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Biblical Criticism

INTOLERANCE IS a spirit so easily harbored as almost to make it seem native to the human mind. It shows itself in all realms of opinion, in social customs, in politics, in religion, but nowhere more so than in religion. There are those both in and out of the Church for whom the exposition of any truth in collision with their fixed belief would prove entirely useless. The positiveness of such minds in asserting their own opinions is likely to be equaled only by their intolerance of the opinions of others.

There are those, however, who fear that the present-day Church is largely shorn of spiritual power because of the work of "biblical criticism." This view, however invalid, may merit consideration on account of the sincerity of those whom it disturbs. That the science of historical and literary criticism, now of secure standing, has in recent decades had large application in the examination of the Sacred Scriptures is too historic to need reaffirmation.

That the continuous publicity, much of it sheer caricature, which pro and con has been given to biblical criticism, has resulted in dislodging some minds from their inherited views cannot be denied. The unsettling of inherited views has always followed in the wake of progressive thought. The intellectual world never pitches its camp on new territory without leaving on its trail a certain contingent of mind whose mental repose has been painfully disturbed. When men are thrown out of their life-long ruts of thought by the dynamic of a new, or by a new application of an old, truth, there is no known law which will save them from a sensation of mental dislodgment. The inevitable unsettling of cherished and restful beliefs is a part of the price and the risk which the race has always had to assume in its intellectual and moral advances into new fields of truth. From this viewpoint the price of biblical criticism has been costly.

It may not be unfitting that we should briefly trace some of the historic phases of the critical movement. And at the outset we must remind ourselves that the kind of criticism which has been applied to the Bible is precisely the same as that which has been applied to all important ancient, and even more modern, literature. The science of criticism was not created primarily with reference to the Sacred Scriptures.

It is to be feared that they who at offhand condemn the application to the Bible of modern critical methods are themselves not well informed concerning the antecedent conditions in the case. It is to be remembered that for a thousand years prior to the Reformation the people had well-nigh no access to the Bible. An "in-fallible" Church arrogated to itself the sole interpretation of this Book for mankind. Early in the Christian centuries, largely through the influence of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, the methods of biblical interpretation became mystical and allegorical to a degree that practically shrouded from human view most of what now appears to us as the plain sense of the Scriptures.

The theological teaching of the Church was not so much a reflection of Bible truth as it was of patristic homilies and of human interpretation, a great burden of which in the light of most reverent vision is now seen to be grotesquely absurd. The literature of the Bible was not studied grammatically nor in the light of its proper historic setting. The Bible, and with an interpretation adapted to the purpose, was principally used to bolster and to give sanction to the usages and teachings of the Church. Hedged in by an artificial and mystical interpretation which largely disguised and nullified their real message, a close prisoner in the keeping of an infallible Church, the Scriptures themselves had almost no opportunity to speak forth their own truth. Such messages as they purported to give were those of patristic allegory and mysticism rather than the plain utterances of Jesus Christ and his apostles.

These ages, moreover, were characterized by a great dearth of learning. Science, in the modern sense of the term, was well-nigh unknown. History was a negligible quantity. The great cities of the past had fallen into ruin. The wide continent, for the most part, was divided between the wilderness, the rival camps of feudalism, and lawless marauders. Even in the Church itself the man of real learning was the exception. Among bishops and priests alike there was almost universal ignorance of the original languages in which the Sacred Scriptures appeared. While there were other versions in whole or in part, yet for centuries the chief Bible in use, even in the Church, was the Latin Vulgate itself a very defective version of the original Scriptures. The first complete Greek Testament given to the world was that prepared by Erasmus in the sixteenth century. Ignorance, dense and superstitious, cast its dark shadows far and near over the entire continent of Europe. The term "Dark Ages" may have been in some sense over-worked. But in contrast with the intellectual splendors of our own age, it would seem difficult to find a more fitting term by which to describe the intellectual conditions which prevailed in Europe for a millennium of years prior to the Refomation.

Of the Church throughout these desolate ages it should be said that, however egregious and false many of its claims, however despotic its rule, however great the abuses to which it loaned its sanction, however impure was much of its guiding life, however perversive its interpretation of the plain gospel of Jesus Christ yet, on the whole, the rule of this Church over the peoples of Europe through all these dark and turbulent centuries must be stamped as beneficent. Without the reign of the Church it is impossible to surmise what would have become of the world itself. The Church was immeasurably far from ideally representing the spirit and mission of its Master. But it was the one and only power whose authority was universally heeded in these ages, and as no other power it did represent the authority of heaven, it thrust the sanction of eternal things upon the popular view, and as another Moses coining straight from the flames and thunderings of Sinai, it held over these rough ages restraints and regulations which seemed to utter themselves as from the very lips of God.

