The So-Called Higher Criticism Of The Bible

The so-called higher criticism of the Bible refers to a number of techniques used in studying the written documents of the Bible. Higher criticism involves three main concerns:

 

a)      looking for underlying literary sources of the Biblical Book or Biblical document.

b)      identifying the literary structure or genre which the Biblical Book or Biblical documents are in.

c)      considering what was the author and date of the Biblical Book or document.

 

Here are the main techniques used in the higher criticism of the Bible:

 

a)      Tradition criticism involves examining the ways in which previous oral or written traditions were interpreted by various biblical writers.

b)      Source criticism involves examining and comparing a Biblical Book or document to a written source from which the former actually or supposedly draws information.

c)      Form criticism involves examining the various literary forms of the Biblical Book or document under discussion.

d)      Redaction criticism involves the study of the ways in which authors of Biblical documents shaped and presented with their own distinctive perspective the information they had. This is relevant especially when examining the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John which draw off similar information.

 

Weaknesses of the higher criticism of the Bible

 

The higher criticism of the Bible has some useful aspects but it has many major weaknesses:

 

a)      First, both tradition and source criticism wrongly assume that we can often accurately identify various previous non-Biblical oral and written traditions or sources from which various Biblical documents supposedly drew off. Many times, the best that Bible scholars can do is provide unsubstantiated speculations about what these non-Biblical traditions or sources were or whether they even existed.

b)      Secondly, even if we can identify an non-Biblical oral tradition from which a Biblical document partly drew, oral traditions are so subjective, it is debatable whether they have any use.

c)      Thirdly, even if the Biblical text itself identifies a non-Biblical source as a basis of part of its words, this does not mean that the rest of the source contains no teachings or practices against God’s will. For example in Jude 14-15, the Apostle Jude quotes from the Jewish writing 1 Enoch. But note the Book of Enoch contains some unbiblical teachings.

d)      Fourthly, form criticism involves examining the literary forms and genre of various Biblical Books or documents. Form criticism is good in some ways, but it frequently assumes that the Biblical authors wrote in the same forms or genre which various non-Biblical authors did from the same era. But this in itself is an unproveable assumption.

e)      Fifthly, form criticism can easily wrongly lead us to assume that because a few verses in one of Paul’s letters do not fit into what we assume is the literary structure or genre of his letter that this means Paul did not write these verses. Such conclusions are based on the unproveable assumption that Paul never wavered from the characteristics of the literary structure or genre the higher critic believes Paul was following. Literary structures and genres are not absolute unchanging standards but are instead only flexible guidelines which authors can amend, adapt and combine with other literary structures and genres.

f)       The liberal theologian Rudolf Bultmann invented form criticism. [1] As we saw in my section “Do not foolishly look for myths or legends in the Bible”, Bultmann taught that most of the main teachings of the New Testament were myths and his foundational philosophy was that of the existentialist relativist German Martin Heidegger. So as a result, form critics often treat the Bible as a subjective fallible mixture of truth and myth instead of as being God’s infallible objective written Word. It is little wonder many form critics invent various heretical unbiblical ideas.

g)      Redaction criticism is helpful in comparing the distinctive perspectives between different authors who were writing on similar topics and were drawing off similar information. But redaction criticism easily leads to wrong attempts to prove that one or more of the four Gospel writers wrote errors or either the Books of 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings or the Books of 1 and 2 Chronicles contain errors. Such “errors” are the inventions of commentators with a low view of the authority of Scripture or are translation errors. These supposed “errors” are merely difficulties which have various possible solutions.

h)      Higher critical techniques are subjective fallible historical and literary methods which change from era to era. For example, in the 1900’s most higher critics of the Bible had great faith in a literary theory called structuralism, treating it like some type of objective absolute analytical tool.

 

Structuralism is

But in recent decades when the post-modern literary theories of post-structuralism and deconstruction have attacked structuralism in academic circles, many higher critics have rejected structuralism and are now treating the above new post-modern theories as almost some type of infallible literary and historical tools. These higher critics of the Bible have done this without realising the great weaknesses of post-structuralism and deconstruction. Both of these two latter theories assume there are no such things as absolute truth, absolute rights and wrongs and an objective view of reality. Also these two post-modern philosophies wrongly oppose the contrasts in the Bible between good and evil, truth and error and other similar opposites which they term “binary opposites”.

Post-modernism is

 

Post-structuralism is

 

Deconstruction is


[1] Paul Enns, “The Moody Handbook of Theology”, Moody Press, Chicago, 1989, page 575.

 

 


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