BIBLICAL CRITICISM: Reader-Response and Narrative Criticism


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Thomas Howe
Thomas Howe Director of Veritas Graduate School of Apologetics. Professor of Bible and Biblical Languages at Southern Evangelical Seminary (B.D., 1985; B.A., 1985; M.A., 1992; Ph.D., 1998)


At the very beginning of his monumental work, A History of Literary Criticism and Theory, M. A. R. Habib declares, “In our world it has become more important than ever that we learn to read critically.”[1] What does it mean to “read critically”? What, in fact, is criticism? The term is tossed around and employed by everyone, and yet there are few who take the time to define the term. This may be because its meaning is thought to be so obvious that no one thinks it necessary to define. Like many academic terms, it is used so often, and so often with reference to views that conflict, it may be in danger of losing all meaning. A term that becomes so broad in its use is in danger of becoming useless. When the term first came to life is perhaps a question not likely to be answered with any certainty. It certainly seems, prima facie, to be a term that indicates a method of doing something. One dictionary defines the term thus: “the scientific investigation of literary documents (as the Bible) in regard to such matters as origin, text, composition, character, or history.”[2] There can be no doubt that the term acquired global currency when adopted by Immanuel Kant in the title of several of his works: Kritik der reinen Vernunft, that is, Critique of Pure Reason.[3] Kant employed the term to characterize his philosophical methodology. It was a rational investigation and presentation of Kant’s notion of what it means to know and how knowledge occurs. As Christopher Kaiser has observed, “A strict methodology can suffocate the spirit of open inquiry.”[4] Unfortunately, it seems that criticism in general, and biblical criticism in particular, has developed such a methodology that, as we shall see, other forms of open inquiry are a priori ruled unscholarly.

How to Interpret the Bible-1 INTERPRETING THE BIBLE how-to-study-your-bible1

A Short History of Biblical Criticism

Leading Up

The Renaissance had provided the Reformers with the tools needed to challenge the institutional organization of the Catholic Church. At least since Augustine, the Roman Catholic Church had used the Latin Vulgate as the Bible from which theology and piety were extricated and systematized. With the Renaissance cry, ad fontes (“to the sources”), the European world of scholarship began to develop a historical awareness. During the Middle Ages, biblical studies were designed to use the text in such a manner as to provide insights on the present. There was no sense of the historical context or the historical situatedness of biblical passages or biblical books. The historical awakening of the Renaissance forced the scholar to view the Bible as a book composed in an ancient historical setting that must be studied in its own right to be able properly to interpret the text.

Also, the return to the sources meant that the Reformers could sidestep the Vulgate and go directly to the documents themselves. Yet the warnings of the Scholastics that uncontrolled access to the Bible would garner more harm than good did not sway the Reformers from working diligently to make the Bible available in the vernacular. And, precisely as the Roman Catholic apologists has admonished, movements, and isms, and cults, and various brands of reformers multiplied as each leader or group approached the text and interpreted it independently. Closely following upon the growth of religious groups came conflict and war that ravaged Europe so that there was not a moment’s peace or an unaffected mother. The critics of religion soon became aware that there seemed to be no non-circular way of interpreting the Bible. Everyone claimed that the Bible was their authoritative source, yet their conflicting and contradictory conclusions seemed to indicate that one could appeal to the Bible on the basis of his own interpretative method. As Michael Legaspi observes, “For each group, the presence of the other Christian confession, which also claimed fidelity to the Bible made it necessary for each group to defend its distinctive mode of biblical interpretation.”[5] As Legaspi goes on to explain, “the Bible proved ‘an insufficient basis for distinguishing between Protestant and Catholic’; as a result, ‘the shared language of Scripture’ could not be the ‘primary source of theological precision and judgment.’”[6] Approaching the biblical text meant viewing it from one’s confessional perspective, and Legaspi points out, “Reading or hearing the Bible was not sufficient for understanding it. One first had to choose where to stand.”[7]


By the time Jean Astruc (1684–1766) published his conclusions about Mosaic authorship, there already existed a tradition of scholarship in which the figure of Moses was analyzed and examined from many different perspectives. Moses had been presented as the originator of the Israelite religion, the founder of the nation, and the victim of assassination at the hands of Joshua and Caleb.  Legaspi describes Astruc’s claims. Although the quote is long, it is necessary to include all of it for getting a sense of his presentation:

To Astruc, Moses was the keeper of earlier documents, the mémoires. Moses had at his disposal twelve written documents, two major and ten minor ones, which he organized into four distinct columns. His two main sources, A and B, maintained an unvarying preference for a particular divine name: Elohim in the A source and Jehovah in the B source. The use of divine names as a source-critical criterion was the cornerstone of his theory, an innovation that would become, through the work of Eichhorn, the basis for modern Pentateuchal criticism. The bulk of the Conjectures is simply a division of Genesis (and Exodus 1-2) into the four putative columns. Astruc aimed to reproduce, line by line, the very documents that at one time lay before Moses. To this synopsis he added several remarques describing the advantages of his system. It explained away many infelicities: the puzzling alternation in the use of divine names, troubling repetitions in the narrative, and discrepancies in the chronological perspectives of the narrator (antichronismes). The sources that Moses inherited not only used different names for God, they also originated in different time periods. The source divisions thus saved Moses from charges of negligence and stupidity. Can it be imagined, Astruc asked, that Moses is responsible for faults, repetitions, and bizarre variations which are better and more naturally explained by the existence of multiple underlying sources? Astruc’s Conjectures was an apologetic work. It was not simply a vague, skeptical discussion of Mosaic authorship. Rather, it was a clear, constructive, and highly detailed presentation of Pentateuchal sources calculated to deflect criticism of the Bible. It was intended to acquit the biblical text of anachronisms and irregularities by showing that the reader of Genesis is actually dealing with disparate texts. How these came together to form Genesis—when Moses did not intend to join them in this way—is not entirely certain. Clearly aware that he had come to a weakness in his theory, Astruc guessed that some kind of scribal negligence or mistake was to blame for the disordered appearance of Genesis. The blame, then, lay with unnamed copyists. Moses remained, for Astruc, the revered Auteur whose unique wisdom, education, and political experience demanded the highest respect.[8]


Rise of Modern Natural Science

The rise of modern natural science created a whole new way of understanding scholarship: “It was no longer possible, as was the case in the Middle Ages, to appeal to God as a kind of Aristotelian prima causa [“first cause”]. The scholar was forced to find the natural cause, and explanation kept within the Kantian categories of time and space. It was assumed that any phenomenon has a natural cause, meaning that it should be traceable for human investigators.”[9] An example of this is the passage in Deuteronomy 34 that recounts the death of Moses. Scholars whose labors were expected to be “scientific” concluded that Moses certainly did not write this material. As Lemche explains, “When Deuteronomy concludes with the story about Moses’s death, it might be reasonable to assume that Moses at least did not write that chapter (Deuteronomy 34).”[10] A “scientific” conclusion could not propose that this information was supernaturally revealed to Moses before his death since that would not be an explanation in terms of natural causes, that is, a “scientific” explanation. It was reasonable to conclude that Moses did not write this material because people do not generally know the details of how they died, or at least they are not around to write them down. So, it is perfectly natural, “scientific,” to believe that Moses did not write the material about how he died.


The antisupernatural bias is evident in such observations as: “The book [of Daniel] reflects political and religious events that belong to the middle of the second century BCE, the Maccabean period. Here the references to acts that took place in 165 BCE, the Seleucid King Antioch IV’s desecration of the temple of Jerusalem, are decisive for the date of Daniel.”[11] There is no acknowledgment of even the possibility of supernatural prophecy. In fact, Lemche refers to Daniel’s prophetic material as, “This piece of ‘prophetic’ literature . . .” As is representative of historical-critical “scholars,” by placing the word ‘prophetic’ in quotation marks, Lemche indicates the complete rejection of the possibility of actual prophecy. Lemche emphatically declares, “The history of reality happens within the confines of space and time. There is no room for miracles. The supernatural has no say.”[12]


The Nature of Biblical Criticism

Biblical criticism is usually thought to be synonymous with historical criticism, or what is frequently referred to as higher criticism or the historical-critical method. However, whereas biblical criticism is an umbrella term that refers to the many kinds of critical method used in biblical studies, historical criticism, or the historical-critical method, can actually refer to a group of techniques that are supposedly used to study the historical, social, and cultural background of the Bible. Unfortunately, the literature often subsumes the findings of some other critical method under the heading of historical-criticism. For example, the Documentary Hypothesis is usually referred to as the application of the historical-critical method when in fact the claims of the hypothesis are the results of the application of several critical methods or techniques, including source criticism, redaction criticism, as well as historical criticism. According to Richard and Kendall Soulen, Biblical Criticism “refers in the broadest sense to the use of rational judgment in understanding the Bible.”[13] Concerning the term ‘biblical criticism,’ John Barton says, “The term ‘biblical criticism’ is now somewhat outmoded. It is common to speak of ‘biblical studies’ and of ‘biblical interpretation,’ but for the older term ‘biblical criticism’ it has become more usual to say ‘the historical-critical method’ (occasionally ‘historico-critical’).”[14] Because of this terminological confusion, we will use the term ‘biblical criticism’ as an umbrella term to refer to the totality of criticisms or critical approaches. The specific methods or techniques will be referred to by their specific titles.

