Historical Criticism and the Authority of the Bible
J. W. Rogerson
Fifty years ago hardly anyone in academic circles doubted that the historical-critical method was the principal, if not all-sufficient, way of studying the Bible responsibly. It is true that voices from ‘conservative’ quarters were heard in opposition to historical criticism, and that scholarly works such as the introduction to the Old Testament by a scholar such as R. K. Harrison (1970) sought to defend traditional views about the authorship and composition of the Bible; but these voices were few compared with the opposition that had manifested itself when historical criticism in its nineteenth-century form was first encountered by the churches. In Germany the advent of ‘rationalist’ biblical criticism led to the founding in 1817 of an ‘orthodox and church-directed seminary in Wittenberg that would train clergy for the ministry in accordance with traditional beliefs’ (Rogerson 1992: 146–7). In Britain a whole commentary series known as the Speaker's Commentary was organized in order to combat the historical- critical views presented in J. W. Colenso's The Pentateuch and Joshua (1862–79; see Rogerson 1993: 97). In the early 1950s it seemed as though historical criticism had won an almost complete victory, in academic circles at any rate.
Today the situation is quite different, and it is possible, in Anglo-American academic circles, to hear the historical-critical method described as a product of the Enlightenment that has become as suspect as the Enlightenment project itself. This situation has not been brought about by a resurgence in conservative evangelicalism, although, as will be noted later, it has been partly driven by ecclesiastical concerns that resemble those that led to the establishment of the Wittenberg seminary in 1817. It has resulted, rather, from the revolution in biblical studies worked by contact with developments such as liberation theology, feminist criticism, and structuralism and post-structuralism. There is also another important strand in this, which is that the historical-critical method is not a monolithic and unchanging phenomenon, but an approach which has subjected itself to the self-critical scrutiny characteristic of, and necessary to, any academic discipline. The fact that within historical criticism many of what used to be described as ‘assured results’ have been challenged or overturned has looked to outsiders as though the approach itself has been discredited, which is far from the truth.
The first part of this chapter will describe some of the modifications that have occurred within historical criticism, before considering attacks upon the method that have been driven by ecclesiastical concerns. This will then lead to a broader consideration of the relationship between biblical criticism and the authority of the Bible, including the understanding of the Bible as ‘scripture’.
Historical criticism is a blanket term covering many specialized disciplines, ranging from textual criticism (the attempt to be as close as possible to the original autographs of the biblical books, assuming that there were such autographs; see Chapters 12, 13, and 33 above), through historical and sociological studies of ancient Israel and the early church, to the study of the formation of the biblical writings, their genres, their literature, and their theology. This whole Handbook indicates the extent and complexity of the discipline, and even scholars who are critical of the historical-critical method are in fact deeply indebted to it in one or more of its forms. What has happened in practice is that historical criticism, or the historical-critical method (the two terms are often used interchangeably, whether or not this is justified), has come to be associated not only popularly, but even in academic circles, with certain particular conclusions that have dominated scholarly discussions for a century or more. On the Old Testament side, historical criticism has been closely linked to the so-called Graf–Wellhausen hypothesis, which divided the Pentateuch into the four sources J, E, D, and P, dated their composition to between the ninth and fifth centuries, in that order, and proposed a history of Israelite religion, priesthood, and sacrifice in which the institutions ascribed to Moses in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers were regarded as late developments in Israelite religion, rather than divine ordinances revealed to Moses at its outset. On the New Testament side, the scholarly consensus identified with historical criticism has been that which held Mark's Gospel to be the earliest, and to be the main source, along with a collection of sayings of Jesus called ‘Q’, for the gospels of Matthew and Luke, John's Gospel being the latest of the four to be composed.
The so-called Graf–Wellhausen hypothesis has been assailed from many quarters. A magisterial examination of the whole position was published by the Israeli scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann in the late 1950s (5th edn. 1963), but the most serious questioning of it has come from scholars such as John van Seters (1983), who have dated the J source much later than hitherto and who have questioned the view that the legislation in Deuteronomy (D) is later than and dependent on that in J and E (in the book of Exodus). Again, scholars such as Rendtorff (1976) and Blum (1984) have questioned whether the Pentateuch is made up of sources running ‘horizontally’ through Genesis to Numbers, or whether the stories of Abraham and Jacob, to take two examples, are not rather independent ‘vertical’ blocks of material that have been joined together. It must be stressed that these questionings of the old scholarly conclusions do not amount to a rejection of historical criticism. They are refinements that presuppose it. To people outside the discipline, these refinements and modifications may appear to discredit historical criticism, if the latter is identified solely with the views presented classically by Wellhausen. They may also provide ammunition for critics of the method in the form of the argument that if historical critics do not agree about their results, their method must be faulty. If this argument had any validity, it would have to apply to all academic disciplines from Classics to the Natural Sciences!
