The German theologian, Ernst Troeltsch, apply the following three principles in all historical investigations to interpret any piece of document:
1. Principle of Criticism
According to this principle, all historical judgments are and will always remain provisional. And since any conclusion is subject to revision, historical inquiry can never attain absolute certainty but only relative degrees of probability.
If this is true, then, it will be impossible or risky to base one’s eternal hope on any event of the past.
By applying this principle to a document dealing with the resurrection for example, that piece of document could be subjected to a different interpretation depending on the findings of the different forms of criticism – source criticism, redaction criticism and form criticism.
Source criticism is the search for the original sources which lie behind a given biblical text. For example, the Markan priority with the addition of a possible ‘Q’ source in the two-source hypothesis of the synoptic gospel accounts.
Redaction criticism has to do with the editorial content of the author and by observing certain repetitive themes, styles, vocabulary, etc of the author, redaction criticism draws certain distinctive elements of an author/editor's theology. In the case of Matthew’s gospel, for example, Matthew’s prevailing theme is the emphasis on the Messiah-ship of Jesus, and to point to Jesus as the fulfillment of the many messianic prophecies for the Jewish nation.
Form criticism on the other hand, attempts to classify the various units of scripture by their literary pattern and that attempts to trace each type to its period of oral transmission.
2. Principle of Analogy
The principle of analogy assumes the uniformity of nature – past experiences are similar to our present experience. In other words, historical knowledge is possible because all events are similar in principle. The laws of nature in biblical times were the same as now.
As such, since our present experience is non-miraculous, our interpretation of the past must be non-miraculous as well. With respect to the life of Jesus, this means that his life must be interpreted as having been non-miraculous.
In essence, by applying this Troeltschian principle, one would have to conclude that, whatever that gives rise to the faith of the disciples, it cannot be the miracle of the resurrection. As Stein says in his book, ‘although never stating it quite so bluntly, an investigator of the Matthew’s resurrection account using the historical-critical method is essentially saying, “Let’s investigate what we can learn about the history of this account, but we must of course agree at the start that Jesus did not rise from the dead!” (Stein, Robert H. Chapter 1. Jesus the Messiah: a Survey of the Life of Christ. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1996).
3. Principle of Correlation
According to this principle, the phenomena of history are inter-related and inter-dependent and no event can be isolated from the sequence of historical cause and effect. Therefore, any historical explanation must always take into consideration the preceding and subsequent events and be interpreted in light of them.
Liberal theologians employ an undogmatic, non-supernatural, historical method of biblical interpretation.
In the words of a liberal theologian, Rudolf Bultmann:
The historical method includes the presupposition that history is a unity in the sense of a closed continuum of effects in which individual events are connected by the succession of cause and effect….This closedness means that the continuum of historical happenings cannot be rent by the interference of supernatural, transcendent powers and that therefore there is no “miracle” in this sense of the world. Such a miracle would be an event whose cause did not lie within history… (Existence and Faith, as quoted in Stein, Robert H. Chapter 1. Jesus the Messiah: a Survey of the Life of Christ. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1996).
One does not have to assume that the Bible is specially inspired by God, nor does the Bible contain any specifically divine discourse, or that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God. Therefore, in the view of a liberal theologian, the resurrection account would have to be started with a non-miraculous presupposition.
By studying the life of Christ by basing on the Troeltsch’s principles, miraculous happenings would not be possible. And a study of the life of Jesus that excludes the miraculous is destined from the start to produce a Jesus who is an aberration. As it has been said, where one starts one’s investigation will determine the results one obtain.
As Stein said,
In light of the importance of presuppositions about the supernatural on the outcome of one’s work, authors should make clear from the start the position they take on this matter. It is misleading to say that “due to their investigation” authors conclude that Jesus was not born of a virgin, that the miracles are later myths created by the church, that the faith of the early church gave rise to the accounts of the resurrection and not the other way around, and so on. All these conclusions were predetermined before any investigation began. It should come as no surprise that when one starts with the view that miracles cannot happen, the conclusion is that miracles investigated did not happen.” (Stein, Robert H. Chapter 1. Jesus the Messiah: a Survey of the Life of Christ. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1996).