What is known as the higher criticism, including also, technically, the lower criticism, is doing a great work in the emancipation of the Word of God. The severance of artificial bandages and bonds, the rational removal of a destructive literalism, the revelation of a true inwardness, with a rescue from conventional bibliolatry, include a wide movement of great spiritual beneficence and importance. The truth, which in a great variety of setting is contained in the Bible, is not only being discriminated but given free course.
The day of destructive criticism by opponents of the Bible has well-nigh passed, and with the decay of an inerrant literalism will lose its motive and foundation. The modern criticism which has been designated by the term higher, is, substantially, friendly and constructive. It is the work of the truest friends of the Bible and not of its enemies.
The higher criticism is the study of the Bible in the history and spirit of the time which produced it. What was the life, and what the prevailing thoughts, motives, inspirations, and ideals, of the biblical authors? The literature of any specific period — and the biblical literature is no exception— is a living transcript of its life and thought. It is no easy matter to step into the shoes of a long past generation, see with its eyes, hear with its ears, and take on its local color. It requires not only superior talent but deep insight. It presumes temporary detachment from present environment, and the exercise of the imaginative and intuitive temperament. All this is indispensable to a correct interpretation. Few in any age are able to thoroughly understand any other period, especially if it be far removed from their own. The great current of historic development must be intelligently traced and surveyed. The higher criticism was hardly possible, in any degree of completeness, before the general understanding of the doctrine of evolution. The theology of any period corresponds with, and is fitted into, its science, philosophy, astronomy, physics, and biology. Thus the higher criticism must include a profound knowledge of human nature, in itself, and all its outward relations. The psychology of the age to be dealt with, must be grasped, and also the unique subjective and objective idiosyncrasies pertaining thereto. In no other way can its surviving traditions and the underlying motives of its culture and literary remains be discriminated. The higher critic requires a rare equipment, and the modern era has been fortunate indeed in the reverent, constructive and conscientious spirit of the great majority of those who have served it in this supremely important department of research.
While the spiritual endowments and delicate prevision of those who pursue the lower criticism are not so indispensable in its nature, yet they require able discrimination and special literary ability. This research is in a direction more purely intellectual, philological, and technical. Its field more distinctly concerns the dates, authenticity and genuineness of the subject matter, the comparison of various teachings, their identification by literary quality, their unisons, differences, style, racial, and chronological peculiarities, and accuracy of translation and rendering. It will be observed that the higher criticism is mainly concerned with the spirit, while the lower is more especially devoted to the letter, or the vehicle by which the inner meaning is conveyed.
The believers in literalism, or plenary inspiration, have made less objection to criticism when applied to the Old Testament than to the New, but the principle involved is the same. The light and truth which come to us in the biblical messages must come as literature, an interpretation of human and racial life and experience, and not as a great collection of proof texts for the special defenses of dogmatic systems. The misty traditions in Genesis as to the details of the creation may constitute an orderly story or correspondence, but they come enshrined in symbolism, poetry, and epic. They are the natural product of the imaginative awe and sacred mystery of primitive peoples, and not peculiar to the Hebrew as distinguished from other races and nations.
It may at once be admitted that if the Bible be divinely dictated, verbatim, by God, it should not be subject to criticism. But, even were such the fact, in accord with the seventeenth century view of revelation, its great variety of meanings to different classes of minds would not thereby be diminished. Language may be one thing, but its interpretation depends upon the subjective state of the individual. Whether or not the Bible, as we have it, be absolutely inerrant, the same text is made the foundation for scores of varying creeds, and in it each finds its full endorsement. Intrinsically, the Bible is an historic sketch of the divine intimacies of lofty souls, a chart of the religious and spiritual development of humanity. The Scriptures cannot be fenced off as something above and outside of the normal product of the mind of man, for their free and intimate relations radiate in every direction. The divine comes through the human, and is not handed down in any miraculous way from the outside. The dramatic story of soul unfoldment as set forth by the writer of the book of Job, the poetic and symbolic songs of the Psalmist, the optimism of Isaiah, the pessimism of Jeremiah, the mysticism of Ezekiel, the rational psychology and spiritual philosophy of a Paul, and the ecstatic visions of Saint John, all show the white light of divinity as having received peculiar tint and shade in passing through the alembic of unlike minds and temperaments. For most able and illuminating interpretation, Harnack, the great biblical critic and student was denounced as a destructive opponent of the Bible, but a truer and deeper view would characterize him as its able defender, He has been credited with a disbelief of the birth stories in Matthew and Luke, and also of the physical resurrection. He believes that the first gospel is a compilation by an unknown author, and that additions were made to it about A. D. 75. Numerous other differences from the traditional view are noted. It is not here proposed to enter in detail into the conclusions of the higher critics. The following few instances are merely illustrative. Some of the most able and conscientious biblical scholars believe that the book of Matthew was placed first in the New Testament because it deals directly with the genealogy and birth of Jesus, though probably not written until seventy-five years after that event. The tradition of more than two generations and the change of thought and feeling naturally color the narrative. The popular supposition that the book of Genesis, standing first in order in the Bible, as it does, and dealing with the creative period, was earliest written, is mistaken. There is good evidence that it was not composed before a late period in Hebrew history. The great prophets, Isaiah, Hosea, and Amos knew nothing of the story of the "Fall." Their inspiration and hope was for the future. Their paradise was not in the dim past but in a grand consummation. In the order of historic development, the Pentateuch — the compendium of priestly legalism — only began after the Babylonian Exile. It is the aftermath of that captivity rather than that of Egypt. The creative story and Garden of Eden are not even alluded to by any of the great seers before mentioned. Would this have been the case if it were the all-important factor in the destiny of man, which "the plan of salvation," as formulated in the traditional creeds, has made it?
