The Historical-Critical Method Revisited
by Edwin Torkelsen | 17 August 2020 |
Richard Coffen’s excellent article comparing the historical-critical method with the historical-grammatical method led me to revisit some thoughts on the subject of biblical criticism that I had gradually been forming over the past several years. It was interesting to find so much of my own thinking reflected in this article, and formulated so much better than I would have been able to do. The comments that I share here are, therefore, just a supplement to those of Richard Coffen.
Several years ago I read the 1986 SDA statement on hermeneutics titled “Bible Study: Presuppositions, Principles, and Methods.” This document, voted in the General Conference Autumn Council in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is usually just called the Rio document.
The stated purpose of the document was to provide “guidelines on how to study the Bible, [for] both the trained biblical scholar and others.” Yet there were several issues in this document that I found puzzling.
A polemical statement
By the third paragraph, the Rio document reveals that it is not merely providing “guidelines” for Bible study. It is a polemical document, aimed at counteracting and undermining the merits of the historical-critical method of interpretation and replacing it with its own version of what some Christians call the historical-grammatical method.
The core issue with the historical-critical method, as stated in the document, seems to be that “Scholars who use this method, as classically formulated, operate on the basis of presuppositions which, prior to studying the biblical text, reject the reliability of accounts of miracles and other supernatural events narrated in the Bible. Even a modified use of this method that retains the principle of criticism which subordinates the Bible to human reason is unacceptable to Adventists” (my emphasis).
It further claims that “The historical-critical method minimizes the need for faith in God and obedience to His commandments” (my emphasis).
Here is where the battle is pitched: “supernatural events,” “faith in God” and “obedience to His commandments” vs. “human reason.” The “guidelines” have been transformed into a battle cry. The latter method, says the document, is “consistent with what Scripture says of itself.”
Method and scholar
My first issue with this presentation of the “enemy” is that it does not distinguish between the method and the scholars who use this method. It is claimed that these scholars, apparently all of them, reject the Bible’s accounts of supernatural events, and by their doing this the Bible is subordinated to human reasoning.
Some scholars may have a variety of personal assumptions that they bring to their interpretations. But so do also the scholars that claim to use the historical-grammatical method. But are these assumptions an integral part of the method itself? I think not. The confusing culprits here are the words reject and subordinate.
In my case there is a distinct difference between the method and the scholar. I believe in God. I want to be obedient to God’s commandments. I do not reject the supernatural events mentioned in the Bible. I am a historian that subscribes to the historical-critical method.
I consider the historical-grammatical method problematic. I find it unacceptable to uncritically conflate the scholar with the method. That is clearly a polemical statement that does not respect the integrity of either the method or the scholar. It does not clarify the relationship between the method and the scholar, but rather insinuates something negative about the integrity of both.
The supernatural and facts
Leaving something out is not the same as rejecting it. It is correct that the historical-critical method does not include supernatural events in its toolbox. The reason is very simple and very sensible: when we try to analyze and interpret old historical texts, we have to relate to elements that may be demonstrated and documented in such a way that others who do the same can check on our work and how we use our sources. (That is what footnotes are often used for.)
The problem with supernatural events is that such accounts are beyond what human beings can demonstrate and document in a footnote. Such events cannot be used to explain anything factual, because they cannot be documented and tested. Science is all about hypotheses that are subjected to tests that will either verify or falsify them. Theology is not exempt.
Accounts of supernatural events may be important and informative, but only in a limited way: they tell us what the writers of the texts and people at that time believed that these events were. They tell us about the people, not the events. The events themselves cannot be tested.
The scholars may or may not believe that these events were actually acts of God. But that is a question of faith, not demonstrable facts that may be checked by others. If we choose to let an alleged event verify itself, there will be no check on the postulated veracity of that postulation. The historical-grammatical method that appeals to the supernatural messes up and confuses these distinctions between method and scholar, and between faith and facts.
The Bible and reason
God created man with a mind capable of reasoning. That is the main distinction between an animal and a human being. Paul admonishes us in his letter to the Romans to both use our reason, and not trust it too much (Rom 12:3). Ideally, there is a dynamic interaction between faith and reason. There is sound and unsound faith, and our reason is the tool we use to distinguish between the two.
Actually, we have no other tool to do that job. If we try to disregard our reason, we will soon be victims to all sorts of fables and fiction. Christian communities are well acquainted with examples of just that.
The Rio document, again, seems to be somewhat confused on this point when it warns us against “the principle of criticism which subordinates the Bible to human reason.“
As Richard Coffen pointed out, the common perception of the word criticism is that it denotes something negative, as when a person criticizes the pastor’s sermon, or the food at the potluck. That is a fallacy. The word is neutral. It only describes the process of distinguishing between right and wrong, between the sensible and the foolish, etc. Without our ability to do some critical thinking, we would probably very soon end up in a coffin. I can think of few parts of life (discounting the claims the Rio document makes about faith) where it isn’t extremely important to exercise critical thinking. It is a life-saving and faith-saving activity.
What does the Rio document mean with the phrase “subordinate the Bible to human reasoning”? It obviously recommends that we should subordinate human reasoning to the Bible.
The first step in any study is to clarify what the Bible actually says about something. In order to do this, the historical-grammatical method uses the same tools as the historical-critical method. There is not much difference between these two toolboxes.
But is it possible to distance the two elements, faith in the Bible and reason, from one other? Yes, it is, and the result will be disaster. Be it sufficient to remind ourselves of David Koresh and Waco. Let us briefly look at a certain challenge.
The Anthropological-Epistemological Challenge
Anthropology relates to the human being, epistemology to how we human beings gain knowledge.
