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Historical-Critical Method
in its Application to Statements Concerning Events in the Holy Scriptures

Christian Hartlich

JHC 2/2 (Fall 1995), 122-139. "Historisch-kritische Methode in ihrer Anwendung auf Geschehnisaussagen der Hl. Schrift," ZThK 75 (1978), 467-484. Published with permission from J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck) Tübingen. Translated by Darrell J. Doughty. This exposition — which developed in common reflection with W. Sachs — was presented for discussion to the "Theological Workgroup" of the two Tübingen theological faculties in December 1976.

In present day theology — in the exegetical disciplines as well as dogmatics — one encounters a profound uncertainty about the validity of the historical-critical method that is connected with its application to statements concerning events in the Holy Scriptures. Alongside the methodologically uncertain and unfinished treatment of all other miracle stories, the interest of research focusses on the question whether and to what extent the historical-critical method is competent to make a judgment with regard to the central miracle of Christianity, the affirmation of the resurrection of Jesus as an event that really took place. Positions have recently been taken on this subject in numerous theological publications — with the prevailing tendency, in spite of the diversity of arguments, to protect the ontic primacy of Jesus affirmed by his resurrection, which elevates him above all other creatures, against historical criticism. The resurrection of Jesus is supposedly a singular fact; and regarding its determination the historical-critical method founders, and, according to its own presuppositions, must founder.

The fundamental theological axiom at work here can be summarized in one sentence: Without an objective, ontic grounding for christology in the resurrection event Christian faith has no basis. At the same time, however, there is also the desire — so far as possible — to proceed in a historical-critical way, in order to make the event of the resurrection of Jesus historically plausible. What results from this combination of a dogmatically established fact, on the one hand, and the undergirding of this factuality by historical substantiation, on the other, is the creation of a historical method for the private use of Christians: namely, a method whose consistent and unlimited application to similar statements about events in other religions is not questioned by Christian theology, but whose extension is nevertheless broken off by the same theology at that point where it enters into conflict with the theological axiom just stated.

One question here is whether a domestication of the historical-critical method, resulting from a stance of specific "Christian" interests, can be maintained? The other question is whether faith requires such a misuse of the historical-critical method?

The theological debate with the historical-critical method proceeds at this point, for the most part, in the form of wholesale negative judgments, which begin with the supposedly destructive results of this method for the Christian faith and—without going into the proper rational structure of their justification — exhaust themselves in the assertion that the historical-critical method is based on arbitrary presuppositions that a Christian theologian cannot and need not share.

Wilhelm Lütgert was perhaps the first theologian to be taken seriously in our time who spoke of an atheistic method in theology, which Schlatter, in his debate with Paul Jäger, then made the theme of his essay "Atheistic Methods in Theology." And with all respect for the great theological phenomenon of Karl Barth, in his remarks concerning the historical-critical method he shows a dubious inclination for theological tirade, for example, when he refers to its far-reaching application to history as "in fact only a ridiculous and middle-class habit of the modern western mind, which is supremely phantastic in its chronic lack of imaginative phantasy" ( K. Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. III, The Doctrine of Creation (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1958), 81). At the end of the chapter on Strauss in his History of Protestant Theology in the 19th Century, it is then said: "Proper theology begins at the point where the difficulties disclosed by Strauss and Feuerbach are seen and then laughed at." (K. Barth, Protestant Thought from Rousseau to Ritschl [New York: Harper & Row, 1959], 389.)

This laughter, with which according to Barth the correct theology begins, betrays the weak point of his theology, namely, its total inability to engage historical criticism with arguments on the only field where the truth of statements concerning events can be decided: that is, in the sphere of human discovery of truth. For a merely asserted truth of a statement regarding a historical event is and remains for human beings a merely asserted, conceivably possible truth so long as the statement is not verified. It is then a subreptio veritatis to regard oneself as supposedly having the standpoint of a trans-human capacity for knowledge and on that basis to make the human endeavor concerning knowledge laughable — as if faith were a capacity to distinguish true from false statements concerning events.

