by Richard W. Coffen  |  13 August 2020  |  

Ken serves his church as Sabbath school teacher, first elder, and lay preacher. Most importantly, he is a dear friend. We were traveling the roads of Arizona, I introducing him to some of the interesting places in our area.

In one of our conversations, Ken began to rail against the historical-critical method. He spat out the term with as much rancor as his religious scruples would allow! I finally managed to interject: “Ken, exactly what is the historical-critical method?”Silence! He didn’t know what it meant—he had only heard others inveigh against it.

If we’re going to take a stand against something, shouldn’t we understand what we are against?

Traditionalist critics have one misunderstanding, which we need to answer at the outset. Then we’ll look at two sets of exegetical tools, which I hope will shed some light on the schism between traditionalists and progressives on this issue.

It’s Not Critical

Many think that the word critical and its cognates connote negativity, even hostility. But the root for critical and its linguistic kin is the Greek krinō, which refer to the act of separating “true from the false . . . the good from the bad.” It describes the ability to “think, consider, believe, value, estimate” (Franco Montanari, The Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greek, pp. 1177, 1178).

Doing criticism as an academic procedure entails utilizing the faculty of discernment. Just as music critics analyze but do not hate music, so biblical critics analyze but do not necessarily despise Scripture. If they really did dislike Scripture, then, I suppose, they would not spend so much time and energy studying it! It is true that some biblical scholars need not be believers. However, many, if not most, not only find it interesting but also worthy of serious consideration.

Using the tools found in the historical-critical tool chest constitutes an investigative procedure, and need not be a destructive act. Note the following description (one among many) of the historical-critical method. “The primary goal of historical criticism is to discover the text’s . . . original meaning in its original historical context and its literal sense. . . . The secondary goal seeks to establish a reconstruction of the historical situation of the author and recipients of the text”. Benign, even desirable, it seems to me!

The generally recognized architects of the methodology were academics, most of whom taught theological and biblical studies in universities. Some were monks. Some were PKs! One was a Sabbath school teacher (the Jewish kind). Many contemporary biblical scholars who employ the historical-critical method also serve as churchmen and churchwomen in both Judaism and Christianity. Among the Christian scholars are those who support and live the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant faiths. Some are or were beloved preachers and/or teachers.

A Chest of Tools

Think of the historical-critical method as a collection of tools that academics who studied literature found could provide insight into the meaning of a literary piece. Additionally, if the piece of literature was old (such as fables, fairy tales, legends, decretals, essays, or whatever), these tools could help to untangle their literary history, which may originally have been an oral tale told and retold many times. (Scholars have discovered that orality can be both conservative and creative. The late Andy Fearing once told someone who had related a gripping personal experience, “Forget the details. Just tell me the main points. I’ll add the color.”)

For example, during the mid-1400s and later, some Catholic scholars used these tools to analyze the Donation of Constantine. This was a document that claimed that Constantine the Great had bestowed upon the pope authority over and ownership of the city of Rome as well as the western Roman Empire. When the investigators had completed using the implements in the historical-critical tool chest, their suspicions had been proven correct. The Donation of Constantine was a forgery written centuries after Constantine. Their conclusion, which resulted from using a precursor of the historical-critical method, has been accepted by both traditionalists and progressives ever since. Obviously, the literary tools in this early version of the historical-critical tool chest worked very well.

About a century and more later, various biblical scholars, many with roots deep in the Protestant Reformation, began to fill the metaphorical tool chest with implements such as literary analysis, linguistic analysis, form analysis, source analysis, redaction analysis, textual analysis, tradition analysis, cultural analysis, social science analysis, and other analytical methods. Biblical scholars have continued to add other analytical methodologies to this tool chest. Many, if not most, of these tools they have borrowed from the older efforts of literature and history teachers.

One of the most controversial uses of these tools was the now defunct Jesus Seminar, which has drawn much criticism from traditionalists and progressives alike. I have no desire to defend the Jesus Seminar and its conclusions. However, at this point I wish to explain their methodology. In their historical-critical tool chest, they added a grouping of 37 filters. The fellows of the Seminar, including a Seventh-day Adventist scholar, by the way, read through the Gospels. Their goal: to arrive at the historical statements (logoi) definitely made by Jesus himself. Every time they came across the alleged words of Jesus, they sifted them through the 37 filters. If the proposed logoi passed through all or most of the filters, they regarded them as the ipsissima verba of Jesus—his very words.

Of course, such a stringent methodology would most likely filter out inadvertently some of Jesus’ actual logoi. Nevertheless, isn’t it interesting and even helpful to feel a large measure of confidence that we indeed can read (even at this remove) some of Jesus’ actual words?