A more fundamental questioning of historical criticism was made in 1971 by W. Richter, in Exegese als Literaturwissenschaft and the work done by his pupils (see Chapter 34 above). Richter pointed out the circularity of arguments for dividing narratives into sources, and argued that much form criticism was in reality content criticism. However, Richter's aim was not to dispense with the methods of historical criticism, but to place them on a sounder scientific basis in the light of modern linguistics. The same can be said of J. Barr's pioneering Semantics of Biblical Language (1961), which was directed to lexical and semantic aspects of historical criticism.
The advent of literary structuralism and final form criticism in the 1970s brought the criticism that the sources postulated by historical criticism were hypothetical, whereas the final form of the text was the datum of interpretation. The study of plot structure, characterization, and literary artistry in biblical narratives also went in directions which had usually been ignored by historical criticism. The duplications and apparent contradictions in narratives, which provided the clues to the discovery and reconstruction of literary sources in historical criticism, were seen quite differently by structuralists who were looking for binary opposition, or literary critics investigating plots and characterization (see Alter 1981; Bar-Efrat 1989; as well as the reservations about the notion of ‘final form of the text’ voiced by some contributors to Dietrich 2004). It was fair comment to say that these aspects had often been unrepresented in historical criticism. At the same time it should be noted that some structuralist and literary approaches were concerned only with the ‘world of the text’; and were indifferent, or even hostile, to the question whether biblical texts were making truth claims about the world outside the text. Whatever its shortcomings, historical criticism partly took the form that it did because it was concerned with the historical and social circumstances in which the Bible had been produced, and the implications of these circumstances for the truth claims made in the Bible about God's activity in the world.
Another quarter from which the historical-critical method was assailed was that of liberation theology and feminist criticism from the 1970s (Gutiérrez 1974; Mosala 1989; Collins 1985). The criticism was not so much about methodologies as about the interests of the practitioners of historical criticism, who were undeniably overwhelmingly male, Western, and privileged. It was easy to demonstrate that, because of this, historical criticism had overlooked the needs of poor and oppressed users of the Bible, as well as the interests of women, however these latter interests were defined. In many cases, however, liberation theology and feminist criticism did not abandon historical criticism, but used it to investigate those areas of concern that traditionally had been overlooked. For example, attempts were made to reconstruct and thus rediscover the roles of women in ancient Israel and in the early church (Meyers 1988; Schüssler-Fiorenza 1987) or to reconstruct ancient Israel's history as one in which events such as Josiah's reforms in 622 BCE had greatly disadvantaged the poor (Nakanose 1993). To the extent that these approaches utilized the methods of historical criticism, they can be regarded as having broadened historical criticism rather than refuted it.
It is now time to turn to the attack on historical criticism that has been driven by the view that it has not served the needs of the churches. Whether this is a fair criticism will be discussed later. One of the most prominent advocates of this view has been Brevard Childs, and the canonical criticism that his work has inspired (see Brett 1991). Childs's arguments should probably be seen in part as a response to the failure of one of the attempts within historical criticism to assist the churches: namely, the biblical theology movement that was prominent in Britain and North America in the 1940s to the 1960s (see Barr 1999). In one of its forms, biblical theology held that God had been revealed in the saving events witnessed in the Bible, such as the Israelite exodus from Egypt and the resurrection of Jesus, and that this concern for saving history was unique to the Israelites in a world where other peoples interpreted reality mythologically (Wright 1950). Another feature of biblical theology was that the Hebrew language of the Bible was a unique vehicle for conveying truths about God's self-revelation, so that Hebrew word studies could form the basis for claims about the nature of God and the world. Both of these positions were attacked and refuted from within historical criticism (Albrektson 1967; Barr 1961), and the demise of biblical theology left an apparent vacuum in the way that historical criticism could produce results of value to the churches.
Working from within historical criticism, Childs (1979) argued that the process by which the biblical books grew to assume their final form was not an arbitrary process, but one which was guided by the intention that the final form should be scripture: that is, sacred writings believed to witness to the nature and purposes of God. If this was accepted, historical criticism as practised in academic circles had a legitimate theological aim: namely, to discover and describe the canonical processes—i.e. the editorial and redactional procedures that had aimed to produce sacred writings out of the laws, narratives, psalms, proverbs, etc. that had been transmitted down the ages. An implication was that the discovery of the canonical processes would provide clues as to how the biblical texts should be interpreted as scripture: that is, as texts that made claims about the nature of God and the world, and that made claims upon members of churches that accepted the Bible as in some sense authoritative.
