Historical criticism was introduced to biblical research by Johann Jakob Semler (1725-1791). Even at that time, his studies had suggested that the Gospels could not have been based on verbal inspiration.
Distinction is made with this method, which only came to be perfected at a later stage, between lower textual criticism and higher, historical and literary, criticism.
Lower text criticism has the function of establishing the original text of the Scriptures, for early changes in the text, addition etc., mean that the Bible text is no langer in its original form. Historical and literary criticism has the function, among other things, of determining the time when the Gospels were written, the authors, and the sources used by the authors.
Up to the First World War, exegetes, historians and Bible scholars put great industry, patience and brilliance into the work at all universities on either side of the Atlantic, a very comprehensive effort. The question arises, however, if all these labors have succeeded in clarifying the issues, or whether science lost itself in the by-ways. The answer to this crucial question may be found in the facts presented in this chapter.
Initially, numerous scholars set about their task by postulating that Jesus never existed at all. Others - and particularly Ritschl - also started a real crusade against any form of metaphysics. 47 Harnack's theories went in the same direction, and his books were widely read in intellectual circles. Harnack has nothing of the true substance of Christianity, such as the divinity of Jesus, salvation, etc. He completely reinterpreted Luke 17, 12: "The Kingdom of God is in the midst of you", and for him Christianity was entirely an inner thing.
The work done by the various scholars did not clarify the issue, but merely served to increase the existing uncertainty or to destroy the body of religious belief.
Today, the prevalent view is that historical criticism was unable to yield the hoped-for objective results, so that the outcome has been negative. This has been confirmed in the following statements made by Protestant and Catholic scholars of the present century:
Albert Schweitzer: "The historical basis for Christianity as presented by rationalist, liberal and modern theology, no longer exists." 48
Friedrich Heiler: "There can be no doubt that many New Testament facts have been distorted by such extreme criticism." 49
W. Trilling: "The fundamental problem complex initially mentioned, 'Jesus and the New Testament', was something they were aware of at the time, though it was considered within far too narrow a context within the history of the human mind." 50
H. Daniel-Rops: "This method is tendentious, for pretending to analyze the documents entirely in the light of logic based on reason, it schematizes the realities of life, eliminating them together with the random elements." 51
Heinz Zahrnt: "The whole liberal Jesus image has collapsed." 52" "... the background crumbled away ...everything dissolved into history." 53
Zahrnt also wrote that "the hidden self-deception of liberal theology has been uncovered - and the untenable nature of its historical Jesus demonstrated." 54
E.C. Hoskyns wrote that any historian taking his work in relation to the New Testament seriously had to admit that this demanded something of its readers which he, as a historian, was quite unable to gave, i.e., an opinion that for everybody signified the most important decision that could ever possibly be made." 55
Karl Barth, the well-known Protestant theologian, confessed: "If I had to choose between the method of historical criticism in Bible research and the old method of inspiration, I should resolutely go for the latter: it has the greater, deeper, weightier justification. I am glad I do not have to choose." 56
Barth very simply refers to "historians who do not understand" (Br 106).
The method of historical criticism was the offspring of Aufklaerung, with 18th and 19th century philosophy finding its reflection in the refusal to think in metaphysical categories. Science took the wrong path, though this in no way stopped publications from being successful. Faith in science continued unbroken. This type of literature first of all reached the intellectuals, but during the years reading up to the First World War, these views on religion were also presented to many of the working classes by a political party. The destructive results of scholarly research, shown by modern research to have been mistaken, were in those days considered a revelation. The work to destroy the Christian faith had started with historicism, and was to continue right into the present time.