Edgar Krentz reports the “critical steps” that came out of The Ecumenical Study Conference at Wadham College, Oxford in 1949: “(1) the determination of the text; (2) the literary form of the passage; (3) the historical situation, the Sitz im Leben; (4) the meaning which the words had for the original author and hearer or reader; (5) the understanding of the passage in the light of its total context and the background out of which it emerged.”[15] This sounds very much like the steps prescribed in any contemporary course on exegesis. There is, however, a critical assumption that is not identified in the listing of these steps. Soulen and Soulen identify the underlying perspective of the practice of biblical criticism: “More narrowly, however, it [‘Biblical Criticism’] refers to an approach to the study of scripture that is centrally concerned with searching for and applying neutral, i.e., scientific and nonsectarian, canons of judgment in its investigation of the biblical text.”[16] Not all biblical critics agree that criticism is a scientific method. According to John Barton, “Even if biblical critics did generally believe their own work to be the application of historical-critical method understood in a scientific way, they would be wrong. Biblical criticism is not, in fact, the application of method to the biblical text.”[17] Nevertheless, James Kugel points out, “Stating around 150 years ago, a major effort was launched in universities and divinity schools in different countries— principally in Germany and Scandinavia, Holland, England, and the United States—to understand the Bible afresh, reading it ‘scientifically’ without any presuppositions.”[18]


However, it seems that the standard books on introduction to Biblical Criticism generally employ some reference to a scientific method in defining it. According to Krentz, Ulrich Wilckens provides the reader with a “formal definition of scientific biblical interpretation,”[19] by which he means biblical criticism: “The only scientifically responsible interpretation of the Bible is that investigation of the biblical texts that, with a methodologically consistent use of historical understanding in the present state of its art, seeks via reconstruction to recognize and describe the meaning these texts have had in the context of the tradition history of early Christianity.”[20] In the opening statement of his book on the history and problems of the New Testament, Werner Kümmel refers to the “scientific view of the New Testament.”[21] This scientific method, if indeed it is a scientific method, grew out of the conflicts during the Enlightenment between what was believed to be rational biblical study and the hegemony Catholic church. To understand the presuppositions upon which Biblical Criticism are still based, it will be important to look briefly and its origins.



Crucial to the critical approach to the Bible is the claim to encounter the text without any theological bias or confessional attachments. This approach grew out of the Enlightenment effort to investigate reality without bias, prejudice, or any preconceived notion of what reality must be. This was particularly an assumption of natural science that developed as a result of Descartes’ influence. Descartes had influenced not only philosophy but all branches of inquiry to begin any intellectual pursuit by doubting all that was supposedly known. “In terms of his use of God to solve the fundamental problems of epistemology, Descartes’ heritage was not his solution but the difficulties which he raised and, perhaps most importantly, the way in which he raised them. His grandiose attempt to ground all knowledge on God was not successful, but in posing the issue as he did he boosted the possibilities for science to exist as an activity autonomous from all theological and ecclesiastical interference.”[22]

The sixteenth century was focused on the need for certain knowledge in all branches of inquiry, especially in theology. The centuries of religious wars had devastated the land and exhausted the people, and certain knowledge seemed the only way to bring peace and rest. As James Byrne goes on to point out, “There is, moreover, no more convincing example of this passionate search for certainty which became one of the great, dominant ideas around the middle of the century than the work of Descartes. The purpose of the Meditations was to provide proofs for the existence of God, which equaled or even surpassed geometrical proofs in certainty and self-evidence. Descartes’ whole philosophy was motivated by the question of the possibility of certain knowledge, and its success would be incomprehensible had this not also been the question of this time.”[23]


Descartes’ method begins, as is well known, with doubt by which he ultimately arrives at the undoubtable assertion, “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes concludes that while he is attending his mind upon this indubitable assertion, he sees that this is a clear and distinct perception. As Delahaunty puts it, “he then picks out a feature of his state of mind when he is attending to that proposition (that it is a state of clear and distinct perception); he infers that it is the possession of this feature which causes his state of mind to be one of knowledge; and he is tentatively extrapolating the general rule that any conscious state which exhibits the mark of clear and distinct perception will be knowledge.”[24] Descartes will then apply this criterion to any additional propositions as a test for truth or falsehood. As Delahaunty goes on to say, “In the last step, he seems covertly to assume the causal axiom that if a state is F because it is Y, then any Y-state will also be F.”[25] But Descartes’ quest goes further than simply a question of the existence of God. That truth had not been widely questioned as yet. Rather, Descartes’ quest was for a certainty that would ultimately and finally resolve the conflicts between confessions. Descartes hoped that he would be able to deduce from his first principles a system of philosophy and religion that would, having the certainty of geometry, force all sides to accept the force of the demonstration.

Another of Descartes’ assertions that becomes an assumption universally accepted is that extra-mental reality is constituted of body extended in space. There is no sense of anything metaphysical in extra-mental reality. Consequently, during the Enlightenment, the assumptions that are imbibed by all are (1) one must begin any intellectual endeavor by doubting everything that cannot be demonstrated to be true; (2) truth is demonstrated by the characteristic of being a clear and distinct perception after the manner of Descartes’ Cogito; (3) extra-mental reality is ultimately constituted of body extended in space.

The Reading Culture of Early Christianity From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts 400,000 Textual Variants 02


Spinoza, who is generally held to be the father of modern biblical criticism, was highly influenced by Descartes’ method even though he argued strongly against much of Descartes’ system and conclusions. “The challenge of modernization was forced on the church by the emergence of liberal political philosophy in the seventeenth century. Figures such as Baruch Spinoza are among the first to practice what we recognize today as modern historical criticism of the Bible.”[26] And Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise was “the first extended treatise on biblical criticism to employ recognizably modern methods of analysis. ‘In our time,’ writes Leo Strauss (1899–1973), ‘scholars generally study the Bible in the manner in which they study any other book. As is generally admitted, Spinoza more than any other man laid the foundation for this kind of Biblical study.’ To understand Spinoza’s views on the Bible, one must know his politics.”[27] Spinoza was also influenced by the rise of modern natural science, which, according to Travis Frampton, led Spinoza to the conclusion that natural law, and “natural science and mathematics . . . [were] the only way to ascertain reliable knowledge of the universe, humankind, and true ideas.”[28] But to understand his methodology, one must understand his principles of interpretation. The following quote, although very long, is necessary in order to have a better understanding of how Spinoza approached the biblical text.

  1. It should inform us of the nature and properties of the language in which the Bible was written and which its authors were accustomed to speak. Thus, we should be able to investigate, from established linguistic usage, all the possible meanings of any passage. And since all the writers of both the Old and the New Testaments were Hebrews, a study of the Hebrew language must undoubtedly be a prime requisite not only for an understanding of the books of the Old Testament, which were written in that language but also for the New Testament. For although the latter books were published in other languages, their idiom is Hebraic.
  2. The pronouncements made in each book should be assembled and listed under headings so that we can thus have to hand all the texts that treat of the same subject. Next, we should note all those that are ambiguous or obscure, or that appear to contradict one another. Now here I term a pronouncement obscure or clearer according to the degree of difficulty with which the meaning can be elicited from the context, and not according to the degree of difficulty with which its truth can be perceived by reason. For the point at issue is merely the meaning of the texts, not their truth. I would go further: in seeking the meaning of Scripture, we should take every precaution against the undue influence, not only of our own prejudices but of our faculty of reason in so far as that is based on the principles of natural cognition. In order to avoid confusion between true meaning and truth of fact, the former must be solved simply from linguistic usage, or from a process of reasoning that looks to no other basis than Scripture.

For further clarification, I shall give an example to illustrate all that I have here said. The savings of Moses, “God is fire,” and “God is jealous,” are perfectly clear as long as we attend only to the meanings of the words; and so, in spite of their obscurity from the perspective of truth and reason, I classify these sayings as clear. Indeed, even though their literal meaning is opposed to the natural light of reason, this literal meaning must nevertheless be retained unless it is in clear opposition to the basic principles derived from the study of Scripture. On the other hand, if these statements in their literal interpretation were found to be in contradiction with the basic principles derived from Scripture, they would have to be interpreted differently (that is, metaphorically) even though they were in complete agreement with reason. Therefore, the question as to whether Moses did or did not believe that God is fire must in no wise be decided by the rationality or irrationality of the belief, but solely from other pronouncements of Moses. In this particular case, since there are several other instances where Moses clearly tells us that God has no resemblance to visible things in heaven or on the earth or in the water, we must hence conclude that either this statement or all those others must be explained metaphorically. Now since one should depart as little as possible from the literal meaning, we should first inquire whether this single pronouncement, ‘God is fire,’ admits of any other than a literal meaning; that is, whether the word ‘fire’ can mean anything other than ordinary natural fire. If the word ‘fire’ is not found from linguistic usage to have any other meaning, then neither should this statement be interpreted in any other way, however much it is opposed to reason, and all other passages should be made to conform to it, however much they accord with reason. If this, too, should prove impossible on the basis of linguistic usage, then these pronouncements would have to be regarded as irreconcilable, and we should, therefore, suspend judgment regarding them. However, since the word ‘fire’ is also used in the sense of anger or jealousy (Job ch. 31 v. 12), Moses’ pronouncements are easily reconciled, and we can properly conclude that these two statements, ‘God is fire’ and ‘God is jealous’ are one and the same statement.