There is no doubt that Childs's canonical approach has led to some interesting insights, especially in the case of the of the Psalms and the twelve so-called Minor Prophets, books in which there is internal evidence of redactional processes that were intended to express a particular theology (e.g. Wilson 1985; Saur 2004). Whether or not there is evidence of a ‘canonical shaping’ elsewhere is open to question. A real problem is that even if evidence can be found that shows that texts were compiled and redacted with the intention that they should be regarded as scripture, it is not clear whether, or to what extent, that intentionality can or should provide guidelines for Christian interpretation in today's world. The early church interpreted the Jewish scriptures in their Greek translation as prophecies and exemplifications of the ministry, death, and exaltation of Jesus (Rogerson 2004). In so doing, they made a break with the Jewish community's reading of their scriptures inevitable. Indeed, it has often been argued that the way in which the Old Testament is interpreted in the New Testament should be mandatory for Christian understandings of the Old Testament. A bone of contention that goes back many centuries is whether Isa. 7: 14 should be understood as an eighth-century prophecy that Judah will be delivered from her enemies before a pregnant young woman's child reaches the age of 2, or whether it is a prophecy of the birth of Jesus, as claimed in Matt. 1: 23. It is also the case that for much of its history the church allegorized the Old Testament and regarded its literal sense as less important than its deeper mystical, Christological, and spiritual senses (de Lubac 1961–4). To put it another way, if the Jewish compilers of the Old Testament consciously shaped the final form of the texts in order to express a particular theology or theologies, Christian interpretation of these texts took a quite different line, governed as it was by the belief that the Bible had to be understood in terms of the ministry and exaltation of Jesus. It is true, of course, that modern historical criticism has not regarded itself as bound by earlier centuries of Christian interpretation (but see further on this below), and that it has preferred in cases such as Isa. 7: 14 a historical explanation of the text rather than a Christological one. The question is whether the intentionality that gave the Hebrew Bible its canonical form (assuming the existence and recoverability of such an intentionality) is simply evidence of what was believed by a particular community over 2,000 years ago, or whether it is an authoritative set of guidelines for contemporary use of the Bible. Different answers will be given to this question depending on the commitments, interests, and priorities of those who choose to consider it.
A different attack on historical criticism from the angle of its supposed failure to do proper justice to the Bible as scripture has come from Watson (1994). Watson is sympathetic to feminist criticism of the historical-critical method as well as to women's issues, although he is far less amenable to literary approaches that deny that texts have any extra-linguistic reference. Part of his objection to the historical-critical method is based upon Frei's (1974) arguably idiosyncratic account of the rise of modern biblical criticism, an account that attributed it to the alleged lack of a tradition of the novel in Germany in the late eighteenth century. Watson wants to work with the final form of the text, but to subject it to a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ wherein its morality or interests are contrary to those of modern sensibilities. However, this is not an adjustment of the text to suit modern tastes. Watson argues that the narratives of creation in Genesis 1–2 envisage a created order free from gender discrimination, and that Old Testament laws are concerned with compassion for the poor and oppressed. Thus the mandate for treating with suspicion those biblical texts that offend modern readers comes from the Bible itself. Put another way, modern concerns about justice and equality make it possible to discern those imperatives in the Bible itself, and to use them as keys to the interpretation of the Bible in today's world. In this way the Bible is reclaimed as scripture and as a source of authority for the church.
There is much in Watson's approach that is commendable, although it is a pity that he is so hard on historical criticism and its supposed failures. While it cannot be denied that historical criticism can be used, and has been used, to advocate positions that deny to the Bible any credibility as a humanitarian text, let alone a text regarded as scripture, it must be emphasized that this is not a characteristic of historical criticism per se, but of its particular uses. The recent work of Lauster (2004, 2005) is important here, representing a serious attempt to work out a view of biblical authority that takes full account of new developments not only in critical biblical scholarship, but in literary and communication theory. The next section will indicate that there is an important strand of historical-critical scholarship that has regarded the method as an integral part of the churches' task in interpreting the Bible, and which has sought to produce biblical commentaries and other works in this light.
It must never be forgotten that the study of the Bible has always been critical, if ‘critical’ is understood to refer to the use of every available branch of human knowledge to determine the accuracy of manuscript and other written witnesses to the biblical texts, to enquire after the authorship and circumstances of their composition, and to assess their historical and scientific accuracy. At different times in the history of the church, different issues have been at the forefront of the discussion. In the second century, for example, there was much argument about the phrase ‘he reigns from the tree’ that was found in the Old Latin version of Ps. 96: 10 (Ps. 95: 10 in the Greek numbering) and which led Justin Martyr (d. 165 CE) to accuse the Jews of having removed it from the text (Apol. 1. 41). This, and other disagreements led Origen (185–254) to compile an enormous work of textual criticism entitled the Hexapla, which placed the Hebrew text of the Old Testament in a column alongside which were ranged all the Greek versions known to him. A century later, Eusebius of Caesarea (d. 339/40) quoted the opinions of earlier divines such as Papias (c.110) and Dionysius of Alexandria (d. c.255–6) about the authorship of the Gospels and the book of Revelation. These were not trivial matters. In a world in which the followers of Marcion (c.85–c.160) wanted to dispense with the Old Testament and reduce the New to Luke's Gospel and seven letters of Paul, while Gnostic teachers wished to add ‘secret’ teachings of Jesus to the corpus of sacred writings, it was vital to use every piece of information to establish the authorship and provenance of New Testament books (see further Reventlow 1990; Körtner 1998). Papias's view, quoted by Eusebius, that the apostle Peter, in recalling what Jesus had done and said, adapted his instructions to the needs of the moment and did not attempt to present an orderly account, and that Mark had therefore not written down Christ's words and deeds in their proper order, anticipates in a small way the conclusions of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Gospel criticism.
