Tendencies of Modern Biblical Criticism

It is well known that biblical criticism has greatly changed its character within a few years. It is said by Pfleiderer (" Development of Theology " ) that the year 1835 marked an era, three works then appearing by Vatke, Strauss, and F. C. Baur, so fundamentally differing from earlier works, and showing so predominently the new element, that "we are justified in taking from these the special character of the biblical criticism of to-day."

Let us ask in what consists the special character of the biblical criticism of to-day. We find it in the attempt to adjust the statements of the Scriptures, doctrinal and historical, to certain new ruling ideas, pantheistic, agnostic, evolutionary, scientific; and to reject all that cannot be thus adjusted. We may divide the critics of whom we here speak into the two general classes, 1. Those who deny a personal God, or any knowledge of Him, if he exists; 2. Those who reject some fundamental facts or principles affirmed in the Bible, thus destroying its unity, and undermining the faith of men in it as the revelation of a Divine purpose and will.

1. It needs scarcely be said that all criticism of a book purporting to be a historical account of the actings of God with men from the earliest times, must take its character mainly from the critic's conception » (169)

of God, and of His relations to men. If the critic conceives of Him in the pantheistic way, as Absolute Spirit, impersonal, unconscious, without will or purpose, or as the unknowable Force of the Agnostics, the Bible is on the face of it incredible. No man can accept it as credible who does not believe in such a God as it sets forth,—One who is in the fullest sense personal, who has made and rules all things according to His will, who has a purpose in human history which He makes known to men, who can give them ordinances and rites of worship, and reward or punish them as they obey or disobey. If there be not such a God, making known His truth to those whom He chooses, and inspiring them to teach others, the Bible is a record of what could not possibly have taken place. Its Jehovah is a being who does not exist, and all its accounts of His dealings with men are idle fictions.

When, therefore, a critic sits in judgment on the Bible, we ask him, first of all, what he believes respecting God and His relations to men. Can these relations, as presented in it, be true? If his conception of God be such that he starts with the assumption of the necessary untruthfulness of most important points of the biblical record, it is idle to consider his criticism in detail; if, indeed, that can be called criticism which assumes the necessary falsity of the statements criticised.*

* In Jewish history, as presented by the pantheistic critics, we have not the dealings of God with the Jews, but the evolution of their conception of God. The historical statements have value chiefly as illustrative of the growth of spiritual ideas. God is not a Person making known to them in gradual revelation a purpose in which He calls them the workers together with Him, but an impersonal spiritual Principle developing itself in them. It is on this ground that such histories of the Jews as given by Kuenen, Reuss, Renan, Menzies, and others, although they may have value for the critical student, tend to weaken the faith of the general reader in the Biblical history. If this does not conform to the historian's philosophy of God and of man's religious development, the conclusion is foregone that the events could not have taken place as narrated.

We may then exclude from the class of true biblical critics all those who, denying a personal God, make thereby the fundamental statements of the Scriptures, dogmatic and historical, impossible. And the agnostic must also be excluded, since his affirmation of the unknowability of God is, in substance, a positive assertion that the Bible, as a revelation of His character and will, cannot be true. Of its essential falsity to the atheist, it is not necessary to speak. The critics of these several classes are thus set free from any inquiry as to the reality of the great facts on which biblical history rests — the creation, the relation of Adam to the race, the fall, the redemption, the Incarnation. Its foundation truths denied in advance, the Bible ceases to be a sacred and authoritative book, and has an interest for the critic only as the sacred books of other peoples have, that he may show its origin, its gradual growth, how its statements came to be believed, and what influence they have had in moulding modern religious belief. Its study is mainly a matter of antiquarian research, and its chief value is as an illustration of one conspicuous form of religious development.

It may seem strange that pantheists, agnostics, and atheists should think it worth while to employ themselves upon such a work of supererogation as to attack the Bible in detail, when they have already condemned it in the gross; but many books of this kind of pseudo-criticism are yearly written. We may take as an eminent example Strauss in his " Life of Jesus." With his pantheistic conception of God and of His relations to men, he could not accept the Gospels as possibly true. Such a man as the Incarnate Son, the Christ of the Church, could never have lived. Undoubtedly there lived the man Jesus, a super-eminent religious genius, yet in nature a man like other men, without supernatural powers, a son of His age; and the work of criticism is to separate the nucleus of historical truth in the gospel narratives from the encrustations that have grown up around it. The reader, knowing his philosophical starting point, knows from the first to what conclusion Strauss will come; and that, even if there were absolute agreement among the Evangelists as to the details of the Lord's earthly life, the more important of their statements would have been rejected all the same.

