The Historical Critical Method of Studying the Bible

A Book Review Article by Peter De Jong

The End of the Historical Critical Method by Gerhard Maier, translated from the 1974 German edition by Edwin W. Leverenz and Rudolph F. Norden, 108 pp.; Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, Mo., 1977, paper, $4.50.

Above the Bible? The Bible and Its Critics by Harry It Boer, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1975, 1976, 1977, 109 pp., paper, $2.95.

The Failure of a Method – Unusually important especially for our times is the first of these two little, paperbacks. In less: than 100 pages of text a careful scholar sketches the results of the 200-year history of the historical critical method of studying the Bible, exposing their self-defeating character and suggesting at the end what is a proper “historical bibilcal method” in such study.

In his “Foreword” Dr. Eugene F. Klug recalls how in the late 1700‘s Johann Salomo Semler fathered “the technique which not only handled the Bible as an object for historical scrutiny and criticism, but also as a book little different from and no more holy than any other, and surely not to be equated with the Word of God. Very plainly he was saying that he rejected the divine inspiration of the text.” “Not unexpectedly, under his and others’ hand, the Bible text and content suffered deliberate vivisection.” A few of the practioners of higher criticism eventually realized that, when you destroy the thing you are attempting to dissect, you are putting yourself out of business. The Bible’s central message, they reasoned, must in some way be anchored tightly. There must be a mooring point for Christian truth. This minimal “message” must at all costs survive if the theological task itself is to last.

“Gerhard Maier‘s great contribution is precisely at this point. If scholars themselves determine what that Word or ‘message’ is, then plainly they are responsible for establishing whatever is canonical about the canon. Obviously this can be a very subjective exercise. With each exegete or Bible scholar conceiving it to be his task to locate the ‘canon in the canon,’ there can be no guarantee of that message, or the Word. Whether those involved in it knew it or not, and no matter how pious their intent, the fact remains that it was a self-defeating process, doomed to failure. Various theories supplanted each other in succession. Maier shows brilliantly that the so-called scientific pursuit in Biblical criticism fell apart on its own ‘findings.’ The historical-critical practitioners had themselves become the morticians at the funeral and burial of the Word of God” (pp. 8, 9).

The book covers 10 0 much ground and is too compactly written to he either quickly read or easily summarized. It is studded with sharp observations about the development of the thought of leading critics, observations which are valid too regarding others whom we see advancing the same opinion.

The author begins: the discussion (p. 11) byobserving that a scholar‘s methods of working determine what kind of results he will get. “Accordingly, a critical method of Bible interpretation can produce only Bible-critical propositions. This is true even in those instances where thc historical-critical method confirms Bible propositions. For the justification and authority of the outcome are still established by the critical scholar himself and, due to the method, cannot come only out of Scripture.” (In other words, when one, as such a “critical” scholar, accepts Christ‘s resurrection as a fact he is not believing that because the Bible says so, but because he as sovereign scholar had determined that this biblical event is to be believed while others in the same Bible are not to be so believed.)

Regarding the “nature of the historicalcritical method” Maier observes that its emphasis lay not on the “historical” but on the “critical.” “The ‘critical’ was the motor and accelerator of the movement. On it rested its determining accent” (p. 13).

The central Chapler II which has the same title as the book, is a study of a 1970 German work, The New Testament as Canon, edited by Ernst Kaesemunn. In that work is higher critical authors between 1941 and 1970 give u kind or “authentic self-testimony” as to where the 200-year-old method has brought them. It may be considered a “balance sheet” of the whole movement. Maier successively shows how the exegetes, H. Strathmann, W. G. Kuemmel, H. Braun, and W. Marxen, and finally, Kaesemann, the editor, tried but were unable “to delimit or even to discover a convincing canon in the canon” by which to determine what was to be believed. Whether they tried to make that authoritative “canon in the canon” (following a misinterpretation of Luther) “what teaches Christ,” or tried to make it “the personal” in contrast with the “doctrinal-juridical,” or to make the canon the oldest records within the Biblical records, inevitably their efforts bogged down. This was especially apparent in the case of Braun. “In the end, one has difficulty avoiding the impression that for Braun the assumptions of the historical-critical method—founded on human arbitrariness—logically lead to this, that man himself appears as the norm in the real canon. Man, who began critically to analyze revelation and to discover for himself what is normative, found at the end of the road: himself. Although many of Braun‘s colleagues who joined him under similar conditions kept their distance from his radicalism, his fearless consistency reveals what inevitably lies at the end of the method’s downward road” (p. 35).

