Celebrating Inerrancy--the Bible and Liberal Criticism

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Taking a break from talking about the issues within the sphere of social justice to once again discuss the forthcoming 40th anniversary of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and the work the men who produced that important document in the book “Inerrancy” (Zonderan 1980).

Today we look at the late Dr. J. Barton Payne’s chapter on Inerrancy and Liberal Biblical Criticism. So-called “higher criticism” has its roots in the “enlightenment” but really kicked off with the publication of Julius Wellhausen’s “Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels” (1883). Wellhausen argued (following Baruch Spinoza and others) that Moses did not write the first five books of the Old Testament but that they were written and re-written over time by various competing factions in Israel.

Wellhausen’s rejection of traditional understandings of the authorship of Scripture assumed that the Bible is a book written by men like any other book and should be analyzed as such. He kicked open the door that many others had poked at for several hundred years. Harvard, Yale and eventually Princeton (all of which had been founded to train men to preach the Gospel) caved to liberal criticism.

I met Dr. Norman Gottwald, one of the don’s of liberal criticism, at a regional meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Dallas. Dr. Gottwald stood by the following statement quoted by Dr. Payne, “The only presupposition common to all…(liberal Biblical) critics is the necessity of questioning tradition, examining a religious literature as we would examine any other writings in order to determine authorship, date, sources, and historical background. This at once sounds the death knell for verbal inspiration (of Scripture).”

As Payne notes, the problem with this approach is that the presupposition of the critic is imposed on the text. Scholar Gerhard Maier, who was trained in liberal criticism but later rejected it, wrote that all liberal critics “…interpret the Bible from within the presuppositions of the contemporary scientific worldview.” In other words, “higher critics” assume the provisional nature of scientific research always trumps the enteral Word of God.

The end result has been a mess that even honest liberal critics admit. In the late 1960’s the rise of both “canonical criticism” and “rhetorical criticism" acknowledged that the “scholarly” attempt to get behind the Biblical text to the "real history” had failed. Scholars turned to studying Scripture as a whole or as a rhetorical device while still holding on to their secular influenced presuppositions.

The modern method also began a slow dry rot of mainline denominations. The seminaries and congregations that championed "higher criticism” in the 20th century have been dying since at least the 1950’s. In an attempt to recreate religion to appeal to educated skeptics, these institutions have instead repelled nearly everyone.

The brunt of this failed experiment was the Old Testament but as Abraham Kuyper said, “If Christ attributed absolute authority to the Old Covenant…then the matter is settled for all who worships Him.” Payne follows this quote by stating, “It seems to boil down to this: either human criticism gains the place of honor or Jesus does.” Amen.