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The End of the Historical Critical Method, A Book Review

Oliver Harding

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In its actual application, Maier dismisses the historical-critical method as an impenetrable screen which simply does not allow certain statements anymore simply because it is not an evil intent but rather the helplessness into which a falsely selected method blunders. The method is seen as an instrument in the hands of the exegesis with the help of which they have pushed through a truly dictatorial regime in theology. Commenting on its nature, the writer opines that the revolutionary impulse of the method was naturally not in the historical, nor was that aspect given primary emphasis. A determined use of a purely historical method would not have sparked a revolution in theological thought in the field of exegesis. In objecting to the method, Maier observes, among other things, that it is impossible to discover the Canon within the Canon, the Bible does not permit itself to be separated into a divine scripture and a human scripture, a revelation is more than a subject matter, the conclusion is established prior to the interpretation, the implications of deficient practicability, and that critique is not the appropriate answer to revelation, Maier forcefully argues that the historical-critical method is unsuitable or at least inadequate in the eyes of the church because its results are lacking in practicability. Perhaps a more important which basically maintains human arbitrariness and its standards in opposition to the demands of revelation. Consequently, since the method is unsuitable to the subject, it must be rejected.


The text, Das Neve Testament als Kanon (The New Testament as Canon) in which Ernst Kaesemann compiled essays of fifteen authors of the period 1941-70 is briefly highlighted since the book is of unusual importance to the theme of Maier''s text. In this chapter, Maier examines the exegetes, systematicians and two church historians with assertions. In discussing, the exegetes'’ abortive search for a canon in the canon, Maier presents Strathman''s position that one must reject primitive Scriptural proof which assumes that it can prove the Christian legitimacy of a dogmatic statement by citing isolated Bible verses. After the examination of the exegetes has demonstrated that none of them was able to delimit or even to discover a convincing canon in the canon, the author discusses the answer which the systematicians find to the exegetical challenge.

Hermann Diern for instance answers in a twofold manner. He admits that a unity of the canon cannot be claimed historically-exegetically and rejects an attempt at harmonization according to the concordance method. Furthermore, he refuses to let the exegetes force just any canon in the canon upon him. This refusal is stated out of concern that Scripture might lose the freedom to speak for itself. The church historicals are seen as a more neutral set of observers and advisers insofar as the length of the historical tradition lift them out of a too-compulsory involvement. Their advice is tied to their systematic position. It is evident that they too cannot escape the tension between the differing poles: spiritual experience of the congregation on one hand, and modern critical exegesis on the other ? between the real canon created out of many factors at work in spiritual life and the methodologically absolute and exclusive canon in the canon. Kaesemann''s collection presents a representative cross section of contemporary German exegesis and systematic which was acquainted with the authoritative exponents of the historical-critical method. The exegetes can no longer conceive the New Testament as a unit, but rather a collection of various testimonies which are contradictory and have varying degrees of validity. For them, it is an established fact that the formal canon be equated with the Word of God.

Exegetes and systematicians have failed in their more than two thousand-year-old search for the canon of the canon, that is, the binding word of divine authority.


Maier comments on the immense task following the empirical end of the higher critical method which is to develop an exegetical method which is in accord with revelation in the form of the Holy Scriptures. This includes surmounting the philosophically based cleavage between Scripture and the Word of God introduced by Semier and his colleagues. This implies nothing less than vanquishing English deism, French skepticism and the German enlightenment in the domain in theology. The proposed procedure is referred to as the Historical-Biblical method.

In discussing the problem of Scriptural authority, the writer asserts that it is accordingly appropriate to focus on the Scriptures as a particular procedure in the process of revelation after the general presuppositions of method have been set forth. It is argued that only Scripture itself can say in a binding way what authority it claims and has if one is to remain faithful to the principles of methodology. Furthermore, if the authority of Scripture is at the base of the knotty problem of the methodological strife in theology, then the questions and decisions pertaining to the authority of Scripture are all tied to the doctrine of inspiration. In assessing the scope of the canon, the writer observes that the canonical selection was limited to the earliest and most dependable manuscripts.

The relationship between the ‘'Word of God'’ and the ‘'Word of Man'’ in Scripture is discussed and it is asserted that one can do justice if in following revelation itself, one views everything that has been revealed as inspired, that is, everything we meet in Scripture which in practice claims divine inspiration. We cannot pass over the mystery of the intermingling of God''s word and man''s word. The attempt to inquisitively unravel this intermixture ultimately to divide it into qualitatively definable entities was the gross mistake of the higher-critical method. Commenting on the problem of ‘'contradiction'’ and ‘'scientific errors'’ and the infallibility of Scripture, Maier asserts that Scripture must be explained by Scripture. The trend of the argument is the same.

After discussing Scripture and revelation elsewhere closely portraying Scripture and tradition, Scripture and revelation elsewhere portraying Scripture and tradition, Scripture and history, and the relationship of Scripture to other religions, the writer re-echoes that every exegesis must be based on Scripture since there is no certainty outside Scripture. Maier systematically discusses the procedural steps of the historical-biblical method. It is very important to find the text since there are literally countless variants. After the text has been established, it must be translated exactly and as pointedly as possible. Every effort to neglect the Biblical languages should be vehemently resisted. This is followed by illuminating the contemporary historical background.

The writer further discusses previous literary and form criticisms. He believes that the exegete can undertake a thorough and balanced analysis which is faithful to the text after the procedural steps previously touched upon have been experimented. Commenting on the context and the whole of Scripture, Maier observes that the exegete cannot always interpret only individual passages of Scripture. Rather, he establishes for himself a more or less conscious total impression of Scripture which must come true when he interprets individual portions. The primary purpose of Scripture is to deliver man from evil and ultimately to lead him into fellowship with God. Scripture bears witness to and effects salvation history (Heilsgeschichte). Every interpreter arrives at a centre of Scripture which brings him joy. Maier argues with brutal truth that the more value we attach to the entire Scriptures, the more glorious will Christ become.


It is incontrovertible that the text is an invaluable contribution to theologians and everyone searching for guidance in combating rationalism in the approach to theology. Although torrents of controversial ink are still flowing on the Bible, Maier generally sees it as the anvil upon which several hammers have been broken. The text is valuable for study because it highlights many good observations about the historical-critical method. While we thankfully accept what is good, our path to right conclusions concerning the Bible should not be obstructed. He assists the reader to realize that there is a turning point in Scripture which cannot be overlooked, which stamps everything plainly as either before or after.

Oliver L. T. Harding, who obtained his GCE O & A Levels from the Sierra Leone Grammar School and the Albert Academy respectively, is currently Senior & Acting Librarian of Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone. He is a part time lecturer at the Institute of Library, Information & Communication Studies (INSLICS), Fourah Bay College and the Extension Programme at the Evangelical College of Theology (T. E. C. T) at Hall Street, Brookfields; Vice President of the Sierra Leone Association of Archivists, Librarians & Information Scientists (SLAALIS); a member of the American Theological Library Association (ATLA) and an associate of the Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals (CILIP). His certificates, secular and sacred, include: a certificate and diploma from the Freetown Bible Training Centre; an upper second class B. A. Hons. Degree in Modern History (F. B. C. ); a post-graduate diploma from the Institute of Library Studies (INSLIBS, F. B. C) a masters degree from the Institute of Library, Information & Communication Studies (INSLICS, F. B. C. ) and a masters degree in Biblical Studies from West Africa Theological Seminary, affiliate of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he won the prize for academic excellence as the Best Graduating Student in 2005. Oliver, a writer, musician and theologian, is married (to Francess) with two children (Olivia & Francis).
Mobile: 232-2233-460-330


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