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The Theological Role of Historical Criticism

These days there is much talk about the inherent limits of historical criticism as a tool of biblical hermeneutics.  Historical criticism, it is said reduces the Bible to a collection of ancient texts to be dissected rather than affirming the Bible as the scriptural canon of the church.  However, no one is really questioning the total viability of historical criticism as a serious tool of biblical and theological study.  It has been chastened, but certainly not denied, cast away, or declared useless.

So, my wonderings on this matter relate to what positive role there is for historical criticism in the task of theological interpretation and the theological enterprise more generally.  What function is historical criticism supposed to serve and how does it uniquely fill that function.  On thing that comes to mind for me is the way in which historical criticism prevents the objectification or reification of the text in itself as divine authority, a form of bibliolatry.  And yet, I don’t see how we really needed historical criticism for this insight, as it is rather a Christological one.  So, I’m interested in what people might think, what is the theological role of historical criticism?  Do we really need it at all?


  1. The first and certainly best word on this subject is by Gerhard Ebeling, in his volume, Word and Faith. He has an essay there entitled, “The Significance of the Critical Historical Method for Church and Theology in Protestantism.” In terms of published materials, you really can’t do much better than Ebeling, in my opinion, though of course it is important for Christians today to think through this topic anew. As Barth insisted, we must always start again from the beginning.

    Another good resource which is hot off the press is Kenton Sparks’s new book, God’s Word in Human Words, which is an evangelical appropriation of biblical criticism.

    I agree with you that christology should do the majority of the work when it comes to avoiding doctrinal idolatry (whether in the form of biblical inerrancy or some other position). But the issue of bibliolatry goes beyond the realm of christology, though all roads lead back to that starting-point, of course. The issue with Scripture is fundamentally an issue of hermeneutics, and this is why Ebeling is so important, as one of the leaders of the so-called “new hermeneutic” in the latter half of the 20th century. Historical criticism not only ensures that we see Scripture as a thoroughly human text, but it also conditions a particular hermeneutical posture — one that interprets the text in a thoroughly historical way. In providing this posture, historical criticism enables fruitful theological creativity. For example, the critical historical method, in deconstructing the notion of prophecy as merely “telling the future,” opened the way to much more creative interpretations of the prophetic role. Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination is just one example of the benefit that historical criticism is to theology.

    I would also suggest that the radical christologies of Barth, Pannenberg, Jüngel, and Jenson are unthinkable apart from the total change in perspective provided by historical criticism. And while some would use this to reject the critical historical method, I use these examples to praise it and affirm its necessity for theology.

    As Ebeling says near the end of his 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” (59).

    Wednesday, July 2, 2008 at 4:06 pm | Permalink
  2. E. Kuehn wrote:

    I think that historical criticism, once chastened, need not look for some new justification as a tool for interpretation. Its positive role is really the same as it ever was.

    Before nineteenth century historicism- even before something like Valla’s critique of the Donation of Constantine, or some of the early critical work on the Greek NT- people were doing what amounted to historical criticism in some sense. In the City of God, Augustine negotiates genealogies as recorded in the LXX and the Hebrew manuscripts, attempting to come to a solution for the disagreements. The formation of the canon itself involved decisions about authorship of apocryphal works. In both of these cases, what might be called “historical criticism” served an important role even for those Fathers who are generally remembered for a more “spiritual” interpretation of the Scriptures. I think the very non-controversial purpose of any reading concerned with a historical-critical look at the text is the heart of its positive role for interpretation.

    Perhaps we’ve lost sight of that somewhat not because of the devastating effects of criticism on the faith, but because of various theologies themselves. As D. Congdon points out, historical criticism establishes a particular posture with regard to the text- this historical posture can become unfaithful if used improperly, but it can also serve to check theological errors that may twist the text (he mentions prophecy). If we establish our own criteria for coming to the Scriptures that rules some epistles as “gospels of straw”, or that unneccessarily priveleges certain themes (of legal terminology, of the kingdom of God, of covenant, of righteousness), historical criticism in its very ordinary purpose of reading the text as human text can act as both a balance to lopsided theology and a basis for the theological interpretation that often build off of the bare facts of history.

