The Roots of the Political Use and Abuse of the Bible

Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker’s book, Politicizing the Bible, examines how the development of biblical scholarship has severed Scripture from the heart of the Church.

The Bible continues to play a large role in American public life, as politicians, candidates, and activists advert to it directly and employ its cadences in support of a variety of positions, programs, and policies. In recent decades, Barack Obama has been quite willing to employ the Bible in service of progressive purposes, while Bill Clinton went so far as to offer voters a “new covenant.” On the Republican side, George W. Bush called America “the Light of the World”, while Ronald Reagan appropriated biblical language and even declared 1983 “The Year of the Bible”. This political use of the Bible in American discourse is not new, of course. The speeches, writings, and sermons of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were well woven with the fine natural threads of biblical inflection and images. Decades earlier in 1896, William Jennings Bryan warned that advocates of the gold standard would “crucify mankind on a cross of gold.” And of course well before that the Puritan settlers envisioned America as a new promised land and the ultimate city on a hill, the latter a dominical phrase employed later by both John F. Kennedy and Reagan.

One does not find this political use of the Bible very much across the ocean in Europe, except among fringe Christian parties. Even politicians affiliated with historic parties with “Christian” in their very name—such as the Christian Democratic Union in Germany—generally don’t employ anything like “Gott segne Deutschland”in the way American politicians toss out the tagline “God bless America.” The reason, I suppose, is that the Bible holds little real cultural authority in secular, post-Christian societies, and if America is indeed heading that way, it’s not there yet. Enough American citizens regard themselves as Christians for politicians to keep using the Bible politically, often in ways that can only be deemed idolatrous in that they mistake America for God, or Jesus, or biblical Israel, and blasphemous in that they may violate the Second Commandment’s violation of taking the name of the LORD for vain purposes.

Modern Scholarship, Secular Ends

The rule, then: Where Christian faith matters to a substantial number of the electorate, there politicians, candidates, and activists will employ the Bible. But this is neither a new nor a uniquely American phenomenon. For the Bible has played a role in a number of empires, societies, tribes, and nations, and where it has, those who would wield power have tried to wield biblical interpretation to serve their purposes.

Such is the subtle line taken in Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker’s recent book, Politicizing the Bible: The Roots of Historical Criticism and the Secularization of Scripture 1300-1700 (Crossroad, 2013). (Full disclosure: I wrote an enthusiastic recommendation for the book, and now appreciate the opportunity to review it in some detail.) Until rather recently, most biblical scholars have presented the modern historical-critical method of interpreting Scripture as the triumph of dispassionate, neutral historical objectivity over the distorting interpretive constraints imposed on the text by creed, dogma, tradition, and Church, the triumph of the Enlightenment over the middle ages.

With the postmodern turn in the humanities, however, ever more scholars and theologians have been calling that narrative into question, those on the conservative side pointing out that the historical-critical method does indeed have a history and is much more socially located than its partisans are wont to admit, while radicals observe that most claims involving neutral objectivity serve particular interests very well, whether (say) English interests, Prussian interests, male interests, white interests, capitalist interests, hetero interests, and so forth.

Most histories of scholarship that tell the story of the rise of modern scholarship and its historical-critical method usually begin their narrative in the eighteenth century, regardless of their ideological evaluation thereof (such as Stephen D. Moore’s and Yvonne Sherwood’s fine book, The Invention of the Biblical Scholar: A Critical Manifesto), paying little attention to early modern or medieval antecedents. Hahn and Wiker’s Politicizing the Bible achieves two ends: It shows both (1) that modern scholarship and its methodology have deep roots in the late medieval and early modern periods and also (2) that what becomes modern scholarship has always functioned to serve secular, political ends, often by direct design. The first would now be conceded by most scholars and historians, I think, while the second will prove more controversial.

Hahn and Wiker’s thesis is that what is called the “historical-critical method” is neither neutral nor objective but “a method largely defined by some prior philosophical commitment” (1), and that prior philosophical commitments have been determining interpretation of the Bible since the turn of the medieval age to modernity in the fourteenth century with Marsilius of Padua and William of Ockham.

And those prior philosophical commitments generally involve political, secular goals, which seems in the authors’ view to involve misusing Scripture by ignoring its ecclesial, heavenly purpose of the salvation of souls. With regard to the title of their work, Hahn and Wiker write:

Our argument, to put it all too simply, is that the development of the historical-critical method in biblical studies is only fully intelligible as part of the more comprehensive project of secularization that occurred in the West over the last seven hundred years, and that the politicizing of the Bible was, in one way or another, essential to this project. By politicization, we mean the intentional exegetical reinterpretation of Scripture so as to make it serve a merely political, this-worldly (hence secular) goal. Since this effort was largely undertaken by those who embraced a new secular worldview, the effect was to subordinate the method of interpreting Scripture to secular political aims. (8-9; emphasis in original)

The presuppositions of the historical-critical method that drive the goal of political secularization are (1) “the bias against the supernatural” and (2) “the notion that the core of Christianity is moral rather than dogmatic” (12), and most of the book shows how those presuppositions became deliberately ingrained in biblical studies to serve secular ends.

