Historical Criticism

Entirely Scientific Postscripts of Principles to Our Serious Unalysis of Old Mother Hubbard[1]

  1. Principle of criticism: no documents from the past can be accepted as authoritative. All claims must be weighed by modern presuppositions and perspectives. Judgments about the past can only be probability, not true or false. All “pre-critical” interpretation is suspect as unscientific.
  2. Principle of analogy: The only legitimate key to the past is the present, and past events must be analogous or similar to what is possible now, prohibiting unique events.
  3. Principle of causality or correlation: all historical data are interrelated and dependent so that any change in the historical nexus effects a change in all that surrounds it.
  4. Principle of scientific objective neutrality: datum is all part of a cause-effect sequence that can be tested. Historical-criticism eliminates the ‘prejudice’ contained in the interpreter’s background (especially, one’s theological school or church associations).[2]
  5. Principle of autonomy: the research scholar can make up his own mind in light of the scientific evidence.
  6. Principle of naturalism: rejection of supernatural in ancient texts, and the elevation of rationalism to explain away all such residual superstitious religious aspects.

[1] Adapted from  V. Poythress, Science and Hermeneutics, pp. 441-442. He quotes Ernst Troeltsch, “Uber historische und dogmatische Method in der Theologie,” Gesamelte Schriften, vol. 2, Zur religiösen Lage, Religionsphilosophie, und Ethik, 2d. ed. (Aalen: Scientia, 1962), pp. 729-953); W. Kaiser, Toward Rediscovering the Old Testament. p. 60, who quotes George Kelly (very similar to Troeltsch), The New Biblical Theorists: Raymond Brown and Beyond, (Ann Arbor, Mich: Servant, 1983), p. 21.

[2] Poythress, Science and Hermeneutics, p. 466. That is, historical-criticism sought to eliminate interpretive prejudice through scientific exegesis and objective historical study.


A Verily Serious Analysis of Mother Goose’s “Old Mother Hubbard” for Modern Readers, or, Mother Goose Goosed by the Historical Critics

In order to illustrate the folly of the so-called “critical” methods, J.W. McGarvey authored (in 1893) a piece titled, “A Literary Analysis of an Ancient Poem.” This satirical piece showed the absurdity of the critical ideology that fragments the biblical text into many alleged contradictory sources, something that many critics have not yet caught onto . .  .[1]

Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard,
To get her poor dog a bone.
When she got there, the cupboard was bare,
And so the poor dog had none.


“In the uncritical ages of the past, this poem was believed to be the composition of a single person – a very ancient English woman by the name of Goose. Whether we should style her Mrs. Goose, or Miss Goose, we have no means of deciding with certainty, for the stories which have come down to historical times concerning her are mostly legendary. It might be supposed that the title “mother” would settle this difficult question; but, as in certain convents of our day, venerable spinsters are styled Mother, so may it have been in the days of Goose.

But, leaving this interesting question as one for further historical inquiry, we turn to the poem itself, and by applying to it the scientific process of literary analysis, we find that the document did not originate, as our fathers have supposed, from a single author, but that it is a composite structure, at least two original documents having been composed within it by a Redactor. This appears from the incongruities between the two traditions which evidently underlie the poem.

One of these traditions represents the heroine of the poem, a venerable Mrs. Hubbard, as a benevolent woman, who loved her dog, as appears from the fact that she went to the cupboard to get him some food. If we had the whole story, we should doubtless find that she did this every time the dog was hungry, and as she surely would not go to the cupboard for the dog’s food unless she knew there was some in the cupboard, we can easily fill out the story of her benevolence by assuming that she put something away for the dog when she ate her own meals.

Now, in direct conflict with this, the other tradition had it that she kept the dog “poor;” for he is called her “poor dog;” and, in keeping with this fact, instead of giving him meat, she gave him nothing but bones. Indeed, so extreme was her stinginess toward the poor dog that, according to this tradition, she actually put away the bones in the cupboard with which to mock the poor dog’s hunger.  A woman could scarcely be represented more inconsistently than Mrs. Hubbard was by these two traditions; and consequently none but those who are fettered by tradition, can fail to see that the two must have originated from two different authors.

For the sake of distinction, we shall style one of the authors, Goose A, and the other, Goose B. In these two forms, then, the traditions concerning this ancient owner of a dog came down from prehistoric times. At length there arose a literary age in England, and then R [Redactor] put together into one the accounts written by the two gooses, but failed to conceal their incongruities, so that unto this day, Mother Hubbard is placed in the ridiculous light of going to the cupboard when there was nothing in it; of going there, notwithstanding her kindness to her dog, to tantalize him by getting him a mere bone; and to cap the climax, of going all the way to the cupboard to get the bone when she knew very well that not a bone was there.

Some people are unscientific enough to think, that in thus analyzing the poem, we are seeking to destroy its value; but every one who has the critical faculty developed can see that this ancient household lyric is much more precious to our souls since we have come to understand its structure; and that, contradictory as its two source documents were, it is a blessed thing that, in the providence of God, both have been preserved in such a form that critical analysis is capable of separating and restoring them” (J.W. McGarvey, Biblical Criticism, Cincinnati: Standard Publishing, 1910, pp. 34-36).

[1] From http://www.christiancourier.com/feature/november99.htm.


Who is This Man? Reading Biblical Narratives

See the whole essay at Who is this Man and the Whole Story of Redemption

 Who is This Man?
How To Read Biblical Narratives

Stephen Hague
June, 2016

Table of contents

I.___ The fragmentation of the biblical text by liberals and conservatives 2

II.__ The antidote to fragmentation: Biblical Theology_ 2

  1. To illustrate this definition of Biblical Theology, consider an analogy in music 3
  2. To illustrate our definition of Biblical Theology, consider the analogies found in art 5
  3. To illustrate our definition of Biblical Theology, consider the analogies found in  literature_ 8
  4. To illustrate our definition of Biblical Theology, consider the story of Elijah, a prophet of God: 1 Ki 17:1-24_ 9
  5. To illustrate our definition of Biblical Theology, consider the story the Storm on the Sea of Galilee:  “What kind of man is this?_ 14

III.                   In conclusion, some of the problems with exemplorizing and spiritualizing biblical narratives: 15

IV.___ Biblical Theology bibliography_ 16

V.__ Illustrations 18

See the whole essay at Who is this Man and the Whole Story of Redemption


The Marvelous Unity of the Bible

For printable pdf file, click The Marvelous Unity of the Bible by Stephen Hague

The Marvelous Unity of the Bible
Stephen Hague

chainbckJesus says in Jn 10:35 that “the scripture cannot be broken” which means that the OT is completely trustworthy (and by implication, it is a unity). Similarly, in 2 Timothy 3:16 we read that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” By implication, its multifaceted parts from many authors and centuries is a textual and theological unity trustworthy in every aspect, and therefore it cannot err.

