What is historical-criticism? And why I think it’s so important….

One of the most frustrating things about biblical studies is that people use technical terminology in radically different ways.  The premier example, of course, is the term “biblical theology” or its sub-disciplines, Old Testament theology and New Testament theology.  When I first became interested in biblical theology while studying at Toronto Baptist Seminary, I had no idea that the definition that we used for biblical theology – the definition given by Geerhardus Vos in his Biblical Theology – represented only one understanding, among many, of what biblical theology ought to be.

Another example of this tendency – in both biblical studies and theology – is the use of the term historical-criticism.  And the issue isn’t simply that theologians use the term in the wrong way while biblical scholars use it in the right way – the issue is that there is no single agreed upon definition for what historical criticism is.  All you have to do is simply look at the Wikipedia entry on historical criticism and you’ll see the symptoms of this confusion.  Some people vilify historical criticism as the worst thing that has ever come about in the history of biblical interpretation.  Others think that you really haven’t understood the bible if you don’t understand it from a historical critical perspective.  In this post I would like to offer my own take on historical criticism and suggest why there is such confusion about how it should be defined.

Historical-criticism, in my opinion, involves at least three things:

 (1) Treating the books of the bible as historical documents.  In other words, it is important to recognize that the books of the bible were written in a particular time, in a particular place, in a particular language, in a particular stage of that language, in a particular cultural/sociological/religious setting, and by particular authors and interpreting them accordingly.

(2) Striving for a reasonable amount of objectivity in one’s examination of the text.  For me this involves two things: (a) not allowing one’s biases/prejudices to skew one’s reading of the evidence and (b) acknowledging one’s subjectivity when necessary (knowledge gained subjectively can be objectively true but it goes beyond the evidence that’s publically available and might not be convincing to others).

(3) Allowing for the possibility that previous understandings of the text could have been wrong, including one’s own.

One of the reasons why there is so much confusion about historical-criticism is that historical-criticism can be applied to several different areas of study in biblical studies.  The three most common ones are:

(a) the meaning of the received text;

(b) the history of the composition of the text; and

(c) the historical reality behind what’s being depicted in the text.

When most people think about historical-criticism, especially its critics, they’re thinking of (b) and (c).  But historical-criticism cannot be limited to these two fields of study – it can also be applied and is applied to studying the meaning of the received or final-form of biblical texts without a real concern for (b) or (c).

So when someone criticizes historical-criticism or the results of historical-criticism it is important to identify which area of study they are referring to: (a), (b), or (c).  I have serious problems with the results and methods of historical-criticism as it is usually applied to (b) and (c) but historical-criticism is absolutely essential when it comes to studying (a), the received or final form of the text.  Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think historical-criticism is the only way that we should study the received or final form of the text.  I also think that theological interpretation is important, though it is a little bit more subjective.  But historical-critical study of the text is indispensable and a lot can be missed and/or misunderstood if the text is not read both historically and critically.  One quick example is the book of Ruth.  Most evangelical sermons that I’ve seen on Ruth jump to a theological interpretation involving Boaz prefiguring Christ.  But because they haven’t read the text historically (or critically) they miss the main point – which is God’s providence in the life of Naomi, rescuing Naomi from her predicament in chapter 1 and working out his sovereign plan for her good and for the good of all Israel.

It is important to note, however, that many evangelicals (and others) would simply call the historical-critical study of the received of final form of the text grammatical-historical exegesis.  Maybe I’ll do a post on that eventually.  But for now I would say two things: (1) most evangelicals do grammatical-historical exegesis in a way that combines the study of (a) and (c) together in a way that is a little confusing methodologically so the term might not be so helpful and (2) the fact that some people call this grammatical-historical exegesis rather than historical-criticism is simply another symptom of the lack of precise terminology in biblical studies.  But this is an issue that can be discussed later.

Mark Francois