Biblical Criticism in the 19th and 20th Centuries

The humanizing of Scripture

James Montgomery Boice (1986:79) boldly stated, "Modern biblical criticism, more than anything else, has weakened and almost destroyed the high view of the Bible previously held throughout Christendom."

A Novel Approach to Scripture?

Higher criticism is a type of critical analysis of the text of Scripture concerned with identifying underlying literary sources, classifying literary types and conjecturing authorship and date of composition. Such linguistic and historical research is used to construct a broader context for the Biblical text. It is not unique to the 19th and 20th centuries. Similar methods were used by Theodore of Mopsuestia (c.350-428), who exegeted Scriptural texts using grammatical and historical clues; Ibn Ezra (1092-1167), a Jewish scholar of the Pentateuch in the Middle Ages; and even Martin Luther in his exegetical analyses. But these approaches were not nearly as radical in their approach to Scriptures as that which was promoted by Jean Astruc.

French scientist and physician Jean Astruc (1684-1766) established a method of biblical study which came to be widely accepted in Germany, then throughout Europe and the United States. In trying to establish the literary sources of Genesis, he published a work in 1753 which broke with traditional views on the background and meaning of the book. First, he disputed the authorship of Moses. Second, he shifted from a study of the words in the book to the authenticity and integrity of the whole book. Third, he sought to answer questions of authencity by an aggressive focus on only the internal semantic data such as style, vocabulary, syntax concepts and other features. Other scholars such as Johann Eichhorn (1752-1827), Wilhelm De Wette and Edward Reuss soon expanded the study from Genesis to the whole of the Old Testament. Hupfeld in 1853 asserted that the Pentateuch was teh work of at least two authors. The culminating work was Julius Wellhausen's (1878) Prolegomena which disseminated the Graf-Wellhausen theory, the JEPD four stage documentary hypothesis (J is the Jehova source, E is Elohim, P is priestly documents and code and D represents later editorial work of the Deutoronomist or Dueteronomic school). Later writers divided Isaiah into two parts and dated books such as Daniel to later times.

On a superficial level, research applying the principles of higher criticism radically reorganized the dates and authorship of Old Testament writings. On a deeper level, as Kraeling (1955:94) wrote, these studies "marked the beginning of a completely secular and evolutionistic study of the Old Testament sources."

The application of higher criticism to New Testament texts occurred in the same period, beginning with Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1778). Reimarus in his Fragments published in 1778, denied the possibility of miracles and advocated that the New Testament writers were pious liars. Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860) applied Hegel's historical concepts of thesis/antithesis/synthesis and reorganized New Testament history assuming a conflict between Petrine theology (the Law and the Messiah) and Pauline theology (Grace and New Creation) in the early church. David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) in his Life of Jesus (1835-36) denied miracles, the integrity of the New Testiment and the deity of Christ. Out of such works, the search for the "historical Jesus" began. Other influential scholars were Albert Schweitzer and Bruno Bauer. These scholars distinguished between the Jesus of history and the Christ of the disciples. Supernatural elements were excised to allow the real man Jesus to emerge. Some scholars, like Bauer, eventually denied the historical existence of Jesus.

Higher criticism culminated in the work of Rudolf Bultmann. He was consumed with stripping away the mythology of New Testament writers, for example, references to heaven, hell, miracles and the resurrection. He denies the validity of a pre-incarnate Christ, the virgin birth, Christ's sinlessness, his deity, the atonement of sins through his death, a literal resurrection and asecension of Christ and future judgement of human beings. Bultmann assumes a period of oral tradition in which the disciples gradually and creatively added these elements into the life and teaching of Jesus. For Bultmann, the earliest Christian sources represented by the New Testament do not set out to record literal history. Instead, the documents are fragmentary and full of legends. All we can know from the text, according to Bultmann, is the thinking of the church; we can know nothing about the historical person of Jesus. The Bible, then, is to be approached in existential terms. Individuals are to look beyond the words of scripture to their existential meaning to find authenticity, security and meaningfulness (Roberts, 1984).

Boice (1986) summarizes the major characteristics of higher criticism:

While the Reformation exalted the Bible, higher criticism humbled it. In essence, higher criticism humanizes Scripture. The Bible is no longer God's revealed word to people; instead, the Bible is a progressive outgrowth of people's dreams and aspirations in relation to God, edited and amended over hundreds of years.

Scripture minus God equals Literature

With higher criticism, Scripture loses its distinctive authority. It no longer represents absolute truths for us to discover, discern and doctrinate. It becomes merely an exemplary piece of literature, important for the themes that are treated instead of for the supreme being who authored it.

The danger of higher criticism is its speculative nature. Harrison (1984:512) states,

As with other disciplines, higher criticism needs to be handled carefully because of th ease with which results can be obtained by pure speculation in the absence of external data. Since the Reformation, biblical study has been littered with unsubstantiated suppositions, hypotheses, and theories, not infrequently based upon some concept of organic evolution. This can be seen clearly in the work of nineteenth century liberal scholars, whose studies were generally so lacking in external controls, such as archaeological evicdence, that unwarranted liberties were taken with both bibilical interpretation and historical processes.

Clearly, biological theories of evolution were applied by analogy to the Bible, with the result that Christianity was viewed as a product of religious evolution. For example, Cairns (1981:412) states that "critics emphasized the development of the idea of God from the primitive storm god of Mount Sinai to the ethical monotheistic god of the prophets."

The end result is that in a short period of time, the Bible became a distinctively human document. Speculative efforts of the evolutionary path followed to acheive this remarkable document have consumed many scholars. The denial of its authority in matters of faith and practice was a logical consequence.

Implications for Spiritual Authority

The methodology is an outgrowth of the emergent individualism, humanism and rationalism of the 18th Century. The Bible is stripped of its transcendent authority and becomes either a book of history or of unique, individual expressions of faith. In either case, the Bible becomes at best an ethical guidebook, leading by example rather than by dogma.

If the Reformation weakened ecclesiastical authority, higher criticism surely weakened Biblical authority. As a result, church leaders that had based their authority on abiding by Biblical standards were now left with no basis at all. If people fail to accept the Bible, any authority which claims to derive from the Bible is nullified.

This leads us directly to the modern crisis in spiritual authority. Ecclesiastical authority based upon a leadership position in the Church was weakened by the Reformation's exaltation of sola scriptura. Leaders had to abide by Biblical standards and be accepted by a discerning laity in order to be granted spiritual authority. Later, higher criticism weakened the perceived integrity of the Bible, therefore its authority also came into question. Church leaders lost their only base of authority.

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Books cited on this page are:

Books by Rudolf Bultmann:

Books about Rudolf Bultmann:

For more information on Biblical Criticism, see R.K. Harrison et al. Biblical Criticism: Historical, Literary and Textual.
Most recent revision was August 27, 1996.
Copyright © 1996 Gerardo Marti
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