In so far as opinions have been recently set forth regarding the theological relevance of the historical-critical method, they move almost without exception, as we already indicated, in the direction of granting only limited validity to the human discovery of truth with regard to statements about events in the Holy Scriptures, thus limiting human rationality to merely a usus instrumentalis in service of a presupposed theologumenon. In view of this situation, it is imperative to develop the basic premises of the historical-critical method with a step-by-step rationale, for only in this way can their full jurisdiction even over statements about events in Holy Scripture, including the resurrection of Jesus, first become visible. What therefore is historical-critical methodology in its application to statements about events in the Holy Scriptures? How does it justify itself? What consequences does it have for theology? (References)

Thesis 1: Under no conditions can the historian presuppose the truth of statements regarding events in documents from the past; he must ascertain the truth with critical procedures.

Rationale: Being faced with documents which affirm something to be an event, the business of the historian is the determination whether what is affirmed in such documents did in fact take place and took place in such a way as the documents state.

With reference to documents of this kind, therefore, the historian must arrive at a determination whether what they represent as an "event" actually took place, or was merely supposed to be an "event" by the narrator. In other words, the historian must determine whether what is related as an event can be granted a factuality that will stand independently of the individual and subjective representation by the narrator that it took place. If this is the case, then, the historian affirms objectivity for what is related as an event and truth for the account of the event.

The procedure of the historian, therefore, is necessarily critical, in so far as it is an investigation of whether what is related as an event in the document before him was merely conceived to be an event in the mind of the narrator — or whether, beyond this, it must be judged to be an event in fact. The necessity for criticism in the investigation of history as a discipline is established by the possibility for error in every human statement — as diverse as the grounds for error might be in individual cases.

Even where the intention of truthfulness is presupposed, no human opinion that an event has taken place (even when it is forcefully expressed), simply as such and without further consideration, can guarantee the factuality of an event that is merely thought to be a fact. The historian thus requires something more than the mere presence of an opinion that something really took place—namely, a conducted demonstration that the opinion presented concerning an event having taken place actually corresponds with reality. The conduct of this demonstration, through which an opinion concerning an event found in a document from the past is in each case established to be true (verified), mediates truth in the sense of the historical knowledge of events.

As applied to statements regarding events found in the Bible, this means that the historian always addresses these statements — without placing in question the subjective conviction of the biblical writers — only as still having to be verified. This is true even for reports which are found (as far as can be determined) in the oldest strata of tradition, or derive from eyewitnesses.

In contrast, therefore, to an exegesis which, remaining in the horizon of events as conceived by the biblical writers, confines itself to mediating the literal sense, the historian moves beyond the opinion of the writer to an investigation of the truth of the statements regarding events and makes the decision concerning this dependent on the result of his critical procedure. Expressed in the language of eighteenth century hermeneutics: The interpreter may not — as Ernesti still wanted to do — limit himself to the mediation of the quid dictum, but beyond this must inquire concerning the quid verum, or in what sense a veritas can be ascribed to the dictum — a requirement which Georg Lorenz Bauer raised up in 1799 in his "Entwurf einer Hermeneutik des Alten und Neuen Testamentes." (See Chr. Hartlich and W. Sachs, Der Ursprung des Mythosbegriffs in der modernen Bibelwissenschaft [1952], 70ff.)

This can can be illustrated by the phenomenon of "sacred history."

Thesis 2: "Sacred history" is characterized by the fact that beings which are not ascertainable in the context of ordinary experience — beings of divine, demonic, and supernatural origin — are active in an otherwise empirical and natural sequence of events. Statements concerning such "sacred history" are fundamentally unverifiable, and in this sense, from the perspective of that which has in fact taken place, without value for the historian.

Rationale: When the historian, in his intention to determine the truth of statements concerning events, encounters "sacred history" (in the Bible, for example), he is faced with a "history" of a special kind, which is characterized by the fact that — from the perspective of ascertainable truth — events of a fundamentally different kind are linked together in the unity of a narrated inter-connection of events.

