What about form criticism?

Have the methods of Biblical-critical studies been developed in full recognition of the authoritative role of Scripture?

E. Edward Zinke is assistant director of the Biblical Research Institute.


A critical approach to the study of the Bible is characteristic of much of the theology of the modern era. Which fact leads us to ask: Is the Biblical critic really open to the possibility of hearing the Word of God? Does his method of studying Scripture allow God to speak to him and others, to reveal Himself as He re ally is? Have the methods of Biblical-critical studies been developed in full recognition of the authoritative role of Scripture, or have these critical studies themselves become a norm by which to govern and judge Scripture? In discussing such questions, the purpose of this article is to survey the origins of one of the basic methods used by Biblical critics in their study of the Bible, namely, form criticism, and to assess it as an illustration of Biblical-critical studies in general.

The use of form criticism arose during the early part of the twentieth century out of influences that developed during the nineteenth century. The rise of sociology, plus a growing disenchantment with the overemphasis on individuality, led to concentration upon the group as a living entity rather than upon the individual. Anthropology began to give attention to the historical diffusion of ideas among primitive peoples and to comparative mythology, noting that variations in the content of oral and written materials were related to a wide variety of circumstances. Combined with these, the history-of-religion school operated on the concept that religion is the result of the beliefs of the masses. Scripture was considered to be the reflection of the collective genius of people.

Form criticism developed as a means of studying the literary forms that gave expression to the beliefs of the popular religion of the community and to the life setting out of which these beliefs arose. The study of folklore, particularly the work of the Grimm brothers, who collected the folk traditions of the German people, contributed to the idea of applying the same methods of study to the Old Testament.

Hermann Gunkel, 1 a man of inventive genius, was able to combine the various insights of the nineteenth century into the form-critical method for Biblical studies. He felt that literary criticism, being a coldly analytical method, could not reflect an appreciation for the esthetic sense of form in literature, and he proposed that a history of literature must deal with the way in which that literature grew out of the history of the people involved. Considering the Old Testament to be an expression of the spiritual experience of the people of Israel, he sought to dis cover the life situation out of which their literature grew. He was also interested in obtaining insight into the conceptual content of the popular religions by an analysis of the various literary forms in which the people gave expression to their beliefs. In this way Gunkel sought to recapture the spiritual experience of ancient Israel in order to translate it meaningfully to contemporary man.

Gunkel's concept of the nature of scripture

Gunkel presupposed that Old Testament materials were developed and modified over a long period of time by means of a process of oral transmission within the life of Israel. Some of the materials were created within a specific segment of the life of Israel and others were imported from other cultures. As stories mi grated from one part of the country to another and were brought into contact with new situations and succeeding generations, they were modified to meet the situations in which they found themselves. To a certain extent, then, the changes in the traditions followed the changes in the conditions of the people. Therefore, he reasoned, the conditions of the people could be traced to some extent by studying the history of their literature.

Gunkel stated that oral material developed according to certain laws that were outlined in the study of German folk literature. These laws of transmission of literary materials, he felt, could be applied to the study of the literary history of the Old Testament.

Historicity of narratives examined

By looking to the laws of the formation of literature as understood by form criticism, Gunkel concluded that the writing of history does not arise during the early formative period of a group of people, but is associated with a later development of a strong political system. Thus the Genesis stories partake of the nature of saga, which intends to convey religious thought rather than history. History is a scientific activity that presupposes the practice of writing, whereas saga is transmitted orally and cannot remain uncorrupted for any length of time. History deals with public occurrences, whereas saga deals with that which is of interest to the common people. Any historical document that has credibility is able to show the connection between the eyewitness and the individual, whereas saga depends upon tradition and imagination. Obviously no one was present at the creation of the universe.

Saga frequently reports that which is incredible. Any historian, says Gunkel, knows that animals—serpents and she-asses—do not speak and that there is no tree that can confer immortality. Saga depicts God in anthropomorphisms that are not acceptable to the historical mind. According to Gunkel, the historian understands that God operates universally in the back ground. God is in control in a marvelous interdependence of things; however, nowhere does He operate directly as one factor along with others, but always and only as the last and ultimate cause of every thing. Saga, by contrast, depicts God as walking in the Garden, as breathing His own breath into man's nostrils.

