Volume 14 - Issue 3
The place of biblical criticism in theological studyBy Gordon J. Wenham
‘Tis mystery all! The immortal dies.
Who can explore his strange design?’
These great lines of Charles Wesley’s draw attention to the greatest of all mysteries in Christian theology, the death of Christ. How could the eternal Son of God, the agent of creation, die? How could the Son who always enjoyed perfect union with the Father cry out, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’
Wherever we look in the doctrines of the Trinity and incarnation, we are faced with paradox and mystery. ‘That the Father is God, the Son is God, that the Holy Ghost is God, and yet they are not three Gods, but one God’ (Athanasian Creed). Our human minds cannot comprehend how God can be both three persons, but only one. We cannot understand how Christ can be both fully God and fully man. If he is not omnipotent can he be truly God? But if he is, is he really human? Such dilemmas try and perplex us at every turn in theology. We are tempted to deny one truth in order to uphold another. But this is not the course taken by main-line Christian orthodoxy. With great persistence the church has insisted on maintaining both Christ’s full humanity and his full divinity.
Mystery—a characteristic of Christian doctrine
But the necessity of holding in tension apparently mutually irreconcilable doctrines is not confined to Christology and Trinitarian thought. It is found in many other areas of doctrine as well. The doctrines of divine sovereignty and human responsibility may be logically incompatible, but a Christian is not free to reject either. If we deny that God is in control of all events, we become virtual atheists, or at least we deny the value of all intercessory prayer; for why pray, if God cannot respond to our prayers and do something about what we ask? Conversely the denial of human responsibility undercuts all exertion in any direction. We shall become fatalists unwilling to throw ourselves into evangelism or any good works: ‘what will be, will be’ will be our motto and nothing will get done! But Scripture and Christian theologians assert both doctrines are essential and mutually complementary, even if they are not logically reconcilable.
We could go on: the doctrines of grace contain similar tensions, antinomies, paradoxes, or mysteries, describe them how you will. Both Jesus and Paul teach that God freely forgives sinners; both teach that all men, even believers, will be judged by their works and rewarded. It was Paul who said, ‘Being justified by faith, we have peace with God’ (Rom. 5), who also said, ‘We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil according to what he has done in the body’ (2 Cor. 5:10). If mediaeval Christianity tended to overlook the doctrine of justification: by faith, I fear twentieth-century Christians play down the doctrine of judgment. The doctrines are certainly very, difficult to reconcile, so it is not surprising if we cleave to the one and reject the other. But fidelity to our Lord and the apostles surely involves upholding both.
Often it is the discovery that we have grasped only half the truth of a particular doctrine that makes theological study so uncomfortable. There must have been many theological students who have been dismayed to discover that the Christology they have assumed for years is technically heretical. Christians from a conservative background may come to realize that their beliefs about the Trinity are essentially modalist, that is that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are merely different descriptions of the one God. Whereas those from liberal backgrounds are liable to discover that their Christology is adoptionist, i.e. that Christ became fully Son of God during his ministry, or Arian, i.e. that Christ is not God to the same degree as the Father. And if you avoid falling into one of these errors you may well discover you have embraced some other position such as monophysitism or nestorianism, gnosticism or montanism, pelagianism, or antinomianism, that no orthodox right-thinking Christian should dally with.
And it can be a painful process adapting our thinking to the truth of revelation. It requires humility to recognize and accept that what we believed in the past is not the whole truth, and then to reprogramme our minds and wills to the new truth. For Christian doctrines have an ethical as well as an intellectual dimension. To affirm that Jesus Christ is fully God as well as fully man means committing oneself unreservedly and totally to his teaching and obeying it to the letter. Similarly the doctrines of original sin and human depravity will affect profoundly our actions and attitudes across a wide range of social, political, spiritual and pastoral issues. And adjusting ourselves to these new aspects of truth can be a very painful process.