Again, let us take the agnostic, Mr. M. Arnold, with his critical pre-suppositions, as he has expressed himself in his " God and the Bible." The God of the Bible is the " Eternal Power that makes for righteousness ;" not personal, not a Being who thinks and loves. All that we know of this Power we " know in the same way we know of the force of gravitation, by its effect upon us; we know no more of the nature of one than of the other." * All the miraculous statements we are to regard as poetry or legend; and so, also, what he calls the materialistic features — the supernatural birth and bodily resurrection of Jesus, the expectation of a Messianic kingdom, and of a new heaven and earth.

*Mr. Arnold is unwilling that this Power should be called the Unknowable, for he feels the absurdity of saying: "The Unknowable is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble." "Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Unknowable." He explains the Jehovah of the Hebrews by affirming Him to be "the unconscious deification of the law of righteousness."

The fall of man is a legend, Satan an imaginary being. "Theology goes upon data furnished by a time of imperfect observation and boundless credulity."

There being so little of doctrinal and historical truth in the Bible, we ask with some surprise what Mr. Arnold can find in it to commend it to popular reading, for he tells us, " the world cannot be without it, and we desire to bring the masses to use it." After taking away all that it teaches of a personal God, of His Incarnate Son, of creation, of sin, of atonement, of resurrection, of judgment, we wonder to be told that we may still retain in the expurgated book " the elements of a religion more serious, potent, aweinspiring, and profound, than any which the world has yet seen."

II. Of the critics who do not wholly deny the truthfulness of the Bible on a priori grounds, and yet only partially accept its statements, no classification can be made. They are of all shades of opinion, according as their criticism is determined by their philosophy, their science, or their feelings. Many, coming to the Scriptures with a philosophical theory of the order of man's religious development, will make this order the test of truth, and reject all statements that do not conform to it. It is on the principle of " a psychologically possible process of development" that much of the more recent criticism of the Old Testament is based. Some affirm that the Hebrews could not have been monotheists in Moses's days, for Monotheism must have been a later development; and that Jehovah was simply a tribal God, and the Hebrews polytheists. Nor could the Mosaic ritual have been given so early, since ritual presupposes a long period of religious development, and comes at its end, not at the beginning. We may not, therefore, speak of " the Law and the Prophets," but of the Prophets and the Law. The account of the Covenant with the Jews cannot be true, since the selection of one people would be " particularism," and make the Deity partial; and, therefore, Jewish history is no more sacred, and of no more real importance as a revelation of God, than the history of any other people. And, in general, we may not speak of any "falling away" from a Covenant relation, of any decline from a higher spiritual condition to a lower; but rather of a continual upward progress in Jewish history. In the destruction of the first temple, and the cessation of its worship, the Jews suffered no loss. It was, in fact, we are told, a religious gain. They entered thereby into a larger liberty, and a more spiritual service. So, also, in the destruction of the second temple; the synagogue was a great advance upon it.

Others base their criticism mainly upon scientific grounds, into which more or less pantheistic elements enter. We are told by some evolutionists that we must give up the Mosaic cosmogony, and the idea of a creation. The uniform persistence of Force in nature puts miracles and all Divine interpositions out of the question; and biology refutes the biblical account of man's formation, and shows his development from the lower animals. As there is a natural law of progress in humanity, the account of the fall cannot be accepted. Nor are we to accept the supernatural birth of the Lord, since nothing can come into humanity from without; all is developed from within. And the future of humanity must be in the same line as the past; no break of dynamic continuity, no resurrection, no day of judgment, no new creation.*

Others still reject the Bible on the ground that in many things it affronts their moral sense. An allpowerful God, being Love, could not have done in the treatment of the nations what He is said in the Old Testament to have done, nor docs He punish individuals or nations for disobedience to His will. Redemption from sin and evil by the death of His Son, as related in the Gospels, docs not satisfy their injured feeling, for why should sin and evil exist at all? We must choose, they say, between imperfect goodness and imperfect power; and, whichever taken, the Bible ceases to be authoritative.

