Chapter 2: The New View of the Bible

God in the New World
by Lloyd Geering

Chapter 2: The New View of the Bible

We have just seen that the theologian can no longer appeal to divine revelation with the sure confidence he once felt. While this may be conceded with regard to Christian doctrine in a general way, more yet needs to be said about the Bible, for Christians have regarded it as the focal point of revelation. If there is no special revelation, what is the origin of these ‘holy’ books, and how are they to be understood?

All students of theology know that in the last hundred years nothing less than a complete revolution has occurred in our understanding of the Bible. At the Reformation, and for some time later, all Christians had reasonable grounds for assuming that in the Bible they had ready access to a body of infallible knowledge which had been miraculously revealed in ancient times by direct inspiration from God. It was confidently held by both Jew and Christian that the first five books of the Old Testament had been dictated by God to Moses at Mount Sinai. It was assumed, almost without question, that the Gospel writers had faithfully delivered an accurate account of the words and deeds of Jesus.

It was inevitable that the scientific method of study should come to be applied to the Bible, and the beginnings of this were contemporaneous with the rise of experimental science. It led first to the scientific study of biblical manuscripts, known as Textual Criticism, in an attempt to establish the original text. For all the original writings have long since disappeared, and what we have left are copies of copies of copies . . . in which a large number of minor changes have occurred, mostly because of unintended mistakes when the books were copied by hand.

Once the textual critic has made the best possible reconstruction of the original Hebrew or Greek text, the biblical scholar then uses the scientific method to study the origin and content of each book of the Bible, and this was long known as Higher Criticism. He sets out to answer the following questions:

(i) What type of literature is this?

(ii) Who wrote this book?

(iii) Have any additions been made to it since?

(iv) To whom was it written?

(v) When was it written, and when were the additions made?

(vi) What did it mean to the author and his intended readers?

At the Reformation the scientific study of the Bible was in its infancy, for biblical scholars then had neither the tools nor the information adequately to examine the many traditions of authorship and date which had grown up. One of the first men to set the scientific study of the Bible on its feet was Johann David Michaelis (1717-91), a professor and prodigious scholar of Göttingen, who became a legend in his own lifetime. He wrote Introduction to the New Testament, in which he showed that if one accepts the ancient view that it is apostolic authorship which is the guarantee of divine inspiration, then Mark, Luke, Acts, Hebrews, James and Jude must stand on a lower level than the rest of the New Testament. It was Herbert Marsh (1757-1839), Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, who introduced the work of Michaelis into England, and who taught that Christian faith was not dependent upon a doctrine of the verbal inspiration of Holy Scripture. The then Bishop of Oxford condemned Marsh’s work as "derogating from the character of the sacred books, and injurious to Christianity as fostering a spirit of skepticism".

J. G. Eichhorn (1752-1827), a student of Michaelis, has been called ‘the founder of modern Old Testament criticism’. He too was a phenomenal and versatile scholar, who in 1783 completed his most famous work, Introduction to the Old Testament, and by 1814 had also written an Introduction to the New Testament. He seems to have been the first to apply systematically to the whole of the Bible the methods of Higher Criticism, a term which he himself used. From that time onwards the term ‘Introduction’ has been used technically to describe a book which studies the origin, authorship, date and subsequent literary history of the biblical books.

The English-speaking public first learned of what was going on, through the publication in 86o of Essays and Reviews by seven Anglican scholars, six of them clergymen. One of the most debated items was an essay by Benjamin Jowett (1817-93), Master of Balliol College, Oxford, and Professor of Greek, on "The Interpretation of Scripture" in which he pleaded that the Bible should be "interpreted like any other book", maintaining that when this is done, "the Bible will still remain unlike any other book". "Any true doctrine of inspiration", he wrote, "must conform to all well-ascertained facts of history or of science." In another essay C. W. Goodwin showed that the Mosaic account of world origins could in no way be reconciled with the conclusions of science and that the popular assumption "that the Bible, bearing the stamp of Divine authority, must be complete, perfect and unimpeachable in all its parts" could not be substantiated in the light of the host of difficulties to which it gave rise.

The book caused a great stir. A petition signed by eight thousand clergymen and addressed to the Archbishop of Canterbury asked the Bishops to take judicial proceedings against the authors. As a result, two of the contributors were suspended from office, but on appeal to the Privy Council were reinstated. The two Archbishops registered their dissent from this reversal. Then followed a renewed wave of panic. Within a few weeks eleven thousand clergymen signed a protest and one hundred and thirty-seven thousand lay-members signed an address of thanks to the Archbishops in appreciation of their recorded dissent.