Considering the increase of contemporary interest in the many spurious texts such as the so-called, “gospel” of Judas, questions are often raised about the independent unity, uniqueness, and veracity of the Bible.[1]  Such texts, nevertheless, do not pose any worthy challenge to the authenticity or unity of the Bible whatsoever, since these texts arose in Gnostic circles that were a counter-community to the Christian church in its early history. These texts are not from the Christian church, and indeed were often penned to contradict the NT gospels and epistles. In fact, Gnosticism has frequently posed similar challenges to the church’s historical claim of only one unified revelation, the canon of the Bible.

Indeed, there has also been a significant increase of Gnostic views in recent years in the USA.[2] Gnosticism is a reinterpretation of the Christian faith in terms of pagan philosophy and religion. This essay is not, nevertheless, a lesson in Gnosticism, but in the unity of the biblical text which can be illustrated by briefly contrasting it with those who advocate disunity, such as the Gnostics.

Ancient and modern advocates of disunity: Marcion Sinope (70AD-150AD) was a Gnostic who believed in a sharp dualism between the NT God of mercy in Christ and the OT God of justice. This meant a total disunity between the OT and the NT, Israel and the church: he considered the God of the OT a vindictive God of law, inferior to the NT God of grace, love, and mercy. Marcion was excommunicated from the Roman church c.144 AD, but he succeeded in establishing churches of his own to rival the Christian church for some two centuries. Marcion’s Bible rejected the Mosaic Law and the three NT Gospels, but accepted ten epistles of Paul and some Gnostic texts. Though the church fathers condemned Marcion as a blaspheming heretic, he is praised widely in modern times: Adolf Von Harnack called Marcion “the first Protestant.” Nevertheless, Polycarp, who knew the Apostle John, called Marcion “the first-born of Satan.”

Despite rejection of Gnosticism by the majority of Christendom over the centuries, today there is a prevailing Marcionite viewpoint on the Bible.[3]  This is seen in a widespread, bifurcated overemphasis on the NT and an under emphasis on the OT (indeed, frequent avoidance). This is seen in the widely noted fact that the majority of teaching and preaching and Christian devotion concentrates on the NT. This is characterized in diverse ways:

  • Some assume a radical discontinuity between the OT and the NT, a permanent “antithetical tension.”
  • Others, such as R. Bultmann, believe the OT is a miscarriage of history, and assume a complete discontinuity between the two testaments. (Some of this derives from the Lutheran law/gospel polarity between the OT and the NT.)
  • Other, such as A. Harnack, completely dismiss the OT, and some like F. Delitzsch say the OT is an unchristian book!
  • Many others today accept mistaken, radical dualities between OT law and NT grace, OT holiness and NT love, OT judgment and NT mercy.

In contrast, in the early church, such leaders as Irenaeus (A.D. 180), a pupil of Polycarp (pupil of John), emphasized “the unity of God’s progressive revelation.” And, this has been the orthodox view from that time, although not always held to universally. In support of the orthodox view, it can be demonstrated that the canon of the Scripture has an unmatched continuity and a textual and topical/theological unity that displays a coherence and cohesion of both the individual books and the diverse texts as a whole.

In another fragmenting way, Saint Augustine’s (b.354) latter influence up into the medieval era analyzed the OT on the basis of five distinct historical periods and encouraged the use of the allegorical method. The allegorical method prevailed for centuries, and prevented a proper historical understanding of the Bible’s unity and coherence. Although, in response to this, Martin Luther wanted to return to more biblical hermeneutics and biblical theology, he unfortunately placed a strong emphasis on the discontinuity between law and grace, assuming the law was from the OT and grace from the NT. This polarity prevails in many circles today, and is quite contrary to the gospel of grace revealed in both the OT and the NT, as well as the ongoing relevance of the law for believers in all ages. Such supposed dualities as holiness and love, judgment and mercy, cannot be found in a careful study of the relationship of the two Testaments.

The later Protestant Reformation did eventually bring a major shift away from the medieval allegorization of the Scripture, and also Luther’s polarization of law and grace. In this sense, the Reformation was a hermeneutical return to what we now call grammatical-historical exegesis. This perspective stresses the covenantal unity of the Bible, non-allegorical, literal-historical interpretation, and avoidance of spiritualizing and exemplorizing the text that fragments the whole into disconnected moral lessons: it is essentially a CONTEXTUAL interpretation.

As noted already, modern historical-critics (a.k.a.,“liberals”), sharply distinguished OT Theology from NT theology (B. Gabler) and have held a rationalist distrust/denial of the supernatural in the Bible (L. Baur). They have also generally held to a total fragmentation of the unity of the Bible due to the supposed conflicting theologies of the Bible. This is an indisputable doctrine of faith for most modern critics. Practically speaking, this results in treating the Bible as a hodge-podge collection of ancient tales and fables with occasional moral lessons worth considering.

