The Historical-Critical Method, Jesus Research, And The Christian Scholar -- By: Barry D. Smith

Journal: Trinity Journal
Volume: TRINJ 15:2 (Fall 1994)
Article: The Historical-Critical Method, Jesus Research, And The Christian Scholar
Author: Barry D. Smith


The Historical-Critical Method,
Jesus Research,
And The Christian Scholar

Barry D. Smith*

It is not always easy to see the forest for the trees in biblical studies. It is not always easy, in other words, for a biblical scholar to maintain a clear grasp of the methodological underpinnings of his or her work when bogged down in the details of a particular research project. It can happen, therefore, that a Christian biblical scholar, without being fully aware of it, proceeds methodologically in a way that is incompatible with his or her religious beliefs. The purpose of this paper is to attempt to see the forest. I intend to explore the methodological issue of the impact that faith in Christ has on biblical scholarship. This enterprise is, of course, not new; it has been dealt with innumerable times in the past. But, in my opinion, it bears renewed consideration for this generation of Christian scholars. My position is that faith in Christ is incompatible with the use of the historical-critical method, as I shall define it, and as a result Christian scholars ought to distance themselves methodologically from it. I begin with general considerations on the incompatibility of faith and use of the historical-critical method. I then move to an exposition of how faith is incompatible with Jesus research carried out on historical-critical principles, since I believe that it is in Jesus research where the contradiction between faith and the historical-critical method is most acutely visible.

I. The Nature Of The Historical-Critical Method

In his four-volume work Abhandlung von freier Untersuchung des Canons (Treatise on the Free Investigation of the Canon), J. S. Semler differentiates between the Word of God and the canon of the church. For him canon does not denote a set of divinely inspired texts but merely collections of books chosen by churches as suitable for public reading. This disjunction allowed for the emergence of a new interpretive method, which has become known as the

* Barry D. Smith teaches at Atlantic Baptist College in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada.

historical-critical method.1 Since the Bible is not to be seen as a set of divinely inspired texts, it becomes axiomatic that a biblical text means only what its author intended it to mean and, therefore, that this meaning is necessarily tied to the author’s historical context. To quote the now-famous words of Benjamin Jowett, “Scripture has one meaning—the meaning which it had in the minds of the Prophet or Evangelist who first uttered or wrote, to the hearers or readers who first received it.”2

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