But I suspect that if either you or your lecturers discover during your study that you are a Sabellian montanist or semipelagian gnostic, it will not cause over-much excitement. Such deviants are commonplace today and in this pluralistic society are usually accepted without much fuss. However should you be diagnosed as a fundamentalist your fate may be very different. In the modern theology faculty fundamentalism is the great heresy. It is regarded as nearly as dangerous as the HIV virus and is treated with similar fervour but with rather less tact and sympathy. Fundamentalists will find themselves denounced in lectures and tutorials, and doubtless be encouraged to read James Barf’s books on the subject. And those of this persuasion or even simply brought up in a fairly traditional church may well find their studies rather difficult in consequence. I still remember with sadness two of my tutorial partners at Cambridge. Neither could have been branded fundamentalist, but both were devout Christians intent on ordination. However as a result of their study they both lost their faith and neither entered the ministry.
So what is this fundamentalism that causes so much controversy? The term ‘fundamentalism’ has been called a theological swear-word, and it is used differently by different people—usually in abuse. Sometimes the term is used in a narrow sense to describe an exceptionally literalistic and wooden approach to the interpretation of the Bible; in this sense the name would be disowned by many evangelical Christians. But the word is commonly used much more broadly, for example, by Barr, to refer to Christians who hold to most traditional Christian doctrines and who in particular insist on the truthfulness of the whole Bible as God’s written word. It is on the doctrine of Scripture that the critics of fundamentalism focus. For them the Bible contains essentially a variety of viewpoints, some of which contradict each other. It is not always reliable historically or theologically. To understand the Bible aright, all the tools of biblical criticism need to be employed. They will allow us not simply to correct the errors in the biblical text, but help us to read Scripture in context as a book of its time, with the assumptions and limitations of the age in which it was written. It is the rejection of biblical critical method and the naïvely of fundamentalist interpretation that is the focus of modern theologians’ complaints.
Is criticism the indispensable tool for understanding Scripture as its protagonists argue, or is it, as it so often appears to the theological student, just a means of relativizing the Bible so that we cannot be sure what we should believe about anything? These are the issues on which I wish to focus.
Scripture—a divine and human work
The role we ascribe to biblical criticism depends to a large extent on our understanding of the nature of Scripture. Is it a divine book or a human one? Is the fundamentalist right to insist on the divinity of Scripture, or the biblical scholar more correct in underlining its humanity? I wish to argue here that such antitheses are wrong: it is not the case of either divine or human, but it is a case of both human and divine. As in many other aspects of Christian doctrine, the incarnation, the Trinity, grace and law we are confronted with two truths, both of which need to be affirmed; neither can be dispensed with, yet they cannot be fully reconciled by mortal man. In the doctrine of Scripture we confront another antinomy, paradox, or mystery, of a book that is at once fully human and fully divine.
Perhaps before considering what implications this view of Scripture has for its interpretation, we should very briefly review the evidence for its being both a divine and a human work. The OT constantly claims divine authorship. Most of the laws begin ‘the Lord said to Moses’, while the ten commandments are said to have been written by the finger of God. The prophets typically introduce their messages with ‘thus says the Lord’, while the narrator of the historical books adopts an omniscient perspective.1 He describes the secret thoughts of men’s hearts and also analyses the divine intentions, something beyond the scope of any human author. Within the NT the divine authorship and authority of the OT is always assumed and frequently asserted. For Jesus the OT is the word of God (Mk. 7:13; Jn. 10:35). According to St Paul it is all inspired by God (2 Tim. 3:16). And the claim that the NT comes from God too is also clear in many passages (Mt. 5:22, 28, 32, 34, etc.; 1 Cor. 14:37).