Similarly, and ironically, in conservative and Evangelical circles, Dispensational hermeneutics has often sacrificed the unity of scripture and plan of salvation and obscured the one people of God with one destiny, which the scripture teaches. Dispensationalism rejects both the unity of God’s revelation and the fact that God’s purpose is “held forth with more fullness” (Confession of Faith, Ch. VII, Sec. 6) in the NT than it is in the Old. Dispensationalism holds that large portions even of the New Testament are for the Jewish Nation, not for the Church. In speaking of the Scriptures for the Church, L. Chafer says, “The Scrip­tures addressed specifically to this company are the Gospel by John—especially the upper room discourse,—the Acts and the Epistles.”[4] Dispensationalism declares that the Sermon on the Mount is for the Jews of the Kingdom period, and is “law not grace.”[5] The Lord’s Prayer and the Great Commission are as­signed by some to the Jews of the “tribulation” period, and not to the Church.[6]

There is also another common interpretive approach taken in conservative contexts that largely reads and teaches the Scripture from a moralizing perspective that considers the many stories, characters, institutions, and events of the Bible as primarily a source-book for moral behavior. This too fragments the unified metanarrative of the redemption-story of the Scripture, reducing the parts to the equivalent of Aesop’s Fables. Even more concerning in this approach, than failing to understand the contexts of the text in its redemptive-historical context, is that recipients receive a “gospel” of works and “sin management” (as Dallas Willard calls it). Graeme Goldsworthy describes this present problem in this way:

Countering the deliberate attacks on the unity of the Bible mounted by humanistic criticism is one task that we must undertake. In addition, we must also recognize that the unity of the Bible has suffered by default in the evangelical camp. This is nowhere more clearly evident than in the way the Bible is preached by many evangelicals. Texts are taken out of context; and applications are made without due concern for what the biblical author, which is ultimately the Holy Spirit, is seeking to convey by the text. Problem-centered and topical preaching becomes the norm, and character studies treat the heroes and heroines of the Bible as isolated examples of how to live.[7]

The logic of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) involves the unity and diversity intrinsic to God’s nature and revelation (one divine author, many human authors of the text), as well as the disunity and diversity intrinsic to human interpreters. Redemption-history has a diversity of forms, and thus adequate principles must be applied to interpret properly both form and content. The logic of biblical theology is the history of redemption itself  which follows the broad scheme of CreationFallRedemption. And which also will include final Judgment.

The logic of biblical interpretation also involves the function of the Bible in the life of believers and the church. There is an intrinsic need for our hermeneutics to correlate with life lived and the need for it to transform our logic and thinking through accurate interpretation of revelation and life. That is, hermeneutics must enable us to interpret God’s revelation for the church – a divine necessity – to bring the Word of God to God’s people with clarity and conviction. In order for this to occur, we must have full confidence in the textual and theological unity of the whole of the Scripture in order to honestly apply it in that way. This will also include showing the unity and complementarity of the many themes of the two Testaments (especially those that are often understood dualistically: e.g., law and grace, holiness and love, judgment and mercy).

An important final question regarding biblical unity: does the word of God have a center (Mitte)?

This must be asked, considering that many claim (emphatically) that there is no unifying theological center for the Bible, as already stated in modern biblical criticism’s view of total textual and theological fragmentation of the biblical canon. Such a view is an entirely unsatisfactory consideration of the biblical text and does not stand up to the evidence. The same can be said of all moralistic exemplorizing of the Scripture that fails to grasp the unity of the text and thus completely fails to interpret it contextually.

There have been numerous suggestions for a unifying center of biblical theology, arising naturally out of the unified nature of the Bible. Even from those who would not hold to a “high view” of the Bible as inspired and inerrant, there have often been suggestions of a central thread or theological spine for biblical theology. Some suggested “centers” of OT theology include: Covenant, Holiness of God, God is Lord, the Election of Israel, Rulership of God, Kingdom of God, Universal dominion of Yahweh, Communion of God and Man, Yahweh the God of Israel, Israel the people of God, the dialectal theme of the Presence and Absence of God, God’s promise and blessing first stated in Gen 12, the Christian gospel, and the Biblical notion of community.

As interesting as this search is for a unifying center for the Bible (in light of the general consensus that there is no unity whatsoever), I would suggest that these proposed “centers” do not suffice because they are more properly defined as major and minor themes that serve the overarching main theme of the Bible which is the revelation in deed and word of God’s redemption of sinful humankind. Redemption of sinful humanity involves the restoration of communion with God who is holy. That is, it is a restoration to the presence of God, a “re-creation” of the Edenic relationship of God with his creation, and also of eternal glorification in the kingdom of God in the new heavens and the new earth. This does not mean that every single verse and word of the OT has as its “center” this theme, but that every single verse and word has its significant place within the larger context of God’s redemption, and that redemption is indeed the center of all human history. The backdrop to that redemption theme in Scripture is the complimenting concepts of creation and covenant: God the covenanting Creator is God the covenanting Redeemer. It can be said that all of the themes in biblical history, from Gen 3 onward, are an exposition of the relationship of creation theology to the promise and fulfillment of redemption and the new creation.

Intrinsically, and centrally related to the theme of redemption, is the Kingdom of God theme. The redemption of humanity is brought about in the process of the establishment of God’s kingdom that will never pass away. Redemption is the restoration of humans to God’s kingdom. Indeed, most all of the “centers” mentioned correspond in some way to the purposes of God in redeeming his people and establishing his kingdom, but taken as isolated themes they do not do justice to the unified revelation of the Old and New Testaments and their comprehensive relationship.

In terms of the comprehensive relationship between the two Testaments, some summary considerations for their unity and continuity:

  • The OT offers the key to the right interpretation of the NT.
  • The NT is an extensive commentary on the OT.
  • Therefore, the interpreter should beware of minimizing the OT, while also the interpreter should guard against reading into the OT that which is unwarranted and unfounded.
  • There is very extensive NT reliance on the OT, directly and by allusion, confirming their complementarities and unity.
  • All key theological NT words have their derivation from OT words, although often enriched.
  • All NT themes are rooted in, or derive from, OT themes.
  • Biblical typology has both horizontal and vertical correspondences, yet must be rigidly controlled on the basis of direct relationships the counterparts of prototype and antitype. NT antitypes go beyond their OT types. We should rely on NT indications instead of subjective fancies: typology is not
  • The common pattern of continuity between the testaments is promise-fulfillment, yet this is not the sum total of the multiplex relation of the testaments. The OT always “leads forward” to the NT: That is, a unity of eschatological perspective unites the testaments. Both OT and NT believers stand between promise and fulfillment. The NT completes the OT, while moving to the eschaton of the Day of the Lord. And both testaments point to the final consummation. In a consistently unified interpretive approach, we will always consider that each biblical text points in three primary directions: past, present, and future, unifying the whole of the canon.
  • Further, that in the continuous history of God’s people, the central theme is the redemption of God’s people and creation with the eventual consummation of his Kingdom among his people on the renewed earth. This purpose of God (past, present, and future) unites the historical process for both testaments.
  • There is a single divine plan of salvation in Jesus the Messiah: the doctrine of redemption was essentially the same for those who lived under in the OT era as it is for those in the NT era. This is especially so if we understand that the gospel promise and its reality, the new covenant of redemption, began in Gen 3:15.
  • If the canon of Scripture is a unified whole, it can be affirmed that it is entirely sufficient and trustworthy (since inspired by God) as one whole canon of the one whole gospel for the one people of God. If not unified, but disjointed and fragmented and contradictory in any way, then it is not to be counted as sufficient or trustworthy.

