The Historical-Critical Method and Epistemology in Biblical Hermeneutics

(This is a paper I submitted for my Hermeneutics Class.)

Mark Giszczak
Dr. Tim Gray
Augustine Institute

1. Introduction. In 1988 Cardinal Ratzinger pinpointed the discussion of a Catholic hermeneutic as a “philosophical debate.”1 Raymond Brown responded in a self-defensive manner even though Ratzinger’s comments were not directed specifically at him. Brown insisted that philosophy has little or nothing to do with historical-critical exegesis and that Ratzinger’s arguments were directed at European schools of thought spawned by Dibelius and Bultmann. Brown even trotted out his M.A. in philosophy to present himself as worthy to comment on the subject.2 I am not concerned with the ad hominem attacks or defensive rhetoric of the past, but I am concerned with capturing that elusive prey called “The Catholic Hermeneutic.” And I am convinced that I am not on a snipe hunt.

In this paper, I will examine one corner of the debate: epistemology. Though I am a student in biblical studies, I will employ philosophical methods to sort through this problem. I will not bore the reader with a lengthy summary of historical-critical exegesis, but only introduce representative examples where necessary. I will focus in on the epistemological question to the exclusion of other, perhaps more pressing, questions.

Brown asserts that philosophy has no bearing on objective scientific methods of biblical research and that historical critical methods of themselves require no philosophical underpinning. To avert general critiques of the historical-critical method, Brown suggests “that more frequently we should speak of the philosophy of the practitioners of the method rather than the philosophy of the method itself.”3 But every field of study is backed up by philosophy. Philosophical models form the bedrock on which every discipline is based. Metaphysics, epistemology, logic, etc. are the unintentional accomplices of every science. Mathematics, for example, is firmly implanted in traditional rules of logic. The Law of Non-Contradiction is taken as a given from the first day an elementary school student learns how to add. If he gets a question wrong, his teacher marks him down with a big red “X.” The child does not have the philosophical sophistication (or imbecility?) to argue with the teacher that his answer to the question is equally as valid as other answers since the Law of Non-Contradiction no longer holds according to some of the highest-ranking philosophy professors of our day. Few disciplines explicitly study their philosophical roots. Students are expected to absorb the ethos of the subject in the course of studying it and reading manuals and textbooks. Nevertheless, philosophy reigns as king in the deep reaches of every discipline.

Therefore epistemology, as a key piece of philosophy, is crucial in all the sciences. Epistemology is the study of “how people know things.”4 Epistemology defines the borders of knowledge. It lays out what is accessible to man’s mind and what is not. The historical-critical world has misunderstood the foundations of knowledge. This is the epistemological piece of Ratzinger’s “philosophical debate.” I will proceed to examine the foundations of biblical knowledge by beginning with a discussion of historical views of biblical epistemology. Second, I will pursue a philosophical meditation on knowledge. Third, I will present the specific nature of historical knowledge and a brief philosophy of language. Finally, I will examine “biblical knowledge” itself. In my conclusion I will propose the need for a better epistemological framework for Catholic hermeneutics and point toward the ultimate goal of exegesis.

2. Historical views. N.T. Wright presents a helpful dichotomy in sorting through the dung-heap of historical-critical epistemologies.5 First, he gives us the Enlightenment “positivist” view. Second, we encounter the pessimistic “phenomenalist” view. This simplification is extremely helpful. The first epistemological perspective is arrogant, brash and assertive. It claims the ability of man to not only encounter reality, but to know things for certain. This optimistic perspective invests great faith in empirical science which produces supposedly verifiable results. The results are always objective, discovered by an objective observer. This view also led late 19th century intellects to pursue the origins of everything: species, the Bible, languages, diseases, etc. For the exegete, the positivist perspective offers a welcome invitation to objective empirical study. He can not only discover the literal meaning of a text, but he can discover who wrote it, who edited it, when it was written, how many redactions it endured and so on.

