What does historical-critical theology do to the Bible?


(image courtesy of ChristArt)

By Spencer D Gear

It is not surprising to hear theological liberals, who deny the authority of Scripture, come out in defence of critics who denigrate the Bible. I encountered this recently on Christian Forums, the largest Christian forum on the www.

A person was commenting about the evidence for Jesus and about that evidence, for sceptics, that is located outside of the Bible.[1] An orthodox Christian wrote:

The only “question marks” come from the higher critics whose sole purpose in life is to deny the Bible as God’s truth. He who has a preconceived agenda has no real interest in the scholarship required to prove or disprove the literature in question. He has already reached his conclusion, and facts just get in the way.[2]

A contributor, who generally has a reputation of posting comments more in line with liberalism than evangelical Christianity, wrote:

I suggest your statement too much of a generalization. The purpose of higher criticism is not to deny the Bible but to gain a better understanding of just what is God’s ‘truth’ by cutting through the smoke and mirrors.[3]

How should we respond to such a view of higher criticism?[4]

Wayseer was building a straw man logical fallacy. He must be living blind-folded to the presuppositional bias against the supernatural of Scripture in the works of much of higher criticism. The purpose and outcome of much of higher criticism has been to deny the authenticity and reliability of the Bible. He has to be blind to what historical critics are doing to make that kind of statement.

Eta Linnemann, a former insider, exposes higher criticism

imageEta Linnemann: 1926-2009 (Wikipedia)

Eta Linnemann (1990:17) was a student of the radical demythologiser, Rudolf Bultmann, as well as the liberals, Ernst Fuchs, Friedrich Gogarten and Gerhard Ebeling. She was baptised, immersed, convinced, indoctrinated in historical criticism. Since she rejected that worldview and its sceptical premises, she has written, Historical Criticism of the Bible: Methodology or Ideology.[5] She knows historical criticism from the inside out and these are some of her statements about that discipline of liberal theological scepticism:


Linnemann’s statements of some presuppositions of higher-critical theology

1. In her chapter 6, “The Study of the Historical-Critical Theology”, she stated that ‘research is conducted ut si Deus non daretur (“as if there were no God”). That means the reality of God is excluded from consideration from the start…. The standard by which all is assessed is not God’s Word but scientific principle’ (Linnemann 1990:84).

2. ‘Underlying the historical-critical approach is a series of prejudgments which are not themselves the result of scientific investigation. They are rather dogmatic premises, statements of faith, whose foundation is the absolutizing of human reason as a controlling apparatus’ (Linnemann 1990:111).

3. ‘Whoever maintains that the Bible can only be made understandable with the methods of critical historiography is putting a thoroughly atheistically conceived science in charge of the treasures of divine revelation…. This atheistic, anti-Christian science is recognized by historical-critical theology as furnishing the only proper access to God’s Word, so everyone who wishes to be regarded as theologically educated should endorse this outlook’ (Linnemann 1990:116).

4. Kummel’s[6] historical-critical statement is that ‘the Bible must be historically investigated as the work of human authors in order to understand its actual meaning’. Linnemann’s assessment of this statement is: ‘That is not first demonstrated; it is, rather, presupposed from the outset. And that is not the private opinion of Kummel; it is, rather, the common assumption of historical-critical theology…. They are not permitted to cross-examine in any meaningful way the assumptions of historical-critical theology’ (1990:118, 119).

5. Kummel, using his historical-critical theology, stated, ‘It is easy to see that it is basically impossible to confront the writings of the New Testament as a man making judgments in research and at the same time as one who hears in faith’ (in Linnemann 1990:122).

6. ‘Since the inspiration of Scripture is not accepted, neither can it be assumed that the individual books of Scripture complement each other’ (Linnemann 1990:86).

7. ‘Since the content of biblical writings is seen as merely the creations of theological writers, any given verse is nothing more than a non-binding, human theological utterance’ (Linnemann 1990:86).

8. ‘The undeclared yet working basic principle of Old Testament and New Testament science is: What the text clearly states can, by no means, be true’ (Linnemann 1990:87).

9. ‘For historical-critical theology, critical reason decides what is reality in the Bible and what cannot be reality; and this decision is made on the basis of the everyday experience accessible to every person. Nothing is accepted as fact unless it is generally held to be possible. That which is spiritual is judged using fleshly criteria. Experiences of God’s children are totally disregarded. Due to the presuppositions that are adopted, critical reason loses sight of the fact that the Lord, our God, the Almighty, reigns’. As for miracles, ‘the theologians write them off as popular religious drivel’ (Linnemann 1990:88, 89).

