Review of Maier on Historical-Critical Method

by Vern S. Poythress

[Published in the Westminster Theological Journal 38/3 (spring 1976): 415-417. Used with permission.]

Gerhard Maier: Das Ende der historisch-kritischen Methode. Wuppertal: Theologischer Verlag Rolf Brockhaus, 1974. 95. DM 9.80.


Here is a book that should stimulate our praises and petitions to God, as well as our attention. Gerhard Maier made an academic reputation for himself in Germany with an earlier book, Mensch und freier Wille nach den jüdischen Religionsparteien zwischen Ben Sira und Paulus (Tübingen: Mohr, 1971) (“Man and free will according to the Jewish religious factions between Ben Sira and Paul”). He has now apparently destroyed that reputation with his latest book, entitled “The End of the Historical-Critical Method.” This latest book is scholarly, all right, but it presents a form of scholarship unacceptable, in fact, maddening, to the predominant theological schools in Germany. Maier announces the end of the reigning form of critical scholarship in Germany and proposes a new method, the “historical-biblical method,” based on new presuppositions. It is based, in fact, on a return to a doctrine of verbal inspiration. The is addressed to the intelligent layman as well as the professional Bible critic; hence it has the power, if God wills, to create a considerable stir.

The book is divided into three parts. Part one (pp. 5-20) shows the impossibility in principle of using the so-called historical-critical method for Christian Bible study. Part two (pp. 21-46) examines the impasse in which the actual application of the method has left the church. Part three (pp. 47-92) sketches the presuppositions and principles of the historical-biblical method.

Part one raises several major objections in principle: (1) The historical-critical method is a product of deism and the Socratic ideal, which places human reason as a judge over revelation. (2) Every attempt to separate critically the divine and human elements in the Bible, either by an appeal to a canon within the canon or to the events of revelation, ends in giving decisive weight to the human subjectivity of the modern scholar. (3) The results of criticism cannot in fact be carried into the pulpit. (4) Obedience, rather than criticism, is the proper response to revelation.

Part two, entitled “The end of the historical-critical method in fact,” examines in detail a representative product of the method, namely Das Neue Testament als Kanon, edited by Ernst Käsemann. Maier concludes that none of the contributors to the volume is able to offer any alternative to the domination of human subjectivity, when it comes to the extraction of norms from the Bible. One of the contributors, Hans Küng, virtually concurs with Maier at this point, and escapes only by a retreat to the teaching authority of the Roman church.


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Maier’s own solution (in part three) is the construction of a “historical-biblical method” such as the Reformation was beginning to develop. This method as he defines it has two presuppositions: (a) in the study of once-for-all acts of divine revelation, historical judgments cannot always depend on the principle of historical analogy (pp. 47-49); (b) the sovereignty of God implies that he can reveal himself as he wishes (pp. 49-54). All human ideas, including ideas about exegetical method, must be continually adjusted to conform to God’s revelation, and not vice versa. From these two principles Maier proceeds to establish the basic structure of “historical-biblical method” along the lines already familiar to evangelical scholars in the U.S.A. Inerrancy is defined by saying that when our efforts at harmonizing fail, we must refuse to say anything more than what can be said reverently about God’s words. The Bible is unchallengeable.

What impression does one gain from all this? Several things strike me about the book. First, Maier does not pull his punches. The practitioners of the historical-critical method are spiritually blind (p. 18). Submission to God’s revelation requires not a sacrifice of intellect but a sacrifice of pride (p. 52). Right theology demands a new birth and obedience (p. 51). Second, Maier is not an obscurantist, but anticipates some objections of his critics and insists on the value of properly conducted grammatical-historical study of the text. Third, Maier writes as a German to Germans. The book contains almost no reference to American and English scholarship, whether evangelical or not. In a way this is a shame, particularly because Maier stands in close relation to the presuppositional understanding of Scripture of Westminster Theological Seminary. But in a book for laymen it may be just as well that there are few footnotes and that the argument is largely self-contained.

The book does have some limitations, and it is well not to overlook these in assessing its probable impact. The book’s first limitation is its length. Maier covers a lot of territory in 95 pages, but that inevitably leaves some arguments sketchy. Second, it is not clear whether Maier is aware of just how greatly his opponents’ presuppositions differ from his. Some, at least, of his opponents would consider that the subjectivity of canon-within-canon procedure is an advantage rather than a disadvantage. Moreover, using their own presuppositions they could easily overthrow Maier’s sketchy demonstration of the verbal inspiration of Scripture. For example, the standard texts 2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:19–20, and 2 Peter 3:15–16 would be rejected by Käsemann as representing post-Pauline rigidification. A stronger case for verbal inspiration could have been made by showing how biblical authority is woven together with a large


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number of other theological themes throughout the Bible. But this would require much more space than Maier has allotted himself.

All in all, this is a brave book for perilous times. Need it be said that its author and his work need our prayers?

Vern S. Poythress
Cambridge, England

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