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by John F. McCarthy
(February 1999)

        35. The historical-critical method.  The "historical-critical method," is the method currently in use by the "historical-critical school" of biblical interpretation. It is characterized by the way in which it uses literary-criticism and historical-criticism according to its own understanding of these terms. The method of "literary-criticism" goes back to the Catholic Richard Simon (1638-1712), who examined repetitions (doublets), and various seeming discrepancies and incongruities of content and style in the Pentateuch in relation to the alleged Mosaic authorship of the whole, but it was afterwards developed mainly by a series of German Protestant exegetes. Literary-criticism is a search for the explanation of the many supposed cracks and contradictions in the sacred text of the Bible. Historical-criticism accepts the results of literary-criticism and goes on to seek "the historical processes which gave rise to biblical texts." 1 The acclaimed founder of the historical-critical school as such is Wilhelm de Wette (1780-1849), whose basic approach was to treat the events recorded in the Bible "as phenomena comparable to other historical phenomena and subject to the same laws of historical research." 2 What these "laws of historical research" are has remained largely undefined by de Wette and his followers down to the present time. Historical-critics constantly use the terms "historical science" and "historical method," which they identify with their particular approach and method, but their reasoning lacks a clear definition of terms.

        36. The remote background of the historical-critical method.  The historical-critical method arose early in the nineteenth century on the basis of certain philosophical ideas of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Some of the philosophical antecedents of the method are the following:

a) deism: the belief that, although God created the universe, He left it to run on its own according to natural causes ever afterwards, so that there have never been nor ever will be any divine interventions or supernatural happenings; the belief that there is only a universal natural religion requiring belief in God and the performance of one's duty, while all positive religion is the concoction of cunning priests and rulers.

b) naturalism: the belief that everything in the world can be explained from natural causes alone; there is no supernatural reality.

c) rationalism: the belief that human reason, based upon self-evident principles, is the sole judge of certified knowledge.

d) empiricism: the belief that all certified knowledge is based upon verification by sense experience and experiment.

e) subjectivism: the belief that man can know only the objects of his own thoughts and experiences (phenomena) but he cannot know reality external to his own mind (noumena).

f) evolutionism: the belief that all reality is evolving as a whole in a vaguely upward direction; there are no immutable realities.

g) modernism: the belief that the outlook of modern man is superior to that of medieval and ancient man; and more specifically, the belief that all religion, including Christianity and the idea of God, arises from a preconceptual, subrational religious instinct dominant in primitive man, whose promptings are unacceptable to modern scientific man.

        37. Philosophical presuppositions.  The seven beliefs listed in the preceding paragraph contributed to the rise of higher-criticism, which later produced the historical-critical method. The freethinker Herbert of Cherbury (1581-1648) is considered the father both of English deism and of naturalism in religion, and this is not surprising, since his exclusion of any role of God in the history of the world easily led to the suggestion that God does not exist at all. In similar fashion, the exclusion by higher-critics of any formal and discernible role of divine inspiration in the composition of the books of the Bible easily led to the suggestion that there never was any divine inspiration at all. René Descartes (1596-1650) is recognized to be the father of modern rationalism because of his universal methodic doubt and his method of deduction solely from self-evident principles of human reason. Descartes actually excluded from his universal methodic doubt the truths of faith and morals, 3 and he accepted that man can know with certainty from the light of faith, 4 but the series of biblical critics who followed him in the eighteenth century turned his universal methodic doubt against the text of Sacred Scripture and left no place for a real light of faith either in the production of the Bible or in its certified interpretation. And they used the physical theory of Isaac Newton (1642-1727), which stated that the universe is a closed system ruled by unbreakable natural laws, to exclude from historical reality all of the miracles and supernatural events reported in the biblical accounts. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) modified Cartesian reasoning in a theory of knowledge based on the belief that man cannot know external reality but only his reasoning about what he experiences with his senses. Based on Kant's theory of knowledge, higher-critics would later adopt the belief that the sacred writers could have known only what they managed to figure out from their own limited experience. Georg Wilhelm Hegel (1770-1831) modified the static philosophy of Kant with a dynamic philosophy according to which all reality is in constant development. Under Hegel's influence, David Strauss (1808-1874) and Ferdinand Baur (1792-1860) "developed a higher criticism of the Bible in which its supernatural elements were systematically explained away as products of mythology." 5 Hegelian thinking also emphasized the belief that the supposedly Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch must actually have been the result of a long process of development, as was the text of other books of the Bible. Higher-critics found encouragement in this belief from the widespread acceptance of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution in the second half of the 19th century.

