F. David Farnell

Great Confusion over Terminology and Practice


Much confusion exists in evangelical circles regarding grammatico-historical and historical-critical approaches to exegesis.[1] These two hermeneutical disciplines are distinct and must not be confused by evangelicals. Several factors may be cited in contrast.

  1. The independence approach associates itself with the grammatico-historical hermeneutic that has its roots in the Reformation of 1517. In contrast, the historical-critical hermeneutic has its roots in deism, rationalism, and the Enlightenment. Krentz, favorable to the practice, readily admits in his The Historical-Critical Method relates that “Historical method is the child of the Enlightenment.”[2] Maier, against historical criticism, argued, “historical criticism over against a possible divine revelation presents an inconclusive and false counterpart which basically maintains human arbitrariness and its standards in opposition to the demands of revelation.”[3]
  2. Because of their distinct philosophical differences and developments, the grammatico-historical method is open to the supernatural and miraculous. It assumes the Scriptures are true regarding their assertions and posits the idea that God can and does intervene in human history. In contrast, the historical-critical method assumes Troeltsch’s ideological principles of (a) the principle of criticism or methodological doubt–history achieves only probability, nothing can be known with any certainty; (b) the principle of analogy (somewhat like the modern idea of uniformitarianism) that present experience becomes the criteria of probability in the past (hence, if no supernatural events occur today; then, they do not occur in the past either); and (c) correlation or mutual interdependence that postulates a closed-continuum of cause and effect with no outside divine intervention.[4] Therefore, any time evangelicals dehistoricize the gospels or the Scriptures as a whole; they practice historical-critical, not grammatico-historical hermeneutics. Grammatico-historical exegesis does not shift the burden of proof upon the Scriptures to demonstrate their truth, reliability or historicity as does historical critical ideology like source criticism.
  3. The grammatico-historical approach emphasizes an inductive approach to understanding the meaning of Scripture based on plain, normal interpretation. Its goal is to understand the Scripture as was intended by the original author.[5] It seeks single, not multiple, layers of meaning while emphasizing the perspicuity of Scripture.  In contrast, the historical-critical approach does not attempt to understand the Scripture as was necessarily intended.  It pursues and deductive approach that a priori assumes an interpretation and forces Scripture into that mold.  It often practices an allegorizing hermeneutic that sees multiple layers of meaning. [6]
  4. The history of dependency hypotheses associates them with historical-critical ideologies, not grammatico-historical exegesis as has been evident throughout this discussion. Dependency hypotheses arose in the modern period that has its roots in skepticism of the biblical record, especially the Gospels. Therefore, those who practice dependency hypotheses are automatically, if not unwittingly, aligned with the errancy position of historical-criticism. At root, philosophy controls the exegetical approach of historical-critical approaches like source, form/tradition, and redaction criticism.

In direct contrast, the independence approach allies itself with the grammatico-historical hermeneutic. It’s critical approach to examining Scripture starts from a qualitatively different bases than historical-critical ideology.[7] Moreover, the grammatico-historical method of interpretation has been the safeguard in hermeneutics, for it downplays subjectivity and emphasizes the need for Spirit-guided objectivity in exegeting Scripture.

Historical Criticism

Historical Criticism is a product of philosophical ideologies that are inherently hostile to the Biblical text.

  1. Please note the CHART on the Philosophical Antecedents/Developments of Historical Criticism. The Chart is simplified for easier understanding. Much more was involved, but it covers the major highlights.
  2. Geisler notes,

[W]ithin a little over one hundred years after the Reformation the philosophical seeds of modern errancy were sown.  When these seeds had produced their fruit in the church a century or so later, it was because theologians had capitulated to alien philosophical presuppositions.  Hence, the rise of an errant view of Scripture did not result from a discovery of factual evidence that made belief in an inerrant Scripture untenable.  Rather, it resulted from the unnecessary acceptance of philosophical premises that undermined the historic belief in an infallible and inerrant Bible.[8]

