Saturday, March 02, 2013

What is Biblical Criticism?

Biblical criticism does not mean that people are criticizing the Bible though in our day and age there is certainly no shortage of people doing exactly that.  Biblical criticism is a broad term for the scholarly study of the Bible and its textual content that uses various literary historical-critical techniques.  Put another way, biblical criticism is a way of studying the Bible critically and assessing it as literature in an attempt to better understand it.

The most recent form of biblical criticism is a postmodern form known as reader-response criticism and is focused on the reader and his or her response to a given text rather than the actual meaning.[1]  Reader-response criticism emerged in the 1960’s and like other forms of higher criticism (form criticism and redaction criticism) often focuses on the natural rather than the supernatural.  I must admit that this is my first exposure to this form of biblical criticism and am quite surprised by the premise that it is more important how a reader responds to the text than the meaning of that text. 

The more radical reader-response critics, such as Stanley Fish, believe that the text has no meaning at all.  Fish states his position clearly; “The reader’s response is not to the meaning; it is the meaning.”[2]  Fortunately (in my opinion), most in the business of biblical criticism have do not hold to Prof. Fish’s extreme, rigid views.  Many evangelicals reject these critical methods as being branches of a poisoned tree being antithetical to the doctrine of Scripture.[3] While, as a first-year seminarian, I remain very skeptical of these methods, I do believe there is value in their use if done so in a conservative manner.

The rise of reader-response criticism recently, as well as other higher criticisms in previous generations has had a decidedly negative impact on theology over the past century.[4]  Though a lengthy diatribe could certainly be written about this topic, I will limit myself to two aspects.  First, the focus on the reader and how the reader responds is flawed.  I am left with the impression that how the reader responds, whatever that response may be, is inherently correct simply because that reflects the reader’s very subjective understanding of what they just read.  I do not expect a non-believer to arrive at the same understanding of a passage of Scripture as someone who has placed their faith in our risen Savior. 

Secondly and closely related to my first point, these forms of criticism treat the Bible as simply another piece of literature.  Higher critics virtually eliminate the divine aspect of Biblical authorship.  It is now commonplace to speak of hypothetical sources of biblical material with no evidence of such based solely on the work of redaction critics (e.g. the existence of “Q” in the Gospels, Second Isaiah, etc.).[5]  Without the supernatural as a possibility, these critics seemly close the door to the Good News of Jesus Christ though I am certain many (or even most) would deny that charge.

With newer approaches to biblical criticism coming to dominate contemporary scholarship, I think it is safe to say we will see more of this type of criticism rather than less.  Conservative reader-response criticism as a form of biblical criticism may a have place.  Consider this: the many denominations we see today are a result of one reader’s response to the biblical text (e.g. Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, etc.). 

[1] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology 2nd Edition. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 85.
[2] IBID, 109.
[3] Elwell, Walter A., ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology 2nd Edition. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 555.
[4] IBID, 556.
[5] IBID

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