What constitutes the fundamental difference in kind of the events linked together in such a "sacred history" is their basic difference with regard to the determination of the truth of what is narrated: With regard to events of one kind there exists for us as human beings the fundamental possibility to determine their truth or falsehood, while for the other kind of events this possibility just as fundamentally does not exist — namely, wherever it is related that supernatural beings as such directly appear and become active in an otherwise empirical and natural sequence of events.

This fundamental difference in the character of events, as they are related, for example, in the sacred history of the Bible, can be clarified by a consideration of Matthew 28:2ff. Here it is related that — as the women came to the grave — a great earthquake took place, "for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women..."

The earthquake referred to here is an event whose factuality we are fundamentally able to verify, perhaps by means of some ascertainable effect. In principle, we therefore have at our disposal the stipulations by means of which the statement that there and then an earthquake took place can be tested with regard to its truth. When in the same narrative, however, the descent of an angel from heaven is given as the cause of the earthquake, this is a statement regarding an event for which every determination of truth or falsehood is fundamentally withdrawn. For the assertion that an angel descended from heaven refers not merely to the descent of a being of a certain appearance, ascertainable by our senses ("his appearance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow"), this assertion refers also to the descent of a being of supernatural origin and supernatural character, a "heavenly" being, in the sense of a being having been sent from God and acting in his service and with his authority. In all these respects, however, an angel as such is fundamentally removed from every verification.

That means, however, that none of the objective data accessible to human beings — his robe as white as snow and his appearance like lightening — can ever be identified with an "angel" in the sense referred to, in the same way as no person is able to provide the stipulations by means of which a determination might be made regarding the movement, presence, and activity of an "angel" in a certain place and time. Consequently, no human being is in a position to verify, as based on an accessible object, his belief (or that of someone else) that then and there an "angel" was present and active.

From this it follows further that there is no other possibility for statements about events by human subjects in the past to be true for us than to verify their statements according to the same stipulations (and in the same manner) by which we determine the truth of such statements concerning events today. And if we encounter statements in documents from the past concerning events whose verifiability is fundamentally denied to us, in so far as they fall totally outside the sphere of our own stipulations for knowledge of verifiable realities, there is then no way in which the truth of such statements—conceivable in itself—can become really true for us. As statements concerning events, they are and necessarily remain for us without truth, and that which is stated by them without objectivity.

It follows, therefore, that the historian can take account of statements about the direct appearance and activity of supernatural beings, as he finds them in "sacred history," only in the sense of their having been so stated. He can deal with them only as mere opinions of persons in the past concerning events, but not as statements which are true and thus able to serve as sources for knowledge of what in fact took place.

Thesis 3: The mediation of the truth of statements concerning events in documents from the past is only possible by means of the historical-critical method. This is rooted in the way human knowledge is constituted, and the stipulations for the mediation of such knowledge, therefore, are not arbitrarily chosen, but necessary and generally mandatory for all persons who desire historical truth.

Rationale: This thesis indicates the only possible and also necessary presuppositions by which the historian can and must make judgments about statements concerning events of the past. He may and can presuppose nothing else than those means for the determination of historical truth which are necessary according to the human conception of knowledge. All other presuppositions abrogate the objective character (Wissenschaftlichkeit) of his endeavor.

Against this thesis, it will be objected that, because the historian's means of knowledge are so determined, they are able to grasp only a part of history as it really happened. This objection amounts to a confusion of history which is possible to conceive with history as it really happened. Given the way human knowledge is constituted, there is an unbreakable correlation between knowledge of the reality of events and the actual reality of events. A possible reality of events only becomes an actual reality for human beings through the procedure by which they come to know reality as such. Consequently, any mediation of the reality of events for human beings is only possible by means through which they themselves come to know the reality of such events. An event which is possible to conceive only becomes a real event for human beings if they are able to confirm it by means of their own way of knowing reality.

If an accusation of limitation can be made at all in this matter, the accusation must be addressed not to the human being and his method for knowledge of real events, but to that being who is responsible for establishing the constitution of knowledge for human beings.

