Date of this Version

January 2002

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Details

This Article is published in Concilium : International Journal for Theology

Harrison, Peter (2002) Fixing the Meaning of Scripture: The Renaissance Bible and the Origins of Modernity. Concilium 294 (2002)(1) pp. 102-110.

© 2002 Concilium Foundation All Rights Reserved.

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Abstract

‘I believe that the intellectual life of the whole of western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups…. At one pole we have the literary intellectuals … at the other scientists.’ This observation of C. P. Snow, made over forty years ago in his famous book The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959), eloquently points to a fundamental rift in the modern west between those intellectuals whose stock in trade is words and scientists who deal with natural objects. The consequences of this deep division have been unfortunate. On the one hand, with the advent of post-modern theory, many of the disciplines of the humanities have been precipitated into an almost terminal crisis. For increasing numbers of observers, the humanities have abandoned their traditional mission of providing cultural guidance on questions of meaning and value and have sunk into a relativistic obscurantism. On the other hand, the natural sciences have given rise to remarkable technological advances and now exercise an unparalleled cultural authority. Yet the practitioners of science have tended either to ignore questions of meaning of value on account of a stated commitment to objectivity, or have sought to fill the gap left by the reticent liberal arts by offering reductionist accounts of human personhood and ethical values that are vacuous and inane.

In the brief compass of this essay I shall not prescribe a panacea to heal this unfortunate rift. However, I do hope to shed some light on the origins of this great divide in the hope that it may yield some new insights into our contemporary predicament and be suggestive of ways in which more damaging consequences of the polarization of the two cultures might be ameliorated. The origins of the distinct treatments of words and things in Western society, I shall propose, lie in a series of related revolutions that took place at the dawn of modernity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Surprising as it may seem, Scripture—its contents, the controversies it generated, the changing status of its authority, and most important of all, the new way in which it was read by humanists and Protestants—played a pivotal role in the origins of originating that division between humanities and sciences which has given shape to modernity and which to this day dominates the intellectual landscape.

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