Can the Church Survive the Historical-Critical Method?

The problem posed by the historical-critical method might be posed as the difference between what the text meant and what it means. Once this dichotomy is sharply posed, we find ourselves in a crisis of authority. How does Scripture exercise authority in the Church if its meaning is restricted to what the original authors meant? And indeed why should anyone care about Scripture if its meaning is so restricted?

In his book The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism, Jewish scholar Jon Levenson argues that the historical-critical method destroys the sacred nature of Scripture because it asserts the ultimate authority of historical context at the cost of sacrificing the wider “literary contexts that undergird the traditions that claim to be based upon them” (p. 4). What does Levenson mean by “literary context”? He explains:

Much of the polemics between religious traditionalists and historians over the past three centuries can be reduced to the issue of which context shall be normative. When historical critics assert, as they are wont to do, that the Hebrew Bible must not be taken “out of context,” what they really mean is that the only context worthy of respect is the ancient Near Eastern world as it was at the time of composition of whatever text is under discussion. Religious traditionalists, however, are committed to another set of contexts, minimally the rest of scripture, however delimited, and maximally, the entire tradition, including their own religious experience. Their goal is not to push the Book back into a vanished past, but to insure its vitality in the present and the future: “The word of our God endures forever” (Isa 40:8). … Underlying the literary context affirmed by religious traditionalists is the conviction that the text is somehow the expression of a reliable God. Harmonization is the exegetical counterpart to belief in the coherence of the divine will. The uniformity of scripture reflects the uniformity of truth. The alternative to this traditional religious position has never been stated more boldly than it was by a great pioneer of the historical criticism of the Bible, Baruch (Benedict) de Spinoza (1632-1677), when he wrote that “great caution is necessary not to confuse the mind of a prophet or historian with the mind of the Holy Spirit and the truth of the matter.” For Spinoza, the excommunicated Jew who never became a Christian, the idea of inspiration was simply another shackle constricting the exegete. No longer need exegesis take place within the believing community. Scripture must be followed wherever it leads, come what may. The author of a biblical text will be the person who wrote it; its meaning will be what that person meant, not what God means, and no intellectually responsible exposition of it can take place without locating the text unshakably within the historical circumstances of its composition. Jews and Christians can participate equally in the Spinozan agenda only because its naturalistic presuppositions negate the theological foundations of both Judaism and Christianity. (pp. 4-5)

“Its meaning will be what that person meant, not what God means”—here is the problem and challenge of the historical-critical method.

In 1973 Walter Wink protested the divorce between the Bible and the believing community. He described historical biblical critics as the “Wehrmacht of the liberal church.” By their methodology the world was unshackled from the constraints of Scripture and tradition. The guild of biblical scholars became the custodians of the Bible’s true meaning and the Church was liberated for accommodation to modernity. Three years earlier, the renowned Old Testament scholar, Brevard Childs, while acknowledging the necessary role of historical inquiry, asserted that the method is inadequate to the life of the Church:

Surely some will object to this line of argument by asserting that the exegete’s only task is to understand what the Biblical text meant, and that the critical methodology is alone capable of doing this correctly. The historical reading is exegesis; everything else is “eisegesis.” Our response to this type of objection is by now familiar. First, what the text “meant” is determined in large measure by its relation to the one to whom it is directed. While it remains an essential part of Biblical exegesis to establish a text’s function in its original context(s), the usual corollary that the original function is alone normative does not follow. Secondly, the question of what the text now means cannot be dismissed as a purely subjective enterprise suitable only to private devotion and homiletics. When seen from the context of the canon both the question of what the text meant and what it means are inseparably linked and both belong to the task of the interpretation of the Bible as Scripture. To the extent that the use of the critical method sets up an iron curtain between the past and the present, it is an inadequate method for studying the Bible as the church’s Scripture.

