Criticism and Analogy in Historical-Critical Interpretation

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Marlin E. Miller§

→223#Two axioms of historical-critical methodology, though variously defined and implemented, nevertheless inform with some consistency historical-critical exegesis. I will limit this essay to those axioms: I will use George Brunk’s “Journey to Emmaus: A Study in Critical Methodology” (ch. 14) in this volume as a point of reference to reflect critically upon the historical-critical method and to illustrate several of the axiological issues raised by this methodology. In addition to these formal and procedural limitations, I will further assume that historical-critical methodology is not simply a neutral technique of biblical interpretation, but that it is itself historically conditioned and carries with it certain philosophical and theological axioms, which may be, and in fact are, variously assessed as appropriate or apostate.

Historical-critical exegesis arose and gathered momentum in the seventeenth century as European Christendom’s synthesis of Scripture, world view, and faith (dogmatically defined) was challenged by the scientific and philosophical reflections of the Enlightenment.[1] Doubtless the confessional and political conflicts of the preceding two centuries also riddled the credibility of Christendom’s claim to an authoritative synthesis and nourished the scientific and philosophical reflection which gave birth to modern skepticism. If this is indeed the case, then ecclesiastical events as well as scientific and philosophical developments should receive some of the credit and/or blame for the birth and growth of historical-critical interpretation.

This assumption that historical-critical exegesis carries with it certain philosophical and theological axioms which are neither purely neutral nor strictly technical derives not only from a “guilt-(or praise-) by-association” reading of history, but appears to be a relatively widespread consensus among scholars →224 otherwise divided in confessional loyalties as well as in their assessment of the method.[2] Others who by implication may regard historical-critical inquiry as relatively neutral, would nevertheless set certain limits to the method (e.g. George Brunk’s summary) or argue that it nevi not be associated with skeptical presuppositions.[3] This, however, amounts to saying that it should be linked to certain presuppositions rather than defending its axiological neutrality.


Two years before the close of the nineteenth century, Ernst Troeltsch articulated the foundational concepts of historical-critical interpretation in his essay “On Historical and Dogmatic Method in Theology .”[4] According to Krentz, Troeltsch’s statement still “haunts” theology. Krentz’s ghostly imagery may be neither historically nor theologically appropriate. Nevertheless, the rigor with which Troeltsch challenged German Protestant theologians of his day to choose between the “historical” and the “dogmatic” methods in theology provides a significant point of reference and continues to shape the debate about assumptions of historical-critical interpretation by both its critics and its apologists (Maier, Harvey, et al.). And the “foundational concepts” of historical-critical interpretation as listed by Troeltsch, namely criticism, analogy, and correlation, also continue to inform the discussion on presuppositions—even though they may be variously defined and/or supplemented. In the following remarks, both these concepts and the polemically formulated alternatives between historical and dogmatic method will be taken into account.

According to Troeltsch, criticism as a foundational concept of historical-critical methodology conditions our whole attitude toward historical traditions. Rather than simply questioning particular facts and details of the past, it signifies a comprehensive stance toward all historical traditions, namely that the continuity and relevance of the traditions for the present depends upon critical and discriminating judgment. In contrast to the dogmatic method which ostensibly does not depend upon historical continuity and/or contingency, a critical stance can lead only to judgments of probability rather than statements of certainty. Such →225 judgments of probability, moreover, also establish higher and lower levels of probability by weighing the evidence and assessing it by the norms of critical reason. Contemporary critical reason rather than traditional authority becomes the arbiter of historical knowledge.

Troeltsch’s observation that “criticism” implies judgments of probability rather than certainty seems to be confirmed by Brunk’s description of the historical-critical method. Note, for example, the following statements of probability, as well as the different degrees of probability which these statements designate:

- “External decidedly stronger for 60 stadia” (p.206).

- “If this reconstruction is true...we could conclude that the Emmaus appearance began as a legitimation formula....” (p.209). - “Luke seems to depict an ideal ‘day’ of salvation history....” (p.210). - “It is also widely accepted that the place name, the indication of distance...can only be explained by the rootage of the basic Emmaus event in historical memory” (p.211).