But does all this concern with the unity of the biblical text really matter? After all, someone might argue that they believe the kernel of the message of the Bible, and whether it is unified or not is irrelevant to their faith. In response, I suggest that the very gospel of redemption itself depends on it. That is, if we consider the Bible as God’s unique revelation inscripturated to us, then we must consider it inspired by God, and thus its message must of necessity have a coherent unity. This is especially so, in light of our belief that God himself is a Triune unity. His words to us should naturally communicate unity and coherence. This is not to say that everything is entirely clear at every given stage in the progression of revelation, for the revelation of redemption is given in unfolding stages of development. Rather, it means that the coherent unity of its many themes, motifs, prefigurations, typologies, images, symbols, prophecies, promises, allusions,  etc., are evidence of its sufficient and trustworthy testimony to the truth. It would also be very confusingly contradictory to believe that the message of the text is coherent even though it is based on a contradictory and disunified text, as many people try to sustain today. The theological message of the text depends upon the historical and textual trustworthiness of its coherence and unity.

This is observed particularly in several major biblical themes already mentioned:

The creation theme: unifies the entire bible a history about God who creates and about God who re-recreates through redemption. The promise of redemption is based on the fact of creation, since only God who created this universe could be the one to redeem his creation.

The covenant theme: unifies the various people and periods with the assurance that the promise of redemption will be fulfilled, because God the Creator and Redeemer promised. His word is faithful and true and will come to pass since he bound himself to his promise. The covenant is the grounds (and context) for God’s binding relation. His covenant is the guarantee of his promises. His promises are to redeem, to resolve the problem of our alienation from God.

The redemption theme: unifies the period following the creation and fall of humanity. This redemption theme is the central meaning of the entire Bible. The fall into sin and rebellion against God resulted in a loss of God’s presence. Sin broke the unmediated presence of God in the Garden of Eden. The promise of redemption was the promise of restoration to God and his presence.

The OT and the NT display a supernatural unity here, since both testaments are intrinsically about this restoration, and the means to that restoration. There are so many interwoven themes that correlate to this redemption-restoration that I can only mention a few here, but they all testify to the wondrous unity of the Bible:

  • In Eden, the first Adam was given to have kingly, priestly, prophetic dominion over creation, yet he sinned against God’s commands, and since then all born of Adam have sinned in Adam: “For as in Adam all die . . .” (1 Cor 15:22a).
  • In Israel, the Last Adam, Jesus Christ was given to fulfill the mandate of obedience given to the first Adam, and Jesus succeeded. All who are born anew in him have been given his righteousness: “Even so all who are in Christ Jesus will be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22b).
  • Hundreds of times the OT predicted and foreshadowed a Messiah, a redeemer, a deliverer, as Prophet, Priest, and King. This trifold expectation was fully realized in Jesus, the true Prophet, true High Priest, and true King.
  • This hope of redemption is patterned also on the exodus from Egyptian slavery theme that integrates the OT with the NT. The people of God will be delivered by God from the slavery to sin.
  • The OT established the need for atonement for sin, redemption from alienation. The entire sanctuary-life of ritual and sacrifice represented this restoration to God’s holy presence. There could be no redemption without atonement. The NT shows us that ultimately only a Messiah would be able to satisfy this need for atonement (and he did just that on the Cross of his death). As the Bible begins in the paradise of God’s presence it ends with the future hope of paradise in God’s presence. This hope is made possible by the death of Jesus Christ. It is also made possible by his resurrection unto life, bodily. The resurrection of the dead is another major theme that unites the OT and the NT, for God will restore his creation through redemption. Final redemption will bring life everlasting. Redemption is a new creation and a final exodus from sin.
  • The hope of the Messiah is at the heart of the entire Bible. In a real sense, the promise of Gen 3:15 is the seed promise that all the rest of biblical history unpacks/unveils progressively.

15 And I will put enmity between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel”(NAS)

  • This is the gospel hope that One would come and restore, to provide the requisite means to crush the Liar, to reverse the curse on creation, to re-enter the Eden of God’s presence, the one to justify unrighteous sinners, the one to fulfill all the promises of an eternal seed, an eternal home-land, and God’s eternal presence. These three were represented throughout the OT in the promises of progeny, prosperity, and sanctuarypresence and are realized in the work of Messiah in the NT. The restoration to God’s presence would require the grace of God, this is the gospel of justification by faith that Abraham knew as well as the apostle Paul knew.
  • This is the very gospel of God which unites the OT and the NT. James 2:23-24 tells us, “And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,”b and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.”
  • Jesus clearly proclaimed the monumental importance of the unity of revelation in

Lu 24:25-27 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

Luke 24:44-45 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” 45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.

This is why the unity of the Bible matters: the gospel of Jesus depends on it. May God open our minds to understand this unity between his testaments so that we might more clearly understand and embrace his gift of redemption and then share together his kingdom of glorious life everlasting.chainbck

Some quotes on the unity of the Bible:

In response to the many contemporary assaults on the unity of the Bible, a group of conservative scholars, pastors, and teachers wrote the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics. It has an important affirmation regarding the unity of the Bible:

  • WE AFFIRM the unity, harmony and consistency of Scripture and declare that it is its own best interpreter.
  • WE DENY that Scripture may be interpreted in such a way as to suggest that one passage corrects or militates against another. We deny that later writers of Scripture misinterpreted earlier passages of Scripture when quoting from or referring to them.

