First off, I write this as one who is theologically conservative with respect to the divine inspiration and authority of scripture. I believe that scripture was originated by God concerning his self-revelation and it is inerrant in its original autographs. So with that I will say, the more I learn about Biblical criticism, the greater appreciation I have for the Bible as the word of God. I recently took a class with Darrell Bock on the Introduction to the New Testament, where we spent a great deal of time discussing the various components of Biblical criticism, which further deepened my convictions that investigation of scripture deserves the highest level of scrutiny.
For those unfamiliar, Biblical criticism is “the process of investigating and evaluating available evidence in order to make informed decisions about the historical, textual and literary aspects of the written text.” (Darrell Bock, class notes). It involves analysis that will help determine the histriocity of the text and the author’s intent, as they wrote to a particular audience, at a particular time in a particular way. The important thing to note is that the word ‘criticism’ is a misleading nomenclature for it carries the connotation of criticizing the Bible. Rather it is a way to better understand the Bible as it was written in its historical, cultural and grammatical context. Some of these components are,
- Source Criticism – it helps understand which sources each evangelist used in the composition of their writing. With respect to the gospels as the apostolic witness to God’s self-revelation in Christ, it seeks to understand literary interdependence and the possibility of outside sources (Q, M, L)
- Historical Criticism – examines how the writing expresses historical information to determine actual historical content.
- Form Criticism – identifies the form used in reflecting the life setting
- Redaction Criticism – seeks to understand how the writer compiled his work to express their theological perspective. In the case of the gospels, it seeks to solve the synoptic alignment
- Textual Criticism – seeks to ascertain exact wording of the autograph where textual variants occur.
I have not always had this appreciation. There was a time when I would have rejected any type of critical study on the basis that it would undermine the inspiration and authority of scripture. I was particularly disenchanted with any type of redaction theory or historical criticism. After all, wasn’t it these theories that led to conclusions that the Bible was not a divinely orchestrated book and divorced from the revelation of God? It is great to understand the context in which the Bible is written, but once you start investigating through the lens of these theories, you are headed down the slippery slope towards liberalism. At least, that is what I thought.
Unfortunately, I have found that this sentiment looms large in theologically conservative circles. Not all, since there has been much investigation in the realm of these studies by conservative scholars. But it certainly does speak to some. Part of the reason I believe is a misunderstanding between lower criticism and higher criticism. The former preserves the dual-authorship of the bible as a book written by men as they were moved by the Spirit to transmit the word of God. The latter dismisses the bible as a divinely orchestrated book due to an anti-supernatural presupposition that is the product of rationalist thinking.
The significance of this distinction is that it treats the belief in the divine origin of scripture as separate from the methodology used to examine it. When these issues are confused, it results in a rejection of analysis that can prove helpful in ascertaining authorial intent in context of God’s meta-narrative and his revelation. That sentiment can be seen in this comment by F. David Farnell in his assertion that the synoptic problem is a historical-critical myth,
Scholars who hold a high view of inspiration must realize that any problem regarding synoptic origins is a creation of an anti-inspiration and anti-supernatural stance stimulated by philosophies that are inherently hostile to the Word of God…To date, no evangelical historic critic has avoided dehistoricizing the Gospels at some point. (Farnell, Three Views on the Origins of the Synoptic Gospels, pg 250)
Basically, what he is saying is that employing these type of evaluations will naturally result in a rejection in foundational orthodoxy. But nothing could be farther from the truth. The higher criticism employed by rationalistically minded scholars rejected the divine revelation in scripture not because of the methodology, but because they approached the study of the bible with the anti-supernatural supposition to begin with. It was not the methodology that was opposed to scripture but the conclusions drawn by those with this presupposition. There’s no good reason to suppose that evaluating the Biblical text in consideration of its human production in context of its historical and cultural processes, will naturally lead to the leap of denial of inspiration or the foundation on which Christianity is built.
Rather, lower criticism employs methodology that engages an honest assessment of how the Bible came to be in time and space. It considers that scripture was both breathed out by God and written by men who lived in a particular culture that utilized particular means to communicate a message. It recognizes that the Bible did not miraculously appear but underwent a production process according to its setting.
The fear against metamorphizing into liberalism is also unwarranted. In one of his comments on his Myth of Liberalism post, Dan Wallace proposes that liberals have much to teach in the way of evaluating the Biblical text.
But some of the best commentaries are written by non-evangelicals (whether they are ‘liberal’ or not may be a different matter; in any event, it is often hard to tell). I have learned much from Bart Ehrman, J. K. Elliott, And David Parker, for example. And I recommend my students to study under them for their doctorates. Some of the best lexical, grammatical, historical, and even theological work has been done by unbelievers. But it always needs to be filtered through a christocentric grid. ‘Liberals’ have a lot to teach us, and we have some things to teach them, too–if they would only listen.
This needn’t mean that studying such material will constitute a rejection of the divine origin of scripture. In fact, I would propose that rejection of methodology that treats any type of evaluation of the Biblical text as anathema, could produce harmful consequences to the body of Christ. In a class discussion on redaction criticism, I asked Dr. Bock how to navigate this topic with conservatives who oppose any type of evaluation. His answer was simple, ‘what do you do with the differences in the gospel accounts, pretend they don’t exist?’ Great point! They do exist and an honest assessment and explanation is in order. I fear that too many inquisitive minded Christians have had their questions expunged by rhetoric that is neither helpful nor fruitful in offering legitimate explanations all because of the belief that such investigations will lead to disrupted faith. I think not answering the question is even more troublesome and can spiral nagging doubt into shipwrecked faith, especially when answers are offered from other sources from a non-conservative perspective. Often, the first answer wins and if its not sifted through a conservative theistic lens, guess what happens?
So my conservative friends who fear this type of study, I appeal to you to not be so recalcitrant towards examination that could further prove why we uphold scripture as the word of God. It may prove that we have much more to learn about the trustworthy source that has been handed down to us than we previously thought.