Should the historical-critical method be laid to rest? An Essay

biblical interpretation

Historical-criticism has been the dominant approach in biblical interpretation since the mid-nineteenth century until the 1970s. It has long been taken for granted as “the only scientifically respectable way to study the Bible,”1 in the English speaking world at least, but “is now under a cloud.”2 In contemporary biblical studies the number of approaches to interpretation are legion, and with so many of them seeking to consciously reject the historical-critical approach we must look carefully at the role it has played, and continues to play, asking whether it has not “been falsely demonised in the process.”3 This essay will evaluate key aspects of the philosophical, methodological and theological outcomes of historical-criticism and argue that it continues to provide invaluable interpretive tools when handled carefully and intelligently. It is very difficult to do justice to the fact that there is no such animal as the historical-critical method. Some have tried to categorise the multifaceted nature of it. For example, Plantinga distinguishes at least three distinct types of historical-criticism: ‘Troeltschian’, ‘Duhemian’ and ‘Spinozistic’.4 In the interests of brevity, however, it is simply worth noting that to use the term ‘historical-critical method’ is in itself “something of a misnomer to describe a complex set of attitudes and assumptions.”5 As Barton rightly points out, the prospects for and role of historical-criticism will depend largely on what definition we prefer to attach to it6 and that it is an approach that is far more nuanced than many of its critics will admit.

In the last thirty years the philosophical underpinnings of the historical-critical method and the historian’s ability to reconstruct the past have been seriously brought into question. The historical-critical approach emphasises the discovery of the historical context(s) in which a text was written and subsequently added to. It claims that to discover the meaning of a text it is first necessary to identify the authorial intent, which can be determined only by closely aligning oneself with the historical background behind the text. Often presented as “the correct method for getting at the meaning of the text,” it also risks taking the scriptures out of the hands of the non-specialists.7 This is perhaps ironic considering that historical-criticism arose, in part, as a response to the church’s dogmatic authority only to replace it with a dogmatism of its own.

Dobbs-Allsopp rightly discusses the need to rethink and retheorise the objectivist and foundationalist assumptions that have informed and motivated the historical-critical practices of the past.8 Historical-criticism, in its quest for the ‘original meaning’, values what Barton describes as “disinterested scholarship.”9 This quest for ‘what really happened’ assumes that the historian can have unbridled access to the facts without tarnishing it from their personal views, interests or wider Weltanschauung. Yet thinkers such as Martin Heidegger, for example, have forced us to take seriously the role that preunderstanding plays in the process of interpretation.10 As readers, we do not approach texts as a blank canvass, but rather our existing understanding is adjusted to integrate new ideas and perspectives. None of us read in a vacuum; “everyone has an axe to grind”11 and our ability to ‘know what happened in the past’ is to some degree at least socially and culturally determined.

If our critique of this objectivist thinking extends to rejecting the possibility that “a literary piece itself [has] an existence quite independent of its author”12 then objectivity and the search for the ‘original’ meaning becomes in itself meaningless. We cannot, or should not, shed our presuppositions precisely because it is they that mediate understanding. Yet for Barton these presuppositions are the very things that risk blocking our ability to understand. In defence of the positivist motivation to free the text to speak for itself through dispassionate scientific enquiry, he then argues that “the cure is more criticism, not less,” recognising that “it has usually been far too influenced by commitments lying solely outside scholarly detachment.”13 He gives evidence for his argument by citing that “biblical critics did not begin by deciding that [for instance] the Pentateuch must be composed from several sources” but that “the conclusion forced itself upon them, in some cases much against their will.”14 Yet, we must ask, how did these conclusions ‘force themselves’ upon these critics? We are encouraged to the conclusion that it was inevitable rather than a conclusion shaped – in some degree at least – by the cultural horizon(s) of the critic.15

On the contemporary scene, deconstructive readings that have chosen to view texts consciously through a particular lens (post-Holocaust, ethnic, post-colonial and so forth) help us to recognise how texts can be heard, regardless of their intended meaning, and can also jolt us “out of comfortable half-truths to see something which is really there in the text and to which we had not previously paid attention.”16 Miller, for example, helpfully points to the androcentric nature of much of the ancient cultures (and indeed the biblical archaeology that uncovers them) that feminist perspectives have revealed and brought into the contemporary consciousness.17 This is useful in discouraging any approach that claims to be value-neutral but may actually be, as one critic has described, enabling the theologian to smuggle their “commitments under cover of dark.”18 As Long has observed, “we will be able to be more objective only if we learn to conceal our subjectivity less”19 and learn to see our interpretive role in dialogical, rather than objectivist, terms.