Again, as Moses clearly teaches that God is jealous and nowhere tells us that God is without passions or emotions, we must evidently conclude that Moses believed this, or at least that he intended to teach this, however strongly we may be convinced that this opinion is contrary to reason. For, as we have shown, it is not permissible for us to manipulate Scripture’s meaning to accord with our reason’s dictates and our preconceived opinions; all knowledge of the Bible is to be sought from the Bible alone.

  1. Finally our historical study should set forth the circumstances relevant to all the extant books of the prophets, giving the life, character and pursuits of the author of every book, detailing who he was, on what occasion and at what time and for whom and in what language he wrote. Again, it should relate what happened to each book, how it was first received, into whose hands it fell, how many variant versions there were, by whose decision it was received into the canon, and, finally, how all the books, now universally regarded as sacred, were united into a single whole. All these details, I repeat, should be available from a historical study of Scripture; for in order to know which pronouncements were set forth as laws and which as moral teaching, it is important to be acquainted with the life, character and interests of the author. Furthermore, as we have a better understanding of a person’s character and temperament, so we can more easily explain his words. Again, to avoid confusing teaching of eternal significance with those which are of only temporary significance or directed only to the benefit of a few, it is also important to know on what occasion, at what period, and for what nation or age all these teachings were written down. Finally, it is important to know the other details we have listed so that, in addition to the authenticity of each book, we may also discover whether or not it may have been contaminated by spurious insertions, whether errors have crept in, and whether experienced and trustworthy scholars have corrected these. All this information is needed by us so that we may accept only what is certain and incontrovertible, and not be led by blind impetuosity to take for granted whatever is set before us

Now when we possess this historical account of Scripture, and all are firmly resolved not to assert as the indubitable doctrine of the prophets anything that does not follow from this study or cannot be most clearly inferred from it, it will then be time to embark on the task of investigating the meaning of the prophets and the Holy Spirit. But for this task, too, we need a method and order similar to that which we employ in interpreting Nature from the facts presented before us. Now in examining natural phenomena we, first of all, try to discover those features that are most universal and common to the whole of Nature, to wit, motion-and-rest and the rules and laws governing them which Nature always observes and through which she constantly acts, and then we advance gradually from the two other less universal features. In just the same way we must first seek from our study of Scripture that which is most universal and forms the basis and foundation of all Scripture; in short, that which is commended in Scripture by all the prophets as doctrine eternal and most profitable for all mankind. For example, that God exists, one alone and omnipotent, who alone should be worshiped, who cares for all, who loves above all others those who worship him and love their neighbors as themselves. These and similar doctrines, I repeat, are taught everywhere in Scripture so clearly and explicitly that no one has ever been in any doubt as to its meaning on these points. But what God is, in what way he sees and provides for all things and similar matters, Scripture does not teach formally, and as eternal doctrine. On the contrary, we have clearly shown that the prophets themselves were not in agreement on these matters, and therefore on topics of this kind we should make no assertion that claims to be the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, even though the natural light of reason may be quite decisive on that point.[29]

Harrisville provides a very good summary of these three principles:

In the pivotal seventh chapter of the Treatise, Spinoza offers three basic rules for critical study of the Bible (see 142–44). First, such study ‘should inform us of the nature and properties of the language in which the Bible was written and which its authors were accustomed to speak.’ Biblical study is based on language study. Second, the ‘pronouncements’ of each book should be organized by subject matter for the purpose of comparison and contrast with special attention paid to those that are obscure or contradictory. Finally, the circumstances of each book and author must be set forth so that various historical settings of Scripture are taken into account and clarified. Spinoza’s method is one that the contemporary reader will readily recognize as common to scholarly literature on the Bible. The accent is on historical understanding; religious claims are studiously avoided.[30]

Frampton takes exception to Harrisville and Sundberg’s assessment of Spinoza’s motivation as an effort to eviscerate the core theology of the Bible: “. . . it was not the political philosophies of the seventeenth century, with representative figures like Spinoza, Thomas Hobbes, or John Locke, that were solely responsible for developing methods of historical criticism of the Bible later taken up, modified and used by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberal Protestants. This view is oversimplified.”[31] Spinoza had, according to Frampton, distilled the message of Scripture to the injunctions to love God and love one’s neighbor.

For from Scripture itself we learn that its message, unclouded by any doubt or any ambiguity, is in essence this, to love God above all, and one’s neighbour as oneself. There can be no adulteration here, nor can it have been written by a hasty and errant pen; for if doctrine differing from this is to be found anywhere in Scripture, all the rest of its teaching must also have been different. For this is the basis of the whole structure of religion; if it is removed, the entire fabric crashes to the ground, and then such a Scripture would not be the sort of thing we are now discussing, but a quite different book.[32]

Frampton explains, “In other words, those who called themselves faithful adherents of God’s Word and defenders of the Bible, but who did not practice the universal tenets of the faith (loving God, loving neighbor), were, according to the outcast Jew, devoted instead to doctrines and human superstitions — but not to the true worship of God as commanded in the Old and New Testaments.”[33] Apparently, neither Frampton and certainly Spinoza did not understand that message of the Gospel, that there is none righteous (Rom. 3:10), and those who live by the law will die by the law since by the law no flesh will be justified in His sight (Rom. 3:20). Frampton goes on to object to the characterization by Dungan that of historical criticism and Spinoza eviscerated the Bible’s core theology: “Spinoza simplified the content of the Bible’s theological and ethical message: love God and love one’s neighbor. How, then, did he eviscerate the Bible’s core theology?”[34] Of course, the way Spinoza and the historical-critical method eviscerated the Bible’s core theology was to pervert it from a gospel of salvation by grace through faith to a reductionistic moral precept of life by the law. That Spinoza missed the entire message of the New Testament is evident by his declaration: “First, faith does not bring salvation through itself, but only by reason of obedience; or, as James says (Ch. 2 v. 17), faith in itself without works is dead.”[35]

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Spinoza’s method develops out of his experience of persecution as a Jew. This experience propels him to discover a view of reality that will force the world to see every other person as part of a unity which all men together compose, thus preventing persecution and marginalizing because no man will persecute or marginalize himself. This unity, of course, is Spinoza’s thesis that all is one: Deus sive Natura. As Gilson puts it, “While all of reality, then, is one massive substance, the distinction between attributes and modes of substance makes it possible to conceive within the unity of reality a kind of bi-polarity, distinguishing and uniting the creating and the created”[36] With the imagination man can perceive a world of particular things, and with the reason man can grasp the unity of all particular things in the reality of the One. As Gilson goes on to say, “When one grasps the unity of reality in the necessity of the one substance, it becomes evident that everything has to be as it is and that no reality ever really passes away into nothingness but merely goes through modal changes. Sub specie aeternitatis, every isolated thing is quasi-divine; nothing is to be despised; everything is to be honored with an almost religious devotion, as emanations and modes of the divine substance.”[37]

One major factor in disunity and persecution is the factionalization based on conflicting religious commitments and fanaticism. The mutual destruction that characterizes the various institutionalized religions over the past couple of centuries prior to Spinoza is for Spinoza, indicative of the division and persecution that has characterized his own experience and the experience of his countrymen. Therefore, Spinoza must demonstrate that the true sense of Scripture reflects the unity of Nature. The passions that fuel the destructive behavior of religious fanaticism is actually a confused cognition, as Gilson points out:

A passion is a confused idea to which we seem to submit because we do not possess the means to dominate it. That “means” can only be a clear and distinct idea that unveils the real sense of the confused representation—an active affect counteracting the passive one. “An affection which is a passion,” reads the Third Proposition in Part V [of Spinoza’s Ethics], “ceases to be a passion as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea of it.” For to understand an affection clearly and distinctly is to replace it in its ontological background and recognize it as a modal moment of the divine attribute itself. Such an understanding permits the soul to see that “all things are necessary,” because determined by the conatus[38] to play a part in the structuring of reality in and by “an infinite chain of causes.” The necessity of each and of all things understood, the conflicting desires or the sadness that might otherwise accompany such things are eliminated.[39]

As Harrisville said, quoted above, “To understand Spinoza’s views on the Bible, one must know his politics,”[40] Spinoza’s politics is grounded upon the oneness of God such that no one person can be marginalized or persecuted, that all men should be free to believe as they choose without fear of persecution, so long as one’s beliefs and practices do not rob another of his freedom. This political “oneness” is supported by Spinoza’s understanding of the principal teaching of the Bible, namely, “that God exists, one alone and omnipotent, who alone should be worshiped, who cares for all, who loves above all others those who worship him and love their neighbors as themselves.”[41] If every man can enjoy freedom without fear, and if every man loves his neighbor as himself, then all persecution and war will be eliminated.

