Question: "What is historical criticism?"
Answer: Historical criticism can refer to a method of studying the Bible or to a particular view of Scripture used to select interpretations. When examining a text, the term criticism is a reference to analysis, related to the idea of a “critique.” It does not mean the same thing as a complaint or disapproval. Both forms of historical criticism analyze the Bible by looking at the culture in which the texts were written and the evidence that leads to certain conclusions.
The major difference between the two forms of historical criticism is the divide between “method” and “methodology.” A method is a tool or technique. A methodology is a mindset or a justification for using certain methods. In practice, the term historical-critical method is often applied to what is actually a type of methodology. In order to know the difference, one must ask if this is a reference to “how” the text is interpreted, or “why” certain assumptions are being used. As a method, historical criticism is extremely useful in understanding the Bible. As a methodology, historical criticism is an unreasonably skeptical view.
As a method, historical criticism uses historical information to better understand the context of a biblical passage. This background information provides important perspective when interpreting the text. As an example, Paul’s comments about submission to government in Romans chapter 13 were written during the reign of a particularly oppressive, anti-Christian emperor. That makes a difference when looking to apply those texts to modern Christian life.
Historical criticism would also give deeper meaning to the plagues of Exodus. Each of the plagues involved an aspect of nature that the Egyptians associated with a false god: the river, the sun, and the livestock all had a god associated with them. Thanks to historical evidence from outside the Bible, we can better understand the message of those plagues: they were a demonstration to Egyptians and Jews alike that there was only one True God, the God of Israel.
Historical criticism can fall into a trap common to human nature: the “nothing but” claim. We often fall into this trap when we find a technique that is especially useful, and we rush to presume that we’ve found the ultimate explanation for a certain concept. We then declare that whatever we’re studying is “nothing but” a product or function of that idea. For example, some atheists claim the universe—and man—is “nothing but” matter and energy. And there are some people who get so caught up in historical criticism that they view the text of the Bible as “nothing but” a collection of ancient writings, the mere product of an older, less enlightened culture.
As a methodology, historical criticism falsely assumes that the Bible is “nothing but” a collection of man-made writings. This leads to an almost total dismissal of any supernatural, miraculous, or divine activity in the world. Historical criticism, as a mindset, can be seen as an extreme form of eisegesis, which presumes meaning first, then reads the text from that assumption.
As a method—as a technique for greater understanding—historical criticism is a powerful tool. This does not mean a person needs to be an expert in history to properly understand Scripture. The reason God commanded believers to disciple others (Matthew 28:19–20) and not merely to print Bibles is that some parts of the written Word need to be explained by more mature, knowledgeable Christians (see Acts 8:29–31).