A Critique of the Fundamental Assumption of Form Criticism Part I -- By: Stanley N. Gundry
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A Critique of the Fundamental Assumption of Form Criticism
[Pastor, Nooksack Valley Baptist Church, Everson, Washington.]
All too often criticisms of the form critical method have consisted of a few isolated “pot shots” at peripheral considerations. However, if the heart of the matter is to be reached, any critique of form criticism should be based first of all on the fundamental assumption by which the method operates. If its very foundation is without footing, there is little point in giving serious consideration to the details of its superstructure. The writer of this essay believes that the edifice built by the form critics can be shown to have its basic, and therefore fatal, structural weakness at this point, that is, in its fundamental assumption.
But what is the fundamental assumption of form criticism? The scope and purpose of this essay prevent copious documentation establishing that this is, in fact, the fundamental assumption of form criticism. However, those who are at all acquainted with this subject will recognize that the form critics base their labors on the assumption that the material of the Gospel tradition first existed as brief, rounded units, circulating orally in the Christian community, and that the contextual connections of the units in the Gospels are the creations of the evangelists. This assumption in itself could be quite innocuous. Indeed, when stated in this manner, it nearly corresponds to the oral tradition theory regarding the origin of the Gospels. But by this assumption, the form critic means something entirely different. He means that the primitive Christian church not only transmitted the
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accounts of the words and deeds of Jesus, but it also molded and changed the tradition to fit its own changing needs, and it created new words and deeds of Jesus if the occasion demanded. The evangelists, in turn,took over the units of this tradition with little change or discrimination and arranged the material in an artificial context so as to achieve a desired end. Many of the form critics feel that this end is in harmony with the Messianic secret theory.
That this is the fundamental assumption is easily demonstrated. Dibelius, speaking of the formation of the gospel tradition, observes: “When, however, we trace the tradition back to its initial stage we find no description of the life of Jesus, but short paragraphs or pericopae. This is the fundamental hypothesis of the method of form-criticism (formgeschichtliche Methode) as a representative of which I am speaking here.”1
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