Category Archives: Historical-Critical Method

Medieval Theory v. Historical-Critical Method

Food for thought:
“The medieval theory of levels of meaning in the biblical text, with all its undoubted defects, flourished because it is true, while the modem theory of a single meaning with all its demonstrable virtues, is false. Until the historical-critical method becomes critical of its own theoretical foundations and develops a hermeneutical theory adequate to the nature of the text which it is interpreting it will remain restricted—as it deserves to be—to the guild and the academy, where the question of truth can endlessly be deferred.”

-David Steinmetz, “The superiority of pre-critical exegesis,” Ex auditu 1 (1985): 82.

A Professor Claims that God Did Not Create

You may have seen this story swirling through the Bible news internet blogoplex. Ellen van Wolde, a professor at Radbound University in the Netherlands has claimed that the Hebrew word br’ in Genesis 1:1 means “separated” not “created” thus making God a divine manipulator of things already existing, not a creator ex nihilo. Well, as you can imagine, there have been many responses.

The original article in Trouw (in Dutch)
A report from the UK Telegraph

Responses from:
God Didn’t Say That
Ancient Hebrew Poetry (examines the Hebrew)
Chris Heard
Alternate Readings (examines the LXX evidence)
Claude Mariottini

This debate is is important because of the central idea of creatio ex nihilo in Catholic thought. The Catholic Catechism addresses the doctrine of creation in CCC282-301, especially 296-298. The Catechism cites Lateran Council IV which states that the Trinity is “the one principle of the universe, the creator of all things, visible and invisible, spiritual and corporeal, who by this almighty power from the beginning of time made at once out of nothing both orders of creatures, the spiritual and the corporeal, that is, the angelic and the earthly, and then the human creature, who as it were shares in both orders, being composed of spirit and body” (Neuner-Dupuis 19; DS 800; emphasis mine).

However, I don’t think very many people will take Prof. Wolde’s theory very seriously.

Source Criticism

I’ve been reading a lot of commentaries on the Minor Prophets. Most of them focus rather myopically on source critical questions. While I think source/redaction criticism is generally valid and can be useful in certain situations, its fundamental philosophical basis is flawed. (Source criticism is the process of determining the sources, editions, redactions or layers of a particular biblical book.)

First, source criticism of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, relies entirely upon internal evidence. Now internal evidence is not invalid, it just cannot be substantiated by hard data like manuscripts, archaeology, etc. I suppose some source-criticism bases itself on interpretations of archaeology, but rarely.

Second, what is the purpose of source-criticism? Does it really help you read a book better when you know who the supposed editors were and how they differed from the “original” author? Sometimes it seems comparable to reading the Constitution by trying figure which lines were proposed or rejected by various members of the Constitutional Convention. And while flipping through the early drafts of the Constitution may be interesting from a historical perspective, it doesn’t really shed that much light on what the Constitution actually says. Why? Because the Constitution was a compromise document. So the important part is the consensus, the written page, not the intentions, motivations or even the individuals involved.

So when it comes to the Bible and getting the general reader interested in picking up the Good Book, it seems source-criticism really isn’t going to give them that much. The general reader needs to pay attention to the “consensus” or the “compromise document.” What do I mean by that? The regular reader should not be concerned with the redaction history of Amos or Zechariah, but should focus on what the text says as it stands, what it means in its present context, what God is saying through the Sacred Word. Picking apart the various layers of development has a limited usefulness even for the expert. Because what matters is not the development, but the end-product. Likewise, the end-product of the Constitutional Convention is what matters. It is the law of the land, not the notes and scribbles of Jefferson or Madison or whomever. So with the Bible, the canon is what counts, not the theories and re-workings of the scholarly class.

A Musing on Historical-Criticism of the Bible

One of the great problems with the historical-critical method when it comes to the Bible, is that it denies supernatural reality and revelation de facto. It messes up the whole history of Israel in the Old Testament because it begins from a vantage point which denies the possibility of divine revelation, so it seeks alternative explanations as to the origin of Israel’s religion. Rather than Hebrew religion being a divine gift to Abraham and Moses and their followers, historical-criticism reduces it to a slowly evolving and developing religion that began as a mixture of various beliefs and practices adopted from other nations and cultures. Why? Because historical-criticism cannot believe in revealed religion. It is not within its purview.

That is exactly where the historical-critical method loses its explanatory power. The fact is that Israel’s religion was revealed by God. It did not evolve out of Canaanite religious practices or beliefs of random Ancient Near Eastern peoples. God actually revealed himself to his people and gave them a way to seek him. Since the historical-critical method cannot admit this, being beyond the bounds of secular science, it fails to explain the importance of the Bible. It is brilliant at dissecting the parts and pieces of the Bible–explaining words and archeology and geography. But it cannot tell you why to read the Bible, how it will change your life or why the Bible makes a difference in the real world.

But the Bible will change your life, not because it is an interesting ancient book, but because it is the word of God to man. It is God’s instructions to you about life, death and meaning. Pick it up and read it, not for a perusal of Ancient Near Eastern religious practices, but for spiritual life from the God who loves you.