Controversy in the early centuries was not confined to textual criticism and authorship. A follower of Marcion named Apelles attacked the view that the Old Testament was inspired by God by arguing that the story of the ark contained many impossibilities (Stevenson 1957: 104–5). In the fifth century, Augustine had to devote space in The City of God to discussing questions such as what sort of light was created by God on day one in Genesis 1 before the sun and moon were created on the fourth day, whether the years of life reckoned to the patriarchs in Genesis 5 were the same as ordinary years (Methuselah lived to be 957), and whether there were really giants on the earth in ancient times, as claimed by Gen. 6: 4 (Augustine 1972: 436–7, 609–20).
Matters that would come to be regarded as the central issues of historical criticism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were already being discussed hundreds of years earlier. ‘Post-Mosaica’—that is, verses in the Pentateuch that were unlikely to have been written by Moses, such as the account of his death in Deut. 34: 5–12 or references to him in the third person such as at Num. 12: 3—had long been noted. The Jewish commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra (d. 1158) had maintained that they were written by Joshua. Baruch Spinoza (1632–77) added a number of other passages to the traditional ‘post-Mosaica’ and concluded that the Pentateuch owed its final form to the work of Ezra in the fifth century BCE. The attempt by the French Catholic scholar Richard Simon (1638–1712) to answer Spinoza's criticism led to further advances in historical criticism. Simon maintained that the laws attributed to Moses in the Pentateuch had indeed been written by him, but that the remainder of the Pentateuch had been written by inspired ‘public writers’ whose work had continued down to the time of Ezra. These ‘public writers’ were responsible for making many changes and additions to the Bible, basing themselves upon records that were preserved in the archives of the nation. Glimpses of them could be seen in the books of Chronicles, which mention Samuel the seer, Nathan the prophet, and Gad the seer (1 Chr. 29: 29–30). The activities of these public writers explained, for example, why there appeared to be two accounts of the creation, in Genesis 1 and 2, and why different styles of Hebrew could be found, as well as repetitions of material (see Reventlow 2001: 87–113).
Simon's great Histoire critique du Vieux Testament (1678) was ordered to be confiscated and destroyed by Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, and subsequently appeared in places outside the bishop's jurisdiction. It would be easy to conclude from this that Simon's work was done in an unbelieving spirit, but this would be a great mistake. Simon remained a devout Catholic, believed that he could justify his biblical criticism by appealing to Catholic tradition, and showed himself to be a formidable opponent of the Protestant view that the Bible alone could be the basis of Christian faith. It was commitment to his faith and to the integrity of the Bible that drove Simon to work as he did. However, it was not Simon whose views determined the Catholic and Protestant thinking about the composition of the Bible for the next century or so, but the French Benedictine monk August Calmet, whose monumental Dictionnaire de la Bible (1730) became the standard work on almost every aspect of the study of the Bible, and which was translated into several languages. It was marked by great learning and tolerance, and although it was traditional and orthodox in its conclusions, it addressed fairly and squarely all the moral, historical, and scientific difficulties that had been found in the Bible up to that time. Calmet insisted that all sources of learning, whether or not they were advocated by Christians or non-Christians, were relevant to the proper study of the Bible.
The main area of advance in the eighteenth century was in the field of textual criticism, especially of the Old Testament, a remarkable monument to which was the Biblia sacra of Charles François Houbigant (1753). Houbigant made a careful study of the ancient versions of the Old Testament, including the Samaritan Pentateuch, and, convinced that the traditional Hebrew text had suffered many corruptions, proposed some 5,000 corrections, some of which were conjectural emendations which have been accepted by modern scholarship as providing ‘probable readings’ of the Hebrew. His work was rewarded with two gold medals by Pope Benedict XIV, and was well received in Britain, where it was constantly referred to and followed in Bishop Robert Lowth's (1779) new translation and notes on the book of Isaiah. This interest in establishing the most accurate text of the Bible was not the invention of Houbigant or scholars such as Benjamin Kennicott. In its most recent form it went back to the great polyglot Bibles: the Complutensian (1514–17), the Antwerp (1568–72), the Paris (1628–45), and the London polyglots (1653–57/8), works which made available not only the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts of the Bible, but also translation of them into Latin, Greek, Syriac, Aramaic, and Arabic. All this work was produced within, and published by authority of, different churches. At the same time, not everybody welcomed the work of scholars such as Houbigant. Protestant Germany, for example, was uncomfortable with what some saw as his cavalier treatment of the sacred text, with the result that his competence as a linguist was questioned and his reputation was so assailed that he became, understandably, but unjustly, an almost neglected figure in the history of biblical scholarship (Rosenmüller 1797: 500).
