Joseph A. Fitzmyer recently published The Interpretation of Scripture (2008), which is subtitled In Defense of the Historical-Critical Method. The way he sees it, the historical-critical method is a “neutral” method. One can either employ this neutral method to Christian ends, by adding on presuppositions of faith and belief, or one can employ the neutral method in service of the Devil, by adding on presuppositions opposed to Christian dogma (and Fitzmyer cites the work of Reimarus, FC Baur and DF Strauss in this latter category):
“Since the historical-critical method is per se neutral, it can be used with such faith presuppositions. Indeed, by reason of them it becomes a properly oriented method of biblical interpretation, for none of the elements of the method is pursued in and for itself. They are used only to achieve the main goal of ascertaining what the biblical message was that the sacred writer of old sought to convey – in effect, the literal sense of the Bible.” (69)
So even though the method was developed as a result of Enlightenment ideals of freedom from dogma, and before that from Reformation ideals of freedom from tradition – despite the genealogy which gave rise to it – the historical critical method is a neutral method.
As theoretical logic this is probably quite right. It doesn’t matter what your motives are for constructing a method; evaluation of a method as ‘neutral’ or ‘biased’ depends wholly on the mechanics of the method itself.
But in practice the historical critical method is never simply a matter of theoretical logic. It is always pressed into the service of some overarching project, whether Calvin’s attempt to establish a rival magisterium in the Bible, or Kant’s and de Wette’s project to establish a rival to church dogma, or the project of most recent confessional biblical scholars to serve the church.
So, for example, even if there is no a priori reason why the historical-critical method should favour atheistic material monism rather than theism, its utilization by material monists will practically always favour atheistic conclusions, whereas its utilization by theists will almost always favour theistic conclusions. For the method is inseparable from its background presuppositions. These conclusions may not technically be the a priori result of employing the method, but due to the background, such conclusions are effectively a priori (or if you like, they are a priori results masquerading as a posteriori results – the situation of the ‘no true Scotsman’ fallacy).
So in explaining an event – say the Resurrection of Christ (just to get away from 586 and all that) – although the method has the theoretical appearance of a netural method, there is no hope in hell that an orthodox Christian historical critic will ever weigh the evidence in favour of the Resurrection not occurring, and there is the same chance that an atheist will view the evidence as demonstrating a miracle.
The historical critical method is never in reality “neutral” – even if it is in theory.