Childs would then go on to subsequently develop his theory of canonical criticism, which unfortunately has had few followers. Yet the issue of canon is a critical concern for the interpretation of Holy Scripture. The writings of the Bible come to us precisely as canon. Canon is never generic or universal. It is always Jewish or Samaritan or Catholic or Protestant. The only reason these writings have been saved for posterity is because of the commitment of the religious communities to them as Holy Scripture. The existence of the canon challenges the primary presupposition of historical criticism that a given text is to be interpreted only within the historical context in which it was written. “The very existence of a canon,” Levenson notes, “testifies to the reality of recontexualization: an artifact may survive the circumstances that brought it into being, including the social and political circumstances to which so much attention is currently devoted. Indeed, it can outlive the culture in which it was produced. Even when this happens, as in the case of the texts that came together in the Bible,… that original culture continues to inform the text, nonetheless. Because the Bible can never be altogether disengaged from the culture of its authors, historical criticism is necessary (though not necessarily in accordance with Troeltsch’s principles). But unless one holds that the Bible does not deserve to have survived its matrix—that the history of interpretation is only a history of misinterpretation—historical criticism alone cannot suffice. For were the meaning of the text only a function of the particular historical circumstances of its composition, recontextualization would never have occurred, and no Bible would have come into existence” (pp. 122-123). Levenson is not suggesting that the critical study of the biblical texts be abandoned. What must be abandoned, though, are the totalistic, hegemonic claims of critical historiography: “Critical scholars must no longer pronounce other interpretations altogether erroneous simply because they take the texts out of their first historical context—simply because, that is, they permit the texts to survive the ancient civilizations in which they originated” (p. 123).

How ironic that critical historiography has developed a way of reading the Bible from which no divine Word can be heard. And because it seeks to detach the biblical writings from the communities that these texts have served, it inevitably must saw off the limb upon which it sits. Ultimately, the questions are raised: Why should these texts be privileged? Will the canon be Tanakh or Old Testament-New Testament? If either, how can rabbinical or patristic methods of interpretation be excluded? If neither, if the interests and hermeneutical principles of the religious communities which preserved and revered these texts are discounted, why should the texts be studied at all?

Critical scholars brilliantly and ruthlessly break apart the Scriptures, yet their very method prevents them from restoring the texts as Scripture.

Early in seminary I was persuaded that the historical-critical reading of Scripture was absolutely crucial. I have subsequently come to realize that instruction into this way of reading the Bible is a form of indoctrination. The novices are introduced to the new gnosis, a gnosis unavailable to the uninitiated, and are reborn as enlightened Christians detached from the authority of their ecclesial communities. Or as Wilfred Cantwell Smith commented in 1971, “The courses actually available, and the training of men actually available to teach them, are on the whole calculated to turn a fundamentalist into a liberal.” By its uncritical embrace of criticism, the Church has unintentionally created a cadre of scholars and pastors dedicated to the destruction of Christianity.

We cannot undo what has happened nor can we deny the knowledge we have gained about the biblical texts; yet we cannot stay in this place where Scripture is only text to be criticized and never Word to be heard, reverenced, and obeyed. How do we move forward? Once Humpty Dumpty is broken, how do we put him back together again?

(This is an edited version of an article originally published on my old blog Pontifications on 13 June 2006)

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15 Responses to Can the Church Survive the Historical-Critical Method?

  1. Drew says:

    Fr. Aiden, are you familiar with the work of Peter Enns or Kenton Sparks? I am in the middle of reading Enns latest book called The Bible Tells Me So. I think he is doing a fairly decent job of trying to put humpty dumpty together again. Love your blog. Blessings.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Drew, I’m only acquainted with Enns through his blog. I’m sure he is doing fine work, but my impression is that he is fighting a battle that we non evangelicals fought decades ago.


      • Drew says:

        Fr. Aidan, I’m pretty sure Enns realizes this issue has been fought in the non-evangelical world. I just think Enns and others are saying many of the answers given are problematic and just raise deeper question or cause more problems. If you get a chance, please check out the piece by Enns I posted on your FB wall. Thank you.


  2. I think I agree with Fr. Robert Barron here…we need to move beyond the historical-critical method.

    The historical-critical method is applied to patristics and dogmatism as well as the Church is displaced by the secular uprising. The over-reliance on the historical-critical method I believe results in the rejection of official church dogma. The church gave us the Bible so I’m inclined to say that the church is right about the Biblical interpretation.


  3. tgbelt says:

    I’m very sympathetic, Fr Aidan. I’ve attempted to reach out and grasp something of the importance of community/tradition in our reading of Scripture ( But what I keep hearing re: the alternative to ‘historical context’ is just replacing it with conciliar authority. And perhaps my concern in that respect can be gotten at by a question: If conciliar authority is the location of normative authority, why any Scripture at all? Why not just let the few who gather BE God’s voice to us, period? They can tell us what to believe, what not to believe, etc. I’m struggling to see what authority Scripture has at all if it’s divorced from its recontextualized by conciliar authority and made to say what it could not have meant. I don’t get it. I’m not saying HCM is anything like a pain-free system. But I don’t see the point of a Bible at all if conciliar gathers speak for God. It seems to me that the point is just to describe the ‘terms’ (not the content or meaning) in which the Church is to express whatever beliefs/meanings it believes.


