Biblical criticism is a comparatively recent development in the history of the Christian Church. Beginning with the rise of rationalism in the seventeenth century under Spinoza and later with the Encyclopedists of the French Revolution, Christian scholars were confronted with the problems of the historical origins and validity of the biblical records. If, as their opponents contended, much of their content was a mass of legend, written at a time later than the traditional dates demanded, composed by men who possessed no first-hand knowledge of the facts, and carelessly copied by ignorant scribes, the genuineness and authority of the Bible would be seriously impaired. How could a jumbled miscellany of myths, shaped by the limited knowledge and concepts of an unenlightened or bigoted era, convey any imperative message that modern scientific thinkers would accept?
In the attempt to meet the attack, biblical criticism was developed as a science. The problem of the accurate transmission of the manuscript text was the province of textual (lower) criticism; the objections to its historicity and literary integrity became the battlefield of historical (higher) criticism. Unfortunately much of the rationalistic attitude of the Encyclopedists was perpetuated in the development of critical study. Many of its advocates rejected the authenticity and integrity of the biblical books, though they attempted to retain Christian faith while destroying its foundations.
Biblical higher criticism is not necessarily an assault on the Scriptures but is an examination of their historical and literary relation to the times and events concerning which they were written. The study is not in itself destructive; it can confirm and illuminate the biblical text just as well as it can cast doubt upon it or devaluate it. Insofar as historical and literary evidence can be used to find out exactly what the Bible means and to remove difficulties in understanding it, the study is beneficial. If it has been harmful, the fault is that of the critic rather than of the method.
In understanding the procedure of biblical criticism, however, we may ask what limits should be set for it? If the Scriptures are the Word of God, as evangelicals believe, are they not above criticism? Would not any challenge to their truthfulness or integrity be blasphemous impudence? Is not any questioning of the Bible a piece of impertinence?
Since the Bible was written by human beings who lived at definite times in definite places, its contents are related to the circumstances and localities in which it was produced. The historical events of which it speaks or from which it springs, the personalities who wrote it or whose deeds it chronicles, and the ideas that it contains are all a part of a setting to which other records and literature belong. A comparison between the facts and concepts in the Bible and those in contemporary literature may be a valuable means of interpreting its meaning for modern readers.
On the other hand, if the Bible is the revelation of God to men, it must be superior to any ordinary book. Not only must its teachings be reliable, but the historical framework in which they are contained must also be accurately set forth. Psychological truth can be conveyed by historical fiction, as many novels demonstrate, but the Bible does not purport to be fiction. The events which it narrates are recounted as actual happenings; its characters are treated as actual men and women; and its ideas are set forth as the Word of God to men. Even the characters in Jesus’ parables, which are obviously illustrative stories, seem to have been drawn from life, and may reproduce actual episodes in His knowledge. If we take the Bible at face value, it demands not only attention but also obedience. We dare not pervert or discredit it by an unwarranted mishandling of its text.
Where, then, shall biblical criticism begin, and where shall it stop? Can we commence the process of historical and literary evaluation, only to halt at a fixed point, because to go beyond it would be sacrilege? Can we curtail our investigations without placing an unwarranted curb on honest scholarship? Are there necessary bounds to criticism which the nature of the Bible requires?
In order to determine the proper sphere of biblical criticism, the following limitations are suggested:
LIMITATION OF INSPIRED CHARACTER
One should begin by recognizing the unique character of the Bible. Its dynamic is different from that of any other piece of writing that has survived from antiquity. The reality of this dynamic is amply attested by its effect on history. Throughout the period in which the Scriptures have been known and circulated, they have produced a moral impact upon men that cannot be duplicated by any other literature. The reading of the Law by Josiah moved the king to repentance and reform (2 Kings 22:10–13; 23:1–25); the public translation by Ezra stimulated a sweeping change in the conduct of the people (Neh. 8:1–6; 9:1–3); and in more recent times the Bible, wherever it has gone, has proved to be a potent force in promoting righteousness. Not all of its characters were morally upright, and not all of its history can serve as a model for behavior, but the standards by which it measures both those characters and that history are far above those of contemporaneous religious belief. Neither Homer, nor Plato, nor any other writer or philosopher has had the influence for moral change or given so lofty a concept of God as has the Bible.
Any criticism that seeks to explain the Bible must take this fact into account. To treat the Bible simply as the Hebrew-Christian contribution to the literary achievements of the race, neither better nor worse than the other surviving documents of antiquity, is to undervalue it and to ignore the most striking characteristic of the book. A criticism that does not allow for this dynamic and does not recognize its existence will necessarily draw partial, if not faulty conclusions. Such criticism will tell as much about the Bible as dissection of a corpse will tell about the living man. It fails to recognize the living quality of the Scriptures.
