Does historical-critical scholarship on the Bible have anything to offer the believer?

No, it doesn’t.

Yes, I know you won’t hear a blunt answer like that even from Pope Benedict, who praises Bible criticism in Jesus of Nazareth while pleading the ridiculously humble case that other ways of studying the bible might have some value too.  Even the supreme pontiff, the vicar of Christ, must cringe before bible scholars.

That’s why I find skepticism like that expressed by Bruce here and by C. S. Lewis here so refreshing.  For some reason, laymen don’t seem to be as intimidated by self-assured scholars as clerics tend to be.  As both links point out, the critics’ “disproofs” of Christianity (or Judaism) rely on circular reasoning–take a methodology that assumes miracles and revelation don’t happen and then use them to prove that miracles and revelation don’t happen.  Bruce emphasizes the danger of having our understanding of the meaning of scripture depend on the consensus of unbelieving scholars rather than saints and tradition.  Lewis questions the scholars’ reckless confidence in teasing out “true” meanings of ancient texts that have supposedly eluded believers for centuries.

All theology of the liberal type involves at some point – and often involves throughout – the claim that the real behaviour and purpose and teaching of Christ came very rapidly to be misunderstood and misrepresented by his followers, and has been recovered or exhumed only by modern scholars… The idea that any… writer should be opaque to those who lived in the same culture, spoke the same language, shared the same habitual imagery and unconscious assumptions, and yet be transparent to those who have none of these advantages, is in my opinion preposterous. There is an a priori improbability in it which almost no argument and no evidence could counterbalance….

Reviewers [of my own books, and of books by friends whose real history I knew] both friendly and hostile… will tell you what public events had directed the author’s mind to this or that, what other authors influenced him, what his over-all intention was, what sort of audience he principally addressed, why – and when – he did everything… My impression is that in the whole of my experience not one of these guesses has on any one point been right; the method shows a record of 100 per cent failure.

The ‘assured results of modern scholarship’, as to the way in which an old book was written, are ‘assured’, we may conclude, only because those who knew the facts are dead and can’t blow the gaff… The Biblical critics, whatever reconstructions they devise, can never be crudely proved wrong. St. Mark is dead. When they meet St. Peter there will be more pressing matters to discuss.

As for the Old Testament biblical criticism, my religion doesn’t require me to believe that the Torah came direct and complete from the mouth of Moses.  If the documentary hypothesis, “deutero-Isaiah” and the rest turn out to be true, it wouldn’t bother me.  Still, I’m skeptical.  How has this ability to extract authors been tested?  Have they ever had a half dozen authors each write their own version of the same story, had a redactor combine the stories into one, then had the final product presented to a bunch of biblical scholars to see if they could successfully disentangle which passages belong together and how each of the component stories differ?  One shouldn’t trust any measurement technique that hasn’t been tested against problems with known answers.  The only case that I would expect such extraction to be reliably achievable would be if the authors had entirely different grammatical styles, e.g. if someone glued together passages from Shakespeare and Hemingway.  But if it’s that obvious, how could the Israelites have never noticed?  How could “Isaiah” change his writing style abruptly by centuries-worth of changes and nobody notice?  What the bible scholars say may in some cases be true, but if so, if will be as a lucky guess, not a warranted conclusion.

Regardless, Bruce is right to insist that this sort of secular scholarship should not affect how we read the Bible.  Christians believe that God is the ultimate author of the text, so what the human writer may have intended is not important.  All we care about is what God wants us to get out of it, and that we learn only through Christ as the fulfillment of scripture, and through the traditions and teaching authority of the Church.

As for New Testament criticism, the Christian must reject it wholesale.  It’s all argument of the “under the assumption that it can’t be true, we prove that it can’t be true” type.  We have nothing to learn from this.  We just have to make sure we allocate a few apologists to refuting it, while the rest of us go our way and focus on more important things.

10 Responses

  1. There is a kind of switch-and-bait that is used to sell rationalistic attacks upon the authority of the Faith to clergy. It usually takes place in seminary. The argument is made, correctly, that to understand and interpret Scripture properly you need to understand the original context and literary genres of the sacred writings. This is common-sense and the new seminarian says “of course” and signs up for all the classes where this sort of thing is taught. Then a whole lot of crap is smuggled in along with these things, and if someone questions how Astruc, Graf, and Welhausen were able to so confidently identify “J”, “E”, “P”, and “D” sources for the Pentateuch, without a paper (or rather parchment/papyrus) trail for the development of a text which only comes down to us in its received canonical form, they are told that only ignorant and dogmatic “fundamentalists” ask questions like that. The seminarian does not want to be a “fundamentalist” and so he buries his questions and does not challenge the findings of “Biblical scholarship” (which has generally dismissed the theories he is taught in class about three or four decades earlier).