The second perspective Wright presents is what he calls the “phenomenalist” view. I dislike Wright’s terminology on this view because it misrepresents the people it is attempting to label: the phenomenologists. Specifically, Wright’s label applies to early 20th century non-theistic existentialist phenomenologists. I will therefore extend his term to name a “phenomenologist” perspective. This perspective is pessimistic in comparison with the first. It embraces a limited epistemology wherein the knowing subject can only truly know his own sense perceptions. The subject is stuck within himself knowing only the confrontations his senses experience, but not knowing whether they relate him to a reality beyond himself or not.6 This epistemology was originally developed by Edmund Husserl in his Logical Investigations (1900/1901, revised 1913-21) and it was brought to its logical conclusion by his student, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger happened to be a colleague of Bultmann. Wright’s dichotomy breaks down two general views. I will next offer historical perspectives to orient us to biblical questions.

3. Three Epistemological Mistakes of the Historical-Critical School. To introduce the problem of biblical knowledge, I will briefly outline three views of biblical epistemology in the Historical-Critical School. First, we will visit Hermann S. Reimarus, the father of the Quest for the Historical Jesus. Then we will encounter Rudolf Bultmann, arguably the most influential exegete of the 20th Century. Finally, I will present the views of Raymond E. Brown, the renowned Catholic scholar. The Quest for the Historical Jesus suffered from an over-weening epistemological pride. The leaders of this intellectual movement—Reimarus, Strauss, Renan and later, Schweitzer—insisted on the ability of the observer of history to sort through all the historical evidence and determine what really happened, the classic “positivist” view. Reimarus posits that the disciples stole the body of Jesus and taught doctrines foreign to his message.7 He describes the Resurrection event as “either ce
rtain fact or deception.”8 In Reimarus’ view the first disciples decided to create their own religion after their messianic expectations were disappointed. He claims that “the disciples yielded to the temptation of employing fantasy to make of Jesus’ followers a fellowship totally at their disposal.”9 Therefore the object of Christian faith and by implication, biblical knowledge, is a fictional story devised by the apostles for their own goal of religious power. The biblical authors do not relay history to the reader, but they recreate history according their own new philosophy. In his view, the New Testament is inherently deceptive.

Second, Rudolf Bultmann embodies the inverse of the Quest’s weakness. If the Quest operates with over-weening pride, then Bultmann errs in over-weening humility. He rejects our ability to know what happened in the life of Jesus—the “phenomenologist” perspective. Bultmann set forth his program of “demythologizing” in the early 20th century. For him, the New Testament authors tried to teach a theological method through the use of myth. Their “myth objectified the transcendent into the immanent and thus also into the disposable.”10 The so-called “histories” in the New Testament are created for a pedagogical purpose: to teach eternal truths. For him, the text of the Bible does not have an objective meaning, but it rather speaks to the historical situations in which man finds himself. For him, “because the text speaks to existence, it is never definitively understood.”11 The biblical text is only intelligible insofar as it relates to a man’s particular life. It cannot have an abiding, unchangeable meaning. He takes this view so far as to say that “the scheme of subject and object that has validity for natural science is not valid for historical understanding.”12 Certainty in historical matters is permanently elusive. The primary purpose of the text is to speak to the life-situations of its readers, so for Bultmann the historical question loses its central importance. Even for secular historical texts, research does not center on the object of historical events, but on the way in which the text instructs the reader. One of Bultmann’s central claims is the unintelligibility of the New Testament “mythical world picture.”13 For him the three-story worldview of heaven, earth and hell is no longer a valid, relevant or even an understandable view. If Christians embraced the New Testament authors’ worldview, it would only be at the expense of “making the Christian proclamation unintelligible and impossible for our contemporaries.”14 For him, the New Testament does not present historical events, but a religious message created by the disciples that is given in the context of a mythical worldview. The object of biblical knowledge is reduced to a mythical concept.

