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The MOST Theological Collection: Free From All Error: Authorship, Inerrancy, Historicity of Scripture, Church Teaching, and Modern Scripture Scholars

"Chapter 16: Demise of Historical-Critical Method?"


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Strange indeed is the view that meets our eyes today as we survey the landscape of Scripture studies. The historical-critical method, which for centuries has reigned as queen, is now being cast out bodily—note by all, but by many of the most prominent scholars. These scholars are turning instead to structuralism, psychoanalytic readings of the Gospels, sociological interpretation, and other things. More on these points later. For now, let us look at the historical-critical method itself.

As its name indicates, the historical-critical method is an approach to Scripture within the framework of history. It is demanding, takes nothing for granted, and seemingly requires solid proof for its findings. The use of literary genres is a major part of the historical-critical method. Its other chief components are: textual criticism, source criticism, form and redaction criticism. A brief survey of the early stages of the historical-critical method will be useful at this point.

Although the method in general belongs to recent centuries, there were some forerunners. St. Augustine, for instance, knew that we must not suppose God made an actual image of clay for the first man. since God does not have bodily hands (De Genesi ad litteram 6.12.20). St. John Chrysostom, in On Genesis, warned against taking the rib-to-Eve episode crudely. Theodore of Mopsuestia was considered rationalistic because he understood that the Canticle of Canticles is romance lyric. Hugh of St. Victor denied that Solomon wrote the Book of Wisdom. Rabbi Ibn Ezra of Toledo, in the twelfth century, raised historical problems in Genesis.

Turning to the Old Testament specifically, we find that a priest, Richard Simon (1638-1712), thought that a group of "public secretaries" gradually added to the first five books of the Bible up to the time of Ezra (fifth century B.C.). A Protestant, H. B. Witter, in 1711, was the first to suggest that different names for God (Elohim Yahweh Elohim) could point to different documents. A Catholic, J. Astruc, in 1753, was the first to divide Genesis into various documents, partly on the basis of the difference in divine names. Karl Ilgen, in 1798, asserted that the Elohist source was really two sources: E1 and E2. Today these are usually called E and P (for Priestly Code).

Others, such as Alexander Geddes (1792), Johann Vater (1771-1826), and William de Wette (1780-1849), were unconvinced of the documentary theory. Instead they proposed that many fragments had been put together by an editor in the time of Solomon, or even Hezekiah. H. Ewald (1805-1875) said there was one basic document—he called it (Grundschrift ("basic writing")—which was E, and that gaps were filled in from a J (source using Yahweh) in the times of Saul, Solomon, and Ezekiel. Still later, Ewald redivided E (Elohist document). When E. Riehm, in 1854, solidly established D (Deuteronomist) as a separate document, there was a rebirth of the documentary theory in its basically modern form, which supposes four documents: J, E, P, and D.

Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), working especially in the study of law, refined these theories. He thought the Pentateuch (first five books) and Joshua reached their present form after the Exile, at the time of Ezra, around 450 B.C.

But we need to notice especially two currents that had been present for some time in Old Testament studies: a tendency to deny the supernatural, and a tendency to fit everything into a mold suggested by the German philosopher Hegel. Let us look at each of these.

H. Reimaurus (1694-1768) asserted that the Old Testament is myth and that the New Testament contains deliberate falsification by disciples of Jesus. J. G. Eichhorn (1752-1827) disagreed but nonetheless held that there was nothing supernatural in the Old Testament. Primitive peoples, unable to recognize secondary causes, he reasoned, attributed everything to God directly.

G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) held that man progresses through recurring cycles of conflict and resolution: someone takes a position; a counterposition arises; out of their interaction comes a third position (thesis, antithesis, synthesis). In line with this tendency, W. Vatke (1806-1881) thought that religion became revealed slowly through stages of simile, allegory, myth, Christianity. The Bible, he held, is more a history of man's consciousness than a record of past events. A fully objective biblical theology, he said, can never exist. This position led, of course, to a devaluation of the Old Testament, which tendency was furthered by F. Schleiermacher (1768-1834), who made religion a matter of sentiment rather than knowledge. Julius Wellhausen, mentioned above, was successful not so much for radically new views as for a logical and cogent presentation of the ideas of his predecessors. He, too, followed Hegel, through the influence of Vatke, and rejected all supernatural elements in the religion of Israel.

Even this sketchy survey of some of the principal writers about the Old Testament easily shows us the immense amount of prejudice (rejection of all supernatural things without proof), the subjectivism, the insufficiently proved theories that run so strongly in the works on the Pentateuch. Studies of other parts of the Old Testament, especially the prophets, are also characterized by these kinds of defects.

New Testament criticism in some ways is even more dismal. Here, too, we see early the baneful influence of what people in their conceit called "the Enlightenment" in the eighteenth century. These "enlightened" thinkers denied the supernatural, denied anything beyond human reason, said that mysteries of faith could be explained away by reason. Then, of course, divine revelation would neither be needed nor given. God was adequately manifested in nature. Miracles are impossible, since physical laws are the expression of the unchangeable will of God.

