The Legitimate Limits Of Biblical Criticism -- By: Merrill C. Tenney

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 03:4 (Fall 1960)
Article: The Legitimate Limits Of Biblical Criticism
Author: Merrill C. Tenney

The Legitimate Limits Of Biblical Criticism

Merrill C. Tenney

Wheaton College Graduate School

Biblical criticism is a comparatively recent development in the history of the Christian church. Except for the sporadic attacks of its enemies, like that of Celsus in the second century, the authenticity and integrity of the Biblical books were largely taken for granted. Occasional observations like Martin Luther’s on James, that it was “a right strawy epistle,” represented casual opinion rather than studied research. From the Council of Nicaea (325) to the end of the Reformation movements (1775) the church as a whole was more interested in discussing theology than it was in the historical and textual background of the Scriptures.

Beginning with the rise of rationalism in the seventeenth century under Spinoza and later with the Encyclopedists of the French Revolution, Christian scholars were confronted with the problems of the historical origins and validity of the Biblical records. If, as their opponents contended, much of its content was a mass of legend, written at a time later than the traditional dates demanded, and composed by men who possessed no first-hand knowledge of the facts, the genuineness and authority of the Bible would be seriously impaired. How could a jumbled miscellany of legends, shaped by the limited knowledge and concepts of an unenlightened or bigoted era, convey any imperative message that modern scientific thinkers would accept?

In attempting to meet this attack the present science of Biblical criticism was developed. The connotation of the term “criticism” is unfortunate, for it implies a negative attitude. Biblical criticism is not necessarily an attack oh the Scriptures, but is an examination of their historical and literary relation to the times and events concerning which they were written. This study is not in itself destructive; it can confirm and illumine the Biblical text just as well as it can cast doubt upon it or devaluate it. Insofar as historical and literary evidence can be used to find out exactly what the Bible means and to remove difficulties in understanding it, the study is beneficial.

In understanding the procedure of Biblical criticism, however, what limits should be set for it? Is not any questioning of the Bible a piece of impertinence? If the Scriptures are the Word of God, as most evangelicals believe, are they not above criticism? Would not any challenge to their truthfulness or integrity be blasphemous impudence.?

Since the Bible was written by human beings who lived at definite times in definite places, it must be related to the circumstances and places in which it was produced. The historical events of which it speaks or from which it springs, the pers...

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