A Phenomenology of Scripture's Gaze and the Blindnesses of the Historical-Critical Method

Can there be a phenomenology of Sacred Scripture? Haven’t we been told by Dominique Janicaud that phenomenology and theology should never mix, that ever since Husserl phenomenology has rested on a methodological “bracketing” of faith?[1] Moreover, even if one could get past such scruples, would not one yield as many phenomenologies as there are readers or approaches to the text?[2] What purpose would such a catalog serve?

These objections retain their force only as long as we view phenomenology as a scientific project of pure, neutral description. But after postmodernity, aren’t we blessedly free of such prejudices? Are we not free to consider that going “to the things themselves” might require perspectives only accessible to the eyes of faith? And might not particular objects (or texts) themselves call for a certain gaze?

Just this is the basic Christian contention regarding Sacred Scripture. If the Bible truly constitutes divine revelation, approaching it rightly requires a certain gaze or way of seeing (a normative phenomenology), as well as a particular world-horizon or stance towards the real (a normative ontology). This Scriptural phenomenology and ontology require a conversion: a reversal of our “natural attitude.” On a phenomenological level, rather than dominating the text by our gaze, we find ourselves, in Jean-Louis Chrétien’s memorable phrase, “under the gaze of the Bible.” On the level of ontology, as George Lindbeck describes, “it is the text . . . which absorbs the world, rather than the world the text.”[3]

Since their development, historical-critical approaches to the Bible have been indicted for bypassing tradition and the magisterium, supplanting allegory and typology, and concealing skeptical bias behind a feigned neutrality. Beyond these diagnoses, the normative phenomenology and ontology of Scripture shed light on a more fundamental danger: a gaze incompatible with viewing Scripture as divinely revealed. Historical critical method tends to resist the phenomenological reversal for which the Word calls, erecting a sovereign gaze and projecting an alternative world-horizon.

We will rely primarily on the work of the French phenomenologist Jean-Louis Chrétien and the Dominican theologian Fr. Olivier-Thomas Venard, to first sketch Scripture’s normative phenomenology and ontology and how it reverses the normal relationship between subject and object, text and world. Later, we will explore how the dominant historical-critical approaches cultivate a gaze which systematically resists this Scriptural reversal. The conclusion briefly gestures to how the “tools” of historical criticism might be reinterpreted and redeemed, submitted to the gaze of the Scriptures.

“Under the Gaze of the Bible”: A Phenomenological Reversal

Even on a natural level, the gaze is never univocal or sovereign, for each thing establishes its own protocols of vision. The mastery dreamed of by modern subjectivity is unmasked even by mundane cases of the sense of sight. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty explains, “for each object, as for each picture in an art gallery, there is an optimal distance from which it requires to be seen.”[4] Through trial and error, and the habit sedimented in the muscles of our eyes and bodies, we achieve an optimal “grip” on the spectacle. This “grip,” however, requires dispossession and displacement, submitting to the conditions of the visible. We select a gaze that responds to the primordial “gaze” of the world, inscribing a kind of reversal in vision as such: “the vision [the seer] exercises, he also undergoes from the things . . . the seer and the visible reciprocate one another and we no longer know which sees and which is seen.”[5] Because things regard us, we have to learn from them the unique means of approach which will unlock the secret of their visibility.

The same is true of texts, according to Jean-Louis Chrétien: “any book contains indications about the appropriate way to read it”; “readers are themselves read by the books they read.”[6] Our gaze is met by a gaze which awakens in the text.[7] New perspectives open only if we submit to being searched and exposed by what a book has to say.

Chrétien then asks us: “Why then would the Holy Bible . . . be the sole exception to this rule, despite the astounding heights from which certain would-be specialists of ‘religious studies’ view scripture, for whom reading teaches nothing but what they thought they already knew?”[8] As in any case of reading, we cannot bring with us an a priori gazeScripture must teach us how it is to be read. Our gaze must be trained by recognizing another vision at work. According to Chrétien, “the Holy Bible itself . . . prescribes [how] we should read it today.”[9] For as Chrétien explains, this is not just any case of reading:

We . . . have the possibility of holding in our hands, scanning with our eyes, placing at our bedside or on our bookshelf the very Word of God . . . that has drawn us out of nothingness and saved us . . . The Holy Bible places at our disposal the unapproachable sanctity of the living God.[10]

The Scriptures are revealed, inspired, and thus the gaze transmitted by their pages belongs to God himself. Psalm 11:4 states that the Lord’s “eyes behold, his eyelids try, the children of men.” As Chrétien summarizes Augustine’s reading of this passage, the Bible constitutes “God’s lengthy gaze toward us, eyelids open in the clear pages, eyelids closed in the obscure pages.”[11]

