Friday, 17 October 2014

Historical criticism - a guide for the perplexed

One term that is guaranteed to make fundamentalists blanch even more than 'evolutionary biology' is historical criticism. Mention it, and you are guaranteed to have them talk at length about evil 19th century German scholars out to destroy the Bible, with Schecter's aphorism that "Higher Criticism is no more than Higher anti-Semitism" summarising the fundamentalist antipathy towards historical criticism. Certainly, allegations about Julius Wellhausen's anti-semiticism have circled for ages, while Friedrich Delitzsch's "Babel und Bibel" lecture series, in its "claim that the literature of the Bible was dependent on, and even borrowed from, the literature of the dominant culture represented in the region of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers" implied "that the origin of the Old Testament was human, not divine, and that the Christian faith therefore had its roots in pagan mythology." [1] 

However, abuse of a tool does not necessarily discredit it. It certainly needs to be remembered that Jean Astruc, the father of the documentary hypothesis was a Christian who saw his work as defending Christian orthodoxy, while many respected Biblical scholars who are also Christians use historical criticism and do not see it as being inconsistent with faith. [2]

The claim that 'higher critics are out to destroy the Bible' is often made by fundamentalists, and is often twinned with the dire warning that taking a more academic approach to Biblical studies will result in a loss of faith. One cannot help but suspect that the fundamentalists have created a self fulfilling prophecy. Evangelical scholar Kenton Sparks notes:
So we face a curious paradox. If biblical criticism leads to false and destructive results, and if it is indeed as intellectually bankrupt as some conservative theologians aver, then why have so many thoughtful believers entered university graduate programs with a vibrant devotion to God only to emerge on the other side of their studies with a dead or failing faith, and with the firm conviction that historical criticism easily bests the traditional viewpoint? 
Do Christian graduate students succumb to the deceptive power of university professors? Are they easily swayed to sacrifice their faith on the altar of academic respectability? Is hubris so endemic to academic inquiry that most graduate students–even Christian graduate students–arrogantly use critical scholarship to escape God’s claim on their lives? 
Perhaps. But even if these questions direct our attention to important issues, there are other questions worth asking, questions traditionalists sometimes overlook. 
Is it possible that the persuasive power of historical criticism rests especially in its correctness? Could it be that historical criticism–like the astronomy of Galileo–has been destructive not because it is false, but because the church has often misunderstood its implications? 
If so, then we may eventually have to face a tragic paradox: the church’s wholesale rejection of historical criticism has begotten the irreverent use of Scripture by skeptics, thus destroying the faith of some believers while keeping unbelievers away from faith.

If this is indeed what has happened and is happening, then nothing less is needed than the church’s careful reevaluation of its relationship to historical-critical readings of Scripture. That reevaluation is my agenda here. [3]
Sparks is surely right. It is unhelpful at the very least for fundamentalists to blithely assert that the Christians who lose their faith once they start studying the Bible critically are weak-minded hedonists easily swayed by evil professors in order to toss aside their commitment to Christ and revel in fleshly lists. This is victim-blaming, and is arguably an example of fundamentalists failing to recognise that the real problem lies with them and their their literalist interpretation of the Bible which they have unconsciously conflated with the Bible itself. Most people can cope with the cognitive dissonance arising from trying to reconcile their fundamentalism with what the Bible actually says before they snap, and are left with a shattered faith.

A Christadelphian appropriation of historical critical scholarship is long overdue.


1. Walton, John H. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006. p 15

2. Hays, Christopher M., and Christopher B. Ansberry, eds. Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism. London: SPCK, 2013.

3. Sparks K.L. "God's Words in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship" (Baker Academic, 2008) p 21. Cited by Peter Enns here.