What About Higher Criticism?


Over the past 125 years, a destructive force to the Gospel in American churches has spread among academics and lay people alike. This force is the use of the assumptions and methods of an approach to biblical interpretation known as The Historical-Critical Method, or Higher Criticism. While practitioners often vary in their interpretative conclusions, they uniformly deny the divine authorship of the text of the biblical writings. The consensus of the Church for 1700 years was that the Scriptures present an objective revelation of God and His history of redemption, divinely authored and mediated accurately by the language of human writers. The Scriptures reliably witness God’s redemptive actions and words in human history. What the Scriptures teach, the Holy Spirit teaches.

The Scriptures reliably witness God’s redemptive actions and words in human history. What the Scriptures teach, the Holy Spirit teaches.
— Steven Hein

Yet as Rationalism took over many Protestant centers of learning throughout Europe in the eighteenth century, naturalistic assumptions about proper historical inquiry began to be applied to the interpretation of Scripture. These assumptions presume that any biblical, divine intervention into the affairs of human history must be viewed as products of prescientific ignorance or superstition. Instead of seeing the Scriptures as divine revelation, the biblical documents are understood by higher critics to represent simply the personal beliefs of their human authors. Secondarily, according to this method, the documents reflect only the faith of the author’s believing community. This means no matter the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the biblical documents, their human quality implies they contain contradictions, errors, and inaccuracies. The Higher Critical biblical scholar is confident that a multitude of such discrepancies have been identified. In addition, due to the believed limitations of human language, the writings of Scripture are never recognized in themselves to constitute God’s revelation.

Applying higher-critical standards to the biblical documents means that their historical assertions can never rise above tentative probability. Therefore, they cannot serve as an objective foundation for matters of religious faith. Moreover, probabilities of alleged biblical events in the Bible are assessed according to their uniqueness and the distance between the time of the event’s occurrence and the written record. Biblical narratives that report direct, supernatural involvement by God are often understood to be either exaggerated or made up. The more numerous parallels that exist in extra-biblical literature (e.g., the flood), the greater the likelihood that the biblical event is a myth or legend borrowed from surrounding pagan religions. Biblical prophecies foretelling future events are often assumed to have been written down after the occurrence of the event.

The higher critic seeks to carry out an independent investigation of the biblical text using all available resources and evidence to determine the credibility of the biblical writers, and what should be considered plausible to have really happened. Higher critics seek to make their own evaluations by conducting independent investigations that are based on anti-supernatural assumptions and therefore negate from the outset the reliability of Scriptural documents. Secondarily, their goal is to understand why the biblical writer composed his document in the fashion we have received them in the resultant text. The investigative tools of the Historical-Critical Method involve methods of literature analysis – including Literary Criticism, Form Criticism, and Redaction Criticism that have long since been discarded by secular historians, having judged them to be speculative and unreliable.

The following examples present conclusions reached by most users of the Historical-Critical Method:

The first twelve chapters of Genesis are not historical narratives but rather present a collection of ancient religious myths. Moses did not write the Pentateuch. None of the Gospels were written by apostles or under their supervision (e.g., Mark and Luke). Many higher-critical practitioners believe that most of the reported miracles of Jesus including his bodily resurrection are not historical. Instead, they should be understood to be post-apostolic mythic stories to illustrate elements of religious understanding about Jesus by segments of the early Christian community. Paul only wrote some of the epistles ascribed to him and none of the catholic epistles (I, II Peter, I, II, III John) were written by apostles or during their lifetime.

What should we make of the use of Higher Criticism? It is impossible for a church body to both embrace the Historical-Critical Method of biblical interpretation and sustain a commitment to historic Christianity. If the biblical narratives are not reliable when they report what has been observed to be God's actions in human history, why should they be believed when the biblical writers describe their significance for us in terms of sin and grace? If the Creation and Fall narratives in Genesis 1-3 are simply adapted pagan myths, why should we believe that our parents were originally created in the image of God but then corrupted by sin by the disobedience of a real Adam and Eve? And, if the reports of Christ's bodily resurrection are simply mistaken illusions or fabricated stories, why should we believe that the cross was a triumph over sin and death and that in Christ we can share in that victory? As St. Paul has concluded, "If Christ be not raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins" (1 Cor. 15:17).

If the reports of Christ’s bodily resurrection are simply fabricated stories, why should we believe that the cross was a triumph over sin and death?
— Steven Hein

Where Higher-Criticism has taken over the leadership and seminary education of major American denominations over the past 125 years, commitment to the historic Christian Gospel and the righteousness of Christ have been lost. They have given way to a plethora of religious and secular perspectives of a do-it-yourself spirituality and religious life as they have become popular in ever-changing contemporary culture.

What is encouraging for defenders of the Gospel and the integrity of the biblical documents is the fact that the anti-supernatural assumptions of the Enlightenment Era have largely been discredited. In addition, archeological discoveries and extra-biblical materials continue to vindicate the biblical record of persons, places, and events. These discoveries have been enlisted by Christian apologists for a compelling defense of the biblical writers and the Gospel they proclaim.

Dr. Steven A. Hein currently serves as Director of The Concordia Institute for Christian Studies, an organization that offers auxiliary educational services to pastors and church gatherings across the country and in West Africa. He also serves as an affiliate professor at The Institute of Lutheran Theology and Colorado Christian University.