- “A definite feature of this the recognition motif.... In all probability it was the center of the account at all levels of the tradition. If any feature of the account is traceable to a historical bedrock, it is the appearance experience of Emmaus when Jesus is recognized as present with Cleopas and his companion....” (p.215).

Brunk’s description of the historical-critical method as used in the interpretation of the Emmaus story apparently confirms Troeltsch’s observation that criticism issues in judgments of probability--even at those points where “historical bedrock” may be uncovered. Moreover these judgments of probability are themselves diverse: they may derive simply from weighing several textual readings against each other; they may reach tentative conclusions about the origin of the story based upon what seems to be the central intention; they may attempt to demonstrate the historical credibility of the events reported in the narrative. In any case, criticism as a stance cannot →226 and does not intend to claim the kind of certainty presupposed by the traditional dogmatic method of theology.

In common parlance, the notion of criticism therefore often carries pejorative connotations: to criticize means to pass judgment on, to condemn, to catalogue errors. When associated with biblical interpretation, such criticism ostensibly presupposes a skeptical attitude toward the biblical documents, toward their dependability, historical accuracy, veracity, and authority. Etymologically, however, “to criticize” also signifies: “to sift out, to divide from, to distinguish that which is specific to.” Whatever else does not correspond to the specific and distinguishing characteristics of a particular document or other object of investigation and evaluation, can presumably be “sifted out.” That which is sifted out may be judged erroneous or simply as something which is not a distinguishing characteristic of whatever is being “criticized.” In this sense criticism seeks to make discriminating judgments by following normative criteria. This aspect of criticism, however, also carries with it a negative component: whatever does not correspond with the normative principles of investigation and assessment may then be discounted as uncertain, not meaningful, or unreal. Whatever does correspond to the criteria of discerning judgment may be accepted.

Within the limits of this summary, it is not possible to examine and evaluate all the specific criteria which may have been used in Brunk’s paper (or in historical-critical exegesis in general). Such criteria do need continual reassessment. Nevertheless, criticism as an epistemological stance, as a way of knowing and appropriating past traditions, may in several respects itself be problematical. As a formal epistemological concept, criticism is often a kind of empty sack which is filled with whatever seems reasonably evident and clear to the contemporary critic. But if this formal understanding of criticism (which derives from Cartesian methodical doubt and Kantian critical philosophy) becomes its own criterion, judgments of historical probability may often be more a reflection of contemporary assumptions about reason and reality than of the historical object of perception and study. The critical question of criticism as a method, therefore, has to do with its →227 criteria and with the nature of probability expressed by critical judgment.

Particular judgments of probability may be an appropriate reflection of the object of investigation, namely the biblical narrative. Insofar as the biblical story refers to particular events and historical conditions, the probability of such critical judgments may well represent a more faithful interpretation of Scripture than the formulation of dogmatic statements which claim absolute certainty in the sense of exemption from the contingencies of time and space. If God has chosen to entrust divine revelation to the arbitrariness of historical events and existence and to particular people in particular times and places, such judgments of probability would not necessarily contradict the character of the biblical documents.

Some statements of probability may also simply reflect the degree to which an interpreter’s questions and hypotheses do or do not correspond to the intention and the information of the text. In this case the factor of probability would in part be a commentary upon the interpreter’s orientation and in part a recognition that the evidence available does not allow for a definite conclusion to the questions posed and the interpretive hypothesis being employed. It seems to me that Brunk’s description largely demonstrates this orientation.

The notion of probability, however, may also reflect the introverted character of much, if not most, of modern criticism. According to Brunk’s definition, the critical element “points to the function of the human mind, exercising intelligent judgments and discerning appreciation in the interrogation and evaluation of the sources” (p.204). This description apparently leaves open the question about the standard of intelligent judgment and discriminating appreciation. However, “criticism” as usually understood assumes that autonomous human reason functions as is own criterion for discriminating judgments.[5] In this case granting an event or a report a higher or lower level of historical probability means ascertaining the degree to which it corresponds to what may be considered self-evident and clear to the modern interpreter.

