Chapter 2: Is Biblical Study Undergoing a Paradigm Shift?

The Bible in Human Transformation
by Walter Wink

Chapter 2: Is Biblical Study Undergoing a Paradigm Shift?

In a period when it has become all too stylish to speak of the "death" of the old ways, it is necessary to stress once more that we are declaring a bankruptcy, not holding a wake. It is because biblical criticism has so much of value which must be preserved that it is urgent that it come under new management. What is happening in our field is not essentially different from what other disciplines have already passed through, and it should be of some profit to us to examine their experience in his brilliant study, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, T. S. Kuhn has traced the process through which scientific paradigms undergo transformation.1 His observations illuminate the crisis in biblical research.

Normal research, says Kuhn, is only made possible by a "paradigm" — a constellation of presuppositions, beliefs, values, and techniques which provide a perspective on and a means to manipulate data. Paradigms reduce the chaos of data to a selective pattern which enables specialized research on small pieces of the puzzle. Apart from the paradigm, fact-gathering and observation would be random and diffuse. All seeing depends on a paradigm. No one has ever developed any observational language able to report anything but what is at least generally known in advance, that is, what the paradigm has prepared us to see. Conversely, however, the paradigm helps us not to see data which it judges to be irrelevant or immaterial. The paradigm suggests which investigations might prove worthwhile and is able to predict results.

Each proposed new paradigm has encountered sharp resistance at the beginning. After it has become established, "normal science" takes over, and mopping-up operations generally occupy the whole careers of researchers. Novelty is not only not sought under normal circumstances, but is strenuously resisted, since its presence, unresolved, would indicate the breakdown of the paradigm. Novelty is forced into the conceptual boxes supplied by the paradigm; if it refuses to submit, the paradigm is in crisis.

Paradigms provide not just methods, however, but a whole perspective on reality. Consequently, quite often when novelty or anomaly appears, it is at first not even seen. Kuhn cites as an example a remarkable experiment in which subjects who were shown anomalous cards (a red six of spades, for example) interspersed in a normal deck, simply could not see the card as anomalous (perhaps you even failed to read the parenthetical example as anomalous), and sought to subsume it under a known category, even though in doing so they experienced acute discomfort (pp. 62 ff.). It is this practiced incapacity to see (due to familiarity with the old paradigm) which accounts for the fact that historically it has been younger researchers in a field or people in adjacent fields who have first recognized anomaly for what it is and taken it seriously. But only the person who knows with precision what he or she should expect is able to recognize that something has gone wrong. Anomaly only appears, therefore, against the backdrop provided by the paradigm.

The emergence of new paradigms is generally preceded by a period of pronounced professional insecurity, as the volume and complexity of research increases far more rapidly than its importance or return. This period of acute crisis usually lasts no more than a decade or two, during which time sclerotic positions soften and new openness to competing points of view emerges. The search for assumptions is one effective way to weaken the grip of the old paradigm on the mind and to suggest the basis of a new one. In time it becomes clear that the traditional rules no longer define a playable game.

The application to biblical studies can be made approximately, if inexactly. The paradigm for biblical research has been the historical critical method. The anomaly on which it has now foundered is the inability of that method to render the Bible’s own content and intent accessible for human development today. This anomaly has long been sensed (Kahler), sometimes transcended (Schlatter, Barth, Bultmann, to name but a few), but generally disregarded. Today it can be ignored no longer. For what a few saw earlier has now forced itself on common consciousness, the evidence of which is a general malaise and a crisis of morale in the field. The arguments in the first part of this paper constitute the theoretical basis for the position that the historical critical paradigm for biblical study is now obsolete. The task ahead is the development of new alternatives.


T. S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).