Maier then traces the failure of systematicians to find and maintain an authoritative canon in the canon, and their retreat to an appeal to spiritual experience. H. Diem, Ratschow, W. Joest, Ebeling, and the Roman Catholic, Hans Kueng were all caught in the same selfdestructive effort. Especially the latter, despite his devastating criticism of the efforts of others, did not free himself from the critical method which produced them. He said, “The bold program of finding a ‘canon in the canon’ demands nothing else than this: to be more Biblical than the Bible, more New Testamently than the New Testament, more evangelical than the Gospel, and even more Pauline than Paul. Radical earnestness is the intention, radical dissolution is the result . . . the true Paul is the entire Paul, and the true New Testament is the entire New Testament” (p. 45).

Maier summarizes the tragic results for the scholar and for the churches: “Thus the use of the higher-critical method has put us into a monstrous hole. The downfall here described proved to be inescapable. What the real Word of God is became more and more nebulous.” “The subtle net woven by the higher-critical method resulted in a new Babylonian captivity of the church. It became more and more isolated from the living stream of Bible proclamation, and therefore more and more uncertain and blind both as to its own course and also in relation to its influence toward the outside” (p. 48).

The Proper Method – Instead of this frustrating and destructive “historical-critical method” the writer proposes a “historical-biblical method,” one which recognizes at the outset the uniqueness of Scripture as the Word of God. It must be one which reckons with God‘s Sovereignty, one which recognizes that “revelation and obedience, not revelation and critique, are corresponding terms . . .” (p. 54), which acknowledges the principle stated in the Reformation, that “Scripture interprets itself” (p. 55), and which operates on the basis of the claims which Scripture makes about itself (pp. 61ff.). There is much more in this compact little book, but this sampling will give the reader a glimpse of its scope and importance as it outlines “the end of the historical-critical method” and pleads for a return to the orthodox view of Holy Scripture taught by—that Scripture, and for the use of appropriate methods of studying it.

Our Churches’ Earlier Incursion of Higher Criticism – Our churches through most of their history, like many other smaller evangelical denominations, tended to hold themselves aloof from this broad historical-critical movement. A little over a half century ago its influence became apparent in our seminary in connection with the teaching of Or. Ralph Janssen. In 1919 four seminary professors brought objections to his teaching to the Board and when those objections were not sustained they brought them to the 1920 Synod. That Synod declared that although Dr. Janssen had expressed his faith in the verbal inspiration of the Bible, he had sometime . . . laid too much emphasis on the human factor and natural means, so that the divine was obscured, and it advised him to show improvement in this respect.

The next Synod in 1922 received 13 protests and communications on this matter. It is instructive to read its 50 page record (pp. 88–138, 1922 Acts).

The Broadway Church called attention to the way in which statements in Dr. Janssen‘s lectures conflicted with his avowed belief in the verbal inspiration of the Bible and with the doctrine of an infallible Word of God and observed that the trend of these lectures was subversive of the doctrine that we have in the Bible an ‘inspired and authoritative record of God‘s historical revelation to mankind.’” It stated that “Dr. Janssen has not simply overemphasized the human factor . . . but ignored the divine factor so that a reading of said lectures tends to weaken rather than strengthen . . . the belief in the supernatural origin and character of Israel’s religion” (p. 89).

Even more extensive was the appeal of Classis Zeeland. It noted the Zutphen church‘s expressed concern about the apparent conflict between Janssen‘s view of the Bible and the teaching of the Bible and the Creeds. It found fault with Dr. Janssen‘s approach in seeking to apply the same kind of scientific and critical approach in theological matters as one takes in other sciences, placing himself over rather than submissively under what was being studied. He handled Old Testament introduction in a “historical-critical” manner, not submitting himself to the Scripture, but subjecting the Scripture to his investigation to determine what was true and false (p. 105). It pointed out how in the interpretation of the history of Saul, Samuel and David personal ambitions of the characters were permitted to obscure the thought of God‘s revelation in the professor‘s teaching. It found it impossible to reconcile his explanations of Bible history with his claim that he believed in its inspiration (p. 112). It objected to his failure to deal with the Bible as an organic unity, and his speaking instead of various “records” (p. 112).

The question about Dr. Janssen’s teaching was not about whether he claimed he believed in the verbal inspiration of the Bible, as the previous synod had mistakenly assumed, but it was about whether his method of teaching the Bible to his students was orthodox. Convinced that it was not, the classis asked for his removal from office (pp. 116, 100).

The Synod, took note of the facts that Dr. Janssen did not begin from the standpoint of faith in his “critical” study of the Old Testament, that he though not denying special revelation tended to “subjectify” it, and that though not denying the inspiration of the Bible, he taught in a way that could not be harmonized with it. It observed that he gave little attention to the unity of the Scriptures or to the light which the New Testament sheds on the Old, that he seemed to take an evolutionistic standpoint in some places and that he attempted “to naturalize miracles in order not to meet with conflict from the side of science.”

