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Historical Criticism and the Bible (Part II)

In part one I argued that because Christians infortuitously conducted their apologetics in terms of the Nature/Supernature framework, science has dismissed their claims to a supernatural revelation, proposing instead naturalistic alternative explanations.

  • Joseph P. Braswell,
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In part one I argued that because Christians infortuitously conducted their apologetics in terms of the Nature/Supernature framework, science has dismissed their claims to a supernatural revelation, proposing instead naturalistic alternative explanations. Accordingly, should we endeavor to point out that naturalistic theories are inadequate accounts, this will still not justify a supernatural explanation to the minds of the scientific critics.

The Root of the Conflict
The problem goes beyond what is generally taken as the prevalence of an antisupernaturalistic bias among many in the sciences and scholarly fields. Consequently, our polemics against the unwarranted nature of this metaphysical assumption miss the basic, underlying issue. Science, when confronted with what appears to be a violation of natural law, will simply leave the matter unexplained for the present, awaiting and anticipating a future breakthrough (either additional information or a new conceptual model) that will allow it to conjecture a satisfactory (i.e., a naturalistic) account of the phenomena. The reason for this procedure is really quite simple: If God is unknowable by science (and he, as transcendent, is inapprehensible apart from revelation, while autonomous science the science legitimized by Nature/Grace thinking ostensibly operates apart from revelation, by reason alone), science cannot appeal to him as an explanatory principle a convenient, easy escape via a deus ex machina every time it confronts a difficult problem, for the unknowable explains nothing (or can "explain" anything and everything). The constitutive principle of demarcation precludes appeal to mystery (understood according to the non-Christian principle of discontinuity the unknowable-irrational) to explain mysterious anomalies. In its theoretical models, to be is to be known; the unknown cause cannot be conceptually posited as having reference, but is merely a limiting concept.

In dealing with the naturalist, our appeal to the extraordinary wonder-character of miracles as unrationalizable anomalies (violations of natural law) reduces them to mysteries. There is no empirical difference between an oddity and a miracle. Since, according to the Nature/Supernature scheme, we have granted science rights (autonomy) within nature, it can only understand the mysterious according to the non-Christian principle of discontinuity, as the irrational-unknowable brute fact. It cannot understand what the event means or comprehend how or why it occurred. Everything about the event is left an inexplicable mystery, involving unknown causes. Yet we do not want simply to present an oddity for Ripley's Believe it or Not or Unsolved Mysteries. We want the event in question to be understood as a sign, as a revelation-event a special type of theistic fact. Genuine miracles are not inexplicable, and to present them as such merely adds a paranormal dimension to nature, presenting them as akin to Spontaneous Human Combustion and other inexplicable phenomena in our mysterious universe. But in a universe of random chance, anything is possible, and we have failed to place our wonders in their proper context. How do we move from brute fact to God-interpreted fact? How do we warrant interpreting the event as a miracle a special-revelatory witness-event if we do not insist that the event must be interpreted Biblically (by Word-revelation)? How then do we warrant appeal to Scripture if the appeal to the wonders was supposed to confirm supernaturalism and consequently the possibility of the theistic worldview and a supernatural revelation? The naturalist can here simply turn our argument against a "supernaturalistic bias" upon its head, for it seems that we are the ones who are attempting to legislate what is and is not possible in nature in order to meet the standard of positing the supernatural only when necessarily compelled to do so by the impossibility of naturalistic alternatives.

Why We Must Jettison "Nature/Supernature"
Unless we rid ourselves of the Nature/Supernature scheme, we will make no progress in attempting to buttress "supernaturalist" claims by appeal to empirical evidence, and since modern science feels it has a right to the empirical world (indeed, it claims that it is the only reliable method for obtaining epistemically justified truth about the empirical world), any attempt on our part to exempt specific events from the domain of scientific inquiry is considered to be the same sort of dogmatic-authoritarian obscurantism that interfered with Galileo (at least according to the popular mythology). Science must remain autonomous from faith to engage in free inquiry, and any interference by theology impedes its progress.

