THE PREACHER'S ATTITUDE TOWARD THE CRITICAL STUDY OF THE BIBLE
By FLOYD W. NEASE
From The Preacher's Magazine, Aug. 1927.
When once it is determined what Biblical criticism is, what are its fruits, and the methods employed, the attitude of the evangelical minister will be easily discerned. And let no one assume that the term is used commonly without equivocation even by those who are other than members of the laity. The term Biblical criticism is never used by some of us except as an introduction to a discussion of infidelity and as a precursor for the vehement utterance of certain stock phrases decrying the justly condemned German rationalism. However Biblical criticism, as properly understood, deserves better treatment at our hands.
One of the most important branches of theology is properly termed the science of Biblical criticism. All who use the Bible should be "critics" in the sense of constantly using their "judgment" on what is before them.
In the early stages of the science, Biblical criticism was devoted to two large branches, the Lower and the Higher. The Lower Criticism, or as it is now more generally called, Textual Criticism, had for its task the study of the text of Scripture and included investigation of the manuscripts, and the different readings in the various versions and codices and manuscripts in order that it might be made certain that we have the original words as they were written by the divinely inspired writers. If the term is so used, Erasmus, Bengel, Tischendorff, Screvenes, Weseott and Hort may be properly called lower critics.
The higher criticism, on the other hand was used to designate the study of the historic origins, the dates, and authorships of the various books of the Bible and that great branch of study which, in the technical language of modern theology, is known as introduction. It is thus seen to be a very valuable branch of Biblical science having the highest significance as an auxiliary in the interpretation of the Word of God. It is just such work as every minister or Sunday school teacher does when he takes up his Peloubet's Notes, or his Stalker's "St. Paul" or Geikie's "Hours with the Bible" to find out all that he can with regard to the portion of the Bible he is studying. Such study is not only desirable, but indispensable for every evangelical minister.
Having gone thus far, it is necessary to declare ourselves in hearty accord with the words of Canon Hague: "No study perhaps requires so devout a spirit and so exalted a faith in the supernatural as the pursuit of the higher criticism. It demands at once the ability of the scholar and the simplicity of the believing child of God. For without faith no one can explain the Holy Scriptures and without scholarship no one can investigate historic origins." There is a higher criticism that is at once reverent in tone and scholarly in work (Green, Orr, Bissell, Munhall, Moller, Anderson, Parker, Kennedy, Harne, Urquhart).
It is an admission that cannot be made without reluctance, but one forced from every lover of "the faith once for all delivered," that the great host of the leaders of higher critical research have conducted their investigations in such a manner and have been imbued with such a spirit that the outcome is totally subversive to faith and trends toward the elimination of the supernatural from the Bible, the humanization of Christ and the deification of man. When thus conducted, higher criticism becomes destructive, and is the foe of evangelical belief and, at its worst, the ridiculer of Christian experience.
The leaders of modern destructive higher criticism are men with a strong bias against the supernatural. The men who have been and are the voices of the movement are notoriously opposed to the miraculous. From the days of the origin of the modern critical movement by the Dutch rationalist and philosopher Baruck Spenoza, including the early English representative Hobbes, and the Frenchman Astruc, embracing the German critics from Elebborn to Baur and Strauss, numbering also the British-American group led by Davidson, Driver and Briggs, not one leader of this movement has been willing to accept in any proper sense the supernatural element in the Scriptures -- all have been men who have based their theories of judgment, evaluation and interpretation on their own subjective theories.
The outcome of such a movement, while diversified in numerous details, eventuates in the destruction of the Christian system of doctrine and of the whole fabric of systematic theology. Canon Henson tells us that the day has gone by for proof-texts and harmonies. It is not enough for a theologian to turn to a book in the Bible, and bring out a text in order to establish a doctrine. It might be in a book, or a portion of the book that the destructive critics have proved (?) to be a forgery or an anachronism. It might be in Deuteronomy, or in Jonah, or in Daniel, and in that case of course it would be out of the question to accept it.