To be sure, God might have given us a capability for knowing that would have enabled us to recognize as historical reality that which, with the conditions of knowledge as given, must necessarily remain for human beings only a history that is possible to conceive. And one might feel that this condition for knowledge is unfortunate. But one should see things as they are, and not deceive oneself. No human striving, not even theological striving, can make that become reality which, according to the way knowledge is constituted for us, is merely a possibility.

Thesis 4: There is no other criterion for determining whether an event referred to in a document from the past actually took place than the possibility of locating it in the context of the framework of experience constituted by the discipline in its present state of knowledge. Whether other frameworks of experience were present yesterday, or might be present tomorrow — these conceivable possibilities do not abrogate the validity of this thesis.

Rationale: In documents from the past, the historian is presented first of all with merely individual and subjective opinions concerning what should be regarded as true (Wahrnehmungs meinungen). The historian's task is to test whether objectivity can be granted to these opinions.

This can be illustrated with an example. The Roman historian Suetonius reports that, following the death of Caesar Augustus, a highly placed official with the rank of praetor swore that at the funeral celebration he observed the figure of Caesar, who had just been cremated, ascend into heaven. The modern historian is presented, therefore, with a report, mediated by a reliable writer of history from the ancient world, of a statement by an eyewitness, an honorable senator, confirmed by an oath.

Why does the historian not immediately accept this statement as truth? Is it perhaps because of his limited conception of reality? Why should it not have been possible for God, or the gods, to take up into heaven the Caesar who had just died? Does the fault lie with the "atheistic" methodology of the historian? Now, no historian doubts that for a being conceived to be endowed with almighty power all things are possible. The question is only whether the sworn statement of an eyewitness suffices to insert the heavenly journey of Caesar Augustus, in itself a conceivable possibility, into the course of history as a fact — in such a way, therefore, that in a historical presentation it must be said: "After his death Augustus was taken up into heaven," with a footnote saying, "The fact is confirmed by an eyewitness; cf. Seutonius, Vita Divi Augusti, cap. 100."

No historian who is aware of his methodological instrumentation for the confirmation of statements about events would be able to reach such a conclusion. He has no instruments of knowledge at his disposal which places him in a position to validate such assertions concerning journeys into heaven because they fall outside the continuum of ordinary knowledge. With regard to historical events, ordinary knowledge is only possible on the basis of a partial identifiability of what is reported in a fundamentally repeatable continuum of knowledge. An event must cohere in principle with other events, i.e., stand in a verifiable connection. An absolutely incoherent event is not verifiable as an event, but merely a conceivable possibility.

This is also the case with regard to the concept of contingency, so very dear to many theologians. If one understands by a contingent event an event for which every ascertainable connection with other ascertainable events is withdrawn, such an event is indeed possible to conceive, but is not assertable as having really taken place.

Returning to our example of the heavenly journey of Augustus, since the historian therefore can grant no objectivity to the sworn sense-perception, he will now attempt to investigate the individual and subjective conditions which may have led the Praetor to make this statement. Do we have to do here with a vision? Was that which he supposedly saw nothing else than an inner reworking by the heart of conceptions deriving from the Caesar cult in the exceptional situation of grief for his imperial Lord, who already during his lifetime was revered as God and Lord, as Theos kai Kyrios? In that time did reports of this kind belong to the repertoire of Caesar legends? What are we to make in general of such widely attested stories of heavenly journeys?

Another historical writer, namely Dio Cassius, relates the same incident. From him we learn the name of the official. Much more important, however, is his information that Livia, Caesar's wife, paid the Praetor 250,000 denar for his oath.

