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Does Higher Criticism Attempt to “Destroy the Bible”? III

July 14, 2011

In this series of post I have begun to consider whether the purposes, assumptions, and aims of biblical criticism attempt to “destroy the Bible!” The first assumption of scholars I noted was that historical critics maintain that the texts which comprise the Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament have not existed forever. The second presupposition I noted was a belief that all texts, by their very nature, have to be written in a certain literary genre, and that genre identification can inform a reader as to some meaning of the text.

Today I would like to consider a third assumption: If texts did not always exist, and if they are written in a specific genre and human language to aid comprehension, then they must have been written down at some point by a person or group. For each of the books, laments, letters, Psalms, etc. of the Bible there must be a human author, authors, or a redactor that originally penned or edited what has come down to us. Higher criticism merely seeks to posit theories as to the human level of involvement in the creation and promulgation of the different texts.

In the first post of this series I mentioned the ancient book of Jubilees. Whomever the author of Jubilees was, effectively what he attempts to accomplish is to remove “authorship” from Moses to the heavenly realm. Another interesting ancient document is the Temple Scroll which presents God as its literal author, and for all intents and purposes, I guess “floats down from heaven.” These ancient documents take divine inspiration into the realm of divine authorship.

Scholarly investigations into authorship are interested in no such speculation. Mainly, this is not an attempt to challenge tradition or negate inspiration, but rather, the recognition that such speculation cannot be proven or quantified. However, what might have transpired on the human level may more profitably be investigated.

Closely associated with investigations into authorship is another assumption: if someone wrote these things down they must have written them down with a purpose for someone. i.e., an audience. Thus in determining the author(s) of Isaiah a scholar will try to determine the audience(s). In trying to determine an author for Revelation considering the community is also logical and beneficial.

Here is a brief, contextless, idea of what this looks like as pertains to Romans. At this point we are moving more from presuppositions to procedures of higher criticism, which is intentional as in the next few posts I would like to examine more fully what the actual procedures of higher criticism look like, and again, whether they attempt “to destroy the Bible.”

While this is not very well done, and rather hastily thrown together, it is meant to stand as a truncated example that what scholars are trying to investigate at certain points is author and audience. Period. They seek to understand who wrote a certain book and who the intended audience was. That is the “goal”. The aim or presupposition is not to “destroy the Bible.”

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As in the above example, considering authorship and real or implied audience can significantly impact the dating of a text as well. In fact, it is almost impossible, I would think, to separate the three considerations. For example, going back to Jubilees, the social, religious, and political events of the second century BCE significantly affect where scholars locate the date, authorship, and audience of the book. From these determinations–which often need to be held lightly–scholars will often try to posit a theory as to the purpose(s) of the letter or book.

Ultimately what has sparked this series of posts is this statement from a supposedly thinking person: “there is no compelling or even reasonably decent argument for supposing the procedures and assumptions of historical biblical criticism are to be preferred to those of traditional biblical commentary.” At this point in our discussion I would submit that the “assumptions” of higher critics are very much in accord with the exegetical process of even the most conservative seminarians (I am excluding fundamentalist whack jobs from this discussion!).

Many students are trained in the exegetical process following probably something close to the Fee exegetical model which includes for every genre an investigation into the historical context in general (Step one!), and the historical-cultural background in particular (step eight). At this stage there would be little difference between the assumptions of higher criticism and “traditional biblical commentary.”

So what’s the problem then? Why is “higher criticism” so dangerous, so malicious to the Christian faith that sheep in wolves’ clothing will try and convince Christians that there is no reason whatsoever to even consider anything they have to say or do? (and here I am reminded of the AIG/Ray Comfort mantra: there is absolutely no evidence for evolution! So there you go. Plantinga is to biblical studies as Comfort is to science. I like that.)

Alvin Plantinga is to actual biblical studies as Ray Comfort is to actual science

Well, first we may have to look at some procedures. In the next post I want to quickly demonstrate some scholarly procedures using two books. One book not many people care about and could care less what sort of procedures and conclusions scholars have concerning it: 1 Enoch. The second, many people are quite concerned what procedures and conclusions are reached concerning it: Genesis. However, what is most interesting, to me anyways, is the similar observations that can be made concerning both books while at no time “attempting to destroy the Bible.”

If anyone is still following this discussion let me know how you are processing it as I am sort of just typing a free flow of consciousness, and what is making sense in my brain may not be making it to the screen! So if I need to clarify something let me know.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. July 14, 2011 8:01 am

    I find this to be well-said so far.

  2. July 14, 2011 8:15 am

    Christians are so opposed to higher criticism because the writings only hold together as “scripture” on the condition that they are not studied too hard. Once you seriously try to investigate authorship or resolve issues of apparent contradictions or ask questions about the seemingly dubious moral guidance or scientific/historical truth in many stories, it becomes apparent that there is no reason to exalt this book over any other book in terms of absolute truth.

    In other words, the bible only holds any moral value because it is assumed to have some before it is read. If you look at it in an unbiased way, it becomes apparent that there is no special revelation there, although one could argue that it is a remarkable piece of literature.

    So in a sense, fundamentalists are right. The mere act of higher criticism does destroy the bible’s value as a religious book.

    • 4xi0m permalink
      July 14, 2011 2:35 pm

      I’m not sure higher criticism destroys the bible’s value as a religious book per se, but it certainly destroys the fundamentalist conception of it. The absolute inerrancy of scripture and its status as the final authority on everything are key to the fundamentalist worldview. If one holds these assumptions, one can only conclude that higher criticism (or indeed, anything that contradicts these assumptions, including science, history, reason, conscience, and experience) must be a conspiratory attempt to destroy Christianity or promote unbelief (and thereby cause people to go to hell), under the ultimate authority of the devil himself. This worldview is insupportable to all but the thoughtless, simple, very ignorant, or very indoctrinated.

      However, countless theologians do not hold these assumptions. Indeed, they practice higher criticism themselves and still find the bible to be a valuable religious book. Take Keith Ward for example. He’s written several popular books taking fundamentalists to task for their warped understanding of scripture, and maintains that the value and main purpose of the bible is Christ’s revelation of the character of God.

      So you’re right too, in a sense. The mere act of higher criticism destroys the bible’s value as a fundamentalist book, but I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it as a religious book.

      Peace. 🙂

  3. July 14, 2011 8:19 am

    I’m a new reader, and it seems I’ve missed some history between you and A. Plantinga.

    What’s the reason for your strong comments against him?

    • July 14, 2011 10:36 am

      There is no history between us. He very likely doesn’t even know I exist, but I dislike the philosophical speculation of his I have read, and the above quote, which I should more explicitly attribute now that I look at it, sparked these posts

    • Chris E permalink
      July 14, 2011 10:57 am

      He’s written on the topic of HC vs ‘traditional biblical scholarship’, and tends to adopt a pre-suppositional approach to cast doubts on elements of HC.

      Sometimes I feel this approach veers towards dishonesty. For instance, simply because someone doesn’t believe in the miraculous – prophecy for instance – you can’t dismiss all their other evidence on why a single text may have two different origins.


  1. August 2011 Biblical Studies Carnival « Daniel O. McClellan

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