Only one who is "ignorant" or a "pious barbarian," Gunkel suggests, can regard the labeling of Genesis as saga as irreverent. It is rather the judgment of reverence and love to pronounce the saga as saga in order that it might be interpreted aright. The legends of Gene sis are perhaps the most beautiful and profound ever known on earth.

He states, "A child, indeed, unable to distinguish between reality and poetry, loses something when he is told that its dearest stories are not true. But the modern theologian should be further developed. The evangelical churches and their chosen representatives would do well not to dispute the fact that Genesis contains legends—as has been done too frequently—but to recognize that the knowledge of this fact is the indispensable condition to an historical understanding of Genesis." 2

Gunkel viewed the narratives of Genesis as being the product of professional storytellers who recounted their stories regularly at popular festivals—tales of snakes and trees and floods. He attempts to trace the history of the literature of Genesis from its earliest primitive inception through its long evolution as it was molded in different parts of the country under differing circumstances and by different tribes, and as it assimilated the various foreign influences that were imposed upon it.

Criteria for determining age

Gunkel finds a number of criteria for determining the age of a saga. The older materials, classified as myths or primitive legends, are stories of the gods. They represent childlike belief in a divinity whose operations are not shrouded in mystery. Myths were not accepted favorably in Israel because mono theism does not allow stories of the gods. Thus the few myths found in Genesis is evidence of an early date. Saga, on the other hand, contains the more contemporary viewpoint, where God is seen only as forming a backdrop out of which history takes place. Such narratives must be given at a later date.

The age of sagas may also be determined by their characteristics. For example, the earlier sagas were short, simple, and clear compared to the later, longer and more complicated ones. The earlier sagas contained a clear outline, dealt with very few personages (one of whom was the dominant person), and gave little expression to the character traits or thoughts of that person. Details were held to a minimum and the focus was on action. Primitive sagas also had a unity of theme with a definite purpose.

Over a period of time stories were circulated under differing circumstances and were combined with other stories. Similar stories were grouped side by side, and gradually legend cycles developed by attach ing several related legends to one another. Changes gradually took place within the stories as they were handed down from generation to generation. Long speeches were added. Various additional motives were added to the stories. When the stories were retold under new circumstances, certain portions were omitted, and thus truncated stories are contained within the legend cycles. The sagas were molded ac cording to the laws of change that can be determined and studied by form criticism.

An amalgamation took place within the age whereby it was in filled with the spirit of the higher religion of Israel, so that polytheism was dropped in favor of mono theism. Foreign personages were re placed by native ones, and the legends of worship were transferred to Yahweh. Combinations of local traditions came about as the result of travel, perhaps on the occasion of great pilgrimages to tribal sanctuaries. 3

According to form criticism, progression can be seen also in various other ways. There is a change regarding God's relation to man. At first God is seen as holding men in check, as guarding certain favored individuals in accordance with His sovereign pleasure and as glorifying His people above all others. Later, He is represented as making His decisions regarding men upon a higher plane such as upon the righteousness of men. In the earlier sagas there is a mixing of the religious with the profane, whereas in the later sagas such mixing is no longer tolerated. The earlier sagas show little sense of ethics, so that there is almost pleasure in relating the cunning of Jacob and the defiance of Hagar, whereas the later sagas depict a patient and unfortunate Hagar and the wonderful prayer of gratitude of Jacob.

Finally, after the legends became very old, they were put in writing. After the legends were initially writ ten down, they were gradually brought together and rewritten into larger units. Much of what takes place in Old Testament form criticism today reflects the approach of Gunkel. His contribution to form-critical method is often recognized as conservative compared to the excesses of some later form critics.

Critique of Gunkel's thesis

Gunkel's declaration that narratives in Genesis do not relate history must be recognized as an a priori. He makes this declaration on the basis that Genesis describes incidents that are incredible to contemporary man. He assumes that God operates only in the background of history, rather than directly intervening in history, and that Scripture can thus be studied on the basis of literary and historical methods that operate within the limits of natural understanding.