This attitude towards the Bible was continued by the early church. Kelly writes, ‘It goes without saying that the fathers envisaged the whole of the Bible as inspired … their general view was that Scripture was not only exempt from error but contained nothing that was superfluous.2 According to Jerome, ‘In the divine Scriptures every word, syllable, accent and point is packed with meaning.3
If the divine character of Scripture has been affirmed by believers throughout the ages, its human qualities are equally apparent to careful readers, even though this aspect has only attracted detailed attention in the last two centuries. Most obviously, the fact that we have four gospels demonstrates the humanness of Scripture. Here we have four portraits of our Lord by four authors each with their own particular slant and emphasis. Then the epistles are addressed to different churches each with their own special problems, each demanding a response by the apostle to their particular needs. The variety of styles, the tendency for the writers to go off at tangents, all attest the fact that we are dealing, with human compositions by human authors each with their own idiosyncrasies. Indeed the more you think about it, the more obvious it is that Scripture has to be a human book, if it is to communicate with man. For if it had-been written in God’s language as opposed to Israelite Hebrew or Koine Greek, no-one could have understood it without first learning God’s language. But written in Hebrew the OT was at least immediately intelligible to an ancient Israelite, while the NT was equally accessible to first-century readers of Greek.
So then, Scripture is both a completely divine book and a totally human book. Neither aspect should be overlooked in the study of Scripture. We must bear both in mind as we read it and seek to apply it today. The dual nature of Scripture causes various problems, but none of the tensions are intrinsically any worse than those posed by the other doctrines I mentioned earlier. We face paradox and mystery here, just as we do in understanding the incarnation and atonement. But if we acknowledge that we do not understand how the immortal could die, we will not despair when confronted by the mystery of Scripture’s dual nature.
The indispensability of biblical criticism
What then is the place of biblical criticism in the study of Scripture? Very important, indeed indispensable, but not all-important. Biblical criticism is essential to the understanding of Scripture as a divine work. Let me elaborate.
I have already said that if God was to be understood by man, he had to speak in a human language. Had be addressed us in the language of the angels we would have been little the wiser. He chose rather to reveal himself to particular people in particular situations in their own language, in their own dialects and idioms. So if we are to understand those messages, we must somehow seek to put ourselves back into the situation of the original recipients of the Word. We must discover exactly what the original authors of the Scriptures meant by their words. And this is where the arts of biblical criticism become necessary.
Let me list and illustrate some of the branches of biblical criticism that aid the interpretation of the Bible. There is first of all textual criticism. Whenever documents are copied, especially when copied by hand, mistakes are liable to creep in. And even in this age of computer typesetting I have found some very odd mistakes in my proofs from time to time. Similar things have unfortunately happened in the copying of the biblical text. We do not have the original text of Isaiah or St Paul’s epistles, only copies; indeed in most cases copies of copies of copies, so that there has been plenty of chance for errors to creep in. This is particularly the case in the NT, partly because there are many more manuscripts of it and partly because Christians were less careful copiers than the Jews! However thanks to the skills of the textual critics these errors can be spotted and the text restored to very nearly its original purity. To quote F. F. Bruce. ‘The various readings about which any doubt remains … affect no material question of historic fact or of Christian faith and practice.’4 We can in other words be very confident that our restored texts are so close to the original that there is no significant difference in meaning between them and the originals.
But once we have our restored texts, as near as makes no difference to the original, how do we establish what they mean? This brings us to the science of philology and linguistics, which has been most fruitfully applied to the understanding of the Bible; in particular James Barr has here made an immense and positive contribution to biblical interpretation. His studies5 have transformed our approach to determining the precise meaning of words in Scripture. So often sermons are based on sloppy etymologies or words or phrases taken out of context, but linguistics has shown that this is quite mistaken. So quite central terms in the Bible’s theological vocabulary, e.g. faith, soul, redemption, justification, may have been misunderstood by amateurs who fail to understand how language works. Modern linguistics has taught us to examine the context in which words are used rather than their etymology to determine their meaning. It has taught us to study language synchronically before studying it diachronically. In practice this means we must examine the usage of a word in a particular book of the Bible before examining its usage and meaning elsewhere. Just because a word means one thing in one writer, it does not necessarily follow that another writer uses it in exactly the same way. And once we recognize this principle we may well be on the way to resolving the apparent contradictions between different parts of Scripture, for example between Paul and James.