Thus, we will get nowhere if we do not dispense with the framework of Nature/Supernature. It does no real good simply to challenge the supposed antisupernaturalistic bias in science if we do not challenge the autonomy of science and situate reason within the bounds of revelation. There is of course some limited value in calling into question any a priori, universal negative judgment about what events are and not possible, but does the possibility that event X can occur (that we are not warranted to exclude it a priori as impossible to occur) provide us with any information about its nature or quality, or about its causal source? Indeed, does not this line of argument naturalize the event? At any rate, establishing that science cannot assert dogmatically that a corpse cannot possibly be reanimated does not prove that such an extraordinary event is necessarily supernatural unless we are equivocating on our use of the term.

In any event, as mentioned previously, science has long ago amputated supernature as an extraneous construct that was but a vestige of the Alte Metaphysik, an anachronism of a bygone, prescientific age the Age of Faith. It has sought to conceive of nature in a nonmetaphysical way as but our universal construct representing the realm of empirical phenomena that exists as but a brute fact the Given. It is nothing more than the range of human experience, the empirically knowable. Whatever is measurable (quantifiable), whatever makes an empirical difference and produces observable phenomena, is natural (and accordingly, even the mysterious is natural). We may correctly insist that phenomenalism in even its most positivistic incarnation still implies a metaphysics of impersonal chance and is thus prejudicially antitheistic, but this objection moves us into the camp of presuppositionalists and is possible only when we quit thinking in terms of Nature/Supernature with no delusions about epistemological neutrality within the sphere of nature as supposedly common and neutral ground of the rational natural man.

The Problem in Historical Criticism
Historical criticism justifies its enterprise by appealing to the humanity of the Bible. The historical-critical scholar might ask us how it is that we could possibly object to his method, since we say we believe in this humanity. Shall we simply rail against an alleged antisupernaturalistic bias and insist on the supernatural element involved in the processes of inscripturation? But surely, following the idea of a scientific history (history as social science), he is correct in bracketing out anything that does not lend itself to historical explanation as he subjects Scripture to the historical point of view. If it is legitimate to study Scripture historically at all, can he be faulted for seeking as a historian to explain as much of the phenomena as possible according to the methods of historical research? And as a historian, believing in the autonomy of scientific investigation, he betrays his craft and does poor history if he allows ecclesiastic articles of faith to dictate what are and are not acceptable explanations.

We have previously seen that Nature/Supernature justifies the assumption that nature is not revelational. This being the case, the historical-critical scholar is bound to historicism. History is the most ultimate context to which the historian can appeal, and man is reduced to a purely historical being: a being determined by his historical situation, nothing but the product of his history. Particularly, man cannot be understood in terms of a theological anthropology as the image of God and placed in the context of coram Deo existence. Without this determination by relativity to God, man is cast adrift in pure temporal flux (the ultimacy of open-ended temporal process), into historical relativism. History is not revelational of the eternal plan of God that transcends history and thus the historical process comes to be viewed as the final reference point for understanding all things human. The historical process cannot be seen as covenant history, as revelational of God's eternal purpose and of man's covenant response.

Accordingly, a scientific account of the Bible will inevitably miss what we mean by its supernaturalness, and we must "take it off the table" as not open to scientific investigation, as not a historical artifact. We must insist that applying historical criticism to it is illegitimate, because this methodology cannot treat it as revelation, only as a historical artifact. It treats of its humanity, but it conceives of this in terms of historicism because it cannot place man in his ultimate context as covenant being.

This view of the human element of Scripture causes investigation of the human factor to obscure the revealed content and render the divine opaque, leaving us with no other option than the Barthian indirect relation of the activistic Word of God and the textual word of man. We posit Geschichte only because we concede to Historie its presumed rights as an autonomous science. Yet the Barthian category of Geschichte does not exempt the Bible from Historie or provide the historian with a criterion as to why so-called redemptive-historical events are not subject to historical understanding. Without a point of contact between Historie and Geschichte (or between the general and the special) we can only exempt miracles from the historical method by a dogmatism that the historian, due to his principle of autonomy (a principle validated by Barth), must ignore in scientific integrity.

