Our Attitude Toward Higher Criticism

A paper presented in Biblical language group, Bible and History Teachers' Convention, Washington, D.C., July-August, 1940.

By E. R. THIELE, Instructor in Religion, Emmanuel Missionary College

In times past our attitude toward higher criticism has consisted altogether too often of nothing but criticism in return, and that, many times, of a type to which I fear the term ''higher" would hardly apply. A blind denunciation of men and their meth­ods, their objectives and conclusions, has ac­complished little worth while, either for our­selves or for them. Although we may not feel that we can accomplish much for the critics, we should at least do more in the way of saving our own young people from the peril that con­fronts them than we have so far done. While we have criticized the critics, these men have continued on their course, but many of our most promising young people, who have come in contact with them, have been led astray.

The result has been that in many instances higher learning in itself has come to be re­garded as a thing of evil and danger, to be shunned by all concerned. We have, in a word, come to believe that if a man is to be kept in the faith, he must be kept away from men of higher learning, and from certain in­formation possessed by these men. We have tacitly assumed in many cases that a man, in order to be good, must not endeavor to be wise; that in order to have faith, be must not have knowledge. But the placing of a pre­mium upon ignorance will never meet the situa­tion with which we are confronted today.

The sad part of this whole situation is that altogether too often the men we criticize the most are the men who are best informed. It is often the critic who has put forth the great­est effort to equip himself with a wide range of information, and with the tools that will enable him to acquire that information. And it is likewise true that many among us who are the most severe in our denunciations of the critics, have failed altogether to provide ourselves with a knowledge of the facts, or with the means of acquiring an adequate knowledge of the facts. Many who pride themselves on their piety have never put forth the effort to acquire knowledge, and as a con­sequence find themselves sadly uninformed or even woefully misinformed.

I do not believe that it is necessary for piety to thrive in an atmosphere of ignorance. I do not believe that a man of faith cannot be a man of knowledge. I have scant sympathy with that type ot faith which can exist only where truth is held in suppression. Of all men in the world today the Ghristian should have the highest regard for truth, and should be in the most complete possession of knowledge.

Let me be more explicit concerning the exact type of knowledge that I have in mind. The thing which we term "higher criticism" is largely a criticism of values which we regard as the highest this world affords. It is often a criticism of God, the things of God, and more concretely, the word of God. That Word we believe to be a message to us from God Him­self. If that Word is actually what we pro­fess to believe it to be, then what efforts ought we not to be willing to put forth to more fully understand that ord? But how much do we know of what that Word actually says ? Do we actually care to know ?

Altogether too frequently do we find this or that unusual translation of the Word dwelt on at length. And when the question is asked why one translation is chosen in preference to an­other, the answer is that it best suits the mind of the speaker. But is the personal preference of -man to be the criterion which settles what is actually the truth of God in any particular instance? How may we know what is closest to the original mind of God in any particular passage without a knowledge of the original tongues in which that truth was first ex­pressed? If the original message was first penned in Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic, it is not until we are able to read that message in the original tongue that we will be in a posi­tion to obtain the inner truth and beauty and fullness of meaning which that message may carry for us.

Now the facts are that the men whom we term critics are frequently the group of men who are most willing to go to the pain and effort of best equipping themselves with a knowledge of the Biblical tongues. They are willing to put forth the most intense mental effort to master the intricacies of, difficult tongues in order that they may be more pro­ficient in their 'profession—criticism of the word of God. ;But, we, on the other hand, professing to revere that Word as a message direct from God, are too often willing to abide in stark and blissful ignorance as far as these same things are concerned. And yet we set ourselves up as critics of the critics. If we would be honest and effective critics of the critics, then we must first be intelligent critics. And in order to be intelligent critics, we must, first of all, be in possession of the tools that will make such criticism possible.

Not until a Bible scholar knows Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic is he in a position to deal intelligently with such questions as these. If men of this world, for the sake of the world, are willing to put forth painstaking effort to learn such languages as these, then as chil­dren of the kingdom, for the sake of the king­dom, ought we not to be willing to put forth all the greater effort, in view of the infinitely higher calling that is ours? Surely we should be willing to put forth the same effort to maintain the Word, that the world is willing to put forth to tear down that Word.