        38. A neo-Patristic overview.  The higher-critics of the nineteenth century considered their approach to be scientific, insofar as it was conducted with rigorous techniques of sifting the sacred text, but in accordance also with the presuppositions mentioned in the preceding two paragraphs. They thought that they were upholding science against religion, but, in fact, they were only upholding their anti-religious beliefs against Christian beliefs. Catholic historical-critics today admit that the rationalist presuppositions of these eighteenth- and nineteenth-century biblical-critics were untenable, but they also feel that the historical-critical method having arisen from their approach, "when used in an objective manner, implies no a priori." 6 Certainly, Catholic scholars using the historical-critical method do not consciously intend to use the rationalist presuppositions listed above (nos. 36-37), but one wonders how successful they have been in eliminating them from the method. For instance, Catholic historical-critics of our time define higher-criticism as "the analysis of literature in terms of origin as well as of content." 7 But this is an ambiguous definition, because scholars of other schools analyze literature in terms of origin as well as of content without using higher-criticism. To be more precise, higher-criticism is an examination of the inspired biblical text in terms of some or all of the presuppositions listed above, and it is called "higher" for the reason that it presumes itself to be proceeding from a higher viewpoint than that of non-rationalist scholars as well as of the sacred writers themselves. Catholic historical-critics believe that their use of the method has been purified by a thorough analysis of these rationalist presuppositions precisely as they affect the implementation of the method, but I know not where such an analysis can be found or who might have performed it. People like Cardinal Ratzinger tell us that the rationalist principles are still functioning beneath the method, even when used by Catholics. 8

        39. Naturalism underlying the historical-critical method.  Historical-critics share with exegetes of other schools the use of auxiliary sciences, such as philology, archaeology, and geography, in the initial steps of textual criticism and linguistic analysis; it is with their own further steps of source-criticism, form-criticism, and redaction-criticism that questions chiefly arise. When de Wette founded the historical-critical method on the principle that the events recounted in Sacred Scripture have the same natural limitations as all other historical events, he was unscientifically implementing his belief that there can be no divine interventions in the natural world. When Albert Eichhorn (1752-1827) laid the basis for the "history of religions" phase of the historical-critical school, whose goal was to be "fact uncolored by philosophical or theological interpretation," 9 he was merely substituting his philosophical belief in naturalism for the faith called for by the inspired text. When Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932) founded the form-criticism of the Old Testament on the principle that the accounts of Genesis are legend, not history. in that they report things that are "incredible to us," and which "seem impossible to us," so as to "contradict our advanced knowledge," 10 he was simply invoking his belief in naturalism, even though many of his examples do call for an explanation. It is not that the things he lists by way of example here, such as how many species of animals could have fit into Noah's ark, or whether Ararat is really the highest mountain on earth, or the real existence of a firmament in the sky, or the stars coming into being after the plants, do not challenge our contemporary knowledge and our everyday experience, but it is the readiness of the form-critic to accept such elements as obviously fictitious without seriously studying the alternative of historical truth and without giving due consideration to the solutions to these problems that have been offered by exegetes in the past that especially stands out in the form-critical method. 11


1. Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (Vatican City, 1993), I, A, 2.

2. A. Suelzer - J. Kselman, "Modern Old Testament Criticism," in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (Prentice Hall: Englewood Cliffs, 1990), p.1117A.

3. R. Descartes, "Reply to the Fourth Set of Objections," in R.M. Hutchins et al., The Great Books of the Western World, vol. 31, p. 162.

4. Cf. R. Descartes, "Reply to the Second Set of Objections," loc. cit., p. 125.

5. B. Blanshard, "Rationalism," in The Encyclopedia Americana (1967), vol. 23, p. 230c.

6. Pontifical Biblical Commission, document of 1993, I, A, 4.

7. Suelzer - Kselman, "Modern Old Testament Criticism," loc. cit., p. 1116B.

8. Cf. J. Ratzinger, "L'interpetazione della Bibbia in conflitto," in Ignace de la Potterie, ed., L'esegesi cristiana oggi (PIEMME: Casale Monferrato, 1991), p. 104.

9. Cf. Suelzer - Kselman, op. cit., p. 1120A.

10. H. Gunkel, Genesis (Göttingen, 1901); Eng. trans., Genesis (Mercer: Macon, GA, 1997), p. ix.

11. Some of these "impossibilities" arise from an incorrect reading of the biblical text. On the questions of the firmament and the placing of the stars in the heavens, cf. my article in Living Tradition 50 (Jan. 1994).

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