The truth in the Bible has the same basis which underlies all other truth. Wherever expressed, inherent excellence, rationality, beauty, and goodness are included in the nature of things. The credentials for truth are within itself. As it is brought into contact with man's higher reason and conscience it is self-attesting. The letter of the Bible is the vehicle for truth, and it is the reality which is infallible rather than that which conveys it. History shows that the assumed inerrancy of the text has always been misleading and has uniformly attempted to beat back the progress of science, invention, and knowledge. "Though the heavens fall," it has been regarded as indispensable that literalism be insisted upon. Religion supposedly depended upon it, and without it all was lost. How mistaken the conclusion!
As knowledge has increased and new realizations of circumstantial evidence and necessary adjustment have been made, the positions held on the basis of the old idea of inspiration have been found untenable. Citadel after citadel has fallen, until symptoms of a general panic multiply. Meanwhile the real truth remains calmly and securely poised above the superficial tempest which is driving men to shelter. The best thought outside of the church, which also should be relied upon to endorse and uphold religion and spiritual progress, has been needlessly affronted and set in opposition. Even the "natural man" has a genuine respect for, and openness toward rational goodness and the ideal life, but to insist upon alien dogmatic accretions as composing the pure gospel awakens his antagonism. Says Professor Adam Smith: "The critical study of the Scriptures completely dispels, on the evidence of the Bible itself, that view of inspiration so long held by the Church."
The highest reason of man, when clarified by a sincere openness toward the divine Spirit is holy, and will ever serve the ends of a true faith. It may reverently be affirmed that it is God, at first hand. "The secret place of the Most High" is not in a far-away heaven, but in man. There is his dwelling place, and there is set up the tribunal of truth and judgment.
What may be called the larger faith becomes verifiable from all analogy, research, and relation. Not only human life in the concrete, but universal truth and even cosmic processes lend their endorsement. Religion and nature, both divine and mutually complementary, have had a great gulf placed between them. The sympathetic comparison of faiths, first earnestly made at the Congress of Religions held at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, was an object lesson to the world of the unity in variety, and of the real spirit of religion. The differences developed on that occasion were mostly superficial and incidental. Humanity is everywhere, and at all times, engaged in a search for truth, and in an attempt to grasp and realize the highest idea of God. Obscured or hidden as it may be, there is an universal divine thirst in the soul of man. Symbols, ordinances, sacraments, rituals, devotions, and services, and even idolatries are a signal attestation of natural spirituality and religiosity. Emerson aptly puts that great thought in poetic form:
"Out from the heart of Nature rolled
The burden of the Bible old:
The Litanies of nations came,
Like the volcano's tongue of flame,
Up from the burning core below —
The canticles of love and woe;
"The word by seers and sibyls told
In groves of oak, or fanes of gold,
Still floats upon the morning wind,
Still whispers to the willing mind.
One accent of the Holy Ghost
The heedless world hath never lost."