In 1862 J. W. Colenso (1814-83), Bishop of Natal, published The Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua Critically examined in which he challenged the Mosaic authorship and the historical accuracy of these books. The storm of protest resulted in his being excommunicated and deposed from office, though he too was reinstated on appeal to the Privy Council. Such examples give an idea of the ferocity of theological debate which surrounded the revolution in Biblical studies. It continued until the turn of the century and several great scholars were deposed from their academic posts.

W. Robertson Smith (1846- 94) lost his chair of Old Testament studies in Aberdeen because of articles he contributed to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. But by the beginning of this century the new approach to the Bible had won the day in all major theological institutions of the Protestant world.

The first important result of this scientific study has been the realization that the books of the Bible were not written and published in the way a modern book is. There was no such thing as copyright, and the original author had no further control over his writing once it was out of his hand. He who legally possessed the manuscript was free to add to it or modify it if he felt led to do so. Most books of the Old Testament and some of the New Testament were not originally written in the form in which we now have them, nor was each written necessarily by one person only. In the book of Isaiah, for example, no more than about twenty chapters come from the eighth century prophet of that name, a substantial section comes from an unknown prophet of the Babylonian exile in the sixth century, some of the later chapters come from the fifth century, and a few may be as late as the fourth century BC.

The authorship of the books has proved a very difficult problem. Scientific inquiry has shown that many of the old traditions about authorship are almost certainly false. In such cases it is usually impossible for us to learn anything definite about the identity of the real author, who in the meantime has disappeared into oblivion. We are not able to specify with confidence the author of any one of the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament, though some of the oracles of the books of the prophets originated in the mouths of the prophets there named. Luke may be the only Gospel writer whom we can actually name. There has always been a tendency to attribute stories and books to men who are already famous. It was this which caused the composite narrative of Israel’s origins to be attributed to Moses, the Psalms to David, and the Epistle to the Hebrews to Paul. But though we can name fewer of the human authors of the books of the Bible than tradition thought was possible, we can on the other hand be much more definite in saying that they all had human authors. And because of this fact they reflect at many points the limited knowledge, the now outmoded conceptions, and even the personal prejudices, which were commonly held at the time of their origin.

Writing is a form of communication, and this is a process which involves two parties, a writer and his expected readers. Because there is less definiteness about the identity of the reader than there is of the author, it is a question too easily overlooked. If we are to reach an adequate understanding of the Biblical literature, the next question we must ask about each book is "To whom was it addressed?", or "For whom was it intended ?" Though this sort of question cannot be answered with any great detail, as indeed it cannot be in the case of many books written today, yet even general answers are important when they deal with literature that is as old as the Bible.

The first answer that we can confidently give is that the biblical authors were writing first and foremost for the men of their own day. In some cases they were committing to writing material which already existed in oral form; in some cases they copied and adapted already existing written material; in some cases they were composing new material. But the very languages in which they wrote indicate that they were writing for men of their own time, who shared that language, and what is more important, who shared the faith which prompted them to write their own particular witness to it. There is little justification for the view held quite commonly, even if unconsciously, that the Bible consists of timeless oracles which can be equally well understood by men of all generations. Some books admittedly were of a more general character and were not tied so definitely to a particular age; one has only to note how the Psalms have been used and treasured by so many different generations. But the prophets quite definitely were addressing their fellow Israelites of their own day, and Paul was writing to particular churches about the particular problems that were besetting them.

Now if it is true that the biblical writers were writing primarily for the men of their own day, then we shall understand what they intended to communicate only by studying their words and statements within that original context to which these belong. We have all become aware of the errors we commit by quoting a verse of scripture out of context, but we have rarely appreciated how far-reaching this principle can be. To be properly understood, a verse must not only be studied in the context of the chapter and book within which it stands, but also within the social and historical context of the time when it was written, and within the personal context of the attitudes and intentions which joined the writer to his readers. The older a book is, and the more removed it is from the environment with which we are familiar, the more important this issue becomes, if we are going to deal faithfully with the words of the writer.

When the scientific study of the Bible became the storm-center of attention in the late nineteenth century, many Christians probably consoled themselves with the thought, "It is only the Old Testament after all. We still have an absolutely reliable New Testament, and that is the essential part of the Bible for the Christian." But, of course, the New Testament was being subjected to the same kind of scientific examination. While the conclusions may not have appeared so revolutionary as with the Old Testament to begin with, they were destined to become so in the end. We now know that the Gospels were not the first New Testament books to be written, but came after Paul’s Epistles. The earliest Gospel, that of Mark, was written thirty-five to forty years after the ministry and death of Jesus; those of Luke and Matthew, both of which copied sections word for word out of Mark, were written between 80 and 90 AD.; and John’s Gospel, which has quite a different style and approach, was probably written just before the turn of the century. Indeed it is likely that by the time the Gospels began to appear, not one of the original twelve disciples of Jesus was living. Actually that is probably one of the reasons why they began to appear.

