The Historical-Critical Method (5/00) The Problem and a Synopsis of Assumptions and Methods



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The Historical-Critical Method (5/00)
The Problem and a Synopsis of Assumptions and Methods


THE ISSUE: The April 12, 1996 issue of Edward R. Hamilton's "Superstore Catalog," prints the following blurb for Lloyd Graham's Deceptions and Myths of the Bible: "Traces the sources of Biblical myth and teachings to Babylon, Assyria, and other ancient cultures, uncovering the deceptions and myths that he maintains prove the Bible is not the Word of God but a plagiarism of ancient sources."

The front page of the March 1996 Barnes and Noble catalog also advertises Graham's book with the following headline: "Is the Bible actually an amalgamation of pagan accounts and legends? A compelling argument." The same page includes a picture of the book's cover which prints the following comments: "Lloyd M. Graham writes that the Bible is not `the word of God' but a steal from pagan sources. Its Eden, including Adam and Eve, were taken from the Babylonian account; its Flood and Deluge is but an epitome of some four hundred flood accounts; its ark and Ararat their equivalents in a score of Deluge myths; even the names of Noah's sons are copies; so also were Isaac's sacrifice, Solomon's judgment, and Samson's pillar act. Moses is fashioned after the Syrian Mises; the laws after Hammurabi's code. These are but a few of the myths he discusses." Inside, where the book is again listed, the Barnes and Noble catalog states that Graham argues that the Bible is "full of lies and deceptions, and that it was written by power-seeking priests." The book retails for $16.95 ($11.86 from Hamilton!). It contains 484 pages.

Note the assumption that anything called the Word of God must come directly from God, untouched by human hands. That is the assumption of the Fundamentalists and radical critics who oppose the Fundamentalists. The great challenge of the church is to show how God can work within and through human means.

At the sophisticated level, the "historical-critical method" describes a way of approaching ancient documents with a rigorous rationalism that excludes any and all possible "divine intervention." Thus miracles, prophecy, and answers to prayer would all be excluded a priori.

In Adventism, the debate has been over whether or not one could use the descriptive methodologies which grew out of the "method" without adopting its rationalistic and naturalistic assumptions.

In what follows, an attempt is made to familiarize you with the main outlines of the debate. In Adventism, the tension is seen in the polar positions represented by ASRS (Adventist Society for Religious Studies) and ATS (Adventist Theological Society).

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DESCRIPTIVE METHODS vs. CLASSICAL PRESUPPOSITIONS (assumptions). The more radical critics of the "method" deny that the two can be separated, adopting an "all-or-nothing" approach.
The theologian or exegete must not get the impression that he can safely utilize certain parts of the historical-critical method in an eclectic manner, because there is no stopping point: `Whoever lends it a finger must give it a hand' (Troeltsch). -- Gerhard F. Hasel, Understanding the Living Word of God (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1980), 27.

CLASSICAL ASSUMPTIONS: citing Edgar Krentz, The Historical-Critical Method, Guides to Biblical Scholarship (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), p. 55. Emphasis supplied; page references are to Troeltsch's original: "Ueber historische und dogmatische Methode in der Theologie," Zur religioesen Lage, Religionsphilosophie und Ethik (2. Aufl., Ges. Schr. II, Aalen: Scientia Verlag, 1962 = 1922), pp. 729-53:
Ernst Troeltsch's essay "On Historical and Dogmatic Method in Theology" (1898) formulated the principles of historical criticism. The essay still haunts theology. According to Troeltsch, the historical method of thought and explanation has three principles: (1) the principle of criticism or methodological doubt, which implies that history only achieves probability. Religious tradition must also be subjected to criticism (pp. 731-32). (2) The principle of analogy makes criticism possible. Present experience and occurrence become the criteria of probability in the past. This "almighty power" of analogy implies that all events are in principle similar (p. 732). (3) The principle of correlation (or mutual interdependence) implies that all historical phenomena are so interrelated that a change in one phenomenon necessitates a change in the causes leading to it and in the effects it has (p. 733). Historical explanation rests on this chain of cause and effect. The third principle rules out miracle and salvation history (pp. 740-42). Historical method is the child of the Enlightenment.

For a perspective on the Adventist scene, see Alden Thompson, "Theological Consultation II," Spectrum 12 (December 1981): 40-50.

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Excerpts from William Baird, "Biblical Criticism: New Testament Criticism," in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 1, David Noel Freedman, ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 730-36 [outline headings follow Baird]:

B. Text Criticism. "The purpose of text criticism (lower criticism) is to restore the original text." [Note the contrast with "higher criticism," the older term (the twin of "lower criticism"), expressing the supposedly more "destructive" questions about origins, sources, and historicity.]

