The Historical Critical Method

Hermeneutics (or Hermeneutic) in theology is the science that deals with the principles for the interpretation or exegesis of the Bible. There is in reality nothing new about the so-called “New Hermeneutic” that has so effectively undermined the commitment to the historic Christian faith in one denomination after another. Recently it has greatly agitated the LC-MS (Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) and, unfortunately, it is now also making its inroads into the CRC. Actually this “New Hermeneutic” began already in Paradise when the serpent said to Eve, “Yea, hath God said . . . ?

Rev, Peter De Jong, writer of this informative article, is pastor of the Christian Reformed Church of Dutton, Michigan.

“In Laymen‘s Terms, What Is the Historical Critical Method of Bible Interpretation?” – This was the question Rev. Samuel Nafzger tried to answer for a group who met on Sunday afternoon, November I, 1976, at Grand Rapids’ Immanuel Lutheran Church. The speaker, the Executive Secretary of the Missouri Lutherans’ Commission on Theology and Church Relations, set out to explain as clearly and simply as possible the issue that is at the heart of the controversy which is dividing the big Missouri Synod Lutheran denomination. His deep personal involvement and his effort to state carefully and fairly (“speaking truth in love”) opposing positions, helped to make his presentation of the matter one of the best I have ever heard or read.

When he graduated from the St. Louis Concordia Seminary in 1965 Rev. Nafzger observed that another graduate, nearing mental breakdown, had said, “I dont know what I am going to preach when I get out!” In the eleven years since that time, as a Texas pastor and as a graduate student in Europe and at Harvard, Rev. Mr. Nafzger has made this problem about the Bible the subject of specialized study.

This is a doctrinal problem regarding the nature of the Bible’s authority which has arisen as scholars during the last 150 years have been taking a “historical critical approach” to Bible study. It was the speaker’s considered conclusion that this “historical critical method” is contrary to his church’s confessional view of the Scriptures, although some have tried to harmonize the two—and failed.

Where Do We Begin? – We must make our starting point what the Bible teaches us about itself. It teaches us that it is the inspired Word of God. Especially such passages as II Timothy 3:13ff., II Peter 1:19ff., and I Corinthians 2:13 state this plainly. It must be received “not as the word of men, but, as it is in truth, the word of God” (I Thess. 2:13). The Bible makes such claims in both Old and New Testaments (Psalm 119:160; John 17:17). It “cannot be broken” (John 10:35) and is powerful (Heb. 4:12; II Tim. 3:15). The Bible teaches that it is without qualification the Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, powerful to convert and bring to faith in Christ.

Accordingly, this was confessed and taught also by the Lutheran confessions and early writers. God’s Word “cannot err,” “will not lie,” is in a class by itself different from any other writings, the only rule and norm of faith and practice. C. F. W. Walther, the father of the Missouri Synod said that if one would except anything in Scripture from this claim he would thereby make himself the norm. When in 1973, in a statement of scriptural and confessional principles, the church stated that God is the true Author of every word of Scripture and that the belief that Scripture can contain errors contradicts this confession, it was restating what these churches have held from the beginning. Those who claim that the church has changed its view in this 1973 declaration “dont know what they are talking about”!

Some “SubMethods” –  The “historical critical method” whose history the speaker brieRy traced, is complex. It is not just one thing but includes a variety of sub-techniques. Some claim that there are five basic aspects of historical criticism (or sub-techniques) which can be used with the Lutheran confession regarding the Bible.

1. There is linguistic study. The Bible is God’s Word in the words of men. God moved these men to speak His Word and to write it. We must therefore study the languages, who wrote to whom and in what kind of writing. No one in the church circles is objecting to such study. 2. There is textual criticism. We have no original manuscripts of the Bible but only copies of copies, some as old as 150 A.D. One must study these manuscripts in order to find the most probable original text. One can find accidental and even intentional errors made by some scribes, but no one disputes that we are very close to the original text. This kind of “lower criticism” also creates no problem in the churches. 3. Form criticism, a method developed by Rudolf Bultmann and Martin Dibelius, begins to raise trouble as it asks, “What are the ingredients that make up this section?” In trying to find origins, breaking a text into parts, asking which gospel borrowed from which, or whether they borrowed from ‘Q’, a document nobody ever saw. In claiming that some parts are later additions, this method drives a wedge between the Bible and the Word of God and brings one into conflict with the Bible’s authority. 4. Redaction criticism, questioning the claimed authorship, asking why this editor said this and what he believed, plainly puts something above the text of the Bible and cannot be harmonized with the Bible’s claims to its own authority. 5. Traditions criticism – trying to trace views through various people, making one section more authoritative than another—further undermines the authority of the text of the Bible.    

Historical Criticism” Proper – In addition to these methods just mentioned, there is “historical criticism” in a more precise sense of the words, trying to figure out what actually happened and writing a history.

Here, said the speaker, most profound changes have taken place in the last 200 years. This has been called “a Copernican revolution.” This method involves crossexamining documents to see whether they are to be believed or not. Using this method in Bible study drives a wedge between the text of the Bible and what actually happened. Advocated by the so-called “Moderates” as necessary in seminary teaching, it is the real problem of the Missouri Synod.

1. This method demands that the Bible be studied and treated like any other book, while the Lutheran confessions (and the Scriptures themselves, as we have seen) insist that the Bible must be studied and regarded as different, unique—God’s Word.