Another criticism of the historical-critical approach centres on its methodology, specifically its focus on genetic questions. Many of the tools most closely allied to historical-criticism, such as text-, form-, redaction-, and source-criticism (amongst many others) are analytical rather than synthetic. In other words, historical-critical analysis of texts often involved fragmenting texts to understand their history and pre-history. Theologians deployed sophisticated philological and linguistic study methods to obscure texts to discover what the author could have meant within his own period. Deuteronomist Robert Polzin rightly notes, however, that theologians in this tradition have often not been as skilled at “putting the parts back together again in a significant and meaningful way.”20

This predilection for the atomisation of texts finds its epistemological roots in the spirit and legacy of Enlightenment rationalism, with a Kantian tendency to separate knowledge into ‘aesthetic’ and ‘useful’ categories whereby religious language, often metaphorical rather than scientific in nature, thereby becomes suspect. Alter even speaks of the ‘hidden imperative’ that “the more atomistic, the more scientific”21 which in turn devalues the ‘final’ canonical text. There is undoubtedly some truth to the caricature that, for historical-critics, “often the finished product seems to be of less interest than the underlying sources”22 and that they are “frequently ill-equipped to appreciate the ‘literariness’ of the texts.”23 Whilst by no means exclusively the case, the historical-critical approach’s primary methodological tools are at times in danger of elevating the diachronic over the synchronic biblical text. Any hermeneutical method that cannot strike a balance in this area will always be self-limiting in its usefulness.

Whilst the foundational assumptions on which this trend within historical-criticism can be questioned, however, Sternberg points us towards the fact that “the task of decomposition calls for the most sensitive response to the art of composition.”24 These analytical tools, appropriately used, can lead us to eminently useful questions and tentative conclusions about the ‘final’ text as we have it. Whilst studies of these kinds have undoubtedly led some to question the unity of the Bible, this in itself is no reason to debunk the historical enterprise as unhelpful and unnecessarily ‘academic’. What it does do is challenge us to rethink and reformulate what it means to describe the scriptures as a unity.

This strand of thinking regarding the reformulation of texts raises a wider point, and common criticism, of the historical-critical method – namely, its appreciation of the Bible as Holy Scripture and its ability to formulate a theological meaning to texts. If the historical-critical method does not, primarily, appreciate the fundamental nature of the Bible as scripture then one can rightly question whether it should have ever held the ‘dominating position within biblical interpretation’ it once did. Seitz argues that historical-critical study “plays no positive theological role whatsoever,” but merely plays “a necessary preliminary [and] preparatory function.”25 Goldingay rehearses this argument by pointing to the fact that historical-critical interests centre on topics on which the text does not overtly focus. Therefore, it “misfocuses the interpretive task [and] cannot directly help exegesis,”26 thereby leading to a reductionist approach to the scriptures. Where theological concerns jostle with interesting historical, textual, grammatical and literary issues, it is often at the cost of the theological.

These claims are at least partially true. Polzin rightly alerts us to the danger of making the primary object of study the pre-text rather than the text, through the desire to “excavate behind it to its hypothetical earlier forms.”27 Establishing the historical events that lie behind the story does not “in itself establish the story’s meaning… [and thereby] fails to realise the text’s own aim.”28 The biblical narrative and the meaning within it rest on far more than its historical facticity. German New Testament scholar Stuhlmacher took the view that historical-critical exegesis is not “in and of itself [a] theological interpretation of scripture”29 but can be when approach with a ‘hermeneutic of consent’ to biblical texts which is marked by “a willingness to open ourselves anew to the claim of tradition, of the present, and of transcendence.”30 To downgrade historical-criticism to Seitz’s ‘preparatory function’ is to assume that a theological hermeneutic is a ‘stage’ within a larger process rather than something that must inform the interpretive process throughout.31 Stuhlmacher’s ‘hermeneutic of consent’ usefully emphasizes the role of the interpreter’s conscious use of the tools within this process, flagging the need for them to be aware that the way in which they use hermeneutical tools is of high import.

