Many associate higher criticism of the Bible with the development of modern thought. But the truth is that for millennia people have sought to find ways to evade or deflate the broad and sweeping claim that, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17, NRSV; emphasis supplied). How much of the Bible is that? “All scripture.” Of course, many named and unnamed human authors and editors participated in producing the anthology we know as Bible. But according to the Bible, God directed the thoughts of these people, who were His co-workers (2 Pet 1:20-21).
This self-characterization of the Bible has always been under attack because it makes an enduring system of divine principles, rather than human ideas, the guide for belief and lifestyle. Divine principles are to be interpreted and applied within cultural contexts, but they are not to be revised or manipulated to accommodate human desires for control or comfort. As the word of God, the Bible is to edit our lives; we are not to edit the Bible. This is monumentally inconvenient for human compulsions, including pride and the desire to condone a huge array of sins.
Through the centuries, and today more than ever, people try in various ways to avoid scriptural messages and to make the Bible say what they want it to say. Their approach is characterized by what could be called “higher-critical thinking.” In the past, the term “higher-criticism” has been applied more narrowly to modes of scholarly “historical-critical” inquiry, such as source, form, and redaction criticism. But historical criticism is not an isolated phenomenon; its basic philosophy toward the Bible underlies other ways to neutralize the word of God. I am calling this common philosophy: “higher-critical thinking.” In this and the following posts, I will explore some manifestations of this kind of thinking in history and their effects on faith relationships with God.
Cut It Out
Thomas Jefferson had a simple solution to the problem of the Bible: He simply cut out everything he didn’t accept, especially miracles (see my previous post). His radically edited version was known as “Jefferson’s Bible.” That is accurate because it was his bible; it was no longer God’s Bible. By his own brilliant but finite human wisdom, which he valued above that of the infinite Creator of the universe, he fashioned his own authority and was happily in charge. He had neutered the transforming power of God’s word.
Others have ostensibly left the Bible as it is, but have added an overlay of extrabiblical interpretation that bends or obscures its meaning. Jesus opposed those who did this:
He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father. So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God” (Matt 15:3-6; NRSV).
According to Jesus, the whole Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is based on love for God and for our fellow human beings (Matt 22:37-40). This makes perfect sense because the purpose of the Bible is to reveal God, whose character is love (1 Jn 4:8). But human legalism, masquerading as piety, kidnaps biblical principles from their home of love and forces them to serve selfish human interests. In the case Jesus addressed in Matthew 15, temple functionaries appointed to receive offerings given to God (Num 18) profited from a human view of priorities that enabled or even encouraged adult children to withhold support from their parents, whether from misguided piety or from spite.
After the time of Jesus, the so-called “Christian era” has seen extrabiblical human supplements piled on one another. Reformers have escaped many of these, only to have their followers amass new systems of them. Human ideas and ways of doing things can be good, helpful, and necessary, but often even good ones take on a life of their own with overblown importance as defining characteristics of a group that eclipse more important values.
Treat It As Obsolete
Another strategy to change the Bible’s meaning is to treat at least some of it as obsolete. Thus many “New Testament Christians” treat the (Jewish) Old Testament as less valuable. For example, laws of Moses are routinely ignored because they are supposedly superseded by Jesus’ new (actually renewed) covenant of love (Jn 13:34), disregarding Jesus’ own statement that the whole Old Testament is based on love (see above). Also, the biblical seventh-day Sabbath is superseded by traditional “Christian” Sunday worship (not established by the New Testament) or by the everyday experience of entering into God’s rest (Heb 4; actually an experience of faith also available in Old Testament times).
It is true that the Old Testament contains culturally conditioned elements (e.g., levirate marriage; Deut 25:5-10) and penalties applicable under direct divine rule (e.g., Lev 24:13-23) that we should not try to carry out today. But the laws of Moses encapsulate enduring and authoritative principles that benefit those who observe them in the right way and for the right reasons (see further in Roy Gane, Leviticus, Numbers [NIV Application Commentary; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004], especially on Leviticus 17, Contemporary Significance section).
The New Testament also contains time-and-place-specific elements for our instruction, such as the debate over circumcision and its resolution (especially Acts 15). We do not live in the Second Temple Jewish and Greco-Roman cultural world of the New Testament. But we can learn from the ways in which God led His people during that period, applying enduring principles within our own life contexts. We ignore divine teaching at our own peril. We need all the help we can get.
In the following posts, I will explore some other strategies for attempting to change Scripture, such as treating it as merely human, and privileging science or political correctness over the Bible.
- If you did not respect God, what parts of the Bible would you wish to cut out? What would you wish to add? Why do you think the Bible does not completely agree with you?
- Do you or your church follow some human traditions (including policies, procedures, or organizational characteristics) that are out of harmony with the message and spirit of the Bible? If so, what can you do about this?
- Do you treat all Scripture as inspired by God and therefore valuable?
- How would blatantly or subtly treating the Bible as changed affect faith, hope, and the way we treat other people?
Read Roy Gane's assessment of historical-critical things in Higher-Critical Thinking And Its Effects (Part II).