Readers too often project some moral or spiritual truth over a biblical character or event, paying more attention to the moral lesson they see in the narrative than to the actual story itself. The underlying objection to interpreting the Bible in a moralistic, exemplary fashion for every narrative passage is that it destroys the unity of the message of the Bible. Under this method of handling the text, each narrative tends to be cut off from the redemptive history of Christ and results in a severe fragmentation of the message of the Bible. Rather than considering the whole event, character, and episode for what it contributes to the context in which it is set, a subjective process of analogy too often takes over, along with an individualistic isolation of selected details that happen to fit the fancy of the interpreter’s purposes. Such a selection process tends to be arbitrary, subjective, and usually unrelated to the whole context of the narrative, much less to the total message of the Bible.[8]

UNITY The Bible is inextricably mingled with all that is greatest in human history, national literature, and individual life. Its influence on literature has been invaluable and supreme. Dante and Milton are wholly based on the words and truths of Scripture; Shakespeare is full of them, and Wordsworth and Tennyson and Browning. George Eliot and Victor Hugo borrowed from them their best ideals; Carlyle, Newman, and Ruskin were saturated with them from childhood. The laws of Alfred and Charlemagne were inspired by them. Judas Maccabaeus caught from them the fire of his patriotism; Gustavus Adolphus pored over them before he charged at Luetzen; Cromwell was found absorbed in them on the eve of Naseby. They have been on the lips of warriors and statesmen and martyrs at the sublimest moments of their lives, and so entirely have they decided the destinies of nations that but for them the civilization of Europe might still have been as cruel as that of Egypt and as corrupt as that of Rome.

Yet the essential unity of the writings is hardly less remarkable than their infinite variety, and in spite of its manifold elements the Bible may be regarded, under certain limitations, as an organic whole.

It has the unity of the nationality from the bosom of which it mainly sprang. It has the unity of Monotheism. It has the unity which rises from the fact that it deals exclusively with religious ends, or with ends which were regarded as bearing upon religion. It has, lastly, the unity which rises from its being the history of the dealings of God with one chosen nation; with all other nations; with individual men; and with the whole race of mankind. It describes the gradual education of the Hebrews, of the heathen, and of many separate souls, in the knowledge of the Will of the Supreme. The deepest principle of spiritual life, which consists in the sense of man’s communion with the living God, runs through all its diversities, and elevates even its rudimentary morality.[9]

Lints writes, “The Bible, in its form and its content, records the dramatic story of God reaching into human history and redeeming a people for himself. The form and content of our theology must reflect this.”[10]

“Our interpretation of the Bible ought to take into account the progress present in the ongoing unfolding of the redemptive plan of God through marked stages. It ought also to take into account the unity of the redemptive plan ensured by the divine authorship and governance of that plan.”[11]

“The structural unity-in-diversity of the theological framework does not originate with the reader or with any system imposed on the text but with the unity-in-diversity of the divine and human authors of the biblical text. There is unity because there is one divine author. There is diversity because the divine plan (story) unfolds in and through history.”[12]

“God’s redemptive history moves with a purpose, and the consummation of that history is fundamental to the proper interpretation of each of its individual episodes. This serves to underscore the point that the Christian theological framework must be grounded in the entire canon of Scripture. This is true not only with respect to the content of theology but also with respect to its form. Too frequently the evangelical theological framework has lacked a sense of movement toward a consummation. It has tended to emphasize specific doctrines rather than the entire ‘doctrinal package.’”[13]

“The epochs of redemptive revelation are knit together because there is one God who holds redemptive history together.”[14]

“It is the totality of redemptive history and revelation that inform each portion of Scripture and bind the whole together. And since the accomplishment of redemption was the fundamental reason why the books were written in the first place, it provides the fundamental key to interpreting the texts as a whole. It is the revelation of redemption that underscores every biblical text and therefore ought to underscore every exegetical and theological enterprise that seeks to be faithful to the biblical text.” p. 274   [see more on redemptive history from Lints in his ch 7]

It is important to see that both biblical parts and biblical patterns are necessary to the construction of a theological framework. Theologians should not be content with simply bringing to their readers’ attention individual pieces of the text in isolation from the patterns into which those pieces fit. This means that it is important to convey something of the original context of passages but also something of both the “epochal fit” of the text and the “canonical fit” of the passage. A passage in this sense may be said to have three contexts: its immediate setting, its setting in a particular epoch, and its setting in the entirety of God’s redemptive revelation. There is a general awareness that theologians cannot do justice to the meaning of a given passage if they try to explain (or use) it without reference to its immediate context, but we should realize that they may do equal exegetical damage if they seek to explain (or use) it without reference to the epochal and canonical contexts.[15]

[1] There have been quite a number of such texts of dubious value for the study of the Bible, such as the famous gospel of Thomas.)

[2] See Peter Jones’ The Gnostic Empire Strikes Back and Spirit Wars: Pagan Revival in Christian America.

[3] Derived from G. Hasel, NT Theology, ch. IV.

[4] Chafer, Dispensationalism, pp. 406-07.

[5] Scofield Reference Bible, pp. 989, 1230; Chafer, Dispensationalism, p. 443

[6] Chafer, Grace, pp. 176, 179, 181.

[7] Goldsworthy, Preaching, pp. 15-16.

 b Gen. 15:6

 b Or Messiah; also in verse 46

[8] Kaiser, Biblical Hermeneutics, p. 70.

[9] F. W. Farrar, The Bible (London-Bombay), 1897, p. 3. Quoted in Solomon Goldman, The Book of Books: An Introduction. Philadelphia (The Jewish Publication Society of America), 1948, p. 329.

[10] Lints, The Fabric, p. 64.

[11] Lints, The Fabric, p. 78.

[12] Lints, The Fabric, p. 78.

[13] Lints, The Fabric, p. 79.

[14] Lints, The Fabric, p. 267.

[15] Lints, The Fabric, p. 285.

From where we stand now can we believe in myths and legends? Somber reflections on Kenneth Sparks’ “Historical” Revisions

downloadSome somber reflections on Kenton L. Sparks’ “Ancient Historiography” in Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither?: Three Views on The Bible’s Earliest Chapters. Grand Rapids: Zondervan , 2015.

