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  • Historical Criticism – examines how the writing expresses historical information to determine actual historical content.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.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Find him everywhere: Find him everywhere

    16 replies to "Critical of Criticism?: A Plea to the Theologically Conservative"

    • Gary

      Well said, Lisa.

    • mbaker


      A thought provoking article, and especially relevant to our times. I think many times what we loosely call Bible study in our churches is simply a discussion of what we think the Bible says, not so much what it means. As we can see from some of the sharp disagreements on this very blog there is often a big disconnect there. I, for one, would like to see some in depth theology classes offered to laypeople at church, instead of some of the superfluous mass produced ‘studies’ which are too often used in place of real theology. And, a solid course on good hermeneutics would be a real bonus, and a good starting point as well.

      Thanks for a well presented article on a subject which is not really addressed thoroughly enough.

      God bless.

    • Marv

      Lisa, I don’t think any of the TECHNIQUES you mention are inherently problematic for the conservative scholar. Some, I think, might not rise to a very high priority for them, however. There are many things you can do with a text as a scholar, besides actually exegete it. As they say, the good can be the enemy of the best, for lack of time.

      Also, while the techniques might be innocent, various critical WORKS may not be. I think it is easy to fold in propositions unacceptable to conservatives in a work of criticism such that it is not readily obvious. So vigilance is required for thinking through the premises a particular critic brings.

      Also, academia so often veers toward game. And each of these is an available game, specifically a house of cards. Person A sets down his theory, person B builds on it, C goes further, etc. Pretty soon that is THE approach du jour. It may have had little or no valitidity starting with person A, but since it is the only game in town, that ‘s the game that is played.

    • Ed Kratz

      Marv, I hear ya. And I especially agree with this,

      Also, while the techniques might be innocent, various critical WORKS may not be. I think it is easy to fold in propositions unacceptable to conservatives in a work of criticism such that it is not readily obvious. So vigilance is required for thinking through the premises a particular critic brings.

      I fear that to avoid such possible corruption, some will throw the baby out with the bath water.

      I also think its not just academia. In fact, I would suggest that taking such dogmatic positions arise more so outside of academia.

    • ScottL

      Lisa –

      Thanks for the article. It went a little differently than I had thought beforehand, but I definitely agree critical assessment of the text to understand it is not inherently a bad thing. As you rightly point out, it is about the presupposition we were starting with before heading into the text. In the end, it really is about motivation of the heart.

    • david carlson

      Good Luck with this Lisa. When conservatives bash and refuse to read authors like Alister McGrath because he is an Anglican, you have a long road to climb

    • Charles Williams

      Lisa, this is a great little piece. You have such an insight and an obvious gift for communicating it. I want to answer but let me do so in more than one part cuz P&P won’t let me paste the whole thing at once.

      Like you I have been immersed in the “critical” literature of Biblical studies, but rather than causing me to develop a greater appreciation for the various critical disciplines I have found myself becoming more and more skeptical. Rather than a lively debate between two reasonable positions (conservative and “not-conservative”) each guided by intellectual and academic integrity I think there are actually two different conversations going on. The preponderance of the work in the critical disciplines seems to be guided by liberal presuppositions and is therefore unable to engage meaningfully with those who might respect critical approaches but who hold to conservative presuppositions.

    • Charles Williams

      It is my opinion that much, perhaps even most, of the current scholarly work on Biblical criticism has lost any pretense at intellectual integrity. It is not only something other than Christian, as Machen said of Liberal theology, but it is also something other than academically respectable. Look at the results. For example, across the horizon of Johannine studies there are more theories about the composition of the Gospel than I can count. It was written by a committee with a political/religious agenda; it was written with a feminist agenda, it was written by Lazarus, or John the Elder, or Barney Fife in his off duty hours. So-called scholars pile one unsupported assumption on another until the original unsupported assumption is so obscure as to become axiomatic and therefore beyond examination. Bultmann’s landmark study of John for example identified five distinct compositional stages…except that after some criticism Bultman revised the number to 3, thinly hiding the other two as subcategories. Give me a break. Another example is the long held and revered documentary theory of Wellhausen. Based on the flimsiest of observations about the Biblical text that in any scientific discipline would have been laughed at, he built an academic kingdom that still rules the day. Gleason Archer did a wonderful job of carefully and systematically pealing that onion. He exposed one odiferous layer of assumptions and fanciful speculations after another. Yet, today, you can listen online to the Introduction to the Old Testament taught at Yale and find old Wellhausen alive and well.

