Lent Week 2: Higher Criticism and the Bible

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for the next five to six weeks. This year we will be coming around two questions: What is the Bible? And what is the Bible for?

At this point it is important to note that no one just picks up the Bible and reads it.  Instead we come to the Bible with a certain set of assumptions and expectations conditioned by our culture and our faith communities.  Indeed, our very conception of what the Bible is and what it is supposed to do for us is shaped by centuries of interpretive tradition, including several centuries of what might be called a “critical” approach to the Bible.  Inevitably we come to higher criticism, which came about in the Enlightenment yet was rooted in Luther and Calvin and their “sola scriptura” emphasis on the Scriptures.  The mere mention of “higher criticism” gives most evangelicals a good hard case of the heebie-jeebies because it originated from a place of skepticism toward the authority and claims of Scripture.  Yet the critical methods which arose from higher criticism are quite useful when seeking to engage and understand Scripture.  These are:

  • Textual criticism – Gathering the ancient manuscripts in Hebrew, Greek and the other ancient languages, and comparing them side-by-side to determine the most accurate form of the text we can reconstruct.
  • Form criticism – Seeking to understand the literary form or genre of a given text and how understanding that form/genre can guide our understanding of the text in question.
  • Source criticism – Seeking to understand how/if the biblical authors used source materials and integrated those materials into the text.
  • Redaction criticism – Seeking to understand why a biblical author/editor arranged the material the way they did, and what point they wished to make by doing so.
  • Rhetorical criticism – Seeking to understand how the biblical authors used rhetorical devices to get their audience’s attention and/or persuade them.
  • Narrative/literary criticism – Analyzes stories and their elements in order to understand the impact the biblical authors wished for them to have with their readers.

Again, no one just picks up the Bible and reads it.  Engaging with Scripture is a matter of interpretation.  The religious traditions that appeal to the Bible all understand this, to some extent or another.

To put all of this another way, the biblical authors had other priorities than to give us 21st century moderns the actual factuals on how things went down.  They were people who lived in ancient communities that struggled to come to grips with what God was doing in their midst.  By the grace of God, we have the fruits of their struggles and we get to listen in on the conversations they had in the course of their struggles and let it guide us in our own struggles to understand what God is doing today in our own midst.

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