“From where we stand now, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, in a time when we’ve sequenced the Neanderthal genome and traced out in the DNA our shared genetic heritage with primates and other mammals, it is no longer possible for informed readers to interpret the book of Genesis as straightforward history. There was no Edenic  garden, nor trees of life and knowledge, nor a serpent that spoke, nor a worldwide flood in which all living things, save those on a giant boat, were killed by God. Whatever the first chapters of Genesis offer, there is one thing that they certainly do not offer, namely, a literal account of events that actually happened prior to and during the early history of humanity. If Genesis is the word of God, as I and other Christians believe, then we must try to understand how God speaks through a narrative that is no longer the literal history that our Christian forebears often assumed it to be.”[1]

Where does one begin with such a raw assertion of disbelief in the scripture which claims to come from the perspective that Gen 1-11 is the “word of God”?  Remarkably, Sparks then follows in asserting:

“Christians on all sides certainly agree that Gen 1 – 11 is the introduction to and sets many theological agendas for the larger canon from Genesis to Revelation.”[2]

What then if Gen 1-11 never even really happened? For this is what he is saying by writing that there is one thing the first chapters of Genesis do not offer and that is a “literal account of events that actually happened.”

Rather, he supposes a radical borrowing from ANE mythological forms and stories, and that the author(s) did not believe it was “historical in the strict sense of the word.”[2] Sparks simply conveys a recycled, classic source-critical view on the various origins of the biblical text, while imposing his post-modern historical assumptions on the biblical narrative as entirely inferior to the genre of history, and that it consists of mythic tales borrowed from Babylonians and Egyptians. While all the while claiming this as the foundation and source of our theology, he drives a hard-and-fast chasm between the historical and the theological, and thus perpetuates the Neo-orthodox myth that we can have sound and true theology based on false history that is full of errors and pagan notions about origins, meaning, and life.

In his proposal, he also assumes that anyone who does not agree with his revision of the biblical narrative in Gen 1-11 is unscientific, and even supposes the wildly unsustainable view that since we have traced our DNA to primates and mammals that we can no longer believe that Gen 1-11 is actual (“literal”) history as our Christian forbears did. In light of that thought, it is peculiar that he believes Christians have always believed the authors of biblical history were writing history, yet he states that those same authors believed they were writing mythology (as he defines it), not history “in the strict sense of the word” (whatever that means?).  I am not sure why he employs this latter phrase, since it implies that there must also then be history that is “in the strict sense of the word,” but it cannot really be known from ancient authors. Therefore, his conclusions only raise impossible questions like, what exactly is “history” that is also mythology? And, so it would appear, the biblical “authors” reworked ancient pagan myths to fashion a palatable theology on the foundation of “history” that is actually mythology, in the strict sense of the word.

For example, Sparks calls the OT narratives in Genesis “traditional stories” that simply reflect ancient attempts to make sense of life. These stories are mostly just “tales” that he calls “short fictional narratives” (such as creation, Cain and Abel, the Flood, the curse on Canaan, the Tower of Babel) that reflect the issues and questions that confronted these ancient people of God.[3] These stories are designed to convey important theological messages, in turn by rewriting ancient myths and tales to that exalted end. The Pentateuch is thus just an ethnic anthology of diverse ancient genres (legend, etiology, folktales, fables, etc.) re-worked from a monotheistic persuasion. [4]

In truth, his speculations are mostly just the creative reworking of contemporary legends and mythologies about the ancient world and the origination of the biblical text that have been imagined by the intelligent, historical-critical scholars he has studied under and read. The same problem faces us when interpreting his own words from his perspective: why is there any reason whatsoever to believe that his proposed tales, legends, myths, and fables actually convey any truth at all in regards to origins, history, the cosmos, or especially theology? How does the “reshaping” of ancient legends that were not intended to communicate actual events about actual people supposed to give us certain, actual theological truths? Indeed, one could be positively distrustful of any tale that would seem to be by design given to mislead its recipients into believing it was actual history, but is not, and that we should all-the-same believe the “moral of the story.” This is not only the worst form of spiritualizing and exemplorizing of the text, it is outright advocation of the virtue of deceit, even though the deceits may have not been always intentional since some of the Pentateuchal legends actually came to be thought of as historical by their authors. In any of these scenarios, about all that we can do is strive to strain some theological concepts and moral lessons out them: they were monotheistic and believed that humans had messed up their lives by sinning against God and consequently have lived in exile and disharmony. Thus, these ancient mythologists communicated these “truths” by revising ancient pagan fables in order to craft “a completely new myth.”[5]

I am left defeated and out of breath in trying to “suspend disbelief” in this fantastical and marvelously inventive post-modern mythologizing about how the biblical narrative originated, and what they might mean for us today. Also, I am puzzled (and troubled) by Spark’s assumptions that the authors of the Bible could somehow rationalize the use and revision of pagan mythologies and legends, that themselves are not “strictly speaking” historical, when in fact the very narratives he says originated in this fashion are those same narratives that would refute such a proposal, since they are at least in part polemical refutations of paganism and pagan myths and legends, whether we are considering creation, the Fall, or the Flood. Certainly, Sparks, in the least, fails to consider the radically polemical nature of the scripture against all paganism and its mythologies, as well as the Old and New Testament scriptures that forbid accommodations with them:

Deut 18:9–14 (NASB95) “When you enter the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not learn to imitate the detestable things of those nations. 10 “There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, 11 or one who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. 12 “For whoever does these things is detestable to the Lord; and because of these detestable things the Lord your God will drive them out before you. 13 “You shall be blameless before the Lord your God. 14 “For those nations, which you shall dispossess, listen to those who practice witchcraft and to diviners, but as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you to do so.