Third, Raymond Brown is very concerned over ecclesiastical issues in relation to hermeneutics. His work is explicitly for the Church. Yet he draws a sharp distinction between the historical meaning of a text and its meaning for today’s Church. He claims that “what a passage means to Christians is the issue for the Church—not the semi-historical issue of what it meant to the person who wrote it.”15 For him, the author’s intentional meaning and the meaning for the Church are distinct. Thus the way that the text relates to its contemporary readers is more important than the author’s intent, which is very similar to Bultmann’s phenomenologist view. The author’s intent is mostly inaccessible, though it is a matter for research. For Brown, the exegete’s task is to discover the author’s intent, but the author’s intent is not the same as the meaning for the Church. He is not simply making a distinction between the literal sense and the moral sense. Rather, he is asserting that the intelligible content of the Bible is different for the human author than it is for the Church today. He distinguishes between a “literal sense” and a “canonical sense,” which each offer a partial insight into the text’s meaning.16 But ultimately the “quest for meaning is open-ended.”17 The text itself is the object of interpretation for both the Church and the exegete. But the intelligible content for each, i.e. the meaning of the text for each, is distinct. For Brown, “the way in which the Church in her life, liturgy, and theology comes to understand the Bible is constitutive of ‘biblical meaning.’”18 The meaning of the text is the intelligible content on which the Christian reader focuses, but it is shaped by the life and practice of the Church in such a way as to make it different from the scholar’s object of research. Biblical knowledge is divided at its core.

4. Nature of Knowledge. In order to resolve the conflict of the various theories presented above, we must engage in a philosophical analysis of knowledge. I will briefly outline the essential dimensions of knowledge and then relate them to historical and biblical knowledge. Knowledge is essentially relational. The subject (the knower) relates to the object (the known). He does not create, project or in any way devise the object. Rather, he encounters the object in its own independent existence with its own essential dimensions. The object presents itself to the subject as real and intelligible. The object is distinctly other (except in the case of self-knowledge in which a subject knows himself through his acts). All knowledge of objects is also essentially transcendent. The subject goes beyond himself in the act of knowing. The act of knowing forces the subject to encounter reality beyond himself. The transcendent nature of knowledge brings to light the true contact with reality had by the subject. The subject does not stay trapped in himself, but actually comes to know something other than himself. Knowledge cannot be reduced to knowledge of sense perceptions (late Husserl, Heidegger, et al.) nor can knowledge be reduced to a passive impression on the intellect as a wax tablet is impressed by a stylus (Aristotle, Aquinas). Knowing is an act of the person. The person goes out of himself, transcends himself to truly make contact with reality, to encounter other beings in their existential significance. This transcendent act is essentially receptive. The knower receives reality through his act of knowing. The knower does not make the object he knows through his act of knowledge. Rather, the knower receives the essence of the object he knows. The object presents itself to the subject as real and the knower transcends himself to receive its essential reality. In sum, knowledge is essentially 1.) relational, 2.) transcendent, 3.) an act of the person and 4.) receptive. I will return to these principles throughout our study.

5. Nature of Historical Know
Historical knowledge is a particular problem in epistemology. If knowledge is like a horse then historical knowledge is like a mule. The horse is pure-bred, virile and unadulterated. The mule, however, has a sadder story. It is the unhappy result of the union of a horse and a donkey. It does not really have an identity as horse or donkey, but it is caught somewhere between the two. And on top of all that, it is impotent! Historical knowledge is a combination of “standard knowledge” with the complicated web of an historical author. Historical knowledge is any knowledge that is acquired second-hand (or third-hand or fourth-hand, etc.). For example, if my friend tells me that he got in car accident, I have acquired a piece of historical knowledge from the eye-witness. On the other hand, if he tells me that the traffic jam I am in is caused by an accident at a particular intersection his testimony is more dubious. Yet I have still acquired a piece of historical knowledge. If he backs up his testimony by saying that he saw the accident himself or that he heard a radio report about it, I will be more likely to believe him. Historical knowledge is essentially based on the testimony of an individual, whether he be a witness, a writer or an artist.

So when I gain historical knowledge, what it is that I am actually knowing? Do I come to know the events described? Do I come to know only the author/witness? Do I come to know only a text/testimony which has its own peculiar meaning unrelated to real events?

Here we face the mule-nature of historical knowledge. The skeptic (Bultmann) would argue that I cannot know the events described by the historian unless I contact them myself. That Julius Caesar was assassinated or that Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor or that Abraham Lincoln gave an address at Gettysburg are not events that can be known. For our skeptic, they are intrinsically unknowable because I cannot have direct contact with the events. Yet then what do I come to know when I read a historical book which describes past events? I can learn all about the historian’s style and ability. I can identify the vocabulary of Plutarch or Suetonius. I can even analyze the intentions of Stephen Ambrose by a careful review of his works. So I can come to know the author at least in a limited fashion. Beyond that, the text itself has a meaning. If I cannot know the events and I do not know anything about the author, then I am left with an historical text. I can learn the inner contours of the text, its quality of prose, its grammatical forms, etc. But what the text “says” is not my concern, just what it “means.” That is, I keep myself busy about the detailed meanings of the words, but do not venture to suggest that the text says something about real life and real events. That would be to dishonor the text’s integrity. It would remove the text from it’s milieu and strip it of its museum-piece quality to make it relate to human life in an inappropriate way. The text would move beyond being an interesting old book to being a real record of real events.