The Synod therefore proceded to depose him from office (cf. J. Kromminga, The Christian Reformed Church, pp. 75–78). Clearly evident in this record is the fact that in teachings of Dr. Janssen the churches confronted the “historical-critical method” and when they saw what that involved, definitely repudiated it.

A New Drive to Promote Higher Criticism Among Us – In the second little book to which this article calls attention, Dr. Harry Boer attacks our churches’ long-time rejection of the historical-critical method and insists that it ought to be frankly adopted. Except for one chapter, the book is a reprint of articles appearing in the Reformed Journal in September to December of 1975 and in January 10 April of 1976. In earlier articles in that Journal in the issues of December 1972, and January and November 1973 the writer had reviewed the Janssen case. Virtually ignoring the objections to Janssen‘s teaching to which tile Acts called attention, he concentrated almost exclusively and at great length on the mainly procedural argument advanced in Janssen‘s defence and proceeded to condemn the acting synods as “kangaroo courts,” guilty of “misrepresentation, demagoguery” and “ecclesiastical and moral malpractice” which had engaged in “a heresy hunt, with its inherent need for cruelty to the victim and perversion of truth to the community” (Nov. 1973 Journal, pp. 23 and 24).

The real animus behind this intemperate and unsubstantiated judgment comes out in the general charge made against the church which was “blamed” for “its subordination of serious scholarship to theological obscurantism, particularly in the area of Old Testament studies” and with apparently ingrained in difference to Old Testament scholarship and study, and thereby to serious concern with the Old Testament revelation, message, comfort and instruction, which has for many years characterized the Christian Reformed community.” It is plain that the real fault of the church which provoked this sweeping judgment by the critics was that it rejected the historical-critical” method which had so long dominated these  fields of academic study that anyone who disagreed with it would be commonly dismissed as no scholar.

In his later series of articles, now printed in this little book, Dr. Boer, seeks to defend and promote this “historical-critical” or “higher-critical” method. His main lines of argument may be briefly summarized. The higher-critical method early championed by men who attacked the Christian faith is now accepted by many evangelicals so that “many now regard the higher critical study of the Bible as the only responsible approach to the understanding of the Scriptures as a body of religious writings” (p. 12).

“The Bible is a book that comes out of the believing community, was written for the believing community by members of the believing community, and therefore belongs pre-eminently to the believing community,” and the writer wishes to share with it “the liberation that comes from the realization that the Bible is not only the Book among the many books, but also a book among the many books” (p. 13). He wants to avoid church divisions by persuading the churches to accommodate themselves to the critical method observing that among those who oppose it “misrepresentation, ecclesiastical politicking and dishonesty . . . never seems far from adorning the defense of a ‘high view’ of Scripture” (p. 15)! He argues that if it is proper to use critical scholarly methods to determine what is the most accurate text (“lower criticism”), as conservative scholars admit, they cannot consistently reject these methods in studying the “composition, style, authorship, possible sources” and history and background culture of the same text (“higher-criticism”). May methods “acceptable in determining the very words of Scripture . . . be forbidden in studying the meaning of the text so determined” (p. 29)?

He makes much of the argument that although the Bible is the Word of God, it must also be regarded as a completely human book just as Jesus is confessed to be completely human as well as Divine. The differences between the gospel accounts are cited as reasons why the use of the higher critical approach is proper in trying to get behind those records to determine why the authors gave diverging reports. From this the writer goes on to argue that we ought to abandon the notion that the Bible is inerrant, and although keeping the word “infallible” we ought to change its meaning so as to allow for all kinds of “literary, historical, geographical, numerical, or other disparities” (p. 86).

Finally, he maintains that we ought to give up the idea that the Bible is without error because the Holy Spirit works through human imperfection. “We can say that the inspiration in question was not mechanical . . . not dictational, that it was not verbal, that it was not merely ideational.” He calls it “a mystery . . . not.. any more definable than is the relationship of the divine and the human in Christ” (pp. 107–109).

Evaluation – Do these arguments prove that we need to revise our historic views of the Bible? They do not. They simply repeat the old attacks on the Scriptures made for decades and in some cases for centuries. Does our using critical language studies in trying to find which old copies are most accurate (lower criticism) mean that we must also use the same methods to attack the content and message of those documents? Of course, it doesn‘t. That argument may seem plausible only if we insist, as Boer and other critics do, that in our methods of study we must ignore the Bible’s own claims about its uniqueness. The analogy between Jesus’ Divine and human Person and the Bible, however interesting it may be as an observation, is as far as I know not pointed out in the Bible itself so that we have no right to draw any compelling conclusions from it. The argument is nothing but human speculation. Moreover, if one wants to argue from that comparison, he would have to conclude from his accepting a Bible full of mistakes that Jesus must also be subject to all kinds of error and sin and be equally undependable. As a matter of fact, Dr. Boer‘s argument does carry him in that direction—as we shall see later.