2 Pet 1:16 (NASB95) For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.

1 Tim 4:7 (NASB95) But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness;

Most clearly, the Scripture draws social, spiritual, moral, legal, theological, religious lines between the realms of the pagans and that of Israel. This is especially so in the area of the “abominable practices” of the pagans surrounding Israel (Deut 18:9-14). It would follow that the brutal, bloody, fantastical world of diabolical deities and forces of the Babylonian and Egyptian mythologies would be poor source material, if the biblical authors were seeking compliance with God’s laws and character in teaching a holy people to be set apart altogether from the idolatrous  pagans.[6] Indeed, Israel’s entire mission was formed around God creating such a people who represented him to the pagan, idolatrous nations. Their consistent failure in that mission is the very reason the Lord carried them off into exile, and destroyed Jerusalem, by the very pagans they were guilty of imitating and emulating.

Most seriously, Sparks gives us an example of the problem at hand, that so many scholars propose alternative readings of the Bible, and sometimes radically so, without reckoning with the irresolvable theological contradictions they create for our reading of the rest of biblical history. This is especially so in regards to the vital and inseparable relationship between creation and redemption, between Creator and Redeemer. This is not the only serious concern raised by such (de)mythologizing of scripture, but it is my focus here.

The creation and fall story, instead of falling, as Sparks suggests “squarely within the mythic tradition of the ancient world,” it rather falls entirely outside the mythic tradition of the ancient world. For example, the biblical creation story, in radical divergence from those mythic traditions, uniquely presents creation as follows (and this is a short-list):

  • The beginning of the creation of finite matter and time (temporal not eternal) on a linear continuum of six actual, solar days.
  • The creation of the heavens, the earth, and humankind ended on the sixth day with God declaring the seventh day holy and one of rest. Eventually, one of the signs of the covenant of redemption is the Sabbath which denotes that God is Lord of all creation signifying “creation rest,” that work is a gift and calling, and that worship of God is preeminent.
  • A creation out of nothing.
  • Creation by the spoken command/word of God.
  • Creation entirely at God’s independent initiative and without the help of any intermediary forces or substances.
  • A space-time creation that is entirely distinct from the Creator (and thus the Creator has absolutely no dependence on creation).
  • The creation is always in the immanent presence of the Creator who is yet always transcendently present (no animism, pantheism, panentheism, deism).
  • The space-time creation has both unity and distinction reflecting the very (triune) nature of the Creator (no “chaos” or pagan gods involved).
  • All animated and unanimated creation have unity/coherence as well as distinction.
  • No inanimate creation is animated by spiritual forces or persons of any kind (no animism, pantheism, panentheism, deism).
  • All of creation has a coherence and predictability as designed by a coherent God who is not capricious nor arbitrary, but acts always in accordance with his perfect and holy, loving character.
  • All of creation is very good by God’s declaration (no evil components or malevolent demiurge).
  • All creation is crowned by the exalted creation of man/woman in God’s own image, and as male and female. The image of God privileged humanity over creation-cosmos: dominion. Dominion (subduing and multiplying) reflected sinless subjection to God.
  • Adam was created by God from the dust and God created Eve from Adam’s side, and placed them together in Eden to work and care for the Garden
  • Adam and Eve were to have a complimentary, loving, monogamous relationship toward common tasks and labor and procreation (family) in the Garden. This procreational dimension of a truly theocratic community was to be expanded into to all the earth. Adam is considered the federal head of all humanity. There was patriarchal authority in family and creation.
  • Adam and Even were given the vocational dimension of cultivating, subduing, stewardship, cultural and pro-creational artistry. The master gardener reflects the Master Gardener as “world shaper” and “architect of space.” Practically-speaking, Adam had taxonomic (naming), cultivating, and protecting the Garden roles (guarding Eden against evil). Theologically-speaking, being thus guardians of the sanctuary of Eden they had priestly-witness functions regarding the unveiled (unmediated) Presence of God, as well as prophetic roles of interpreting unmediated revelation from God in and through creation, as well as kingly roles of dominion in governance. These roles included knowing and learning the central principles of God’s laws in a creation-ethic (typifying later Mosaic laws for holiness) that included unconditional, spiritual eternal blessings with a potential for eternal life (Tree of Life) and everlasting shalom. Important in this regard, was the reality of the internal and external law of God by the indwelling of God’s Spirit. The probationary (testing/tempting) aspects of their commission and mandate to obey included a conditional covenant (Eden-land/Presence/Life) and the temporal blessings/cursings: prosperity, progeny, and God’s presence.
  • In contrast to all ANE mythologies, the Edenic relationship with God was based entirely on God’s initiative, it was bilateral, probationary, and preservative.

I propose that all of these biblical distinctives are uniquely polemical revelations from God that do not borrow from ancient pagan conceptions, traditions, motifs, legends, or myths. In contrast, wherever Sparks believes there is some similarity between biblical stories and mythic legends and fables, he presupposes that parallels prove borrowing and revisions. Despite the fact that none of his proposals are confirmed borrowings, as such, more important is the fact that his methodology is faulty in presuming (and most uncritically) that formal similarities prove origins, borrowing, and redactive revisions. It should also be noted that Israel eventually lost the land, the temple, and their homes when they accommodated themselves to the mythologies of the Canaanites and pagan idolaters.

The question is, does Sparks acknowledge anything in the biblical accounts that departs from their mythic and legendary pagan sources?  In regards to this question, Sparks remarkably contradicts himself on his creation/fall myth assertions. After stating that the biblical legend falls “squarely within the mythic tradition of the ancient world,”[7] he then says that “the biblical paradise/fall story is especially unique when compared with other ancient exemplars” (sic).[8] If the biblical creation/fall story is both “squarely within” the “standard repertoire of mythic beliefs,” and yet is “especially unique” (sic) and “a completely new myth,” then he has repudiated his own assertions within the space of two pages. In further undermining his first assertion, he correctly acknowledges that some of the unique features of the biblical accounts diverge from the A.N.E. mythologies (such as monotheism, humankind’s propensity to break God’s law, a “literal” week, the image of God in humans, and the Sabbath). Nevertheless, I suggest that this sufficiently subverts his previous claims that the biblical accounts are just mythical revisions that fall “squarely within the mythic tradition of the ancient world” by having “exploited the standard repertoire of mythic motifs.”[9] In fact, I would restate that the short-list I presented above is sufficient evidence that the biblical creation account is not a revision of ancient, pagan Mesopotamian or Egyptian legends, but is in the least a radical polemic against them.

