The Historical-Critical Method

Professor Edgar Krentz wrote in 1975:

* The introduction of historical criticism constituted ‘the most serious test that the church has had to face through nineteen centuries” about the nature of authority.14 The method tends to freedom from authority and criticism of tradition. It treats biblical material in a different manner than theological thought had done for centuries, and in the process questions the validity of theological method.

* In the late medieval period Thomas Aquinas, John Gerson, and a few others urged a more strictly literal interpretation. Their exegesis became consciously more objective. This objectivity, according to Robert Grant, is “the beginning of the modern scientific study of the Scriptures. Reason is set up as an autonomous agent.“3 It is difficult, however, to trace a direct line of descent from late medieval theology to modern biblical studies.

* Humanists like Erasmus, Cajetan, and John Colet interpreted the Bible with the same methods they used on other ancient literature; they looked for the literal sense. They could not artificially stop this mode of thought at some boundary erected around the Scriptures. They gave the first impulse to the historical understanding of the Bib1e.s Erasmus coupled with this a demand for the use of reason in interpretation, and so made reason a criterion of interpretation.” Thus historical thought and the use of reason were legacies to the Reformation and later interpreters. The classical gymnasia promoted their approach and so influenced generations of biblical interpreters.

* Luther affirmed that the Bible in its literal sense was clear and open to all.

* Luther’s affirmation of scriptural clarity brought two problems in its train. (1) How does one choose between different interpretations that claim to be based on the literal sense? Erasmus had answered, by reason. Luther elected instead to interpret the entire Scripture from its central point, Christ. “Take Christ from the Scriptures! What else is there to be found in them?“13 Where passages are unclear (and there are such), the interpreter’s task is to relate them to this Gospel. Melanchthon expressed the same view in Apology of the Auksburg Confession IV. (2) Luther applied the same principle to the problem of the canon. Some books fall short of a proper proclamation of the Gospel.

* In the seventeenth century science, history, and philosophy became autonomous disciplines, freed from both biblical authority and the traditional masters in their fields (Aristotle, Ptolemy, etc.).

* At the beginning of the seventeenth century the Bible was the universal authority in all fields of knowledge, but by the end of the century that authority was eroded… Science worked independently of the Bible-and in that way the Bible’s authority was diminished.

* The study of history followed a similar path. The Bible had been the authority for world chronology and geography. Now new knowledge from new sources revealed the limitations of the historical and chronological data in the Bible.

* Orthodoxy demanded instead a sacrifkium intellectus in the face of the Bible’s statements. After that only two responses were possible: either one must recognize two independent truths (which satisfied no one), or a struggle for supremacy must result.

* In the last quarter of the century the French Oratorian priest Richard Simon published a series of books in which he applied critical method to the Bible ( 1678 ff. ). With these he became the direct founder of the historical-critical study of the Bible. His aim was apologetic, not historical, to show that the Protestant sola scriptura principle, when carried to its logical conclusion, makes confidence in the Bible impossible. The literal sense interpreted by the true laws of criticism produces uncertainty, unless it is accompanied by tradition as guide. In arguing that Moses could not have written the entire Pentateuch, that some biblical books reflect a long period of compilation, and that the textual tradition is uncertain, Simon used the evident and the rational as criteria, i.e., he practiced criticism of the Bible. He was expelled from the Oratorians in 1678 and his writings were placed on the lndex.

* The last great dogmatic systems in Protestantism were written in the seventeenth century (John Gerhard, Loci Communes Theologici, 9 vol., 1610-1622; Abraham Calov, Systemu Locorum Theologicorum, 12 vol., 1655-1672, etc.). They were important, yet futile, attempts to secure the Scriptures as Word of God.

* The eighteenth-century Deists treated the Bible with freedom when it did not, in their lights, accord with reason. For example, they argued that Isaiah was composite, the Gospels contradictory, and the apostles often unreliable… Deism might have ruled longer but for the horror of the French Revolution, credited by many English men to the criticism practiced by French rationalism.

* In France imported English Deism mixed with seventeenth century rationalism to give birth to the Enlightenment. Pierre Bayle provided an arsenal of argumentation in his Dictionnaire historique et critique (1695) for Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot to support Bayle’s view that criticism has the right to make all areas of human thought its realm. Reason, thr advocate for both pro and con, is the only instrument adequate to discover truth. All binding authorities (political, social, and religious) must fall before it; they have no common ground with reason (Koselleck, pp. 88-92). Bayle set the tone for an anti-church polemic that characterized French intellectual life throughout the century and gave the term criticism its abiding negative connotation.