The Church, for these Middle Ages, may not unfittingly be likened to a big uniformed policeman of Providence. It wore the badges of highest sanction, it embodied in itself the highest authority known to the human imagination. It carried at its girdle the weapons of most fearful retribution against the disobedient, and it gave highest pledges of eternal safety and reward to all obedient citizens. This policeman himself was far from ideal. He was despotic, arrogant, overbearing, oftentimes savagely misusing his authority, often grossly unjust, often under guise of sanctity committing nameless outrage against heaven. Yet, on the whole, we look back upon him as the one historic figure without whose guiding hand the civilizations of the Middle Ages could never have been piloted over into the rich heritage of our modern world.

Such, in general, was the condition of Christendom until the breaking forth of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. The Reformation was a widely contagious and powerful protest against the assumptions, the despotisms, and the corruptions of a Church which for centuries had asserted a heaven-ordained and in-fallible authority over the mind and conscience of Europe. Whatever else may be said about the Reformation, it is safe to say that it was the rock against which were fatally shattered the claims of an infallible papacy.

But the Reformation, however great as a movement, was very far from working the intellectual emancipation of the age. Even the reformers themselves remained under mental bondage to many inherited ideas, ideas which it would require a more enlightened age to illuminate, to revise, or displace. Indeed, while the reformers stoutly challenged the authority of the Church in its use and interpretation of the Scriptures, it did not at all enter into their purpose to institute a critical examination of either the historic or literary character of the Bible. It was not accepted as even a part of their mission to question acutely the great body of traditional lore which underlay the accepted views of the sacred books in their day. However vastly important its mission, it was still not the mission of the Reformation to call into being a school competent for the task and eager for the work of giving an adequate critical study to the historical and literary character of the Bible. Even the age of the Reformation, luminous as it was. was not ripe for such a movement.

Not until in the latter part of the eighteenth century were the conditions ripe for a real science of historical and literary criticism. It was at this period that the human reason came fearlessly and invincibly to assert its own inherent and independent right to investigate and to know for itself. This was the period when the treasured fund of age-long traditions went into bankruptcy. A significant feature of this new intellectual era was that its leaders were laymen.

This era may be characterized as one largely skeptical, at least one of profound and fearless mental inquiry. In its atmosphere no dogma was revered simply because it was enshrined in hoary traditions, no ecclesiastical interpretations were accepted as true simply on the long-standing sanction of priest or council. About the only infallibility recognized was that which inhered in the human intellect itself. A passion of investigation was begotten which could be satisfied with nothing short of knowing the truth and the whole truth about every subject interrogated.

In this new atmosphere all ancient records and literatures were subjected to most critical reexamination. Their historic and literary relations to the countries and times in which they originated, the truth or falsity of their narratives, the integrity or corruption of the texts in which they have come down to us all these features were made the subject of most fearless, patient, and exhaustive study. Indeed, this was the birth-period of what is now the well-established science of historical and literary criticism.

Now, as a most obvious fact, the Scriptures could not escape the application of this new critical inquisition. Their very prominence as the most sacred literature of the world would inevitably subject them to this process. The fact that the men applying the new methods might have been skeptical and unbelieving as to the sacred character of the Scriptures themselves could really make no difference with the final outcome of the case. In so far as the Bible was a body of literature, and by so much a human product, the new student felt at perfect liberty to apply his critical investigations. If the Bible is really a divine record, then no amount of critical investigation can finally do it harm. If its character is attacked and misrepresented by a false skepticism, then it simply remains the duty of the Christian defender to expose the falsity of the attack, and to restate the grounds for belief in the divinity of the records. And this was the process necessitated.

It is puerile to cry out against the higher criticism as such. The scientific criticism of the Bible was as inevitable as the movements of Providence. The Church would be most recreant to duty not to engage in this work. If the Scriptures should be unjustly dealt with because of the skeptical and hostile spirit of some of the promoters of the new critical movement, this would only impose upon the Christian scholar a new obligation to expose and to refute the attacks. That Christian scholarship should become an active, and in the long run the leading, participant in the work of biblical scientific criticism was from the very induction of the movement itself both a supreme duty and a superlative opportunity.