The purpose of the authors of the Bible was not mainly to write history, but to set forth their own religious ideals in the light of events. The cry for righteousness, and the judgments, national and individual for unrighteousness, were the motives underlying the whole Jewish literature. To find the spirit of the Bible, it must be studied like other books. It should also be read between the lines and its indefinable influence felt and absorbed. It must strike deeper than the mere intellectual understanding. The ecclesiastical atmosphere which has been projected around the Bible is the main reason for the modern neglect of it. It hides it from near view and sympathetic perusal. The unnatural glamor turned upon it, repels rather than attracts. To love the great profusion of lovely things in the Bible need not be a task but a delight. It is a natural book. Gold does not need gilding, and inherent excellence is marred by the addition of artificial and abnormal features. The acceptance of the fact that the Bible is a literature, normal, and at the same time of surpassing merit and practical instruction, would dispel the irrational theory which has hedged it about.
The New Testament is a continuous and higher development of the Hebrew ethical and religious ideals of the Old. The time covered is very much less, and the successive phases of thought and progress are much more rapid. There were no scribes present to report the words of Jesus, and they came down to us colored by various minds, memories, traditions, and personal peculiarities. Added to the Hebrew, other elements entered into the biblical literature, each leaving something of its distinctive quality in what was to appear in due time as a larger unit. The more distinctive Greek philosophy comes to the surface at intervals, and especially in marked degree in the fourth gospel. The New Testament literature is an historic and dramatic sketch of the roots and sources of Judaism's successor, distinctive Christianity. But like other events and facts, their importance is larger and lies back of these happenings, and resides in the principles and ideals of which they are the concrete expression. Christianity, from being racial, local, and historic, has burst its limitations, broadened its scope, and universalized its application. Jesus was not an author, nor an originator, but a demonstrator. He will ever be supreme as the ideal embodiment of the Christ spirit in man.
There is no disposition among the higher biblical critics to regard unkindly those who have caustically commented upon their painstaking work. Their seeming iconoclasm is only an incidental result of devotion to truth. They would not willingly undermine any one's faith, but rather broaden and deepen it. To be permanent and substantial it must be based upon reality. The command to "believe" may be iterated and reiterated, but the human mind is so constituted that it must have evidence, and a large part of this evidence must be within. It is subjective truth that is winning its way in the world. To feel truth is deeper than to intellectually know it.
The reaction from supposed biblical inerrancy, of which the higher criticism is the moving force, will accomplish a work beyond value in the arrest of skepticism, infidelity, and materialism. The "unbeliever" is as much a devotee to "the letter" as the traditionalist. Accepting the same interpretation, its unreasonableness arouses his opposition. In literalism extremes meet. The shafts of a Voltaire, a Thomas Paine, or an Ingersoll have been almost entirely directed, not against truth, the Bible, nor religion, per se, but against accretions and assumptions which have been put in their place. Truth is inherently vital and attractive. Said Milton:
"Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do ingloriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?"
The present age greatly needs more familiarity with the Bible. It is not only by far the greatest literary production extant, but its strong fiber is largely inwrought in all later literature. It is a great reservoir from which thousands of cups have been filled, and its influence in the shaping of the English language and all deeper culture is beyond estimate. Its familiar sayings, aphorisms, and precepts thickly bespangle the tomes which most nobly represent human wisdom and learning. But above all, it is to be honored because it has so much of that inspirational quality which inspires.
The teachings of Jesus, aside from their value as oracles of religious wisdom, are found to be in accord with the laws of man's nature on every plane. They are psychological, philosophical, and scientific in their exact adaptation to his constitution. While many of them are so idealistic as seemingly to conflict with current ethical standards, and to be impractical in the present state of society, they furnish the working plan for the higher development of the future. The evolutionary ripeness for their complete exercise is not yet here, but their full non-resistant philosophy more and more will be the attractive pattern for speedy attainment. Their spirit and ideal have untold value.
There need be no fear that the higher criticism will weaken or overthrow the truth of the Bible. Truth is invincible. It is rooted in God and cannot be moved. Scholarship will confirm and make more graphic its beauty and usefulness. Appreciation will increase with a better understanding. Search the Scriptures to know their value. The richest ore is not found upon the surface. If the Bible will not stand trying, testing, and examination, in the strongest kind of a light, it is unworthy of the confidence which we are invited to center upon it. The real "Word of God" cannot be shaken, whatever may happen to the dogmas which have been artificially drawn from its text.
The lower criticism is also absolutely necessary to prepare the way for intelligent and useful study. Only by painstaking scholarship can erroneous conclusions be corrected. After this department has done its work, the way is cleared for the higher criticism with its search for the inner spirit and significance. To ascertain the present value and motive of any passage of Scripture, it must be found what it meant to the author and to those of that special era. One might as well call the efficient process of crushing and roasting crude ore, in order to extract the pure gold, "destructive," as to use any such term in connection with the conscientious and careful sifting of the text of the Written Word.