10. ‘In its own eyes, historical-critical theology wants to lend assistance to the proclamation of the gospel through an interpretation of the Bible that is scientifically reliable and objective. There is, however, a monstrous contradiction between what it says it wants to do, on the one hand, and what it actually does on the other. In the light of all I have already said, it should be patently obvious that the manner in which historical critical theology handles the Bible does not further the proclamation of the gospel, but rather hinders it – in fact, it even prevents it’ (Linnemann 1990:89).

11. ‘But worse yet, it is by no means clear that we are dealing here with an approach that yields objective and scientifically reliable interpretation of the Scripture as it claims. It is simply not true that historical-critical theology has replaced subjective impressions with a well-grounded discovery of the truth through careful weighing of arguments’ (Linnemann 1990:89).

12. ‘If one assumes that the parable of the ten virgins (Matt. 25:1-13) was not spoken by Jesus himself, but rather that it arose in the early church, then one places it in a different context. It gives information, not about Jesus, but about the early church. To analyze it one compares it to what is known of the early church, not to what is known about Jesus’ (Linnemann 1990:93).

13. ‘If one assumes, on the basis of the differences between John’s Gospel and the three other Gospels, that the author of John is not John the disciple of Jesus, then a series of inferences naturally flows: In this case the author himself did not personally experience what he asserts about Jesus. He must have modeled his presentation on earlier sources. This raises the questions about the nature of these earlier documents. And this in turn raises the further question of how John’s Gospel is distinct from the sources it is based upon’ (Linnemann 1990:93).

14. ‘Basic assumptions are placed on the same level as fact, not theory, of course, but certainly in practical application. That is, one makes use of them as if they were facts. Anyone who incorporates these basic assumptions into his thinking is influenced and ultimately changed by them’ (Linnemann 1990:96).

15. For these historical-critical scholars, ‘Christian literature from Bible-believing authors is practically taboo. The productions of some publishers are not taken seriously and cannot be listed in the bibliography of a formal term paper, unless one is prepared to get a lower grade for doing so. The professor is not really familiar with these works either’ (Linnemann 1990:97).

16. As for the prophetic future, for historical-critical scholars, ‘there is no such thing as a knowledge of future things given by God’ (Linnemann 1990:110).

17. Linnemann’s assessment, based on her many years of indoctrination by the historical-critical method, is that Kummel’s compromise solutions do not justify ‘his groundless contention that it is a fact that believing reception of the New Testament message can occur only through the hearing aid of historical-critical theology…. But Kummel subsequently sets forth the thesis once more: “Hence there is no other access to the understanding of the New Testament writings than the method of historical research, which is valid for all antiquity”‘ (Linnemann 1990:122).

18. Linnemann’s assessment of her genuine Christian conversion from the historical-critical liberalism is: ‘I am so grateful that Jesus’ blood has washed away my errors! I was no better; in fact I was worse, and I likewise made such irresponsible statements. And whoever gets involved in historical-critical theology will end up in a similar situation. One can no more be a little historical-critical than a little pregnant’ (Linnemann 1990:123).

19.  Read Eta Linnemann’s testimony of her conversion to Christ after years of dedication to theological liberalism, HERE. See Eta Linnemann’s, ‘Historical-Critical and Evangelical Theology’.

In the midst of this kind of evidence from one who was involved deeply with the historical-critical method, wayseer had the audacity to state: ‘The purpose of higher criticism is not to deny the Bible’.

That is a plainly false statement as any examination of the historical-critical writers will demonstrate. He has a sub-standard understanding of the historical-critical method to conclude that its purpose is not to deny the Bible. My reading of historical-critical writers demonstrates that for many of them the purpose is to deny the authority and integrity of the Bible – BIG TIME.

I’m in the midst of working my way through the presuppositions of the historical-critical ideology of John Dominic Crossan in a doctoral dissertation (so I can’t share them at this stage) but Crossan is but another example of the desire to denigrate the Bible, whether that be by modernistic or postmodernistic presuppositions. An example would be Crossan’s statement (1991:423), the nineteenth century dream of ‘uncommitted, objective, dispassionate historical study’ is ‘a methodological screen’. Instead, he challenges the readers through his method and historical hermeneutics as they presume ‘that there will always be divergent historical Jesuses’ with resultant ‘divergent Christs’. The structure of Christianity, for Crossan, will be, without variation, ‘This is how we see Jesus-then as Christ-now‘ (emphasis in original).

