I hope the reader will forgive a little theological autobiography. 

It was only rather late in my theological education that I realized that a very great deal of what I had learned about the Bible in college and seminary was almost literally useless.  I, like most educated clergymen outside of Fundamentalist circles, was trained in what Robert Alter, a Jewish literary scholar, has called ‘excavative’ analysis of the Bible.  The excavative approach is more commonly called the historical-critical school of Biblical interpreta­tion.  This historical-critical school has dominated Biblical studies in Western seminaries and universities for at least the last century.  Alter calls it ‘excavative’, because it explores or excavates the foundations of Biblical texts,    

...ei­ther liter­ally, with the arche­ologi­st’s spade and reference to its findings, or with a variety of analytical tools intended to uncover the original meanings of biblical words, the life situations in which specific texts were used, the sundry sources from which longer texts were assembled.  (The Art of Biblical Narrative, 1981, p. 13)

Or to use another image, historical-critical scholars uproot the tree so that they may examine its roots.  But we know, don’t we, what happens when you uproot a tree?

Now I give myself credit for always knowing that many historical-critical Biblical scholars and theologians are not orthodox Christians.  Many of them import into their scholarship tacit and undefended assumptions incompatible with Christianity.  Most important among these tacit assumptions is a naturalistic, rationalistic, reductionist presupposition:  that supernatural events — miracles in the classical sense — are impossible.  Rudolf Bultmann, perhaps the most famous of these scholars, once said that no one who uses an electric light bulb can believe in miracles.  For someone who begins with such a presupposition, the many Biblical texts that describe or assume the existence of miracles have to be, not explained, but explained away.  Why, for instance, do all four of the gospels tell of the miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes?  A traditional, orthodox Christian would begin to answer this question by saying, ‘Because it happened.’  But someone who believes that it could not possibly have happened has to come up with another, more elaborate explanation.  And so they do.  It all makes great fuel for the Ph.D. dissertation fire.  In fact I often suspect that the requirement that a Ph.D. dissertation make an ‘original contribution to scholarship’ is behind some of the modern Church’s woes.  Truly original theological ideas, after all, will tend by the nature of things to be heretical.  Is it an accident that German universities gave birth to both the Ph.D. and the historical-critical method?

In any case, during the course of my theological education I learned to detect anti-supernatural assumptions and to put them aside as unsound.  Insofar as such assumptions governed a scholar’s work, it was unorthodox and unhelpful to me.  But for the most part I thought that I could bracket the unsound bits and profit from the elements of historical-critical scholarship that were neutral or orthodox.  In this I followed St. Basil the Great’s approach to the secular scholarship of his day: we should be like a honey bee, which goes from flower to flower to take the sweetness without taking the whole flower.

During my seminary years I took most of my Bible courses at a moderate Roman Catholic university (Duquesne), but I had one course on Saint Paul at a Protestant seminary (Pittsburgh Theological, which was Presbyterian in origin) with Ulrich Mauser.  The course with the Protestants made me grateful for the Romans.  The P.T.S. classroom was divided into two antagonistic camps:  on the one side seemed to be almost fundamentalistic Five-Points Calvinists, while on the other were almost agnostic liberals.  I was in neither camp.  These camps would fight to the intellectual death over, say, whether or not Saint Paul wrote the Pastoral Epistles.  The atmosphere at Duquesne was much more relaxed.  It didn’t matter too much to the Romans whether the Pastorals were by Paul or by a disciple of Paul:  in either case they were part of the Church’s canon of Scripture, and the Church guaranteed their inspiration and authority.  A high view of Church authority very much softens the issues and dangers posed by the historical-critical method.  Nevertheless, this method held sway at Duquesne as much as at P.T.S.

While I was aware of the dangers posed by the historical-critical method when it was in the hands of rationalistic scholars, I did not question the method itself while I was in seminary.  It certainly produced a vast quantity of information about the Bible and seemed to enjoy the approval of most Biblical scholars. 

I would still counsel the ‘honey bee’ approach to a student who has to be subjected to the historical-critical method in a seminary or university course.  Since seminary, however, I have myself become more and more convinced that the historical critical method is almost literally useless.  I say this for several reasons. 

First, there is the initial problem posed by the many unorthodox adherents to the method.  A scholarly school or academic method is not necessarily disqualified by the private heresy of its adherents.  But in the case of the historical-critical method the problem seems to be caused by the method itself rather than merely being an accidental characteristic of some of its adherents.  One pointed way to put the problem is this:  no, or virtually no, non-Christians or heretical Christians are brought to an orthodox or more lively faith by the historical-critical method; but formerly orthodox Christians often are led into agnosticism or heretical opinions by it.  I have seen this negative influence on some when I was an undergraduate, in seminary, in graduate school, and in the priesthood.  Of course there are Biblical scholars who use historical-critical methods and who say the Nicene Creed with perfect sincerity and traditional intent.  In particular English scholars have tended to be much more orthodox than, say, those German Protestant scholars who gain a reputation outside of Germany.  But when such critical scholars are orthodox, their orthodoxy seems to persist despite or at least apart from their methods of Biblical study.  Now a school of Biblical study that seems to operate as a ferry to unbelief in many cases, and that otherwise is at best neutral in its influence, deserves scrutiny and suspicion.

