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".

Reliability of the Bible.

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. See Exegesis.

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.

The literal sense of scripture

The literal sense of scripture refers to the sense of the words themselves; it is “that which has been expressed directly by the inspired human authors.” It has been variously described as the verbal or grammatical sense, the plain sense, the sense the human author intended, the sense the divine author intended, the historical sense, and even the obvious sense. Underlying these various descriptions is the notion that “the literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture.” However, the literal sense of scripture is not merely limited to the literalistic, which too often obscures, and can even violate the actual meaning of the text (see Cafeteria Christianity#Proof texts). The literal sense is discovered by careful and attentive study of the biblical text using all interpretive tools available, such as grammatical aids, archaeological evidence, historical and literary analyses, sociological and anthropological studies, and whatever else can be called upon to expand one's knowledge of the historical and literary context of the text and thereby gain a better understanding of the literal sense of the biblical text. Just as important as what the text says, is a careful awareness of what the text does not say.

The importance of the literal sense was emphasized by St. Thomas Aquinas in his recognition that “all the senses are founded on one—the literal—from which alone can any argument be drawn, and not from those intended in allegory.”[1] This importance was reiterated in Pope Pius XII’s long delayed exhortation to Catholic biblical scholars: “let the Catholic exegete undertake the task, of all those imposed on him the greatest, that namely of discovering and expounding the genuine meaning of the Sacred Books. In the performance of this task let the interpreters bear in mind that their foremost and greatest endeavor should be to discern and define clearly that sense of the biblical words which is called literal.”[2]

Catholic biblical studies had long been hampered by exegesis limited to the text of the Vulgate alone through a too literal understanding of the canons of the Council of Trent regarding which of the various Latin versions should be the officially legitimate authentic Latin version of the Bible which would henceforth be held as the definitive Latin version for the Catholic Church (there had been other Latin versions)—“no one is to dare, or presume to reject it under any pretext whatever.”[3]—and by a perceived suspicion of the results of what are now called modern methods of hermeneutics, due to the illicit abuse of legitimate critical methods by liberal scholars, many of them Protestant and anti-Catholic. The decree of the Fourth Session of the Council of Trent concerning the canonical scriptures was eisegetically interpreted by the more traditionally conservative and influential Catholic scholars as an official rejection and even condemnation of the study of the more ancient and non-Latin manuscript evidence as being "potentially heretical and illegitimate". This had been long perceived as a danger to the Catholic faith. Pope Pius XII understood that a study of sacred scripture strictly limited to the Clementine Vulgate[4] alone was not the intent of this canon of the Council of Trent. Apparently encouraged by the legitimate results of conservative biblical research by Evangelical scholarship and the observations and promptings of Catholic biblical scholars joined to his own scholarly studies, Pope Pius XII officially opened the door to the "proper use" of the tools of biblical criticism by Catholic exegetes and educational institutions of biblical studies. Study of other ancient versions and texts was correctly understood as not implying a rejection of the authentic (Clementine) Latin Vulgate.

See Hermeneutics.

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.[5] 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.[6] The more conservative theologians who employ the historical-critical method believe that the Scriptures are more than the writings of mortal men.[7]

'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.[8] One of the most distinctive features of the Bible is the consistency with which its authors place events in real-life history.[9]

"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 holds to the principle that 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, even political, 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),
• John Dominic Crossan[10] (see list of his radical Works - Wikipedia)
• 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.[6][9]

See also


  1. Pope Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), no. 33, translated National Catholic Welfare Conference, in The Bible Documents: A Parish Resource (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2001), 22. 2 Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993), no. 131, in The Bible Documents, 162. 3 Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd ed.) (Washington, DC: Libreria Editrice Vaticana–United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2000), no. 116.
  2. Divino Afflante Spiritu
  3. Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent The Fourth Session. Celebrated on the eighth day of the month of April, in the year 1546. English translation by James Waterworth (London, 1848) Decree Concerning the Canonical Scriptures “—ordains and declares, that the said old and vulgate edition, which, by the lengthened usage of so many ages, has been approved of in the Church, be, in public lectures, disputations, sermons and expositions, held as authentic; and that no one is to dare, or presume to reject it under any pretext whatever.”
  4. The Council of Trent not only reaffirmed the authority of the traditional Latin text, but also ordered a new edition of Jerome's work under the patronage of Pope Sixtus V. It bore fruit in the first revision of the Latin Vulgate produced in 1590. Following its publication, further revision was carried out under the direction of Jesuit Father Franciscus Toletus. The official Clementine edition of the Latin Vulgate, Biblia Sacra juxta Vulgatam Clementinam, was canonically approved and published in 1598 during the pontificate of Pope Clement VIII, and for this reason the revised text is called the Clementine Vulgate.
  5. "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.
  6. 6.0 6.1 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.
  7. Siegbert W. Becker, "The Historical-Critical Method of Bible Interpretation", page 4. He distinguishes the good from the bad among historical-critical researchers.
  8. "What Is the Historical-Critical Method?" (Wake Forest University).
  9. 9.0 9.1 The Bible as Literature: The Bible ~ A Literary Work and an Artistic Presentation of Human Experience
  10. John Dominic Crossan, a defrocked Catholic priest who does not believe in God, and a prominent member of the Jesus Seminar

External links

Most of the content of this article is drawn from the combined following sources: