The Value of the Critical View of the New Testament
From within the biblical tradition we must insist and confidently expect that the more profoundly and validly we understand and interpret the Bible, the greater the religious depth with which it will challenge and speak to us. It is precisely here that modern biblical scholarship has proved itself so insipid and unstimulating.
-J. V. Langmead Casserley
Christianity is a historical religion. It is not to be viewed as merely ethical or moral, consisting simply of rules and regulations. Jesus came to provide redemption from sin and death by means of his life, death, and resurrection. That redemption is only as real as those events. It is necessary to view the New Testament as a record of the genuine historicity of those events if Christianity is to become a dynamic sufficient to change lives and to create a genuine hope for a future life.
The following quotations will help explain the importance of viewing the Scriptures as historically trustworthy. Edward J. Young, the late Protestant scholar, has written:
When, however, we come to examine the question, what we are to believe, we discover that the doctrines which Scripture commends are rooted and grounded upon that which was done in history. The Christian faith, as it is revealed in the Bible, is not a mass of abstractions divorced from history. It is not eternal truths and ideals, but rather the account of something that God did for us upon this earth in history. Hence, it becomes very important to us to know whether what the Bible has to say about these historical matters is correct or not.
According to the Bible our salvation depends upon the death of Jesus Christ at Calvary and upon his subsequent resurrection from the dead. Now, it is quite important to know certain details about the tomb in which He was laid. Was that tomb empty upon the third day? Was there an actual historical resurrection or not? Questions such as these intrude themselves into our consideration and will not be pushed aside. Is the Bible, therefore, correct in what it has to say of these historical details or not? If the historical framework in which the great redemptive acts of God took place is a framework which is not to be trusted, how do we know that we have a true and correct account of those redemptive acts themselves?(51)
In other words, history and faith cannot be divorced without destroying the real power of Christianity. To remove faith from its historical base is to remove Christ from his power to save from sin and to raise the dead. F. F. Bruce explains it this way:
For the Christian gospel is not primarily a code of ethics or a metaphysical system;
it is first and foremost good news, and as such it was proclaimed by its earliest preachers… . And this good news is intimately bound up with the historical order, for it tells how for the world's redemption God entered into history, the eternal came into time, the kingdom of heaven invaded the realm of earth, in the great events of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. The first recorded words of our Lord's public preaching in Galilee are: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has drawn near; repent and believe the good news."(52)
51. Edward J. Young, Thy Word Is Truth, pp. 100-101.
52. F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents, pp. 7,8.
The good news which Christ announced was that God's own kingdom was about to be established, and he asked men to believe it. He also announced that the kingdom would be established with power during the lifetime of that generation of people (Mark 9:1). Then he demonstrated that power in his own bodily resurrection. It was by faith in that historic event that men believed in the good news of that kingdom and were baptized into it (Acts 8:12; Colossians 1:13-14). If we separate faith from that historical resurrection, there would be no good news concerning the kingdom of God, and Christianity could be nothing more than an idealistic sentiment. Either the New Testament relates to us the factual truth of Jesus Christ's divine power in his miracles and resurrection, or, if it is not historic fact, there is no hope for the human race beyond the grave.
THE CRITICAL VIEW OF SCRIPTURE
Due to the great volume of liberal literature and an appreciable degree of success to equate higher criticism with true Bible scholarship, coupled with the fact that this generation has generally accepted evolution as the great life principle, many are now questioning the relevance of the Scriptures to their lives. When this is taken together with another fact, that the Bible is constantly being thrust into a liberal interpretation, not only in literature, but from the lowest to the highest levels of classroom instruction, and more increasingly by the film media, it should appear essential for the Christian, from the least to the greatest, to know something of the real nature of this modern approach to the Bible.
There are two very good reasons for investigating the nature of criticism. First, in order to see that the critical view has no real genuine value as a means of determining biblical truth, and second, to enable the Christian to distinguish between true Bible exposition and plain unbelief in the guise of religious scholarship.
Liberalism Rejects the Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Christians should not be naive to the fact that not all who deal with the Bible believe it to be historically reliable. Many so-called theologians speak of their belief in Christ and even express their appreciation for his ethical teachings but will make it clear that they do not believe that they are set in a truly historical framework. They insist that the gospel miracles, such as the virgin birth and the resurrection, are not factual, but that they detract from the true picture of the historical Jesus.
1. Liberalism recommends a de-mythologizing of the gospels.
Liberalism's rejection of the historical trustworthiness of the gospels is manifested in the glib recommendation, which most university students have heard, that the gospels should be de-mythologized. Back of this approach to the Scriptures lies the debunking efforts of men like Karl Barth, Soren Kierkegaard, and Rudolph Bultmann who taught that the facts of history are not necessary to have faith in Christ, and that the gospels, the apostles' teaching about the supernatural Christ and the kingdom of God, are all mythology.(53)
53. Rudolph Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 11, will illustrate this.
This de-mythologization is illustrated in the modern claim that the church over a period of some thirty years exaggerated the truth about Jesus and developed a supernatural, bodily resurrected Christ and attributed to him divine claims and miracles for which he himself was not responsible. By the time the first gospel was written (about A.D. 60-62) Mark was not supposed to know the difference between the mythical Jesus and the real Jesus. Apparently, it does not bother the critic at all that there is no evidence for this claim. This so-called church-produced myth is purely the result of conjecture, nothing more, which is based upon the presupposition that miracles could not have happened. The fact that there is evidence in the gospels of a totally historical and verifiable sort that miracles and the resurrection did take place is of no consequence to the critic. He still clings to his bias against miracles and sets about to debunk the gospels as historically unreliable. Furthermore, the critic seems completely oblivious to the fact that the historic church was established just fifty days after the crucifixion on the belief that Jesus was the resurrected son of God. It should be evident that fifty days is hardly enough time to develop a legend around a person who had so recently been in their midst.
It is amazing that any Bible student would seriously consider the modern view, based as it is on mere conjecture without evidence and in total disregard for the historical evidence available to us. Edward J. Young evaluated the liberal approach by indicting it of having erected a man of straw to fight.(54) That evaluation seems very accurate.
2. Liberalism assumes that the gospels are theology and therefore not history.
54. Edward J. Young, Thy Word Is Truth, p. 15.
They [the Scriptures] are infallible in all matters of divine revelation, in all things where men need infallible guidance from God. We do not thereby claim that a writer dwelling in Palestine had an infallible knowledge of countries he had never visited, of dates of events beyond his own experience where he had to rely upon tradition or doubtful or imperfect human records. We do not affirm that he gave an exact and infallible report of words spoken centuries before, which had never before been previously recorded; or an infallible description of events that happened in distant lands and ages… .We do not thereby claim that the writer of the poem of the creation knew geology and astronomy, and natural history better than the experts of modern science, but to teach us the science of God and redemption, and the art of living holy, godlike, lives the Bible is the only infallible rule of faith and practice.(55)
The idea that the Bible is the infallible rule of faith and practice but cannot be completely relied on or believed is an inconsistency which most persons would reject. But not the critic; he does not believe that the Bible has to tell the truth to be worthy of producing an infallible faith!
Leon Morris, a Bible believer himself, presents the critic's view of the historicity of the gospel of John in the following words,
But because he (John) is a theologian and undoubtedly presents theology in this book, questions arise: What are we supposed to make of the incidents he relates?
Are these meant to be stories of things that actually occurred? Or is he simply manufacturing incidents (as the Master composed parables) that will serve his purpose of edification? Perhaps he is taking a basis of fact and erecting upon it a superstructure which, while sound theologically, is questionable when it comes to matters of historical fact.(56)
55. The Bible, the Church, and the Reason, pp. 93-94.
56. Leon Morris, Studies in the Fourth Gospel, p. 65.
What this amounts to is clearly stated by the critic himself, that the gospels are "questionable when it comes to matters of historical fact." But, as he says, that is supposed to be all right as long as the structure is "sound theologically." And if we are worried that this kind of a theological structure is shaky since it is erected upon events that did not actually take place, the critic quickly justifies it on the basis that even "the Master composed parables."
