Is “Historical Criticism” of the Bible a Good Thing, … or a Bad Thing?

In this series of blog posts, we have examined the “historical criticism” of the Bible. At this point, it might be worth offering a brief summary of where we are at.

Historical criticism of the Bible: Friend or foe?

First, we considered the question as to what “historical criticism” of the Bible is. Briefly put, historical criticism seeks to understand the origins of ancient texts in order to better get at the world “behind the text.” With respect to the Bible, this means trying to place our understanding of the Bible within the historical context of the ancient world of Israel, and first-century Palestine and the Greco-Roman world, where both the Old and New Testaments, respectively, were written.

Secondly, we looked how historical criticism developed over time. The standard story is that “historical criticism” of the Bible arose during the period of the Enlightenment, following the Protestant Reformation. But if we place the rise of historical criticism itself within its own historical context, we see that multiple stories emerge. For historically-orthodox minded Christians, historical criticism is a continuation of an attempt to better understand the Bible as the very Word of God, something that thoughtful believers have been trying to do since the reception of the canon of Scripture. However, for others, historical criticism has been an attempt to take the task of Biblical interpretation out of the hands of spiritual leaders in the churches, and place it in the hands of a different authority, whether that authority be the academic university or even the state. During the Enlightenment the idea was to appeal to the principles of science to resolve Bible interpretation issues, instead of relying on conflicting dogmatic traditions of various church bodies.

Thirdly, we have looked at how the practice of historical criticism in our churches has led to a split, dividing historically-orthodox believers from progressive Christians. On the one hand, the rejection of what is perceived to be “historical criticism,” found in various forms of “fundamentalism,” has led to a concern of an anti-intellectual spirit that marginalizes historical Christianity. On the other hand, the enthusiastic embrace of historical criticism in “progressive Christianity” circles has threatened to empty Christian teaching of any real content, that would distinguish the church from the secularization of the culture growing around the church. In other words, while “progressive Christianity” seeks to rescue Christianity from rigid dogmatism, it often ends up looking no different from the agnostic/atheist assumptions of the secular world.

Fourthly, we have examined a shift over the previous century with respect to the concerns brought to bear on the text of Scripture by historical criticism. Way back in the 19th and 20th centuries, advocates of historical criticism were primarily concerned with superstitious assumptions about the world made by more traditional forms of Christianity. Such superstitions tended to elevate the supernatural over and against the natural, thus sidelining the advance of science in the modern world. Now, in the 21st century, those concerns have dramatically shifted towards more social justice oriented questions, ranging from racism, to the treatment of women, and most recently, to various LGBTQ concerns. While people still wonder about truth claim of a Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, and its miraculous character, Western culture has become more focused on how the Bible is sometimes used as a weapon to hurt people. In other words, when it comes to reading and interpreting the Bible, in the 21st century, social justice concerns have superseded concerns about science, which were more of the primary concerns of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Along the way in this series, we have examined a few case studies that illustrate the themes described above. An historically-orthodox believer who values the benefit of historical criticism will find a harmony within the text where certain tensions exist. However, if an advocate for historical criticism seeks to set aside the divine inspiration in their analysis of the Bible, those same tensions will appear to them as contradictions. For example, if we see the Bible as a cohesive whole, as inspired by God, we can see how God seeks to honor the beauty of the relationship between male and female, whereas a more skeptical critic will see tensions as contradictions, where such teachings can be easily misused to denigrate and oppress women.

We also considered the question of when we should look to harmonize various discrepancies that we find in the Bible, versus looking for more creative ways of thinking, in order to help resolve those tensions we find within Scripture. We then looked at some principles for considering the evidence for a traditional way of reading a passage of the Bible, versus potentially embracing a different interpretation of that passage, that makes better sense of the text overall.

Leading up prior to this blog post, we examined a very helpful scholarly attempt to provide some authoritative answers for believers, when their friends, neighbors, and relatives ask questions about some of the insights gained from the historical criticism of the Bible.

So, back to the question in the title of this blog post: Is “Historical Criticism” of the Bible a good thing?

A reasonable answer is this: YES, it is a good thing for the most part, but it really depends on the assumptions and attitudes one has when doing “historical criticism” of the Bible. For if we come to the text of Scripture in an attempt to knock down its authority, or otherwise distort its message, then it can indeed be a bad thing. On the other hand, coming to the Bible, with a spirit of openness to the Holy Spirit, and a sense of humility, can be a very, very good thing. In some cases, our traditional ways of thinking about the message of Bible will be challenged and transformed, while in other ways, the traditional teachings that have been handed down throughout the ages, will be reaffirmed and treasured more deeply.

This blog post pretty much closes out this series on “historical criticism” for now, though from time to time I will add more articles, indexed from the introductory post in this series.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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