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Historical Criticism and the Bible (Part 1)

By Joseph P. Braswell
February 01, 1997

Evangelicals have traditionally rejected the historical-critical method. Why? After all, it would be difficult to argue that Biblical studies have not benefited significantly from many discoveries and insights resulting from the work of historical-critical scholarship. Evangelical exegetes make—excuse the pun—liberal (if cautious and discriminating) use of the fruits of historical-critical studies. Our understanding of the Bible has clearly been deepened and expanded by such research.

Nevertheless, we are frequently told that historical-critical exegetes display an anti-supernaturalistic bias in their reconstructions of Biblical history. Is this a valid and sufficient reason to warrant a repudiation of the historical-critical method in toto? There are two problems with attempting to explain and justify the traditional evangelical attitude towards historical criticism by recourse to this perceived bias. First, one could maintain that this bias is separable from the method; it is matter of the practice (and philosophical assumptions held by the practitioner), not of principle. Second, we must question whether Christianity is truly a supernaturalistic religion.

We are not “Supernaturalists”

Let us deal with the second consideration first, for this procedure will actually shed light on the nature of the bias and the question of whether the so-called bias, properly understood, is in fact separable from the method. Are we as Christians really supernaturalists? We are not, and the reason why we are not is quite simple: Christian-Theism knows nothing of a Nature/Supernature metaphysical scheme. Indeed, were we to maintain that revelation is supernatural, we would he conceding as a corollary that nature is non-revelational, and this proposition is incompatible with the doctrines of creation and the immanence of God.

What we as Christians mean when we speak of the “supernaturalness” of revelation is that it is the transcendent God who reveals himself in his immanence. We are setting the Christian-Theistic view of divine transcendence in absolute antithesis to the non-Christian view of immanence. However, in opposing this non-Christian, anti-theistic view of immanence, we are not adopting the non-Christian, anti-theistic view of transcendence whereby we would conceive of God in essentially deistic terms. The Nature/Supernature scheme rests upon non-Christian presuppositions about transcendence and immanence that we must repudiate.

It is the Nature/Supernature scheme that has legitimized historical criticism by granting the validity of autonomous science wherein natural reason, unaided by revelation, can operate neutrally within the field of nature. So given its charter of independence as competent to investigate and explain the realm of nature, science had to bracket out the dogmas of faith as limitations on free and open-minded inquiry. Such prescientific models could only impede science, as in the conflict between Galileo and the church. Science must not be placed under outside authority and have dictated to it an extra-scientific (or supratheoretical) a priori concerning what is and is not an acceptable theory of nature. The knowledge of nature was given over exclusively to natural philosophy in that progressive disenchantment and rationalization of the world wherein, fueled by the philosophical optimism of the Age of Reason and the manifest successes of Newtonian science, nature devoured supernature. To exempt from scientific investigation certain extraordinary or anomalous phenomena that were alleged to have occurred in nature (the special pleading of dogmatically pronouncing certain events as supernatural and thus privileged) was considered illegitimate “by Enlightenment man. Supernatural explanations were simply a case of deus ex machina appeals that attempted to end further investigation of the not-yet explained, and such desperate measures were considered to foster superstition and ignorance by preventing science from attempting to explain nature solely in terms of nature. It might be granted that discontinuities (violations of natural law) were possible, but explanations in terms of the principle of continuity (immanent laws) were to be given preference and precedence as more probable. Miracles were guilty until proven innocent, until demonstrated to be absolutely necessary (the impossibility of alternative explanations); and this led first to Deism and later (after Darwin) to the discarding of a metaphysics of supernature altogether, as Ockham’s Razor excised a useless and extraneous vestige of a prescientific age.