The same H. W. Reimaurus, in The Aims of Jesus and His Disciples (1778), distinguished the historical Jesus from the Christ of the Gospels—what He really was, from what His disciples told about Him. The real Jesus was a revolutionary who tried to start an earthly messianic kingdom but failed. The disciples stole the body, invented the Resurrection and the expectation of His return (the parousia). Then they changed the idea of messiahship to a spiritual one.

Johann Michaelis (1717-1791), not knowing how to solve the problem of which books are inspired, said that only those inspired by the Apostles were inspired. Mark and Luke, thus, are not inspired; but the fanciful apocryphal Gospels (under the names of James, Philip, Thomas, etc.) are inspired.

H. E. G. Paulus (1761-1851) reacted against the claims of gross fraud. He said the disciples were not dishonest, just too simple. Miracles could all be explained in terms of natural causes. People mistook natural events for miracles.

David F. Strauss (1808-1874) really shook the world with his two-volume Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835-1836). He said the Gospels were written in the middle of the second century, to give time for myth to develop. He said that the records were based on Old Testament episodes, later applied to the Messiah (compare R. E. Brown's Birth of the Messiah).

F. C. Baur (1792-1860) exerted great influence. Using Hegel again, Baur supposed a confrontation between a Petrine Jewish faction and a Pauline faction. The outcome was "Early Catholicism." We could date New Testament writings, Baur thought, by noticing which tendency—the Pauline or the Petrine—is represented in a given book.

The real founder of liberal Protestantism was A. Ritschl (1822-1889), who held that religious judgments are value judgments based only on feelings of approval or disapproval. Whether or not they have any objective reality is not important, nor can we know. Here, again, we have a distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.

W. Wrede, whose work is still very influential, in The Messianic Secret (1901), said that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah; later the Church was embarrassed by His silence and so covered by faking scenes in the Gospels in which He would tell people to keep quiet about the fact that He was the Messiah.

Most of these unfortunate interpretations of Scripture came out of Germany. England produced "the Cambridge Three," who countered the "liberal" views. J. B. Lightfoot (1828-1889), studied early writings, especially the Epistle of Pope Clement I and the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch. Lightfoot showed that they were, respectively, works of the late first and early second centuries. This pushed back Gospel dating from the middle of the second century, since these writings do quote the Gospels. And they showed there was no drawn out conflict of Petrine and Pauline factions as Baur had supposed. The other two of the Cambridge Three, Westcott and Hort, also wrote commentaries, but their great production was a critical text of the Greek New Testament, replacing the inadequate old textus receptus, which was based on poor manuscript evidence.

Reginald H. Fuller, one of the leading Protestant form critics, in his review of The Birth of the Messiah, by Raymond Brown, chided Brown: "It is ironic that just at the time when the limitations of the historical-critical method are being discovered in Protestantism, Roman Catholic scholars should be bent on pursuing that method so relentlessly" (CBQ 40, 1978, p. 120). That was written in 1978. By 1981 the same R. Brown tells us that R. Fuller "states that the bankruptcy of the historical-critical method should be overcome by -feedback received from the believing community" (Critical Meaning of the Bible, Paulist, 1981, p. 25).

The historical-critical method is by nature limited, since the kind of evidence it can work with is almost always internal, not external. A scholar tries, for example, to find indications within the text telling where the Gospel of Matthew was written. Meier argues that it wad written at Antioch (Antioch and Rome, Raymond E. Brown and John P. Meier, Paulist, 1983, pp. 12-72). He thinks that the confrontation between Peter and Paul (Galatians 2:11-14) was so heated that, as a result, Paul seldom went back to Antioch thereafter: "So strong was Peter's influence that even Barnabas sided with him against Paul. Paul soon found it expedient to leave Antioch on mission to Asia Minor—without Barnabas" (p. 24). But there is no proof that Peter held to his unwillingness to follow the decision of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:7 95), in which Peter himself had taken the lead in agreeing with Paul that gentile converts need not observe the Mosaic law.

As to Barnabas, Acts 15:3640 says that Paul did suggest to Barnabas that he come on a second missionary expedition. Though he was willing, "Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work" (15:37-38). Rather naturally, Paul did not favor one who had deserted. for whatever reason. Because Barnabas insisted on taking Mark, Paul and Barnabas went separately.

There is no proof at all that Peter continued in his attitude. It is much more likely that Peter had just become weak again, as he did more than once in the Gospels. Weakness would hardly make him hold on firmly to rejecting the decision of the Council of Jerusalem, in which he had taken the lead. Really, Meier seems to be resurrecting the old notion of a prolonged conflict between Peter and Paul.

So we can begin to see what R. H. Fuller meant by the "limitations" of the historical-critical method: it seldom strictly proves anything. But for a long time scholars did not see the limitations. Instead they would build one inconclusive thing on another and, in their cockiness, even claim for their researches the assured results of science. Now they are waking up to see what they should have seen long ago. Instead of correcting their defective judgment and using the method for what it is worth—which is considerable—they are now showing still another effect of bad judgment. At first it led them to excess confidence, now it leads to excess diffidence, to throwing out the baby with the bath water. (Examples of the method are given in chapters 17 and 18.)

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