Spinoza did not accept the Bible as the Word of God. The Word of God may be something that an individual may experience through reading the Bible, but they are not the same thing: “I then pass on to indicate the prejudiced beliefs that originate from the fact that the common people, prone to superstition and prizing the legacy of time above eternity itself, worship the books of Scripture rather than the Word of God. Thereafter I show that the revealed Word of God is not to be identified with a certain number of books, but is a simple conception of the divine mind as revealed to the prophets; and that is — to obey God with all one’s heart by practising [sic] justice and charity.”[42] Also, Spinoza bequeathed to modern academia the basic approach that the true student of the Bible does not accept inerrancy as a viable theological assumption: “And this is further evident from the fact that most of them assume as a basic principle for the understanding of Scripture and for extracting its true meaning that it is throughout truthful and divine — a conclusion which ought to be the end result of study and strict examination; and they lay down at the outset as a principle of interpretation that which would be far more properly derived from Scripture itself, which stands in no need of human fabrications.”[43] The assumptions that the Bible is not the “Word of God” and that the student must not assume that the Bible is true and accurate in anything unless it can be substantiated by objective historical-critical investigation and the application of reason are two of the basic assumptions of modern Biblical Criticism. As Harrisville puts it, “Historical-critical method is the child of enemies of Christianity and the Augustinian tradition. They are, to be sure, opponents whose bill of particulars against Christianity, especially as an established political force of the state, was, for the most part, entirely just. But these critics of the Bible were nonetheless engaged in unrelenting warfare, and they used historical criticism as their most devastating weapon.”[44]


Modern Era

The spirit of independence from any predetermined theological perspectives is still a basic assumption of contemporary Biblical Criticism. Spinoza and those who followed in his footsteps mounted an all-out war on the supernatural, as noted by Delahaunty: “Spinoza, trained in the Jewish schools, remained complicatedly loyal to the tradition; but in subjecting even the Bible to the rule of reason, he carried the war on supernaturalism into the most sacred places.”[45] Christian Hartlich has articulated 8 theses with associated rationales delineating the historical-critical method that, although not specifically denying the supernatural, characterizes the spirit that energized Spinoza. Some of the Rationales are quite long, so we reproduce only the theses.

Thesis 1: Under no conditions can the historian presuppose the truth of statements regarding events in documents from the past; he must ascertain the truth with critical procedures.

Thesis 2: “Sacred history” is characterized by the fact that beings which are not ascertainable in the context of ordinary experience — beings of divine, demonic, and supernatural origin — are active in an otherwise empirical and natural sequence of events. Statements concerning such “sacred history” are fundamentally unverifiable, and in this sense, from the perspective of that which has in fact taken place, without value for the historian.

Thesis 3: The mediation of the truth of statements concerning events in documents from the past is only possible by means of the historical-critical method. This is rooted in the way human knowledge is constituted, and the stipulations for the mediation of such knowledge, therefore, are not arbitrarily chosen, but necessary and generally mandatory for all persons who desire historical truth.

Thesis 4: There is no other criterion for determining whether an event referred to in a document from the past actually took place than the possibility of locating it in the context of the framework of experience constituted by the discipline in its present state of knowledge. Whether other frameworks of experience were present yesterday, or might be present tomorrow — these conceivable possibilities do not abrogate the validity of this thesis.

Thesis 5: The writers of “sacred history” have at their disposal no “higher capability of knowledge” that places them in a position to make truthful statements concerning events which lie outside the boundaries drawn by the constitution of knowledge common to all human beings.

Thesis 6: The concept of factuality (Tatsächlichkeit) was unknown to the writers of sacred history. Their way of narrating is naive, insofar as it takes place without thorough critical reflection on the conditions underlying statements about events with claims of truth. In their narrations of events, they thus allow heterogeneous elements to flow together, which the historian today must fundamentally separate.

Thesis 7: The writers of sacred history, like that found in the Bible, make use of history as a form in order by this means an indirect appeal — to call forth faith. Whoever is misled by a misunderstanding of their form of expression and thus conceives the statements of sacred history to be assertions of facts commits a fundamental hermeneutical error.

 Thesis 8: A disastrous theological error arises as a consequence of this false hermeneutical perspective, namely, when this “sacred history,” which wants to serve and be understood as a means of expression, is itself made the primary object of faith. Faith in the forgiveness of God is something essentially different from holding a story about the forgiveness of God to be true.[46]

The final statement of the Rationale for Thesis 8 captures the spirit of modern Biblical Criticism: “And that means it is understood not as a rendering of objective events, but as an indirect appeal for authentic faith making use of history as a form.”[47] In other words, when preaching and teaching the Bible, the preacher/teacher should not operate on the assumption that the events recorded in the Bible refer to actual, historical events. Rather, the authors/redactors/ editors used the historical, literary form to communicate a spiritual message in order to generate faith in his hearers. We can certainly believe in the forgiveness of God, but we dare not believe that any biblical stories depicting God’s forgiveness are true. This is the legacy of the Enlightenment.

The Epistle to the Hebrews Paul PAUL AND LUKE ON TRIAL

Over the last twenty years, there has developed in the discipline of Biblical Criticism a division separating two basic approaches or assumptions about what constitutes Biblical Criticism. As McKenzie and Haynes describe it,

The division between critical methods that adhere to a historical paradigm for understanding texts and those that embrace a literary paradigm has been well documented in recent literature . . . One fundamental disagreement between “historical” and “literary” methods of biblical criticism is found in their assumptions about the relationship between texts and history. This disagreement can be expressed in simple terms by saying that historical methods such as source criticism, form criticism, tradition-historical criticism, and redaction criticism emphasize the historical, archaeological, or literary backgrounds or roots of a text, and the development of the text through time. Thus historical-critical methods are sometimes referred to as “diachronic.” On the other hand, literary methods such as structural criticism, narrative criticism, reader-response criticism, and poststructuralist criticism tend to focus on the text itself in its final form (however the final form might have been achieved), the relationships between a variety of textual elements (both surface and deep), and the interaction between texts and readers.[48]

McKenzie and Haynes also remind the reader that these kinds of distinction often fail to represent the real picture and that there are critical approaches that are not easily made to fit into one or the other camp. Notwithstanding these problems, we will attempt to follow this distinction to form the structure of our treatment of the nature of biblical criticism.

The historical-critical method has come under serious criticism in recent years to the point that many scholars are talking about the demise of the method altogether. The move away from the traditional application of Historical Criticism to the Old Testament may have been fostered by the work of a Scandinavian scholar, Ivan Engnell (1906–1964). Ivan Engnell built his claims on the basis of the work of another Scandinavian scholar, H. S. Nyberg (1889–1974). Walter Rast summarized the significance of Nyberg’s contribution as “the emphasis it placed for the first time on the priority of oral tradition in the composition of the Old Testament Literature.”[49] Working with this assumption, Engnell rejected the claims of the Documentary Hypothesis and declared that there never were any such documents as J and E. As Rast explains,

He contended that no written sources such as J and E ever existed, as the source critics of the Pentateuch thought of them. Nor did the process of composition occur, as they believed, by means of essentially written collections, additions, duplications, interpolations, and redaction. Rather, he held that the Old Testament literature was produced and circulated by groups of people concerned with preserving and developing certain traditions, and that this was done through long periods of oral transmission. In fact most of the questions of the composition of the Old Testament have to do with oral tradition, which had the most formative role in the production of that literature.[50]


Therefore, what was for many years thought to be the sure and certain findings of the Historical-Critical Method were virtually destroyed by the speculations of these two Scandinavian scholars. One wonders, then, if the sure and certain findings of the Uppsala School, the name applied to those who followed in the footsteps of Nyberg and Engnell, will also one day be destroyed by the speculations of other “scholars.” This demonstrates the fact that these claims are merely speculation not being based on any sound foundation. In fact, no sooner did the claims of these Scandinavian scholars become translated and accessible to scholars in other countries than these very claims came under serious attack. Other scholars claimed that Nyberg, Engnell, and others had overestimated the place of oral transmission in the Ancient Near East and with reference to the Old Testament. The primary complaint was that, according to Nyberg, the Old Testament literature was put into written form only after the Babylonian exile: “Only at this time did the conditions occur which necessitated the writing down of the literature.”[51] The critics of this claim demonstrated that written literature had been an important part of religious belief in many cultures prior to the time of Israel’s exile. For example, Roland de Vaux (1903–1971) argues that there are many examples of writing predating Israel’s exile: “He cites as evidence various written documents now known to have originated in the Mesopotamian and Syro-Phoenician regions in very early times, as well as references in the Old Testament itself to such ancient writings as the Book of the Wars of Yahweh (Num. 21:14) or the Book of Yashar (Josh. 10:13; 2 Sam. 1:18).”[52]


Reader-Response Criticism

Nature of the Approach

The modern notion of reader-response is not completely new. As an integral part of his definition of tragedy, Aristotle included the effects that tragedy should produce in the hearer: “Tragedy is, then, a representation of an action that is heroic and complete and of a certain magnitude—by means of language enriched with all kinds of ornament, each used separately in the different parts of the play: it represents men in action and does not use narrative, and through pity and fear it effects relief to these and similar emotions.”[53] Habib recognizes this aspect to Aristotle’s definition: “Finally, his consideration of audience reaction as a crucial factor in the composition of tragedy presages much reader-response criticism.”[54]

A Reader-Response approach to the text of the Bible is not necessarily a critical approach. All teachers, preachers, and students of the Bible have a “reader-response” approach to some degree. That is, as readers of the Bible, we all want to respond to what the text is saying, and, as teachers and preachers, we want those to whom we teach and preach to respond to the claims of the Bible. In this non-technical sense, we all employ a reader-response approach to the text.