The author of Hebrews describes the gaze of the word of God as “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow . . . a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart . . . all things are naked and opened” unto God’s eyes (Heb 4:12). Here the roles of critic and object of critique are reversed (Chrétien notes that the Greek word translated “discerner” here is kritikos).[12]

The burning question that confronts an exegete is how to respond to the critical gaze of the Scriptures, respecting the “divine-human character of the Holy Bible.”[13] As Chrétien puts it: “The affirmation of the Scriptures’ inspiration is . . . prescriptive as to the manner or manners in which we may read them and use them.”[14] Venard’s formulation is remarkably similar: “the first task of the theologian is to receive Scripture as holy”; there is “a specific mode of reading corresponding to the biblical poetics, a mode of reading which admits the realism of the divine.”[15]

What way of seeing, what stance towards the real, correspond to reading the Scriptures as inspired? What are the features of this normative Scriptural phenomenology and ontology? I will briefly sketch three: the first two primarily phenomenological and third in a more ontological register.

First, a phenomenology of Scripture as revealed places us “under the gaze of the Bible,” reversing the priority of the subject’s masterful gaze. While to understand is usually to equal, Chrétien writes that the “incommensurability between myself and the Word . . . is a totally different situation from my confrontation with the highest works of human genius.”[16] Rather than installing myself as the text’s judge or even its equal, I encounter a gaze which precedes and forever exceeds me. The word of God is sovereign and for its coming I can never be “prepared, and still less armed.”[17] Every identity I would construct on my own is shattered, every gaze rebuffed; only in the mirror of the Scriptures are my eyes opened and a stone with a new name written on it promised to me (Rev. 2:17).

Psalm 139 presents a phenomenology of this Scriptural gaze, “immemorial” and “infinitely stronger than I.”[18]Thine eyes did see my substance” in my mother’s womb, “in thy book all my members were written . . . when as yet there was none of them” (Psalm 139:16). I am only constituted as a subject under the gaze of the Scriptures, which are the vector of my becoming. Rather than measuring, I am measured: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it” (Psalm 139:6). Where, indeed, can I flee from the reversal demanded by such a presence?

Second, a phenomenology of Scripture as revealed costs us “something of ourselves,” reversing a disinterested gaze by putting us into play, body and soul. Although the Word is sovereign, Chrétien insists that “it is not a matter of assuming a passive attitude . . . in which we would expect the Word of God to do everything, just somehow decipher itself within us all by itself.”[19] Being read means offering myself to the divine gaze, destroying “every pretension” in me “that sets itself up against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor 10:5).

This transformation “presupposes constant acts on our part,” both prayer for divine illumination and the work of interpretation and actualization.[20] As Chrétien puts it, while “appropriating the Bible is always at the same time a disappropriation,” our gaze is not abolished but becomes more indispensable than ever before.[21] Such is the logic of excess: precisely because, in the words of Sirach 43, “even yet will [the Lord] far exceed,” “put forth all your strength.” Only by straining all of our powers of interpretation to the max can we profit from holy defeat at the hands of the Word, like Jacob who only received the Lord’s blessing by wrestling with the angel, coming away limping.

The penetrating gaze of divine inspiration makes neutrality impossible, as Chrétien explains: “it is for you too that God speaks in this text, it is addressed to you and it concerns the question of life or death and that of your salvation.”[22] Thus reading the Scriptures is “costly . . . since the price or entrance fee is something of ourselves.”[23] The Scriptural gaze lays us bare, demanding an “exposed” or “wounded” reading in which we offer ourselves entirely.[24]

Third, an ontology of Scripture as divine revelation opens the “strange new world of the Bible,” reversing any attempt to map the text onto an external world-horizon which would define the “really real.”[25] Scripture opens a new space and time in which we are invited to participate. In the words of Venard: “The book, in lectio divina, is . . . a world where one voyages.”[26] When I open the Scriptures, I escape the strict confines of “empirical” time and space. As Chrétien writes, I encounter the “master and lord of time” who opens to me the Scriptural “today” of which Hebrews speaks.[27]

In what Venard calls “the surpassment of time from the interior of time,” Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost become contemporary realities into which we are invited, not events of the distant historical past.[28] Similarly, Venard explains that the Bible describes non-localizable realities which become the coordinates within which we live: “the Scriptures . . . end up constituting a kind of ‘world’ to themselves.”[29] This is especially clear in the gospel of John, where “the words of Jesus construct another dimension” in which believers are told to remain.[30]