    • tgbelt says:

      “if it’s recontextualized by” not “if it’s divorced from its recontextualized by…”
      “conciliar gatherings.”

      Had to offer a typo or two. ;o)


      • brian says:

        I also suffer from typoitis. No edit function, so I guess just have to live with it.

        Your question brings in a whole gamut of issues, but what I would focus on is the nature of reading itself. One is already drawn into an implicit community insofar as one relies upon translators who themselves are influenced by scholarly opinions and implicit or explicit theological attachments. Then, as a reader of Scripture, the questions one asks, the particular emphasis one gives to various books, the ordering of importance and neglect of other topics all shapes a hermeneutic.

        In short, the notion of sola scriptura rests on ignorance of the many elements that make interpretation possible — this is true of any book, but especially of a collection of scriptures that is understood as revelatory to believers. A more critical understanding ought to recognize the irreducible communal context in which biblical revelation is understood. It is from there that one must proceed to the further question of how one discerns what communities are trustworthy, if there is a place of ultimate trustworthiness etc.

        I don’t think this necessarily ties one to a conciliar authority, but it ought to forestall certain objections.


  4. Mike H says:

    Fascinating post.

    What I find most fascinating, and perhaps what you’re lamenting here, is the fact that I can hardly conceive of anything outside of the historical-critical method. Given the framework of the Judeo-Christian faith in my American evangelicalish tradition (parts of which I’m moving on from) and the role of scripture within that tradition, the historical-critical method is the only thing that makes sense. In this context, scripture essentially functions as a doctrinal gatekeeper and the best word to describe it’s nature and purpose is “inerrancy”. In this context, the very nature of it’s “perfection” and purpose is tied to it’s rigidity and ability to keep everyone in line – what it meant and what it means MUST be the same thing (after factoring for cultural differences). “What the original author meant, and what God meant” to use the phrase in your post, are identical. Since the only things that matter (everything needed for faith and life) are what has already been said, anything new is speculation at best, dangerous at worst. And to understand what the author said (and therefore what God said) we need the historical critical method since it’s the method by which really smart people translate what was said from one culture to another. But even the historical-critical method has limits here IMO – a context/culture can’t be truly understood by reading about it or studying it – a person has to live within it.

    I do see a ton of value in the historical critical method because of the nature of language and culture. How can you understand what a person is saying if you don’t understand the context in which they’re saying it? But it should be a servant, not a master.

    In terms of where we go, that’s the million dollar question. It seems like there is a lot of deconstruction work going on right now, which IMO is necessary if one is going to move on to something else. Christian Smith and Peter Enns (and others) have, IMO, written outstanding books to this end – and they not only deconstruct but point the way forward. Enns points out how the authors of the NT are not bound by the context of the OT. It’s not that these NT authors give us insight into a secret contextual meaning that had been there all along – it’s more that they reshape it to their purposes. I find that fascinating – and it definitely doesn’t fit with current presuppositions of what scripture must be and do. While there may be some scholarly movement towards a different view of the nature and purpose of scripture, I don’t think much has trickled down to “normal” people like me. Views about what faith is and therefore what the Bible must be (which necessitates the historical-critical method) are deeply ingrained even if we aren’t always aware of it – at least in my tradition.


  5. brian says:

    Hi Father,

    Good reflections. You should look at the fairly recent Brazos Biblical Commentary series. The quality is uneven, but generally good. You should peruse R.R. Reno’s statement of basic principles (reiterated in each volume, most have a chapter or two available on line.) The perspective is similar to where you are and Reno expresses similar frustrations with historical-critical method. Ratzinger/Benedict XVI has also noted the deficiencies of the method.

    Implicit in the critique of the historical-critical method is its total lack of an eschatological sense, an awareness that the literal and historical being might be open to a flourishing completion that transcends the temporal beginning. This also usually entails and inadequate metaphysics or, most likely, the fact that practitioners merely absorb the zeitgeist and don’t even know they have adopted a disputable position.


    • brian says:

      “literal and historical beginning” not “being”
      “entails an inadequate” not “and inadequate.”

      I blame tgbelt . . .


  6. I think the limitations of the regnant analytical methods were already beginning to be massively apparent by the early 1980s, when i was finishing my own degree. Everyone agreed, for example, that assigning individual *words* of the Torah to J, E, D, or P was taking what had been a useful and productive insight to a ridiculously exquisite level. What’s worse, as you imply above, none of it was preachable anyway.