Richard and Kendall Soulen give a very succinct depiction of Reader-Response Criticism:

Reader-Response Criticism refers to a literary approach that is centrally concerned with the reader and the process of reading rather than with the author or the text as a self-contained unity. Although similar in many respects to the movement known as RECEPTION THEORY, from which it in part derives, reader-response criticism is a much more pluralistic phenomenon that lacks a single focused methodology. Nevertheless, practitioners generally subscribe to two key premises. First, the meaning of a literary text does not reside “within” the text as a self-contained unity but is actualized or created by the interaction of the reader and the text. Literature is like a performative art, analogous to the performance of a musical work or the staging of a drama. Second (and accordingly), the meaning of a text can differ from reader to reader and indeed from “performance” to “performance,” as different readers perform the text in different circumstances to different ends.[55]

The two key premises refer to the assumptions that Reader-Response critics have when they come to interpreting the text. Once again, there is a matter of degree when it comes to the assumption that the meaning is not in the text. The simple graphic illustrates the continuum from simple response to the meaning in the text to the creating of meaning by the reader.

Reader-Response Continuum
Reader-Response Continuum

Although most scholars would object to the characterization of the Reader-Response approach in this manner, nevertheless it is the case that there are degrees of commitment to the first key assumption. Those who are proclaiming the meaning of the Word of God and looking to generate in his hearers a response to God’s Word would, in the eyes of most critics, not qualify as a Reader-Response approach.

Edgar McKnight gives an interesting synopsis of Radical Reader-Response Criticism:

Reader-response criticism approaches biblical literature in terms of the values, attitudes, and responses of readers. The reader, therefore, plays a role in the “production” or “creation” of meaning and significance. This attitude toward the role of the reader relativizes the conventional view that the meaning of a text is like the content of a nut, simply awaiting its extraction by a reader. Radical reader-response approaches also challenge conventional views concerning the autonomy of the critic and the scientific and objective nature of the process of reading and criticism.[56]

It is important to notice that in the above quote, McKnight points out that the reader plays a role not only in the significance of the text, assuming the meaning/significance distinction introduced by E. D. Hirsch, but the reader also plays a role in the production of the meaning of the text. As Edgar McKnight puts it, “The postmodern perspective which allows readers to use the Bible today is that of a radical reader-oriented literary criticism, a criticism which views literature in terms of readers and their values, attitudes, and responses. . . . A radical reader-oriented criticism is postmodern in that it challenges the critical assumption that a disinterested reader can approach a text objectively and obtain verifiable knowledge by applying certain scientific strategies.”[57] Tremper Longman, in his helpful historical survey, identifies the reader-centered theories as proposing, “Meaning resides in the reader, not in the text.”[58]

The notion that the reader constitutes the meaning of the text is not always a radical reader-response approach. Sometimes when the critic talks about the reader constituting the meaning, it is with reference to the gaps and ambiguities of the text. As Jerome Walsh puts it, “How do gaps and ambiguities work as narrative devices? What effects do they have that more complete and straightforward writing would fail to achieve? There are at least two. The first is fairly obvious: Gaps and ambiguities require the reader to put much more effort into making sense (that is, creating the meaning) of the story.”[59] In this sense, reader-response means that the reader must attempt to fill in the gaps or clear up the ambiguities in the text. There is no sense in this approach, even though he uses the phrase “creating the meaning,” that the reader-creates the meaning of the text itself. What he means is that the reader must “make sense” of the gaps and ambiguities. These gaps and ambiguities can have a powerful impact upon the reader as Walsh says, “This not only increases the investment of the reader in the story;”[60]

An example of a narrative gap can be found in the account of God’s testing of Abraham in Genesis 22: “1Now it came about after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 2He said, ‘Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.’ 3So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and Isaac, his son, and he split wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him” (Gen. 22:1–3). Notice that the narrator says nothing about Abraham’s immediate response to God’s command. There is a gap between God’s command to Abraham and the morning when Abraham prepares to depart. The reader must fill in this gap according to the context. Gaps in the text are not accidental. They have a function in the narrative that the reader is left to surmise. It appears to be the case in the testing of Abraham that the lack of any mention of Abraham’s immediate response is designed to depict the faithful determination of Abraham to fulfill God’s directive. Many people attempt to depict Abraham’s response as shock and despair at such a command.

Also, notice how the gap and the disengaged account of Abraham’s preparation, departure, and ultimate arrival at the appointed place have no emotional content. It is a stark description of the events. There is no account of any conversation between the participants along the way. However, when they arrive at the place of sacrifice, the author hits the reader with the emotional content in the give and take between Abraham and Isaac: “6Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac, his son, and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 7Isaac spoke to Abraham, his father and said, ‘My father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ And he said, ‘Behold, the fire, and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’ 8Abraham said, ‘God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together” (Gen. 22:6–8). Twice the author notes that the walked “together.” This intimate father and son interaction is a stark contrast to the straightforward description of Abraham’s preparation and departure, and the gap in the narrative concerning Abraham’s immediate response set up the reader for the impact of the intimate and emotion filled interaction of the father and son. There are certainly other ways to understand this narrative material, but this should demonstrate that a reader-response analysis of this type is not a “creation” of meaning in the radical sense, which we will now briefly discuss.

There is, nevertheless, that more radical approach of Reader-Response criticism. Even Walsh implies this when he says, talking about the reader filling in the gaps and clearing up the ambiguities, “also makes the story that results in some measure a reflection of each reader’s unique, personal approach to people and to life.”[61] According to Schuyler Brown, the assumption that linguistic meaning resides in a text “is certainly not intuitively obvious.”[62] Brown proposes to demonstrate that “meaning exists formally only in human beings.”[63] How does Brown suppose meaning can be communicated? He asserts, “meaning is generated by a reader reading a text.”[64] It seems, however, that Brown is advocating a self-contradictory position. Surely Brown is counting on his text to communicate his proposition that meaning exists formally only in human beings. Brown seems to be asserting that the meaning of a text originates in the mind of the reader and is not determined by the text, in which case, the meaning of Brown’s own text is not found in his text but in those who read his text. But this leaves no objective standard of verifying the interpretation of textual meaning. Of course for radical reader-response advocates, textual meaning is in no need of being verified since there is no textual meaning.

In their book Linguistics & Biblical Interpretation, Peter Cotterell & Max Turner assert that the Reader-Response interpretation proposes that “meaning is merely potential in any text; it only becomes actual in relation to a reader.”[65] Now, either the author is counting on the text actually to mean that texts have only potential meaning, or, since the text has only potential meaning, it does not actually mean that texts have only potential meaning. Consequently, it is a potentiality that some texts do have actual meaning. In either case, this assertion is self-defeating.

Explaining the Doctrine of the Last Things Understaning Creation Account

The practice of the Approach: Responding to the Message of Job

When taking a reader-response approach to the text, it will often be necessary to refer to the underlying language: Hebrew in this instance. Many literary techniques that an author employs are difficult to capture in an English translation. In addition, it is inevitable that any reader-response approach must necessarily begin with the text and its meaning. Therefore, for all their protests that the meaning is not in the text, even the reader-response critic must begin with what the text means.

We are all familiar with the story of Job and his three companions. The literary techniques of the author are designed to have a profound impact upon the reader. Early in the story we are given a description that characterizes the piety of Job: “Job . . . was blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil” (Job 1:1). But, this material also gives a clue to an understanding of the unfolding events. In verse 4 we are told that Job’s sons and daughters would have a feast each day of the week at the homes of his sons. There is no hint of any immorality, yet Job would offer sacrifices for each just in case, as the text describes:  “When the days of feasting had completed their cycle, Job would send and consecrate them, rising up early in the morning and offering burnt offerings the number of them all; for Job said, ‘Perhaps my sons have sinned and cursed God in their hearts’” (Job 1:5). In Job’s statement, he says something that is not usually captured in an English translation. A literal translation of the Hebrew text says, “Perhaps my sons have sinned and blessed (ûbēra). Now who would offer sacrifices for someone who “blessed” God? This is called an antithetic-euphemisms. Job did not simply have reverence for God. He was terrified that if he or his family did anything offensive, God would destroy him, his family, and all that he owned. In fact, in 3:23 Job declares, “For the dread I dreaded has come upon me, and what I feared has befallen me.” The very thing Job was trying to avoid is the very thing that happened to him. At least this is the way Job saw it.

Beginning at verse 6 of chapter 1, the reader is given a behind the scenes look at the arrangement between Satan and God. God challenges Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job?” (Job 1:8). Satan then challenges God, “Does Job fear God for nothing?” By this Satan means that Job fears God only because he expects something from God in return. So Satan challenges God to remove His protection around Job and let Satan afflict him, and Job would curse God. Of course, we know that Job does not curse God. Then at the second meeting between God and Satan, Satan again challenges God, “However, put forth Your hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh; he will curse You to Your face” (Job 2:4).

From this point on, the dialogues between Job and his three companions unfolds. The reader, however, has knowledge that none of the participants in the dialogues has. As readers, we know that the challenge brought by Satan is the cause of all of Job’s suffering. Therefore, the author builds into the mind of the reader a sense of superior knowledge and a “God’s eye view” so to speak. The reader feels that he has an understanding that transcends the understanding of the characters. The author then develops in the reader an expectation of the point at which the behind-the-scenes knowledge that the reader has will be revealed to Job and his companions, and then they will understand as the reader understands; the characters will be given the light that the reader has had all along.