The next area of biblical criticism has burgeoned in the last decade. It is the new literary criticism, especially associated in Britain with Sheffield University. It is, I believe, one of the disciplines in biblical criticism of most potential value to would-be biblical expositors in that it opens up whole new vistas in the biblical narratives so that characters in the story come alive as real people not as mere names on the page. The new literary criticism has made us much more sensitive to the inner feelings of the actors in the Bible so that we can identify with them more closely.
Let me give a short example. Literary critics insist that repetition within a story often offers very valuable clues to the attitudes of the people involved. We must examine closely who says what, and what phrases they use.
For example, after God has promised Sarah a child, she laughs in disbelief. The RSV says, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ And it is remarkable that such brazen unbelief should be treated so mildly by God. Think of Isaiah’s rebuke of King Ahaz when he refused to believe his message (Is. 7:13). But Sarah apparently gets away with it. Why?
A careful examination of the phraseology here gives the answer. The narrator first of all gives an objective, almost clinical, account of Sarah’s situation: ‘Abraham and Sarah were old, well on in years. Sarah had stopped having periods.’ But Sarah describes herself more colourfully; ‘After I am worn out, shall I have pleasure? And my husband is old too.’
From her language we see her real state of mind. It is not blind unbelief, rather it is the hopelessness of a woman exhausted by life who has been disappointed so often that she dare not believe things will change. And this is why God in his mercy treats her so gently and in the face of her doubts and lies reaffirms his promise and indeed quickly fulfils it.
In some ways this new-style literary criticism is a reversion to the older exegetical methods used before the nineteenth century. Reading the older commentaries, e.g. of Calvin or the mediaeval rabbis, one sometimes comes across interpretations like this. But this new-style criticism is a great advance over these old works. Their insights rested on the imagination of the commentator, and one is therefore never really quite sure whether Calvin’s interpretation would have met with the biblical writers’ approval. But the new literary criticism is based much more closely on hints contained within the text itself, so I dare to hope it is indeed enabling us to recover the original writers’ understanding.
Next I should like to turn to an area of criticism that sometimes raises problems, but again has produced many valuable insights, indeed is indispensable to a fair and accurate understanding of Scripture. It is historical criticism. Under this heading I shall mention source criticism, issues of dating biblical books, and the writing of biblical history.
To understand the message of the Bible it is absolutely essential to have some understanding of the social setting in which its books were written. Otherwise we shall import our own twentieth-century models, impose them on the text and come up with quite a misleading interpretation. For example. Genesis 2:24 makes a very significant comment about the nature of marriage; ‘For this reason a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.’ But what exactly does it mean? A Westerner reading this passage might well conclude that it is endorsing our practice of setting up home independently of our parents, often indeed a long way from them. Indeed I remember reading a book by a missionary in Nigeria who criticized Nigerian men for continuing to live near their parents after they married. This he said was unbiblical and harmful to the marriage relationship! In fact what the Nigerians did was precisely what the Israelites did!! On marriage it was the woman who moved, not the man. The man stayed put, because he would succeed to his father’s job and land, and the new wife moved in with him. In a literal physical sense the ancient Israelite man did not leave his family at all. So what is Genesis 2:24 really saying? Something far more profound than telling you where to live when you marry: it is talking about priorities and commitments. Before marriage a man’s firs obligations are to his parents. In the Ten Commandments, ‘honour your father and mother’ comes immediately after our obligations to God and before ‘Thou Shalt not kill’. In the ancient world filial duty was regarded as the supreme obligation. But according to Genesis 2:24 marriage changes this. Now a man’s first duty is to care for his wife, and secondarily to care for his parents. ‘He leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife,’ Read in the context of OT society, rather than modern ideas, we see that Genesis 2:24 is a statement that revolutionists the status of married women. Wives are not mere appendages or chattels of their husbands, rather the welfare of his wife must be a man’s first concern.