Secondly, as I read more after seminary I discovered alternative Biblical scholarship which questions either the historical-critical method itself directly or else many of the most important presuppositions and conclusions reached by students of that method.  For instance, the great Anglican theologian, Eric Mascall, wrote an incisive critique of the radical Biblical scholarship of the post-War era called The Secularisation of Christianity.  In this book Mascall focused attention directly and systematically on the anti-super­natural presupposi­tions governing the more radical Biblical critics of his day.  Other scholars, such as the Italian Jewish writer, Umberto Cassuto, questioned commonly accepted conclusions of the historical-critical school such as the documentary hypothesis concerning the Pentateuch, and thereby reminded the world that most of those conclusions in fact were really just hypotheses that very much depend on guess-work and tacit presupposi­tions.  By our day [1999 – MDH] historical-critical studies are in fact no longer undoubtedly dominant in the field of Biblical studies, even in so-called mainline seminaries or universities.  Narrative, literary, sociological, and psychological approaches all are currently fashionable and none necessarily depends on historical-critical methods, though many scholars combine approaches with some use of the historical-critical.

Among the forms of alternative Biblical scholarship is the method of Biblical interpretation which we might call the rhetori­cal, narrative, or literary approach to Scripture.  This approach does not challenge the historical-critical method head-on, but finesses it by approaching Scripture as a collection of carefully written texts that deserve the greatest respect from their readers.  Where the historical-critical method chops Scripture up into literary bits to try to discover the earliest versions of a story or the historical kernel that lies behind a text, the literary approach treats the texts as worthy of close and respectful reading just as they are.  Where the historical-critical method often assumes a stance of superiority over Scripture, the literary approach assumes that if we are to learn and appreciate what Scripture has to teach us, then we must begin humbly and not assume from the outset that we know Scripture’s limits.  The historical-critical method tends to make the critic the measure of Scripture.  The literary approach is at least open to the possibility that Scripture will prove to be the measure of its readers.

If you went to seminary in the 1960s or 1970s, you probably encountered a foreshadowing of this literary method called Redaktionsgeschichte.  Redaction criticism was concerned with the overarching purposes and themes of the editors or ‘redactors’ of the Biblical books.  This concern with the editor’s purposes and themes, rather than with subordinate textual units and their history, restored some unity to the Biblical books.  So, for instance, consider Saint Luke’s gospel.  The early source and form critics would ask where various parables, stories, and other elements of Luke came from.  How much did Luke borrow from Mark?  What about the material that Luke and Matthew share?  Where did Luke’s unique material come from?  How to explain differences between Luke and the versions of material he shares with Matthew and Mark?  Are there any signs of influence from Luke on John?  These are the sorts of questions an older generation asked.  The redaction critics instead asked about Luke’s theology.  How does Luke’s view of salvation history shape his telling of the gospel?  Is not Luke’s interest in the Gentiles and Samaritans significant?  What are the overarching themes and ideas that bind Luke together and influence his use of his sources?  These are the questions redaction critics might ask.  At some point this approach shades into the literary approach which is quite popular today.

A third reason for my disenchantment with the historical-critical method was what I have called its pastoral uselessness, which becomes increasingly evident as I tried to teach Scripture in a parish.  The data produced by this method, whether true or false, are simply irrelevant to the lives of parishio­ners.  Whether or not St. Paul wrote the Pastorals, whether or not St. Matthew’s gospel was written before St. Mark’s, is irrelevant to the production of an effective sermon, is irrelevant to effective pastoral work, and is irrelevant to the Christian lives and concerns of laymen.  The concerns of the historical-critical school are literally academic — the concerns of scholars with a detached interest in Scripture as an object of study rather than of Christian pastors as such.  I can think of no more damning comment to make about an approach to Holy Writ than to say that it renders Scripture irrelevant to Christians.  But the case with the historical-critical method is really worse.  Insofar as the historical-critical method is pastorally significant, its influence is negative:  in the wrong hands it is an instrument used to induce skepticism and agnosticism in students who lack the insight to detect unstated and questionable presuppositions.

What assumptions, then, should we bring to Bible study?  Most of my own assumptions are well-stated in a splendid paper called ‘Critical Studies of the New Testament and the User of the New Testament’ by Peter van Inwagen.  Van Inwagen is a chaired professor of philosophy at Notre Dame.  His paper is printed in Hermes and Athena:  Biblical Exegesis and Philosophical Theology[1].  The book in turn was the fruit of a conference on its title subject involving theologians and philosophers. The philosophers, by all accounts, were much more likely to be orthodox Christians than were the theologians.

