Historical criticism today: a word to evangelicals

Slandering historical biblical criticism (HBC) is all the rage nowadays. Alternative methods of interpreting Scripture—e.g., inter alia, canonical, literary, linguistic, poststructural, and political readings—have all but displaced HBC. When HBC is taught, it is almost always with a caveat, such as: “this was how I was instructed when I was a student,” or “this is an important part of the history of biblical interpretation,” or “you have to know this first before we can advance to more nuanced readings.”

But just because the field of biblical scholarship has moved past the old hegemony of HBC does not validate the conservative claim that HBC is a rejection of Scripture, was misguided from the start, is evidence of the liberal attack on orthodoxy, or some other nonsense like that. HBC provides a part of the picture, a part that we must not lose: viz., the historical-cultural origins of the biblical text. HBC is the basis for a key Christian axiom: the text of the Bible is a human document and is thus not in itself the Word of God. Only Jesus Christ is, by nature, the Word of God. All other words must become the Word of God by means of the actualizing power of the Holy Spirit.

With that in mind, it is too simplistic when Peter Leithart, quoting Alvin Plantinga, pits HBC against belief in the resurrection. Certainly, it is untenable for any person to make HBC the entire picture; such a position would be contrary to the simple truth that revelation is hidden in time and space and must be made known to us by God. In other words, the being-in-act of God cannot be read off of the surface of history. And since we cannot directly identify God with any historical object or activity, HBC by nature cannot be the whole story. But it’s a part of the story that we have to keep in mind. We cannot simply hold up “the tradition[al] concept of miracle” over against HBC, as if the issue can be so crudely reduced to a choice between miracle and history, between resurrection and biblical criticism—between naturalism and supernaturalism.

So even though it is now fashionable to pooh-pooh HBC, I wish to plead with evangelicals everywhere to not fall into a false sense of intellectual pride, as if to say, “I told you so!” It would be a great mistake to dismiss the important insights of HBC, leaving it behind as just one more museum piece in the annals of Christian history. More importantly, it is intellectually misguided to conflate an anti-liberal stance with an anti-HBC stance. The two are not identical. And where liberals have made HBC the whole story, evangelicals have an opportunity to retain it as part of the story, albeit a necessary part. In the end, though HBC has fallen on hard times, the most courageous and theologically sophisticated approach would involve giving HBC its due, while integrating it into a doctrine of Scripture which is not threatened by human history but embraces it in correspondence to the way God embraced humanity in the incarnation.


Anonymous said…
Don't you think the low status of HBC is due to the fact that those who remain in the discipline of biblical studies are, by percentage, increasingly theologically driven folks. In other words, academia which only honors HBC, finds little use for Biblical studies since Christianity (and Judaism) have diminished in cultural significance. To them biblical studies is such a small niche of ancient historical studies their is less motive to specialize in it. Therefore those who remain are increasingly theologically committed and skewing the practice away from HBC, which tends to work against their commitments. A bad trend I'd say, a sign of the death throes of Biblical Studies as an academic discipline.
Anonymous said…
David, although HBC is criticized from both the left and the right,I doubt that it is really dying off. Biblical scholars are hard at work doing mainstream historical criticism. Sure, you have your post-colonialists, feminists, etc, but I would say by and large the discipline is still strongly in the tradition of HBC.

I would say that HBC has indeed fallen out of favor among theologians, not because conservative evangelicals condemn it, but because more and more theologians find it theologically bankrupt. I'm thinking of the so-called "post-liberals" (and surely they owe something to Barth) here.

My own opinions on this are quite strange because of my background. On the one hand, radical historical criticism pulled me out of a conservative evangelical view of scripture. I became a devoted follower of good critical biblical scholars and thought that there was nothing worse than a conservative evangelical biblical scholar. Hell, I despised B.S. Childs for stepping outside the bounds of HBC orthodoxy. In the end, however, I realized that historical criticism wasn't inherently helpful to theology. That is, it is certainly not a replacement or substitute to theology, as some advocates of HBC would suggest.

I am, however, extremely sympathetic to your post here. Although I have great difficulty finding ways to apply my HBC background to my systematics background, I am convinced that it can and must be done.

Sorry for the long comment and convoluted comment.
Anonymous said…
I think that it is certain elements within HBC that have fallen out of favour -- most notably source and redaction criticisms. A good many of the other elements of HBC are still alive and well -- albeit much more fully developed -- in socio-rhetorical, literary, empire-critical, and gender-critical readings of Scripture. HBC really is at the core of any reading of Scripture that wishes to grapple seriously with Scripture as a collection of (you got it) historical texts.
Anonymous said…
Thanks, David, for this timely admonishment.

On the subject, Gerhard Ebeling's seminal essay "The Significance of the Critical Historical Method for Church and Theology in Protestantism" (an article first published in 1950, and the lead essay in Word and Faith [SCM, 1963]) is very much still worth a read. In it, Ebeling insists that "In the Reformers' view, both revelation and faith are discovered in their genuine historicalness, and that quite definitely means that faith is exposed to all the vulnerability and ambiguity of the historical." He goes on to suggest that "the assent to lack of guarantees is merely the reverse side of the certainty of salvation sola fide" - and then makes the stinging claim that "thus are we justified in asking whether a theology which evades the claims of the critical historical method has still any idea at all of the genuine meaning of the Reformers' doctrine of justification, even if the formulae of the sixteenth century are repeated with the utmost correctness."

Cf. Ernst Käsemann in his own seminal article "New Testament Questions of Today" (first published in 1957, and kicking off his collection of essays with the same title [SCM, 1969]): "The tension between Gospel and Scripture is the indispensible presupposition of all theological interpretation and the inner meaning of those problems of Scripture of which historical criticism takes account. Whatever motive may have caused the taking over of historical criticism into the exegetical sphere, any retreat from this criticism in the present must necessarily make the problems of Scripture more obscure, reduce the diverse utterances of Scripture to a single level, remove the tension of Gospel and Scripture and endanger the proper historical character of revelation. Radical historical criticism is the logical consequence ... in the methodological field of that theological criticism which is coinstitutive for Scriptural interpretation."

Strong tobacco for evangelical pipes!
Unknown said…
Reading this, I was reminded of something I read from Yoder a while back: "If we may be free by self-critical scholarly objectivity no longer to have to assume that the authority of the Bible resides in its saying things that we agree with, we may be free as well to hear more clearly what it really says instead of giving it credit for saying what we already think."

This would be impossible, just as you suggest, without retaining some semblance of HBC. I've never understood the false dichotomy Leithart et al. proposes. But, then, I've never been comfortable with notions of extreme hermeneutical certitude either.
Hoover said…
I think ROFlyer is on to it when he says, "I would say that HBC has indeed fallen out of favor among theologians, not because conservative evangelicals condemn it, but because more and more theologians find it theologically bankrupt." The question gains clarity here on the issue of who (variously) it has fallen out of favor with and then asking why it has done so for that particular group.

That said, Dave, I too got the "this is how I was taught" line at PTS. So, I agree that there is some falling out of favor in various constituencies. Various overlapping reasons are surely present. I do agree whole-heartedly that any current ebbs in HBC's "popularity" (?!) are not grounds for some 19th century throwback "I told you so."

Robert Cornwall said…
But what is the alternative to HBC? Do we go back to a pre-critical point and ignore history? HBC is the tool by which we try to build a bridge from today back to an earlier age. The results of earlier work may come under scrutiny, but the basic premise that we must consider the historical context and use historical tools must not be rejected. Unless, of course, we wish to approach it as purely literature with no historical context.