Even this statement, which to begin with seems very plausible, cannot be simply accepted by the historian without further consideration. He will have to determine whether such an act could be attributed to Livia, and, if so, what motives may have produced it; or whether we have to do with a false accusation by her political opponents. The historian will further have to investigate which sources the report by Dio Cassius concerning the bribery of the Praetor by Livia is based on, and whether his own historical work or the sources he used are characterized by a negative view of the house of Caesar. Even if it is possible, however, to cleanse the statement of the Praetor from every suggestion of dishonesty, there is one thing that the historian may not do under any circumstances: namely, thereby conclude that what the Praetor claimed to have seen — the entrance of Augustus into heaven — can be elevated to the status of an objective event.

To apply what has become clear from this example to statements concerning events in the New Testament, we see that the historian faces the same problem with reference to the ascension of Jesus: whether or not he can grant to the statement concerning the ascension of Jesus the status of an objective event. He is just as unable to do so in this instance as in the case of a corresponding secular report of an ascent into heaven—and indeed for the same reason. From statements concerning events for which no conditions for verification exist he cannot derive facts which can be inserted into the course of history that has actually taken place. The only fact which he sees before him is the fact of the statement, but not the factuality of that which is stated as fact.

The decision that the historian makes here is fully independent from whether the statement in question is found in an earlier or later strata of tradition. For in so far as we have to do here with a statement that is unverifiable, even the fact that it belongs to the earliest strata of tradition is no basis for the objectivity of the event related. No such indication can be gained from the results of literary critical analysis.

This point must be maintained over against a common false assumption, according to which from the temporal "originality" of a portrayal of an event conclusions are drawn regarding its origin in a given occurrence. From the perspective of theology, for example, the account of the ascension of Jesus into heaven is judged to be a "late legend," in contrast to the original statements concerning the exaltation of Jesus, where there is no mention of a forty-day earthly sojourn of the resurrected one; but from the temporal priority of the earlier conception of the event no basis can be derived for its priority with regard to objectivity. Given the fundamental unverifiability of a portrayal of exaltation, an earlier portrayal of the event can claim no higher degree of objectivity than a later.

These observations are wholly valid with regard to the assertion that the event of the resurrection of Jesus is a historically demonstrable reality. When one asserts from a theological perspective, for example, as an historical affirmation, "that only the event of the resurrection of Jesus and the confession to this deed of God fulfilled in Jesus makes the historical development of the primitive Christian mission understandable" (P. Stuhlmacher, Schriftauslegung auf dem Wege zur biblischen Theologie [1973], 141), one is reasoning backward from the historically demonstrable consequences of the resurrection faith and its history to the factual reality of the resurrection. No historian, who has thought through the means of his knowledge, would be able to accept such a conclusion. For if the maxim which leads to this conclusion became a general rule for historical investigation, then wherever supernatural accounts accompany or ground the introduction of a religion, a cult, or a belief, it would be required that the reported events be granted historical reality.

No historian would question that belief in the resurrection is historically demonstrable to have been of fundamental significance for the introduction of the Christian faith. What must be rejected as a serious error, however, is the assertion that the resurrection of Jesus itself is therefore the historically demonstrable fact that grounds the Christian faith. Here also it holds true: the factuality of what is believed cannot be derived from the historical demonstrability of the consequences of the resurrection faith.

Consistent application of the historical-critical method leads to a different result: the resurrection of Jesus is not the basis of the Christian faith, but the content. Given the demonstration that statements concerning events of sacred history cannot be granted objectivity, the critical historian questions further, concerning the conditions under which statements of this kind could arise at all. Sacred history as a problem for history as a discipline is the subject of our next thesis.

Thesis 5: The writers of "sacred history" have at their disposal no "higher capability of knowledge" that places them in a position to make truthful statements concerning events which lie outside the boundaries drawn by the constitution of knowledge common to all human beings.

Rationale: The wide presence of sacred history in religious documents from the past seems to support the view that the narrators of sacred history should be granted a higher means of knowledge. At first glance, it appears improbable to declare all statements of this kind, en bloc, to be error, deception, illusion, invention, and the like.

