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Does the Historical-grammatical Method Limit the Bible?: A Doctor Reflects on Hermeneutics

The issue of how to properly interpret the texts of Scripture lies at the heart of the increasing polarization throughout Christianity as exemplified by the current creation vs. evolution debate in our Adventist community. My own exploration of the issue has clarified for me that there are two basic hermeneutical methods being used to evaluate this question: the historical-critical method and the historical-grammatical method. But what do these terms themselves “mean”?  

Based on definitions I have gleaned from others, the historical-critical method (HC) is an attempt to understand the meaning of biblical passages using the same scholarly methods applied to the interpretation of other non-religious literary texts. This method can be further sub-divided into source criticism (identifying the original sources for a given text), redaction criticism (identifying how disparate sources were edited to become one document), and form criticism (identifying different genres in a given text and comparing them to other texts from the same time/culture).   

The historical-grammatical method (HG) is an attempt to understand the Bible through determining the meaning intended by the original author of the text through careful literary exegesis of the text as well as through an understanding of the historical, social, and cultural context of both the writer(s) and original recipients of the text, as well as other parts of the Bible.

Based on these definitions and from my layperson perspective, I perceive two major differences between these approaches. First, HG, seems to assume a unitary view of authorship, while HC assumes multiple authorship with redaction/editing over time. Secondly, HG scholars tend to compare the text under analysis to other Biblical texts, while HC scholars compare portions of scriptural texts to other extra-scriptural texts.

So, for example, when it comes to the first chapter of Genesis, the HG scholar will assume that Moses is the author and compare this passage to other parts of the Bible where this text is referenced. HC scholars would rather assume that the first chapter of Genesis was originally an independent work later transcribed and edited to become the prologue of the book of Genesis as we have it today. This text then is compared to other similar texts from the same cultural and historical context (i.e. Babylonian creation poetry).     

To be honest, my own experience with HC is fairly recent and rather limited.  But, having spent nearly two decades in Adventist education, I am personally acquainted with the practical effects of HG.  Despite the fact that my time in Adventist education included upper level religion classes at an Adventist University, I knew nothing about Q and the Gospels; I had never heard any author mentioned for the Pentateuch other than Moses, and I was woefully unprepared to deal with a blow like the empirical evidence of evolution to my carefully balanced house of cards.  As a result, I can’t help but feel that HG as it was applied and used by my college teachers served an effective apologetic and limited devotional role but was in the end a form of pseudo-scholarship.  

I know there are many professors who employ HG in a more scholarly manner than my own college instructors; however, this assessment is drawn from my own personal limited college perspective and in comparison to my experience in medical research. During my fellowship, I did research on shoulder deformities due to brachial plexus injuries.  The medical consensus on treatment for this condition was not supported by our data, which included a larger sample pool and employed a different focus than previous studies.  Our findings indicated that many affected children could undergo less invasive treatment with equal or better outcomes.  If we had only allowed ourselves to consider possibilities consistent with the range of previously published historical consensus we would have thrown out the data set assuming our measurements were in error.  Instead, we now hope to publish our findings in order to change the consensus on treatment for the benefit of our patients.

This is why I question whether HG is truly scholarly.  In my experience with HG, the outcomes are constrained to fall within a predetermined set of possibilities partly by limiting the sources one can utilize and partly by constraining the considered outcomes.  So, although HG employs scholarly methods to explore the Bible as a unified whole, by limiting the sources one can draw upon and constraining the potential outcomes to those already established through study of the biblical text as a whole, this hermeneutic best serves the purposes of apologetics or devotional reading.  

I am not suggesting that HG has nothing to offer.  This method presents several unique advantages including openness to finding God at work throughout the text, a devotional emphasis on application following interpretation, and an apologetic angle to speak persuasively to those already sympathetic to the systematic unity of the text.  Given these strengths, HG offers a helpful corrective to the naturalistic tendencies and fragmentation of the text assumed by many HC scholars.

On the other hand, if appropriately employed without a dogmatic assumption of naturalism, HC may complement the more unified HG approach. Our study of the Scriptures can be enriched and better communicated to those outside our community when we employ the best scholarly approaches and sources available.  HC expands the focused perspective, widens the range of questions and possible answers, and allows us to discern the distinct strains of the various authors in the biblical library amongst the unifying harmony of the Holy Spirit.


Brenton Reading writes from Shawnee, KS where he lives with his wife Nola and their three children.  He is a pediatric interventional radiologist and a member of the Adventist Forum board.

This is part II. Read the first installment here, Sex and the Text: A Doctor Reflects on Hermeneutics.

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