There is, of course, no smoke without fire, and the bad reputation which historical criticism was to gain was earned largely in the nineteenth century. In the first part of this period, tendencies and developments that had originated in the eighteenth century were synthesized and presented in ways which seemed threatening to traditional Christian faith and use of the Bible. These can be summed up under two headings: the questioning of belief in the supernatural, and the questioning of the biblical accounts of the history of Israel, and of the life of Jesus and the origins of Christianity.
The questioning of belief in the supernatural was not a denial of the supernatural or miracles as such, although it had undoubtedly become more difficult for some intellectuals in the church to accept these things in the eighteenth century. The issue was whether the biblical writers, in recording events of miracles or in describing events as supernatural, had correctly interpreted them (Rogerson 1974: 4–10). If the scientific knowledge of the biblical writers was rudimentary in comparison with that available in the eighteenth century, there was a real possibility that what they had described as supernatural or miraculous happenings would be seen as perfectly natural or explicable in a better-informed scientific age. Thus a method of biblical interpretation was developed which sought natural explanations for events described in supernatural terms in the Bible. An example is the view that the fruit that Adam and Eve ate in the garden of Eden was slightly poisonous. It did not cause death, but made the couple aware of their sexual differences and potential. A thunderstorm was then interpreted by the couple as the voice of God condemning their actions (Rogerson 1974: 4). While it is easy to make fun of what today seems to be such an absurd handling of Genesis 2–3, it is easier to overlook the important issues that such handling was addressing. Those who practised it were making a claim for the importance of the information contained in the Bible. At a time when the Bible was still believed to contain the oldest information about the origins of the human race, these early ‘demythologizers’ were advocating a method of biblical interpretation which upheld the value of the Bible as a historical source. They were also arguing for the necessity of interpreting its narratives in the light of its time of composition, a time when the human race had little scientific awareness and could mistake ‘ordinary’ occurrences for manifestations of the divine.
As applied to the New Testament, this type of approach also explained the miraculous in ordinary ways. For example, at the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the generous offer of a youth to share his loaves and fishes had shamed others present who had food with them, into sharing this with their neighbours (Luz 1996 i/ii, 397 n.19). No doubt this line of interpretation was encouraged by difficulties in accepting that 5,000 people had been fed by the miraculous multiplication of very small resources; but the present form of the narrative was not regarded as a fabrication of the truth. The miraculous element derived from the way in which the story had been transmitted, and as ‘demythologized’ it still had something important to teach about mutual sharing. However, it is not surprising that such radical challenges to traditional ways of understanding the Bible should have aroused deep suspicion in both the churches and academia; and it was partly to oppose such approaches that were thought to be the products of ‘rationalist’ theological faculties in universities that the church seminary in Wittenberg was set up in 1817.
The questioning of the biblical accounts of the history of Israel and of the life of Jesus and Christian origins reached its high point in 1835, with the publication of W. Vatke's Biblical Theology and D. F. Strauss's Life of Jesus. The former presented a minimal view of what could be known about Israel's history before and up to the time of Moses. The latter undermined the hitherto unassailable authority of John's Gospel, as an ‘eyewitness Gospel’, for reconstructing the life of Jesus. Strauss argued that the miracle stories in the Gospels were attempts to represent ‘ideas’ in narrative form, and that they had little historical value. Twelve years later, one of Strauss's pupils, F. C. Baur, argued that the New Testament had resulted from a compromise worked out in the second century between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Only four letters of Paul were genuine, according to Baur; the other New Testament letters and the Acts of the Apostles had been composed in the second century (Kümmel 1973: 120–43).
Such historical scepticism was bound to provoke opposition in church and academy alike. In German, the Göttingen orientalist Heinrich Ewald waged an unremitting war against such views, albeit from a historical-critical position which yielded reconstructions that accorded more closely with traditional views. In Britain, the ranks of scholarship were closed against such radical opinions (Rogerson 1984: 91–103).
However, it was the content of the Bible itself, and the need to interpret it in ways that made sense to the contemporary world, that had led to the no doubt exaggerated views of scholars such as Vatke, Strauss, and Baur. The questions that the Bible provoked could not be permanently silenced, and from the 1860s they began once more to receive expression. Some of those who led the way in this were committed churchmen, who embraced historical criticism precisely because its methods promised a way of enabling the Bible to assert its authority in the situations in which they worked.
