Reading against Higher Criticism
In the 1970’s the LCMS went through an intense controversy around higher criticism, the academic approach to the Bible which puts the reasoning and insights of the human reader over the text itself. The controversy was recently treated in a book-length form by James Burkee in a volume entitled Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod: A Conflict that Changed American Christianity, published by Fortress in 2013. Burkee, as you can tell by the title, does not think this was about higher criticism and theology, but was a purely political event which reflected currents and trends in the larger American society. He might be right, but for many of the people who lived through it, it was very theological and very much about the Bible which spoke God’s word to them. The LCMS has a raw nerve here of which any preacher needs to be aware.
Unfortunately, the LCMS’ raw nerve has meant that LCMS scholars have not been able to wrestle with this issue effectively. The political landmines are set to a hair-trigger for any LCMS theologian who ventures into this field. There have been some attempts, some of them better than others, but the conclusions of all of them reflect too much the internal political/historical realities of the LCMS.
Outside the LCMS, however, there has been a substantive reaction to the higher-critical movement in exegetical and systematic theological writing. Already in the 1970’s, while the controversy was gripping the LCMS, there were intelligent and important voices who were questioning the higher-critical approach. One of the centers for that questioning in the U. S. was at Yale where Brevard Childs and Hans Frei professed. From their seminars and classrooms, many American theologians came to realize that the higher critical movement itself was not a neutral/unbiased approach to the Scriptures but in fact revealed far more about the scholar than it did about the text of the Bible itself. At the same time, a group of scholars were coming to similar conclusions in the UK, but through different means. These groups frequently collaborated and cross-pollinated. The LCMS preacher will do well to read a bit here.
This group of scholars have coalesced into several overlapping movements: Neo-orthodoxy, Post-liberalism, and Narrative Criticism. Much of what they say will not pass muster for the LCMS survivor of the Walkout era. These scholars will not assert a literal six-day creation or even the Pauline authorship of all letters attributed to the Apostle in the New Testament. This should not, however, keep us from reading them. There is a great deal of good in here which can help us. Here are a few of the authors who have helped me.
Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the Eye Witnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Eerdmans, 2008. 2nd Ed. 2017. 704 pp. One of the tropes of much of higher criticism is that the NT is not historical because it began as a fluid oral document which was passed down for generations and was changed/altered in the retelling. Bauckham destroys this idea, and it deserves to be destroyed. His basic thesis is that evidence best supports the synoptic Gospels as mid-first century documents and John at the end of the first century. In that time frame, the eyewitnesses to the ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ are still alive. This fact simply does not allow for the wholesale revisions which higher critics assume took place. His treatment of Jewish names and what this suggests about the nature of the text makes this book well worth the read.
Burridge, Richard A. Four Gospels, One Jesus? A Symbolic Reading. Eerdmans, 2014 (3rd Edition) 224 pp. There are in fact several books which do what Burridge does. This is just happens to be the one that I have read and found best. Burridge is taking on one of the central aspects of higher criticism, namely its desire to find the most historically accurate depiction of Jesus, usually prioritizing Mark and applying a modern reductive materialistic lens (assuming that since we know miracles don’t happen so those cannot be true!). Burridge asserts that this misses the whole point of the four-fold Gospel witness. It is intending to give us different portraits of Jesus. In the same way that a portrait artist does not give one a photograph of a person but an interpretation of the person, the Gospels are not trying to give us historically complete depictions of Christ. To ask that of them is to do violence to what they are saying. He argues for reading each of the Gospels as intentional portraits of Christ.
Davis, Ellen F. and Richard B. Hayes (authors and Eds.) The Art of Reading Scripture. Eerdmans, 2003. 354 pp. Davis and Hayes have collected a series of essays and articles of the Narrative school of thought which are very helpful for providing the theologically interested reader of the Bible with ways to read/think about the text. Narrative theology, among other things, suggests that reading the Bible as a presumed neutral observer in fact is impossible and distorts the meaning of the text. To read accurately requires that one must inside the conceptual world of the author, especially in terms of faith. Highly recommend this book.
Hayes, Richard B. Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Four-fold Witness. Baylor, 2016. 177 pp. Hayes has written a number of books and I have not read them all. I did read this one, however, and it was very helpful. One of the core elements of the modern reading of Scripture is the idea that the Bible is more like a library of discreet books. Using one part of the Bible to understand another is suspect. Hayes takes this on, suggesting that the NT use of the OT was both consistent with the OT and reflects a valid way to understand both texts.
Hurtado, Larry. Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. Eerdmans, 2005. 768 pp. If you are looking for a thorough demolition of the dominant thesis of New Testament scholarship, this is your book. Hurtado takes apart the often-cited idea that a high Christology is a late addition to NT thought. Hurtado’s insights are very helpful for reading many modern commentators. The text is lengthy and asks much of the reader. If you are not up to this, you might try the next text by Hurtado.
—– How on Earth did Jesus become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus. Eerdmans, 2005, 246 pp. The first half of this book publishes a series of Lectures which Hurtado was invited to deliver at Ben Gurion University in Israel. These lectures are very accessible for an interested lay-person and summarize many of his thoughts/arguments in “Lord Jesus Christ.” The second half of the book are four more academic journal articles which deal with the same substance as the lectures but provide a deeper analysis and more substantiation of the ideas than a popular lecture series was able to do.
Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Writings of the New Testament. Fortress, 2010. 544 pp. Johnson is a Roman Catholic scholar who taught for many years at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. This text is designed be an introductory text for students of the New Testament. It was too technical for my students at Concordia when I taught there. It seems better to be a seminary level text or upper division text for someone who is coming back to this material for the second time. Johnson is not afraid to question the pious convictions of folks who read the Bible. Many will find what he says objectionable. His treatment of Pauline Authorship, however, is very good. He makes persuasive arguments about the legitimacy of Pauline authorship for Ephesians and Colossians, two texts which are regularly ejected from the genuinely Pauline list of books.
Wright, N. T. Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters. Harperone 2011. 259 pp. Wright has written many books and like any author with a large corpus of work, it is often uneven. His work on Justification is terrible, honestly, falling into several miserable tropes which need to be laid to rest. This book, however, is very interesting. It is a survey of the last 200 years of scholarship but not a negative survey, rather it posits a means for people who do believe in Jesus to speak into this situation. I do not concur with Wright on every point here but am glad he made me think about some of these things. Wright repackages herein one of his stronger arguments that Jesus needs to be read/heard/considered in light of the second temple Judaism of the first century, especially the ongoing sense of an exile which never really ended. His discussion of Jesus as the true temple is especially interesting.
—- Simple Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. Harperone, 2009. 260 pp. Wright tries to articulate a middle way between reductive materialism and fundamentalism. Does that sound familiar? Walther tried the same thing with confessionalism as a third way between rationalism and pietism in the 19th century. I am not sure that Wright succeeds but this book is a good means to get us to start thinking about how to positively express our Christianity which has too often fallen into the trap of only being a religion which rejects the ideas of others.
There are many other books which might fit into this category. If you know one which you would recommend reading, send that information to Phil. He is always interested in reading about the interpretation of Scripture, and he may add it to this list.