Against the view that the narrators of sacred history should be ascribed a special, higher capability of knowledge, different from the structure of knowledge common to all human beings, stands the observation that in all other points of their human constitution these narrators appear to be subject to the same human conditions as the rest of humanity. The supposition of a special capability of knowing belonging only to these narrators, therefore, would signify a constitutional exception at a single point—with constitutional identity at all other points. This identity at all other points, which includes, for example, the demonstrable possibility of error with regard to empirical facts, makes it probable that statements in the form of sacred history result from subjective conditions which are possible on the basis of the constitution of knowledge common to all humankind.

This probability increases to the extent that we can disclose the concrete, purely subjective conditions under which the statements in the form of sacred history could become real. The historian now attempts, therefore, in pursuit of of further understanding, to make the statements of sacred history reconstructively understandable in their purely subjective possibility and necessity. In other words, he seeks to answer the question: What conditions must have been present in the subjectivity of the writers of sacred history in order to relate historical happenings as if they had really taken place, even though they never took place in fact? How can it be explained that in their accounts the biblical writers seldom if ever seem disturbed by the very question that nevertheless concerns everyone today who assumes responsibility for the truth in reporting events, namely, the question whether these events in fact (tatsächlich) took place?

Thesis 6: The concept of factuality (Tatsächlichkeit) was unknown to the writers of sacred history. Their way of narrating is naive, insofar as it takes place without thorough critical reflection on the conditions underlying statements about events with claims of truth. In their narrations of events they thus allow heterogeneous elements to flow together which the historian today must fundamentally separate.

Rationale: First of all, it should be noted that the word Tatsache ("fact") first surfaced in German writing in the middle of the 18th century (See R. Staats, "Der theologiegeschichtliche Hintergrund des Begriffs 'Tatsache,'" ZThK 70 (1973), 316-345). As can be gathered from the Grimm Dictionary, it was probably employed for the first time in 1756 by the theologian Johann Joachim Spalding as a translation for res facti ("matter of fact"). A statement by Lessing is significant. He expresses his amazement that this newly created word so quickly found entrance into the literature: "I am well able to remember the time when it was not yet in anyone's mouth. However, I do not know from whose mouth or pen it first emerged. Even less do I know how it came to be that, contrary to the usual fate of new words, it has had so great a success in a brief time, nor for what reason it has earned such a great acceptance that in certain writings one cannot turn one page without running into the word Tatsache" (J. and W. Grimm, Deutsches Wörterbuch 10.1.1, 322).

One will not go wrong in the supposition that the rapid introduction of the word Tatsache was not accidental, but stands in relationship with the scientific movement of that time. In withdrawal from the ambiguous term "reality" (Wirklichkeit), that in the often-changing history of its use had become laden with many equivocations, science created a precise concept for a methodologically verified, confirmed, and demonstrated reality.

The naivete of the narrators of sacred history, asserted in the thesis, can be explained in terms of a level in the development of reflection on the criticism of knowledge determined by its time.

It is, namely, a datum of human historical experience that the formal principles of true objective knowledge were not available from the beginning in a fundamental way, but had to be acquired step by step, as the consequence of prolonged fruitless attempts. The awareness of verification as a necessary condition for truth concerning external objects (regardless of what kind) is a result which could first be obtained at a time when reason, in view of a multitude of conflicting opinions about reality, each one asserted as true, recognized the need for basic reflection concerning the necessary conditions for the truth of such judgments. So long, however, as reflection was not carried out in such a fundamental way, opinions concerning truth in statements about events were not grounded, even subjectively, by any necessary relationship with objective conditions for truth in such judgments. This means: in this area of human possibility for judgment, not yet decisively governed by reason, what was believed to be objective in statements of narrative form could at once be set forth as objective, i.e., as objective truth. This is confirmed by a series of observations, some of which relate to the narrator of sacred history, and some to the community to which the narrator addresses himself.

There are biblical stories that relate occurrences for which, because of the situation portrayed, no human being was a witness, nor could have been, and which even so are simply related by the writers as if they had observed the event themselves (e.g., the report of creation — monologues by Yahweh — the burial of Moses by Yahweh). Such a narrative style excludes the possibility that a viewpoint concerning the objectivity of what is related — in the sense of a suitable distinction between belief about reality, on the one hand, and reality which has been demonstrated or must still be demonstrated, on the other — was present at all in the perspective of the narrator.

