“…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.
Second, 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.