biblical) author, the reader, and the intended authorial message. At the conservative Evangelical seminary, the preferred interpretive paradigm was the historical-grammatical method, and this model is analogous to what is commonly called “Formalist Criticism” in Literary Criticism. While we were introduced in passing to other biblical and theological hermeneutical models, the grammatical-historical hermeneutic was prized in every course and students were expected to utilize it in their personal study and exegetical papers. Yet one must remember that this is not the only existing model in biblical exegesis or theological interpretation; in Judaism, both before and during the time of Jesus, Jewish theologians and the Rabbis have developed various sophisticated Jewish interpretative traditions and exegetical methods.
In addition, in the history of Christian interpretive traditions and exegesis, there emerged differing models of Scriptural interpretation, especially in the Patristic era (Patristic exegesis), which included the following four perspectives: The Literal Level, the Tropological Level, the Allegorical Level, and the Anagogical Level. Not only these illustrative interpretations share many literary connections and parallels with those found in literary criticism, the grammatical-historical hermeneutic and various schools in critical theory also share many echoes, allusions, concerns, and literary traditions. For example, the development of modern biblical hermeneutics and theological interpretation could be construed as a reaction to the German Higher Criticism of the late eighteenth century.
German Higher Criticism eventually made its entrance in the English-speaking academia in the nineteenth century and progressively declined in the early twentieth century. What interesting about the growth of intellectual ideas and schools of thought associating with the enterprise of biblical hermeneutics and theological interpretation and compatibly with the enterprise of critical theory and literary criticism is arguably the blossoming of the Enlightenment philosophy and the German source of Higher Criticism that have both influenced and shaped knowledge formation in the secular world of the academic scholarship and in the sacred world of biblical and theological scholarship, respectively.
Furthermore, in the paragraphs below, I provide ten propositions about the nature and interplays between, as well as the dynamics and intersections of critical theory and biblical hermeneutics, literary criticism and theological exegesis.
Parallels and Connections:Critical Theory and Literary Criticism, and Biblical Hermeneutics and Theological Interpterion
1. Generally, critical theory and literary criticism, and biblical hermeneutics and theological interpretation expose students to various schools of thought, ideologies, and perspectives, sometimes conflicting one another.
2. Critical theory and literary criticism, and biblical hermeneutics and theological interpretation introduce students to various forms of knowledge, worldviews, and value systems.
3. Critical theory and literary criticism, and biblical hermeneutics and theological interpretation are all products of human imagination and creation. None of them was revealed by God or claims divine origin.
4. Therefore, biblical hermeneutics or theological exegesis per se should not claim any type of intellectual dominance over the field of critical theory or literary criticism.
5. Any product or interpretive model of the human mind is subject to scrutiny, revision, and even aberration, and that includes different perspectives under the broad categories of critical theory and biblical hermeneutics.
6. A theological model of interpretation, for example, is an attempt to explain some particular dynamics and phenomena; similarly, an interpretive perspective from critical theory is an effort to establish relationships and connections, or differences and variations.
7. The biblical hermeneutics is a “model” among other hermeneutical models to study Scripture and its environment, and there are competing models and voices within the broad category of biblical hermeneutics and theological interpretation.
8. It is because of these competing voices and sometimes irreconcilable intellectual ideologies and presuppositions there arose different theological systems and schools of thought such as Western-European theology, Postcolonial theology, Queer theology, Feminist theology, Liberation theology, Black liberation theology, Minjung theology, etc. For example, within the history of Jewish interpretation, there emerged various branches such as Rabbinic Judaism, Hellenistic Judaism, and the interpretive school from the Qumran Community that often articulate both shared ideological viewpoints about the Hebrew Bible and contradicting point of views about the Torah, the Writings, and the Prophets. Each one of the noted interpretive grids is sometimes a reaction to the previous one. In the same line of thought, within the historical trajectories of critical theory, one may discover intersections between feminist critical theory and critical race theory, and convergences between biographical criticism and psychological criticism. Yet there are sharp differences between the reader-response criticism and formalist criticism, for example.
9. While both the biblical hermeneutics and critical theory models exhibit a certain worldview or certain intellectual traditions, it does not mean that all worldviews are necessarily equal and unhelpful nor should the non-biblically informed literary criticism or critical theory be regarded as anti-Christian flourishing and intellectually counterproductive to Christian theological traditions and biblical hermeneutics.
10. Finally, all interpretive models and criticisms: biblical, theological, literary, and critical should be evaluated with care and responsibility based on their own merit and the intellectual contribution they add to disciplinary fields of study and interdisciplinary intersections, and human knowledge and understanding.
Finally, I would like to close this post with another experience, this time as an instructor, not as a student. I have taught both theological exegesis and biblical hermeneutics in seminary (i.e. New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary). Currently, I serve as a professor of English literature and composition. Overall, I teach my students how to read critically and exegetically. I introduce them to various critical theories and methodologies about the world of the text, how textual meaning is constructed, and how systems and structures work in society. I also expose them to different literary techniques, approaches, and methodologies so they could make sense of cultural dynamics and interplays between humans and the systems and networks they created. I do not prioritize one school or theory above another; yet I encourage my students to think critically about each intellectual tradition and perspective.
Since in literature courses, we encourage students to value the text and its meaning and implications, my point of departure in studying critical theory and literary criticism with students is their place in the world in relation to the text. I emphasize the most fundamental of all theories: formalist criticism, which lead students to perform close readings in an exegetical way. After they have gained comfortability with this practice, then we can marry both exegesis and eisegesis; both strategies are helpful in unearthing the meaning of the text and how we make sense of the text in our respective circumstance and Sitz im Leben.
Moreover, as a teaching strategy, for example, I divide my students in groups of four or five, and each group is responsible to research and study one of the critical theories (i.e. Marxism, feminism, critical race theory) or literary criticisms (i.e. formalism, reader-response, historicism, biographical) and present its research findings to the class.
The critical student of the culture and of the Bible should always remember that each critical theory is different and represents a way of seeing the world. In the same manner, each literary approach is distinct and articulates a viewpoint and perspective. Just like the theories and approaches associating with biblical hermeneutics and theological interpretation (i.e. womanism), critical theory and literary criticism should be construed as tools of analysis and not necessarily symbolic representations of worldviews and ideologies. While some do; other do not.
Hence, Evangelicals, especially Evangelical Christians connecting with the SBC family and community, should not be afraid of using critical theory and critical race theory, in particular. The knowledge gained from any critical theory and biblical interpretive method is not something to be feared and run away from; knowledge should be construed as a tool to be used constructively to contribute to human progress; to advance human understanding in the cosmos; to heighten our acquaintances with the world and people around us; to improve human relationships and interactions; and to be used actively for the common good and human liberation and flourishing in the world.