Having said all this, does it really matter whether our theology is based on actual historical facts and events, since scholars like Sparks assume not? For starters, I propose that it would be very concerning if we are to fashion a theology on supposed, and reconstructed (only possible), pagan mythologies and legends that might have some “historical” (but not “in the strict sense of the word”) ideas behind them, and that were but revisionary imitations of pagan mythologies and cosmogonies.

If we agree with Sparks’ assertion noted already that “Christians on all sides certainly agree that Gen 1 – 11 is the introduction to, and sets many theological agendas for, the larger canon from Genesis to Revelation,”[10] then we should seriously take pause at his proposals. Indeed, it is arguable that even Gen 1-3 can be said to set the entire theological trajectory for all of the rest of the Bible, and of course 4-11 continue and expand on this. If this is so, the kind of approach Sparks proposes requires us to relinquish the long-held view that our faith, and all of its theology, depends upon the veracity of its historical origins and contexts.

Indeed, in these modern “historical” approaches, there is an underlying assumption that the modern historian is an objective, scientific reader of ancient history who stands in stark contrast to the ancient mythologists who could only by nature regularly confuse/conflate history with legend and fantasy with fact, and who had no moral quibble in doing so. If this be so, then the entire subsequent history of redemption in the Old and New Testaments stands or falls on the thin ice of our modern, evolved interpreters who have no quibble with basing our entire faith on ancient deceptions, confusion, paganism, fantastical mythologies and their re-workings by ignorant, pre-scientific revisionists who happened to be sometimes monotheists. And all of this, he proposes, is to point us to Christ!

In relation to this problem of the ancient biblical authors, he further writes that the authors of Scripture are like a room full of elders who do not all agree, and each have “a unique voice in relation to God,” and are broken and sinful (suggesting their words are also?), but he concludes that “It is through this communal reading experience that God points us to his one and only solution for our broken condition: Jesus Christ.”[11]  Of course, we can earnestly agree that all of Scripture points us to Christ, but we must as zealously defer from such post-modernist revisions of biblical revelation that depend upon both pagan origins and a total absence of any actual historical veracity.

Sparks calls his approach “reading Scripture responsibly” by “careful readers.”[12] Yet, just as the ancient writers who were so confused that they believed that serpents could talk and that the confusion of languages occurred at Babel, he says “we will look as confused in a thousand years as they do now.”[13] Rather, I submit that he is the one presently confused by his “careful” reading, while the ancient and divinely inspired authors never were in their carefully recorded texts of history and theology.

Though he does not carry over this reading strategy to the New Testament (in the essay that I am discussing), I am left wondering what is to hinder us (who now know the Flood never happened, since we now know how to write “dependable history” with the “insights of modern geology and evolutionary biology,” what he calls “modern science”[14]), from imagining the same kind of mythological reconstructions for Christ and his life that he does for the entire Old Testament text? Will it take a thousand years before we blithely chuckle that the New Testament authors believed that serpents and devils could talk, and that people could speak miraculously in foreign languages (Pentecost), and that a man could raise people from death by his word alone, and feed thousands upon a few fish and loaves?

In conclusion, “From where we stand now,” what good reason do we have to believe in the confusion Sparks proposes to resolve his failure to believe the record of revelation? Are we to believe in, or about, something (as important as the entire history of revelation of God’s works) that never really “happened” except in the imagination of ancient mythologists and idolators who were trying to “make sense” of their world, and who often contradicted one another in their redacted efforts to do so? Or, are we to believe in the musings of a modern historian who himself hopes to entirely revise those pre-scientific mythological redactions? Either option appears to me as nihilistic for biblical faith and the gospel, for in both cases they may be but “cleverly devised tales.”

[1] Sparks, “Ancient Historiography,” p. 110.

[2] Sparks, “Ancient Historiography,” p. 115.

[3] Sparks, “Ancient Historiography,” p. 126

[4] Sparks, “Ancient Historiography,” p.130.

[5] Sparks, “Ancient Historiography,” p. 137.

[6] Sparks, “Ancient Historiography,” p. 126.

[7] See also Gen 6:9, 17:1, Ex 22:18, Lev 18:24, 19:26, 31, 20:6, Deut 9:5, 12:31, 2 Ki 21:6, Jer 27:9–10, Mal 3:5, Mt 5:48.

[8] Sparks, “Ancient Historiography,” p. 125.

[9] Sparks, “Ancient Historiography,”p. 126.

[10] Sparks, “Ancient Historiography,”p. 126.

[11] Sparks, “Ancient Historiography,”p.115.

[12] Sparks, “Ancient Historiography,”p. 51.

[13] Sparks, “Ancient Historiography,”p. 112, 132.

[14] Sparks, “Ancient Historiography,” p. 139.

[15] Sparks, “Ancient Historiography,” p. 139.

It takes a liberal

It takes a liberal to state it plainly: one must deny the clear meaning of the Genesis text in order to deny a fairly recent creation in six solar days and to deny that there was a global flood on the earth:

higher criticism & Charlie BrownProbably, so far as l know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Gen. 1-11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that (a) creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience (b) the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story (c) Noah’s flood was understood to be world-wide and extinguish all human and animal life except for those in the ark. Or, to put it negatively, the apologetic arguments which suppose the ‘days’ of creation to be long eras of time, the figures of years not to be chronological, and the flood to be a merely local Mesopotamian flood, are not taken seriously by any such professors, as far as I know.” Professor James Barr, (1984) former Regius Professor of Hebrew at the University of Oxford.

The Society of [not-so] Biblical Literature: a Confession of [un]Faith

clownsFor those who love SBL (the Society of Biblical Literature), you might love this humorous summary of their doctrinal position that I came across on the post-post-modern blog called Pantheos:

“SBL confession of faith: ‘Faith is tolerated, but not necessarily encouraged.’”

It is amazing how much money and resources are wasted by the many institutions of higher learning who send their eager scholars (and hopefuls) off to the annual meetings every year! It seems to be an incalculable and colossal waste to try and get some recognition or to hob-knob with those who already have it. Yes, I know, the discounted liberal books make up for it :(. As you might guess, I would rather spend the several grand (we are lacking anyway) to get there this year on a cruise to Bermuda. Any institutions up for funding it?