*A very recent illustration of the disposition to adjust the teachings of the Bible to modern scientific theories is seen in "The Place of Death in Evolution," by Dr. Newman Smyth, 1897. We are told by him that death had originally no moral significance, but gradually acquired one. In itself it is both useful and beneficent, and necessary in evolution. It lifts man into a higher stage of life, and, therefore, will in the end be universally welcomed. Of course there can be no bodily resurrection, and the resurrection of the Lord was an expression to His disciples of "His spiritual identity." When a man dies, death is no more; and when all are dead, death will disappear forever. Dying is " passage out of death into life." When there is " complete detachment of the soul from atomic matter, and it is brought into new and better connection with the elemental forces, the natural is completed in the spiritual." This is the resurrection. Thus the earth is made a birthplace for souls, which, transported at death into some other world, have there their growth and development.

Dr. Smyth thinks that " the coming defender of the faith once given to the saints will be a trained and accomplished biologist."

But underlying all hostile criticism, and giving it a force which it could not otherwise have over the popular mind, is the feeling which is in the air, that the Bible is a superannuated book. Transmitted to us, for the most part, from a remote past, and embodying the religious conceptions of an uncultured people, what authority has it over us? It reflects, as we are incessantly told, the crude beliefs of a people living in the early age of humanity, when men's conceptions of the Supreme Being were necessarily narrow and very anthropomorphic; a time when any scientific study of nature was unknown, when legends were everywhere received as facts, and dead heroes were magnified into gods. It is not possible for us of this century to go back to such undeveloped forms of religious belief. We have outgrown them. Our religion must be conformed to the advanced philosophy and science of our own time, to the modern ideas of man and nature. The Bible is, indeed, valuable as a record of what men have believed, but its conceptions of God are the conceptions of childhood, and must now be greatly enlarged, and our relations to Him be determined by our wider knowledge of nature and of humanity.

Many illustrations might be given of the growing disposition to regard the Old Testament as superannuated, having little historical value, and no religious authority. Thus it was said a half-century ago by Theodore Parker, who, in this matter, represents a multitude: "The Old Testament contains the opinions of from forty to fifty different men, the greater part of them living from four to ten hundred years before Jesus, and belonging to a people we should now call half-civilized. . . It, therefore, has no authority, and if an appeal is made to some command in it, we answer that nobody knows when it was given, by whom, or to whom. The physics of the Bible are shown to be a false science, its metaphysics false philosophy, its history often mistaken."

A very recent writer, Professor Goldwin Smith, in a magazine article (1895) entitled "Christianity's Millstone," affirms the Old Testament to be this millstone. The New Testament must be separated from the Old; the two should not be bound up in the same volume. "The time has surely come when, as a supernatural revelation, the Old Testament should frankly, though reverently, be laid aside, and never more allowed to cloud the vision of free enquiry, or to cast the shadow of primal religion on our modern life."*

* Some are now making an attempt to accredit the Bible by presenting it as a book for literary study. It is said that by "a judicious selection" of its most graphic and eloquent passages it may be made a source of literary, as well as spiritual, stimulation. As expressed by one writer: ""Who shall say that it is not to be included in the curriculum of polite learning as a theme, perhaps of equal moment with Shakspeare?" This is meant to do the Bible high honour. But how could we find a more significant sign that it is ceasing to be regarded as an inspired book, unfolding to men the character and purpose of God, His mercy and grace in His Son, salvation from sin, and the terrors of judgment? Instead of being read as a book in which the voice of God is heard calling all to repentance, to obedience, and to righteousness, a voice which no man may disregard but at the peril of his soul, we are told to read it as literature, — a collection of elegant extracts, of biblical masterpieces. Doubtless the purpose is by appealing to the literary taste, tbe imagination, the sense of the beautiful and sublime, to obtain for the Bible a new hold upon the attention of cultivated people. But its sacred character is thus lost. It is merely a book among books — of value for intellectual culture, but no more the one book, able to make us wise unto salvation, to which we come upon the bended knee, praying for that light from the Spirit who inspired it. without which we read in vain.

It is probable that some of those who are undermining the faith of men in the Old Testament, are desirous of preserving a measure of faith in the New. But tho two cannot be separated. We can explain the appearing of Jesus and His teachings only by accepting the covenant relation of the Jews, the law and ritual as Divinely appointed, and the Divine inspiration of their prophets. Taken as a whole, there is a beautiful unity, God's purpose in the Incarnation running like a golden thread through all. There is a beginning, middle, and end, but the end separated from the beginning is unintelligible.