Secular Reason Over Faith

The strength of the book lies in its detailed examination of the several seminal figures it discusses at length in connection with their eras and others working with and against them—Marsilius of Padua, William of Ockham, John Wycliffe, Machiavelli, Luther, Henry VIII, Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Richard Simon, John Locke, and John Toland. The reader will learn much about European church history and history in general over the past several centuries and the Bible’s role therein, and a particular strength is the book’s going beyond raw intellectual history into the ecclesial and political struggles on the ground. Without summarizing the several hundred pages the bulk of the book comprises, I wish to discuss two figures and one episode to give readers a taste of the book’s meat.

In many intellectual histories William of Ockham has been seen as one of the main culprits giving us modernity (thinking of Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequencesor Michael Allen Gillespie’s The Theological Origins of Modernity), and Hahn and Wiker’s work is similar. But where other works expend their energies examining the effects of Ockham’s philosophical nominalism and concomitant voluntarism upon intellectual history, Hahn and Wiker also examine Ockham’s more practical struggles for Franciscan identity and liberty and the arguments he provided to support them. Above all they detail how Ockham wrote against “that heretic,” the “pseudo-pope” John XXII at Avignon and “his heresies” (42). In doing so, Ockham used the very modern appeal to experts: “But many experts know the true meaning of the commandments of God and Christ. They can interpret those commandments to those who do not know, because such interpretation is nothing but an exposition, clarification, or making manifest of the true meaning of God’s commandments,” writes Ockham, and those experts have authority because God’s mind can be known not by authority of the Pope as guardian of tradition but “through reasoning and the Scriptures” (45).

Benedict de (Baruch) Spinoza has been figuring ever more prominently in evaluations of the development of biblical scholarship, and for good reason, as his views on Scripture were radical indeed. So radical, in fact, that they seem to have occasioned perhaps the most brutal letter of excommunication in Judeo-Christian history, as his synagogue’s ma’amad pulled no punches in damning him:

By decree of the angels and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of the entire holy congregation, and in front of these holy scrolls with the 613 precepts which are written therein; cursing him with the excommunication with which Joshua banned Jericho and with the curse which Elisha cursed the boys and with all the castigations which are written in the Book of the Law. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him, but the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven.

Scholars aren’t quite sure precisely what specific views or actions occasioned his excommunication, but Spinoza’s mature beliefs are clear enough. Above all Spinoza was a pantheist, and that involved him in both a denial of the possibility of divine, personal revelation as well as the miraculous and also a purely Cartesian view of the world. Hahn and Wiker write:

[B]y identifying God with nature and assuming that the order of nature was identical to the clearest, most certain science of mathematics, Spinoza completely and purposely eliminated supernatural revelation as a possibility. God’s essence is entirely revealed in nature; He is nature; therefore the highest science, the one that truly grasps God’s essence, is mathematical-mechanical natural science, which, since God is identified with nature, is identical to natural theology. (362)

Spinoza’s work fundamentally cements the idea that religion cannot be supernatural and can concern only mere morality. Politically, the Bible is removed from synagogue (and in effect Church) and given into the hands of experts. With Spinoza we also see the modern chasm between meaning and truth opening, as well as the separation of faith and a very truncated form of reason. Politically, Spinoza’s work has the effect of privileging a secular reason over any sort of faith and thus the State over any particular religious claims.

The burden of their work has been to show how what comes to be called the historical-critical method did not originate as late as the nineteenth century but several centuries earlier. Having done that, they then sketch historical criticism in more recent centuries in their conclusion, and an episode closer to our own times and concerns as scholars not given its own chapter but discussed in the conclusion may help readers grasp how Hahn and Wiker envision the politicization of the Bible.

