Historical-critical method (Higher criticism)

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The historical-critical method of Bible interpretation is also called “Higher Criticism”, an academic term, used in a purely special or technical sense, for the study of the literary methods and sources discernible in a text, especially as applied to Biblical writings. It is used in contrast to the phrase, “Lower Criticism.” Its purpose is not according to the ordinary meaning of the word to criticise or find fault, but more precisely in Biblical Studies the word "criticism" means examination and analyses in depth, to determine its critical meaning.

"legitimate historical-critical findings".

One of the most important branches of theology is the science or art of Biblical criticism, the study of the history and contents, and origins and purposes, of the various books of the Bible. In the early stages of the science Biblical criticism was devoted to two great branches, the Lower, and the Higher.

Lower Criticism

The Lower Criticism was employed to study the text of the Scripture, and included investigation of the manuscripts, and the different readings or renderings of the sacred text in the various versions and codices and manuscripts in order to come as close as possible to the original words as they were written by the Divinely inspired writers. The current term generally used is Textual Criticism

Higher Criticism

The Higher Criticism was employed to study the historic origins, the dates, and authorship of the various books of the Bible, and that great branch of study known in the technical language of modern theology as Introduction. It is a very valuable branch of Biblical science, and of highest importance as an auxiliary in interpreting the Word of God. From cautious research methods "legitimate historical-critical findings" informed by the legitimate findings of the Lower Criticism can flood light on the fuller meaning of the Scriptures.

The Higher Criticism means nothing more than the study of the literary structure of the various books of the Bible, and more especially of the Old Testament. Historical-critical researchers seek to find out all they can with regard to the portion of the Bible they are studying; the author, the date, the circumstances, and purpose of its writing.

Critical Assumptions

Perhaps no study requires so devout a spirit and so exalted a faith in the supernatural as the pursuit of the Higher Criticism. It demands at once the ability of the scholar, and the simplicity of the believing child of God.[1] The Bible’s message is both ‘divine’ and ‘human’. Unique among all the world's literature, the Bible is really God's word in human language.[2] The more conservative theologians who employ the historical-critical method believe that the Scriptures are more than the writings of mortal men.[3]

'Critical' does not mean debunking scripture, and it does not mean proving its truth. Religious Bible readers may also be interested to learn something about where their Scripture came from, who wrote it, and how editors collected it for them to read. For that only a historical-critical inquiry will do the job.[4] One of the most distinctive features of the Bible is the consistency with which its authors place events in real-life history.[5]

"Did ever people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as thou hast heard, and live?" Deuteronomy 4:32.
"For we have not followed cunningly devised fables" 2 Peter 1:16.

Historical criticism then assumes the time-conditions; the historical character of the Scriptures. This does not necessarily mean that the individual historical critic conceives of God revealing Himself objectively within history, but that he conceives the production of Scripture to have taken place within historical causes. What one scholar holds to be very probable another considers to be very unlikely.

The Catholic Church, for example, warmly recommends the exercise of criticism according to sound principles unbiased by rationalistic presuppositions, but it must condemn undue deference to heterodox writers and any conclusions at variance with revealed truth.

"undue deference": See argumentum ad verecundiam ("appeal to unqualified authority")

"illegitimate historical-critical findings".

Some liberal scholars and agnostic and atheistic researchers abuse legitimate historical-critical methodologies, by artificially divorcing this approach from reliable historical-grammatical methodologies, solely to advance their own philosophical agenda against the historical reliability of the Bible, by obscuring, and thereby attempting to invalidate, the true sensus literalis historicus, or "the literal historical meaning" of the text.

Radical critical scholars: abuse of critical methods

"The more radical critical scholars do not hesitate to pronounce judgment on anything and everything in the Bible." —(Siegbert W. Becker, "The Historical-Critical Method of Bible Interpretation", page 6. bold-face emphasis added.)

The "more radical critical scholars" who have most famously abused legitimate historical-critical methodologies include such names as:
• Rudolph Bultmann (Kerygma and Myth, by Rudolf Bultmann et al., tr. by Reginald H. Fuller, Hans Werner Bartsch (ed.) New York, Harper Torchbooks, 1961),
• Harvey K. McArthur (In Search of the Historical Jesus, New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969),
• Paul G. Bretscher (After the Purifying, River Forest, Lutheran Education Association, 1975),
• Edgar Krentz (The Historical Critical Method, Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1975),
• C. H. Dodd (The Authority of the Bible, New York Harper, 1958),
• and others like them.

The more conservative theologians: taking the Bible seriously

However, these radicals among the higher critics do not appear to represent the regular majority of intelligent higher critical scholars who take the Bible seriously and, according to the very same methods of "higher criticism" which are abused by those radicals among them, have found the Bible to be historically reliable and truthful and unique as a very credible witness to what the Lord of history has actually done in history, and as documents in character superior to all the ethical rationalism of the writings of secular humanists.

"The more conservative theologians who employ the historical-critical method believe that the Scriptures are 'more than the writings of mortal men'..." —(Siegbert W. Becker, "The Historical-Critical Method of Bible Interpretation", page 4. bold-face emphasis added.)

They have found that the Scriptures are unique among world literature, and that the Bible is of a wholly different order from the pagan mythologies of the nations.[2][5]

See also


  1. "The History of the Higher Criticism", Canon Dyson Hague, M. A., Rector of the Memorial Church, London, Ontario. He discusses the differences between legitimate and illegitimate approaches to historical-critical research.
  2. 2.0 2.1 St. John's Abbey: The Bible’s message is both ‘divine’ and ‘human’. Friday, January 17th, 2014, Benedictine Father Michael Kwatera, a monk of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN. A discussion of the meaning of historical-critical methodology.
  3. Siegbert W. Becker, "The Historical-Critical Method of Bible Interpretation", page 4. He distinguishes the good from the bad among historical-critical researchers.
  4. "What Is the Historical-Critical Method?" (Wake Forest University).
  5. 5.0 5.1 The Bible as Literature: The Bible ~ A Literary Work and an Artistic Presentation of Human Experience

External links

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