Theological liberalism is inundated with historical-critical presuppositions, thus creating an ideology that tries to destroy the integrity of the Bible.

And have a guess what? When it is promoted in any denomination, it destroys that denomination as a Gospel-presenting church. We see that with much of the Anglican church in Australia (except for the Sydney diocese, some of the Melbourne diocese, and the occasional other evangelical Anglican churches like the one near me in Petrie, Qld).

The ‘cutting through the smoke and mirrors’ (wayseer’s language) of historical-critical methodology, is really the imposing of a secular worldview on the biblical text and making it mean what the critic wants it to mean, and that is generally contrary to the intent of the biblical text.

On the popular level, the theological liberalism promoted by John Shelby Spong, is an example of how he sets about to destroy the Bible – and losing 40,000 people in the Episcopal church diocese when he was bishop of Newark, NJ. See ‘Spong’s deadly Christianity‘.

There are presupposition of the historical-critical method that force historical-critical scholars to eek sources outside of the Bible. This often means a downgrading of the historicity of the NT.

One of the criteria for historicity that these historical scholars like to use is multiple attestation and not single attestation. If it is attested (stated) once only in the NT, that is not good enough for historical veracity for many of these historical scholars. What I’m finding in assessing the methodology of John Dominic Crossan is that he does not maintain this criterion of multiple attestation with complete consistency. There are times when one record of a Jesus’ action is accepted by him.

However, most scholars using a framework of historical criticism that I have assessed, denigrate the Bible and elevate their own (or another scholar’s) human reason as more authoritative than the Bible.

Robert Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar, stated:

The aim of the quest [for the historical Jesus] is to set Jesus free. Its purpose is to liberate Jesus from the scriptural and creedal and experiential prisons in which we have incarcerated him (1996:300).

That’s what we are dealing with when we see historical-critical study inflicted on the Scriptures. Funk’s and the Jesus Seminar’s views are more important than the scriptural version of Jesus.
Also see I. H. Marshall’s, ‘Historical criticism’.


The historical-critical method is destructive of biblical Christianity.

The Word of God is homogeneous and unified; it is entirely and totally God’s Word. To classify its various parts according to our own evaluation system is insolence. It is, nevertheless, standard procedure in historical-critical theology to accord different levels of validity to different portions of God’s Word (Linnemann 1990:149).

Works consulted

Crossan, J D 1991. The historical Jesus: The life of a Mediterranean Jewish peasant. New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco.

Funk, R W 1996. Honest to Jesus. Rydalmere, NSW: Hodder & Stoughton.

Kummel, W G 1973. The theology of the New Testament. Nashville: Abingdon.

Linnemann, E 1990. Historical criticism of the Bible: Methodology or ideology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House.[7]

Linnemann, E 1992. Is there a synoptic problem?: Rethinking the literary dependence of the first three gospels. Tr by R. W. Yarbrough. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

Linnemann, E 2001. Biblical criticism on Trial: How scientific is ‘scientific theology’? (online). Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, also available (online) at: http://books.google.com.au/books?id=JkOq91KGIGIC&pg=PA207&lpg=PA207&dq=%22Eta+Linnemann+Spurgeon%22&source=bl&ots=n0qieDcBfc&sig=IxX6hhcZfzXtFRhQjosgJE7R1J0&hl=en&ei=BSXnTJjUKcfXcYDd3d0K&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBcQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=true (Accessed 20 November 2010).


[1] ebia #5, 25 March 2012. ‘Did Jesus Really Exist? Proving Jesus without the Bible’, Christian Forums. Available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7643394/ (Accessed 3 April 2012).

[2] WinbySurrender #9, ibid.

[3] wayseer #10, ibid.

[4] I responded as OzSpen#49, available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7643394-5/ (Accessed 3 April 2012). I have rewritten a few phrases to make it in the third person.

[5] See the other writings of Linnemann (1992, 2001).

[6] Linnemann is referring to Kummel (1973). See Linnemann (1990:114,  n. 1).

[7] This book is now published by Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Books, 2001.


Copyright © 2012 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 16 October 2015.