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.


Anonymous said…
Ebeling's thesis has been out there for a long time, and has been, in his version or many others, the mainstay not only of "liberal" preaching and theology, but also of "conservative," and many types in between. The thesis is bankrupt: it is deeply rooted in secular notions of time and history which leave us incapable of understanding the deeply apocalyptic character of the New Testament. Historical-critical foundationalism of the type that Ebeling and others espouse is deadly to theology and preaching, precisely because a theological understanding of scripture arrives too late.
Anonymous said…
Doug, I wonder what you might say in response to some of the comments made on the post that I wrote to which David is responding here. See the link above. I think I am a bit more inclined to agree with you on this, though I wonder how we might relate this kind of antipathy to historical criticism to Yoder's apocalyptic theology which seems, at times to be quite patient with it?

Anyways, feel free to comment on the original post. There have been quite a few comments favoring the Ebelingesque thesis.


Thanks for the comment. Let me ask some follow-up questions to gain some clarity here. First, are you criticizing the content of Ebeling's essay or just what I've excerpted here? Ebeling has a thoroughly theological hermeneutic, rooted in the doctrine of justification. Perhaps you are confusing Ebeling's statements here with other ideas about historical criticism that are more foundationalist.

Second, when you speak about liberal, moderate, and conservative scholars who are foundationalist in their approach, whom are you criticizing specifically? Your criticism is too general and abstract for me to evaluate whether you really understand Ebeling's position.

Third, are you familiar with the people in the "new hermeneutic," such as Ebeling and Ernst Fuchs? If so, are you suggesting that their approach remains within foundationalism? And if so, how?

Fourth, are you suggesting that historical criticism itself is incapable of recognizing the apocalyptic nature of the NT? Or are you saying that the foundationalist approach to historical criticism precludes this understanding? I would find it hard to accept the former for many reasons, and like I said, I don't think the latter applies to Ebeling.

Fifth, are you suggesting that we can do away with historical criticism altogether? If not, how would you relate biblical criticism with theological reflection?

I (along with Ebeling) am in no way arguing that criticism precedes theology, so that historical critical work lays the foundation upon which theology does its work. This is just as naive as the conservatives who argue that we start with exegesis, move to biblical theology, and conclude with systematic theology -- as if we can ever have a non-theological presuppositionless exegesis. Both approaches are, as you say, "bankrupt." I really think Ebeling is more nuanced than this. And I think there is a way to appropriate historical criticism within the apocalypticism of the NT. In other words, I don't think theology and historical criticism are at odds. And I would be surprised if you felt any differently.
Anonymous said…
Halden and D.W.

As is often the case, I end up regretting that I made a comment on a blog, because every comment (rightfully) opens up many avenues of further discussion – and then, who knows when to stop?

I have read Halden’s original post, and D.W.’s (long) list of further questions. I cannot provide a detailed response to either of you. I’ll just respond in general to the role of historical-critical (h-c) exegesis in theology. I like Barth’s line in the introduction to the first edition of the Romerbrief: the h-c method, he writes, “has its rightful place: it is concerned with the preparation of the intelligence – and this can never be superfluous.” In this respect, as one of you has commented, a kind of h-c has been practiced throughout the history of exegesis, from Origen to Barth and beyond. But until the 19th century or so it never played a determinative role in the theological reading of scripture. But in the modern era it has indeed assumed a foundational role which has been disastrous for theology, which now came to be seen as something other than the ongoing reading of scripture disciplined by the rule of faith, the liturgy, the communion of saints, and the ongoing witness of the church.

And yet it is precisely that kind of ecclesial discipline (the “supposed assurances”) of theology which even someone like Ebeling seeks to destroy with h-c: “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.” H-c is no less foundational for Ebeling than for the rationalist liberals of an earlier era or the Jesus Seminar and rationalist evangelicals of our own; except that for Ebeling it performs an essential negative service rather than a positive one. As the “Law” for Ebeling condemns all human attempts at moral self-justification, so h-c clears away all solid historical justification prior to faith, and is thus a necessary preparation for hearing the gospel. While that is a dialectical foundationalism indeed, it is nonetheless a foundationalism. More importantly, the critically informed individual reader of scripture is set quite radically against the formative beliefs and practices of the Christian tradition, which, prior to the rise of h-c as a foundational discipline, were seen to be the sine qua non of reading scripture faithfully.