Van Inwagen’s first premise, which also in effect becomes his chief conclusion, is worth quoting in full:

If a user of the New Testament has grounds for believing that the New Testament is historically and theologically reliable, grounds that are independent of Critical Studies [as van Inwagen calls the historical-critical school of Biblical study], and if he has good grounds to believe that Critical Studies do not undermine those grounds, then he need not attend further to Critical Studies.  (That is, once he has satisfied himself that Critical Studies do not undermine his reasons for believing in the historical and theologi­cal reliability of the New Testament, he need not attend further to Critical Studies.)

I will not try to reproduce van Inwagen’s full argument here, but will note a few of his main points.

First, van Inwagen argues that the Church presupposes the basic theological and historical reliability of the New Testament, and that the Church would be very different from what she in fact is if she had not held this presupposition and then used the New Testament so viewed in her liturgy and sermons and in many other ways.  That is, acceptance of the basic reliability of Scripture is essential to the Church as she in fact is.

Secondly, there are good grounds for believing that the Church’s presuppositions about the New Testament are true, and that those grounds are independent of the historical-critical method.  This argument probably is the point at which skeptics would attack van Inwagen’s position, but I don’t think I need to go to its defense with a generally Christian audience. 

Thirdly, even in matters in which a near consensus has been reached among the proponents of ‘Critical Studies’, there are major scholars who disagree.  These scholars are just as intelligent and well-informed as those with whom they disagree.  So a ‘philosopher will suspect that…New Testament scholarship is a lot like philosophy:  Either there is little knowledge available in the field, or, if there is, a significant proportion of the experts in the field perversely resist acquiring it.’  Given such a suspicion, there is no reason why the users of the New Testament should be troubled in their own faith if a proponent of Critical Studies uses his scholarship to question, for instance, articles of the creeds.  The opinions of Critical Studies scholars should not shake our own faith.

Van Inwagen does not argue for the ‘inerrantist’ opinion that the New Testament does not and cannot contain any historical errors or misstatements.  Rather he argues that the New Testament is historically reliable in a general way and in that any errors that it might contain can do no harm to the user of the New Testament.  This idea of ‘do no harm’ is central to van Inwagen’s argument, and he illustrates it with an analogous case.  Suppose a general in Italy relies on a pre-war guidebook to Italy.  The guidebook is accurate in most respects but is wrong in that it reproduces some doubtful legends about Italian saints and in that it gets Garibaldi’s mother’s maiden name wrong.  But for the purposes of the military user of the guidebook, these errors do no harm.  The guidebook is reliable in every way that it needs to be for the military officer who is using it.  So too the Church needs for the New Testament to be fundamentally reliable in some ways for her liturgical, homiletic, and pastoral purposes.  The Church does not need to harmonize every discrepancy among the four gospels and does not need for the New Testament to be entirely inerrant in every respect.  It makes sense to suppose that God would suppress or prevent any errors in the record of his revelation that would do harm.  There does not seem to be any necessary reason to suppose that he would have to suppress harmless errors.  I accept that the New Testament is historical­ly and theologically reliable at least in this sense:  that it contains no errors that would do harm to its ecclesiastical and Christian users.

Finally, I would add that this fundamental reliability reopens the door to virtually all pre-modern Biblical interpretation.  There is no scholarly reason why we should not appropriate and use patristic Biblical interpretation, with its wealth of figurative and typological interpretations.  Divine inspiration is a simple explanation for the fact that types and shadows as well as archetypes and fulfillments run throughout Scripture. 

     [1]  Notre Dame:  University of Notre Dame Press, 1993.  Ed. by Eleonore Stump and Thomas P. Flint.

2 thoughts on “Historical-critical Biblical studies: some comments

  1. I’m not convinced the HCM is wholly useless. Evidence into the background of Jesus’ teachings is valuable in helping to understand His message. It seems to me that while the Eastern Church dislikes the HCM for the most part, it might be better able to make use of it than the West due to its less legalistic approach to theology. The West has a tendency to want to dot every i and cross every t. While I intensely dislike David Bentley Hart’s politics and do not agree with his interpretation of the Pauline passages on homosexuality as referring to pedophilia only, I find his reading of the gospels to be interesting and often informative due to his knowledge of HCM scholarship.


    1. ‘Wholly useless’ is probably going too far. I certainly do make use of information I gained from historical-critical studies. Most of that information, however, could also have been obtained by close reading and by general anthropological, archaeological and cultural approaches. In general I expect clergy to be familiar with historical-critical approaches and their main conclusions. For the most part that learning should be very much in the background in their preaching and not very heavily in the front even in their parish bible studies.


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