According to Collingwood, the critical historian, rather than

→228 relying on an authority other than himself, to whose statements his thought must his own authority and his thought [is] autonomous, self-authorizing, possessed of a criterion to which his so-called authorities must conform and by reference to which they are criticized.[6]

For Van Harvey this autonomy is not only a warning to be on guard against error, but “is grounded in the nature of historical knowledge itself.”[7] Consequently the critical historian

confers authority upon a witness. He reserves the right to judge who or what will be called an authority, and he makes this judgment only after he has subjected the so-called witness to a rigorous cross-examination.... If the historian permits his authorities to stand uncriticized, he abdicates his role as critical historian. He is no longer a seeker of knowledge but a mediator of past belief: not a thinker but a transmitter of tradition.[8]

If criticism thus signifies an epistemological procedure for conferring authority upon the biblical witnesses, we may need to choose between being transmitters of that particular tradition and critical historians. I would suggest, however, that functioning as transmitters of the biblical tradition calls for greater rather than less critical awareness, because it means subjecting the autonomy of modern reason to criticism as well as developing an empathetic understanding of the meaning of the biblical documents in their historical setting. The alternative need not then be a flight into dogmatic timelessness, as Troeltsch defined the alternative to historical criticism. It would rather go in the direction of making explicit the standards of criticism, examining the degree to which they correspond to the reality of the historical objects (in this case, the biblical documents), and allowing them to be judged by their appropriateness to that historical reality, rather than by the self-confirmation of autonomous reason (however that may be defined). Otherwise the formal epistemological category of modern criticism tends to create not only an historical difference but also a spiritual distance →229 between biblical revelation and contemporary understanding.


Troeltsch’s second fundamental concept of the historical method is analogy. Whereas the axiom of criticism tends to remain a more formal concept, analogy provides the historian with more concrete material in the exercise of discriminating judgment. Troeltsch described the principle of analogy as follows:

Analogy with what happens before our eyes and what is given within ourselves is the key to criticism. Illusions, displacements, myth formation, fraud, and party spirit, as we see them before our own eyes, are the means whereby we can recognize similar things in what the tradition hands down. Agreement with normal, ordinary, repeatedly attested modes of occurrence and conditions as we know them is the mark of probability for occurrences that the critic can either acknowledge really to have happened or leave to one side. The observation of analogies between past occurrences of the same sort makes it possible to ascribe probability to them and to interpret the one that is unknown from what is known of the other.[9]

Troeltsch goes on to speak of the “omnipotence of analogy” which in turn presupposes a “fundamental similarity” although not an “identity” between all historical events.

Troeltsch’s understanding of analogy has not gone unchallenged. [10] Some would criticize the methodological doubt which Troeltsch’s principle of analogy seems to imply; others would challenge the “tyrannical” omnipotence of analogy; still others would find the anthropocentric orientation problematic. Some would also focus on whether the category of uniqueness, rather than a common kernel of similarity, has been given adequate focus by Troeltsch’s definition of analogy. Regardless of the challenges raised to Troeltsch’s understanding, analogy remains an axiom of historical-critical interpretation. But rather than reporting on that →230 debate in general, I would refer again to George Brunk’s case study to examine one example of analogy as a means of historical interpretation. We may then return to the more systematic concerns with that example in mind.

Brunk employs the principle of analogy in several ways, particularly in the section on form criticism and tradition history (pp. 214 ff). The first point of analogy has to do with literary forms. Based on the “recognition” motif of the Emmaus story, Brunk finds greater similarity between the Emmaus narrative and several Old Testament theophanies than between Luke 24 and hellenistic legends of a wandering deity.[11] This literary analogy thus serves as a basis for the judgment that the Emmaus story reflects an early Jewish Christian rather than a later hellenistic setting (or, for that matter, an apocalyptic milieu). The underlying issue thus has to do with the appropriate categories for understanding the Emmaus occurrence. Brunk finds these categories in what we may designate as the “biblical world” rather than in either the apocalyptic or hellenistic categories of perception and thought. An historically appropriate understanding of what happened would therefore depend upon our beginning with the analogy between the Old Testament theophanies and the New Testament christophanies.