Perhaps I may give another illustration of the necessity of understanding the social setting of the Bible if we are to grasp its intentions correctly. Leviticus 19:9–10 says. ‘When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap the field to its very border.…’ The motive of this law is then explained: ‘You shall leave them for the poor and the sojourner [i.e. the immigrant].’ But J. V. Taylor in his book Enough is Enough expounded this text as proof of the Bible’s ecological concern, that we should not exploit the earth to its limits. And in a lecture I heard him say he was outraged at visiting an agricultural show where combine harvesters which boasted of their ability to reap right up to the edge of the field were on display. How unbiblical, he said! But he had failed to grasp the purpose of the law and the difference between our society and theirs. The law is designed to help the poor of ancient Israel, who were scattered throughout the land and could indeed easily go into the countryside and glean in the fields of their well-to-do neighbours (see the book of Ruth). But the poor of our society are in the cities, far front the fields. To leave the edges of our fields unreaped would not help them in the feast. We must devise quite different welfare measures in our society to help our poor. So I believe historical criticism has a most important role to play in delineating the nature of biblical society. Without such sociological study we are liable to make terrible mistakes in interpreting and applying Scripture today.
The disciplines of source, form, and redaction criticism can also contribute to our understanding of the Bible. Form criticism has made us aware of the conventions that guided the biblical authors. It enables us to appreciate why they arranged material in the way they did, for example in the laws, the psalms, and the epistles. Through form criticism we can be more clear about the writers’ intentions: why they included certain details and omitted others. And this knowledge should keep us from misinterpreting and misapplying biblical texts today.
Source and redaction criticism can again be valuable aids to interpretation. Source criticism is concerned with elucidating the sources used by the biblical writers. For example the book of Kings often refers to the royal annals of Judah and Israel, suggesting that if one wants further details about the events recorded these annals should be consulted. And for a historian concerned to reconstruct the exact course of OT history, source criticism is clearly very important if he wants to come as close as possible so the earliest account of events. In the gospels some critics do their best to recover the exact words of Jesus, as opposed to the edited version offered by the evangelists.
But clearly what the editors do, whether they be Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, or the compiler of Kings, is also of great concern to Bible readers. By comparing their work with their source we can discover what their special interests are. We can see what they have left out, what they have added from another source, what aspects of the original they have played up, what they have played down. In this way we gain a much clearer insight into the editor’s theological viewpoint and the message he is trying to convey. And this investigation, what is termed redaction criticism, has proved extremely fruitful for more clearly understanding the text.
Genesis 1–11 shows how source and redaction criticism can help to elucidate the purpose of this important but perplexing part of Scripture.6 Several ancient Near Eastern texts from 1600 BC or earlier contain an account of world history that runs roughly parallel to Genesis 1–11. But it is quite unlikely that any of these texts serve as the direct source of Genesis 1–11; rather they show us the sort of thing people in the ancient Near East believed in the second millennium BC when Genesis originated. And by comparing Genesis 1–11 with these other texts we appreciate more precisely what it is saying and what ideas it was trying to confute. For example these non-biblical texts paint a picture of evolutionary optimism, from a primitive world where life was hard and difficult to the comforts and sophistication of Mesopotamian civilization. Genesis on the other hand shows a would that was created very good progressively being corrupted by sinful man. On the other hand while Mesopotamians regarded the creation of man as a divine afterthought, Genesis portrays him as the summit of God’s creative purpose to which everything else is an accessory.
We are also presented with a very different picture of the supernatural world. Whereas the ancient Orient believed in a multitude of competing, lustful gods and goddesses limited in their powers. Genesis 1–11 shows that there is but one God, omnipotent and holy. Up to a point this theology is apparent to the simple reader of the Bible ignorant of source and redaction criticism, but it seems much more obvious when read against the views of Israel’s neighbours. Indeed until the discovery of the Atrahasis epic, it had hardly been appreciated that the command given to Adam to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ showed Genesis rejecting the ancient fear of a population explosion.
