Criticizing the critics

We need a self-criticism of the historical method that can expand to an analysis of historical reason itself, in continuity with and in development of the famous critique of reason by Immanuel Kant. Let me assure you at once that I do not presume to accomplish so vast an undertaking in the short time we have together. But we must make some start, even if it is by way of just preliminary explorations in what is still a largely uncharted land. The self-critique of historical method would have to begin, it seems, by reading its conclusions in a diachronic manner so that the appearance of a quasi-clinical-scientific certainty is avoided. It has been this appearance of certainty that has caused its conclusions to be accepted so far and wide.
In fact, at the heart of the historical-critical method lies the effort, to establish in the field of history a level of methodological precision that would yield conclusions of the same certainty as in the field of the natural sciences. But what one exegete takes as definite can only be called into question by other exegetes. This is a practical rule that is presupposed as plainly and self-evidently valid. Now, if the natural science model is to be followed without hesitation, then the importance of the Heisenberg principle should be applied to the historical-critical method as well. Heisenberg has shown that the outcome of a given experiment is heavily influenced by the point of view of the observer. So much is this the case that both observers questions and observations continue to change themselves in the natural course of events. When applied to the witness of history, this means that interpretation can never be just a simple reproduction of history’s being, “as it was.” The word “interpretation” gives us a clue to the question itself: every exegesis requires an “inter” an entering in and a being “inter” or between things; this is the involvement of the interpreter himself. Pure objectivity is an absurd abstraction. It is not the uninvolved who comes to knowledge; rather, interest itself is a requirement for the possibility of coming to know.

Here, then, is the question: how does one come to be interested, not so that the self drowns out the voice of the other, but in such a way that one develops a kind of inner understanding for things of the past, and ears to listen to the word they speak to us today?


– from Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: On the Question of the Foundations 
and Approaches of Exegesis Today,” a lecture given at Saint Peters Church in New York, New York, January 27, 1988