The Destructiveness of Rationalism

This rationalistic perspective ought not to surprise us. God is transcendent and, as such, is utterly inapprehensible apart from his voluntary initiative of self-revelation. If nature is assumed to be non-revelational and science is assumed to know nature by reason apart from revelation, it cannot appeal to God to explain anything. One cannot explain a mystery by appeal to an unknown cause; one does not explain by recourse to the inexplicable-unknowable. When it was believed that something of God could be known by reason, as in the rational religion of Enlightenment Deism and its appeal to the teleological argument, God could be utilized as a principle of explanation (though Deism, because it viewed the order and design of nature under natural law to be the supreme miracle that evidenced the perfect wisdom and foresight of God as Creator, had no place for miracles, which were viewed as ad hoc, remedial violations of natural law). However, once teleology was thoroughly vanquished, autonomous science was left in theological agnosticism.

Science restricts itself to a specific type of explanation, an explanation that has certain necessary characteristics. It seeks to explain the particular in terms of the universal. That is, a given event is considered explicable when it can be classified as an instance of a defined event-type and its behavior can be understood as following general patterns of behavior of similar events (other events in the same class). The explanation must be retro-dictive in nature; the event is theoretically explained only when the occurrence of the event can be “predicted” in retrospect (and hence, in principle could have been predicted), given the set of antecedent conditions that provide sufficient conditions of the event. A theoretical model must be able to make definite and specific predictions about what phenomena we are warranted to expect under certain clearly stipulated conditions, and any phenomenon is only explained when it accords with those expectations, when such phenomena are anticipated consequences of a coherent and systematic account of how the world functions.

It should be obvious that miracles are unpredictable and therefore are inexplicable by the type of explanations that science can generate when it takes nature as a given. Miracles can appear only as anomalies, due to their extraordinary character. There is no empirical difference between a miracle and a mere anomaly, and science can only treat a genuine miracle as a mystery because it defies rationalization according to the current theories. Indeed, according to the conventions of scientific method, science is likely to apply extreme skepticism to the reports of such anomalies, seeking confirmation that can come only if the phenomena can be repeated. Since miracles are generally unique events (and certainly beyond our control to set up a repetition), the reports must be unassailable if it is to be granted that the inexplicable event actually occurred. If the factual character of the reported anomaly is well-established, the problematic event is usually “backburnered” pending a new paradigm that can solve the puzzle and explain how it occurred in terms of formulated laws. To say that miracles are not historical events is not necessarily to say that an extraordinary event did not occur. History is not the past; it is a science (what historians do), and a historical event is an event that can he explained by historical causes. We can study and understand the historical causes of World War II; we cannot do this for the Resurrection of Jesus. There would clearly he an anti-supernaturalistic bias involved were one to say that the miracles cannot have occurred, but there need be no such bias at work in asserting that historians qua historians cannot deal with miracles. The latter is a limitation of historical method, a limitation of historical knowledge that results from what constitutes a historical explanation.

The Nature of Scientific Methodology

Is the “anti-supernaturalist” bias separable from historical method? The cautious skepticism applied to anomalies (i.e., events that are unique, that possess no historical analogies) and the presumption that a historical explanation (in terms of historical causes) is more likely than is a genuine discontinuity are integral to scientific history. Such methodological principles are considered to be generally reliable guides to discovering the truth. Following such rules tends to maximize truth and minimize error in our investigation of past events, and so-called miracles are so admittedly rare that we should not jettison the rule for the exception. That is, if we must suffer a few anomalies to have a method which provides us with a generally accurate knowledge and coherent interpretation of the past, we should not sacrifice the method for the sake of the exceptional occurrences that defy historical understanding.

At what point does skepticism become too extreme, become closedmindedness? How much evidence and attestation do we need to be justified in admitting that a given event cannot be explained in terms of historical processes? These questions do not lend themselves to hard and fast rules, but metaphysical presuppositions will certainly make their influence felt at this point, affecting how one makes this determination. Still, granting that an extraordinary and mysterious event occurred is not the same as believing that a genuine miracle—a special act of God—took place. The interpretation of what the wonder means depends upon the interpretative framework we bring with us to the event, the meaning-context into which we situate it. That the historian, if he is a priori not permitted to take any cue from special revelation or dogmatic ecclesiastical pronouncements (due to the principle of autonomy), will first attempt to understand the event as thoroughly historical in nature should not at all be surprising to us. He lacks any criterion by which he might determine that this event is of such a nature that it cannot be treated in this manner.