  2. I expect you’re right about how the corruption happens at the seminary. I also get the impression that clergy feel an added pressure to prove their credibility. They imagine if they say they believe in the bible, people will just role their eyes and say “oh, there he goes being a dumb cleric”. Whether it’s that or not wanting to be labeled a fundamentalist in seminary, priests of all denominations allow too many of their beliefs to be dictated by the fear of skeptics thinking them stupid.

  3. @Bonald – I’m very pleased to find you agree so robustly!


    @GTN – “The argument is made, correctly, that to understand and interpret Scripture properly you need to understand the original context and literary genres of the sacred writings.”

    Surely this is *not* correct – or at least not exactly so? Did the great Christians of (say) the later Dark Ages or medieval times understand the original context and genres?

    No – but what they did have (and what is needed) was a line back through a lineage of wise and holy teachers (in a chain of master-apprentice relations) who could explain and interpret doctrine for them.

    Our error is to imagine that modern curricula and professional accreditations has dispensed with the need for primarily personal relations. We are a long way off the path by now…

  4. That the importance of distinguishing genres was recognized by the Christians of the pre-modern era is reflected in the liturgies that have come down to us from that era, in particular the Scripture readings. Granted, the lectionaries do not assign Scripture readings according to categories like “narrative”, “poetry”, “historical”, etc. but the fact that Gospels, Epistles, and Psalms, each have their own place in the liturgy shows that the obvious difference in genre between these was not ignored. The question is whether the ratio-scientific framework into which matters like literary genres within Scripture have been forced in the modern era has in any way improved upon the traditional, pre-modern, understanding. There is good reason to be skeptical of an affirmative answer to that question.

  5. Agreed.

    I suppose we could say that 4 year old children ‘understand’ ‘genres’ in the sense that they can distinguish between bedtime stories and parental instructions.

    I think we both agree that a problem arises with an abstract classification of genres.

    I think I now see that your point about genres was probably directed against ‘literalist’ interpretations of Scripture, which (implicitly) regard the whole Bible as if it was the Ten Commandments. (And literalism is itself a reaction against regarding the whole Bible as a bedtime story/ fable!)

    The Truth of the matter can only be found by becoming such a person that can get behind these abstractions – to recover that child-like pre-abstracting apprehension.


    I feel pretty sure that intelligence – the abstracting, systemizing ability and preference – is a barrier to understanding Christianity; it is a disposition to heresy and apostasy, and as an elite of intellectuals have become leaders of The West – so they have imposed their (our!) abstract modes of thinking and made simple understanding less and less possible (and lower in status, such that those who achieve real understanding are seen as simplistic, ignornat, child-ish rather than child-like).

    I believe that intelligence is useful in many situations, esepcially in gaining power over other people and over nature; but intelligence is not useful but actually a barrier to understanding Christian Truth.

    Intelligence plus pride in that intelligence often proves to be an insuperable barrtier to understanding Christian Truth – perhaps it is the hardest barrier of all to overcome.

    And modern Western society (ruled by intellectual elites) is precisely characterized by these attributes: intelligence (ie. abstract systematic understanding) plus invincible pride in this intelligence.

  6. To anyone interested in the question of form criticism, I would thoroughly recommend Mgr Ronald Knox’s “Materials for a Boswellian Problem”

    By a scrupulously fair application of the Biblical scholars’ methods and with immense and pains-taking erudition, Mgr Knox identifies three “sources” for Boswell’s Life of Johnson, “C, or the Chronicler; that of the We-passages W; and that of the third document D, or the Dialogist.”

    It is one of the most devastating pieces of sustained satirical irony I have ever read. Mgr Knox produces a theory that we know to be false, because we have external evidence of the text’s production, but which it is impossible to refute by any evidence internal to the text itself.

  7. For a more light-hearted satire, or rather spoof, in the same vein, you might enjoy Mgr Knox’s “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes”

    Although here the satire is directed against Classical as Biblical scholars.

    Nevertheless, “Materials for a Boswellian Problem”

    remains my favourite

  8. Thank you. This deserves to be better known.

  9. […] it on his old blog, Throne and Altar, which is still able to be viewed online. Examples are here, here, and here. He seems always to keep at the forefront of his criticism the humanity of the man who […]

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