Biblical Criticism Overview – I

One great divide in Christian Bible study is between those who accept and use the methods of Biblical criticism and those who don’t. Generally, those who don’t regard Biblical criticism as a means to destroy the authority of the Bible and certainly as something that a believer can’t use. Since I am a believer, and I use the methods of Biblical criticism, I often find it necessary to describe and defend them.

One difficulty is simply that most information on Biblical criticism is either so brief that lay persons cannot get a clear idea of what Biblical criticism actually is, or is extremely complex and written for scholars. Previously, I wrote a pamphlet that I could use as a handout, titled Understanding Biblical Criticism. Though I have been able to use it as a handout to good effect, it also falls into the category of “too brief.” (One can also find good articles on Biblical criticism in better Bible dictionaries.) I’m working on a series of additional pamphlets on various of the specific tools of Biblical criticism, such as form criticism, redaction criticism, literary criticism, and so forth. As I prepare to do that, I have been thinking a bit more about the justification for use of the critical methodologies.

What are the assumptions necessary for use of the historical-critical method? Some believe that use of these methods must be be based on purely naturalistic assumptions, in particular, that one must assume that there is no supernatural element in the Bible. This is commonly stated as a belief that predictive prophecy is not possible, that miracles do not occur, and that the Biblical writers do not have any special information from a supernatural source. Since I do accept predictive prophecy (though in a much more restrictive sense than some), and accept that miracles occur, and do believe that the Biblical writers could receive divine revelation, and nonetheless use the methods of Biblical criticism, I obviously don’t think those are necessary assumptions.

What is necessary is to assume a human element to inspiration, and I think the presence of such a human element is clear in the writings themselves. Moses is told to have things recorded by human agency (Exodus 17:14), the writer of Kings refers to his sources for information (1 Kings 11:42). The gospels show considerable verbal parallels, that are too close for just oral transmission, but nonetheless are not identical, and thus show the results of human editing. I think those who believe in verbal dictation have failed to explain these types of characteristics of the text. (I discuss views of inspiration further in my essay Inspiration, Biblical Authority, and Inerrancy.) I don’t see any assumptions required in the use of the methods of Biblical criticism other than that one must accept that there are, in fact, strong human elements in the text. I’ll discuss the specific elements necessary as I discuss various specific methods of Biblical criticism over the next few weeks. It’s my plan to present each of the major tools of Biblical criticism in practical terms to help Biblical exegetes better understand commentaries and other works that are based on the results of those methods.

It’s important to be cautious in reading works of Biblical criticism. First, I recommend never reading just one. Any single Biblical critic (or any other student for that matter) can usually be very convincing when one reads only his arguments in favor. (Some of the best Bible commentators make an excellent presentation of opposing viewpoints.) Second, consider the basic methodology in determining what to accept and what to reject. Often conclusions are presented without an adequate description of the specific methods involved. Don’t be intimidated by the statement that certain conclusions are the assured results of scientific study, and that a rejection of them would be unscientific. Too many people accept the results of Biblical criticism without actually understanding the process by which those results were derived.

The bottom line here is to read works of Biblical criticism critically. In order to do that you have to understand how the results are produced.

In my next entry on this topic (not necessarily my next entry) I will outline the tools of Biblical criticism that I will be discussing.

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