Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The role of “critical scholarship” when looking at ancient works

I’ve been responding to some of the comments in the Called to Communion thread following up on Brandon Addison’s excellent article there describing the ancient church at Rome:

Ray Stamper #28, you said:

as a man formed within and by the intellectual presuppositions dominating academic historical-critical scholarship, the methodological assumptions behind Lampe’s approach to the documentary monuments of the earliest Christian centuries are precisely the same methodological assumptions which determine his approach to the sacred canon.

How do you know this? Do you know the man? Or are you just speculating?

Further down you say:

Far from irrelevant, Lampe’s methodological assumptions most certainly threaten the confessional standards of Reformed churches – and that is the point at hand.

In fact, Lampe’s work on Chapter 16 of Romans (arguing that it was a part of the original document and not something added-on later) is state-of-the-art conservative scholarship, cited by Schreiner and Moo (themselves conservative exegetes who honor the text), for example, in their commentaries on Romans. Both of those men are knowledgeable, confessional Protestants, fully versed in “Lampe’s methodological assumptions”, and not, in any way, as you say, “threatened”.

So if this is your “point at hand”, then it seems as if you need to re-think it.

While on the one hand, those methodological assumptions lead Lampe to derive a narrative respecting early church governance contrary to that which we find explicitly voiced by nearly all of the fathers from the time of Irenaeus up until the dawn of the Reformation;..

Lampe’s work considers everything that came before Irenaeus. So if Irenaeus was wrong about things, well, those mistakes were repeated, and repeated, and repeated, down through the centuries, until someone finally stood up and questioned it.

Regarding Irenaeus, he was wrong about several things. Of course, you know that he had Jesus’s age pegged at 50 when he died, which is significantly different from what we know from the Gospels.

Second, he claimed that “Peter and Paul founded and established the church at Rome”. The idea of church-as-visible-institution goes by the wayside, however, as Paul himself notes that “Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me” … “are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.”

To adhere to the Irenaeus account is to discount what Paul actually tells us is important in Rome in 56 AD. Of course, there were Christians at Rome far earlier than Peter ever got there. And they had roots and sanction among “the Apostles”. What were they doing there, in the meantime, before Peter and Paul got there to “found” and “set up” the church at Rome? What was it that they were doing?

It is also different from the “Peter-founded-the-Church-of-Rome-and-was Bishop-there-for-25-years” account, which I, who had a taste of the pre-Vatican II church, grew up believing. That, in fact, was a story that was believed for centuries. Do you see how such myths, repeated, need to be challenged at some “critical” level?

Third, Irenaeus did pass along a verified whopper: “For now we have to mention him so that you may know that all who in any way adulterate the truth and harm the church’s preaching are disciples and successors of Simon the Samaritan magician”. He goes on like that at some length.

The stories of Simon Magus are pure fiction, and here is the great piece of truth that verifies “the history of the papacy” for you?

This is not to say that everything he said was totally wrong. But what it says is that he needs to be looked at with a critical eye, because not everything he says can be taken at face value.

the point which Catholics here at CTC have urged upon Reformed apologists who center their attack on episcopal ecclesiology by immersing themselves in the postulates of modern historical-critical scholars with respect to a very narrow post-apostolic time frame (roughly that between the deaths of SS Peter and Paul and the time of Irenaeus).

You seem to lump all “critical scholars” together. As I’ve demonstrated above, there is a need to exercise critical judgment when working with ancient sources. That does not, in every case, open the door for rampant skepticism. For example, here is a snapshot of Lampe’s method:

He gets every document from ancient Rome in front of him; every piece of paper, every inscription, every archaeological finding. One by one he analyzes these. He looks at a thing and says:

What do we know? He writes it down.
What do we know? He writes it down.
What do we know? He writes it down.
What do we know? He writes it down.
What do we know? He writes it down.
. . .
What do we know? He writes it down.
What do we know? He writes it down.
What do we know? He writes it down.

Once he gets to the end of the pile of things in front of him, he assembles the pieces – and the pieces do interlock – cross-referencing and such – and he produces a picture of the ancient Roman church. Note that he does this using what we actually know.

This is quite the opposite of the “enlightened” Descartes or Hume, who doubted everything for which there was not evidence. It is also quite different from actual “speculative” critical scholarship, which, again, doubts the actual accounts of the Bible, and seeks to assemble largely speculative theories.

Those speculative theories go away as we know more and more things. “Critical” scholars were dating the Gospel of John in the 150s AD until they found the Rylands papyrus, which contains a fragment from that Gospel dating to 125 AD. More, it was found in Egypt – how long did it take to get there, having been written in Asia Minor?

Not sure if you have heard of the “J.E.D.P.” hypothesis (in Old Testament studies). That too was born through a method of speculative “critical” evaluation. That thesis, too, is fading away, thanks to a growing body of knowledge and cracks within that thesis. It will soon be washed away, likely (in my opinion) to be replaced by the understanding that the Old Testament actually is more truthful about its own origins than was previously thought.

Now this is not to say that every critical scholar is going to come to this understanding overnight. But there is much in ancient literature that needs to be questioned. Not simply taken at face value.

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