J. W. Colenso, the Bishop of Natal in the British South African colony of that name (he was bishop from 1853 to 1883), was faced with the question of what to make of biblical material about occult practices such as witchcraft. While it was true that the Bible condemned such practices, it nevertheless took them seriously, as in the account of Saul using a medium to contact the dead prophet Samuel. Colenso was convinced that science showed such beliefs to be unfounded, as well as the biblical view that Balaam's ass could speak (a passage that had long perplexed interpreters), and that Joshua had commanded the sun to stand still, to name only some of the difficulties. What was he to tell his Zulu converts, whose own culture was replete with superstitions, but who were also intelligent enough to know that animals did not speak and that the sun did not stand still? Colenso's answer was that a scientifically informed biblical criticism made it possible to distinguish what was of permanent value in the Bible from what was conditioned by the times in which it was produced. Only the former was binding upon believers today. Colenso's conviction that the love of God for all mankind as revealed in the Bible was a message of salvation and hope made him a most effective missionary, who won many converts, and who trained them to be evangelists to their own people. But Colenso's own theological training had left him completely unprepared for such matters, and his determination to understand the criticism of the Bible turned him into one the most formidable and misunderstood pioneers of British biblical scholarship in the second half of the nineteenth century (Rogerson 1984: 220–37).
In 1861 Colenso published the first volume of a monumental work that would run to seven volumes and over 3,000 pages (Colenso 1862–79). It was concerned with the biblical account of the Israelite exodus from Egypt and the wilderness wanderings, and it argued with devastating detail of facts and figures, how impossible it would have been for the 600,000 male Israelites together with their families and sheep and cattle who, according to Exod. 12: 32 and other passages, had left Egypt, to have done so and to have sojourned in the wilderness. Colenso was not the first scholar to draw attention to such difficulties (see Rogerson 1984: 25), but that an Anglican bishop had done so was seen at the time as a scandal; yet few, if any, appreciated the pastoral and missionary concerns that underlay his work.
Pastoral and evangelistic concerns also underlay the work of another pioneer of British biblical criticism, William Robertson Smith, who, in 1870, at the age of 24, became Professor of Old Testament at the Aberdeen College of the Free Church of Scotland. The Free Church was a conservative body theologically, bound to the Westminster Confession of Faith (1648), and Smith was initially cautious about biblical criticism. However, visits to Germany, where he met theologians who were able to combine an acceptance of critical methods with sincere Christian belief, convinced Smith not only that the churches had nothing to fear from biblical criticism, but that the best ‘believing criticism’ of his day was necessary for the churches if they were to proclaim the gospel effectively in a scientific age. Smith could have had academic careers in physics or mathematics, but he remained true to Old Testament studies, and reached independently a view of the so-called Graf–Wellhausen hypothesis, which in Smith's case used the biblical sources to reconstruct what he called a history of God's self-revelation, which was also a history of God's grace (Smith 1881: 22; see further Rogerson 1995).
In the event, both Colenso and Smith were so far ahead of their churches, when it came to recognizing the implications and value of biblical criticism for the theology of their times, that they suffered for their convictions. Colenso was tried for heresy and ‘deposed’ by a synod convened by Bishop Robert Gray of Capetown. Although his appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council was upheld, the Church of England nevertheless consecrated a rival bishop to take his place. Colenso remained in Natal, however, and continued his missionary work there until his death. Smith was charged with heresy and dismissed from his post in 1881, after which he moved to Cambridge, where he later became Professor of Arabic. History has been kinder to Smith than to Colenso, probably because Smith, by moving to Cambridge, more directly affected the next generation of scholars, in both Cambridge and Oxford. One of the members of the next generation, A. S. Peake, was a Primitive Methodist layman, who played a prominent part in the establishment of the Hartley Primitive Methodist College in Manchester, and who became the first Professor of Biblical Criticism in the Victoria University of Manchester in 1904. His many books breathed the same spirit as the writing of Smith, expressing the view that biblical criticism could free the Bible from methods of interpretation that were completely inappropriate in a scientific age (Peake 1913).
By the beginning of the twentieth century, biblical criticism had been accepted in the English university departments that taught theology, as well as in many of the English theological colleges in which the bulk of training for ordination was still done, especially in the Nonconformist churches. This acceptance had been prepared, among other things, by commentary series such as the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges (from 1872) and the International Critical Commentary from 1891. The former series became more ‘critical’ as time went on; but the fact that it was intended for schools and colleges indicates how critical scholarship was seeking to reach out into the general field of education. The beginning of the twentieth century saw the launch of the Century Bible, a series of commentaries written mostly by Nonconformists, which laid before the general public the interpretation of the Bible as understood on the basis of the developing biblical criticism.
The burden of this section is that biblical criticism was never intended to be or to become an arid intellectual discipline divorced from the needs of the churches and/or necessarily damaging to Christian faith. That it was, and still is, so regarded in some quarters had (and has) to do more with dogmatic and ecclesiastical matters than with biblical studies.