That expectation and suspense are heightened by the delay tactic of the author who introduces the speech of Elihu beginning in 32:2. Elihu adds no new insight or understanding to the discussions that have already taken place. Elihu’s speech drones on, and the reader is aggravated. The author has created in the reader an intensity of expectation, as if to say, “Get on with it! Let God tell all of you what is really going on, please!” Yet when God finally begins His monologue, the reader is suddenly slapped in the face with the realization that, even with the behind-the-scenes knowledge, the he does not understand the working of God any better than any of the characters. God does not explain to Job the challenge that led to Job’s suffering. God basically tells Job, “There are many things that take place of which you may have no understanding. Nevertheless, I have given you sufficient evidence that I can be trusted, and in those times of trouble, when you don’t understand, trust Me that I am in control, and all that transpires is ultimately for the good of all those who trust Me.” The reader is hit with the realization that he cannot lean on his own understanding. Even when he thinks he has that behind-the-scenes knowledge, he may still not be able to understand. And like Job, the impact on the reader is powerful, and the speeches of God tear down in the reader any sense of superiority and humbles the reader bringing him down from his supposed lofty heights to the same level as Job and his companions.

Powerful Weapon of Prayer Power Through Prayer How to Pray_Torrey_Half Cover-1

However, God gives us the evidence that He will make things right. In the last chapter, God restores to Job all that he had lost and double the amount. But there is a curious gap in the descriptions of Job’s situation. There is no mention of Job’s wife. There is, however, a recognition of Job’s three daughters. The text names these daughters and reports that they were each given an inheritance; something that was almost unheard of in this culture. In the narrative, the three daughters fill the gap left by the lack of any mention of Job’s wife. All of this is designed to give the reader a sense of resolution. All will ultimately be set right. Justice will finally be done. God will leave no loose ends. And the reader is comforted, by the personal encounter with God. This is precisely what Job experienced. Job had heard of God, but did not know God on a personal level, as he says, “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You” (Job 42:2). Job is transformed by this personal encounter, and so is the reader. The reader is brought from his sense of superior sight to the realization that God is much more than we can ever understand. However, I can trust Him. He will ultimately make all things right.

This is perhaps an oversimplification of the reader-response methodology, but it does give a sense of how the critic focuses on the response that the reader has to the gaps and implications in the text. The meaning that is ultimately derived from the text is, in one sense, created by the reader. When God begins to speak, that feeling in the reader of superiority that is crushed and that humbles the reader is not specifically stated in the text, but, by the techniques of the author, the impact comes out of the text and is developed in the mind and heart of the careful reader.

Critique of Reader-Response Criticism

It is important to note that Reader-Response Criticism, in its more radical forms, has been influenced by modern philosophy especially in terms of epistemology (the study of knowledge), as McKnight notes:

Reader-response criticism has been directly influenced by fields of study intimately related both to textual interpretation and to the epistemological revolution. These include hermeneutics, structuralism and poststructuralism, and phenomenology. Long before the advent of reader-response criticism on the American scene, hermeneutics transformed the question of interpretation into the question of knowledge (“How do we know?”) and the question of being (“What is the mode of being of that being who only exists through understanding?”). Rudolf Bultmann and the New Hermeneutic utilized the relationship between being, language, and humankind postulated by Martin Heidegger. The New Hermeneutic was unable to establish a satisfying coordination between the role and function of the Bible, the language of the Bible, and specific strategies designed to allow the biblical text to carry out the postulated role. As a result, the hermeneutical tradition in biblical studies stagnated. Some forms of reader-response criticism, however, move back to the idea of Heidegger, that the understanding of a text does not simply involve the discovery of an inner meaning contained in the text, that to understand a text is to unfold the possibility of being, which is indicated by that text.[66]

Human Imperfection HUMILITY

McKnight specifically states that Reader-Response Criticism is based on the claims of modern epistemology:

When criticism questioned the status of the language of literature, the knowledge involved in literature, and the nature of the self or the subject in the reading process, a revolution took place. Thrust squarely into the field of literature were the philosophical questioning of the intrinsic limits of knowledge (epistemology) and the reaction to such questioning by movements such as hermeneutics, structuralism, and poststructuralism, and phenomenology. Parallel to the conclusion of reader response criticism that there is no absolutely neutral language of literature to serve as a foundation for readers’ responses is the conclusion of philosophy that there is no absolute foundation that can be used in the determination of knowledge. The foundationalist approach in philosophy would assume the possibility of advancing a proposition whose truth is demonstrable without any sort of assumptions and from which further theories could be strictly developed. In place of such a foundationalist theory of knowledge came a circular theory, whereby knowledge is justified in nonlinear, or circular, fashion through the relationship of the results obtained to the beginning point.[67]

One conclusion of modern epistemology as it relates to Reader-Response Criticism is the rejection of the possibility of what McKnight calls “absolutely neutral language of literature” and consequently “there is no absolute foundation that can be used in the determination of knowledge.” In other words, to the question of knowledge and objectivity, modern epistemology and Reader-Response Criticism reject the possibility of having objective knowledge. The two basic questions of epistemology then are 1) is it possible to know, and 2) is it possible to have certainty. These two questions are addressed below.


Is It Possible to Know?

The primary question in epistemology concerns the nature of knowledge and is characterized by the question, “What is knowledge?” This question is often involved with a related question, “Is it possible to know?” Many believe that before one can ask what it is we know, one must first establish the fact that knowledge is possible. A response to the question, “Is it possible to know?” prior to beginning the study of epistemology is not only possible but critical. It must be admitted at the outset that it is possible to know. To assert that knowledge is not possible is to assert a contradiction. Either one knows that knowledge is not possible, in which case the original assertion is false because at least this knowledge is possible, or one does not know that knowledge is not possible, in which case the original assertion cannot be maintained. Many have questioned the possibility of knowledge with a question like this: “If you do not understand the nature of human cognition [i.e., knowledge], how and to what extent can you put confidence in what it makes you aware of in other things?” or “How can one be sure of one’s knowledge about anything in particular, if one does not first know what knowledge itself is?”[68]

The essential problem with these questions is, if one must know what knowledge is before one can know anything in particular, how can one ever come to know what knowledge is? One would have to both know and not know in the same sense. As Joseph Owens puts it, “Here cognition itself is the topic for the inquiry, while it is also the examiner. On that account, the charge of circularity might arise, with the reliability of cognition resting on cognition’s own reliability.”[69] Not only is the claim that knowledge is not possible contradictory, but the agnostic form of the question is contradictory. The agnostic form of the question is something like this: “Because there is no possibility of objective knowledge, we should suspend all judgments on whether or not it is possible to know.” If it is not possible to know anything in particular unless one knows what knowledge is, then one is doomed never to know.  Likewise, if we suspend judgment on whether or not we can know, then we are equally doomed never to know because precisely the same faculty that is doubted is the faculty one must employ to remove doubt.

The fact of the matter is, we do know some things, and the inquiry is to discover how we know, not whether we know. The first question, then, “What is knowledge?” assumes the fact of knowledge and aims at discovering how knowledge is possible and explainable. There is an analogy here to any physical activity. It is not necessary to understand the physiology of walking before one can walk. Rather, the fact that one can walk gives rise to the investigation of how such activity is possible and explainable. Unless we acknowledge the fact that we do know, we will never come to know. When McKnight claims that there is no absolutely neutral knowledge he is presenting his case as if it is an absolutely, universal, and neutral fact of knowledge. But this proposition is self-defeating. To the degree that Reader-Response Criticism, by McKnight’s own lights, is based on modern epistemology, to that degree Reader-Response Criticism is also self-defeating.

Therefore, the framing of the basic task of epistemology will shape how one approaches the task. It cannot be the case that epistemology is the quest to discover whether it is possible to know since the very faculty whose reliability is in question is the only faculty we possess to address the question. The basic task of epistemology must be the quest to discover how it is that we know.

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Is it Possible to Have Certainty?

The second problem in epistemology concerns epistemic criteria and involves the basic question, “How do we justify claims of knowledge?” This problem is often addressed in terms of the question, “Is it possible to have certainty?” Once again we must affirm, prior to our investigation, the fact that it is possible to have certainty. To assert that no one can be certain about anything is to assert a contradiction. Either one is certain that there is no certainty, in which case the original assertion is false because at least this is certain, or one is not certain that certainty is not possible, in which case the original assertion cannot be maintained.

Criticisms of this question are similar to the criticisms of the previous question. Views and proposals differ among philosophers about what constitutes certainty, whether certainty is a necessary criteria of knowledge, and whether certainty admits of degrees. Minimally we may employ the definition of certainty provided by The Oxford Companion to Philosophy: “A proposition is said to be certain when it is indubitable. A person is certain of a proposition when he or she cannot doubt it.”[70] If it cannot be doubted that certainty is not possible, then the assertion is self-defeating. If it can be doubted that certainty is not possible, then the original assertion cannot be maintained. Even if we attempt to suspend judgment on the possibility of certainty, we cannot escape the criticism, for either we cannot doubt that judgment ought to be suspended, or we can doubt that it should. The same consequences follow.

The fact of the matter is, we can be certain about some things. For example, we can be certain that a proposition cannot be both true and false in the same sense. To deny the law of contradiction is to affirm it. It is in fact indubitable. Although we may have certainty about a very small number of things, certainty is undoubtedly possible. Once again the task of epistemology must not be framed in terms of whether certainty is possible, but how it is possible, and how it can be explained.

Once again McKnight’s claim that there is no absolutely neutral knowledge defeats itself. McKnight presents his claim as if it were absolutely neutral knowledge. In other words, he presents his case of if he is absolutely certain that it is true that there is no absolute certainty. To the degree that Reader-Response Criticism is based on a rejection of certain knowledge, to that degree Reader-Response Criticism is self-defeating and therefore false.