The skeptic’s approach falls short of experience. When I learn something from an historian/witness I actually come to know some thing. I acquire a piece of historical knowledge. When my friend tells me he got in a car accident, I do not simply know the fact that he told me he got in car accident. I actually grasp the car accident event itself. The object of my knowledge is not his saying. The event itself is the intelligible object of my act of knowing. I receive the essence of the event. This does not mean that my friend is infallible or that I can trust every historian/witness, but it does mean that such a witness is merely a lens to realities beyond. The lens may be dirty or partially broken, but it does not point to itself. I have not personally witnessed the car accident, but my knowledge extends to that real event. I apprehend it when I come to know it.

6. Knowledge, Language and Interpersonal Communion. This brings us to the philosophy of language. Since we readers of histories are not the eye-witnesses of the historical events about which we read, we must rely on the testimony of others. Testimony of events is given by eye-witnesses through language. If an event is vocally told to me or related to me through a letter, book or other text, I am the recipient of language. Rather I am the recipient of a meaning conveyed through language regarding historical events. But can language actually convey knowledge? Again the skeptic can insert himself into the discussion. From his perspective, knowledge cannot truly be communicated from one person to another through language. Knowledge is only available through direct experience. For the Husserlian phenomenologist, language only inserts sense perceptions into my milieu. I may find black and white ink symbols in my sight or listen to certain wavelengths with my sense of hearing, but the coherence of such sounds or symbols is an imposition on my sense perceptions. I do not make contact with the realities discussed by language, I only encounter my own sense perceptions.

Yet I hold that these perspectives are short-sighted, not doing justice to the experience of knowledge and language. Language can communicate real knowledge. If my friend tells me that Notre Dame lost its football game, I gain real knowledge—as long as my friend is not lying. The skeptical and phenomenological views do not recognize my ability to gain knowledge of real events through linguistic communication. From the skeptical perspective, I may be able to gain knowledge about my friend: how fast he is talking, whether he is showing signs of happiness or sadness, etc. Yet I cannot really know the event of the game itself. It is removed from my experience, so my knowledge is necessarily unsure, instable and incomplete. The intelligible object of my knowing, from the skeptic’s view, is my friend’s language itself or my sense perception of his language. The game, as an event, is unintelligible to me because I did not experience it. I cannot truly know it.

Again, I assert that language can truly communicate knowledge of real events. When someone communicates a fact to me, I gain true knowledge. I do not merely come to know the contours of his voice, the patterns of his writing or the style in which he communicates. Nor am I limited to gaining knowledge about the communicator’s perceptions, worldview and philosophic outlook. I actually come to know the events he communicates. I myself have contact with the events. The intelligible object of my knowledge is identical to the intelligible object of the communicator’s knowledge. Yet with history there is always limitation. The limitation is this: when I encounter reality through the language of the historian (vocal or written) I have a necessarily secondary encounter. Though the object of my knowledge is identical to that of the historian, my vision is obscured, limited and conditioned by his honesty, eloquence and humanity.

