PANDORA’S BOX OPENED: An Examination and Defense of Historical-Critical Method and Its Master Practitioners, by Roy Harrisville

Published on November 7, 2014 by Jim Zaspel

Eerdmans, 2014 | 358 pages

Reviewed by Patrick Schreiner


John Wesley once said, “What one generation tolerates, the next generation will embrace.” But the historical sequence usually does not terminate after the second generation. The third generation typically reacts and pushes away what has been embraced.

The historical-critical method seems to be on this chronological expressway. The past thirty years have produced a steep decline in favoritism towards the historical-critical method of interpretation. Its supposed objectivity, reductionistic searches for the author’s one intent, and the hermeneutic of suspicion are all under siege. Roy Harrisville (Professor emeritus of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota) enters fray, seeking to showcase both its evils yet also its benefits. Although the opening of “Pandora’s Box” brought forth many unwanted results, it also brought about some good. 

The historical-critical method is based on the (ultimate) coherence of reason and revelation. Its invention (as currently construed) can be traced back to Baruch Spinoza. Harrisville’s book gives a historical thumbnail sketch of different interpreters and periods of interpretation. He moves quickly through ancient interpretation, and then analyzes Orthodoxy and Pietism, the Enlightenment, the Modern Period, and the Twentieth Century. Rather than go through each period or interpreter, I will point out the benefits and weaknesses of the book. 


Positively, Harrisville relies on primary sources for his analysis of each figure. Rather than repeat the secondary sources he interacts with their writings (and usually in the original languages). But this does not mean that Harrisville was unaware of the secondary source conversations surrounding each figure. Although the book is not heavily footnoted, it is appropriately footnoted. The experience of reading is as one sitting at the feet of a learned professor who has gone over this material many times, and can distill the information into bite size chunks.

Having said that, the book suffers at points from lack of direction. For some interpreters, Harrisville lacks a driving point carrying the narrative forward. For example in his analysis of Charles Hodge it takes him 6 pages to get to his hermeneutical reflections. For many of the figures Harrisville spends too much time setting the scene with the historical or personal circumstances that distract rather than contribute to the thesis of the book. Good historical analysis always balances summary with the thread the author is pulling on, and at times it felt like the summary overwhelmed the thread. His reply almost certainly would be that these people did not exist in a vacuum and their context needs to be accounted for. But a book of this size and depth needs a more directed argument. If a reader wants more historical or personal information, other resources exist for this information.

Tied to the lack of direction is the lack of analysis. Most of the book is a historical overview, which is necessary, but the analysis of the historical information lacked the rigor with which the previous section contained. The historical outline fills 270 pages of the book, while the reflection only occupies the last 50 pages. The book is more a historical examination, than a defense. Certainly a defense is contained, but the bulk of the work is overview material.

But Harrisville is eminently fair, balanced, and does not caricature his subjects. It is easy to force a monolithic view on each period or person, yet a nuanced painting is often more helpful, yet also more difficult to accomplish. Harrisville even challenges some long held views on interpreters.

A couple of specific examples might be helpful here. Under the heading of the “The Enlightenment” Harrisville examines Baruch Spinoza, John Locke, Christian Wolff, and Sigmund Jacob Baumgarten. But he also gives an overview of contemporary dissent to the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment is a popular whipping child in relation to the historical-critical method, but it would be naïve to assume there was no dissent. Harrisville therefore gives an overview of Johann Georg Hamann, who was a disciple of Kant but then rejected Kant’s system. The balanced assessment continues in his analysis of Hamann. Some claim Hamann was an anti-rationalist because of some of his views. Yet Harrisville points out this is not entirely correct for he allowed legitimate use of reason. Another example of his fair assessment is his overview of Moses Stuart. Although Stuart calls the grammatical historical method the one true method of finding the sense of the Bible, he also allows “feeling and sympathy” a place in interpretation (though a small one). These two examples could be multiplied, because Harrisville is careful to not force one reading on each figure.


Harrisville concludes that the historical-critical method introduced many evils, yet it also has been a force for good (at the very same time). The Bible is historically conditioned and requires the use of the human mind for exposition. Because the Christian proclamation involves witness in writing, the receiver must acknowledge the claim made by the biblical text. And the text must be allowed to have its say. In other words, the interpreter sits under the text, not over it. Therefore the historical-critical method need not be outright rejected; yet its arrogance needs to be stripped away. Alternatives have arisen, according to Harrisville, alternatives such as rhetorical criticism, structuralism, and deconstruction. Yet I think Harrisville could have expanded this list to literary criticism, biblical theology, and canonical criticism. The later three criticisms are united by their rejection of the piecemeal view of the text, and an embracing of the unity. Added to these lists could be philosophical reflections on the role of the community, the nature of truth, and the role of subjectivity. Despite the opening of Pandora’s Box, the critical method is still able to be harnessed in the service of gospel proclamation. As Adolf Schlatter said:

For me, faith and criticism never divided into opposites, so that at one time I would have thought in a Bible-believing way, and at another critically. Rather I thought in a critical fashion because I believed in the Bible, and believed in it because I read it critically.

Patrick Schreiner is Instructor of New Testament Language and Literature, Western Seminary




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Pandora's Box Opened: An Examination And Defense Of Historical-critical Method And Its Master Practitioners, by Roy Harrisville

Eerdmans, 2014 | 358 pages

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