Religious Bible Criticism: Part 1

Michael Kotsch

It isn’t just so-called “liberals” who attack the Word of God. Bible-critical thinking is often hidden behind pious phrases, religious traditions, and supposed spirituality.

New Testament scholar Rudolph Bultmann’s (1884-1976) strongly presented theses of so-called demythologization developed into an intense debate on academic Bible criticism 50 years ago. Beginning with the books Alarm um die Bibel (“Alarm around the Bible,” Gerhard Bergmann, 1963) and The End of the Historical-Critical Method (Gerhard Maier, 1974), as well as the much-noted congresses of the “No Other Gospel” Christian Confession Movement (since 1966), an awareness has developed of the faith-destroying effect of academic theology.

In particular, the historical-critical method, which was rooted in the 19th century, helped to largely suppress thoughts about the divine origin of Holy Scripture and its supernatural authority. Theologians considered the Bible to be just a common historical document of human origin. For the long history of Holy Scripture, man has alleged numerous unknown authors, various stages of editorial revision, adoption of religious myths, the later insertion and backdating of prophetic statements, the largely free invention of miracle stories, etc.

Using the historical-critical method, the theologian should be able to identify the ostensibly historically relevant core of biblical accounts. As one might expect, all supernatural aspects of the Word of God fell to the wayside. This sort of biblical criticism explained all of Old Testament history up to David as mere invention. Miracles such as the virgin birth or the healing of the blind were reinterpreted as figurative or symbolic. But the atoning death of Jesus and His resurrection were also considered unhistorical and largely irrelevant to modern man. This belief-destroying view dominates in academic theology to this day.

Moreover, quite different forms of university and religious Bible criticism have developed in the meantime, which also lead to the devaluing of statements originally inspired by God, or even to declaring them irrelevant to Christian living today. Some of the methods of religious Bible criticism that are currently most widely in use are briefly discussed below.

It has never been easier in human history to get high quality Bible translations into your hands than it is today. And people in this country have never objectively had as much free time as today (working a standard 35 to 40 hour week). Anyone who wants to can get a Bible from Gideons International or another Christian ministry completely free of charge. Several Bible translations are available for download or online use on various platforms. Roadblocks to private Bible reading no longer exist as they did 150 years ago. Yet the Word of God is read less today in the Western world than in past centuries.

When asked about the most important book in their lives, most conservative evangelicals, dogmatically correct, would name the Bible. But the reality of their lives deviates from it considerably. Believers spend much more time on the Internet or in the consumption of movies than studying the Bible. A 2011 survey by the well-known magazine Christianity Today found that 22% of conservative evangelical Christians never read the Bible. About half of all anonymous respondents admitted to only consulting the Holy Scriptures from time to time. Only just under a quarter of Christians identified themselves as regular Bible readers. A similar survey from 2017 confirms this trend.

One form of religious Bible criticism consists of confessing the Bible externally, but largely avoiding it in private life. The conservative basic stance here comes not so much from Bible study, but rather from the social environment and their own education. In aspects that go beyond a conservative attitude, these Christians often don’t experience any changes in accordance with Jesus (for example, vacationing, media consumption, dealing with finances). Anyone who never or rarely exposes himself to biblical imprinting will only find his thinking and actions impressed by the Bible in a very limited way.

Many evangelicals have discovered their special sympathy for the words of Jesus in recent years, particularly regarding ethical concerns. “Red-Letter Christians” use editions of the Bible in which all the statements of Jesus are printed in red. They are convinced that only the direct words of Jesus quoted in the New Testament are obligatory for all Christians. They claim that texts traced back to Paul, John, or one of the other disciples must be subordinated.

In fact, this conception leads to dissolution of the biblical understanding of inspiration and the construction of a canon within the canon: a distinction between New Testament writings in terms of their credibility and relevance. This is exactly what was vehemently rejected by the authors of the books of the Bible and the early church fathers. They didn’t express a private opinion in their writings in accordance with their self-image. Instead, under the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit, they relayed what God had told them (e.g. Matt 5:17ff.; Gal 1:8ff.; 2 Tim 3:14-17; Rev 22:18ff.). In some ways, the texts of the Apostles are even more relevant to the New Testament church than the Gospels, because they speak specifically about the age of salvation and everyday life. Many details about the Christian life and conduct in the church can be found only in the epistles of Paul, not in the speeches of Jesus. But the two shouldn’t be understood as antitheses, but as a God-ordained complement.