Therefore the attainment of historical knowledge invariably puts me in a relationship with the historian. The historian not only invites me to behold historical events and gives me the vision of them, he actually invites me to view the events through his eyes as it were. I am welcomed into his very own personal vantage point to view the events of history. Language itself includes an invitation. When someone speaks to me or writes to me (whether to me specifically or to readers in general), he invites me not only to behold reality together with him, but to come to know him. Language is essentially communicative. Language does not merely transmit ideas or even point to realities. Through language, the speaker/writer personally invites the listener/reader to come t
o see reality with himself, in community with him. Language is also essentially interpersonal. Non-persons cannot use language. The very existence of language implies the existence of a community of persons. For communication itself can only exist between persons. Language is used to convey personal knowledge of events and realities. Because of its nature as communicative and as personal, language brings about an interpersonal communion. If the persons involved in the language-situation comprehend one another, they form a communion with one another. Though they are centuries-distant, a student can come to know intimately the great minds of the past: Aristotle, Cicero, Machiavelli, etc. The language of the writers is the only doorway into their thoughts and through it they deliberately open themselves to a real interpersonal communion with their readers. In the case of the philosophers and historians, this communion is strictly intellectual. Yet in the case of the playwrights like Aristophanes or Shakespeare, the communion attained can extend to the emotions. And in John of the Cross or Teresa of Avila, the reader even comes to a spiritual interpersonal communion with the author. Interpersonal communion is the highest goal of language. The reader of history is led from himself through a text to real events viewed in the context of interpersonal communion with the historical author. Biblical knowledge, to return to our central topic, is characterized by a few unique conditions which set it apart from other forms of historical knowledge.

7. Biblical Knowledge. Biblical knowledge has become its own special category. Biblical critics approach their text with a much higher degree of skepticism and distrust than any other group of historians or literary critics. Though many critics want to see the Bible as merely an historical relic, they do not treat it as such. Biblical knowledge takes on peculiar dimensions that cause it to differ from other types of historical knowledge. Biblical knowledge also has a unique relationship with biblical faith. When a person reads Tacitus and believes what he writes about Roman history, critics put this in one category. But when someone reads the Bible and believes what the Deuteronomist or Matthew or Paul writes, this is placed in a totally different category. Both actions of assent are kinds of faith. The first is what I term “secular faith.” This sort of faith is employed anytime a person encounters a newspaper article, a newscast or the work of a secular historian. The second, belief in a biblical writer’s account, I will term “divine faith.” Divine faith is not only belief in an historical account; it includes a recognition of the divine origin of the text being read. It also expands the metaphysical horizon of the reader. What a naturalist/atheist would discard a priori—like miracles or divine intervention in history—is able to be embraced through divine faith. Therefore the kind of knowledge derived from a secular historical account differs from the kind of knowledge derived from the biblical account specifically because of the nature of the biblical account as the word of God. Even if an interpreter’s metaphysic prevents him from accepting this theological account, he still must grapple with the object of the first disciples’ or the early Israelites’ belief and the object of faith-knowledge for contemporary people of faith.19

Historical knowledge gleaned from the Bible has been a hot topic over the past few decades. The object is the matter. The debate about the resurrection of Jesus between John Dominic Crossan and N.T. Wright is not about text-critical issues nor about traditionally historical issues. Their debate is an epistemological one. Crossan insists that the object of the first disciples’ faith—I narrowly define faith here as intellectual assent, a type of knowledge—is the “absolutely unique assumption or extraordinarily heavenly exaltation of Jesus.”20 Wright insists their object is the actual event of Jesus bodily rising from the dead.21 Thus we must investigate what the true object of biblical knowledge is. I will present a few diagrams that outline a schema for understanding different views of biblical knowledge.

The diagram I first present is my outline for secular historical knowledge in Figure 1. In

this figure I show the epistemic relationship between historical event and the reader of an historical text. First, the author of the text observes the event occurring. At this point, there can be multiple permutations. For example, the author might not have personally witnessed all the events he records. He too may be relying on someone else’s testimony. Also, his observations are peculiar to his own perspective. For example, if the historian is watching a battle from one side of the lines, his view of what happens on the other side will not be as complete.

Second, the author writes down his text. This moment is also full of controversy. Here the author can distort the observations he has made. He can add his own opinions. He can select particular material to insert or omit. He absolutely controls the text. He may even write total fiction without indication. Even if the author is sincere and genuine in his presentation, he cannot help but be conditioned by his experiences and allow that experience to shade his writing. There is no truly objective observer. Beyond this lack of objectivity, the historical author always writes with a purpose. The events he encounters are meaningful to him for particular reasons, which may or may not be the true meaning of the events. Every historical account offers an interpretation of the events it describes and this interpretation can help or hinder the readers apprehension of the events.