Biblical criticism developed along two principal lines. First, a most exhaustive scrutiny was given to the character of the texts through which the Scriptures have been transmitted. The new critics turned their attention naturally to a dogma which had been accepted alike by the mediaeval and the Reformation Churches, namely, the infallibility, the inerrant inspiration, of the Scriptures themselves. A critical examination and comparison of the various texts promptly revealed the fact of many variants in these texts, and consequently gave room to challenge the long-cherished dogma of the plenary verbal inspiration of the Scriptures. Since the beginning of modern biblical criticism there have come to light many hitherto concealed manuscripts, especially of the New Testament, all of which have contributed to a larger interest in textual study. When the great work of Westcott and Hort in producing their Greek Testament was undertaken, it was then conceded that the textual variations between manuscripts at their disposal numbered not less than one hundred and fifty thousand. Surely, a very great number !—yet all testifying to the supreme importance which the Church has attached to the preservation of the New Testament Scriptures, and furnishing at the same time the best possible conditions for the critical ascertainment of the correct originals. It may be said in passing that large ground of assurance is furnished in the fact that "no Christian teaching or duty rests on these portions of the text which are affected by differences in the manuscripts, still less is anything essential in Christianity touched by the various readings."' We may also grate-fully add that as the outcome of the most incessant and exhaustive studies of all the various texts, the Church is doubtless in possession to-day of the most exact reproduction of original texts possible of present attainment. It must be admitted, however, that the multitude of text variations makes good the challenge of the critics against the always extrabiblical dogma of a plenary verbal inspiration.

The second general direction of scientific biblical study was that which deals with the historical and literary character of the books themselves. The same critical principles were applied to the books of the Bible as to other literature, and, it must be said, with results quite revolutionary, if not destructive of many traditional beliefs. The history of this process, which has now gone on for a hundred and fifty years, with its controversial aspects, its advances and retreats, its incalculable labors, the unmeasured light which has been thrown upon both the history and literature of the Bible, the beneficent reconstructions wrought, the rational appeals which its results as thus far reached make upon the thoughtful and open mind all this presents a field of exceeding intellectual and moral interest, which here must be passed by.

An age had finally come whose scholarship was ripe for treating the books of the Bible purely on the grounds of their grammatical, literary, and historical values. The allegorical methods of interpretation, which for sixteen centuries had mystified the minds of its readers and had obscured the real meanings of the Bible, were now to be swept away. Traditions and doctrines which were not founded upon Scripture facts, but which were based upon the dogmas of a papal priesthood, were to be dethroned. The Bible, its monkish garments laid aside, was to be brought forth from the cloister, and under heaven's own sunlight, and in an atmosphere of intellectual freedom, was to speak forth its own clear, unobscured story to the children of men.

This, if there ever was such, would seem to have been a providentially guided movement. If the Bible is a record of God's dealings with, and purposes toward, mankind, then, it was preeminently due to this book itself the most important possible of all books that it should have unobstructed opportunity to voice itself.

If the Bible is intended to speak God's thought to the human soul, as a man might speak to his fellow, then it was due that all that is human in the book the visions, the inspirations, the hopes, the fears, the soul-experiences, that live themselves in the human writers of this book —should speak at first-hand from its pages.

All that the Bible needs, all that it ever did need, is a clear and unclouded opportunity to declare its own history and to deliver its own message to the children of men. And this opportunity, far more perfectly than ever before, has been afforded by the historico-critical movement. It is absurd to make a bogie of "higher criticism." Higher criticism in legitimate application is an honest attempt to give its subjects absolutely fair treatment. It has been well defined as "an effort of the mind to see things as they are, to appraise literature at its true worth, to judge the records of men's thoughts and deeds impartially without obtrusion of personal likes or dislikes." It is this process, long and patiently applied to both the Old and New Testament literatures, which has yielded to the Church and the world the priceless products of modern, scientific biblical study. The Bible in all its history was never so much studied, its yield of inspiration was never so rich, its divine character never so luminous and unclouded, as seen in the brief period since the birth of the higher criticism.

For the entire invaluable process of emancipating the Bible from the fables of tradition, from unscientific dogma, from mystical and meaningless allegory, and from the domination of priestly authority, we are more indebted to the German than to any other single nation.

