The Gospels and Historical Criticism

“…in the second half of the eighteenth century, in connection with the intellectual movement of the Enlightenment, within Protestant theology the insight began to prevail that the Bible is a book written by men, which, like any product of the human mind, can properly be made understandable only from the times in which it appeared and therefore only with the methods of historical science.” Werner Kümmel, The Theology of the New Testament (Nashville: Abingdon, 1973), 14.

Historical Criticism makes several assumptions. First, the church has historically misread the Bible.  Modern readers need to strip away the theological layers that have accumulated over centuries.  Christians are people that are irrational and believe in a God without rational reasons It is true many Christians have an irrational belief in God and the deity of Jesus. They believe, although they might not be able to give a clear reason why they believe what they do. In the post-modern world in which we live, there are many who would say that it does not really matter what you believe in as long as you believe in something.

Old BibleSecond, Historical Criticism is philosophical naturalism applied to the New Testament Naturalism is the belief that all there is in the world is this world.  There is no spiritual plane of existence, there are no angels or demons, there is no devil nor is there a god.  Only things that can be submitted for scientific investigation are “real.” In fact, most of the claims of the Bible are impossible to test scientifically, so they are rejected. What sort of test could the Myth Busters create to test the claim Jesus walked on the water?

When naturalism is applied to the Bible, several classic doctrines of the Christian church come under criticism, primarily the deity of Jesus. Jesus Christ was not the Son of God, nor did he ever claim to be.  He might have been a moral teacher, a philosopher, or an ethical example, but he was not divine.  This means that predictions of Jesus are later inventions of the church.  The death of Christ on the cross has nothing to do with atonement for sin. Miracles and supernatural events are assumed to be myths.  Scholars denied that anything can happen outside of the natural laws of science.  Nothing, not even God, can suspend the law of nature.

Third, Historical Criticism the Bible, therefore, is to be interpreted as any book.  For these scholars, the “historical method” became the only way to approach the Bible in an intelligent and modern way.  Notice that this use of the word historical is skewed by the assumption that the Bible has not claim on authority. The claims the Bible makes for itself are not of importance.

Despite these negative comments, I think Historical Criticism has been helpful for New Testament scholarship in a number of ways.  It cannot be said that everything produced by even the likes of the Jesus Seminar or Bart Ehrman are without merit–some of the scholarship by the most liberal scholars is useful for studying Jesus.

First, Historical Criticism has aided in the discovery and interpretation of historical details that relate to the world of the Bible.  Because these scholars were reading the Bible “just like any other book,” they often grounded their studies in the Greco-Roman world, shedding a great deal of light on the text. Second, Historical Critical scholars have been extremely helpful in developing major tools for interpreting the language of the Bible. It is impossible to work with a Greek New Testament or lexicon does not have its origin in historical-critical methods. For example, most of the articles in the TDNT are from advocates of Historical Criticism. While the TDNT has been rightly criticized, it is still a major tool for exegesis. Third, New Testament scholars have paid closer attention to the “Jewishness” of Jesus as a result of Historical Criticism, although this is sometimes in reaction to nineteenth century “lives of Jesus.”  The trend among modern writers is to read Jesus in the light of the contemporary Jewish culture rather than a 20th century political philosophy.

It is possible to use many of the tools of Historical Criticism without accepting every Enlightenment philosophical assumption. But not all evangelicals would agree with this assessment. Norman Geisler addressed this topic in his 1998 Evangelical Theological Society presidential address.  Geisler essentially said that any scholar who uses any of the methods of Historical Criticism is tainted by the philosophical assumptions of the enlightenment. While Geisler made a number of other statements in this paper I wholeheartedly agree with (and was deeply moved by at the time), I think he goes too far in his rejection of many of the “tools of scholarship” in his defense of Evangelicalism and inerrancy. I find myself in agreement with Grant Osborne’s response to Geisler, who accepts the warnings against extremism but concludes that Geisler “unfortunately go too far in their complete rejection of critical tools and their imputation of rationalist tendencies to evangelical scholars not guilty of them” (209).

As Carl Henry said, “What is objectionable is not the historical-critical method, but rather the alien presuppositions to which neo-protestant scholars subject it.”

Is Geisler correct? If we use the some of the methods of Historical Criticism are we (implicitly) accepting all the baggage of philosophical naturalism? Is “evangelical critical scholarship” an oxymoron? Or worse, is it a “a deal with the devil”?



Bibliography: Norman L. Geisler, “Beware Of Philosophy: A Warning To Biblical Scholars,” JETS 42 (1999): 1-18.

Grant R. Osborne, “Historical Criticism And The Evangelical,” JETS 42 (1999): 188-206.


9 thoughts on “The Gospels and Historical Criticism

  1. It is by no means a deal with the devil. One does not take on the assumptions of others even if using their methods. You noted the advancements that have come about due to the use of Historical Criticism. Because of these advancements those who study the Bible have a fuller understanding of Scripture. This leads to a fuller theology but does not cast doubt on the claims made by the Bible.

  2. Recently there have been some intramural comments concerning a teaching ministry at my church. It has been posited that my focus on the historical-critical study of the Bible is misguided; that HC is not necessary to grasp the power of God, to speak of redemption in Christ, or to bring people to God through Christ. It has been suggested that HC is harmful, even dangerous (a la Geisler).