Historical-critical methods can therefore play an important role in determining the theological or spiritual meaning(s) of texts. One would be uncomfortable with any attempt to detach the ‘timeless message’ of scripture from its original world and context. A key implication of its ‘timelessness’ is not only that it can speak beyond the context in which it was written, but also that it is not ‘timeless’ in the sense of being “without historical rootedness.”32 The fact that scripture is a collection of historical works, written by human authors, invites us to approach them historically. This author has sympathy with those who claim it is also a misunderstanding of historical-criticism to assume it originally ever intended to stop at the level of historical enquiry. Dobbs-Allsopp, for example, claims that historical-criticism was “initially intended to inform us about the literary text itself and only secondarily about the history and religion revealed in that text.”33 Historical-criticism is concerned with more than just historical facticity – it arose in the period of rationality to deepen the roots of spiritual life. Thoughtfully applied, therefore, it can also be seen as a literary, as well as historical, method of biblical interpretation.

Arising in the period of rationality, an undeniable achievement of the historical-critical method has been to make us aware of the historical and cultural location of the biblical texts,34 shedding new light and fresh perspectives on scripture as well as bringing into focus what Soulen describes as the humanity of the scriptures. It has deepened our conception of the historical context of the biblical narrative by attuning us to the multi-contextual nature of the religious, economic, political and ideological concerns across centuries of Israelite history. It also has served to make us sensitive to the “genre, setting and audience that separate different stages and elements of biblical literature.”35 At times it has provided a framework to question traditional beliefs or understandings that were unjustified. For example, it has been a tool that has enabled us to question, with good grounds, whether Moses wrote Genesis; Paul wrote Hebrews; or whether Isaiah is the author of the whole book of Isaiah.36 In this regard it has the capacity to enable us to “respond to scripture itself by being critical of received theories regarding the origin, nature, and meaning”37 of scripture. In other words, partially at least, it has helped us pull back the veil of our previous assumptions and enables us to listen to the text itself.

In the modern arena, Möller identifies that historical-criticism is either “taken for granted, rejected or, somewhat grudgingly, accepted only to be relativised by being augmented… [by other readings which are] what really matters.”38 If we brand objectivity as an illusion, or merely beyond our reach, then we must tread carefully around postmodern, ahistorical strategies of reading that give the reader “pride of place in the interpretive process” as if the text risks becoming “a playing field in which we can romp to our heart’s desire.”39 I therefore concur with Collins that “the inevitability of presuppositions should not be taken as an invitation to excel in bias.”40 If we, as readers, take over the interpretive task and use the text for our own purposes, then there is a real danger that scripture will become, to use C S Lewis’ words, “only a reflection of our silly faces.”41

History happened. A radical historicist branding of history as an illusion cannot take account of the historically real. Language and perspective can point, albeit imperfectly through our culturally conditioned lenses, to a reality independent of the reader. This author would concur with Wright, a ‘critical realist,’42 that in history there is something to be known “other than the knower (realism), but that knowledge occurs only along the spiralling path of dialogue… between the knower and the thing to be known.”43 Any modern appreciation of the historical-critical method should therefore take into account that whilst there is something to be known, the act of knowing or understanding is subjective. To use the language of Thiselton, it requires us to see God’s word as operating within a particular cultural ‘horizon’ that must meet the readers own ‘horizon’ of worldview, experience, linguistic and cultural environment through which we understand and appropriate meaning.44

In conclusion, we must take the historical rootedness of the biblical text seriously whilst also alert to the danger of letting the detail of historical minutiae sidetrack us from the central task of exegeting the text. If we are to explore the Bible’s historical context we simply cannot reject the historical-critical enterprise entirely. In the light of the criticisms of the method identified here and elsewhere, however, we must be careful not to assign the method “a primary and foundational role.”45 As interpreters, we must know ourselves well – our worldview and presuppositions – so that we can deploy historical-critical insights intelligently alongside the wider corpus of modern interpretive tools.

Books worth reading on the subject

  • Barton, J., (2006) ‘Historical-critical approaches’ in Barton, J., (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
  • –––––– (1996) Reading the Old Testament: Method in Biblical Study, (London: Darton, Longman & Todd)
  • Bray, G., (Ed.), (1996) Biblical Interpretation Past and Present, (Illinois: Intervarsity Press)
  • Dobbs-Allsopp, F., W., (1999) ‘Rethinking Historical Criticism’, Biblical Interpretation 7, p. 235 – 271
  • Goldingay, J., (2004) Models for Interpretation of Scripture, (Toronto: Clements Publishing)
  • Miller, J., M., (1999) ‘Reading the Bible Historically: The Historian’s approach’ in McKenzie, S., L. and Haynes, S., R., (Eds.), To Each its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and Their Application, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press), pp. 17 – 34
  • Möller, K., (2000) ‘Renewing Historical Criticism’ in Bartholemew, C., Greene, C., Möller, K., (Eds.), Renewing Biblical Interpretation, (Carlisle: Paternoster)
  • Moritz, T., (2000) ‘Reflecting on NT Wright’s Tools for the Task’ in Bartholemew, C., Greene, C., Möller, K., (Eds.), Renewing Biblical Interpretation, (Carlisle: Paternoster)
  • Silva, M., (1996) ‘Has the church misread the Bible?’, in Silva, M., (Ed.), Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan)
  • Soulen, R., K., (2003) ‘The Believer and the Historian: Theological Interpretation and Historical Investigation’ in Interpretation (April 2003), pp. 175 – 186
  • Stuhlmacher, P., (1977) Historical Criticism and Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Towards a Hermeneutics of Consent, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press)
  • Thiselton, A., C., (1980) The Two Horizons, (Exeter: Paternoster)
  • Wright, N., T., (1995) Scripture and the Authority of God, (London: SPCK)