Stephen Davis, far from espousing fundamentalist views, confirms this,

What leads them to liberalism, apart from cultural and personal issues, is their acceptance of certain philosophical or scientific assumptions that are inimical to evangelical theology–e.g., assumptions about what is “believable to modern people,” “consistent with modern science,” acceptable by twentieth-century canons of scholarship,” and the like.[9]

  1. Because of its philosophical underpinnings, Historical Criticism should be seen as an ideology.

The Grammatical-Historical Method

  1. The Definition–
  2. It seeks to find the meaning which the authors of Scripture intended to convey and the meaning comprehended by the recipients

Special allowance/provision made for (1) inspiration, (2) Holy Spirit, and (3) inerrancy

  1. Specific Definition: A Study of inspired Scripture designed to discover under the guidance of the Holy Spirit the meaning of a text dictated by the principles of grammar and the facts of history



 ≠ (does not equal)


  1. The Presuppositions of Grammatico-Historical Criticism
  2. Grammatico-historical has a required spiritual dimension: Must be indwelled by Holy Spirit to interpret Scripture properly (acceptance and understanding)–Romans 8:3; 1 Cor. 2: 6-16). Certain areas of meaning will be hidden to the natural man because he will lack the necessary spiritual guidance to use the exegetical data properly.
  3. Open/Continuum. GH allows for possibility of miracles. Open to it.
  4. Inspiration—inspiration possible
  5. Scripture documents must be allowed to speak for themselves. Not a priori doubted—until documents disprove their accuracy/factuality.
  6. God of the Bible is God

C. Grammatico-Historical Method is a part of the REFORMATION (HC part of Spinoza, rationalism, deism, the Enlightenment) HERITAGE! MUST DISTINGUISH PHILOSOPHIES BEHIND HC. THEY ARE NOT BEHIND REFORMATION HERITAGE.


[1] See Robert L. Thomas, “Current Hermeneutical Trends: Toward Explanation or Obfuscation?, JETS 39 (June 1996): 241-256.

[2] Edgar Krentz, The Historical-Critical Method (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975), 55.

[3] Gerhard Maier, The End of the Historical-Critical Method (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1974), 25.

[4] See Krentz, The Historical-Critical Method, 55; Ernest Troeltsch, “Historical and Dogmatic Method in Theology (1898),” in Religion in History.  Essays translated by James Luther Adams and Walter F. Bense (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 11-32.

[5] Milton Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, n.d.), 173.

[6] Evangelical drift from the single-meaning principle is alarming.  Wallace, reflecting the evangelical drift into multiple-layers of meaning, argues: “One of the reasons that most NT grammarians have been reticent to accept this category [plenary genitive] is simply that most NT grammarians are Protestants.  And the Protestant tradition of a singular meaning for the text (which, historically, was a reaction to the fourfold meaning employed in the Middle Ages) has been fundamental in their thinking.  However, current biblical research recognizes that a given author may, at times, be intentionally ambiguous.  The instances of double entendre, sensus plenior (conservative defined), puns, and word-plays in the NT all contribute to this view . . . . Tradition has to some degree prevented Protestants from seeing this.”  See Dan B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 120 fn 134.

[7] For more important weaknesses of the historical-critical method, consult Maier, The End of the Historical-Critical Method, 11-92.

[8]Norman L. Geisler, “Inductivism, Materialism, and Rationalism: Bacon, Hobbes, and Spinoza,” in The Biblical Errancy: An Analysis of Its Philosophical Roots. Edited by Norman Geisler (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 11.  This excellent work presents a variety of articles that trace the underpinnings of historical-critical methodologies to baneful philosophical methodologies.  Unfortunately, Geisler’s warning has not been heeded by evangelicals who continue their connections with Historical Criticism.

[9] Stephen Davis, The Debate about the Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977), 139.  What is refreshing about Davis’s statement is the outright candor of the remark compared to some evangelicals who refuse to admit the philosophical basis of such crucial issues.