The Necessity of a Christian-Theistic Epistemology
Only if we argue for reason within the bounds of revelation a Christian-theistic epistemology can we exempt the Bible from historical criticism. A Christian philosophy of science limits science to the realm of general revelation as its proper field of investigation, and it orients the scientific perspective to the idea of creation as this original order continues to be worked out in providence. However, a Christian-Theistic philosophy of revelation correlates general and special revelation as interdependent. General revelation presupposes special revelation and vice-versa; neither can be understood without the other, and thus neither can be approached in abstraction as autonomously self-interpretive. The meaning of one refers to the other and can only be understood in the context provided by the other in mutual illumination. Science, however, can only predict (and retrodict) within the field of the providential regularities of the general-revelational creation-order; it cannot predict special-revelational events or explain them by recourse to general revelation. Thus, the Bible as special revelation cannot be subjected to historical method, nor can any miracle. A miracle (because a divine act that is special-revelational in character) can be interpreted only by special-revelational Word-revelation, and the Bible can only be interpreted as it witnesses to itself in self-authenticating self-attestation. Of course, since general revelation is the backdrop of special revelation (the presupposition for understanding special revelation), special revelation can take up general-revelational facts (theistic facts) as raw material in its accommodated character of communicating to man concretely within his historical context (e.g., suzerainty treaties, conventional literary forms, etc.), and historical research can shed light on such phenomena (hence, grammatical-historical exegesis), but understanding of the historical contextualization (enculturation) is but prolegomenal background-research to the central exegetical aim of drawing out the revelational meaning of the Word of God a task that cannot be reduced to a thoroughgoing historical explanation of Biblical events and stories. 

The Limits of Historical Inquiry
Historical criticism can treat the Bible only as it would any other text. In terms of its principle of continuity it draws analogies from the way other texts and traditions came to be. It focuses upon immanent processes at work in history, seeking exhaustively to explain the composition of the literature in terms of economic and socio-political factors. We can certainly grant the role of such factors under the providential control of the Lord of history, for history reveals and works out his sovereign purposes, but we must recognize mystery (and here distinguish between the Christian and non-Christian understanding of mystery) in the processes involved in the history of special revelation. Moreover, our real concern is with the product, not the processes per se. We are primarily interested in the what, not the how, with the message of the text itself, not with what lies beneath or behind the text in a reduction of the text and its message to the processes supposedly involved in its composition. While we must read the text in its context (as it speaks to specific occasions and circumstances the original intent), historical criticism undermines the authority of the text, for it cannot locate normativity and understand the canonical product as more than merely another stage of development that can only be described alongside all earlier stages of tradition. While we must take due note of the situation into which the Word of God concretely comes, the circumstances addressed by that revelation, we must not attempt to deconstruct that Word in a reductive analysis that dissolves product into process and source.

To subject the Bible to historical criticism is to presuppose that the Bible is not what it claims to be. For this reason evangelicals have traditionally rejected the legitimacy of historical-critical exegesis for understanding the Bible. The false starting point can only distort interpretation, can only lead to erroneous conclusions. However, it takes a Christian philosophy of history and a Christian philosophy of science (including a Christian historical method) to understand why the Bible cannot be made the object of historical inquiry, why attempts to do so must fail to discern what actually occurred in the special field of (special-) revelation-history. Thus, we must expose the bankruptcy of non-Christian presuppositions and demonstrate that science cannot be autonomous. We must argue for Christian presuppositions, for the necessity of adopting of the Christian-Theistic worldview (learned from the Bible) as the only alternative to skepticism. We must demonstrate that the only reason historians can do historical research at all is that they, often despite themselves (contrary to principle), assume in large measure a Christian philosophy of history. Our taking exception to a historical-critical reading of Biblical history can only proceed from nothing less than a radical challenge of non-Christian historical method in toto, for only by repudiating that method as such can we assert the categories (the distinction between the general and the special) that properly limit historical interpretation in a manner that places Biblical revelation-events off limits.

  • 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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