  1. Bray (1996), p. 461  ↩

  2. Barton (2006), p. 2  ↩

  3. Barton (2006), p. 2  ↩

  4. Möller (2000), p. 150  ↩

  5. Barton (2006), p. 2  ↩

  6. Barton (2006), p. 18  ↩

  7. Möller (2000), p. 158  ↩

  8. Dobbs-Allsopp (1999), p. 240  ↩

  9. Barton (2006), p. 12  ↩

  10. Silva (1996), p. 19  ↩

  11. Barton (2006), p. 13  ↩

  12. Silva (1996), p. 21  ↩

  13. Barton (2006), p. 15–17  ↩

  14. Barton (1996), p. 22  ↩

  15. Möller (2000), p. 154  ↩

  16. Wright (1995), p. 72  ↩

  17. Miller (1999), p. 32  ↩

  18. Barton (2006), p. 13  ↩

  19. Möller (2000), p. 157  ↩

  20. Möller (2000), p. 155  ↩

  21. Möller (2000), p. 155  ↩

  22. Barton (2006), p. 9  ↩

  23. Möller (2000), p. 156  ↩

  24. Möller (2000), p. 155  ↩

  25. Möller (2000), p. 146  ↩

  26. Goldingay (2004), p. 20  ↩

  27. Goldingay (2004), p. 20  ↩

  28. Goldingay (2004), p. 20  ↩

  29. Stuhlmacher (1977), p. 90  ↩

  30. Stuhlmacher (1977), p. 85  ↩

  31. Möller (2000), p. 163  ↩

  32. Goldingay (2004), p. 167  ↩

  33. Dobbs-Allsopp (1999), p. 236  ↩

  34. Möller (2000), p. 163  ↩

  35. Soulen (2003), p. 179 – 180  ↩

  36. Goldingay (2004), p. 174  ↩

  37. Goldingay (2004), p. 174  ↩

  38. Möller (2000), p. 149 – 150  ↩

  39. Möller (2000), p. 163  ↩

  40. Möller (2000), p. 167  ↩

  41. Möller (2000), p. 165  ↩

  42. Critical realism is one of several contemporary approaches that argues for a new synthesis of
    modern hermeneutical tools with a recovery of a historical reading of texts.  ↩

  43. Moritz (2000), p. 179  ↩

  44. Thiselton (1980), p. 95 – 99  ↩

  45. Soulen (2003), p. 181  ↩

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2 thoughts on “Should the historical-critical method be laid to rest? An Essay

  1. In your opinion, as you mentioned that Plantinga distinguishes at least three distinct types of HC, which of the three (especially regarding the personage) is most prominent to affect till now?Thanks …

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  2. I’m always loath to be drawn on such questions! Each of them in their own way addressed questions around what it meant to proceed scientifically, using reason alone. They were asking what counted as reason? Precisely what premises can be employed in an argument from reason alone? Etc.
    As I understand it Troeltsch laid down the principles that Duhemian and Spinozistic theories chose to reject or modify. These were principles like methodological doubt – any conclusion is subject to revision with increasing degrees of relative probability of accuracy; the ‘principle of analogy’ – that historical knowledge relies on the assumption that the laws of nature do not change; and that no historical event is divorced or isolated from the sequence of historical cause and effect. Modern-day historical biblical criticism benefits from the insights offered by these perspectives, but few consciously choose to identify themselves as coming from within these camps.
    You may be interested to read on this issue “Is Critical Biblical Theology Possible?” in The Hebrew Bible and Its Interpreters, ed. William Henry Propp, Baruch Halpern, and David Freedman (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1990), p. 2.

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