Therefore, one form of religious Bible criticism is to pit the statements of Jesus against those of the Apostles. There is usually no particular faith behind this, as it may appear. In reality, it’s much more concerned with the question of how to best circumvent the New Testament statements that are offensive in secular society. Much of what annoys the public about Christian positions isn’t found in the Gospels, but in the letters of the Apostles: rejection of homosexuality, subordination of women, specially qualified men as elders, child discipline, etc. Circumventing clear biblical statements with a deceptive reference to Jesus must be labeled as Bible criticism.

In their deep yearning for completely individual guidance from God, many Christians are no longer content with the general and principled statements in the Bible. True to the motto, “for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (2 Cor 3:6), mere biblical piety is sharply criticized in favor of purportedly direct communication with God. For everyday decisions as well as for life’s big questions, one hopes for direct instructions from heaven. The call for responsible behavior and the clear biblical statements on choice of partner or career are largely ignored.

Sometimes there is genuine, deep piety behind this search for divine certainty. Far more frequently, however, this concept hides a spiritual insecurity, a fear of personal responsibility, or an overestimation of one’s own life situation with regard to biblical salvation. Religious Bible criticism becomes the search for individual guidance, when external signs and inner voices replace God’s Word. Evangelical Christians are increasingly building on speculative prophecies, or supposed affirmations of favorable circumstances or dubious vocations, even if these are in explicit contradiction to clear biblical statements. Women profess to be elders, even though the Bible forbids them (1 Tim 2:12). Spouses separate from each other because they feel so led, and then form new liaisons without hesitation, even though God forbids divorce and remarriage on principle (Mark 10:6ff.). Still other Christians sweepingly declare all likeable people to be saved, because they feel so led, even though God Himself clearly names different conditions for salvation (Rom 3:21-26).

One form of religious Bible criticism, therefore, consists of pitting clear statements from Scripture against private revelations that one purports to have received from God. As a result, irreconcilable contradictions arise between the authoritative speech of God, and inner voices whose actual origin can’t be unequivocally verified. However, the basis for the decision of every Christian must always be the unambiguous statements of the Word of God, which rightly make a claim to universal validity for all people. Going beyond this, presumed guidance from God should not be contrary to these principled instructions. In many cases, personal prophecies far more often conceal personal desires, yearnings, and fears, or concerns and hopes that one would like to see realized; if necessary, in contrast to clear biblical declarations.

Many conservative Christians, who consider themselves to be largely biblically faithful, look more closely to a specific theological concept than to the Word of God alone. Of course, theological concepts can help one systematize and better understand the multiple messages of the Bible. Once you have connected to a theological school of thought in certain questions, everything in the Bible suddenly seems much clearer. With a few basic statements, you seem to be able to interpret and understand everything correctly. In many cases, we overlook that even the best theological system does not depict the Bible itself, but is a human construct. God has obviously not revealed a textbook of dogmatics, which He could easily have done, but clearly didn’t consider necessary.

Orientation to solid theological systems can quickly lead to concentration on trivialities, discussions of which quickly get out of hand, but in the concrete life of Christians hardly change a thing.

Furthermore, there is the real danger that other Christians will only be classified according to their agreement with one’s own theological system of good/evil or Bible faithful/critical. Their entire life or their legitimate different accentuation in Bible reading is either not taken into account or dismissed as secondary, because one’s own spiritual concept has become the overarching standard.

System-oriented Christians are in danger of always reading the Bible through a very specific theological lens. The Word of God is quickly perceived only as evidence of one’s own theological conception. In reality, one has long since become a representative of dispensationalism, Calvinism, Mennonite or charismatic teaching, etc. Instead, it would be far better to remain a simple Bible reader, for whom some things will always remain unclear because they are beyond all attempts at human systemization (1 Cor 13:9). Our own logic and systems must not determine what a concrete Bible verse can or can’t mean.

Most likely, Christians need to learn to live with human logic and earthly experience, as not every biblical statement can be clearly cataloged and systematized (Job 38). Sometimes believers may not understand the complexity of God’s communications, or forget that God reserves the right not to tell His earthly children everything that is knowable (Matt 24:36). Obviously, the Bible focuses on everything Christians need to understand about faith and life. A lot beyond this, though it might be interesting, is omitted.

So, one form of religious Bible criticism consists of putting God’s Word and some theological system on the same level, consciously or unconsciously. Ultimately, even the best spiritual concepts are only human constructs and not God-revealed truth. The immediate statement of a Bible verse should never be reinterpreted as referring to a theological system. One should rather admit the limitations of one’s own concept, without having to deny its helpful function in other places. No Christian is forced to join only this or that theological view (“either Calvinist or Arminian”), if he finds well-founded statements in the Bible for allowing both perspectives.                 

This article first appeared in Gemeindegründung (“Church Planting”), No. 133, 1/18, and has been reprinted with kind permission.

Midnight Call - 07/2019

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