Third, the text itself does not lie. The text may be modified or adulterated by editors and copyists of varying skill, but it still presents itself to the reader as the writing of the author. Next the reader approaches the text with all of his presuppositions and philosophical biases. He can read the text honestly enough as long as he is familiar with the language employed. Yet he cannot help himself when he interprets the text, to see it in light of his own experiences. Even his access to the language is colored by his own experiences and mental associations. He cannot render an objective interpretation. To do so would be to undermine the identity and autonomy of the interpreter. As Ratzinger states, “pure objectivity is an absurd abstraction.”22 The reader is left with the very difficult task of understanding the text as honestly as possible and interpreting its meaning. For example, the reader of Thucydides must determine what archaeological sites should be identified with the cities and ports mentioned in the text. He must determine the place of various historical figures in harmony with other historical documents from that period of Greek history. The challenge is immense. Yet the reader does access the events themselves.

The reader, if he is to read the text as an historical one and not as fiction, must intellectually assent to the historicity of the text. That is, he must acknowledge the veracity of the text in rendering an account of real events. He must believe that the events relayed in the text really occurred and that the historian attempts to present those real events. Thus if the reader reads an account of a battle or
the life of an ancient person, he must accept the actual occurrence of that battle or the events in the life of the ancient person. With sober acknowledgement of the limitations of the recorder of history, the reader must accept the historicity of the document. Yet the perspective of the author is always limited, as discussed above. All historical accounts are incomplete.

Second, I present my outline of the historical-critical epistemology for Bible reading in Figure 2. In this scenario, the basic outline of the secular historical schema is maintained, but

the inner workings of the epistemic process are significantly altered. In contrast to the first figure, the author forms a concept and then produces a text. In the secular schema this moment

is implied, but never highlighted. In the academy of biblical exegesis the moment of concept-formation is intensely scrutinized. This is the moment when the author determines the meaning of the events he has encountered. It is the reflective process after the reception of knowledge. It

is only after the author has evaluated his experiences and come to philosophico-theological conclusions that he is able to write a text. This fact allows the biblical critic to highlight and even attack the author’s personal evaluation of historical events. In the view of historical-criticism, the author’s opinion or evaluation always obfuscates the presentation of the events. The author never helps, but only hinders the reader’s understanding.

After the text is produced by the author, it is read and redacted by an editor or an editorial community. Intense debate rages among exegetes over the significance of redactions of different biblical texts. Some books are said to be pieced together from multiple sources, in which case our diagram should include a multiplicity of authors. In other cases, exegetes tell us that an individual author’s work was corrupted, edited, redacted and adulterated by later redactors. In such a situation, the above schema works well, although the number of redactors and intervening texts may be increased or decreased. One aspect of historical-critical scholarship finds that each text has an independent meaning. Traditional literary criticism emphasized the author’s intent when writing as the absolute norm of interpretation. More recently in literary and biblical criticism, some scholars have held firmly that the text has a “life of its own.” Once the text and author part ways, the text has a meaning unto itself apart from the author’s intent. This meaning is what is represented in the trapezoids in Figure 2. The meaning is not necessarily intended by the author or the redactors, it is the de facto, objective meaning of the text.

The last step is the most difficult. The reader encounters the written and redacted text. While the simplicity of the secular historical epistemology would be welcome, it is not allowed by the method. The historical reader is charged with a near impossible task: to get back to the event through the text. (I say the “historical reader,” because canonical and rhetorical readers are not necessarily interested in the relation of the text to actual events.) First, the reader must encounter the text in itself and attempt to determine its meaning, which he can only have limited access to. The limit to his access is created by his distance in time from the author, his linguistic difference, his lack of cultural context and his inability to obtain pure objectivity. Then the reader must begin to peel away the redactions of the text and find the original text or texts that were produced by the author. This process is laborious and inherently inaccurate. Without text-critical evidence, pericopes and sayings can only be torn from the text on the weakest arguments. Yet redaction-critics insist on the importance of their task and try to continually distinguish between “earlier” and “later,” “less developed” and “more developed.” After discovering the original text through redaction-criticism, the reader must peel away the perspective of the author. Thus, he attempts to define and label the author’s persuasions as best as possible. This analysis is used to roll back the curtain shrouding the actual events of history, which can finally be seen.