2. Historical criticism always assumes the possibility that man today can interpret better than the writer the reality of what he said. 3. The effort to combine this historical critical method with Lutheran confessional presuppositions has been attempted by giving a different explanation of God’s inspiration of the Bible. Whereas Walther said it meant that God gave even the words of Scripture, the “Moderates” at Seminex (the Liberal seminary which broke away from St. Louis Concordia) are saying inspiration should be understood to mean “effective power to bring to salvation.” This liberal movement would make such words as “inspiration” only “functional,” referring only to the eRect the Bible produces, not to whether or not what it says is true.

Put more simply, this means that Seminex students are saying that Jesus’ turning the water into wine was “inerrant” and “inspired,” but that this does not mean that it happened! The speaker spoke of a roommate in Germany who agreed that Jesus was raised from the dead. Did this mean that His body, bones, hair and skin, were not in the tomb on Sunday morning? “Of course not!!” The Resurrection for him meant God‘s power over death, not that Jesus actually came to life.

What Happens When One Accepts the Historical Critical Method? – At first not much seems to change, but (1) the unity of the Bible is denied, (2) a permissiveness comes into the church, (3) the Bible is no longer received without question as the Word of God. It is only called the Word of God “in a secondary sense,” as it was by Karl Barth. And so the gospel comes to be compromised and the Bible is no longer regarded as saying what God did but only what the church believed.

The Heart of the Matter – The Missouri Synod problem is not about differing interpretations of Bible passages. Even the problem of the Bible’s “inerrancy” is a symptom of what underlies it, An. errant text, (a Bible with mistakes) cannot be the final-authority. If the text can be denied, every doctrine can be denied.

Either the Scripture is the written Word of God, or it is not. If it is, you can make no peace with historical critical methodology. These differences in one’s view of Scripture are absolutely antithetical. This is the heart of the Missouri Lutheran problem.

Blessings from Controversy – The speaker, himself deeply involved in the painful struggle in the church, with many friends on the opposite side, was convinced that God was bringing a blessing through it. He was driving the church back to His Word; and when that happens the church becomes more powerful.

This controversy is not new; it is a battle that has been fought before. Some want to compromise, concede as much as they can, hold on to opposite views, but they are trying to do the impossible. Only God could have done what has happened in the Missouri Synod. This is the first time in Christendom that a church has gone back to its historic position on the doctrine of Scripture. Today that church is more agreed in doctrine than it has been in recent memory. Grateful for what has happened, Rev. Mr. Nafzger looked hopefully ahead, envisioning a strong scriptural witness to the gospel in and from that church.

Some Recent History – This controversy has gotten a lot of press coverage in recent years, but much of it has been decidedly slanted in favor of the self-styled “Moderates” or Liberals. They have been portrayed as they like to represent themselves, as struggling for progress and the “freedom of the gospel” against uncharitable. intolerant, doctrinally naive, conservative church politicians. What happened was that the denomination which had for some time fallen under the control or Liberal leaders, woke up and began to realize what had occurred. It reaffirmed its confessional loyalty to the Bible’s own claims about itself and ousted the liberal leadership from most of the positions of power in the church. Since then a relatively small number of the more aggressive “Moderate” or Liberal leaders, finding their efforts to retain or regain power frustrated, have finally decided to leave the denomination to form a new one.

That new denomination, calling itself the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, was organized at a convention in Chicago on December 3 and 4, 1976. It claims some 75,000 baptized members in 150 congregations from coast to coast. Compared with the whole 2.7 million-member Missouri Synod, this is a very small group. The struggle has been painful and prolonged, but if the loss of a few ademently liberal churches and their leaders is the price that has to be paid to bring such a denomination back to a real commitment to the Word of God and its Confession to that Word, that price is amazingly low. How much better this is than to have men who increasingly compromise the Christian faith and life as they lose their confidence in God’s Word carry one denomination after another along with them into unbelief.

Our Own Historical Criticism Problem – As I have observed in previous writing, the more intimately one becomes acquainted with these Lutheran developments the more he is impressed by the fact that the basic problem increasingly troubling our churches is exactly the same as the one that has been troubling them.

A few months ago Dr. Harry Boer in a series of articles in The Reform ed Joumal publicly defended and advocated the use of “higher criticism” in the study of the Bible. Like the Lutheran “Moderates,” he too wanted to change the meaning of “infallible” so that it would leave room for believing that the “infallible” Bible includes many kinds of mistakes.

Dr. Allen Verhey who says he believes the Bible is inspired even in its words also interprets the serpent” in Genesis 3 to be no serpent, the “earthquake” reported in Matthew 28 to be no earthquake, and Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 and 19 as additions by Matthew not spoken by Jesus, (See 1976 Acts of Synod, pp. 92, 685 and May-June and July-August 1976 issues of The Reformed Journal.)

These are only some recent, outstanding examples of what is happening much more widely, And the church has tried to deal with the problem by compromise. The 1972 Synod Report No. 44 plainly made concessions to the desire of the Dutch churches to make the authority of Scripture “functional,” to understand it in “connection with its content and purpose” as “exclusively saving,” as well as trying to hold on to the “eventcharacter” of what was reported. The gentle warnings it contains were ignored by the 1976 Synod in its dealings with the Walhout and Verhey cases.

And so we become ever more deeply embroiled in the problems and confusion that must come when one compromises the claims of God‘s Word about itself (Isaiah 8:20). May the Lord lead us to see as clearly as some of our Lutheran brethren are seeing it, the way back to His Word and to a church truly committed to it. And may He lead us in that way.