Sunday, February 05, 2006

Is Higher Criticism Useful?

A century ago the mainline churches had heresy trials about the Higher Criticism of Scripture, while the conservative Protestants laughed it to scorn. The idea that the Bible was the result of the redaction (editing together) of alternative oral traditions and documentary fragments from many communities over a long time – in both the Old Testament and the New Testament – has one of those weird ideas imported from European unbelievers.

Today, even evangelical seminaries teach the documentary hypothesis and contextual interpretation as the standard scholarly way of reading the Bible. Only hard-core fundamentalists hold to the view that the original autographs were written at one go by their reputed human authors under the unerring guidance of the Holy Spirit. Even some fundamentalist Bible scholars allow that there might have been oral tradition behind some texts, and mutual influence between some of them. Heck, they even expound historical context in interpretation sometimes. Even literalists don't always take their literalism literally.

When I was in college and divinity school two decades ago I studied, knew, and accepted the historical development of Scripture, and knew JEDP and the pseudo-Pauline letters. Over the years, though, my memory of which face is hidden in which tree has faded.

I still accept the Higher Criticism as true. I just don't find it useful.

My pastor and Sunday school teachers talk about how Corinthians was written before Romans (I think), and Hebrews isn't really by Paul, and first Isaiah and second Isaiah and third Isaiah are all from different times and were responding to different terrible things that had befallen the Hebrews. I don't dispute their historical analysis. But I cannot recall a time when historical criticism ever helped me understand what the text means to the church. As a scholar, I could be interested in whether Ezekiel is exilic or post-exilic. As a Christian, I don't see that it makes much difference.

I am for a learned clergy. I am a Presbyterian, and our pastors slog through Hebrew and Greek and lots of theology and biblical interpretation. I am glad that their sermons "smell of the study lamp" – to a point. I think it is more important, though to clearly convey the idea that the Bible tells one story that includes us today. For the faith of individuals and for the faith of the church as a whole, this narrative is more important to know than the historical order in which the pieces of that story were assembled.

If I were teaching graduate students the sociology of religion or the sociology of family life, I would have them read through the classical arguments to work up to a rich understanding of the field. I teach undergraduates, though. Few of them will be sociologists. Almost all of them will be spouses and parents and members of religious institutions. What they really need is the best wisdom that I can bring them about how to make a good marriage, how to raise good children, how to be a good member of the faith. We read lots of current studies, but we look mostly to their applications. They know, and I know, that there is scholarship and interpretative argument behind each claim that they make and that I make, but the lived story of the family and the faith matters the most.

So for my part, I say preach the one living story of Scripture. Save the higher criticism of the Bible for the study.


Anonymous said...

But the living story that reaches you may not be the one that I hear. Knowing that the Bible encompasses the stories of different people and times and that these histories were cobbled together to make a single document teaches a greater lesson of tolerance and inclusivity. It also helps me connect what I believe (potentially different from what you believe) with the greater story of the church.

The church is a living institution, but it is also an historical one. It has evolved, and this evolution has made it stronger. To teach a single narrative as the inspired word of God neglects the potential of Christianity as a faith that accepts many different people and perspectives.

Anonymous said...

I'm a Presbyterian minister, and I understand what you mean. Most of us who have "slogged through" Greek and Hebrew, and who go back to read our first sermons, wince as we hear what amounts to a book report instead of a sermon.

Thanks to the patience and grace of the saints, we learn to wear our learning lightly. We do our study, we hope to grow in wisdom and understanding, and we seek to cast light on life by means of study. (Which I prefer to another alternative - never opening a book and preaching some half-baked inspirational thought.)

It's not a simple division between theory and practice; it's the art of becoming a pastoral preacher.

Anonymous said...

I'm all for Higher Criticism if it has any negative impact on Christian fundamentalism.

Michael Kruse said...

I have taken to calling my analysis lower criticism. That is, it is done from beneath the story rather than above it. Both higher critics and fundamentalists make the mistake of placing themselves above scripture and making themselves judge and jury of what it means. For liberals the scripture becomes indicators of some universal human experience (they of course will happy to tell you what the experience is.) For conservatives it becomes a theological erector set for creating endless systematic theologies that never quite hold up.

Scripture was always intended to be interpreted in community and that means both the community of the living and the dead.

Don't know if that makes sense but it is how I see it.

Gruntled said...

I am delighted to see my fellow Presbyterians thoughtfully taking up the challenge of teaching the Bible, instead of just the scholarship about the Bible.

To lmr, I am not sure if we disagree. I read the Bible itself as claiming one coherent narrative of God's work with people, from before Creation, through Christ's redeeming act, and looking ahead to Christ's return and the end of human history. Do you see such a story, too?