Before we consider further the fruits of the destructively critical attitude, it will he well, if possible, to locate the roots of the tree, the tap root, if it can be found. What, then, is the fundamental principle, the axiom upon which the destructive criticism proceeds? It is upon the idea, as Renan expressed it, that reason is capable of judging all things, but is of itself judged of nothing. The formative force of this higher critical movement is a rationalistic force and the "whithersoeverness" of the most rationalistic is eagerly pursued by those leaders who should have learned that it is essential that we "cast down imaginations, and every high thing that is exalted against the knowledge of God, and bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ." The anthem of their marching forces has for the refrain and central idea "Where it (reason) leads, I will follow where'er the path may be." And their advance, if so it be, is made forgetful of the fact that the entire history of our race is the history of millions of men gifted with reason who have been in perpetual conflict one with another, and that in not a few cases "the greater the power of reason has been, the greater has been the error." And it is with such reason that sentence is to be passed upon a divinely given book!
It is not easy to say who was the first destructive critic. Some would give the doubtful honor to Diabolus himself; certainly it is not modern by any means. But in recent times there has emerged a doctrine which has given a thousand-fold impetus to this obnoxious criticism. I refer to the hypothesis popularly known as evolution. Of course evolution, cosmic and biological, is not new; its rudiments may be traced back at least five or six centuries before Christ to the first dawnings of speculative thought in Thales of Miletus and Heraclitus the "weeping philosopher" of Ephesus. But in modern times a new hold has been gained by the doctrine and its status at present is such that it presumes to dictate terms to the whole intellectual world.
The German philosopher, Hegel, who made evolution the central idea of his doctrine, declared that "the march of God through history" was the total significance of the world. This was a reviving of a principle for which the whole rationalistic world was evidently waiting. Vatke discovered in the Hegelian philosophy of evolution a means of Bible criticism. The Spencerian philosophy, aided and re-enforced by Darwinism has tended to establish a principle which makes the whole world to be in a state of flux and flow. Species, once accepted as individual and inviolable products of special creation, were declared to be unstable, mutable and changing. The astronomical world was shown to be a constant succession of nebular and changing solar systems. Philosophy accepted the principle and truth was found to be unstable, and values were declared to be subject to the criterion of usability and "cash" considerations. Standards of ethical qualities, such as honesty, virtue, righteousness and justice are most established forever in the nature of the universe and in the character of God, but are changeable and changing in the intermingling of men and are finding definition only in experience-human experience.
It was too much to assume that any barrier whatever could bar the principle, for which universal application was claimed, from the field of theology and Biblical criticism. It is what one would expect from in theologian whose method is avowedly rationalistic when we find Professor Jordan stating "the nineteenth century has applied to the history of the documents of the Hebrew people its own magic word evolution. The thought represented by that popular word has been found," he says, "to have a real meaning in our investigations regarding the religious life and theological beliefs of Israel." Dr. Franklin Johnson declares that "were there no hypothesis of evolution there would be no higher criticism." The "'assured results,'" he affirms, "have been gained, after all, not by an inductive study of the biblical books to ascertain if they present a great variety of styles and vocabularies and religious points of view. They have been attained by assuming that the hypothesis of evolution is true and that the religion of Israel must have unfolded itself by a process of natural evolution." That the principle of evolution with its naturalistic and psychological elements is the basis of Old Testament criticisms is freely admitted by Dr. Albert C. Knudson in his "Religious Teachings of the Old Testament."
The application of the criterion of reason, in the light of the principle of evolution, and according to the individual judgment of the investigator must be depended upon to give us the "assured results" of biblical study. It is unfair to expect agreement, for there is "no king . . . [authority] in Israel [critical investigation], every man doeth that which is right in his own eyes," he reaches his own conclusions. Thus we find Wellhausen certain of twenty-two different authors -- all of them unknown -- for the books of Moses, while Kuenen is satisfied with sixteen. The noted English Critic, Canon Cheyne, is said to divide the book of Isaiah into one hundred and sixty divisions, and all by unknown authors and scattered over a period of four and one-half centuries. The same illuminating method has enabled these critics to discover that
The Jehovah of the Old Testament is some heathen God introduced by David.
Abraham either never lived or was a Canaanite chief -- more likely a myth.
The twelve sons of Jacob are very probably the twelve months of the year.
As to Moses-there never was such a man.
And so it goes. Archimedes only asked for a fulcrum and a lever long enough and he would agree to move the world; these critics only ask that you allow their principle of evolution and the basic axiom of the adequacy of the human reason, and they will change every doctrine of Christian theology and remove the last vestige of idolatry in Christendom, i. e., faith in an infallible and inerrant book, "The Bible."
