The Historical Critical Method
The New Testament is now well over 1900 years old and for nearly the same period of time people have struggled for the right interpretation of that what was written in these 27 books and letters. How should one handle a book that is “God’s Word“?
Before looking at the pro and contra of historical-critical exegesis it is necessary to define this method. One of the many textbooks teaching the historical-critical method “Methodenlehre zum Neuen Testament” by Wilhelm Egger method gives us this definition, “Diese Methoden lesen den Text vor allem unter diachronem Aspekt, also unter dem Aspekt der Entstehung des Textes, und sehen vor allem in der Rekonstruktion der Entstehungsgeschichte einen Weg zum Sinn des Textes.”# The finding of meaning in Scripture is the goal of any interpreter and henceforth of any method of exegesis. This is very closely related to the understanding of how revelation works. Scripture revealed to the world could mean two things. On the one hand one could interpret the revelatory act as being a revelation of the letters and words of the text, on the other hand a revelation of concepts and events which were then put into texts through human authors. The text itself therefore would be completely human, and open to criticism. However the meaning of Scripture would then be unchangeable even if the meaning of the words used to express this change. If the text itself is revelation, then there is no scope for criticism, however the meaning of the text would change, because the meanings of the words change with time. Believing that God through Scripture revealed truth to us, and further accepting Aristotelian logical axioms, particularly the axiom that something cannot be and not be at the same time, one has to accept that the meaning of the text does not change. If that is the case the text has to be open to criticism as explained above, and in my opinion the historical-critical approach with its five-step system of textual criticism, philological study, literary criticism, form criticism, and redaction criticism#, is the only valid approach we know today to find this meaning.
Although, in theory, this method is helpful to find the intention of the Biblical authors, it is open for getting sidetracked into many directions. In essence, there are three main problems when using the historical-critical method. During the first half of the 20th century these theologians especially got caught up in the search for the historical truth behind the texts. Barth, who wrote mainly against such concepts of historical-critical exegesis, brings this to the point, writing,
Die Vorstellung gegen die wir uns abzugrenzen haben, ist die im Zusammenhang mit dem modernen Historismus in der Theologie weithin heimisch gewordene, als kцnne und mьsse es beim Lesen, Verstehen und Auslegen der Bibel darum gehen, ьber die biblischen Texte hinaus zu den irgendwo hinter den Texten stehenden Tatsachen vorzustoЯen, um dann in diesen (in ihrer Tatsдchlichkeit nun auch unabhдngig von den Texten feststehenden!) Tatsachen als solchen die Offenbarungen zu erkennen.#
Further Barth argues, that theologians have mostly concentrated on finding the history behind the text using the text as a window to the life of Jesus or the actual history of Israel, believing that this was the revelatory act of God rather than the text itself.# This kind of usage of the Bible however degrades the Bible from being the Word of God, which it claims for itself#, to merely being a means for recovering historical facts of revelation throughout the centuries of Biblical authorship. Therefore this approach, rightly defined as such by Barth, is a waste of time, at least for the field of theology. The results of such an approach, however, may rather be appropriate for the study of classics.
The second main problem of historical-critical interpretation is a more fundamental one: the definition of the authoritative text. Many questions arise when the text as we see it in the Bible cannot be taken at face value, as the historical-critical method supposes. The main question to be posed is: What, if not the Biblical text that we see on the pages of the Bible, is the canon that is authoritative for theology? Is it the oral tradition that lies behind the text? Is it the first literary form that a gospel or a letter took? Is it the final redaction? When is an edition, from the changes that were made by D to the editing of Marcion, authoritative? Many theologians have tried to value sources that were used to write the Bible as we have it today. This was done in the so-called source or literary criticism of which “the four-source theory of Pentateuchal origins# and the two-source theory of Synoptic interrelationships are its major results.”# Theologians argued that those
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