It is a loud modern cry that we give up the traditional Christ of the Church, and go back to the historical Christ. We must rediscover the long-lost Jesus. We must by criticism of the gospels learn who He was, and how much of what He is reported in them to have said and done, He did, in fact, say and do. We can regard nothing as settled; all must be examined anew. Endless questions here arise: who the writers of the several Gospels, the time of their composition, their relations to one another, their accuracy, the rule of interpretation, and the like. The same questions arise as to the Epistles. The discussions of learned scholars have been minute and long drawn out, and, we may add, almost fruitless, because without any agreement of results as to the one point in question, the person of the Lord.*

* It is to be noted that those who reject the personality of God make the knowledge of Him to be intellectual only. As said by one: "Theology is not a matter of faith, but of intellectual grasp and careful scholarship." And this is necessarily the case if, as we are told, we must study all forms of religion to learn "the self-evolution of the Idea" in them, and thus come to the knowledge of God. If God be a Person, then can we all, learned and unlearned, come into personal communion with Him and know Him as our Father. But this approach to Him is not alike open to all without regard to spiritual character. As it is in the power of a man to make himself known to some and not to others, much more is it in the power of God. Those who dare to rush unbidden into the Most Holy to find Him, will find only thick darkness. To the weary and the heavy-laden, the meek and penitent, the Incarnate Son says: "Come unto me," and they shall see His face; but to the proud and presumptuous who say: "Bring Him to our tribunal, and we will sit in judgment on Him," He is invisible. The critic who feels no need of a Redeemer, may scan the pages of the Evangelist with his microscope, but will find no Son of God.

It is a striking illustration of the separation between the Head and the Church, that after eighteen centuries its scholars are going back to the records of His earthly life to find out who He was! If it had continued in the heavenly fellowship to which He exalted it, it would be able to tell the world with one voice both what He was and what He is.

There is another school of critics who come to the Gospels in the Kantian spirit, and who make very little of facts; the idea is all. Having the ideal Christ, we need no more. It is unimportant whether there was a real man corresponding to the ideal. It is not, it is said, by His acts as a Mediator between God and us that Christ saves us, but as the representative and example of the idea of self-sacrifice. This idea once gained through Him, it must be separated from His individual person that it may become universal. He may wholly disappear from memory; but the idea remains ever active, and we need not go back to its origin.

But we may not go here into details as to the several critical schools. The critics, writing from all points of view about the Lord's person and work — historic, philosophic, scientific, agnostic, evolutionary — each determining by his own pre-accepted criterion what measure of truth there may be in the gospel narratives, have filled the minds of their readers with confusion and perplexity. Almost any modern commentary is an illustration of the critical spirit of the times, and of the perplexity which it brings to the common reader.*

Nor in saying this do we disparage the service which genuine criticism may give to the better understanding of the Biblical records. Every kind of knowledge, geological, archeological, historical, scientific, linguistic, is valuable for the light it may cast on these records, and let there be no suppression of the light; but it is to be remembered that the real point at issue between Christianity and anti-Christianity is not the verbal accuracy, or the general infallibility of the Bible.

We can suppose the possibility of the destruction of every copy of the Bible now in existence, but this would not be the destruction of Christianity. It lives in the living Head of the Church: and however valuable the sacred records of the past, their loss would bring no limitation of His prerogatives, or of His ability to manifest Himself to men. Whilst, therefore, gladly acknowledging the aid which criticism, the higher and lower, may furnish to the elucidation of the Bible, we remember that the book is only a means to an end; and that its value is in opening to our knowledge the purpose of God in His Son so far as it has been accomplished, and preparing us to be His helpers in what remains to be done.

* We may take, as an instance, Godet on the Gospel of John (English Trans.) In the first volume of five hundred closely printed pages we find two hundred and fifty-five occupied in preliminary discussions quite beyond the reach of one not especially versed in such themes. The natural effect is to awaken doubts in our minds, for those must be very serious objections which demand such elaborate replies.

To one whose eyes are steadily fixed upon the risen Lord, a great deal of the current biblical criticism will seem trifling, if not wholly useless. In the multitude of details unity is lost, the goal is not seen; men's hearts are set upon the past while God desires present action. Only one question is of supreme interest to us: Is the Virgin's Son, raised from the dead, now at God's right hand, having all power in heaven and earth? If the critic says, "He is not, He sleeps in some unknown grave," of what value are his laboured and wearisome efforts to prove small contradictions or errors in a book which can have for us only an antiquarian interest? If the critic says, " He is now living and Lord of all," why trouble himself to refute what, in the nature of the case, is of very small importance, and which the Lord may at any moment refute by His acts?