    • Charles Williams

      It seems to me, and maybe I’m just confused about this, but if the work in critical Biblical studies was producing valid results it would, over time, add to our overall understanding of the Biblical text. Certain well-reasoned areas of consensus would gradually appear. Taken collectively the body of academic work would result in a general increase in understanding. If the truth is out there (and I believe it is) then valid intellectual effort would gradually move us toward that truth. In fact Biblical scholarship seems to have the exact opposite effect. I have been studying John and what I have found is that with each passing year the voice of the author of that marvelous Gospel becomes more and more obscure while those engaged in critical analysis have become little more than a raging chaos.
      My point is this. The critical disciplines are good tools. If we would be Biblical scholars we should understand these tools, including their limitations. We should, however, avoid allowing any of these disciplines to become the hammer to which every problem is a nail. Every difficulty in understanding the Biblical text cannot be solved by redaction analysis. Every seeming contradiction does not mandate a source-critical explanation. Sometimes a feminist historical/sociological analysis is simply invalid and unworthy of academic effort. Finally, I think we should be honest. Speculation is a poor foundation in any science and so much of what passes for critical analysis these days is little more than speculation based on shaky assumptions necessitated by untestable presumptions.

    • Charles Williams

      I have one presumption and it has been tested repeatedly in a life that necessitated God’s grace, forgiveness and restoration. My presumption is that the Bible is the Word of God. It is authoritative and in the context for which it was intended it is inerrant. In short, the Bible is truth. It does not contain God’s deliberate revelation of himself to a lost world but is itself that revelation. This presumption means that the study of the Bible must be conducted as the study of Scripture. It is not just another book and analysis that presumes so will inevitably fail to get at the truth.

    • Scott F

      I sometimes wonder if the slippery-slopers aren’t right. For some, deeper study does lead to a weakening or loss of faith. The old joke that seminary is a place people go to lose their faith must have at least a little truth behind it.

      There are those like you for whom criticism is an aid in your spiritual journey, but I think someone like F. David Farnell, whom you quote, are justifiably frightened of the implications of the Synoptic Problem. For Mr Farnell, it probably WOULD be a slippery slope into something he would not recognize as Christianity – perhaps not full blown Dawkinism but something scary nonetheless.

      In no de-conversion stories I can recall – my own included – is intellectual discovery the only driving force. However, if one has certain species of doubt (we ALL have doubt), uncovering the details of how human an endeavor the production of the Bible has sometimes been can prove fatal.

    • Scott F

      mbaker: I am fortunate enough to attend a Sunday School in which discussion of Paul’s purpose and the flow of argument in 1 Corinthians is the rule rather than the exception. On one occasion, we conducted a joint lesson with another class at our church which consisted of reading a single verse and then discussing what it means to us and then moving to the next verse. I wanted to bludgeon myself with the the coffee maker!

      I think the people in the Sunday School class make a big difference. Then again I attend a Methodist church. Maybe it’s different with evangelical congregations.

    • mbaker

      Scott F,

      Did I understand you incorrectly? I thought you had said earlier you are/were an atheist. Do you still attend church anyway, and why if I may be so curious? Do/Did you doubt your deconversion? Sorry, don’t mean to get too personal, and certainly you don’t have to answer if you choose not to, but I find that interesting.

    • Richard

      From a Calvinist conservative:

      Well put, Lisa. Preconceptions. Preconceptions bolstered by rhetoric and unexamined traditions (both theological and ecclesiastical) are choking the Church. When we….truly seek truth, our preconceptions too often become an invisable Jericho Wall–something we assault with horns blaring, without considering that it’s ok–really ok–to ask ourselves the obvious question that screams, “What in the world are we doing?” And then, when we’ve taken a breath (with Job) we remember that it’s the I AM who has actually created this reality–and the victory in front of us. And He’s the same One who wants us to be careful about what we believe.

    • mbaker


      I agree with you for the most part.

      A complaint I have against over rationializing the gospel, (as well as the other way around) is that is that it assumes we can simply reason it all out. We can’t. Bible study is good, and I believe wholeheartedly in it, but for any of us to claim that it is theological rationale alone that counts in the end when we stand before God, rather than simple faith in what Christ did on the cross is a big mistake.

      Thanks for your insight as well into this.

    • Hodge

      The problem has never been the methodologies themselves. It has historically been the philosophical naturalism often interwoven in the literature that champions it that is the issue. Because so many people are not taught epistemology at seminary, and because ironically we often allow the critic to perform a sleight of hand so that we see only the problems of his subject, and not the problems with his own conclusions, these people often fall into the trap that disallows one from seeing the distinction between fact and presuppositionally-driven interpretations and applications of those facts. That’s why so many atheists, who used to be fundies and never could distinguish the two, can’t seem to handle it when a conservative employs and fully endorses all of the critical methodologies without the naturalistic conclusions. They just can’t understand how belief in the text can logically follow once the criticisms they have been brainwashed to think undermine the faith are employed.

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