The question of analogy arises not only with respect to the most appropriate categories of understanding, but also in relation to the objective referent of these categories. What kind of occurrence lies behind the Emmaus narrative? Can it be reconstructed by the tools of historical reason (in part or entirely), or does it lie completely outside the field of historical analogy? Brunk’s response to this question is two-fold: based on the categories of understanding provided by the narrative

the consequence of this situation is that the Emmaus event slips through the fingers of the historian qua historian but speaks to his understanding of the nature of resurrection faith. At the same time there is no reason to doubt the occurrence of an Emmaus appearance in essentially the manner described, but we cannot demonstrate what the actual event was.[12]

This conclusion derives however not only from an appreciation of the literary form, but also assumes →231 the unique character of Jesus’ resurrected existence, which on the one hand belongs to a new order of corporeal existence not determined by time and space,[13] and on the other hand breaks into the old order in a more than purely internal and subjective way.[14] Thus, the resurrection event has both a mysterious and an historical aspect.

The third major, albeit somewhat more implicit analogy, which Brunk’s summary assumes is the continuity between the life of the church and the appearance of the resurrected Jesus to the early disciples. Although couched in terms of the reality and practices of the early church such as the interpretation of Scripture, community atmosphere, fellowship in breaking of the bread, the implication seems to include an analogy between the context in which faith in the resurrection of Jesus was acquired then and can arise now. Within the limits of his summary, Brunk at least assumes such an analogy between the situation of the church in Luke’s time and the dynamic of the Emmaus event. Such an analogy would presumably also arise between the contemporary experience of the gathered Christian community and the disciples from Emmaus gathered in the presence of the resurrected Jesus.

These conclusions (or assumptions) differ markedly from an understanding of analogy which makes non-biblical categories of understanding primary, grants greater credibility to historical events similar in kind rather than to “unique” occurrences, and discounts the historical reality of what cannot be grasped by the contemporary community of critical historians. The concept of analogy is therefore one of the critical issues in historical method. For Troeltsch (as well as Bultmann, et al.), the historical probability of an event depends upon its similarity with other events of the same kind. If one accepts this assumption, it follows that the historian as critical historian cannot confer historical reality upon an “event” for which there are no known analogies.

Without doubt, the comparison of the new and the unknown with the already known plays an important role in historical understanding as well as in human knowledge generally. If we have not the remotest experience of something, we cannot conceive what it is like. An historian quite properly interprets new data in the light of present understanding, whereby →232 “present understanding” includes much more than what has been mediated directly through empirical, first-hand experience. Thus, without analogy, it is impossible to understand the past. On the other hand, however, if the principle of analogy is employed with the rigor of Troeltsch (and his theological descendants), it seems impossible to do justice to the uniqueness of Christ as portrayed by the Bible. According to Van Harvey, “this dilemma” seems to inform much “discussion in contemporary Protestant theology over the nature of hermeneutics.”[15]

Perhaps more directly than any other Protestant theologian, Wolfhart Pannenberg has addressed himself to this apparent dilemma with respect to analogy. Pannenberg argues against the rigid and restrictive use of analogy by distinguishing between analogy as an instrument of historical research, on the one hand, and as the key to an anti-theistic world-view or ontology, on the other hand. According to Pannenberg, Troeltsch’s assumption that the principle of analogy requires a “fundamental homogeneity of all historical events”[16] raises the method of analogy to a criterion of ontological possibility. Pannenberg counters by maintaining that:

The cognitive power of analogy depends upon the fact that it teaches us to see contents of the same kind in nonhomogeneous things [das Gleichartige im Ungleichartigen]. If the historian keeps his eye on the nonexchangeable individuality and contingency of an event, then he will see that he is dealing with nonhomogeneous things, which cannot be contained without remainder in any analogy. Provided that historical science is occupied above all with the particularity and uniqueness of phenomena, its interests must therefore be focused more upon the ever peculiar, nonhomogeneous features, rather than the common ones first obtruded by analogies...the cognitive power of analogy in historical greater, the more sharply the limitation of the analogy is recognized in each case.[17]