But language is only one element that enters into this matter of criticism. My reason for dwelling upon this phase is that this is a coun­cil of Biblical language teachers, one of the objectives of which is to devise ways and means of inspiring our young people to put forth the effort necessary to properly equip themselves so that the word of God can be intelligently read in the original tongues. Be­sides a knowledge of Biblical languages, the higher critic diligently applies himself to the acquiring of a knowledge of other languages of old—of Sumerian, Akkadian, Egyptian, and Hittite, Written in strange hieroglyphs or diffi­cult cuneiform.

The critic, moreover, works hard to attain the fullest possible knowledge of the ancient world in which the Hebrews dwelt—its history and geography, its religion and material cul­ture—and in doing ,this, he makes himself a master of Biblical archeological lore. And let us remember why he does all this—that he may become more proficient in his chosen field, criticism of, the Word. Being a critic, he puts forth every effort to be a proficient critic, and as the result of such effort, he attains a degree of proficiency which is often irksome and annoying to.those supporters of the Word who find themselves unequal to the situation, primarily because they have failed to place themselves in as complete control of the facts in the case as have their better-informed op­ponents. Such a situation will never be met by bans upon the attainment of knowledge.

In dealing with this matter of our attitude toward higher criticism, it is vital for us to recognize that 'it is not knowledge and ac­quaintance with facts that makes one man a critic, nor is it ignorance and unacquaintance with facts that makes another a sound and safe champion of Biblical truth. A full and complete knowledge of all available facts relative to the word of God, and the backgrounds of that Word, is worth just as much and in­finitely more to the champion of the Word as it is to the critic of the Word. If the word of God is true, if its history is reliable, if its philosophy is sound, if its writers were men of sterling integrity, then the more will all this become evident as we become better ac­quainted with all the surrounding facts. There is no danger in the facts themselves. What danger there is lies in misleading inter­pretations of those facts, upon misplaced em­phasis, upon wrong points of view.

True knowledge makes for strength, not weakness. Our past weakness has not been that we have been in possession of too many facts, but that we have been woefully behind our opponents in a knowledge of the facts themselves. By his failure to equip himself with a full kit of facts, the supporter of the Word has often passed on to.his more diligent opponent an immense tactical advantage, of which the latter has not been slow to take the fullest possible advantage. Things ought not so to be. If the enemy of truth is thus willing to apply himself to his task, the champion of truth ought to be all the more willing to devote himself just as fully to the attainment of a complete mastery, of his field.

In conclusion, I would suggest that we allow the critic to provide a challenge to us to become as proficient in handling our side of the question as he has been in handling his. The better we are acquainted with the facts that God in His providence has made available for us today, the better will we be able to cope successfully with the serious issues that con­front us. With a fixed integrity of purpose, with a supreme regard for truth, and with a diligence of spirit that will not lag in its efforts to become more fully acquainted with truth, we have nothing whatever to fear in meeting the issues before us. As truth is more fully known and more fully proclaimed, it is the proponent of error who should tremble as the unsoundness of his position becomes the more fully revealed.

If our past conservative position has been really sound, the ultimate effect of careful and extensive research will not require our shift­ing over to the liberal standard, but it will, on the contrary, bring about a change of position in the liberal point of view. And it is a matter of vital significance that such a change is al­ready in progress. Let us remember that among the critics are men as honest, as sincere, and as diligent in their search for truth as are many of us, and that it is largely due to the careful and extensive research of many of these men that we have the light which is available today. Some of them have been mis­taken, and some are honest enough and big enough to acknowledge their mistakes.

Let it here and now become our serious and solemn resolve to equip ourselves as men, be the cost in time and effort whatever it may. Thus the banner of truth which we have raised aloft need never trail in the dust, and the young people entrusted to our care may be enabled to go forth into the world of men fired with a zeal for knowledge, guided by a solemn regard for truth, and armed with an adequate acquaintance with such unchallenge­able facts as have already been revealed. This will enable them to stand firm in a world of stress and storm, and to play well their part in this supreme hour of destiny.

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By E. R. THIELE, Instructor in Religion, Emmanuel Missionary College

February 1941

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