To anonymous, I fear that this view is one of the things that is killing the mainline churches like mine: we don't know what we believe, but if the "fundamentalists" are for it, then we are against it. Could you elaborate your position beyond that?

Anonymous said...

I think that we need higher criticism in the same way that we need different denominations. The single narrative to me is too simplistic and only expresses a small part of what Christianity (and the church) have to offer. In the single narrative you propose, where is the idea of Jesus as a liberator, for example? The Bible is the story of God's work with people, but also the story of God's work through people and how people react to God - in many different ways.

Anonymous said...

I believe higher criticism is only useful if it helps us tell the story better. I am a strong supporter of narrative preaching and teaching. If higher criticism is a tool through which we can tell the story better I am all for it. If it some how underminds the story or it reduces the Biblical story to three points then it does not serve pastors very well. LMR I agree that the Bible does offer facets to Jesus' work for instance Jesus as victor, or Jesus as moral role model, however Christianity is based on the scandalous notion that God became man and died for us when we were in bondage. He arose and will come again one day to judge the living and the dead. Any notion that would accentuate one idea about God to the point of excluding that notion is at the least un-orthodox.

Gruntled said...

I think lmr is right about multiple stories within the Bible, and that Dee is right that the other facets turn on the central, scandalous idea.

This line of argument, though, doesn't really touch my original point that higher criticism doesn't really help tell or understand any of these narratives.

In fact, higher criticism is a very modernist project. If, lmr, you want to go all the way to the pomo extreme of treating all these narratives as equally true and good, then I think you may have a bigger gripe with higher criticism than I do.

Anonymous said...

If you accept higher criticism as true, how can you view the Bible as innerant, as you said you do earlier? To me it seems like a great deal of micromanaging on the part of God, to make sure that everything just came together perfectly. It seems more difficult to accept innerancy in view of the fact that we don't have the original version of all the texts involved. Finally, for instance, I'm not sure how you can maintain that the Bible is inerrant in view of the contradictions in the infancy narratives in the Gospel or the anachronistic elements in the story of Abraham. I can see how one might view the Bible as inspired and telling a divinely sanctioned narrative, but I'm not getting the inerrancy thing. It's also seems quite a dangerous notion to believe that the Bible is inerrant that could lead to violence and persecution.

I'm not trying to pester you, I just don't see how this belief fits in with your others.

Finally, in regards your support of the bible in schools, even were we to treat it as literature, it seems inevitable that the question of authorship and thus higher criticism would arise. As some fundamentalists reject higher criticism, I don't see how the Bible could be taught in school.

Gruntled said...


I have now read through the whole exchange twice, and I don't see where I said something that suggested that I believed in inerrancy. Which statement do you have in mind?

And everything we teach in school could be controversial to someone. If we teach it respectfully and don't go out of our way to pick a fight, I think the schools can be in the right. There will still be controversy, but the schools will be teaching something worth teaching.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, gruntled! It's the price one pays when one saves up one's thoughts about a variety of posts and ties them all together. I confused you with gruntled in lexington who said in the comments of your post on teaching the bible in school : "And in case you couldn't have guessed (*wink*), I am one of those individuals to whom you refer -- I do believe the Bible to be inerrant, even as I can't explain every difficulty the text presents."

Sorry. I was really very intrigued that someone could hold your views AND view the Bible as inerrant.

Perhaps you're right about teaching the Bible in schools.But I think we would really have to focus on it as literature and look just at its influence on Western culture and literature. We would really have to avoid historical and textual criticism. To transplant the standard undergraduate course on the Bible to the public schools would raise such a furor. Most people are very comfortable believing that the Bible is the literal Word of God and just sort of fell from the sky fully formed and would feel quite disturbed to learn of the influences of the Babylonian Enumah Elish on Genesis, the lack of evidence for the historicity for David or even of the Exodus, etc. ,etc. I know that some learned people still accept both the historical evidence and the idea that the Bible is Word of God, but certainly one's faith has to recover from that blow, the mind has to reconfigure, indeed if it is ever able to do so.

As an aside, if people really want to preserve people's faith, it would probably be better to give them little bits of historical evidence and controversy in church lest they become overwhelmed and lose their faith when presented with the historical evidence.

Thus, little doses of the higher criticism would both inoculate them against secularist challenges and also lead to a more moderate and open-minded Christendom.

Gruntled said...

Ah, yes, that explains it.
I think that high schools should teach the cultural and historical influence of the Bible. In the course of doing so they would probably need to mention that the Bible was produced by Jewish and Christian communities over time.