This term, though not welcomed by its exponents, has been applied to a kind of biblical scholarship developed by a small group of university teachers in North America. It began with the breakdown in the 1960s of the attempt by Biblical Theology to use historical criticism in the service of the Church's theology; those events judged to be historical could be regarded as the revelation by which God saves his people—hence the term ‘salvation history’. But the ongoing work of archaeology and literary criticism demonstrated the fragility of the historical evidence.
What is offered by Canonical Criticism to the Church is an invitation, certainly not to reject historical criticism, but to build its theology on the books of the Bible as wholes and not to separate the ‘authentic’ from the ‘non‐authentic’ sections, nor to concentrate on the stages of a book rather than the finished work. The suggestion is that the Bible should be respected as it traditionally has been in the life and worship of the Church. Historical criticism and sociological analysis are not rejected but they are given a subordinate status. The text must be heard as scripture. Books of the Bible must be studied as wholes whose status is that of the authoritative scripture of a believing community.
Canonical Criticism is the work of Christian scholars, but they have devoted most of their attention to the OT, and within the OT particularly to the Torah, which is regarded as the centre of the OT, in the sense that it determines the interpretation of the rest of the OT. This, however, is a problem; for example, in the Torah God's will is made known; his work is clearly understood in Israel—but in the OT book Ecclesiastes the work of God defies a man's ability to comprehend. A further problem for Canonical Criticism is the wide disagreement about the content of the canon, not only between Jews (for whom the OT is the Bible) and Christians, but between Jews and Jews, and between Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Protestants—disagreements reflected even in the order in which the OT books are placed.
The advocates of Canonical Criticism are as much theologians, concerned to establish a firm foundation for preaching, as biblical scholars wrestling with the traditional apparatus prescribed in a secular university. Among the contributions within a Religious Studies faculty are those made without any commitment to a Church or to theism, whereas canonical critics regard the Bible as a unity, and a vehicle of a living faith. For them individual books are viewed as wholes: for example, the two accounts of the institution of the monarchy (2 Sam. 8 and 9) are not alternative and antithetical but complementary and accurate: two views were legitimately held in Israelite debate. The establishment of the Davidic kingship was required for the realization of God's plan, but also it was necessary that prophetic warnings about its abuses should be heard. Moreover, both Testaments are complementary; the day of the Lord predicted (Mal. 4: 5–6) has arrived. Thus, biblical scholars have a role to move on from investigating issues of historical criticism to establishing a basis for commitment to the Bible as a gift for the Christian community.
Although the origin, content, and status of the canon of scripture is very much part of scholarship's agenda, few were prepared to identify themselves with the Canonical Criticism movement, though many OT scholars insist on the essential contribution of the OT to Christian theology.