Modern Biblical Criticism

by Providence Crowder

A Brief History of Biblical Criticism

Biblical criticism can be defined as a scholarly investigation and a thorough inquiry of biblical texts; it asks questions such as, “What is the Bible and how did it develop?”[1]   Within biblical criticism are various forms: for instance, literary criticism examines the origins, composition, and language of biblical sources; historical criticism seeks to determine historical worth of biblical texts;[2] and form criticism classifies scripture into categories such as poems and stories, and attempts to trace its history and oral origins by analyzing its structural patterns.[3]  Overall, biblical criticism is a fairly new phenomenon.  It has been used by opponents of Christianity to discredit and mock the Bible, yet skilled Biblical exegetes have used biblical criticism to gain deeper insights into God’s revealed Word, and have aptly responded to the skepticism that was brought about during the Enlightenment.[4]

Before the seventeenth century, criticism was narrowly focused on theological matters and the Bible was viewed as a divine record of happenings, unrelated to their own historical background and setting.[5]  In recent times, theologians such as Richard Simon and other seventeenth century philosophers and theorists ushered in the age of modern biblical criticism.[6]  By the twentieth century, Hermann Gunkel’s Form-Critical method’s emphasis on utilizing ancient archaeological and literary materials, and his emphasis on oral tradition, impacted the course of twentieth century biblical scholarship by more accurately depicting the biblical times that produced the scriptural writings than did other forms of biblical criticism.[7]  Modern biblical criticism, as noted above has significant strengths.  As well, biblical criticism has its shortcomings; both its strengths and weaknesses are worth noting.

Strengths of Biblical Criticism

In the aftermath of the Enlightenment, the Christian’s faith in their ancient literature, unproven by the methods of scientific inquiry, seemed foolish.  The biblical skeptics had sought to make a mockery out of Christianity as rationality and reason lead the passions of the people.  Post Enlightenment Christianity could no longer proclaim that the Bible was authoritative in modern times because Christian’s lacked tangible proof of its legitimacy.  If there was a historical Jesus as the Bible proclaimed, some Christian had better prove it.  To the cynics, the archaic stories of the Bible sounded akin to a fairytales.  Firstly, the many supernatural occurrences in Scripture were scientifically impossible and the so-called miracles defied the laws of nature.[8]  In response to an outright rejection of scriptural authority and validity, biblical exegetes used the tools of biblical research and criticism to bring credibility to the Bible as a document with historical significance and moral value.

Through Old Testament and New Testament criticism, the ancient faith was made relevant to modern times.  Moreover, once credibility was re-established and Christianity was freed from the captivity that biblical scoffers sought to impose, Christianity was also free to reject the “cult of newness”[9] and “regain analytical skills of discernment honed through centuries of testing;”[10] a rebirth of orthodoxy was born. [11]  The trend towards orthodoxy in modern times has proven that the Christian witness has not been silenced and that the tools of modern criticism have been instrumental in engraving within secular and religious history the traditions and languages of an ancient people; a people that have claimed to preserve, through divine inspiration, the very words of a living God.  This God of creation, Christians proclaim, has not only made himself known to mankind but he has given them a precious gift in Scripture; all things that pertain to life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3).[12]

A second strength of modern biblical criticism is that biblical criticism has exposed exegetical and hermeneutical errors of Christians in times past.  A feminist critique of the Bible surfaced in the latter half of the twentieth century.  Women had suffered great oppression and mistreatment at the hands of men due to an improper exegesis of the Scripture.[13]  Men had used the Bible, particularly the writings of the Apostle Paul, to justify their oppression of women.[14] However, a thorough biblical critique using the tools of criticism uncovered the reality that Scripture was not an anti-feminist document but was in fact to sympathetic to the needs of women and used a significant amount of feminine symbolism to describe God, Israel, the Church and God’s Son Jesus Christ.[15]  Before the advances in the treatment toward women were realized, blacks in America had used biblical criticism to combat the false scriptural interpretations of men who used the Bible as an instrument of their oppression to justify the institution of slavery.

