The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis? Sic et Non -- By: Daniel J. Treier

Journal: Trinity Journal
Volume: TRINJ 24:1 (Spring 2003)
Article: The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis? Sic et Non
Author: Daniel J. Treier


The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis?
Sic et Nona

Daniel J. Treier

Daniel J. Treier is Assistant Professor of Theology at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.

In 1980 the historian David Steinmetz posed a now-famous rhetorical question:

How was a French parish priest in 1150 to understand Psalm 137, which bemoans captivity in Babylon, makes rude remarks about Edomites, expresses an ineradicable longing for a glimpse of Jerusalem, and pronounces a blessing on anyone who avenges the destruction of the Temple by dashing Babylonian children against a rock? The priest lives in Concale, not Babylon, has no personal quarrel with Edomites, cherishes no ambitions to visit Jerusalem (though he might fancy a holiday in Paris), and is expressly forbidden by Jesus to avenge himself on his enemies.

Steinmetz continued, “Unless Psalm 137 has more than one possible meaning, it cannot be used as a prayer by the Church and must be rejected as a lament belonging exclusively to the piety of ancient Israel.”1 He entitled his essay “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis,” and he closed with this judgment:

The defenders of the single meaning theory usually concede that the medieval approach to the Bible met the religious needs of the Christian community, but that it did so at the unacceptable price of doing violence to the biblical text. The fact that the historical-critical method after two hundred years is still struggling for more than a precarious foothold in that same religious community is generally blamed on the ignorance and conservatism of the Christian laity and the sloth or moral cowardice of its pastors. I should like to suggest an alternative hypothesis. The medieval theory of levels of meaning in the biblical text, with all its undoubted defects,

flourished because it is true, while the modern theory of a single meaning, with all its demonstrable virtues, is false. Until the historical-critical method becomes critical of its own theoretical foundations and develops a hermeneutical theory adequate to the nature of the text which it is interpreting, it will remain restricted—as it deserves to be—to the guild and the academy, where the question of truth can be endlessly deferred.2

Response to Steinmetz from American evangelical theologians has been rather sparse, whereas the essay has been profoundly influential in other contexts—whether or...

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