Historical-Critical Method (chr.)


(Turk. Tarihsel-Eleştirel Yöntem)

The historical-critical method is the literary and historical approach to exegesis of Holy Scripture that distinguishes between the original (historical) meaning of the biblical text and the search for meaning within its respective current context (thus: critical). Historical criticism is considered the fundamental approach to interpretation in Catholic and Protestant theology today. However, it is not to be mistaken for a historicist programme according to which only a scriptural text’s historical meaning can lay claim to theological validity.

Biblical scholarship in antiquity and the Middle Ages held that there were four types of meaning involved in scriptural interpretation: a) literal meaning (contextual, word-for-word interpretation: reason), b) typological or allegorical meaning (theological interpretation: faith), c) moral meaning (ethical interpretation: love), d) anagogical meaning (interpretation in light of the heavenly world to come: hope).

It was only in the modern era, when historical consciousness awakened, that the focus shifted to the question of controllable means of historical enquiry. The individual methods developed gradually, not infrequently in the face of resistance by church authorities and pious readers of the Bible: textual criticism identifies the reading that comes closest to the original manuscript. Literary criticism enquires as to the sources from which a text is composed (e.g. Luke from Mark, the Q source and the Synoptic Gospels), while tradition criticism inquires as to antecedent oral tradition (similar to the thematic and conceptual history). Form criticism investigates the textual type and its literary forms, and redaction criticism examines the guiding theological principle that an individual author was pursuing when drafting a particular text.

Much of the evolution in historical-critical exegesis has taken place within the framework of Protestant theology. It has roots in Catholic thinking as well, particularly with the French priest Richard Simon (1638–1712). It largely met with the disapproval of the magisterium, however. Its official arrival in the Catholic Church occurred only with the publication of the encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu by Pope Pius XII (1939–1958). This exegetical approach was further established and theologically elaborated in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation – Dei Verbum (1965). With its widely respected document, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993), the Pontifical Biblical Commission methodologically and theologically positioned historical criticism within the framework of Christian textual interpretation.

The strength of the historical-critical method lies in its criteria-based exploration of biblical interlocutors. Because in the Christian understanding God reveals Himself in a human way and thus historically, this inquiry is indispensable. The historical perspective, on the other hand, brackets modern-day addressees of the Word of God. For this reason, the historical approach is increasingly supplemented with methods concentrating on textual structures, the reader, the process of reading and the history of a text’s reception. At the same time, from an interpretive-historical and theological point of view, the classical four meanings of a written text are gaining renewed interest.

Knut Backhaus

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