The German mind is plodding and thorough to the last degree. It does not know the mood of surrendering a subject until the last question which may inhere in the subject itself has been answered. A review of critics from Semler to Wellhausen puts before us an illustrious procession of the very giants in German scholarship. The measure of unremitting toil, of exhaustive investigation, which this army of scholars has given to biblical problems, is something vast, well-nigh beyond imagination. It is safe to say that no subject of scientific interest to mankind has received more competent attention, more searching investigation, or more patient study than that which has been given to biblical problems by German scholarship. It is due to say that for unbiased study of biblical questions, for their examination in the pure white light of rational thought, the German University has afforded exceptional opportunity to its scholars. Under state management, this university has been the one center inviting free investigation of all subjects of thought with immunity from priestly censorship and from the fear of ecclesiastical ostracism.

It must be sadly admitted that the German mind has suffered greater reactions from the critical process than that of any other people. This general result, so far as the German people were concerned, was natural and inevitable. In the realm of biblical criticism German scholarship was a pioneer. This criticism, pro and con, broke upon German thought with startling novelty. In its earlier movement it was brilliantly led by skeptical and destructive minds, such as Strauss and Bauer. Its findings traveled rapidly from the seats of learning to the thought of the common people. It could not be otherwise than greatly disturbing to the common faith. To reach matured and measured results such as are now quite generally accepted by competent and constructive Christian scholarship was a consummation requiring time. It is also to be remembered that for the evils wrought a constructive Christian scholarship was not responsible, while at the same time it is the mission of such scholarship to correct these evils. Nevertheless, it will remain true that the work of Germany will ever command a growing appreciation in the world of biblical scholarship.

It would be an incomplete view which would confine the researches or conclusions of biblical criticism to Germany. On the Continent the scholars of Italy, France, and Holland have made brilliant contributions to this science. In England and Scotland the names of Robertson Smith and S. R. Driver, not to mention. scores of others, stand in enviable fame as workers in this field. If one really desires to know what contribution American scholarship has made to this world subject, let him read the names alone of the contributors to two monumental products of modern Christian thought, namely, The International Theological Library and that greatest commentary of the Bible in English, The Inter-national Critical Commentary.

The fact to be emphasized is that wherever in the world to-day there is a commanding scholarship, there is also acceptance of the broader results of higher criticism. As the great Professor Sanday, of Oxford, says, "Its conclusions are international and interconfessional."

It would be quite gratuitous, as well as false, to assume that the history of the critical process, first and last, has not been characterized by a wide diversity of both opinion and motive. Indeed, it may be said that the movement in its earlier stages was largely negative, if not destructive, in its aim. Men of all beliefs and nonbeliefs espoused its work. Men who were foes to an inspired faith naturally took advantage of all evidence which they could turn against a traditional orthodoxy, or by which they thought they might undermine the proofs of the Scripture as the record of a divine revelation. To admit this is only to concede a feature which has been true in the history of all intellectual controversies. There has been no scientific discovery which some have not sought to wrest against accepted theories of truth. This, upon the one hand. On the other hand, nothing in the history of thought is more obvious than that traditional theories and dogmas have been in innumerable cases forced to give place to new views of truth as resulting from new studies.

The fact, however, that merits all emphasis to-day is, that biblical criticism, which has now reached the status of a science, is no longer, if ever, in control of negative or destructive minds. The vast work of biblical criticism as now conducted is in the hands of the most able, expert, and constructive scholars of the entire Christian Church.

Another fact, freely to be admitted, is that the mission of biblical criticism is as yet far from complete. There are a multitude of minor questions still in solution, questions on which the most expert either hold themselves in suspense, or on which they have not as yet reached grounds of agreement. The silence or the disagreement of critics on many questions can furnish no just ground for surprise. The data for the critical settlement of many questions are still undiscovered, or, at best, most obscure. It is wonderful, however, and occasion for devout gratitude, with what success modern scientific research is uncovering the evidence which more and more must decide the at present unsettled questions of biblical criticism.