Before these dogmatic and ecclesiastical matters are considered in the final section, the present section will be completed by noting further examples of critical commentaries that were designed to meet the needs of churches as well as scholars. These are the German Biblischer Kommentar Altes Testament and the Evangelisch-Katholischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament. It would also be possible to include, among other series, the Dutch De Prediking van het Oude Testament and the German Catholic Die neue Echter Bibel, not to mention such English-speaking series as the Word Bible Commentaries, the New Century Bible, the Hermeneia series, and The New International Greek Testament Commentary series. The Biblischer Kommentar series, which must represent the largest commentary undertaking ever begun, has at the end of each piece of exposition a section headed Ziel (aim). The purpose of this is to articulate the permanent theological significance of what has been expounded, with connections, where appropriate, to the New Testament. While users may not always be satisfied with the results of this, it cannot be denied that here is a historical-critical enterprise that is fully aware of its theological responsibilities. The Evangelisch-Katholischer Kommentar goes even further. It includes sections on the Wirkungsgeschichte of each passage discussed (i.e. how it has been understood by Christian interpreters down the centuries), and concludes with a consideration of its ‘meaning for today’ in the light of the historical-critical exegesis and the history of the use of the passage.
This section will hopefully have shown that while historical criticism can produce results that are threatening or hostile to Christian faith, or can become so technical as to be totally irrelevant to the needs of the church, this is not an inevitable or inescapable part of its character. It has arisen from the content of the Bible itself, and was developed primarily by scholars working within the churches as they sought to discover the message of the Bible in the light of new sources of knowledge of their day.
This final section will seek to do the impossible, to describe how and in what ways the Bible is authoritative. The task is impossible because it is viewed in so many different ways by different churches, some of which stridently claim that their understanding of biblical authority is the only one that is truly ‘biblical’ and in accordance with ‘traditional Christianity’. Such a stance is currently at the heart of the bitter dispute in the world-wide Anglican Communion about whether people who are in active partnerships with members of the same sex should be bishops, or whether people of the same sex can be married.
Before these problems are addressed in more detail, the important general question must be considered as to why the Bible (whatever is meant by that) is regarded as authoritative or as ‘scripture’. Part of the answer is that decision-making bodies such as Ecumenical Councils of the Church or the Westminster Parliament in London or Synods have declared scripture (however defined) to be authoritative. Yet at the same time, such declarations have not conferred upon the Bible a status that it did not already have. The declarations have rather endorsed an intrinsic authority that the Bible was already recognized to have; and these acts of recognition have roots going back to the processes that led to the formation of the Bible in the first place (see Chapters 28 and 40 above). While it is true that the churches have never agreed about the exact extent of the Old Testament, they have all agreed that its most fundamental part is what is called the Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament as accepted by Protestants.
With the closure, or fixing, of the sacred canon of writings, the processes of interpretation and elaboration of texts, processes that were once part of their internal growth, become external to the fixed corpus. These interpretations can take many forms, including sermons, commentaries, ethical compendia, theologies, and dictionaries. They will also diverge, depending upon the doctrinal positions taken by the various interpreters. In turn, these doctrinal positions will depend upon history and geographical situations. Some of the issues that arise will be outlined.
Reference has already been made to the Catholic scholar Richard Simon. In his controversy with Protestants of his day, Simon was accused of subordinating the Bible to the doctrinal restraints of the Church. In reply, Simon argued that if the Bible alone was to be the basis of Christian faith, the most logical position to take was that of the Aryan Socinians who denied that Jesus was consubstantial with God (Simon 1699). Simon’s opponents took exception to this charge; but all that this showed was that they, too, read the Bible from the point of view of predetermined doctrines, even if they did not admit it.
This (no doubt not deliberate) ‘blindness’ regarding the way in which doctrinal presuppositions affect the interpretation of the Bible in different churches is no doubt at the heart of the divisions in the Anglican Communion over practising homosexual bishops. It is a danger that becomes greater, the more that a church or denomination lacks an explicit statement of doctrinal belief. For example, churches that adhere strictly to the Westminster Confession of Faith will be clearly committed to belief in the infallibility of the Bible, and to upholding traditional views about its authorship and composition. The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion of the Church of England, on the other hand, merely state that Holy Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation, and that nothing should be required to be believed that cannot be proved from Scripture. This allows a situation in which many different views of the admissibility of biblical criticism, or the ecclesiastical organization of the church, can be held, at any rate, in Britain and North America. It means that in practice, ordinary church-goers are dependent upon the theological outlook of the priest of the church they attend. Since these outlooks may range from hard-line Calvinism to extreme Catholicism via clergy who doubt the divinity or resurrection of Christ, it is no wonder that there should be sharp divisions within the Anglican Church, and uncertainty in some of its parts about how, and how much authority, is to be accorded to the Bible.