Rather than being plotted within the “empirical” space and linear time, the time and space of the Scriptural world constitute the most ultimate world-horizon. In the words of George Lindbeck, Scripture performs an ontological reversal: “it is the text . . . which absorbs the world, rather than the world the text.”[31] Venard agrees: “the primacy of the textual logic over the referential or historical logic is a structural given of the Scriptures,” “Biblical literature seems finally to knit in words and phrases a universe more real, for the believer, than the world in which he lives.”[32] To plot the time and space of the Scriptures within a more ultimate world-horizon or to view another world as “really real,” is to reject the invitation of the inspired Scriptures to, like Abraham, leave our country for a home God will show us (Gen 12).[33]

Faith in the inspired Scriptures as divinely revealed imposes a normative phenomenology and ontology which demands a reversal, placing us 1) “under the gaze of the Bible,” 2) costing us “something of ourselves,” and 3) opening “the strange new world of the Bible.”

The Historical-Critical Gaze: Resistance to the Scriptural Reversal

Christ spoke to his disciples of those who “seeing see not . . . neither do they understand,” (Matt 13:13). Indeed, as Jesus told the Pharisees in John 9, those who are most blind are those who, when confronted with the light who has come into the world to banish our darkness, claim they can already see by their own lights. At times, historical criticism reenacts the arrogance of this gaze, refusing to submit to the Word, who alone can, as on the road to Emmaus, expound “unto [us] in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).

The problem stems from historical criticism’s methodological self-understanding. At its worst, when the accent is placed on its “neutrality” and status as “scientific,” historical-critical approaches to the Bible systematically resist the phenomenological and ontological reversal outlined above. Rather than submitting to “the gaze of the Bible,” historical criticism tends to erect itself as a sovereign gaze. Rather than costing us “something of ourselves,” historical-critical neutrality insulates the reader from the claims of the Word. Rather than inviting us to the “strange new world of the Bible,” historical criticism offers another world-horizon which claims to be the “really real.”

First, historical critical approaches tend to bristle at any suggestion that the status of the Scriptural text as revealed imposes a particular “gaze” which must condition our own. Key to the field’s self-understanding, outside a few postmodern dissenters, is that in order to be objective and scientific, it must be free from any confessional bias. Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and atheists can meet on neutral ground, free from the heteronomy of dogma or magisterial authority, which must be systematically bracketed.

Rather than leaving the question open, this reflects a rejection of the possibility that the text mediates the divine presence. For if this were the case, a reverent, submissive gaze would be demanded of anyone who wished to approach the text “objectively,” that is, in a way that corresponds to the nature of the object in question. Only an “interested” gaze would be able to decipher what the text really says. But this would contradict the other half of the modern dream of objectivity: neutrality free of doctrinal commitment.

Historical critical approaches, if they wish to remain disinterested and scientific, must neutralize a priori the relevance of any “gaze” emanating from Scripture. A no-man’s-land or God’s-eye perspective is installed over the Scriptural text, prone and incapable of resistance. As Venard writes, in critical discourse, “the subject is erected as first institutor.”[34] One is free, in one’s private life, to read the Scriptures as if they were revealed, but this is a “perspective,” or “option” posited by the subject’s initiative. It cannot be the recognition of a divine gaze intrinsic to the text, which “objectively” precedes the subject, binding on any reader, believer or not.[35] The phenomenological reversal proposed by the Scriptures is the one thing that historical criticism cannot tolerate.

Second, this same neutrality ensures that reading the Scriptures cannot cost us “something of ourselves.” With confessional commitments bracketed, the reader cannot be implicated in her reading. As Chrétien puts it,

[In a significant portion] . . . of the exegesis wrongly called “critical” . . .  the only thing which is sheltered from all critique is the exegete himself . . . hidden as he is behind the mounds of files and glosses like fallen Adam, in order not to respond to God’s question which asks of him: “where are you?” and “who are you?”[36]

Criticism can be but a more sophisticated form of the fig leaves our first parents made to cover their nakedness before the divine gaze.

Finally, historical critical approaches bar the gates to the “strange new world of the Bible.” Historical Jesus scholarship claims to access the real Jesus of history, concealed behind the words ascribed to the Christ of faith. Similarly, critics often try to pierce through the mythological veils of Scriptural narrative to “what really happened.” In this ontology, the Scriptures, or the words of Christ, are no longer our access to what is most real, in which we must remain, but an obstacle to the real. At best, if the events or words recorded pass the historical-critical bar, what ontological weight they have is bestowed by the empirical world, which represents the “really real.”