C. Historical Criticism. "Recent NT criticism can be classified according to analysis which views the NT either as a document of history or as a body of literature. These two categories can never be completely separated, and some types of criticism make use of both historical and literary procedures. The difference is largely a matter of point of departure or emphasis."

C.1. Religionsgeschichte. "Usually translated `history of religions,' this method was developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by the members of the religionsgeschictliche Schule." Also known as the method of "comparative religions school."

C.2. Form Criticism. "Originally termed Formgeschichte, this type of criticism attempts to go behind literary criticism to the study of the oral tradition."

C.3. Tradition Criticism. "Form criticism has been supplemented by tradition criticism, or, as it is sometimes called, the history of the transmission of traditions.... Its intent is to analyze the origin and development of units of tradition."

C.4. Concern with Orality. "Oral tradition has recently been studied in the light of research applied to oral culture and folklore. From this perspective, the transition from oral to written tradition is seen as a movement not of continuity (as the form critics supposed) but of discontinuity. Oral communication, it is observed, is different from written, since speaking involves presence and immediacy. Written communication, on the other hand, is external, abstract, objective. In applying their method to the study of the gospels, advocates of this theory of orality (e.g. Werner Kelber) note that Jesus taught orally and was heard by a rural, nonliterary people. When oral tradition is put into writing, a fundamental distortion results. As Paul says, `The letter kills.'"

C.5. Sociological Interpretation. "This modern approach picks up the form critical concern with the Sitz im Leben and subjects it to sociological analysis. Sociological interpretation makes use of various methods of the social sciences, especially sociology and cultural anthropology." [Note the difference between "descriptive" and "theoretical" approaches, the latter being more likely to be presented as "normative" ("prescriptive").]


D.
Literary Criticism. "In contrast to methods which are primarily concerned with history, literary criticism focuses on the written text. Historical methods are sometimes involved, however, since the NT is an example of ancient literature, and the interpretation of the NT has a history. Early works in literary criticism dealt with vocabulary, grammar, style, and rhetorical figures."

D.1. Source Criticism. -- self-explanatory, even! [The study of the use of sources in a given work]

D.2. Redaction Criticism. "Assuming the results of form, tradition and source criticism, redaction criticism is concerned with the final composition; it is sometimes called `composition criticism.'"
"Redaction criticism directed attention from the small units of tradition to the finished literary product. As a result, the role of the Church in the formulation of the tradition was reduced, and the work of the gospel writers as literary authors and theologians was enhanced."


D.3. Genre Criticism. "The method assumes that the classification of a document provides a key to its interpretation."

D.4. The New Literary Criticism. "This sort of criticism attempts to view the NT exclusively as literature. It represents a revolt against the traditional historical critical method. For the old method, the concern was to reconstruct the history in which the text was written and to discern the meaning the text had in that historical situation. For the new criticism, the text is not to be used as a device for historical or theological reconstruction; the text itself is the sole object of investigation.... The original intention of the author, so dear to the historical critics, is for the new criticism unimportant."

D.5. Rhetorical Criticism. "This method is closely related to the new literary criticism.... Rather than restricting research to the small units of tradition, rhetorical criticism looks at the work as a whole, the final literary product. In distinction from the new criticism, rhetorical criticism is concerned (as is redaction criticism) with the personal aspects of the author's thought. Moreover, rhetorical criticism is concerned with the context, including those concepts which writer and reader share."

D.6. Reader Response Criticism. "This kind of criticism focuses on the role of the reader. The reader, from this perspective, must be differentiated from the critic. The critic reads a text out of the tradition of criticism and views the text as an object for critical analysis. The reader, like a child listening to a story or a person captivated by a novel, is the servant of the text."

D.7. Structuralism. "Like the new criticism, structuralism is not primarily interested in history or theology communicated through the text. The object of research is the deep structures which are encoded within the text itself."
"Structuralism is a method of understanding which involves a combination of linguistic theory and anthropological research (Claude Levi-Strauss). According to the structuralists, human reality is marked by deep structures, that is, unconscious mythic patterns of meaning which have ontological significance."


D.8. Canonical Criticism. "Assuming the results of form and redaction criticism, canonical criticism is concerned primarily with the text in its final form. Emphasis is placed on the function of the canon as Scripture in the ongoing community of faith. Like literary criticism, canonical criticism is critical of traditional historical criticism's historicizing of the Bible."


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