Pannenberg suggests that within Christian theology historical research should focus on the individual, the particular, and the contingent. Pannenberg goes on to say:

→233 That a reported event bursts analogies with otherwise usual or repeatedly attested events is still no ground for disputing its facticity. It is another matter when positive analogies to forms of tradition (such as myths and even legends) relating to unreal objects, phenomena referring to states of consciousness (like visions) may be found in the historical sources. In such cases historical understanding guided by analogy can lead to a negative judgment about the reality of the occurrences reported in the tradition. Such a judgment will be rendered not because of the unusualness of something reported about, but rather because it exhibits a positive analogy to some form of consciousness which has no objective referent.[18]

Pannenberg thus apparently offers an understanding of analogy which reassuringly makes room for the “facticity” of the resurrection, even if it “bursts analogies” of otherwise usual and repeatedly attested events.[19] Rather than disallowing the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection because it conforms to nothing within our present, critically informed beliefs of the world, Pannenberg’s understanding of analogy would appear to reinstate the historical possibility (not necessarily however the probability) of the resurrection. If however historical research could demonstrate that the New Testament accounts of the resurrection correspond to forms of historical tradition which in turn relate to “unreal objects,” a negative judgment on the resurrection would be forthcoming.[20]

I would suggest that Pannenberg’s distinction between analogy as a help in understanding historical events and as ontological criterion of historical possibility can be taken as a corrective to the positivistic assumptions of Troeltsch. Furthermore, his contention that the unusualness of an occurrence may not be taken a priori as an argument against its reality is appropriate. Nevertheless, Pannenberg’s understanding of analogy is embedded in a comprehensive view of “universal history” which may in turn evacuate the particular content of the resurrection reality. The biblical understanding of history and the uniqueness of particular biblical events hardly corresponds to a universal-historical →234 frame of reference within which they receive their definitive significance.

Characteristic for the biblical view of history is rather that very specific individual events arise as direction-giving points of reference for broad periods, and that from there material finds its place and historical questioning and thinking finds its response.[21]

This “perspectival” view may indeed correspond more adequately to the biblical witnesses than a developmental, existential, or universal-historical point of view. Moreover, Pannenberg continues to assume that the only reliable way to knowledge of the past is that of historical-critical research.[22]

This may amount to a mistake similar to what Pannenberg found in Troeltsch, namely that of translating one methodological tool which can be useful within certain limits into a criterion of historical reality. Brunk’s description of the resurrection as both an eschatological and historical “event,” as in part accessible to historical research, and in part eluding it, points in a direction which seems to me better corresponds to the biblical narrative. A view of the resurrection which relegates it to a solely eschatological reality (however defined) without objective referents in time and space cannot do justice to the witness of the early church. But a view of the resurrection which limits our knowledge of it to what is accessible by historical research (however defined) is hardly more adequate.

An acceptable understanding of “analogy” as an instrument of biblical interpretation, I suggest, needs to take the context of interpretation into account. As long as the concept of analogy remains primarily a formal epistemological notion, the content of what is historically “analogous” or “unique” will usually be defined in terms of a particular “world view.” For Troeltsch and others, an understanding of the world as a continuum of cause-and-effect-relations (“correlation”) provided the frame of reference for analogies which could be drawn between the present and the past. For Pannenberg, an understanding of the world as an open and future-directed totality of historical occurrences remains the point of reference for what may be considered historical analogies or within which unique events find their function. But if Brunk’s interpretation of the resurrection is an →235 example of a proper use of analogy, the normative point of reference will not be the totality of a particular “world” view, but the church as both an historical and a spiritual reality. We sometimes use the notion of the “hermeneutic community” to suggest that the locus of scriptural interpretation is most properly the church, or that all members of the church should participate in the interpretation of Scripture, rather than limiting this task to the specialists alone.