Most scholars today believe that Mark was the first Gospel written, and that whoever wrote Matthew used it as a source, whereas the Church (and many scholars) held (and some still hold) that Matthew was first. When one reads commentaries or introductory literature, rational arguments for Markan priority are presented: Mark wouldn’t omit the Sermon on the Mount if Matthew were first, Matthew’s literary construction is superior, Matthew’s Greek is superior, Matthew’s Christology is higher, and so forth. Fair questions, all, and not without answers, but the consensus on Markan priority was not achieved in a sterile vacuum. It has a political, ideological history. In short, as New Testament scholar and Catholic convert William Farmer argued, Markan priority became dominant in the time of Bismarck’s Second Reich and his Kulturkampf. It served Bismarck’s German Protestantism and nationalism by suggesting that the passage supporting Petrine and thus papal primacy in Matthew 16 was not eyewitness reporting of Jesus’ own words but something invented later, since the passage was altogether lacking in Mark. German universities came under increasing state control, and all clergy—including Catholic seminarians—were to be educated in state institutions. Markan priority became state dogma serving the undermining of papal claims and the buttressing of budding German nationalism (see 564-565).

Two Criticisms

Hahn and Wiker have done well to show that what passes for modern methodology is not recent but old and not neutral but often ideological. Given the copious quotes from and abundant information the book provides about these and other crucial figures, Hahn and Wiker’s book should be required reading for any budding biblical scholar—and for those more mature scholars who simply assume the supposed neutrality and supremacy of the so-called historical critical method. Still, as much as I appreciated the book, it left me wanting even more, in a certain sense, in spite of the book’s surfeit of information. My fundamental critique is twofold.

First, the book can feel episodic, with raw chronology as an organizing principle (although the authors deny such on p. 8). To be sure, Hahn and Wiker sketch lines of influence from thinker to thinker and upon history, but the work would be strengthened by a thicker conception of history that would explain more precisely how the individual giants discussed affected the course of history, and indeed how politics and intellectual history relate to socio-cultural development more broadly. Moreover, especially crucial for a work dealing with the Bible, more attention to the the effects of the technology of the printing press and literacy upon the history of the Bible’s interpretation and use would be welcome. In short, a thicker description of the forest of the Bible’s function in the last several centuries would be helpful to complement the painstaking, detailed description of the several giant redwoods Hahn and Wiker discuss.

Second, I would welcome more exploration of critical concepts crucial for Hahn and Wiker’s project, namely modernity, secularization, and politics, for they leave them too simply defined (see their thesis quoted above, from pp. 8-9). What is modernity? Is it the supremacy of the State? The centrality of economics to life? The domination of technocracy and technopoly? Rank individualism? A new or anti-metaphysics? What role does religion play therein?

So too with their explicit use of the term “secularization.” Much has been written about the roots and nature of secularization and its relationship to religion, and so some discussion of the work of (say) Charles Taylor or Peter Berger or (especially) Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation would be welcome. Is secularization the removal of religion to the margins of a culture, or does it afford a reconfiguration of religion in healthy ways? Does modernity necessarily involve secularization?

Above all, I think thoughtful theological readers might have the most difficulty with the term “politicizing,” and here too much more could be said. Hahn and Wiker seem to use the term to refer to the growth of the State at the expense of the Church and faith, as ever more in societies became ever more politicized, all of which is true cause for concern. And yet, the implication that biblical interpretation could be apolitical suffers from an impoverished conception of politics and indeed the Church’s mission in the world. For the Church has a politics, and Christians live in light of the city (polis) of God, as our ultimate citizenship (politeuma) is in heaven (see Philippians 3:17-20). Instead of talking about “politicizing” and “secularization,” Hahn and Wiker might have done better to talk more explicitly about how the development of biblical scholarship took the Bible away from the Church and gave it to the State.

Far from seeing the above concerns as fatal flaws, however, I think it best to see them as opportunities. One of the great strengths of the book’s recounting of the history of development of biblical scholarship is its implicit invitation for further constructive work in rescuing the Bible from its academic and political captivity and reclaiming it for the Church, whose Scripture it ultimately is.

Politicizing the Bible: The Roots of Historical Criticism and the Secularization of Scripture 1300-1700
by Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker
The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2013
Hardcover, 624 pages

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About Dr. Leroy Huizenga 48 Articles
Dr. Leroy Huizenga has a B.A. in Religion from Jamestown College (N.D.), a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in New Testament from Duke University. During his doctoral studies he received a Fulbright Grant to study and teach at Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt, Germany. After teaching at Wheaton College (Ill.) for five years, Dr. Huizenga was reconciled with the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2011. Dr. Huizenga is the author of The New Isaac: Tradition and Intertextuality in the Gospel of Matthew (Brill, 2012), co-editor of Reading the Bible Intertextually (Baylor, 2009), and is currently writing a major theological commentary on the Gospel of Mark for Bloomsbury T&T Clark’s International Theological Commentary series. A shorter work on the Gospel of Mark keyed to the lectionary for Year B, Loosing the Lion: Proclaiming the Gospel of Mark, was published by Emmaus Road (2017), as was a similar work on the Gospel of Matthew, Behold the Christ: Proclaiming the Gospel of Matthew (Emmaus Road, 2019).