However, this approach is tragically wrong on at least two counts. First, consider how we know that "the Master composed parables." Is it not because the gospel writers said that he did? Therefore, the critic has admitted that the gospels contain some events which did happen which are clearly historical in nature. So, according to the modern view, it is a matter of historical truth that the Master composed parables. But if the modern view is right, that in matters of historical fact the gospels are questionable, then even here the matter of the Master composing parables is also questionable!
The critical view at best is theological doubletalk. In the final analysis, the modern view is illogical and self-contradictory. By applying its own methods to itself it can be seen that nothing in the Bible could be known to have happened, thus abolishing any solid basis upon which to construct any kind of theology.
Second, consider the plain, unveiled statements of the gospel writers that they earnestly desire for us to receive what they wrote as matters of historical fact. Luke's literary works (Luke and Acts) are the result of careful research and an accurate accounting of the historic events that transpired during the very time in which he and his correspondent, Theophilus, lived. He makes a plain statement that the purpose of such precision in research and writing was that Theophilus might "know the certainty concerning the things" about which he had been taught (Luke 1:1-4). John recorded the messianic and divine claims which Jesus made for himself, the miraculous signs which Jesus performed, and Jesus' own appeal to the signs as proof that he and God are one (John 10:37-38). Then, as if to answer the critic of today, John said that his testimony is true and that the reason for writing his gospel was that we may believe in the risen Lord (John 19:35; 20:30-31). According to the gospels, saving faith is located in the historically crucified and risen Jesus. The only thing left for the reader of the gospels to deduct is whether the historical evidence sustains the divine claims.
The whole point of the gospel testimony is that God acted through Jesus in history that men might make a certain judgment for their eternal welfare (John 9:39). And that action took place in a sequence of events which can be located at specific times and places.
3. Liberalism conjectures that the gospel writers invented the speeches of Jesus.
It is not difficult to find liberal writings which tell us that men of antiquity composed fictional stories and speeches for their heroes in order to bring out ethical truth. Morris explains that those who take such positions make little effort to prove them.
They assert that in antiquity this was a recognized and respected procedure. If we wanted to bring out the truth about Jesus, they might say, we would distinguish carefully between, for example, what Jesus said and what we deduce from his words. But in the first century a man would regard it as perfectly acceptable, for example, if he were quite convinced that Jesus thought of himself as the Messiah, to report that Jesus had claimed this. Thus, we must expect that John would compose "sayings" of Jesus, and manufacture incidents in which Jesus' character and claims are made plain.(57)
57. Morris, Studies in the Fourth Gospel, p. 68.
An example of this very thing is illustrated in Hugh J. Schoenfield's, The Passover Plot.
But also we cannot ignore that in the interests of theological doctrine, contemporary circumstances, and effective storytelling, nothing wrong was seen in creating views for Jesus to express, altering the sense of traditional sayings of his, supplying and coloring episodes with the help of non-Christian literature.(58)
In other words, liberalism asserts that the speeches recorded by the gospel writers which are attributed to Jesus cannot really be trusted to have come from the lips of Jesus, but were inventions originating in the minds of gospel writers who might even have employed the languages and ideas which they found in some non-Christian literature. But where is the proof?
Morris answers, "Though it is widely assumed that this procedure was rife in the ancient world little evidence can be found for it. That is to say, little evidence can be found that careful and serious writers practiced it."(59)
58. Schoenfield, The Passover Plot, pp. 220-221.
59. Morris, Studies in the Fourth Gospel, p. 68.
Morris goes on to quote A. W. Mosely from his Historical Reporting in the Ancient World:
Several scholars have already studied this matter and the general conclusion has been that sometimes ancient historians felt at liberty to compose speeches for their reports. Even this is now being questioned. But our survey has shown that these same historians did not feel free to invent stories of past events… . Several writers (especially Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, Dionysius, Lucian, Cicero, and Josephus) had set out plainly the standards by which historical reports should be described as they happened.(60)