A concern for the objectivity of these narratives was no more crucial for the community which received them than for the writers of sacred history. For the fact that the church accepted narratives into its canon that contradict one another with regard to the course of events shows that the process of canonization took place under a perspective that was indifferent with regard to the contradictions of this kind present in the canonized histories. And it should be especially noted that contradictions of this kind are to be found not only at peripheral points, but also at the center of christological affirmations—in the geneaologies of Jesus, for example, and even in the resurrection accounts.

From the canonization of such narratives, which clearly contradict one another with regard to the course of events, it can be concluded that their inclusion in the canon did not take place with a view to determining the actual course of events. For if it had been carried out with this view, it would have been necessary to authoritatively determine, in the case of contradictory narratives, which course of events was factual and which report was true. But this is precisely what the community did not do in the process of canonization. Given the presence of several incongruous narratives, neither was a particular course of events declared to be objective, nor did incongruous accounts become subjects of discussion for the purpose of verification. Rather, through their inclusion in the canon these accounts obtained an equal authority, even though with regard to the objectivity of the related events they could not all be true at the same time. It becomes clear from this that the community derived a unified and authoritative truth from these narratives, whose unity and authority could not be called into question by the incongruity of the courses of events as related.

The attempts to create a harmony of the Gospels, which can be traced through all of church history since Tatian, show, on the one hand, the endeavor to establish a chronologically and historically unified course of events, as expressed, for example, in the title of a thirteenth-century manuscript: Historia evangelica, conjuncta in unum evangelium ex evangeliis evangelistarum, secundum consequentiam historiae. On the other hand, however, the rejection of such harmonizations by the church shows a correct instinct, namely, the feeling that the narratives are not to be evaluated according to the criteria of historical truth, but that they pursue an entirely different intention.

Thesis 7: The writers of sacred history, like that found in the Bible, make use of history as a form in order by this means — an indirect appeal — to call forth faith. Whoever is misled by a misunderstanding of their form of expression and thus conceives the statements of sacred history to be assertions of facts commits a fundamental hermeneutical error.

Rationale: It can be exegetically demonstrated that the historical material which the narrators of sacred history offer represents a plastic substance that can be formed according to the intention of the narrator, one that is not oriented by the concept of facts. In other words, their objectifying statements function in service of a basic intention, which is not directed towards a discerning (historical-critical) acceptance by the hearer, but appeals to the hearer to grasp the possibility of a new life.

Whoever therefore treats the history-like statements of sacred history as assertions of fact removes them from their exegetically demonstrable, functional context and places them under the knife edge of the modern conception of fact, which is the product of recent scientific thinking. Through this hermeneutical misinterpretation, these statements are delivered to the knife of a criticism which must necessarily refute them.

Thesis 8: A disastrous theological error arises as a consequence of this false hermeneutical perspective, namely, when this "sacred history," which wants to serve and be understood as a means of expression, is itself made the primary object of faith. Faith in the forgiveness of God is something essentially different from holding a story about the forgiveness of God to be true.

Rationale: In the New Testament, Christian preaching used the form of history in service of the appeal for existential faith. Christian preaching today may make use of this form in so far as it is assured that preacher and hearer understand sacred history appropriately, i.e., as it intends to be understood. And that means when it is understood not as a rendering of objective events, but as an indirect appeal for authentic faith making use of history as a form.

However, the appropriateness of this form of preaching finds its limits when sacred history, which wants to serve and be understood as a means of expression, is itself made the primary object of faith — so that, first of all, sacred history must be regarded as true, so that one may then advance from this history so regarded to faith in the unconditional grace of God. With such a grounding of faith in the grace of God in a history regarded to be true, faith decays, because the hearer is required to first give attention to something other than the grace of God, namely, to the truth of this history, in order afterward to also have faith in the grace of God. Faith in God's forgiveness, however, is something different from holding the story of God's forgiveness to be true.