Some limitations of criticism
But with source criticism we must be careful C. S. Lewis, surely one of the greatest critics of English literature, was not at all impressed with the pretensions of biblical critics. His splendid essay, On Fern Seed and Elephant, ought to be compulsory reading for all students of theology. There he argues that theologians are often over-subtle in their source analysis. They claim to be able to spot fern seed but cannot recognize an elephant ten yards away!
The other reason we must not overrate source criticism is that the Christian is interested not so much in the sources that lie behind Scripture but in the text of Scripture itself. This is I suppose obvious in the case of Genesis 1–11. We are not interested in the Near Eastern myths used by the writer but the present composition. But it is easy to forget when we look at other parts of the OT. Students of the prophets spend much time trying to distinguish between the pure original words of Isaiah and Jeremiah and later editorial traditions. But it is not the words of Jeremiah as recovered by John Bright or Ernest Nicholson that should be our chief interest: rather it is the present book of Jeremiah, whether it is all by Jeremiah or not, that is the canonical authoritative text for us today. Similarly in the gospels, it is not the words of Jesus as reconstructed by Joachim Jeremias or Ed Sanders that really matter, but the total portraits offered by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Finally we come to that aspect of biblical criticism that is often the most sensitive. This concerns the question of the dating of the biblical material and the attempt to assess its historicity. Establishing the historical setting of a book is often of great value in interpreting it. For example it makes a great difference to the interpretation of the book of Revelation whether we date it before AD 70, when Jerusalem fell, or afterwards. On the former view we can read it as a prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem, of the great whore Babylon. Dated later it is more natural to read it as an anticipation of the end of the Roman empire. And there are many other books in the Bible where it makes a considerable difference to our understanding of them, when we date them. I think it is very natural for Christians to want to date the gospels as close as possible to the life of Christ, for then surely there is less chance of distortion and corruption creeping in. We can be more confident of the accuracy of the gospels if they were written around AD 50 than if they were written around AD 90. A similar motive surely underlies Jewish reluctance to give up the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch rather than with many Christian scholars to suppose it reached its final form nearly 1,000 years after Moses. For if it was written so late, who can be sure which stories, if any, bear any resemblance to historical reality?
Now I fear that some of your biblical courses may well spend a large amount of time on some of these issues. Which gospel was written first? Does Q exist? Were all the Pauline epistles written by Paul? Who were J. E. D. and P? How many Isaiahs were there? and so on. These are all perfectly legitimate questions, and the answers we give to them are often illuminating. But by way of conclusion, I should like to encourage you to keep these discussions in perspective.
First remember that the theories of authorship and dating are not as securely based as is sometimes claimed. The assured results of criticism are not quite as sure as they seem. Commenting on the source criticism of the Pentateuch, Professor Rendtorff of Heidelberg has written: ‘We possess hardly any reliable criteria for the dating of pentateuchal literature. Every dating of the pentateuchal sources rests on purely hypothetical assumptions which only have any standing through the consensus of scholars.’7 And in his book Redating the NT J. A. T. Robinson makes much the same point. He wrote, ‘Much more than is generally recognized, the chronology of the NT rests on presuppositions rather than facts. What seemed to be firm datings based on scientific evidence are revealed to rest on deductions from deductions. The pattern is self-consistent but circular. Question some of the inbuilt assumptions and the entire edifice looks much less secure,’8 So my first caveat when faced with some critical theories about the dates of the biblical books is, ‘Do not be bowled over by them.’ These theories may not be as securely based as they sound.
