Reading the Bible Through Stained Glass: Postliberal Resistance to the Historical-Critical Method

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Alan Bernard McGill


The Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1964 envisaged that modern biblical scholarship could contribute to the continuing development of doctrine, in 1993 deeming the historical-critical method indispensable for the interpretation of scripture. So too, the Second Vatican Council in its Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation endorsed the necessity of historical-critical exegesis and envisaged that modern Biblical scholarship would enable the Church to mature in its understanding of scripture. Nonetheless, insights derived through modern biblical scholarship, even when they represent broad scholarly consensus, appear to have had little impact on the magisterium’s presentation of doctrine in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Against this backdrop, Robert Barron regards the historical-critical method as inherently problematic, infused with the assumptions of rational-skepticism and deeply Protestant in its quest for the intentions of the human authors of scripture. Barron proposes a postliberal hermeneutics that seeks to subordinate historical-critical concerns to a doctrinally conditioned interpretation of the bible. Barron argues for the epistemic priority of Christ, extending his argument so as to assert the epistemic priority of images, doctrines, and narratives regarding Christ as derived from the tradition. Barron holds that these doctrinally conditioned lenses trump historical-critical considerations, themselves transcending the need for historical-critical interpretation. In response, the present paper argues a thesis that a postliberal interpretation of scripture through the lens of traditional images and positions, granting these facets of the tradition an epistemological priority over historical-critical considerations, would impede the development of doctrine. When the bible is read through the hermeneutical lens of traditional interpretations and imagery, that is, stained glass, as it were, these components of the tradition are regarded as normative. Hence, the biblical text under consideration is not given an opportunity to stand in creative tension with the canon and the broader tradition of which it constitutes a part and to speak on its own terms.

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Author Biography

Alan Bernard McGill, The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Atlanta, GA

Alan McGill serves as Director of Faith Formation and Liturgy at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Atlanta. He holds a PhD in Theology from the University of Birmingham (UK).