    I pointed out that the Bible is replete with historical references that when the context is disclosed, the spiritual message is far better understood; preaching is deeper, more powerful, and actually more relevant. I encourage congregates to seek out Bible study aids prepared by able Godly scholars and have prepared non-technical handouts and other tools for laymen.

    The historical analysis is largely the same; the difference is now whether one accepts the supernatural, God’s entering into history or not.

    Outstanding evangelical scholars who have adopted HC, with names like Doug Moo, D.A. Carson, Darrel Bock, Tom Schreiner, Andreas Kostenberger, Peter O’Brien and many, many more, are filling evangelical bookshelves. Compare this to the crown jewel of the liberal/anti-supernaturalist, The Jesus Seminar, which is losing glimmer every day.

    If this controversy is framed as battle between liberals and conservatives, the evangelical conservatives are winning.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jim. I hope your intermural discussions are friendly.

      In principle, I agree there is no need use these sorts of methods to preach the gospel, that sort of piety is admirable. I teach Greek and Hebrew, but I am adamant the Bible is completely understandable in translation. The Gospel and all major elements of theology necessary for salvation are plain in any major translation of the Bible (in any language, in fact!)

      But as soon as someone asks an intelligent question, we are responsible for giving an honest and thoughtful answer. People who need to hear the gospel have reasonable objections and questions about the Bible. It is my responsibility to be as prepared as possible to give an answer – and that means hard study of the Scripture using all the tools I can!

      I think most Christians who accuse you (or me) being “liberal” for using the tools of Historical Criticism are usually fairly ignorant of what that means – we are not quoting Wellhausen or Darwin rather than the Bible! the list of scholars you mentioned are very conservative in the whole range of scholarship on the Bible today! If they are too liberal, then there are problems indeed!

      • As you said, the basics for salvation are easily accessible and understandable. The HC method though can provide a fuller, deaper understanding of the Bible. This term, “HC method”, may carry a negative burden, but I think that it must not. The true HC method is nothing more than the scientific approach in studying the Bible. At least, it should be…

  3. The discussion is friendly. We have a lovely, god-fearing pastoral staff that can be firm, but non-contentious.

    Many evangelicals and fundamentalists are entrenched in a defensive position regarding HC; simply satisfied to recognize and defend the Bible as the Word of God (and, as you say, that is admirable). With a probably unintended touch of irony, Geisler concludes his article by giving a call to evangelicals to study philosophy (including historical criticism of the Bible). But for Geisler, this is primarily for defensive purposes only, to know the enemy in the context of spiritual warfare. It sounds as if it is for the sole purpose of authoritatively telling the uninitiated the dangers of philosophy.

    When you joked about quoting Darwin or Wellhausen, you are alluding to something found in some Christian circles that, for me, is exceeding frustrating and funny at the same time. I refer to it as guilt by association. I simply recommended an article by J. Ellul to someone. Some people learned of it and associated Ellul with Barth, Barth with Neo-Orthodoxy, existential theology, liberalism, etc., etc.. While I was sleeping, I went from a conservative evangelical to a Barthian, Neo-orthodox, existential, liberal!

  4. Would Josephus be considered a historical critic? I think a lot of what Josephus wrote about has been helpful in my faith; to see some parallels between a more “secular” history and the Gospels.

    We are definitely not making a “deal with the devil” by using Historical Criticism in studying the life of Jesus and the Gospels. I guess I understand the point made that too much Historical Criticism can flirt dangerously with Naturalism, but there is so much we can learn with a little bit of Historical Criticism. In this way, I agree with Osbourne that Geisler went way too far to reject critical tools.

  5. Some things that historical criticism does is that it puts the bible into different perspectives and has different theories. Historical criticism believes that the church has historically misread the Bible. Historical criticism also believes that the only thing in this world is the world meaning there are no spiritual things whatsoever meaning there’s no God or Devil or anything that has to deal with not being a part of this world. One thing that stood out to me is that when naturalism is applied to the Bible that it basically questions everything about Jesus that Jesus claimed. Basically saying that Jesus was just a teacher that he wasn’t the son of God and that he wasn’t divine. I like how you mention that despite the negative things that Historical Criticism can bring about the Bible like questioning if Jesus was the son of God or divine, there are some good things that come from historical criticism. I think that it is really cool that since scholars who were using historical criticism read the Bible just like any other book they were able to discover historical details and other things that we haven’t before. Overall despite historical criticism having some negative things when it comes to the Bible it also discovered some historical things that we didn’t know. Overall I know that Jesus is the Son of God and He is divine and that the Bible is the word of God. Historical criticism can be helpful when interpreting things in the bible since they read it just like every other book.

  6. I agree with the point that using too much Historical Criticism is not alright, but I would say it is most certainly a stretch to say that it is making a deal with the devil. This brings up the idea of building a safe fence around yourself. This is the same reason why some branches of Christianity do not condone drinking, while others are much more relaxed. It all has to do with the idea of moderation. If a Christian knows truly what Historical Criticism is, then they should be able to know when too much is too much. The reason this is different then the idea of alcohol is because alcohol is addicting, while I struggle to believe someone will be addicted to using Historical Criticism. I do like the idea of using something that attacks what we believe to help us to look at our beliefs in the mirror.

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