The second thing to bear in mind is that historicity is not everything. It of course matters whether Jesus lived, died, and rose again. But there is a Jewish scholar Pinhas Lapide who believes in these facts without being a Christian. And I suppose that if the Turin shroud had proved to be genuine, it would not have persuaded many unbelievers that Jesus was indeed resurrected. It is most heartening when archaeologists find evidence corroborating the historical record of the Bible, whether it be the names of the patriarchs, the ashes of towns sacked by Joshua, the pool of Bethesda or the house of Peter in Capernaum. All these discoveries confirm our faith in the historical reliability of the Bible. But the Bible is more than a human history book. Throughout. It claims to be offering a divine interpretation of public historical events, an interpretation that is beyond the scope of human verification. Take for example the book of Kings. It ends with recording the sacking of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and Jehoiachin’s release from prison. These are events that are beyond dispute because they are also mentioned in contemporary Babylonian records. However these events are not recorded in Kings just because the writer wanted to mention them as important events. He has included them because they reveal God’s attitude to Israel, that he was angry with them for breaking the covenant, that he was fulfilling the warnings made much earlier by Moses. Now who can check whether this interpretation is correct? Obviously no-one. We cannot telephone God to check if that was his altitude or not. We simply have to accept or reject the view of the book of Kings. We have no means of checking his view. It is beyond the possibility of human verification. But that does not make it unimportant or insignificant: clearly it was the main theological point being made in Kings that Israel and Judah were punished for their sins. So let us keep the issue of historicity in perspective. As Christians we shall wish to maintain that where the Bible is relating historical events they really happened.9 but let us bear in mind that it is not so important that they occurred so much as what they teach us about God and his purposes and how we should respond.
Finally my third caveat. Let us not spend too much time on the critical issues: it can easily divert us from the purpose of Scripture. Like the Jews we should be searching the Scriptures to find eternal life. Or as St Paul said. ‘Whatever was written in former times was written for our instruction, that we might have hope’ (Rom. 15:4). The purpose of the Scriptures is not simply lo stimulate us academically, or to provide a living for professional biblical scholars. It is to lead us to God. Biblical criticism offers us indispensable aids to the interpretation and understanding of the Bible. But often instead of being the handmaid of Scripture it has become its master. I suppose that in the last 200 years there have been more than a hundred scholarly books discussing the criticism of Deuteronomy, its date, authorship, sources and so on. But very few have focused on its theology, or the meaning of its teaching and laws for today. And there is a similar imbalance in some biblical courses too—plenty on critical theory, and little on theology and its application. Yet what is the chief concern of Deuteronomy? ‘Hear O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.’
When the academic study of Scripture diverts our attention from loving God with all our heart, soul and strength, I think we should pause and take stock. We should ask ourselves whether we are using it as it was intended. As I said at the beginning, it is both a divine book and a human book. Because it is a human book we cannot understand it unless we employ all the types of biblical criticism to the full. But because it is also a divine book we must recognize that these tools are insufficient by themselves for us to grasp and apply its message. To do that we must have a humble mind and a heart open to the guidance of the Spirit.
1 For further discussion of the omniscience of the biblical authors, see R. Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative(New York, 1981), pp. 23–46; M. Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative (Bloomington, 1985), pp. 23–57.
2 J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (London, 21960), p. 61.
3 Ibid., p. 62.
4 F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable? (London, 1960), pp. 19–20.
5 J. Barr, Biblical Words for Time (London, 1962); The Semantics of Biblical Longuage (Oxford, 1961). For a compact modem discussion see M. Silva, Biblical Words and Their Meanings (Grand Rapids, 1982).
6 For fuller treatment see G. J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15 (Waco, 1987). pp. xlv–l.
7 R. Rendtorff, Das überlieferungsgeschichtliche Problem des Hexateuch (Berlin, 1976), p. 169.
8 J. A. T. Robinson, Redating the NT (London, 1976). pp. 2–3.
9 Here we of course beg the question of genre. Though in most parts of the Biblical is quite clear whether or not Scripture is intending to describe historical events, there are of course some very problematic fringe cases, e.g. Genesis 1–11 or the book of Jonah. It is an important task for commentators to establish the to establish the genre of such books. But here as elsewhere what Christian readers should be most concerned about is what these books teach us about God and his purposes.
Gordon J. Wenham
Colleges of St Paul and St Mary, Cheltenham
Other Articles in this Issue
Did Jesus and his followers preach the right doctrine from the wrong texts? An examination of the presuppositions of Jesus’ and the apostles’ exegetical methodby G. K. Beale