60. Ibid., p. 69.
According to both Morris' and Mosely's research, the liberal view that men of antiquity were ready to invent speeches and events in order to bring out a truth is merely an assumption. Mosely is careful to say that ancient writers did not hesitate to compose speeches, when necessary, and put them into the mouths of historical characters, but that they did not regard themselves as having unlimited freedom in this matter, and that they were careful to make the speeches from reliable reports of what the original speakers were likely to have said. And he further makes the very important point that, while they composed speeches in this way, they did not compose stories of events. Thus Morris concludes that, "The widespread modern view that men of antiquity were quite ready to distort the facts if only they could bring out the truth, is not supported by the statements of the men themselves. It is simply assumed."(61)
Morris makes the interesting observation on ancient and modern writers relating to the matter of inventing speeches and events without any historical basis: "But only the second-rate did this (for that matter the second-rate in modern times are not exempt from guilt in this matter; but we do not therefore argue that this is standard practice).(62)
To take some examples of second-rate writers from antiquity who invented speeches and events without historical basis and then to affirm that this was the way men wrote in the first century is not an accurate application of the material. The evidence showing us the established procedure makes it clear that such was not the way men normally wrote in the first century, says Morris.
The modern critical view has at its base a disrespect for the Scriptures and manifests, by its glib approach to them, an obvious prejudice against believing, which no amount of evidence can change. No other library production has been so unfairly treated, especially in the face of so much established historical evidence.
61. Ibid., p. 69.
62. Ibid., p. 69.
Remember that the writers of the New Testament, when recording the claims and deeds of Jesus, asked us to believe that what they wrote was actually true-not theologically true, but historically true. Their productions are written in the plain, easy-to-understand style of the historian, the space-time dimension. They have the sane and sober appearance of historical documents. If upon investigation, we find that their productions are not true as they affirmed, then let us denounce them as either lies or naive deceptions. But to build a theology upon inventions and then to ask men to believe that this is the way God communicates his eternal truths is nonsense-the product of unbelieving and distorted minds.
Liberalism Claims the Gospel Miracles Mean Something Else
What possible value could literature possess which falsely claimed to record the truth of God's intervention into the historical realm? Liberalism says that New Testament literature, though untrue historically, nevertheless has theological value-that back of the literary invention is theology. That this is accepted by many is seen in the references to it made in encyclopedic articles, which generally are looked to for facts. For example, the Encyclopedia Americana says:
It is now widely agreed that a sign as John portrays it is neither a rent in the natural order nor an affront to man's higher intelligence, but a story-symbol of extraordinary penetration, comprehensiveness, and imaginative genius. The marriage feast at Cana (John 2:1-11) may serve as illustration: the water is Judaism, the mother is the faithful community in Israel, and the wine is the new life in Christ.(63)
63. Vol. XVI. p.160, 1967 edition.
But I raise the question, who is it that is "now widely agreed" with this sort of interpretation? Why, those who hold the modern view, of course. But to state without qualification that "it is now widely agreed," as if this were general consensus, is untrue.
Another question must be raised: How do we know that John's account of the wedding feast miracle of changing water to wine is a story-symbol? You cannot get that idea from reading the Gospel of John. And how do we know that the interpretation given by the critic is the correct interpretation? And even if it is, how shall he prove it to us?
If one will read the gospel account of Jesus changing water into wine he will find no indication that the writer was telling a story which was to be symbolically interpreted. He will see that the writer asked us to believe that the event happened and that was the reason we should believe on Jesus. Even later in the gospel (4:46-48), the same miracle is mentioned as a historical fact sufficient to have caused a nobleman from Capernaum, whose son was sick, to go to Cana to seek out Jesus that he might heal his son. This is not worthy of being called a story-symbol. Such an interpretation is pure conjecture without evidence, and in contradiction to the writer's stated intention for recording the incident.
John claimed to be an eyewitness of this event and insists that it actually happened in space and time just as he wrote it (19:35; 20:30-31). If it can be determined that this event was not historically true, then John must be convicted of lying. But the critic will not jeopardize his theology by admitting to a lie; he prefers to refer to the language as "extraordinary penetration" and "imaginative genius."