If, in fact, God has supernaturally revealed Himself in the affairs of men as recorded in Scripture, form criticism loses its significance, be cause those disciplines that operate on a human level deal with that which can be explained only on a human basis. Neither God nor His revelation can be put in a test tube, nor can God be explained on any human level. To attempt to do so is a priori to structure His acts and His revelation on that same human level.

Gunkel's description of the history of the development of the narratives of Genesis can be justified only on the assumption of an evolutionary, progressive development. It is only on the basis of such an assumption that the coarse, profane, and the secular can, for instance, be assigned to an earlier period than the sacred and the tender, or the shorter narratives, the simple stories and the harmonious units to an earlier period than the longer narratives. Gunkel, it seems, begins with an evolutionary a priori from which he establishes criteria external to the text as a basis for separating the "primitive" from the "more recent," the "ancient" from that of a "later date."

Gunkel's assumptions are not warranted by the text itself, but are imposed upon the text from without. In using this method, he does not allow the text to speak to him, he speaks to the text, telling the text how it developed, rather than the reverse. It is necessary to accept Gunkel's evolutionary assumption if one is to accept his treatment of Genesis.

Associated with the assumption of an evolutionary development is Gunkel's God-concept, which is based upon contemporary observation of the natural world. On the basis of this observation, Gunkel concluded that God is not active as an individual force in the affairs of men, and thus He does nothing apart from the natural world. This surmise meant the rejection of any concept of God's revealing Himself in a direct way to the "author" of Gene sis.

The book of Genesis cannot be taken seriously as history, Gunkel says, because it speaks of Creation and the Flood, for which there is no eyewitness. These events are in credible to the contemporary mind set; therefore, they must be legends. The fact that something is incredible, however, is no evidence that it did not happen as revealed by God. This judgment can be made only on the basis of a pre-understanding of God and the way He has acted and revealed Himself in the history of this earth.

The limited space of this article, of course, prevents us from dealing with the entire question of form criticism. The reader is referred to the supplement published in the October, 1977, MINISTRY for a further consideration of how conservative Christians might relate to form criticism. 4

Although many later advances have been made beyond the work of Gunkel, in general form critics nevertheless see themselves as operating somewhat in harmony with the methods that he developed for Biblical studies. Even the more conservative form critic develops his criteria of operation from the natural world and thus places a priori construction upon Scripture. When approaches similar to Gunkel's are taken, a decision has already been made regarding the nature of the activities of God and of His revelation. The declaration of Scripture regarding its own nature is discarded as naive and pre-scientific. It is then necessary to preclude on an a priori basis any specific revelatory activities of God in the history of earth. Any record of any activity of God that is not in harmony with what has been predetermined that God can do must be labeled as myth or legend.

It is not possible to listen to God or to observe His actions from this starting point, for one has already decided what God can do and say. This approach places the individual outside the possibility of receiving revelation from God. According to this concept, knowledge of God can only come from within man himself. On the basis of man's possibilities, one postulates a concept of God that is in fact only a reflection of man and not a reflection of the revealing God.


1 Hermann Gunkel, The Legends of Genesis, trans. by W. H. Carruth (Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Co., 1901); Hermann Gunkel, What Remains of the Old Testament, trans. by A. K. Dallas (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1928).

2 Gunkel, The Legends of Genesis, pp. 11, 12. See also pp. 1-10.

3 Ibid., pp. 43-107.

4 E. Edward Zinke, "A Conservative Approach to Theology," appearing in the October, 1977, issue of MINISTRY Supplement (45 cents, single copy; 35 cents, ten or more copies), which was a reduced form of papers presented at the European Bible Conferences, summer of 1977. The longer form is available at $1.00 a copy. Address requests to the Biblical Research Institute, 6840 Eastern Avenue NW., Washington, B.C. 20012.

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E. Edward Zinke is assistant director of the Biblical Research Institute.

January 1978

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