Even within those circles that accept the Bible as an infallible authority, there are, or have been, sharp divisions about how it should be interpreted. The Salvation Army has, from its beginnings, allowed women to exercise ministry alongside, and independently, of men. Some evangelical churches reject the ordination of women as being contrary to biblical teaching about male ‘headship’. Some evangelical circles oppose the remarriage of divorced people in church on scriptural grounds, a practice that was allowed under certain conditions by Luther and Calvin (Phillips 1988: 45–62). The Open Brethren, with their ‘dispensational’ view of Scripture, traditionally opposed any charismatic phenomena such as ‘speaking with tongues’. These gifts were given only to the first generation of the followers of Jesus, and their appearance in modern times was the work of Satan. On the other hand, charismatic churches would claim that their exercise of the gifts of the Spirit is a sign that they are authentically bearing witness to the Christianity of the New Testament. An issue that has divided fundamentalist Christians in the United States is whether the present age is that of the thousand-year reign of Christ foreseen in Rev. 20: 1–10, or whether we are currently living in an age dominated by Satan, an era that will be ended by the return of Christ and the inauguration of his thousand-year reign (Marsden 1980: 124–38).
An issue that has divided the Lutheran and Reform traditions is whether one should interpret scripture against scripture, or whether the Bible should be regarded as a harmonious whole free from contradictions (Ebeling 1979: 28–35). The former (Lutheran) view is based partly on the fact that the early church both accepted that Christ’s death and exaltation were ‘in accordance with the scriptures’ and rejected the view that the legal obligations of the Old Testament were binding upon non-Jews who had become Christians (Acts 15). In other words, the acceptance of the authority of the Bible (Old Testament) by the early church was conditioned by a readiness to reinterpret it radically in the light of the Christ event. Luther's low estimation of the Epistle of James (‘I refuse him a place among the writers of the true canon of my Bible’ (Dillenberger 1969: 36; Luther 1974: 2455)), whether justified or not, is an example of using scripture against scripture: i.e. of judging a biblical book against a principle taken from the Bible which is regarded as having paramount authority (in Luther’s case, whether the prominence of Christ is emphasized or not).
The question of a dialectical approach to scripture in opposition to scripture as a harmonious whole leads to two further matters which have divided the Lutheran and Reformed traditions (Thielicke 1978: 184–258; 1982: 177–81). The first is whether one should adopt a ‘canon within the canon’—that is, privilege certain books such as Romans, or the synoptic gospels, and use their viewpoints as a standard by which to judge the adequacy of other biblical books. The alternative view would be that all parts of the Bible are equally authoritative. Closely aligned to this question is whether the coming of Christ has abolished the Old Testament law or whether Christians are obliged to obey as much of the Old Testament law as can still be applied to today's world. The differing answers to this last question are at the heart of the controversy about Christian attitudes to lesbians and homosexuals. Passages such as Gen. 2: 24, Genesis 19, and Levticus 18 and 20 are appealed to (along with several New Testament texts) by those who believe that the Bible opposes such relationships (Green et al. 1980). A hidden or acknowledged assumption here is that Old Testament passages are as authoritative as New Testament passages. In actual fact, whatever people and churches may claim to do, in practice they all operate with a ‘canon within the canon’, and the Old Testament law can be applied to today's problems only by being read very selectively and in regard to private, usually sexual, morality. However, this description would probably not be accepted by ‘Bible-believing Christians’ who are broadly in the Reformed tradition.
An important matter is whether it is believed that the Bible's task is to teach propositional truths about human history and God's nature, or whether the Bible's main purpose is to bring people into a relationship of faith with God. The two views are not, of course, mutually exclusive, but the belief that the Bible contains essentially propositional information, whose accuracy is guaranteed by its divine origin, has been and is at the heart of attempts to defend the accuracy of its scientific and historical statements.
One conclusion that might be drawn from the above examples of differing attitudes to the authority of the Bible is that the whole subject is a sham; that churches are lumbered with the Bible, and have to do their best to make of it what they can, and then find ways of justifying the outcomes. It might also be added that the Bible can be made to say whatever one wants it to say, and that an authoritative book that can be manipulated in this way exhibits a rather dubious form of authority. This viewpoint will hardly be accepted by people who belong to churches whose approaches might be quite different and even contradictory, but who have found a common hope in the mercy of God through their encounter with the Bible. Books such as Job, the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and the Gospel of John can resonate with the most deeply held human hopes, fears, and doubts. On various occasions in the history of the church, it has been the reading of the Bible that has led to reformations which exposed the corruption of ecclesiastical institutions and led to sincere attempts to rediscover the basic principles of Christianity.
‘The Bible bears witness to a proclamation that has taken place and is the impulse to a proclamation which is to take place…It has to do with reality, which it changes’ (Ebeling 1966: 183–4). This minimalist definition of the authority of the Bible which, perhaps, all the differing approaches mentioned in this chapter might agree upon, is a reason why the Bible remains such an indispensable phenomenon. It is a happening—a complex happening—occasioned by many historical circumstances and embodying the insights of many people. Its resultant accumulation of human wisdom and insights makes it a unique collections of documents. Its authority for faith communities lies in the fact that it is also able to engender and sustain faith in transcendent realities. At the end of the day, the Bible defies and undermines all attempts to define its authority. It cannot be neatly pigeon-holed and classified. It is more than the sum of its parts, still able in a changing world to inspire visions, give hope, and demand the highest and most exacting standards of scholarship for its elucidation and interpretation.