Prior to h-c the rule of faith, the liturgy, the communion of saints, were all understood to mediate the living and present reality of the crucified, risen and exalted Lord Jesus, the apocalypse of the Triune God. Jesus was not stuck in the past as an historical event the reality and eventfulness of which was primarily a problem to be solved through critical investigation. Rather, as living and present in the church’s worship, Christ himself is the guarantee of the truth of the testimony to himself in the church’s scriptures, of which he is also both author and subject. Time, history and writing are themselves transfigured under the pressure of his indestructible living presence. The gospel cannot be subject to a verification (or non-verification) in which the criteria of assessment presuppose unredeemed time and history. Rather, the gospel itself (through the testimony of the Gospels and Epistles) is the criterion for judging whatever else might count as “historical.” Jesus Christ is the Context of contexts, and those contexts come alive just insofar as they might bear witness to him as Lord of creation and history. At its best, then, h-c, so judged and received, can and should, as a “preparation of the intelligence,” help us to clarify the writings of scripture in terms of their linguistic, cultural, social, political settings, and in turn aid us in thinking about the Divine Subject of scripture also in relation to our own contexts, of which that Subject is the Lord. That is all to the good. In the end, however, h-c itself must be judged, assumed and transfigured into a testimony to the truth of Jesus Christ who is known, not first through h-c, but through the faith, practices and life of his living body, the church.

Well, that’s already much longer than it should be, and I must now get back to the task at hand – completing a theological commentary on 1 and 2 Peter.
Anonymous said…
Hi, all,

I am posting on my blog about the modern discipline of history in relation to theology by summarizing and commenting on Constantin Fasolt's work, The Limits of History. Fasolt's challenge is to (modern) history as such, not specific (i.e. better or worse) instantiations of it. If you have time, I'd love to hear what you all think.


Tim F.

Thanks for the very helpful comment. I realize you probably don't have time to respond, but I'll make a response here anyway in case you have a chance to read it.

First, I don't think your position is really in opposition to Ebeling's. Ebeling also makes the gospel the criterion for what is truly historical. For him, the gospel of God's justification of the ungodly is the center out of which we read Scripture and engage the world. His argument is that this gospel is not in conflict with but wholly consonant with h-c.

Second, I am unclear what you mean by "dialectical foundationalism." I am also unclear what difference there actually is, if any, between h-c's "clearing the ground" and h-c's "preparation of the intelligence." It seems to me that these two positions are easily harmonizable, if not finally identical in nature. I think you are trying to make h-c equivalent to the Law, such that h-c becomes an essential part of the gospel itself for Ebeling. I don't think that is a sustainable position. From my understanding of Ebeling, h-c gains its rightful place in theology because of the prior grounding of the church upon the gospel of justification.

(Perhaps some of the conflict here is not with h-c but with your rejection of the Lutheran doctrine of justification in favor of an apocalyptic doctrine of divine rectification. I would disagree with you insofar as I don't think these two positions need be in conflict. And I think the later Barth and Eberhard Jüngel show us the way forward.)

Third, and much more importantly, Jesus is not stuck in the historical past for Ebeling. That is most definitely NOT Ebeling's position. In fact, the entire "new hermeneutic" was an attempt to refute precisely that element of liberal theology. What Ebeling and Fuchs and Jüngel all affirm is that Jesus is indeed present as the justifying Word. The historical Jesus is the incarnate Word, and this Word remains present in the community gathered by the "word of the gospel," the justifying word of God's grace. Jesus is present in and as that Word. Perhaps you are conflating Ebeling with Bultmann (who had less of an appreciation for Christ's living presence).

Fourth, where I think you and I differ (and perhaps you and Ebeling) is in the relationship between Jesus and the church. I am much less comfortable with the notion that Jesus can be identified with the church's practices. With Ebeling, Jüngel, and most importantly Barth, I want to say that Jesus remains extra nos, even outside of the church's doxological life. This is where a theology of the Word becomes essential, in that the Word remains disruptive and extrinsic, always calling us outside of ourselves -- so that we truly find ourselves in Jesus. But this need not change what I think is a basic agreement on the role of h-c. At least it is not clear to me yet that this ecclesiological difference requires opposing positions on h-c. Perhaps I will change my mind on further reflection.

In any case, thanks for the response. It's an important conversation. I just want to ensure that we do not reduce and oversimplify Ebeling's position, which is far more complex and nuanced than I think you are giving it credit for.
Anonymous said…

I'll confess it has been years since I last read Ebeling, and I do not have immediate access to Word and Faith, so did not consult it when I made my response. So I am certainly willing to concede that I have not got him right, and I'll gratefully accept your better understanding of him. What I do remember from my earlier reading of Ebeling, Fuchs, et.al. is that I did not at the time find them compelling -- nor Jungel for that matter. They all seemed to me to be dogmatically "thinner" (in a Lutheran kind of way) and too stuck on (philosophical)hermeneutics, and thus less worthy of attention than Barth. But that, as Ben Myer wrote in a recent blog, may be primarily a judgment of theological taste.

I don't think I "identified" Jesus with the practices of the church. Rather, Christ sovereignly chooses the church and its practices through which to communicate his living presence to us and to the world. He is not bound up in the church and its practices, but he does gather and bind his people to himself through them.

Thanks for the discussion.