The Traditionalists’ Problem

The reasoning of those who use the tools of the historical-critical method goes like this: supernatural intervention is not needed to interpret ancient Near Eastern communications couched in human language and encapsulated in human concepts. Those opposing the historical-critical method, on the other hand, argue that it employs a Godless methodology. They say that interpreters of God-inspired documents should take God into consideration (revelation and inspiration, to use the terminology of systematic theology) when doing exegesis.

Traditionalists fear that the tools in the historical-critical method tool chest will (1) bypass personal faith as the sine qua non for an adequate interpretation of Scripture, (2) lead to erroneous understandings of the biblical message, (3) undermine the authority of Scripture, and (4) ultimately destroy spirituality or personal faith.

The Grammatical-Historical Method

So traditionalists have stocked a tool box of their own with methodologies that they consider more appropriate when it comes to analyzing God’s Word. (Those of us who value the input of Ellen White need to remind ourselves that in Selected Messages, book 1, pp. 20,21, she insisted that the Bible does not contain God’s way of thinking or communicating.)

These traditionalists refer to their tool box using terminology originally coined by Martin Luther: the grammatical-historical method. Within Adventism, the late Gerhard Hasel popularized the expression grammatical-historical method as the legitimate alternative to the historical-critical method.

The following is one explanation, albeit wordy, of what the historical-grammatical methodology entails. It is a

hermeneutical approach to biblical studies that strives to properly understand the Bible by determining the meaning intended by the original author of the text through careful literary exegesis of the text by assuming that words and expressions . . . have a relatively stable meaning during given periods of history. . . . Through literary textual exegesis, . . . this method takes whatever can be accurately determined by informed professional linguistic scholarship as the normal, everyday meaning of the words, phrases, and sentences in the original languages, and then takes . . . this determination of their meaning through an understanding of the historical, social, and cultural context of both the writer(s) and original recipients of the text” 

You likely noticed that the historical-grammatical method is very similar to the explanation of the historical-critical method cited earlier in this essay. In fact, I could have used much of this citation at the outset of this discussion as a definition of the allegedly taboo historical-critical method! But the misgivings on the part of traditionalists do not arise from aberrations of paranoia.

In their definitions is as difference between the two tool kits. Practitioners of the so-called historical-grammatical methodology wish to leave room for supernatural intervention in the origination of the biblical text. But, “Houston, we have a problem!” The existence of the divine is what linguistic philosophers refer to as a theoretical construct. Although a theoretical construct may be true, its validity is beyond empirical proof. Since the existence of God is a theoretical construct, therefore his activity is likewise a theoretical construct. Consequently, divine activity is not an empirical phenomenon and, therefore, remains outside the scope of historians, even pious ones.

Illumination and the Art of Homiletics

Still, it is arguable that supernatural divine intrusion is important not during the task known as exegesis but rather later during what systematists call illumination.

Why should an exegete need divine illumination to decode the ancient Hebrew and Greek languages? It does not require a faithful Catholic to comprehend their grammar. Understanding ancient Near Eastern culture hardly takes a devout Methodist. An educated person of any religious persuasion or none whatsoever can figure out whether a given piece of Scripture is prose or poetry. It does not take an earnest Greek Orthodox believer to identify who wrote what and when. One need not be a Jew to discern who does what and says what and who does not speak and does not act in a narrative. Identifying the literary genre of a scriptural passage as polemic, etiology, prophecy, apocalyptic, gospel, epistle, or something else does not require supernatural insight on the part of an Adventist.

We believe that the Bible is the living Word of God. But when and where, exactly, does it come to life?

The late Krister Stendahl, Pauline scholar, practitioner of the historical-critical method, and leader of the church in Sweden, explained that the interpreter of the Bible must work to understand, first, what the biblical communicator communicated, second, what that original communicator intended to mean by what he or she communicated, third, what that communication meant to the original communicatees, and finally, what that communication can mean today. (I have rephrased Stendahl’s terminology.)

It is in relation to Stendahl’s fourth that the term homiletics is important. Homiletics is the craft of making and delivering a sermon. The homiletician (a.k.a. preacher) aims to make the ancient text come alive for today’s congregants.

It is with the homiletical task that divine illumination, brokered by the Holy Spirit, comes into play. As various systematic theologians have explained, the word illumination denotes God’s present work of aiding preachers while they create sermons to explain the original communication so that it makes sense to contemporary worshipers. While engaging in homiletics, the academician, who has initially used the secular scientific tools of either the historical-critical method or the historical-grammatical method, next plies the art of making the Bible come alive today.

Perhaps we Adventists should abandon our academic cudgels with regard to these interpretative methodologies, and just all try to find God in his Living Word.

Richard W. Coffen is a retired vice president of editorial services at Review and Herald Publishing Association. He writes from Green Valley, Arizona.

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