Unfortunately, by the time the reader has reached this stage, there is not much left of the text. He must use his historical belief to reach back to the events hidden by all these layers of texts, redactions and concepts. The reader is then left to interpret the text as he wishes.

In Figure 3, I will attempt to encapsulate the traditional Christian and Catholic perspective of Bible reading. This traditional epistemology is much closer to the secular history perspective in Figure 1 than it is to the historical-critical perspective of Figure 2. There are only three differences. First, the writing of the text is aided by divine inspiration so much so that we speak of a divine author. God actually works with the author to produce the text. The psychological intricacies of the process of inspiration are beyond the scope of this project, but inspiration dramatically affects the way the text is written. Second, the reader is aided by God in his reading of the text. This does not mean that the Holy Spirit functions as a Greek dictionary or a concordance for the convenience of the reader. Rather, God aids the reader’s understanding spiritually through faith. Faith is a gift from God and this gift is maximally employed in the reading of Scripture, the word of God. Faith helps the reader accept the divine origin of the words and to see God as their author. Third, this faith connects the reader to the events in a stronger manner than simple belief in secular history. The faith-reader gains an expansive divine perspective to see the events of the Bible. He does not gain mere historical knowledge of the events, but is given insight into their meaning and a supernatural acceptance of their reality. In this way, biblical knowledge can be heightened beyond all other historical knowledge—yet it is a spiritual occurrence.

8. Conclusion. We find ourselves at the end of this analysis in need of a new epistemology that honestly approaches the text with an historical interest and an existential openness. I agree with Stephen T. Davis’s assessment that we should “see the act of interpretation primarily (not entirely) as the discovery of something that is there in the text rather than the creation of something new.”23 The historical texts of the Bible are about historical events, not the mental projections of a faith-community (Reimarus). Neither can the historical texts of the Bible be stripped of their historicity in the assertion that they point to a higher non-immanent reality (Bultmann). To do so would deny the connection between history and transcendent reality. We need not erect a wall between the author’s intention and the meaning for the Church (Brown). This proposition makes biblical meaning unnecessarily divided in a fundamental way. It separates the original meaning from the contemporary meaning so completely as to propose two separate objects of knowledge. Regarding the above positions, I agree with C.S. Lewis’ assessment that “These men ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves. They claim to see fern-seed and can’t see an elephant ten yards away in broad daylight.”24 Splicing reality into pie
ces eliminates our ability to apprehend it.

Yet what epistemological approach brings us to the text with the honesty required? The text must be read with a hermeneutic of trust rather than suspicion. The historical content of the Bible must be understood to relate real events as other historical texts are understood. The reader should embrace the historicity of the events presented, though colored by the author’s perspective. Beyond believing in historical events, the reader should come to a level of interpersonal communion with the author. In this way, the reader comes to know not only the human author, but the Divine Author who writes the text. Reading the Bible then becomes not merely an intellectually informative event, but a spiritual communion with God himself. For ultimately He is the Author of the Scriptures and the object to whom they point.

Works Consulted

Aquino, Frederick D. Communities of Informed Judgment: Newman’s Illative Sense and Accounts of Rationality. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2004.

Brown, Raymond E. The Critical Meaning of the Bible. New York: Paulist Press, 1981.

—————. “The Sensus Plenior of Sacred Scripture.” S.T.D. diss., St. Mary’s University, 1955.

Bultmann, Rudolf. New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984.

Crossan, John Dominic and N.T. Wright. The Resurrection of Jesus. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2006.

Frei, Hans W. The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974.

Harrisville, Roy A. and Walter Sundberg. The Bible in Modern Culture. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 1995.

Herberg, Will. Faith Enacted As History. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976.

Johnson, Luke T. and William S. Kurz. The Future of Catholic Biblical Scholarship. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002.

Josipovici, Gabriel. The Book of God. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988.

Kaplan, Grant. Answering the Enlightenment. New York: Crossroad, 2006.

Kelly, George. The New Biblical Theorists. Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 1983.

Kümmel, Werner G. The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of Its Problems. New York: Abingdon, 1972.

Lewis, C.S. Fern-seed and Elephants and Other Essays on Christianity. Glasgow, England: Collins, 1978.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1981.

Moreland, J.P. and William L. Craig. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2003.

