N.T. Wright on Unscholary Scholars and Sachkritik (Material Criticism)

sachkritikIn N.T. Wright's newly published book, Paul and His Recent Interpreters: Some Contemporary Debateshe provides a fascinating critique of Sachkritik (material criticism) and those scholars who use it. Sachkritik is the german word for material criticism (or subject criticism), which is the attempt by scholars to separate the subject (Sache) from the form of the subject is presented in the text to the readers, in an attempt to understand the true meaning of the text. Rudolf Bultmann is most famous for his use of Sachkritik in his Theology of the New Testament, and for this he receives the bulk of N.T. Wright's criticism in the first chapters of his new book. Wright disparages the Sachkritik scholars, by accusing them of presumptive arrogance, as if these scholars knew what Paul intended to communicate better than Paul himself.

(I've modified the formatting of quotation by including the footnotes in square brackets and linking directly to the books cited.)

Until we catch up with the complexities of such an enquiry—until, in other words, we allow a properly historical vision of Paul to take priority over later images—we will not advance towards a fuller understanding.

This process has been delayed by a scholarly move which is, in fact, remarkably unscholarly. So strong have been the traditions of Pauline interpretation in the western academy that many have assumed they knew, sometimes better than Paul did himself, what questions he was 'really' asking (despite what he actually said). [I add these parentheses because, of course, I once wrote a book with the hostage-to-fortune title What St Paul Really Said. In my case, the 'really' was implying a contrast, not with some of the ideas which happened to occur in Paul's letters, but with some of the interpretations given by both scholars and popular writers]. Unfortunately, the apostle did not have the benefit of a relaxed sabbatical in an accommodating twentieth-century scholar will have to do it for him. This generates a process (it seems too kind to call it a 'method') known as Sachkritik, 'material criticism', 'the interpreter's criticism of the formulation of the text in the light of what (he thinks) the subject-matter (Sache) to be'. [Morgan, The Nature of New Testament Theology, 42. The whole discussion (42-52) is important.] In other words, we know better than Paul what he 'really' wanted to say, and we now have ways of making sure he will say exactly that.

[e.g. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, 198: what Paul wanted to say in 1 Cor 15 was that human existence both before and beyond death would be 'somatic' in Bultmann's sense; but Paul, whose 'capacity for abstract thinking is not a developed one', muddles this up with bodily resurrection. On Sachkritik see also e.g. Matlock, Unveiling the Apocalyptic Paul, 124 (noting that it seemed as though 'Paul deserved a hand up from the modern interpreter at those points where he found it beyond his power to maintain against the currents of his time his critical insights'); 126 n. 135, quoting Conzelmann, Current Problems in Pauline Research, 175 in summary of Bultmann's program to know better than Paul himself what he was 'really' saying, and like a wise sub-editor must help the author make his meaning clearer by slicing through all those awkward bits which didn't quite fit.

My other favorite example of his genre is Dodd, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, 71, striking through Rom 3:1-8 like a tutor responding to an essay from a dull pupil: 'The argument of the epistle would go much better if this whole section were omitted.' In other words, 'I am determined that Paul should talk about what I think he was talking about, whatever ideas he may have to the contrary.' Whatever else this may be, it is not responsible historical exegesis.]

Wright, N. T. Paul and His Recent Interpreters: Some Contemporary Debates.
Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015. 33. Print.

Wright gives two fascinating examples of unscholarly behavior of Sachkritik scholars. The first is Rudolf Bultmann's correction is of Paul's belief in a bodily resurrection. According to Wright, Bultmann believes Paul has muddled things up because Paul's 'capacity for abstract thinking is not a developed one' (quoting Bultmann).  Wright scolds Bultmann because (according to Wright), Bultmann understood what Paul intended to say better than Paul himself!

C.H. Dodd is also targeted but does not receive as many pages of criticism as Bultmann. I remember reading C.H. Dodd's The Epistle of Paul to the Romans and I was taken back by the audacious statements in it, such as the one Wright cites Dodd saying in the commentary that Paul should have not included Romans 3:1-8 in the letter! (The header image is inspired by this comment by Dodd). Dodd's commentary is unlike any other commentary on Romans I've read. Dodd's arrogancy is audacious in the way he corrects the epistle to the Romans, as if he knew better than Paul himself! Wright sums up Dodd's bravado well when he says "tutor responding to an essay from a dull pupil." Wright likewise disdains C.H. Dodd for comments such as: 'The argument of the epistle would go much better if this whole section were omitted.' In other words, 'I am determined that Paul should talk about what I think he was talking about, whatever ideas he may have to the contrary.' Wright concludes regarding Dodd, "Whatever else this may be, it is not responsible historical exegesis."

A close friend of Clement Dodd's family composed this famous poem about C.H. Dodd:

"I think it extremely odd
That a little professor named Dodd
Should spell, if you please,
his name with three D's
When one is sufficient for God."

Historical Handbook of Major Biblical Interpreters. Ed. Donald K. McKim.
Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998. 481. Print.