In his Daily Study Bible, Professor William Barclay illustrates this modern view of rejecting the gospel writer's statements as historical fact and telling us that they really mean something else. Commenting on Matthew's account of the virgin birth he says:
The Virgin Birth is a doctrine which presents us with many difficulties; and it is a doctrine which our Church does not compel us to accept in the literal and physical sense. This is one of the doctrines on which the Church says that we have full liberty to come to our own belief and our own conclusion. At the moment we are concerned only to find out what this means to us.(64)
64. William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 1, p. 10.
Professor Barclay brushes aside the inspired account of the virgin birth as though Matthew did not mean what he said, and then proceeds to ask, "What then does it mean to say that in the birth of Jesus the Holy Spirit of God is specially operative?" He explains that, "We must interpret it in the light of the Jewish idea of the Holy Spirit."(65) Barclay says that Matthew's account of the virgin birth is not the word of the Holy Spirit, but his own peculiar Jewish idea.
65. Ibid., p. 11.
There are at least three fallacies between Matthew's statement of history and professor Barclay's comments. First, to read the account is to get the definite impression that Matthew wants us to believe that what he said is exactly what happened. This is clear from his introduction: "Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found with child of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 1:18). The apostle Matthew does not leave us to speculate on the fact that Jesus was conceived supernaturally. He added the words of the heavenly messenger to Joseph: "That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 1:20). He explained that this Holy Spirit impregnation and consequent virgin birth was the fulfillment of the prophecy which was made by the Lord himself when he said through Isaiah, "Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel" (Isaiah 7:14). This is how the apostle, directed by the Holy Spirit, explained the prophetic meaning of the Lord's name, "which is, being interpreted, God with us" (Matthew 1:23).
Second, the virgin birth presents no problem whatsoever to those who regard the Scriptures to be historically reliable. If the virgin birth was an historic reality and Matthew wanted to tell us about it, could he have related it any clearer than he did? How can we determine what Matthew intended to say if he did not say what he meant?
Third, Barclay's statement that the Church does not compel us to interpret Matthew's account of the virgin birth in the literal and physical sense sets the work of God aside as authoritative and enthrones the Church, mere men, as the authority! What authority, then, could the Scriptures possibly have if the Church has the right to give us full liberty to come to our own belief? But the Church is not the authority in the Christian religion; that authority is resident in the written word of God (Matthew 28:18-20; John 12:48; 1 Corinthians 4:6;14:37; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 1 Peter 5:12; Revelation 20:12). The Church has no prerogative to release itself from believing what the Holy Spirit says to us in his word. Paul wrote, "Therefore he that rejecteth, rejecteth not man, but God, who giveth his Holy Spirit unto you" ( 1 Thessalonians 4:8).
Professor Barclay continues in his commentary on John's gospel to say that what the writer said is not just exactly true. His modernistic view of the resurrection of Lazarus once again asks us to believe that John's account means something other than what it appears to say. He begins by saying that the account in the other three gospels of people being raised from the dead can be explained by believing that the person raised was in a coma or a trance. From that point, he proceeds to say that in those gospels, there is no mention of the raising of Lazarus, and had Lazarus actually been raised, the other gospel writers would surely have mentioned it. Then, after relating four alternative explanations to the historical fact of the raising of Lazarus, he offers these words:
We are in the end compelled to say that we do not know what happened at Bethany,
but undoubtedly something tremendous did happen… . But we do know for certain
the truth which this story teaches… .It does not really matter whether or not Jesus literally raised a corpse to life in a.d. 30, but it matters intensely that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life for every man who is dead in sin and dead to God in a.d. 1955.(66)
66. William Barclay, The Gospel of John, Vol. II pp. 118-120.
Barclay tries to explain the resurrection of Lazarus in a totally nonliteral manner saying that it is to be understood in the spiritual new birth. But isn't that making something of the story totally other than what John said? A lot of us are wondering just how Jesus could possibly be meaningful to us in this century as the resurrection and the life if he did not in fact raise someone from the dead in the first century.
