Ebeling: the church needs historical criticism
Halden has asked whether the historical critical method has a positive role in the task of theology today. I responded by suggesting that indeed it does have a positive role. While I did not flesh out the full extent of how historical criticism enables the theological enterprise, I referred Halden and others to the great essay by Gerhard Ebeling in Word and Faith on the significance of the critical historical method for Protestant theology. Here is a selection from the end of that essay:
Systematic theology must therefore be required not only to respect the results of critical historical research—even on that point there is still much to be desired—but also to take up fully and completely into its own approach the outlook of the critical historical method. . . . If systematic theology takes up into its own approach the whole outlook of the critical historical method, then the result will be not only that it will achieve the critical destruction of all supposed assurances, but above all that it will be kept strictly to its proper concern—namely, the historic revelation in Jesus Christ—in full awareness of the historicalness of its own systematic theological labours.
And finally, the proclamation of the church . . . must be required to take the work of historical criticism seriously. It is a real question whether the widespread frightful lameness and staleness of the church’s message, her powerlessness to speak to the men of today, and likewise the lack of credibility that attaches to the church as such are not very largely connected with its fear of letting the work of critical historical theology bear fruit in the proper way and its failure to take sufficient account of the nature of the hermeneutic problem, which is acutely concentrated in the act of preaching. For critical historical theology is not identical with liberal theology. It is, however, the indispensable means of reminding the church of the freedom rooted in the iustificatio impii.
—Gerhard Ebeling, Word and Faith, trans. James W. Leitch (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1963), 17-61, here 59-60.