The difficulties we and other Christians from Bible times on~ with our limited knowledge, encounter in trying to see how the different gospel records relate to each other, do not justify our setting one off against the other, as Boer and other critics habitually do, and insisting that therefore the Bible must be full of mistakes. Finally, to appeal to the Holy Spirit to justify attacking the Word He inspired, and to reassure people that He will protect the truth no matter how much scholars contradict the Scripture text is to disregard the warnings of the Scripture that we must “believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (I John 4:1). The spirit that attacks the Scriptures is not the Holy Spirit Who inspired them, but the devil.

Evading the Lord‘s Own Teaching – Very striking in the argument through these articles is the way in which it ignores the Bible’s teachings about itself. It is upon those that the churchesdoctrines of the Bible’s authority, verbal inspiration and inerrancy, which are being attacked, are based. (See the Acts of our Synod of 1961, pp. 281–294, for an extended discussion of this matter.) Chapter 8, the next to the last chapter, the only part of the book that did not appear first in the Reformed Journal, deals with this otherwise neglected point, “Jesus and the Scriptures.” It does this in a peculiar way, not as asking what Jesus said, but as trying to defend the higher critical view “because appeal to the authority of Jesus is sometimes made to deprive higher critical study of the Bible of its legitimate place” (p. 91). Referring to Jesus’ claims about the Bible and His appeals to it, Dr. Boer asks whether this view may not be “couched in the language of faith wherein truth is something more and larger or perhaps even other than the mere wording of the proposition that formulates it.”It is certainly clear from Jesus’ teaching that his high regard for the sacred writings did not include the idea of their finality and ultimacy” (p. 92). Then Boer attacks Professor E. J. Young‘s refusal to let critical study persuade him to contradict the words of Jesus in determining who wrote parts of the Old Testament. Jesus was not “omniscient”—did not know everything. He “accommodated himself to existing beliefs which we no longer accept.” “Jesus left not a single written word to posterity.” All we have are “reports of the four evangelists.” And the writer proceeds again to point to “contradiction” in the reports. The argument of this chapter is a defence of the higher critical method in defiance of whatever Jesus or the Bible said. One could hardly demonstrate more clearly than it does how the critical method arises out of and promotes contempt of the Scriptures and their Lord.

This book only repeats old attacks on the Bible’s doctrine about itself in an effort to move the churches to accept the higher critical method. How foolish it would be for the churches to let such evasions and unsubstantial arguments as these persuade them to accommodate the method which its own 200-year history has been so thoroughly discrediting and which has contributed so much to the demoralization and apostasy of churches that have followed it. A half century ago when our churches became aware of the shoddy merchandise they were being sold they emphatically rejected it. Now, when another half century of bitter experience has been further discrediting it and they are again being sold the same bill of goods ollr churches arc up to the present refusing to face the fact that they are increasingly being swindled out of their faith by this kind of fraudulent “scholarship.” They urgently need to listen to Scripture‘s reminder and warning, “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today and for ever. Be not carried about with divers and strange doctrines. For it is a good thing that the heart be established with grace; not with meats, which have not profited them that have been occupied therein” (Heb. 13:8, 9).

Who Decides What We Believe? – One of the best recent answers to such new efforts to bring the critical method into evangelical churches appears in the latest (July 23) Christianity Today. Reacting to a suggestion that evangelicals redefine the word inerrantto allow for all kinds of mistakes, John Warwick Montgomery observes, “Whenever we reach the point of affirming on the one hand that the Bible is infallible or inerrant and admitting on the other hand to internal contradictions or factual inaccuracies with in it, we not only make a farce of language, promoting ambiguity, confusion, and perhaps even deception in the church; more reprehensible than even these things, we in fact deny the plenary inspiration and authority of Scripture toward itself, and in particular the attitude of Christ toward Scripture. What we must recognize is that Scripture and its Christ do not give us an open concept of inspiration that we can fill in as the extra-biblical methodologies of our time appear to dictate. To the contrary, the total trust that Jesus and the apostles displayed toward Scripture entails a precise and controlled hermeneutic. They subordinate the opinions and traditions of their day to Scripture; so must we. They did not regard Scripture as erroneous or self-contradictory; neither can we. They took its miracles and prophecies as literal fact; so must we. They regarded Scripture not as the product of editors and redectors but as stemming from Moses, David, and other immediately inspired writers; we must follow their lead. They believed that the events recorded in the Bible happened as real history; we can do no less.” “Biblical inerrancy, though the expression does not appear in Scripture, is nevertheless Christ’s view; and he must be my Lord in this as in all other areas. If he is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all” (pp. 40, 42).

Peter De Jong is pastor of the Christian Reformed Church of Dutton, Michigan.