    As much as we theologically minded folks may criticize historical criticism for not being enough of an ecclesial practice, I think we often fail to make theology enough of a scriptural practice… and historical criticism, whatever its faults and limitations, is nothing if not concerned with that text as a text, making room for it to also remain a coherent Scripture for the Church to reflect upon.

    Wednesday, July 2, 2008 at 7:18 pm | Permalink
  3. Tim F. wrote:

    A question always lurking in the conversation regarding the role of historical criticism in theology is: does historical criticism, or modern historical methods in general, have ontological presuppositions? I think they do, especially regarding time and therefore its relationship to eternity. For example, historical criticism must see the past as gone and immutable; it divides past from present in order to give itself an object to study. However, we do not experience this break between past and present in our ordinary life. What are the implications of this? I’m still working on this in my personal research.

    One more thing, it is often forgotten that the discipline of modern history arose to relativize the medieval church. At its origins, history was quite a political act; one that led to the rise of modern nation states and their so often touted “advance” of separation of church and state. Some would argue that to practice modern history as a political act requires one to affirm the liberal subject.

    Finally, a difference between modern history and ancient forms of history must also be noted here. My disseration is on Bede who wrote biblical commentaries and history, and I’m trying to work through there relation to each other to help answer some of these questions. Sorry that I didn’t offer anything that solid; I think I just muddied the waters more.

    Wednesday, July 2, 2008 at 7:29 pm | Permalink
  4. Tim F. wrote:

    One more thing, we need to be careful not to affirm that we are better readers of Scripture than our forbears who did not have historical criticism. Perhaps some want to make that case (and I’d like to hear it), but it should not simply be assumed as a general posture.

    Wednesday, July 2, 2008 at 7:32 pm | Permalink
  5. Geoff wrote:

    What is the theological role of historical criticism?

    1) A theological interpretation of the existence of h.c. rather than the non-existence would be thus: God works all things to the good of those who love him. So, historical criticism has befallen the church, God will make good of it for his people.

    2) The role of historical criticism in the happy science of theology is to ground the theologian in the reality that God has spoken and acted in history, and though he is revealed supremely through Jesus Christ, God has inspired a collection of texts containing witness to Jesus Christ and God’s actions in history leading to him, to train his church for righteousness. So historical criticism, it seems, brings theology back to the fact that God has spoken, and if the gospel be true, we know God’s speech as clearly as possible in these texts, thereby keeping us from merely making crap up.

    Do we even really need it at all?
    Uh, only if the texts in question are historical (having history in them, or having been written in history) in nature will I answer yes. In so far as historical criticism is used to give the biblical scholar credibility in the academy, no we don’t need it, away with it.

    Thursday, July 3, 2008 at 12:26 am | Permalink
  6. John Rasmussen wrote:

    I had also wanted to call attention to Ebeling’s work, but David beat me to it.

    The one great service of historical criticism to the church is to constantly remind the church that it’s Christology must be grounded in the actual history of Jesus of Nazareth.

    As a contemporary example, I think that John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus would not have been possible without the discipline of historical criticism

    Thursday, July 3, 2008 at 1:32 pm | Permalink
  7. Doug Harink wrote:


    I have responded further to the question of historical criticism over at the Fire and Rose blog, with respect to D.W.’s quote from Ebeling, and your and his further comments.

    Friday, July 4, 2008 at 12:20 pm | Permalink
  8. I believe it helps relate the intent of the Biblical authors, and in turn the Word of God, to the contemporary quotidian lives of believers.

    This is in much the same way as the Supreme Court applied the intent of the Constitution to cases brought before them today.

    But there is also a need for theology which surpasses time and space. Truths that are true yesterday, today and tomorrow in any land, under any rule.

    Monday, July 7, 2008 at 2:00 pm | Permalink
  9. Phil Sumpter wrote:

    I’ve spent the past year and a half reading almost nothing but Brevard Childs in a desperate attempt to get my head round this issue. Seeing as I am a relative new comer to theology, I’ll take a deep breath and hope my thoughts past muster with those who are more trained than I.

    My first thought is that “historical criticism” isn’t a self-contained concept in itself, it takes on all sorts of forms depending on the broader ideological/theological context in which it is used. So asking whether we need historical criticism begs the question what kind of historical criticism. As Tim F. pointed out, historical criticism played a role in the exegesis of the Church Fathers (Jerome is usually the parade example, but it played a role for Origen too). But for them, it was only one element in a longer process which lead somewhere else, it was the vehicle, so to speak, that enabled access to what the text was really about. For those immersed in the Enlightenment tradition, that can be no “something else”: the meaning of the text is one, and it is that of the intention of the author.