* The historical thought of the Enlightenment was more philosophical than historical. It recognized the time-conditioned, historical character of the Bible (a major contribution) only to remove it through the application of common sense to historical materials (Lehmann, pp. 44-46; Neil, p. 239). History was used in the service of the religion of nature (reason) only “to point a moral or adorn a tale.” The great achievement and literary excellence of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall should not blind us to the fact that it was history told to support an antisupernaturalist position (Richardson, pp. 41-44).

Nevertheless, the impulses for true historical study-not to support a philosophical position, but to understand the past were present. The historical character of all revelation and doctrine was now clear. Herder was one of the first to point, even if unclearly, to the historicity of man and his entire world. He stressed that all historical phenomena are unique and singular, and so removed from analogical criticism.45 The stage was set for the flowering of true historical interest and method.

* An intellectual and social revolution changed all thought in the nineteenth century. Geology offered proof for the great antiquity of man, while evolutionary development was a commonplace by the end of the century. The fiery debate between science and theology soon died down, although the afterglow survives to the present. An economic and social revolution changed population and work patterns into those of the modern world. The optimistic spirit of growth and progress waltzed through the mental halls of Western civilization.

* The development of historical method can be documented in a series of works published within two decades. With Barthold Georg Niebuhr’s Rb’mische Geschichte (1811-1812) historical criticism came of age. Niebuhr used criticism to separate poetry and falsehood from truth in the sources from ancient Rome. He sought “at a minimum to discover with probability the web of events (Zusammenhang) and [to reconstruct] a more believable narrative in place of the one he sacrificed to his convictions.”4F Criticism was used positively, to write the history of early Rome. Niebuhr asked two questions consistently and clearly: “What is the evidence?” and “What is the value of the evidence?” He began the process of making the sources say far more than they intended by uncovering their Tendenz (bias). The result was a new, exciting, and convincing picture of the origins of Rome-and a new historical tool. Niebuhr’s influence was immense.

* The works written by David Friedrich Strauss and Ferdinand Christian Baur incited many to historical study. Strauss began the “really significant era of criticism of the New Testament” with the publication of Das Leben Jest ( 1835). Strauss, in part still a child of rationalism, followed Reimarus in denying the historicity of all miracles, the resurrection, and most of the content of the Gospels. However, he tried to save the eternal truths contained in the historically dubious materials through the concept of myth (Ernst, pp. 33-34). Reason destroys truth by its naturalistic explanations; the use of myth allows the preservation of truth in the face of rationalism. Myth allowed Strauss to place the Gospels into their own conceptual world and save their writers from being deceivers. It allowed him to read the Gospels without imposing on them modern presuppositions. Das Leben Jesu was a shocking work that roused a storm of protest. The clash between consistent historical study with rationalist presuppositions and the revelation-claim of the Bible was very clear. The conclusions Strauss reached were radical and questionable, but forced the issues of method and source criticism on scholarship and so were a factor in the origins of a truly historical approach.

* For Baur the New Testament was not isolated from the thought currents of the early church. He described these currents in Hegelian terms as thesis (Judeo-Christianity, Peter and Matthew), antithesis (Pauline Christianity), and synthesis (early catholicism). His solution still has currency. His Tendenzkritik persuaded him that the entire New Testament is interpretation from beginning to end.

* It is difficult to overestimate the significance the nineteenth century has for biblical interpretation. It made historical criticism the approved method of interpretation. The result was a revolution of viewpoint in evaluating the Bible. The Scriptures were, so to speak, secularized. The biblical books became historical documents to be studied and questioned like any other ancient sources. The Bible was no longer the criterion for the writing of history; rather history had become the criterion for understanding the Bible. 64 The variety in the Bible was highlighted; its unity had to be discovered and could no longer be presumed. The history it reported was no longer assumed to be everywhere correct. The Bible stood before criticism as defendant before judge. This criticism was largely positivist in orientation, imminentist in its explanations, and incapable of appreciating the category of revelation.

Positivism: 1. a philosophical system that holds that every rationally justifiable assertion can be scientifically verified or is capable of logical or mathematical proof, and that therefore rejects metaphysics and theism.
2. the theory that laws are to be understood as social rules, valid because they are enacted by authority or derive logically from existing decisions, and that ideal or moral considerations (e.g., that a rule is unjust) should not limit the scope or operation of the law.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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