Similarly, historical criticism tends to project an alternative world horizon. Venard notes that when presented with the Scriptural claim to reverse “the normal order expected between the text and reality,” the “modern critical spirit” responds with suspicion.[37] Rather than emplotting empirical space and time within the world of the Scriptures, historical critical approaches ruthlessly translate and reduce the Scriptures to linear time and circumscribed space. In the opposite of Lindbeck’s famous dictum, the world swallows the text. Those imprisoned by the historical critical gaze are unable, like Abraham, to plot their pilgrim existence against the backdrop of a Land known only through the revealed words of a promise. Instead, they can only look back, like Lot’s wife, to a city with familiar contours.

Submitting Criticism to the Gaze of the Bible

To wish to reverse the historical-critical gaze is inevitably to invite the accusation of fundamentalism. Does accepting the normative phenomenology and ontology of Scripture mean throwing out the critical toolbox entirely?

No; the problems I highlighted above are not endemic to historical-critical “tools”: studies of redaction history, dating and authorship, intertextual influence, and textual variations remain legitimate. The question is what gaze mobilizes their usage: the sovereign perspective of the critic or a regard obedient to the Word. Moreover, fundamentalist hermeneutics actually shares a key assumption with the historical criticism it opposes: both can only imagine the real within the confines of empirical space and time.

Instead, under the gaze of the Bible, the “critic” will reconceptualize her task; old tools will be put to new uses. Gone, of course, will be every claim to scientific neutrality; confessional commitments are back in play. Scripture must at every moment be handled reverently as the living speech of God. Yet historical “criticism” can survive a phenomenological reversal, becoming means of opening ourselves to the piercing gaze of the Word.

At its best, rather than mastery, historical contextualization can be a way of stripping away our defenses, defamiliarizing us before a text we thought we knew but into which we had projected modern prejudices. Its vigilance can dismantle lazy or distorted readings which only reflect ourselves, the strangeness of the ancient preparing us for fresh encounters with the Word which is ever new.

Similarly, discovering intertextual parallels and redaction history, however conjectural, can increase our wonder at the long and circuitous paths God was willing to take to speak to us. Submitting to the gaze of the Scriptures will leave no aspect of historical criticism untouched, until “every thought” is captive “to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5).

To be read by Scripture, our every tool must be deployed, consumed in holy sacrifice to the ever-greater God. The best historical criticism can accomplish may be, like Thomas’s Summa, nothing but straw before the Word. But rather than stubble which will be burnt up in judgment (1 Cor 3:12), let it be straw for the manger in which Christ was laid, kindling for the fire which Christ has come to set upon the earth (Luke 12:49).

[1] Dominique Janicaud, “The Theological Turn of French Phenomenology,” in Phenomenology and the “Theological Turn”: The French Debate (New York: Fordham, 2000), 16-103.

[2] Jean-Louis Chrétien, Under the Gaze of the Bible, translated by John Marson Dunaway (New York: Fordham, 2008), 8.

[3] George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Louisville: Westminster John Knox), 118.

[4] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge, 2005), 302.

[5] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible (Evanston: Northwestern, 1968), 139.

[6] Under the Gaze, 1,  ix.

[7] Ibid., ix.

[8] Ibid., ix-x.

[9] Ibid., 1.

[10] Ibid., 7.

[11] Ibid., x.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 7.

[14] Ibid., 7-8.

[15] Olivier-Thomas Venard, Pagina sacra: le passage de l’écriture sainte à l’écriture théologique (Paris: Cerf, 2009), 353.

[16] Under the Gaze, 9.

[17] Ibid., 26, xi.

[18] Ibid., 26.

[19] Ibid., 11, x.

[20] Ibid., 11.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 15.

[23] Ibid., x.

[24] Ibid.

[25] The phrase comes from the title of an essay by Karl Barth.

[26] Pagina sacra, 394.

[27] Under the gaze, 4

[28] Pagina sacra, 119, Under the gaze, 4.

[29] Pagina sacra, 119.

[30] Ibid., 254.

[31] Lindbeck, 118.

[32] Pagina sacra, 119, 135.

[33] Oliver-Thomas Venard, A Poetic Christ: Thomist Reflections on Scripture, Language and Reality (London: T&T Clark, 2019), 54.

[34] Pagina sacra, 356.

[35] A Poetic Christ, 79-80.

[36] Jean-Louis Chrétien, Intelligence du feu (Paris: Bayard, 2003), 9-10.

[37] Pagina sacra, 133, 135.

Featured Image: Aksel Waldemar Johannessen, The Antichrists, before 1922; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-70.


Timothy Troutner

Timothy Troutner is a doctoral candidate in Systematic Theology at the University of Notre Dame. Drawing upon 20th-century German theology and French phenomenology, his research explores the doctrine of creation as it intersects with language.

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