Can any one think that honest and earnest men will long remain in this state of doubt as to the truthfulness of the Scriptures, or profess to believe what they do not in fact believe? Most will say: "The Bible must be taken as a whole, or rejected as a whole. We will take it as the Church has received it, in its entirety, or we will cast it away altogether." No protestations of biblical critics that they can tear out a page here and a page there, that they can substitute abstractions for Persons, "Eternal Verities " for Father and Son and Spirit, legends for facts, speculations for prophecy, and still keep all that their spiritual needs demand, will satisfy him who will have realities, not idle words. He will say: "I will put the book away, I will not perplex and weary myself in attempting to separate the truth from the error. When biblical scholars have come to some fixed conclusion as to what the Bible is, and what it teaches, and the Church has put the finally ascertained truth into her rewritten Creeds; then I can read it with some assurance that I am not deceiving myself with empty beliefs."

No building can long stand when the foundation is undermined; the first rude shock makes it fall. Many, indeed, may continue to profess great reverence for the Scriptures, as did the Jews of the Lord's day, and study them much, simply because they interpret them in the spirit of the time, and find in them what they wish to find. And we have reason to believe that there are many who, like Mr. Arnold, sing the praises of the Bible long after it has ceased to have for them any authority, or any theological value. They think that it has for the masses an ethical value, and fancy that, while scholars and cultivated people like themselves find much of it out of date, its ideas of moral order and right will keep their hold upon the popular mind, and help to preserve social peace.

Looking to the future, we may not attempt to conceal from ourselves the real character of much of the current biblical criticism. Formerly, accepting the Scriptures as a revelation from God, showing His purpose in nature and man, it limited itself to pointing out some discrepancies, or apparent contradictions; errors affecting particular points, historic or dogmatic, but leaving their general truthfulness unimpeached. The special criticism of our day is far more aggressive and destructive. It affirms on a priori grounds, philosophical and scientific, that very considerable parts of the Bible cannot be true.

It would, of course, be unjust to say that all, or even most, of our biblical critics go to this extent. Not a few attempt to stay the destructive work; but that this work goes steadily on, becoming more and more aggressive, no one acquainted with the more recent critical literature can doubt. Nor can we doubt that it has more and more the tide of popular feeling with it. One of these critics, well qualified to judge, has very lately said: "We rise from the survey of this exegetical literature with the feeling that we have only begun the critical history of the biblical writings." Even now the process of biblical disintegration has gone so far that we see in the " Polychrome Bible" all the colours of the rainbow.

This overthrow of the faith of men in the Bible is a great step forward in preparing the way for the Antichrist. It is of comparatively less importance in the Roman Catholic than in the Protestant communion, since the former makes the Church itself to be an infallible teacher; and to those thus believing, what the biblical critics may say is a matter of indifference. Still it is abundantly manifest that in the Roman communion the loss of faith in the Scriptures is greatly weakening the faith of many in the Church. But to the Protestant, the loss of faith in the Bible points to a great religious change. It leaves him without any guide or teacher, for his choice must be between the biblical teachings of God and of His relations to the Universe and to man, and the teachings of Pantheism. Men are too nobly constituted to be atheists, nor can they long be agnostics. They cannot remain in the pains of doubt, or emptiness of unbelief.

To reject or ignore the Bible on whatever grounds is to be ignorant of God and of His purpose in manj and thus to be exposed to the most dangerous form of delusion, that of self-deification. In proportion as unbelief in the Scriptures increases, the Person of the Incarnate Son, who, as the First and Last, the Beginning and the End, alone gives it unity and mean, ing, recedes from our sight; and, as He recedes, darkness deepens over both present and future. For years the most unobservant has seen how within the Church the study of prophecy has been greatly disparaged,— a sure sign of that decay of faith which, beginning here, extends itself to history and doctrine, and ends in their final rejection.

Thus the Bible, made up, as we are told, of disconnected and discordant parts, emptied of all historical unity, revealing no Divine purpose, neither explains the past nor casts light upon the future. Why retain it? Put it among other sacred books, call it literature, keep it for its teachings of ethics, and as illustrating the evolution of religion; but the new age must have its new Bible, one reflecting its advanced knowledge of God and man and nature. It was said by Thomas Carlyle (" Essays"): "A Bible is the authentic biography of noble souls." "To each nation its believed history is its Bible; not in Judaea alone, or Hellas, or Latium, but in all lands and in all times." We may, therefore, look for a new Bible which will not narrow its records to the life of one covenant people, but be the history of the evolution of the idea of God in all the noble spirits of the race; and thus be the sacred book of a universal religion!