It is unnecessary for me to suggest the results of critical investigation in the study of the New Testament. With the historicity of the Gospel narratives largely, if not totally, discredited, the miraculous subtracted from it, first and last, the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, the resurrection, and the significant elements of the atonement barred by their "principles or canons of interpretation," the New Testament is devitalized and shrinks to the status of an Elizabethan drama.
Toward destructive criticism, Criticism of the type just mentioned, the evangelical minister can have but one attitude, that of unalterable opposition. There can, however, be no virtue in ignorance and he can not afford to be uninformed concerning the issues and the principles underlying the modern Controversy over the Bible. The preacher is a specialist and as such he must know his field and his text book. Certainly it is a serious error to spend one's time studying about the Bible and neglect to study the Bible. Yet to literally be a man of "one book" today unfits the preacher to be a leader of a people awake to the problems of modern life and investigation; moreover, he will himself soon reach the limit of his own comprehension and fail in the effort to lead his flock into new pastures.
May we, then, for a closing moment turn our back on the destructive distortion of biblical criticism and consider what a minister may hope to find in a devout reverential pursuit of the science under consideration. A brief enumeration of the topics to be treated will perhaps suffice to indicate the breadth of the field and to furnish a hint of the interest to be found in them.
Biblical archaeology; biblical geography; natural history, hermeneutics; apologetics; evidences of authenticity; authorship; dates; circumstances surrounding the writings; problems considered and the character and conditions of those addressed; such problems as these cannot be without interest to a thoughtful minister.
The practical application of the critical method to the preacher's problems will stimulate greater effort than their abstract consideration could possibly do. And the light shed upon his Bible by the facts of introduction will be of inestimable value. Personally, I very much doubt whether anyone can deal intelligently with, say, the First Epistle of John without a considerable knowledge of the background of the writing. What explanation which is approvable can he given the first chapter, or any chapter for that matter, without a knowledge of Gnosticism and its bearing on the contemporary church. The prologue to the Fourth Gospel and numerous passages in the writings of St. Paul will be greatly illuminated if the then current doctrines of Alexandrianism are known. Until one has discovered by critical investigation on his own part or that of another that 1 Corinthians is not indeed the first epistle which St. Paul directed to the church at Corinth, one can hardly get a synoptic view of the writing. Then if one may add some knowledge of the heterogeneous nature of the membership, the attack on the Pauline apostleship, and the peculiar moral problems of Corinthian life, it will greatly enhance the grasp of the discussion. Knowledge of the last epistle will enable the student to understand that 1 Corinthians is composed largely of answers to specific questions and efforts to correct actually existing errors and malpractices. A pathway through the entire epistle, as clear as daylight, is at once opened when one knows that some of the questions asked the Apostle had to do with the desirability of marriage or celibacy among Christians; the relation between master and slave, the eating of meat offered to idols; decorum in public worship; St. Paul's desires regarding a proposed collection; a schismatic condition existing over what we would term the call of the pastor; the relative value and significance of the gifts of the Spirit; proper observance of the supper of the Lord or the love feast; the place of women in a church newly hewn out of heathendom in the first century; and tinging every discussion the consideration of an insidious attack upon the Pauline apostleship by certain members of the Corinthian group. Not a few of these problems could be anticipated by one who had some knowledge of the facts revealed by the science of biblical Criticism.
In the sense that the minister should give attention to such considerations as these, much more consideration than I think we customarily accord them, every minister should be a biblical critic, and as such, his pastoral ministry will be greatly enhanced in effectiveness.
May I suggest some questions which have occurred to me during the course of the writing of this paper. Some have suggested themselves long since:
1. Should a preacher ever preach his doubts? If he should not, would the consideration pertaining to destructive criticism find more than an incidental treatment in his public ministry?
2. When helpful texts on Old and New Testament introduction are easily available should not the minister be conversant with the outstanding facts of the subjects? And, should he not find some systematic way of instructing his laity regarding the salient points of the critical controversy?
3. Is any preacher's library complete until he has included in it a set of critical commentaries as well as those of a homiletical and exegetical variety?
4. Would it not be helpful if into the hands of our younger ministry there could be placed a carefully selected and classified list of the more suggestive works on biblical criticism and comment to aid them in building up their libraries and to direct their reading until they attain the experience and background necessary to select and read discriminatingly?
5. Is it basically more fair for the representatives of fundamentalism to assume that the liberalists are a set of knaves than for the latter to assert that the fundamentalists are ignoramuses and fools?