It’s amazing to me how frequently we are do biblical criticism, but are not sufficiently critical in evaluating the results.
Now don’t take this as the complaint of someone who is afraid that biblical criticism will undermine the scriptures. I think the Bible can handle it. It’s not that I don’t think there will be issues. I just don’t think those issues are what the story is about, but that’s another post. I believe that we Christians can benefit from hearing the views of non-Christians about the meaning of our religious texts as well.
But it’s rather simply to find the holes in an existing theory, and much more difficult to build and defend a new one. The argument often becomes one of making a false dichotomy.
Take, for example, the authorship of the Pentateuch. I’m fairly thoroughly convinced by the nature of the text itself that the first five books of the Bible were not written by one man at one time, or even during one time period. I find the evidence for this quite convincing. Now I lean strongly toward a version of the documentary hypothesis, though my dating of the sources would be unorthodox. But I am much less certain of my beliefs about how the Pentateuch came to be than I am that it was not written by one person at one time.
Now I’ve heard the false dichotomy handled from both directions. Someone pokes a few holes in the documentary hypothesis—and heaven know there are holes to be poked—and then expects that one accept the alternative, authorship by Moses at one time. On the other hand, I’ve encountered people who poke a few holes in the singular authorship by Moses—and heaven know there are holes to be poked there too!—and then assumed that one would accept the documentary hypothesis as the only alternative.
But those are not the alternatives. One simple option is to question the sources and dates. There are plenty of options for dating the sources of the Pentateuch, if one accepts that there are sources. There are not just two alternatives.
My point is not to argue for some particular solution, but to point out that making the positive case for a particular solution is much more difficult.
Then we have the question of where we apply critical methodologies. Many people would have no problem considering how reliable a report of a battle from an Assyrian inscription or tablet was, but would not apply the same criteria to a story from Kings. There are Christians who would apply critical study to the Qur’an, but who would be very angry if the same methodology to the Bible. There are Muslims and Jews who find New Testament criticism very convincing, often heading straight to a minimalist or even mythicist position. But don’t go applying the same standards to the Qur’an or the Hebrew Bible. Then there are Christians who apply criticisms to evolutionary theory that no historical study, including the New Testament (resurrection anyone?) could possibly withstand.
This is natural and human. We tend to defend the things we believe. We even tend to defend the things we want to believe. But if we are going to claim to be critical—and I think that’s a good thing to be—then we need to be critical all the time. That will mean that many of the theories that we espouse must be espoused tentatively, with the knowledge that we could be wrong, and the expectation that in many cases we will be.
Can you apply a critical approach to the doctrines and beliefs of your own faith? Have you?