Were we to concede the propriety of historical method as set forth thus far (history as autonomous science) and then seek to limit science to make room for faith, we would arrive at the Barthian distinction between Historie and Geschichte. However, this neo-orthodox framework works only if it is assumed that there is a distinction between the words of men in Scripture (the Bible as human witness to revelation) and the Word of God and that the two words can only be indirectly related.

To understand why this is so we must realize that the Nature/ Supernature paradigm fosters the conception of a unity of type between divine and human causality: a univocal conception of causality within a monistic and unipersonal (and ultimately impersonalist) reality in which God and man are both equally ultimate, independent, and original causal agents of the same ontological order (the non-Christian principle of continuity). With such an either/or conception of mutual delimitation of causes operating on the same level, the manifest fact of the humanity of the Bible is reductionistically thought to weigh against the claim of divine authorship. Given the unipersonal conception of such univocal reasoning, that the Bible was composed in history by human authors makes its origin purely a product of history, its authorship merely human.

Though evangelicals do not hesitate to speak of the human element, a supernatural theory of divine inspiration translates into mechanical dictation (humans as mere stenographers)—a divine discontinuity or interruption of ordinary processes—as the assertion of divine authorship is filtered through the grid of a Nature/Supernature schema. To speak of plenary inspiration and the creative activity of human authors (writing in their own distinctive style, expressing their distinctive personalities, etc.) is to speak nonsense according to the either/or way of thinking. Given this disjunctive perspective, we would note the change of authorship—stylistic differences—wherever God speaks his Word amid the words of Paul and others, or else (on a theory of plenary inspiration) we would note the uniformity of the singular divine authorship throughout and thus should find no evidence of authorial diversity. Thus, the humanity of the Bible can only be viewed as evidence for a thoroughly naturalistic origin that can be explained by the social sciences. In Nature/ Supernature thinking the natural cannot reveal the supernatural, and the divine displaces the human (and vice-versa).

Historie is given full rights to study the Bible; historical criticism is legitimate and its insights in principle are valid as far as they go. Yet, its perspective is limited, and its results are but prolegomenal. Only faith can discern the transcendent dimension of Geschichte, allowing us to see the divine meaning of these supra-historical events that is altogether missed by the restricted approach of Historie, a level of meaning that is imperfectly witnessed to by purely human words (purely human interpretations of the Geschichtlich revelation-events). In this view the Bible is not in itself the Word of God, but this historical artifact—this ancient text—can become the Word of God to us as God chooses to disclose to us by present existential encounter a supra-historical depth-dimension of the historical events it narrates.

In this Barthian approach there is no point of contact between Historie and Geschichte. Accordingly, because historical criticism is accorded warrant to study the Bible historically, after the analogy of its study of any other ancient human document, there is nothing to preclude a reductionistic and thoroughgoing reconstruction by historical criticism, that would force upon the critic the asserted limitation of historical method by the rights of faith and so require him to confess the insufficiency—the prolegomenal nature—of this autonomous approach of Historie. Yet the Bible, as human document, is given over to the historian as a historical object because the Barthian consents to the idea of autonomous science within the phenomenal realm of empirical knowledge. The Barthian wishes to immunize the events of Geschichte from criticism, exempting them as specially privileged events, but he cannot justify this dogmatism—this fideism—to the historian qua historian, for nature remains non-revelational.

The Solution

It is the assumption of autonomous science that must be challenged. Only if it is demonstrated that the science of history —and every science—is possible only on Christian-Theistic presuppositions will we make any headway. The principle of autonomy must give way to the idea of reason within the hounds of revelation, the absolute dependence of science upon Christian- Theistic metaphysics and epistemology.


Topics: Humanism, Science

Joseph P. Braswell

The late Joseph P. Braswell did undergraduate and graduate work in philosophy at the University of South Florida, but his real interest was in theology and Biblical studies. He published several articles in various journals, including the Westminster Theological Journal, Journal of Christian Reconstruction, and the Chalcedon Report.

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