It has thus become clear as to when the radical application of the historical-critical method to biblical statements about events becomes a requirement for Christian faith: namely, at that point when the pseudo-historical statements of sacred history themselves become dogmatized and made obligatory for faith.

In the same way, then. Just as the Pauline teaching of justification, as interpreted by Luther, excludes the error that a person can ground his faith in God's grace in something else than the grace of God alone — namely, his own works, in the same way, with reference to the knowledge of God's grace, radical application of the historical-critical method excludes the error that a person can ground his faith in the grace of God proclaimed to him in something else than the grace of God alone — namely, in holding to be true a sacred history recognized as pseudo-historical. In both cases, in the desire to be justified through one's own works as in the desire for knowledge by holding pseudo-historical sacred history to be true, there is disclosed a similarly directed human desire, namely, the desire to give up radical subjection to the grace of God and find some other support for one's faith.

Radical application of the historical-critical method consistently carries out the concept of faith, as this governs the doctrine of justification, with regard to the recognition of grace. It discloses that the original sin before God is to refuse to give oneself over to the invisible grace of the invisible God. As sinner, one flees before the holiness of the invisible God into the visible, whether it be one's own works, or a dogmatized pseudo-history.


From the side of theology, all conceivable grounds are advanced in order to demonstrate the inappropriateness of the method for verifying events used by historical criticism with regard to biblical narratives — and in particular with regard to the resurrection narratives. In essence, all such objections are variations of the assertion that the historical-critical method is based on arbitrary presuppositions.

The preceding discussion had as its purpose the demonstration that this accusation is unjustified. In determining the truth of statements concerning events from the past, the critical historian begins not with arbitrary assumptions ("fact-specific," "ideological," "conditioned by a predetermined concept of history"), nor is he a Cartesian, Kantian, Positivist, Atheist, or any other such label, which so often appear in the place of argumentative refutation. Rather—as a representative of humankind concerned with the truth—he simply applies, in a methodical way, the universally accessible conditions for knowledge of truth to statements about events from the past.

With this recognition, however, the ontological housing, constructed over centuries for the scientific and systematic defense of the Christian faith, and made possible by the given state of knowledge at that time, is fundamentally shaken. In our opinion, this unavoidable deontologization began already with Luther. Carrying this thought further, and recognizing orthodox provincialism for what it is, a future Christian theology which is united with historical criticism will have an ecumenical future.

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[FN1] References: As preparatory works we would list — to mention only the most important — the fundamental article by E. Troeltsch, "Über historische und dogmatische Methode in der Theologie" (1898; in idem., Ges. Schriften II [1913], 729-753), to which all positions taken since then regarding the historical-critical method relate. Reference should further be made to the essay "Kritische Methode," by the Old Testament scholar, Abraham Kuenen (1880; in idem., Ges. Abhandlungen zur blblischen Wissenschaft [1894], 3-46). From the perspective of theological and disciplinary history, attention should also be given to the highly significant controversy between Albrecht Ritschl and Eduard Zeller: cf. E. Zeller, "Die Tübinger historische Schule" (HZ 4 [1860], 90-173); A. Ritschl, "Über geschichtliche Methode in der Erforschung des Urchristentums," (JDTh 6 [1861], 356-372); E. Zeller, "Die historische Kritik und das Wunder" (HZ 6 [1861], 356-373); A. Ritschl, "Einige Erläuterungen zu dem Sendschreiben 'Die historische Kritik und das Wunder'" (HZ 8 [1862], 85-99); E. Zeller, "Zur Würdigung der Ritschlschen 'Erläuterungen'" (Ibid., 100-116). Finally, see the outstanding article by G. Ebeling, "The Significance of the Critical Historical Method for Church and Theology in Protestantism," in idem, Word and Faith (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1963), 17-61. Return to text.

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Copyright © Institute for Higher Critical Studies, 1996

Darrell J. Doughty
Institute for Higher Critical Studies
Drew University, Madison, NJ, 07940