Neuhaus, Richard J., ed. Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Ratzinger Conference on Bible and Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989.

Padgett, Alan G. and Patrick R. Keifert, eds. But Is It All True?: The Bible and the Question of Truth. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006.

Robinson, Robert B. Roman Catholic Exegesis Since Divino Afflante Spiritu: Hermeneutical Implications. Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series 111. Atlanta; Scholars, 1988.

Wright, N.T. The New Testament and the People of God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1992.

1 Ratzinger, Joseph, “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: On the Question of the Foundations and Approaches of Exegesis Today,” in Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Ratzinger Conference on Bible and Church, Richard J. Neuhaus, ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989) 16.
2 Brown, Raymond E. “The Contribution of Historical Biblical Criticism to Ecumenical Church Discussion.” in Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Ratzinger Conference on Bible and Church, Richard J. Neuhaus, ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989) 44-6.
3 Ibid. 46.
4 Wright, N.T., The New Testament and the People of God, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1992) 32.
5 See Wright 32-34.
6 This is an extreme abbreviation of a very complicated philosophical position, but I believe that it is adequate for our discussion.
7 Kummel, Werner G., The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of Its Problems, (New York: Abingdon, 1972) 89-90.
8 Harrisville, Roy A. and Walter Sundberg, The Bible in Modern Culture, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 1995) 60.
9 Ibid. 61. This is a paraphrase of Reimarus’ views.
10 Bultmann, Rudolf, New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings, (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984) 99.
11 Ibid. 152.
12 Ibid. 150.
13 Ibid. 3.
14 Ibid. 5.
15 Brown, Raymond E., The Critical Meaning of the Bible, (New York: Paulist Press, 1981) 40.
16 Ibid. 35.
17 Ibid. 35, footnote 20.
18 Ibid. 34.
19 Some (Bultmann, et al.) argue for the unintelligibility of the faiths of the Israelites and the disciples. Yet this position side-steps the central issue. The disciples believed in something. Whether they were correct about that thing is not the point right now. That “something” they believed in had to have been intelligible for it to become the object of their faith-knowledge. Not only that, but contemporary people of faith have faith in something. The argument of faith’s opponents should not propose that the object of such faith is unintelligible. Rather, it should acknowledge that faith’s object is intelligible, yet unreal. The argument for unreality is much stro
nger than the argument for unintelligibility. Challenging something’s existence is much easier than charging that that something has no essence.
20 Crossan, John Dominic and N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of Jesus, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2006) 177.
21 Ibid. 16-23.
22 Ratzinger 7.
23 Davis, Stephen T., “What Do We Mean When We Say, ‘The Bible Is True?’” in But Is It All True?: The Bible and the Question of Truth, Padgett, Alan G. and Patrick R. Keifert, eds., (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006) 97.
24 Lewis, C.S. “Fern-Seed and Elephants” in Lewis, C.S. Fern-seed and Elephants and Other Essays on Christianity, (Glasgow, England: Collins, 1978) 111.

One thought on “The Historical-Critical Method and Epistemology in Biblical Hermeneutics

  1. Ryan McCluskey

    I am so glad you posted this! I’ve been searching for quite a while for a reasonable response to some of the biblical criticisms out there (especially historical criticism) and it seems like I have not been able to agree with even well studied scholars I respect on how to view the historicity of certain biblical events. Although I’ve known I didn’t agree, I did not know how to find their base assumptions that were faulty in order to develope or find a better starting point. I can recognize that the different methods someone uses to study the Bible can get them to come to different conclusions, and some methods seem more dangerous than others. You seem to have a very educated and well thought out understanding of the various assumptions or beliefs that different biblical criticisms start out with. I would love it if you would let me know the scholars you used to research in order to gain the understanding you’ve come to on this, and which of their books and/or articles helped you do that. I see you listed the sources you used, but which of them had the most influence on you in a positive way? Also, based on what you’ve learned, if you could classify the various biblical criticisms from “responsible”, to ” use with caution”, to “faulty”, how would you group them and why? If I am asking a bit too much of you, maybe you could just steer me to some scholars and the books they’ve written that would be best for me to look into to figure this out. Thanks so much for being diligent enough to figure this out and considerate enough to post it to help those of us lost in all the choices of interpretation methods.

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