At the turn of the 19th/20th century, W.J. Melancthon published A Problem in NT Criticism (Scribner, 1900), based on his Princeton lectures (1897-1898). Here he outlined the essence of why method is primary both temporally and in importance:
"..we may come to these documents with the idea of finding out the literary and historical truth about them. This is a scientific spirit. But if our spirit is scientific, then it makes considerable difference whether we have a method or not, and ...what that method ought to be. In fact, the thing that will make our work scientific is the method which it has. Without right method it cannot be scientific. The results may be pleasing, ...and now and then be right; but they can never be reliable, much less convincing, least of all, aggressively true.
With right method, the burden of proof against the results we reach must always rest with ...our opponents.
We are perfectly aware of the risk we run in using the term "scientific". It is a term which is easily misunderstood for "liberal" ...Such a misunderstanding is hardly fair. There is a right and a wrong way to carry on any study. There is a right and wrong way to carry on NT criticism. The right way is scientific, the wrong way unscientific. A scientific method is nothing more than a method that is right and not wrong. Therefore...we are under obligation as searchers after the truth, to pursue the right method and not the wrong, unscientific way.
Consequently, what is proposed,...is a plea for an honest, scholarly, scientific, right method in NT work; and this is proposed, not in the interests of any one school, but in the interests of truth.
There has always been need of right principles and methods in order to reach right results. For this reason there is an urgent call upon those who stand for the truth to stand for it on firm footing, to meet opponents on their own ground, and to show them what scientific process is, and what kind of process in NT criticism is unscholarly and untrue.
"Has not the right method been pursued all along? - In proportion as supernaturalism has prevailed in NT criticism, it has not been scientific in its work, from the very fact that it was supernaturalistic."
It is just as well to have these questions pressed upon us from the start; for this brings us face to face with history and the present facts:
Some years ago appeared Horne's Introduction (1818 - 4th ed. 1860)...and it must be confessed it lived up to its profession. ...the mind that carried it through was a scholarly mind. But an encyclopaedic method is not the scientific method. ...A thorough drill in customs and geography may be all necessary, but this is not the place where it belongs. An introduction course is not a scrap-book process. Instead one places oneself before the documents and concerns oneself with the questions which they scientifically suggest:
(1) The historical question of how the books were gathered.
(2) The philological question of the characteristics of the languages.
(3) The textual question as to how to reach the original autographs.
(4) The hermeneutical question of principles to be applied in interpretation.
So we see that reaction against Horne's method was right. Horne's was not the proper scientific method. But the opposite extreme of limiting study to the Canon was also wrong. Regarding study of Greek, its not whether the public has adequate background, but whether NT Greek belongs to scientific study. There may be some things yet to be learned, even by scholars themselves.
On the other hand, Textual Criticism is too important to be thrust into a mere prefatory Introduction. ...
The 'right (scientific) way' has not yet appeared in current books. The discipline seems to be misunderstood. The purpose of an 'Introduction' is lost sight of.
The scientific bearing upon the presuppositions with which we must stand before the question of authorship is evidently all confused. Introduction serves no purpose to the all-important work which follows. The plunge into specific criticism of separate books is done with the feeling that Canon, language and text is not so important after all.
Confusion and disorganization is what may be always expected when wrong method is indulged in, and an unscientific process is taken up."