    The example of the Fathers brings us to the crucial question, which I think Tim F. and Geoff point out well, namely that the validity of historical reading is dependent on our views of the nature of reality as a whole and thus its role within that reality. As I have been slowly pointing out in an ongoing thread of mine, for the Fathers the truth of God involved a history of progressive divine revelation, one which breaks into our history and is witnessed to within that history by concrete, particular prophets and then apostles. The testimony of these individuals, then, has a particular function (can one call it an illocutionary stance?), namely to point beyond themselves to this profound reality of redemption from within their particular positions. For Christianity, the truth is not only “objective,” in the sense of being external to us and therefore in need of being revealed, it is also “prophetic and apostolic,” i.e. it is revealed through particular channels. As Geoff says, “Do we even really need it at all? Uh, only if the texts in question are historical (having history in them, or having been written in history) in nature will I answer yes.”

    Yet, as Steven says, “there is also a need for theology which surpasses time and space.” Ebeling may have pointed out the significance of the historicity of the Bible (within a particularly existential framework, as I remember it), but I don’t think that simply finding analogies between then and now is a viable option (i.e. it’s not possible). In addition to that, if it’s true that the function of the diverse texts of Scripture is to point to their single referent, the reality of God, a reality which alone constitutes the unity within this diversity, ecclesial interpretation cannot be satisfied with uncovering the discreet witness of just one of these texts (the theology of Paul for example, check out this quote and this one). It must find a way to relate them in order to arrive at a faithful construal of the whole. One of Childs’s contributions to this debate (I’m surprised his name has not been mentioned above) has been to show how the texts of Scripture are not just historical, they are also kerygmatic in a particularly “canonical” way. In other words, the reality of God’s ongoing relation with his people in history in which he has progressively revealed himself is registered within the development of the texts themselves. Editorial shaping and juxtapositioning of various traditions was done not only to point (“witness”) to this single divine reality—as if the editors were prophets of the same calibre as Isaiah—but was done within the context of a broader understanding of the reality of God himself, gained through history, experience and refracted through the lens of prior prophetic tradition. If exegesis is to facilitate a meeting with God (as the Childs quote above implies), then it is the quest for this reality which should drive our interpretation. And if the texts really are “canonical” in the particular way that Childs meant (and if they really are undergirded by the self-revealing God testified to by the rule of faith), then it means that the final form of the text as a literary, relatively self-referential product, is the only arena within which this God can make himself known. Hence the relevance of the apparently “anti” historical-critical approaches of the New Criticism and certain forms of intertextuality.

    This “canonical” construal (or whatever term is most appropriate) encompasses both the diachronic and synchronic dimensions of the text, leading to the complexity and subtleness of Childs actual (usually misunderstood) position. Throughout his commentaries is the call for the requisite skill in keeping these two dimensions in necessery tension. A focus on the diachronic runs the risk of historicizing something which is ultimately incarnational (see Tim F.’s great comments on ontology and time above!), an overemphasis on the synchronic runs the risk missing the thrust of the text. The truth of scripture is in its referent (Christ, see Halden’s point on Christology as a check against bibliolatry), yet this referent is such that it is “mediated” (the text is a “vehicle”) through the concrete historical witness of Israel and the Church. The interpretative move, then (for the Church, at least) is always through or along the diachronic to the synchronic and on to the referent. That’s how I see it anyway. This is just made more complicated by the fact that the final form has a tendency to consciously “sweep over” what has gone before it an attempt to focus our gaze on a more ultimate horizon.

    This, by the way, is why “allegory” and patristic exegesis became more interesting to Childs later on in his career.

    To summarize, a Childsian canonical approach challenges the nature of historical criticism in the same way that Barth’s category of the text as “witness” did. It asks us to reconceive what history really is in the first place and how the text would funciton within that history is this history were true.

    I hope that makes sense …

    (I’ll restrain from arguing why I think Brueggemann’s approach pales into insignificance in the light of this).

    Tuesday, July 8, 2008 at 11:23 am | Permalink

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    [...] This is one good theological question and one I think Pannenberg handles well. [...]

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