Personally, I am quite fond of Professor Barclay, if not his theology. His schedule was not too busy to include me and my traveling companion, Ed Myers, in a prearranged meeting at his home in Glasgow in the early part of April 1970. I had written earlier from India requesting an interview to discuss critical questions of the fourth gospel and kept our appointment on my return trip. It was there that I asked him to explain why he believed the account of the empty tomb in John 20 was of a historical nature but that the account of Lazarus in chapter 11 was not. His immediate answer was, "It is not recorded in Mark." That was the occasion of an interesting observation in as much as the professor makes much of John's historical account of the grave cloths in the tomb which is not recorded in Mark either! Do we not have a right to expect at least consistency in our theology?
The modernistic view of the four gospels contradicts the very language of the gospel writers themselves. What should be evident is that the gospels are either historically true or they are not. If they do not relate the literal truth they say they do, then they offer us nothing for a sure foundation, for a present theology or a future hope for eternal life.
THE VALUE OF THE CRITICAL VIEW
If the modern view of Scripture is at all valuable to us, surely those values can be objectively stated. Is this view valuable historically? Do we now have more information of the historical facts of Christianity's origin and spread? Do we have more information concerning the people of those days or the response of those people to the gospel? Let the historian A. M. Sherwin-White answer:
It is astonishing that while Graeco-Roman historians have been growing in confidence, the twentieth century study of the gospel narratives, starting from no less promising material, has taken so gloomy a turn in the development of form-criticism that the more advanced exponents of it apparently maintain, so far as an amateur can understand the matter, that the historical Christ is unknowable and the history of his mission cannot be written. This seems very curious.(67)
67. Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, Oxford, 1963, p. 187.
It is curious that historians of Greece and Rome grow continually more confident of the culture, conditions, and life-style of those ancient nations through the materials they have, while the higher criticism, working with materials as reliable as the gospels, grows more uncertain of the historical events that surrounded Jesus. They have only cluttered the picture. Modernism has taken the garment of Christianity and has cut it to shreds, leaving us mere patches which do not fit into any pattern. Of what value are these rags? J. V. Langmead Casserley sums up the modern view quite well in the following words:
From within the biblical tradition we must insist and confidently expect that the more profoundly and validly we understand and interpret the Bible, the greater the religious
depth with which it will challenge and speak to us. It is precisely here that modern biblical scholarship has proved itself so insipid and unstimulating. We are confronted with the paradox of a way of studying the word of God out of which no word of God ever seems to come, with an imposing modern knowledge of the Bible which seems quite incapable of saying anything biblical or thinking biblically.(68)
68. Toward a Theology of History, London, 1965, p. 116.
Is the value of the modern view of the gospels objective? Can we know what God through Jesus said and taught and required of us? Can we, by the modern approach to the New Testament, know, that having done what God said, that we are saved? And can we know it so certainly that we can share it with others whom we know, through biblical teaching, are lost without that gospel? The answer from the modernistic camp is no. Nothing seems to be certain from this viewpoint except that the Bible does not say what it means. This is due to the approach which the modernist takes to the historical framework in which the gospel accounts are set and the doctrine which takes its rise from it-that which claims to be history is not history, the events described did not really happen, the claims of Jesus were not really made! This modern approach is totally subjective. It has enthroned religious subjectivism and totally abandoned the authority of the Scriptures.
The modern view of the New Testament appears to be neither valid nor valuable. It is prejudice which is perpetrated against historic Christianity in the sophisticated garb of scholarship and the respectability of so-called theology. In the final analysis, it is not theology at all, according to the actual meaning of that term. It is unbelief, pure and simple. It is not worthy of being called scholarship when the facts are continually brushed aside for philosophical presuppositions, and when it refuses to consider bonafide evidence and draw conclusions from that basis. The critical view is, in fact, not so much a view of the Bible as it is the kind of opposition to the truth against which Paul warned us: "O Timothy, guard that which is committed unto thee, turning away from the profane babblings and oppositions of the knowledge which is falsely so called; which some professing have erred concerning the faith" (1 Timothy 6:20-21).
The modern critical view of the New Testament is worthy of no more consideration than the time it takes to warn men of its destructive nature that they may stand clear of its danger.