Black slaves in America were kept under subjection in part by their slave master’s unseemly interpretation of Scripture.[16]  Slave owners used the Pauline documents to justify their slavery and keep their slaves under control by quoting scriptures such as “He that knoweth his master’s will and does it shall not be beaten with many stripes.”[17] As a result of modern biblical criticism, blacks, once freed sought to rightly read the Scriptures, refusing to exploit the Scriptures to manipulate people[18] as their slave masters had done.  They, like the women, discovered that God is just and loving.  They discovered their self-worth.[19]

Weaknesses of Modern Biblical Criticism

Many of the strengths of modern biblical criticism can also be seen as a weakness.  For instance, any group of people, such as women and blacks, will interpret Scripture based on their own experiences.[20]  Interpreting one’s social experience through the lens of Scripture is proper.[21]  Yet, when men or women seek to interpret Scripture through their experiences, disasters result.  For example, black liberation theology is the offspring of the black man’s experience in America.  Black liberation theology seeks the dignity of the black man above all else.  The gospel is no longer Christ centered but man centered.  The same could be said for the feminist movement brought about by women who had been oppressed.[22]

The feminist hermeneutics seek equality for women at the expense of changing the biblical texts to be gender inclusive, yet the texts were written by inspired albeit gender biased men.  Biblical criticism of the original text reveals that in much of biblical history, women were treated indifferently.[23]  Yet, though it appears as if the men of that era did not highly esteem women, their God did.  God used imperfect men in a patriarchal society to preserve feminine language to depict his most cherished themes in the sacred text; Israel and the Church, and to demonstrate that care and concern should be demonstrated toward the most oppressed in society, including women.[24]

Conclusion

Biblical Criticism has done much to shape the Christian theology in modern times.  It has influenced how Christians engage their social and cultural settings and helped them compete with opposing worldviews.  Post Enlightenment Christians have been marred by the rationalism of the secular world and have narrowly escaped the abyss of modern liberalism.  Biblical criticisms strengths are such that biblical hermeneutics have been broadened and strengthened by modern tools of biblical inquiry; yet unfortunately Christianity has come full circle allowing those same tools to once again support faulty worldviews.


[1] Alexa Sueler and John S. Kselman, “Modern Old Testament Criticism,” in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy (Upper Saddle River, NY: Prentice Hall, 1990), 1117.

[2] Ibid.

 [3] Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), s.v. “Form Criticism.”

 [4] The Enlightenment is the movement of ideas which characterized much of the 18th century Europe.  Its adherents distrusted all authority and tradition in matters of intellectual inquiry, and believed that truth could be attained only through reason, observation, and experiment.  Thinkers of the Enlightenment often came into conflict with the Church.  Some were atheists; most were deists.  The movements was hostile to orthodox Christianity.  ODCC, s.v. “Enlightenment, the.”

 [5] Suler and Kselman, 1114.

 [6] Ibid 1115.

 [7] Ibid. 1123

 [8] Alister E. McGrath, ed., The Christian Theological Reader, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2001),  82.

[9] Thomas C. Oden, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, Signs of New Life in Christianity, 1st ed. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2003), 33.

[10] Ibid.

 [11] Ibid.

 [12] Eugene H. Peterson, Working the Angels, The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 119.

 [13] McGrath, Christian Theological Reader, 157.

 [14] Carol Osiek, Reading the Bible as Women, 181

[15] Osiek, 181.

[16] Massey, Reading the Bible as African Americans, 155.

 [17] Ibid.

 [18] Ibid ,156.

 [19] Ibid., 156.

 [20] James Earl Massey, Reading the Bible from Particular Social Locations: An Introduction, 152.

 [21] Ibid.,151.

[22] Massey, Reading the Bible from Particular Social Locations: An Introduction, 152.

[23] McGrath, 160.

 [24] McGrath, 158.

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