These are but some examples of the problems raised and the conclusions we are led to, as soon as we ask, "When were the books of the Bible written?" Let us now turn to the question, "Why were they written?" One thing we can say with some certainty is that they were not written by their authors with any conscious intention of their being included in the Bible. On the other hand, each writer or editor did have some clear intention of his own in doing what he did, though this varied quite a bit, depending upon whether it was Amos proclaiming a divine oracle to Israel, an unknown disciple collecting his master’s oracles, a priest writing down and interpreting ancient traditions, Paul writing a letter to encourage a newly founded church, or the fourth evangelist writing, as he said, "that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name".

Now what did the community of Israel (and later the Christian Church) believe itself to be doing in gathering together these books and eventually giving them the title of Holy Scripture? First and foremost it was setting the stamp of its authority upon what it regarded as the written record of what God had said and done through His servants in time past. Once it received this authority, the Bible became in some sense regulative for the life and faith of the community thereafter.

But the church has mostly regarded the Bible as something more than historical records, and that is why they were called Holy Scriptures -- they had in some sense come from God. It is fairly clear what gave rise to this conviction. The Pentateuch included the record of the priestly instructions or teaching which were believed to have come directly from God through the priest, and the books of the Prophets contained the oracles which God had spoken directly to Israel through the mouth of the prophets. In the same way in the New Testament the Gospels recorded the words and acts of Jesus the Son of God.

The sense of holiness, which attached to these portions of the Bible, came to be associated with the whole, and it is only natural, as the centuries passed by, that men should come to look upon those ancient books with an increasing sense of reverence. It is further understandable that in this process the term ‘Word of God’, which originally could be applied quite aptly to the priestly instruction and prophetic oracle, should come to be used of the Bible, as a whole. This trend to increased veneration for the Holy Scriptures reached its peak in seventeenth century Protestantism, at which point the human origins of the Bible were almost completely overshadowed by the sense of their divine origin, and hence of their absolute infallibility at all points.

Since that time, for reasons partly mentioned above, the nature and role of the Bible has come to be seen in what is surely a more balanced perspective. This has unfortunately meant in the eyes of many that it has become for them a fallen idol. But according to the Bible itself, this is exactly what should happen to idols. That trend in the church which sought to turn the Bible into an infallible oracle was in fact a form of idolatry.

The more balanced perspective means that we accept the Bible for what it is, and that we do not try to turn it into what it is not. It means that it is not the Bible which comes under judgment, but various views, doctrines and attitudes about the Bible. The Bible cannot be changed, but the way we think about it can and must change. There is a sense in which the terms ‘inerrancy’, ‘divine inspiration’ and ‘the Word of God in written form’ each referred to something which is still true, but if we are going to retain these terms, we shall need to append to them so much explanation of what we mean by them, that it is better to seek fresh terms altogether. F. W. Farrar wrote in 1886, "Whoever was the first dogmatist to make the terms ‘the Bible’ and ‘the Word of God’ synonymous rendered to the cause of truth and of religion an immense disservice."

The Bible is indispensable to the Christian, for in being the only authoritative records of the origin of the faith, they become the norm for Christian faith and practice for all time. But how in practice are they to be appealed to as the norm? It is here that we must remember that both books and people are all set in a particular historical context and they cannot be properly understood in abstraction from that context. The context of the Bible is now the ancient past and the Bible is essentially a collection of voices from the past. If we are to understand these voices, we must put ourselves as far as possible into these people’s historical setting and read their words through their spectacles and with their presuppositions. Having absorbed from their witness all we can, we must then interpret the substance or spirit of their witness into the context, presuppositions and thought forms of our own day.

All this means that the study and final interpretation of the Bible becomes a very skilled task. That is why Biblical scholars, theologians and ministers of the Word are necessary. The passing of time is removing us even further away from the historical context of the Bible, and so making it more difficult for the ordinary reader to have a full appreciation of what is written there. The honest reader has admitted this for a long time about many of the books of Bible, such as the prophets, the Epistles and Revelation. But while the ordinary Bible reader is increasingly dependent upon the work of the scholar, it is also true that the fruits of that scholarship are more readily available to him today than ever before.

When the aids of modern scholarship are brought to bear upon the Bible, and its own historical context is reconstructed as the stage setting, then the Bible once again becomes alive. Those voices from the past speak in living, ringing tones, because for those of us whose very being has been molded in one way or another by the Christian heritage, they are the voices of our own past who address us. To the extent that we are enabled to share with them in the crises and victories which they witnessed in their own day, the God of history, who spoke to them, then speaks His Word to us today. It is the relevant Word in the context of life which is always the Word of God that shall stand for ever.