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Critique of Reader-Response Criticism

One of the most serious issues with Reader-Response Criticism is seemingly uncritical assumption of modern epistemology. Having retreated from reality into the mind, modern epistemology has ultimately led to the rejection of any objective knowledge. According to this perspective, all knowledge is inescapably laden with the perspective of the interpreter. No one has a neutral point of view; as Thomas Nagle says, there is no such thing as a view from nowhere.[71] By this, he means that everyone views the world from some point of view. Since everyone has his or her own point of view, there is no such thing as a view from nowhere. Since there is no such thing as a view from nowhere, then there can be no objectivity or neutrality. Everything must be viewed from one’s own perspective or point of view. This ultimately leads to the rejection of any absolute truth, and the tolerance of all perspectives. This perspective of modern epistemology has been a major factor in the development of Radical Reader-Response criticism, and McKnight attests.

When criticism questioned the status of the language of literature, the knowledge involved in literature, and the nature of the self or the subject in the reading process, a revolution took place. Thrust squarely into the field of literature were the philosophical questioning of the intrinsic limits of knowledge (epistemology) and the reaction to such questioning by movements such as hermeneutics, structuralism, and poststructuralism, and phenomenology. Parallel to the conclusion of reader-response criticism that there is no absolutely neutral language of literature to serve as a foundation for readers’ responses is the conclusion of philosophy that there is no absolute foundation that can be used in the determination of knowledge. The foundationalist approach in philosophy would assume the possibility of advancing a proposition whose truth is demonstrable without any sort of assumptions and from which further theories could be strictly developed. In place of such a foundationalist theory of knowledge came a circular theory, whereby knowledge is justified in nonlinear, or circular, fashion through the relationship of the results obtained to the beginning point.[72]

McKnight claims that modern epistemology has led us to the realization that there is “no absolute foundation that can be used in the determination of knowledge.” Yet this very statement is an absolute foundation which McKnight uses in the determination of what can and cannot be counted as knowledge. McKnight assumes that his readers will take his assertions as absolute truth about what can be counted as absolute truth. Also, McKnight has assumed that there can be only one sense of a foundationalist theory of knowledge, when in fact there is another foundationalist theory that does not succumb to McKnight’s criticisms. The foundationalist theory that McKnight and most modern philosophy rightly rejects is a Cartesian foundationalism.

Cartesian foundationalism asserts that there is one undeniable truth from which all knowledge can be deduced. For Descartes, this was the cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am.” Supposedly, this was an undoubtable truth as the starting point of all knowledge. From this indubitable starting point, Descartes believed he could deduce all knowledge. This project was soon abandoned by modern philosophy.

However, another foundationalism holds that there are undeniable, self-evident first-principles of thought and being. But, this approach does not argue that all knowledge can be or even should be deduced from these self-evident principles. Rather, all knowledge must be reduceable to first principles. The first principles of thought and being include the three laws of thought: the principle of noncontradiction, which means that a truth-claim cannot be both true and false in the same sense. The principle of non-contradiction is true in thought because it is true in reality. A thing cannot both be and not be in the same sense; the principle of identity, which means that A is A, a thing is what it is. Again, this is the case because it is based on reality. Anything is what it is; and the principle of excluded middle, which means either A or non-A, there is no middle between these.  This principle is also based on reality. There is no middle between being what something is and not being that. A tree is a tree, and anything that is not a tree is a non-tree. There is no middle-something between these.

Anyone who denies these principles must employ them in order to make his denial. Any knowledge claim cannot ultimately deny any one of these first principles. For a very brief example, let us consider those who claim that God, as a spirit-being has a spirit-body, having legs, arms, a head, a mouth, etc., just as we do.[73] However, when this claim is reduced to first principles, it becomes contradictory.

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As a being with a spirit body, God is circumscribed to a location in space.
As a being located in space, God moves from planet heaven to planet earth.

Anything that is located and moves partakes of befores and afters.
Moving from here to there.
Before the move and after the move.
Anything that partakes of befores and afters is temporal.
Therefore, God is temporal.

God is spirit and omnipresent (orthodox Christian doctrine).
Anything that is spirit and omnipresent must be eternal (rational demonstration).
Therefore, God is eternal.

God is temporal and eternal in the same sense.
The temporal is the eternal.
But, this is a contradiction.
Therefore, it must not be the case that God is both temporal and eternal.

But it is irrational to conclude that the Cause of the universe is temporal
Therefore, God, the Cause of the universe, must be eternal and not temporal

Therefore, it must not be the case that God is located in space.
Therefore, it must not be the case that God has a spirit body.
Consequently, passages that speak of God having body parts must be figurative.[74]

Although this is perhaps a crude example, it does illustrate the idea of reducing a claim to first principles. Any truth-claim that violates one of these first principles cannot be true. This foundationalism is not the kind of foundationalism that is rejected by McKnight and others because it is not based on a modern epistemology. As a result, it is, in fact, possible to have an absolute foundation upon which can be based a certainty of knowledge, as we have already demonstrated above. It necessarily follows from this that a Radical Reader-Response Criticism cannot produce true results. The meaning is in fact in the text. McKnight’s own book assumes that the meaning he put into his text is what he believes the reader will get out of his text. So his own claims contradict his enterprise. We must indeed respond to the text, but we must respond to the meaning that is in the text, not a meaning that is supposedly supplied by the reader.


Narrative Criticism

Nature of the Approach

With Narrative Criticism, we come to the approach that has had the most impact on my own approach to the Old Testament. Narrative Criticism is often referred to as Literary Criticism, but it should not be confused with Source Criticism which also sometimes goes by the title Literary Criticism. Whereas Source Criticism is part of the overall approach known as the Historical-Critical Method, Narrative Criticism is a decidedly different approach. Mark Powell gives a helpful explanation of the basic distinctions between the Historical-Critical Method and Narrative Criticism:

The dominant mode of biblical studies for more than a century has been the historical-critical method. Actually a conglomeration of approaches, this method seeks to reconstruct the life and thought of biblical times through an objective, scientific analysis of biblical material. Source criticism, for example, attempts to delineate the sources that the evangelists used in the composition of their Gospels. Form criticism concentrates on defining the Sitz im Leben (setting in life) that individual units of tradition may have had before they came to be incorporated into the Gospels. Redaction criticism seeks to discern the theologies and intentions of the evangelists themselves by observing the manner in which they edited their sources and arranged the individual units of tradition. These disciplines share a common desire to shed light upon significant periods in the transmission of the Gospels: the period of the historical Jesus, the period of oral tradition in the life of the early church, or the period of the final shaping of the Gospels by the evangelists.[75]

Powell goes on to point out that the major limitations of the Historical-Critical Method, including all its sub-disciplines, “is that they fail to take seriously the narrative character of the Gospels.”[76] Powell also expressed this difference as four basic principles:

  1. … Literary-critical analysis is not to discover the process through which a text has come into being but to study the text that now exists.
  2. Literary criticism emphasizes the unity of the text as a whole. Literary analysis does not dissect the text but discerns the connecting threads that hold it together.
  3. Literary criticism views the text as an end in itself. The immediate goal of a literary study is to understand the narrative.
  4. Literary criticism is based on communication models of speech-act theory. The philosophical bases for literary criticism are derived from theories about communication.[77]

This is not the place to undertake a study of speech act theory, but a brief description of it from An Introduction to Language and Linguistics, edited by Ralph Fasold and Jeff Connor-Linton will provide a working knowledge of the basic principles of speech act theory:

[John Austin (1962–Present)] pointed out that when people use language, they are performing a kind of action. He called these actions speech acts. It’s easy to see the “act” nature of language when a minister says, “I now pronounce you husband and wife” in a wedding ceremony. By virtue of this sentence being said by an appropriate person, the engaged couple becomes a married couple. Most speech acts are not so “official,” but they all rely on the speaker using an utterance to signal his/her intention to accomplish some action and the hearer inferring that action from the utterance. When people make bets and threats and promises, offer congratulations and apologies, or issue orders or challenges, they are using language to accomplish actions.[78]

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These four basic principles distinguish between Historical Criticism and Narrative Criticism. Narrative Criticism has both an Old Testament and a New Testament approach, and although they are similar enough to warrant the same broad classification, they can be very different in assumptions and in conclusions. And these differences are not because of the differences in the Testaments themselves. David Gunn summarizes these differences:

More specifically the term [narrative criticism] has been used of formalist analysis,[79] especially in a New-Critical vein, where the critic understands the text to be an interpretable entity independent of both author and interpreter. Here meaning is to be found by close reading that identifies formal and conventional structures of the narrative, determines plot, develops characterization, distinguishes point of view, exposes language play, and relates all to some overarching, encapsulating theme. Unlike historical criticism, which in practice has segmented the text, formalist narrative criticism has often been an exercise in holism. . . . While developments in New Testament narrative studies over the past tthree [sic] decades could be said in general terms to parallel work on the Hebrew Bible, the two fields have also remained distinct. Narrative criticism of the Gospels and Acts has tended to be relatively conservative in its methodology, concerned with observing the mechanics or artistry of literary construction, the conventions of ancient rhetoric, and often still haunted by historical criticism’s need to know the author’s “intention” and the text’s “original” readership if it is to speak legitimately of the text’s meaning. While centering interest on the story, especially its plot and characters as elements of an artistic whole, Gospel critics have been reluctant to take a literary approach that unravels unity and/or places the reader in an ideologically exposed position in relation to the text.[80]

By the expression “relatively conservative in its methodology,” Gunn is not referring to theological conservatism, but rather to the tendency not to allow the imagination to take flight in interpreting the narrative aspects of the text. Rather, New Testament practitioners are more conservative in that they stick closer to the more traditional forms of criticism and to a more “scientific” approach. As Gunn points out, they tend to want to ground their interpretive conclusions in historical-critical findings. Gooder’s definition of Narrative Criticism is from the perspective of a New Testament practitioner: “Narrative criticism interprets New Testament narratives as literary texts, using categories that are applied in interpreting all other forms of literature, for example, plot, characterization, setting, and so forth.”[81]

Practice of the Approach: Literary Techniques in Genesis 1

The creation account in Genesis 1 has been the focus of an enormous amount of analysis and commentary; perhaps more than any other single chapter in the Old Testament. Nevertheless, this passage does contain many of the techniques for which one searches as a Narrative critic. Not everyone would agree that this chapter is narrative, and in the strict sense, they are perhaps correct. Even so, we will use this chapter to illustrate some of the characteristics of narrative primarily because they are so easily recognized. In order to point out and discuss these characteristics, it will be necessary for you, as a reader, to read through Genesis chapter 1 several times. Also, there will be several instances in which we will need to talk about the Hebrew text.