Humanism is based on the idea that human reasoning is generally both a capable and reliable tool in our search to understand reality around us and inside ourselves. If we only think long and deep enough, we will figure out most things. I do not fully subscribe to that optimistic view of the quality of man’s ability to reason.
That does not mean that our reason is without merit and value. It has both. But it also has its limits. There are things that we cannot fathom, no matter how much and deep we think. The nature of God is one such thing. Our reasoning powers are mostly useful and work well to preserve our lives and avoid most hazards.
But not always. That is well demonstrated in how some people act in the current pandemic. That shows our wonderful God-given gift of reasoning is not infallible. It is fallible and it is limited. Paul explicitly states in 1 Corinthians 13 that our understanding will always be limited, and is not always reliable. But it is still important and necessary.
Epistemology is about how we use our ability to think, limited and imperfect as it is, to figure out the truth, in nature and in the Bible.
The challenge that we are presented with is this: Is it possible for us to “subordinate” (the Rio document’s word) our reason to the texts in the Bible? That assertion seems to imply that in some mysterious way we can arrive at truth without using our own brains—simply by reading the Bible and comparing text with text, without much mental effort.
It is from this last idea that some have even postulated that the Bible “explains itself.” Really?
Look at the process involved: We use our brain to read text 1, and texts 2 and 3. It is our own brain that interprets all three texts, trying to harmonize them, and it is our brain that finally arrives at a conclusion of what these texts try to teach us.
The Bible itself does not have a brain. The texts cannot reason out anything. All of those cognitive activities take place in the human brain. From A to Z, it is we who through our reasoning powers do the thinking, select, or omit, and gather together the texts, and interpret their meaning. Even when we try to “subordinate” our reasoning to the Bible, it is still we who do this.
The statement that we must subordinate our human reason to the Bible is very pious-sounding. But does it make sense? When we try to figure out what the newspaper or the Bible actually says, it is our own brain, our reason, that is at work all the way. Remove that brain, and there will be no thinking at all. The Bible texts speak to our brain and reason, but it is our reason that determines what that message is.
What of presuppositions?
It is a fact that all human cognitive activity is heavily influenced, to the point of being determined, by that heavy and very real baggage of presuppositions and paradigms that are firmly settled in our subconsciousness, mostly completely out of sight. When we search for truth about reality around us, in us or in the Bible, these subconscious ideas and biases come into play without asking us for permission to do so. The input we receive through observation of the world around us, by introspective musings about ourselves, and through reading newspapers, websites and books, including the Bible, will invariably be sifted through those subconscious categories and ideas that we mostly have inherited from our our families, friends, culture, religion and education. Most people who claim that their thinking is independent and original simply do not realize to what extent they are parroting ideas they have picked up somewhere else.
Is it possible to wash our brains completely clean of all this ideological baggage, so that our mind becomes that tabula rasa (clean slate) that John Locke speaks about? Is it humanly possible to approach the Bible without any tint of bias? Will God wipe our minds so clean that we no longer remember anything of what has formed our lives? Can we run away from ourselves before we open the Bible?
I think the answer is “no!” We cannot escape our own accumulated reality. When we read the Bible, we will still bring to the text our own ideas, and we will assess and judge what the texts say in light of that baggage. Our reason will by necessity always influence how we understand what we read, no matter which method we claim to use in our interpretations.
There is no magic when it comes to our epistemology.
The Holy Spirit
We routinely ask the Holy Spirit to guide our understanding as we read the Bible. I believe that the Spirit will try to guide us as we search for truth. But that is a faith postulate. It is not an interpretative tool we have in our toolbox that can be used to prove or disprove textual interpretations. How will you demonstrate and document that it is actually God’s Spirit that is responsible for your conclusions?
Claiming that our understanding and ideas have been enlightened by the Spirit is a very subjective statement. But some still insist that their ideas, gathered from reading some texts in the Bible, equal “The Word of God.” There is no lack of pious and self-exalted “prophets” who are fully convinced that the Spirit has guided them to their special variety of truth, who demand that others see things exactly as they do. If they don’t, that is taken as a true sign that those who disagree are apostate, deceivers in the service of Satan, and not within that select group that call themselves the remnant.
We profess that we want the Holy Spirit to guide us. But I am afraid that, at least sometimes, it is we who try to guide the Spirit. The many man-made rules of conduct—clothing, food, and appearance, and other things— are, to me, clear indications that even the organized church can fall victim to the temptation of usurping the role of the Spirit—or at least “help” the Spirit to do the task of convincing. When we do this, we make rules and issue statements that we adorn with a number of texts from the Bible, and then claim that these rules, policies and statements are “biblical.”
I am afraid that the so-called historical-grammatical method of interpretation is partly responsible for this irresponsible use of the Bible. It seems to down-value rigid and systematic study, and even our ability and duty to reason, and thereby opens the door to all kinds of subjectivity attributed to the leading of the Spirit. It lets us interpret the Bible freely, claiming that the Spirit has told us so and so, without much regard for historical and textual context or the Bible authors’ original meaning and purpose. In this way the historical-grammatical method can be abused politically in the hands of power-hungry leaders, those who insist on telling us what the Spirit has led them to know for sure, and that we must think the way they do.
Jesus asked, “How do you read?” (Luke 10:26). That is an important question well worth thinking about.
Edwin Torkelsen is a retired historian who worked for the National Archives in Norway. He also taught Medieval History in the University of Oslo, and was an Associate Professor of History in the University of Trondheim with a special interest in the development of the ecclesiastical, jurisdictional, theological, doctrinal, and political ideologies of the Medieval church. He is a member of the Tyrifjord Adventist Church in Norway.