Hans W. Frei and the History of (German) Biblical Scholarship

During my recent trip to England and Norway, I had the pleasure of reading Hans W. Frei‘s 1974 book The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative. I had of course often heard of this book, but actually reading it was quite an experience. What learning!!! And what a lively and stimulating presentation of so many elements of the history of (German) New Testament scholarship! For anyone who just wants to dip into the book, it might be best to start with the introduction on pp. 1-16, the summary of some key lines of his argument on pp. 217-224, and his final words on pp. 323-324. Alternatively, one may simply wish to use the index to consult his learned treatments of key topics such as prophecy and fulfillment or miracles or the quest for the historical Jesus and especially his sympathetic and sparkling discussions of key figures such as Calvin, Herder, Strauss, and Schleiermacher. Indeed, after reading this book, I may well end up chasing down some of his other works, such as his chapter on David Strauss in Nineteenth Century Religious Thought in the West (see here) or some of his other essays (e.g. here; cf. here). But enough of my pointers for further reading!

Today’s post will consist of a short quotation from Frei regarding an interesting difference between developments in England and Germany in the eighteenth century.

Frei (Eclipse p. 113; cf. also 118-119): “When it came to the meaningfulness of the Bible there were few pure skeptics or scoffers in the German Enlightenment, no matter what these same men did in historical or other explicative exegesis. One of the great differences between the English Deists and the German scholars of the later eighteenth century was that the Germans almost to a man took the Bible, especially the New Testament, to be a rich embodiment of religious truth. It did not matter that they had grave reservations over large parts of it or even that some of them (Semler, for instance) thought that all of it was subject to explanation as a product of its time. The meaning of the biblical texts was accessible and clear, and it was easy enough in principle to know the parts of the Bible that were still meaningful or worthy of application from those that were not. And the results of the harmony between explication and application were customarily favorable to the Bible.”

What I found interesting in this quotation is the extent to which far-reaching criticism and a continued appreciation for the religious value of the Bible were held together in Germany in a different way than how things were being argued out in England in the same general time period (with Reimarus being somewhat of an outlier in Germany; see Frei 114-116, 119 ). What I find to be potentially illuminating about this observation is not that it settles the important question of whether or not (a given form of) biblical criticism, consistently worked out, is, in fact, compatible with the conviction that the Bible is a rich embodiment of religious truth, but merely that it signals a difference in the history of biblical interpretation in England and Germany that might be relevant for understanding the subsequent ways in which these two traditions have grappled and continue to grapple with issues involving the relationship between criticism and religious truth or criticism and faith.

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German Mondays: Thank you for making it to the end of this blog post! I hope to be able to write at least one Monday blog post each month. Best, Wayne