    What was next, and is still ongoing, were three things: the emergence of various ‘interested’ forms of criticism such as feminist or third-world liberationist or whatnot, which aimed at either or both of a deconstructive elucidation of ‘texts of terror’ and/or their repurposing or reinscription within a liberative praxis. What was that, really, but a new reading of the Bible *as* Bible? Like everything else, the various attempts brought mixed results, but the 80s and 90s did see the start of a new, more literary reading of what is, after all, a book. And hand in hand with all that, as well as out of it, came the more direct and enduring literary-critical methods that sought to understand— no longer just ‘units’ or pericopae, but— whole books in terms of their structure, plot, narrative, and so forth. NT Wright’s is a fine example of this kind of scholarship.

    We should not neglect also the impact of computers on biblical studies. I spent fully half of the time it took me to write my thesis, just manually turning pages. Today, I can have every instance of a certain cantillation mark that occurs with a Hebrew construct noun translated into an Ethiopic genitive when the Greek uses a limited range of specific terms in the time it takes me to write the query. More usefully, I can instantly examine all the occasions that Matthew uses the word ἐγείρω or some such while I’m just reading. NT Wright couldn’t do what he does without his computer.

    The other “next” was sociological criticism. It was discovered that the deeper awareness of the social location and cultural assumptions behind the text was enormously productive of renewed insight. Of course this had always been the case, but the accumulation of archaeology, sociology, economic studies, and anthropology over the previous hundred years had reached some kind of critical mass. My own thesis was on the biblical genealogies, and I learned more from a single trip to the UC anthropology library than from a whole shelf of ordinary, ‘theological’ criticism.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, I confess that even while finding, myself, the classical source-critical, form-critical, and other methods of scholarship indigestible (especially for people in the pew), almost all of the more ‘traditional’ studies of scripture that i’ve ever read have struck me as nothing but boring, hackneyed, pietistic platitudes and even nonsense. But when I set all of that aside and learn to read the book (say, Matthew) attentively for the **story** it tells, **in its own terms**, with aid from those sociological and anthropological fields as needed, and paying particular attention to the *structure* of the book and how it “works”— the Scriptures invariably turn out to be mind-blowing. And my students eat it up and beg for more!

    For that reason, i think the “next big thing” is already and is likely to be for some time now, literary criticism. Reading a book— say, Genesis— as a *book* with an integrity of its own both respects the canon and allows the integration of insights from other relevant fields, and even of the useful results of twentieth-century analytical criticism.


  7. diglot says:

    I think that the last couple decades or so has seen a slow decline in the hegemony of the historical-critical method in biblical studies. This has been due, in part at least, to the appearance of new methods, e.g., postcolonial criticism, feminist readings, reader-response criticism.


  8. John M. says:

    Fr, Kimel, Perhaps I am where you were when first in Seminary not that I am in seminary or nearly as knowledgeable but the trend now to put the Word in its Jewish context and not turn it into a quasi- Hellenized construct is to me a breadth of fresh air. I think that by doing this, that this quote from your article:
    “Critical scholars brilliantly and ruthlessly break apart the Scriptures, yet their very method prevents them from restoring the texts as Scripture.” would be impossible and that indeed the Word would be even more fully revealed. John M


    • brian says:

      John M:

      I think NT Wright is one of the best contemporary writers who places the NT in its proper Jewish context. However, he would point out that first century Jewish thought — indeed, for centuries before — was not isolated from the surrounding ancient world. It wasn’t just a figure like Philo of Alexandria who represented Jewish thought that was “thinking through” Hellenic concepts.

      In brief, I think it is a false dichotomy to place biblical thought as inherently Jewish and therefore opposed to Greek thought. No doubt, Jewish thought always creatively integrated the ideas of surrounding cultures in order to state it’s own unique experience, but there’s no way you get a writer like Sirach, for instance, apart from Greek influence.

      Further, one certainly would lose patristic biblical insight if one is going to determine Christian platonism is somehow fundamentally flawed.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      John, I understand. I recall the excitement many of us felt back in the late 70s when E. P. Sanders published *Paul and Palestinian Judaism*. But the effort to accurately locate the writings of the NT within their proper historical context (whether Jewish or Hellenistic or whatever) is not new. This is what higher criticism is all about, at least in theory. I suspect that what makes biblical criticism exciting is precisely the impossibility of closure. Every generation a new group of scholars arise to challenge the “assured results” of the previous generation.

      I do not question the legitimate place of historical scholarship (on the contrary); but I also believe it necessary to challenge the hegemony of historical scholarship in the interpretation of the Bible within the Church, for the reasons cited in this article. A critical difference exists between interpreting the Bible as historical artifact and interpreting it as Holy Scripture.


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