Undermining the Bible for Centuries

Hobbes and Spinoza

In parish lectures I am frequently confronted by parents distraught over their children’s experiences in their Bible courses at colleges and universities across the country. It is not only in the religion departments of state and private universities, but also in Catholic colleges and universities where their children encounter doubts and outright skepticism concerning the divine inspiration of Scripture, its trustworthiness, and its importance as a guide for the Christian life. In fact, often parents are most upset when such skepticism is encouraged at Catholic institutions, since they sent their children to Catholic institutions precisely to help their children’s spiritual journeys. We don’t have to turn to American colleges and universities for such corrosive scholarship, and pseudo-scholarship, dissolving Scripture texts with their acids; we see such attitudes displayed in the media, on popular history television shows, as well as in our political discourse.

What often goes unrecognized, however, is the long history of more skeptical biblical interpretation, and the often anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish theological biases and political ideologies that shaped the early foundations of the methods currently used to deconstruct the biblical text and undermine its authority in the lives of believers. All of this is usually done under the guise of objectivity. The idea is that the secular mode of historical biblical criticism, as practiced in so many classrooms across the globe, suppresses commitment of any sort, relying instead solely on objective, neutral, scientific analysis yielding unbiased results accessible to everyone. As Harvard’s Jon Levenson argued more than two decades ago in his important essay, “The Bible: Unexamined Commitments of Criticism”: “the secularity of historical criticism represents not the suppression of commitment, but its relocation.”

This does not mean that historical analysis of Scripture is antithetical to the faith or to the Bible. By no means. Historical study of Scripture is useful and indeed necessary. It’s simply to affirm the necessity of the “criticism of criticism” which Pope Benedict XVI, when he was known as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in his now famous 1988 Erasmus Lecture, “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis.” One important means of beginning such a “criticism of criticism” is to uncover the philosophical and political history of the methods employed by modern biblical criticism in the contemporary academic setting. One of the most important recent contributions in this regard is Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker’s 2013 volume, Politicizing the Bible: The Roots of Historical Criticism and the Secularization of Scripture 1300-1700. Typically, the history of modern biblical criticism is dated to the nineteenth century. The strength of Hahn and Wiker’s volume is that it shows the much earlier roots of this method in the late medieval and early modern periods.

Although, as Hahn and Wiker point out, the roots of some of these modern methods originate in the much earlier political biblical interpretations of figures like Marsilius of Padua and William of Ockham, the seventeenth century represents a major turning point, coexistent with both the birth of modern politics (and the modern centralized state with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648) as well as the Baconian method of modern science. Two of the most important figures in the seventeenth century, namely Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) are more commonly known for their role as early modern political philosophers. A third important but all too often neglected figure, Isaac La Peyrère (c. 1596-1676), was likewise enmeshed in early modern politics as the secretary and diplomat for the Prince of Condé in France, and La Peyrère’s biblical interpretation served his, and his employer’s, politics.

La Peyrère’s is the least well known of the three, and also the earliest. In an attempt to support his employer Condé’s bid for political power, La Peyrère employed a skeptical method to deconstruct and reinterpret biblical texts, and then redeploy these biblical passages in his French messianic nationalistic interpretations. La Peyrère was in the middle of his employer’s plot (along with England’s Oliver Cromwell and Sweden’s former Queen Christina) to overthrow King Louis XIV of France and place Condé on the throne as a Protestant ruler. Thus his interpretation initially envisioned Condé as the King of France ruling the world alongside the Messiah at the soon-coming end of the world.

Thomas Hobbes’s main exegetical contributions are to be found in his famous political treatise, Leviathan (1651). It is likely that Hobbes was aware of La Peyrère’s work since Hobbes wrote Leviathan while in self-imposed exile in Paris during the English Civil War, frequenting Condé’s chateau where La Peyrère worked. In his Leviathan, Hobbes sought to question the historical background to many of the biblical books, challenging long-held assumptions about the texts, not on the grounds of historical discoveries, but rather on more literary grounds, along the lines of La Peyrère. Of course, Hobbes’s concerns were not so much the historical truth behind the biblical texts, but rather to support his politics, wherein the King of England retained his authority as both head of the state of England, and head of the Church of England. Thus, Hobbes placed the authority to interpret Scripture properly in the hands of the civil sovereign or the experts the sovereign appointed.

It is especially with Spinoza, however, that we find the blueprints for a more skeptical method for interpreting the Bible upon which future generations of scholars would build. Spinoza himself built upon earlier works, like those of La Peyrère and Hobbes (whose writings he had access to in his own personal library). Spinoza’s most important work in this regard was his Tractatus theologico-politicus (1670). The bulk of his theological political treatise contained a reinterpretation of Scripture bolstering his own politics. In his seventh chapter we find the outline of modern biblical criticism, combining the sort of skepticism—doubt whatever can be doubted—epitomized by René Descartes’s (1596-1650) philosophy, which was the topic of Spinoza’s first book—with the method for uncovering a history of nature Francis Bacon (1561-1626) constructed. The point of Spinoza’s method was to sow the seeds of doubt about the biblical text so that theological interpretations could never be employed. Religion itself would be reduced to a few basic ethical norms, like tolerance.

It should thus not surprise us that many modern methods of biblical interpretation cause students, our children, friends, neighbors, and others, to doubt the authority of the biblical texts; the methods were set up to do precisely that. As with Spinoza’s method, the divine, the prophetic, and the miraculous, are not permitted into the discussion of biblical interpretations that limit themselves to the sort of anemic historical analyses that begin with a hermeneutic of suspicion. In such a situation, it is important for us to help unmask the false neutrality of such methods of interpretation. We need to help others see, as Ratzinger showed in Behold the Pierced One and in his papal trilogy, Jesus of Nazareth, that the hermeneutic of faith has better explanatory power, even on rational grounds.

Editor’s note: Pictured above are paintings of Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza.

Jeff Morrow

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Jeff Morrow, a husband and father of five children, is associate professor and chair of undergraduate theology at Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology at Seton Hall University and is a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He is the author of Three Skeptics and the Bible (Pickwick, 2016). Initially a Jewish convert to evangelical Protestantism, he entered the Catholic Church in 1999.

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