Das Ende der historisch-kritischen Methode

Written by Gerhard Maier Reviewed By Peter H. Davids

The evangelical student expects new ideas to come from Germany, but despite his knowledge that Germany also has its share of scholarly evangelicals this latest book by the Studienleiter of the Albrecht-Bengel-Haus in Tübingen will come as a surprise, just as it has surprised many Germans, for Gerhard Maier defends the authority of Scripture over against the historical-critical method of exegesis. And when a trained German theologian takes it in hand to challenge the very critical assumptions which his fellow countrymen pioneered, all those interested in the interpretation of the biblical text had better take note.

Dr Maier argues that the historical-critical method must lead to an exegetical dead end and can never produce either scholarly agreement or a separation of the divine kernel from the human shell in Scripture. This result follows because the method is not only impossible to apply in preaching, but also methodologically and theologically wrong-headed. It cannot yield other results, for it exalts the critical human faculties above the theological given of scripture.

An examination of the collection of essays Das Neue Testament als Kanon edited by Ernst Käsemann (Göttingen, 1970) proves the truth of the assertions above. The repeated disagreements over what is divine and what is human in Scripture, the repeated failure to discover an agreed-upon ‘canon within the canon’ demonstrates the fact that such a search can only end in subjectivity. Maier demonstrates this negative conclusion with thoroughness, giving a reasonable survey of modern German thought on the subject as a by-product.

But Maier is not satisfied with this negative conclusion, and he dedicates the second part of the book to the more difficult job of developing and defending a historical-biblical method (die historisch-biblische Methode) over against the critical method which he has rejected. If God is sovereign, he argues, one ought to accept and obey all that God says: sovereignty rules out criticism and questioning. Although God does speak in church tradition, history, and other media, these are decidedly subordinate to the basic revelation of God, Scripture (thus sola scriptura). Therefore, our attitude towards Scripture must be one of acceptance rather than criticism. Maier then outlines an exegetical method which seeks to express this principle, in which the unity of Scripture (scriptura sui ipsius interpres) plays an important role.

Dr Maier has, then, attempted a very ambitious project, and I do not wish to disparage it or detract from its importance. Yet, recognizing that I cannot do full justice to the book, I must register my reservations over some aspects of his argument.

First, is it necessary or correct to name method as the object of attack? Maier argues that theology uses a unique method which differs from the normal historical method in that it can deal with the unique (Einmalige, p. 48), by which we assume he means the miraculous. But I feel that in practice he attacks certain critical presuppositions and attitudes (e.g., judging Scripture rather than letting it judge us) rather than a method. In fact he never clearly differentiates his method from the normal historical method. Unfortunately he seems unaware that British scholars, deeply rooted in secular historical and literary criticism (especially classics), have successfully used the historical method to defend Scripture. This apparent ignorance results in an unfortunate wholesale rejection of historical and literary criticism (p. 83).

Second, does not this rejection of the historical method make his defence of Scripture in the end dangerously subjective? How can Scripture be an important source for the history of its period (p. 82) if historical methodology cannot be used to test its validity? Can a historian use that which he cannot investigate? And, turning to his historical-biblical method, is not an exegetical method which so prefers interpreting Scripture by itself that it plays down interpretive help from the religious, social, and linguistic milieu surrounding a document in favour of other Scripture from a different period (pp. 79, 81, 83) in the end subjective? Or is it really meaningful to speak of an inerrant Scripture if that which the author understood himself to be intending and that which his readers could and did understand him to mean is—historically speaking—false (p. 72)? At the end of the book these questions remain to trouble us. Dr Maier wishes dogmatics to rule over exegesis (p. 6), and rule they do, but this dogmatic approach apparently ends in evangelical subjectivity, in which no evidence could alter the commitment to Scripture and dialogue, and historical apologetics become impossible.

Despite my unease with Maier’s dogmatic subjectivity (perhaps due to my commitment to the British historical approach to Scripture over against the German dogmatic approach), I feel that he has made a contribution to evangelical thought beyond renewing this discussion among German evangelicals. I welcome his forthright demonstration of the problems of German critical scholars. I also welcome his positive suggestions on the relationship of the human and the divine in Scripture and on the relationship between Scripture, tradition, and history. Finally, I applaud his attempt to provide a concrete methodology to replace the historical-critical method. In a short space and with great economy of language (and relatively non-technical German) he has attempted a great task, and even with my reservations about the outcome I recommend the attempt for critical reading. As an attempt this book is worth the careful consideration of evangelical students and scholars, for it is a positive, evangelical contribution to the on-going, world-wide discussion of hermeneutical issues.

Peter H. Davids

Langley Vineyard Christian Fellowship, Langley, British Columbia, Canada