Historical-Criticism Critiqued

by Etta Linnemann

(Editor's preface: It has been well said that the difference between conservative and liberal theologians is a matter of one tiny word: "in." The liberal believes that the Word of God is IN the Bible (but needs sorting out), while the conservative believes the whole Bible IS the Word of God. How did the two sides diverge so drastically? Etta Linnemann has seen both sides, for she was first a student of Rudolph Bultmann and Ernst Fuchs and later a professor of theology at Braunschweig Technical University-until the Lord showed her the falsity of the historical-critical system. ("My ‘no' to historical-critical theology stems from my ‘yes!' to my wonderful Lord and Savior Jesus Christ….") This eight-part series is taken from Chapter Six of her now-out-print book, Historical Criticism of the Bible-Methodology or Ideology? [Baker Books, c. 1990].) In it Ms. Linnemann reveals not only the false assumptions of historical criticism but also how students are caught up in the system and turned into reproductions of their liberal professors.)

The Bible a Relative Book

Theology as it is taught in universities all over the world today, both in the East and West as well as in the North and South, is based on the historical-critical method. And the historical-critical method is not just the foundation for the exegetical disciplines. It also decides what the systematician can say and whether one accepts his claims. It determines procedure in Christian education, homiletics, and ethics. It has truly permeated the theology taught in universities like yeast permeates a lump of sourdough.

Theology as Science: the Basic Principle

Research is conducted ut si Deus non daretur ("as if there were no God"). That means the reality of God is excluded from consideration from the start, even if the researcher acknowledges that God could bear witness of Himself in His Word. The standard by which all is assessed is not God's Word but scientific principle. Statements in Scripture regarding place, time, sequences of events, and persons are accepted only insofar as they fit in with established assumptions and theories. Scientific principle has come to have the status of an idol.

The Relativity of the Bible

The concept Holy Scripture is relativized so that the Bible is nothing more than a religious writing, like all other religious writings. Since other religions have their holy scriptures, the Bible is not regarded as unique and superior to them. This is why it gets treated like any other book. There comes to be no distinction between how the Bible is regarded and how the Odyssey is read, even though it is clear there are differences between them.

To be fair, some think that they serve the proclamation of the gospel when they establish such differences. But they overlook the fact that in the process of making the comparison they reduce God's Word to a collection of religious ideas and theological concepts. This renders the living Word a dead letter-as becomes abundantly clear in many pulpits as pastors strive in vain to bring life to now lifeless texts, resorting finally to psychology, sociology, socialism, and other "isms" in an attempt to infuse texts with new vitality.

The Bible is no longer esteemed as God's Word in the way it is handled. It is taken for granted that the words of the Bible and God's words are not identical. The printed matter between the two covers of the Bible is said not to be God's Word in and of itself. It becomes God's Word only from time to time when it functions as such through reading or preaching.

Further, the New Testament is pitted against the Old Testament, assuming that the God of the New Testament is different from that of the Old, since Jesus is said to have introduced a new concept of God. Paul is pitted against James. It is also maintained that Acts presents a different Paul from the one who wrote Romans, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and other epistles.

Acts is often regarded as having merely literary worth; the historical veracity of what Luke reports there is taken just as lightly as the theology he champions. Indeed, every sentence is suspected of containing Luke's theology rather than a reliable report of what actually happened, and that theology is presented as practically the obverse of good theology.

Using grotesque literary methods which would lead immediately to absurd results if they were ever applied to the work of a poet or a theologian-say a Goethe, or a Barth-claims of inauthenticity are established for the pastoral letters (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), Ephesians, and Colossians. These claims are then, without careful examination, passed on from one generation of theologians to the next.

Since the inspiration of Scripture is not accepted, neither can it be assumed that the individual books of Scripture complement each other. Using this procedure one finds in the Bible only a handful of unrelated literary creations. True, it may be acknowledged that in such creations the faith of their authors comes to light. But there is no willingness to recognize in them the One toward whom the author is directing his faith. In other words, they are not considered to be revelation. They are regarded merely as literary and theological creations. As such-two to three thousand years old, written by ancient writers for ancient readers, reflecting conditions alleged by historical-critical investigation to be totally different from those of our own time-they are certified to be anything but contemporary in their relevance.

In order to do justice to the claim of authority which the biblical canon has for the church, and also for personal orientation, one seeks a "canon within the canon." A few come up with little more than Romans 7, the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, and the parable of final judgment in Matthew 25. This standard is then used to assess the rest of the Bible, and Sachkritik1 is employed, whether explicitly or implicitly. Using Romans, the Book of James is devalued. First Corinthians 15:5-8 is criticized, using Paul's teachings on faith found elsewhere; it is claimed that Paul is not adhering to the high standards of his own theological insights stated in other passages, because he speaks of the resurrection of Jesus as if it were a historical fact.

Since the content of biblical writings is seen as merely the creations of theological writers, any given verse is nothing more than a non-binding, human theological utterance. John 3:16, for example, becomes only the theological sentiment of an early Christian theologian who penned his gospel near the end of the first century. He was, furthermore, either a gnostic or someone who used gnostic terminology to combat gnosticism, or perhaps someone just more-or-less influenced by gnosticism, which advocated an anti-Christian or quasi-Christian teaching of salvation. In other words, for historical-critical theology, John 3:16 is not a binding, saving promise from God. It is, rather, nothing more than a nonbinding human opinion. All the promises of the Bible are handled in just the same way, although according to God's Word they are all "Yes" and "Amen" in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 1:20).

1. [Sachkritik is a method in which what is deemed to be of central importance is used as a standard against which other parts of the Bible are measured.]

(to be continued)