Lastly, N.T. Wright includes a statement of humility, because he himself, wrote a book title: What St Paul Really SaidSo in the end, N.T. Wright is like the pot calling the kettle black in his criticism of Rudolf Bultmann, C.H. Dodd and all unscholarly Sachkritik scholars! I have benefited from all three scholars, and enjoy their books, and hope this promotes awareness and discussion of the good, the bad and the ugly of Sachkritic unscholarly scholars!

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  1. So I was having a discussion last night in which I attempted to explain Bultmann and Barth fairly on exactly this subject—which Wright doesn’t seem inclined to do here. And part of the problem is a) allowing Bultmann to own Sachkritik exclusively, and b) making “Sachkritik” simply equal a reductive view of demythologization. (Also, it’s intellectually dishonest to conflate Dodd and Bultmann as exemplars of a genre that attempts condescendingly to know better than Paul what Paul meant when a) Dodd was far more interested in preserving the details of history as revelatory, and b) the example given here differs in no significant way from how Romans had been uniformly handled since before the Reformation. His condescension in striking out passages he doesn’t agree with as part of the sense of Romans is part of a tradition dating to the Patristics!)

    Bultmann and Barth are both doing Sachkritik, and they differ in approach to the text and its details even as both go about more honestly seeking to hear the message of the whole text as it appears. Both are engaged in historical-critical and form-critical work, but when we also say that they’re engaged in subject-critical work, it doesn’t mean they’re critical of the subject! They are not attempting to edit what the Bible says by making its authors say different things; that’s already been being done in their context. Sachkritik is a matter of listening closely to what the authors have said, preserving every detail and seeking to understand why a text with these details was successful in conveying the same message that we should preach today from these texts.

    Bultmann doesn’t want to write the Virgin Birth or the resurrection out of scripture. And to the extent that he is skeptical of them as historical events, that skepticism isn’t new to him. It is a thing that embarrassed his teacher, Wilhelm Herrmann, about Modern attempts to explain away the details of the texts in their miraculousness, because miracles no longer have probative value and today we attempt to use science to replace miracles with things we find more plausible—whether our new explanations help or hinder the message the text conveys. We as skeptical Moderns look at a text that was proof of its message to ancient people in a wildly different context, and seek to disprove it rather than to understand that message. Sachkritik, for Bultmann, is a matter of correctly demythologizing the texts, because they are being demythologized whether we like it or not! That hubris of demythologizing to figure out an historicist kernel of the text that we can believe is what Bultmann is fighting against, not what he is trying to bring about! And what he replaces it with is a hermeneutic of the Sache of the text, to say what it is in fact trying to say as best we can interpret it—a hermeneutic of the gospel, preaching what the texts themselves appear to be preaching about God in Jesus Christ for us. Preaching, not a Liberal synthesis of the remaining credible portions of an otherwise fabulist text, but the message we need to believe as the criterion for not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Because the bathwater is being thrown out everywhere, and we must save the baby!

    Barth’s difference from Bultmann on this matter is only that he would rather not merely understand what the bathwater has to tell us, to draw new and equally life-giving baths for Moderns. He wants to do that, as much as Bultmann does, but he also wants to fight the very idea that this is mere bathwater, and that we can accede to the demand to throw any of it out. Bultmann seeks to train Moderns in discernment as they do what they are already doing; Barth seeks to also teach them to value what they can only see as dross in the first place. And that difference is as much as to say that Bultmann is not a theologian, but an exegete first and foremost. And Barth is a theologian, first and foremost, and occupied in the deeper business of valuing theological claims for which they must be kept around in discussion. Barth is not the arch-conservative who insists that the text in all its particularity is the ur-dogma; he values its statements as theology in the same way as he values all subsequent theological attempts to handle the Sache to which they and we try to point.

    • Matt, your comment may be longer than my original post! I agree that Bultmann and Dodd are different animals but I can see why Wright lumped Dodd in in this case due to his bombastic statements regarding Romans 3:1-8. I noticed the footnote on Dodd because I had a similar reaction to Dodd’s comments in that same loci. Sachkritik is valuable and I’m not opposing it with this post, but sharing N.T. Wright’s recent comments on it for the sake of discussion. As you said, a fuller excursus on Barth vs Bultmann’s utilization of Sachkritik would be beneficial at this point. Bultmann is more consistent with his demythologizing and translating of the NT kerygma, but I do not see this as a strength or an advantage over Barth who does not follow such a rational program. As soon as one begins to do theology, even since before the Patristic, one is already using Sachkritik / source criticism. However, I believe it is not possible to piece together everything in a completely rationalized and neatly ordered system. This is why all the great summas of the sixteenth century are unfinished, and why we still affirm suprarational conclusions like the trinity or hypostatic union in Christology over against the consistent rationalism of the unitarians or ebionites.

      Thanks for sharing your lengthy thoughts Matt!


  2. Thank you for the post and for the comments from Matt. Personally, after doing much reading of Bultmann, I am not sure that any of us can avoid demythologizing. Nor can we avoid at some level the question of what ancient authors “really” meant by what they said. Although our common humanity unites the ancient and the modern, our culture today and therefore our questions regarding a well-lived human life are different from those of Paul. The question of what Paul “really” meant, is almost inevitably a question of what he meant in relation to questions we have.

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