LIMITATION OF EVIDENCE
To conclude that the Bible is incorrect in its statements because it does not accord with the historical or scientific information that we possess overlooks the fact that not all the necessary evidence may be available. The narratives of the Bible do not pretend to give a complete account of all the events that took place, nor even to deal exhaustively with the phenomena that concern them most. Historical records of past ages have largely perished because of the wars, vandalism, and neglect that they have suffered. Many statements of the Scriptures cannot be corroborated because they have hitherto remained the sole witness to the facts of which they speak, but they need not consequently be regarded with suspicion. As new discoveries enlarge the knowledge of the ancient world, they tend to confirm rather than contradict the Bible. All interpretative hypotheses that are formed from known facts should be regarded as tentative until sufficient evidence is available to afford concrete confirmation.
Sometimes the critic rather than the evidence may be at fault. He may not have seen the evidence in its proper light, and so may have drawn hasty or false conclusions. Biblical language can be misunderstood because it is not in the idiom of our own times. Numerous minor misinterpretations of the New Testament have been cleared by the discovery of papyri which have not changed the readings of the manuscripts, but which have shown that a well-known word had been wrongly translated. Any previous critical judgment on the text, however learned, would have been erroneous in circumstances of this kind because of imperfect understanding on the part of the critic.
The critical student of the Scriptures should learn to discount his own prejudices when dealing with evidence. Complete objectivity is probably impossible, for even unconsciously human beings think in molds; but if the theologians of the past have failed to interpret the Scriptures correctly because of an “unscientific” bias, it is equally true that many critics of the present fail even more lamentably because of an anti-supernaturalistic bias. In cases where positive evidence is lacking, suspended judgment is imperative; and the benefit of the doubt should be given to the Bible’s claim for itself.
In forming any conclusion concerning the historicity and truthfulness of the Scriptures, we should always keep in mind the purpose for which they were written. The writers of the Bible did not include more than their purpose of writing demanded, nor did they explain contemporary phenomena for the benefit of scholars in the twentieth century A.D. To charge them with omission or obscurity is to presuppose an obligation that they would not have recognized. Their readers or hearers would have understood easily allusions that are obscure to us, and would have been able to fill in gaps by commonplace knowledge that is not now available.
Furthermore, one should assume that these writers were normally truthful. Apart from any question of inspiration, the authors of the Old and New Testaments were not impelled by a perverted ambition to victimize a gullible public. They were not making a point of producing religious fiction. Most of them were prophets and preachers who jeopardized their lives to proclaim what these manuscripts contain. They would not have wasted their efforts in trivia, nor would they have propagated untruth. Falsehood is not unknown in religious literature, but there is no reason for beginning biblical research with the assumption that the subject of study is untrustworthy.
LIMITATIONS OF POSITIVE CONTRIBUTION
The unfortunate connotation of biblical criticism which has brought it into disrepute is that it is characterized by destructive denial. Generally those who have employed it have been accused of constantly attempting to find discrepancies in the Bible, and to discredit its truth. To enumerate apparent inconsistencies or disagreements in the text may be a part of the total procedure of investigation, but to conclude on a basis of insufficient evidence that they indicate unreliability is quite another thing. The aim of a healthy criticism should be to seek fuller understanding and confirmation of the purpose of sincere writers and to clarify their obscurities, rather than to make these obscurities a reason for rejecting their testimony.
The above limitations do not circumscribe the scholar in his investigative work. He has the utmost liberty to search for evidence, classify and interpret it, view the Bible in its light, and formulate hypotheses of interpretation that may prove helpful. They do mean that he cannot honestly entertain a hostile bias to the Scriptures and at the same time do them justice, nor should he treat an hypothesis as fact when it has not sufficient material evidence to support it. He should be sure of his premises before speaking with finality.
As an illustration of the application of these limitations, one may cite the work of C. C. Thiele on The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings. For years the chronologies of the kings of Israel and Judah had defied reconciliation, and many scholars had concluded either that the biblical text was corrupt, or that it was historically untrustworthy. Thiele, operating on the principle that the record was truthful, though obscure, showed quite satisfactorily that it involved two methods of reckoning that changed without notice in the text. While he did not solve immediately all the problems of chronology, his simple explanation reconciled the conflicting figures and confirmed the existing account. Accepting the presupposition of essential truthfulness led to sounder conclusions.
The recognition of limitations is not a plea for obscurantism, but for more persistent research. Where the Bible seemingly disagrees with history, we need to probe deeper into the available evidence and be ready to rearrange our thinking, if necessary. Hypotheses may come and go; understanding may be imperfect; but truth is eternal, and is available to those who will pay the price for it.
Thy Word is a Mirror
I am that man who built more barns
To hold the grain he could not use.
I am the careless youth who sold
His birthright for a bowl of food.
I am the brother who, by ruse,
Stole blessing in a borrowed hide;
And, passing by on the other side,
The pious man who prayed too loud
To hear the groans beside the road.
I am the young fool who expended
His fortune in a foreign place;
And, staying at home with duty, was offended
To watch the prodigal’s return to grace.
Lost in the brambles of some rocky cleft,
Am I perhaps some one stray scabby sheep
For which the ninety-nine are left?
M. A. PRYOR
Samuel M. Shoemaker is the author of a number of popular books and the gifted Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. He is known for his effective leadership of laymen and his deeply spiritual approach to all vital issues.
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