Having said so much, I now call attention to the larger other side of this question, a side which merits all prominence. It would be a great mistake for any to assume that the fundamental principles and the larger territory of biblical criticism are not already secure. For a hundred and fifty years, and especially and pre-eminently for the latter part of this period, this task has engaged the ablest scholarship of the Church. No field in the entire history of human thought has been more expertly or exhaustively examined than this. The result is that there have been reached wide agreements as to fundamental principles, and the larger territories within which all the lesser questions must be explored and settled have been clearly outlined. The supreme battle of Christian biblical criticism has already been fought and decisively won. It is only those who have neglected to avail themselves of the abundant sources of information who will have the hardihood to deny the facts.

A statement of detailed results secured would prove too voluminous for our present treatment. In the field of the Old Testament, I know of no more concise or complete summary of these results than that presented by Dr. James Strachan, a richly furnished biblical writer of Edinburgh. In the New Cyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, he says of Old Testament criticism :

It has reconstructed the history of Israel in the light of that other modern principle "There is no history but critical history." For the incredible dogmas of verbal inspiration and the equal divinity of all parts of Scripture it has substituted a credible conception of the Bible as the sublime record of the divine education of the human race. It has traced the development of the religious conceptions and institutions of Israel in a rational order. Moving the Old Testament's center of gravity from the Law to the Prophets, it has proved that the history of Israel is fundamentally and essentially the history of prophecy. It has made a sharp and clear distinction between historical and imaginative writing in the Old Testament, and so enhanced the real value of both. It has appreciated the simple idylls of Israel's folklore, pervaded and purified as they are by the spirit of the earlier prophets, and used by them to transfuse the devotion of a higher faith into the veins of the people. It has thrown light as Astruc saw that it would on the many duplicate, and even contradictory, accounts of the same events that are found in close juxtaposition. It has explained the moral and theological crudities of the Bible as the early phases of a gradual religious evolution. It has denuded the desert pilgrimage of literary glory only in order to enrich the exile. For the "Psalms of David" it has substituted the "Hymn book of the Second Temple," into which are garnered the fruits of the religious thought and feeling of centuries. To the legendary wisdom of one crowned head it has preferred the poplar philosophy of many generations. For a religious history which looked like an inverted pyramid, it has given us one which is comparable to an ever-broadening stream —the record of a winding but unwavering progress in the moral and religious consciousness of a people. Instead of crowding the most complex institutions and ideals into the infancy of the nation, it has followed the order of nature "first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear."

In the field of the New Testament the critical process has come as near as present conditions of human knowledge will permit to the settlement of the synoptic problem; has thrown a flood of light upon the writings of Saint Paul and upon his life and times; has established the probability as nearly as all accessible evidence may affirm that all the present writings of the New Testament were produced within the first century. The secured canonicity of some of the lesser epistles, such as Jude, Second Peter, Second and Third John, are still open questions, as they were when the New Testament canon itself was formed. Upon questions of the authorship and the dates of the Johannine writings more microscopic scrutiny has been concentrated in the last twenty-five years than through all the preceding Christian centuries.

Professor Sanday, a foremost authority on the fourth Gospel, says that it is without doubt the latest of the Gospels and is written with a knowledge of the other three. In his view, "It is a retrospect by a writer of commanding position and authority, presupposing what has been. already done, but adding to it from the stores of his own experience and reflection." It is with him an open question whether its author is to be identified with John, the son of Zebedee, though he leans to the probability that he was the same. In any case, he has no doubt that the author of the fourth Gospel had been a personal disciple and follower of our Lord, though a youthful one. It must be conceded, I think, that concerning the fourth Gospel, the Apocalypse and the First Epistle of John, some unanswered questions still remain.

Well, finally, it may be asked : What is the value of it all? If to have the most luminous and accurate knowledge possible of the historic foundations of our faith; if to have a Bible purged of priestly fables, of mystifying allegorical interpretations, of false traditions and of unscientific constructions ; if so to clear the entire field of traditional false conception as to permit the Scriptures to speak directly to us from the background of their own grammatical and historical settings; if to have accessible to every Bible reader the most correct texts which human study can give, and the most perfect historical environment possible of reproduction; if to hear and to know the words of Christ, if to see his historic image, more perfectly than has ever been permitted to any generation of his followers; if to walk in vivid historical companionship with his apostles; if to have at our command a more rational and defensible view of the Bible as an inspired record of God's dealing with, of his purposes toward, mankind if there be high value in all these things, then, the biblical critical movement will take its permanent place in history as one of the most significant and beneficent in the providential scheme of the world.

( Originally Published 1914 )

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