But the reality of the “hermeneutical community” goes beyond merely a functional dimension; it also includes an epistemological dimension and an historical/spiritual dimension. As such the church today as an historical reality and directed by the Holy Spirit becomes the place of analogy with the New Testament Church, rather than the contemporary world being seen as the place of analogy with the ancient world at the time of the New Testament. As Millard Lind puts it:

…by accepting the congregation as the context for the Bible’s life situation, the process is quite a different one from that in which it is assumed that there is no twentieth-century life situation in which the Bible is truly at home. If the latter is true, the hermeneutical process is indeed questionable and largely meaningless. It is only within the life situation of the hermeneutical community that the fundamental analogies are experienced which make the Bible historically credible.[23]

This is not to suggest that the reality of the Christian community and its perception of reality are at all points distinct from its historical environment. But it would suggest that the primary point of reference for analogies between present and past events is the “church” rather than the “world.” At certain points those realities overlap, at others they are distinct. The sometimes similar, sometimes conflicting views of what may be “historically possible” therefore depend also upon the reality and perception of the community in question.→236


§ This essay was published in Essays in Biblical Interpretation: Anabaptist-Mennonite Perspectives, ed. Willard M. Swartley (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984), pp. 223-236. Copyright © 1984 Institute of Mennonite Studies. All rights reserved. Published online by permission of Institute of Mennonite Studies.

# These numerical notations indicate the page breaks in the published book. When citing this essay, please cite the appropriate page number(s) in the published book.

  1. Klaus Scholder, Ursprünge und Probleme der Bibelkritik im 17. Jahrhundeert (München: Christian Kaiser Verlag, 1966), p. 9.
  2. See, e.g., Brevard Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970), p. 141; Van Austin Harvey, The Historian and the Believer, The Morality of Historical Knowledge and Christian Belief (New York: Macmillan, 1966), pp. 33ff.; Edgar Krentz, The Historical-Critical Method (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975), pp. 55f.; Gerhard Maier, The End of the Historical-Critical Method (St. Louis: Concordia, 1977), p. 11; Wolfhart Pannenberg, Basic Questions in Theology: Collected Essays, Vol. I (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), p. 40.
  3. See, e.g., George Eldon Ladd, The New Testament and Criticism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 1967), p. 33.
  4. Ernst Troeltsch, “Historische und Dogmatische Methode in der Theologie,” in Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. II (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr/Paul Siebeck, 1913), pp. 729ff. (Author’s translation.)
  5. Ferdinand Hahn, “Problems historischer Kritik,” ZNW 63 (1972), 13.
  6. Harvey, p. 40.
  7. Ibid.", p. 41.
  8. Ibid.", p. 42.
  9. Troeltsch, p. 732.
  10. See for example, Colin Brown, “History and the Believer,” in History, Criticism and Faith edited by Colin Brown (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1976), p. 171ff.; Maier, p. 51; Pannenberg, pp. 44ff.; Harvey, p. 40.
  11. George Brunk III, “The Concept of the Resurrection according to the Emmaus Account in Luke’s Gospel” (ThD Diss., Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, 1975), pp. 396ff.
  12. Cf. Ibid.", pp. 414f.
  13. Cf. Ibid.", p. 384.
  14. Ibid.", pp. 387, 391, 409, et. al.
  15. Harvey, p. 32.
  16. Troeltsch, p. 732.
  17. Pannenberg, pp. 46f.
  18. Ibid.", 48f.
  19. Cf. Brown, p. 172.
  20. Pannenberg, p. 48f.; cf. Ted Peters, “The Use of Analogy in Historical Method,” CBQ (Oct 1973), 475-82.
  21. Hahn, p. 16.
  22. Pannenberg, p. 53.
  23. Millard Lind, “Reflections on Biblical Hermeneutics,” in Kingdom, Cross and Community, ed. Richard Burkholder and Calvin Redekop, (Scottdale; Herald Press, 1976), p. 94 and p. 155 in this volume.