Overall Structure of Genesis 1
Overall Structure of Genesis 1

The graphic in above sets out the overall structure of the passage. Repeating phrases are often a good indicator of structure, and there are several in this chapter. The most obvious are the repeating statements at the end of each creation day: “And it was evening, and it was morning, the X day,” where X stands for the number of each day. This clearly sets the overall structure, each section ending with this phrase. These sections correspond to each of the six creation days.

Illustration of Chiasm
Illustration of Chiasm

Also, there is the repetition of the declaration, “And God said . . .” This occurs in verses 3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26, 28, and 29. There are ten times that the text states that “God said.” The author wants the reader to capture the repetition of this phrase. God did not go to war against some opposing force. God simply spoke, and it was done, ten times. This is very important once we realize that later in Exodus God again spoke, and Gods words were written on stone tablets. In fact, what is almost always translated as the “ten commandments” are in fact never referred to as the time commandments. Rather the author referred to them as “the ten words” (asereth haddebārim). As God had established the cosmic order in the ten words of creation, so God established the national order of His people with the ten words on the stone tablets.

The chapter also has an introduction; “In beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” That this is an introductory statement is indicated by the beginning of the next verse: “Now the earth was empty and uninhabitable . . .” In Hebrew, the most often used conjunction is the waw (pronounced vav). This is a single letter that is attached to a word. The waw conjunction has a wide range of meanings depending on the context and on the word to which it is prefixed. Generally, when the waw is prefixed to a verb it serves as a conjunction usually translated “and.” However, when the waw is prefixed to a noun or pronoun at the beginning of a sentence, it usually indicates a disjunction. The disjunction can be strong, translated “but,” or it can be a literary indicator being translated “now.” This is the case in verse two. The waw is prefixed to the word “earth” which is the first word in the Hebrew text. So, I have translated it to give the sense of the literary disjunction. This structure sets off the first verse from the following material indicating that verse 1 functions as an introduction and a summary statement, so to speak, of what God did in the creation week.

So verse 1 is an introductory statement, and verse 2 gives us an introductory setting. This can be represented by the graphic in . The graphic also reveals another literary device called a chiasm. A chiasm is the organizing of the text so that the author can direct the reader’s attention on the important material. This device is called a chiasm because it follows the shape of the Greek letter chi, which looks like the English capital X. The chiasm follows on side of the letter so that the parts correspond, A with A’, B with B’, and so on, and it focuses in on the point of the structure (see).

In this instance there are three parts that form the chiastic structure, A, B, and A’. Usually when a chiasm has one center point, the focus of emphasis is on this center point. In this case, the author indicates that the important material on which to focus our attention is the material describing the six creation days.

It is important to consider the three words that are used by the author (whom I believe was Moses) employed to describe the condition of the earth: tōhû, meaning “uninhabitable,” and bōhû, meaning “empty,” and hōšek, meaning “darkness.” The six creation days are grouped into three units. These unites are indicated by the relation of creating/subduing and filling. The three groups of creation days are designed to answer to the three words used to describe the condition of the earth.  On the first day, God creates light and divides between the day and night. The creation of light addressed the condition of darkness that was over the earth. The creation of light subdues the darkness. On the fourth day, God fills the heavens with light giving bodies, the sun, moon, and stars. This is the first group expressing the subduing—filling work of God.

On the second day God separates the waters above from the waters below. On the fifth day God fills the waters with sea creatures and the heavens with flying creatures. Again, expressing the subduing—filling work of God.

On the third day God the subduing—filling work is again expressed. God collects the waters and dry ground appears. God causes herbage to grow and trees having fruit and seed. God subdued the waters and the land, and then filled it up on the sixth day by creating land creatures and man.

God’s creation activity was designed to address the three conditions of the earth. Darkness was subdued by the creation of light. The land was uninhabitable, and God subdued this condition by separating the waters above from the waters below and collecting the waters so that dry ground appeared. God subdued the emptiness of the earth by filling it, first with luminaries in the heavens, then with sea creatures and flying creatures, and third by filling the land with land creatures and man.

The literary structure has directed the reader to see God’s activity of subduing and filling. In verse 28, God commands the couple, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28). As God subdued and filled, He commands the couple to fill and subdue. In other words, God created the couple to mimic God’s actions; to be like God. The man and the woman were representatives of God on the earth.

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Critique of Literary Criticism

Approaching the biblical text according to its literary characteristics is an important development in Bible study. The literary techniques that the authors used were designed to lead the reader to see the important aspects of the literary piece. The authors of the biblical text did not have the tools that are available to some who is speaking to an audience. A speaker can raise his voice, pound on the pulpit, project images to aid in communication and many other techniques that are available to a speaker. It was necessary for the authors of Scripture to use their literary skills to communicate, to emphasize, to cause the reader to respond. Approaching the biblical text as literature enables the interpreter to discover these techniques and to get out of the text what the author wanted the reader to get.

However, a literary approach can also go to the extreme of approaching the Scripture as only another literary piece that needs to be analyzed in order to get the story. Walsh is a good example of taking the approach so far that it loses sight of the fact that Scripture is first of all the revelation of God to us. When the text makes a reference to God or when God speaks, Walsh treats “God” in the text as merely another character in the story.

As in the case of telling, the narrator also shows us God speaking and acting. And just as with any other character, it is up to the reader to infer the qualities of the Deity that are revealed in what God says or does. It is inevitably a temptation to the modern reader to interpret the character of God in the story in accord with one’s own theological understandings of the Deity. But this is clearly inappropriate: we have no guarantee that our understanding of God is identical to the one the implied author expects the implied reader to bring to the text. Furthermore, as I mentioned above, it is not impossible for an implied author to create a story world in which the character called “God” speaks or acts in a way different from what the author would expect of the Deity the author worships in the real world.[82]

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Walsh informs the reader that it is inappropriate to bring to the text “one’s own theological understanding of the Deity.” However, Walsh does this very thing when he says, “it is not impossible for an implied author to create a story world in which the character called “God” speaks or acts in a way different from what the author would expect of the Deity the author worships in the real world.” This statement reveals at least two theological assumptions that Walsh brings to the text: 1) That the text is not the Word of God. If it is the case that an author can depict God differently from the God whom the author actually worships indicates that Walsh does not believe that the text is designed to reveal the true nature of God whom we worship. 2) Walsh does not believe that the text presents God as the immutable and eternal God Who is worshiped in classical, orthodox Christianity. An observation by Walsh reveals this assumption: “Yhwh says that he will delay the punishment for Solomon’s sin and punish Solomon’s son instead (11:12). This does not square with our theology or our notions of justice, divine or human; however, it would not bother the ancient Israelite implied reader. Transgenerational reward and punishment was a theological axiom for preexilic Israel (see Exod. 34:6–7)” (Walsh, 36–37). If it is possible, as Walsh indicates, for the author to create a character “God” in his story Who does not bear the qualities of the God of the real world, then God, character or real, is subject to characterization just as any other character. As he says earlier,

It is important to remember that God, too, is a character in the story and that the narrator can use the same techniques to construct God’s character out of words. The narrator tells us, for instance, that Yhwh was “pleased” (3:10), and later that he was “angry” (11:9). There is another implication to the statement that God is a character in the story world. Just as the story world (the secondary world) is separate from the world of the reader (the primary world), so too the characters (human or divine) in the story world need not be mirror images of beings in the real world that bear the same names. . . . Literary license is not a modern invention! This warning is equally true of the character “God.” Nothing would prevent an author from creating a narrative world in which the character “God” has traits different from those of the God the author worships.[83]

The reason Walsh brings these assumptions to the text, and the reason why his “warnings” are themselves “inappropriate” is because it is not possible to come to the text without some metaphysical assumptions whether or not (and in this case Walsh is not) aware of them. God has revealed His true nature in His creation, and Paul says,

Romans 1:18-23 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident among[84] them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For his invisible attributes are clearly seen from the creation of the world,  being perceived through what has been made, even his eternal power and divine nature, so that they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their reasoning, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.[85]

As the revelation of God, the text is designed to reveal the true nature of God and to overturn many of our assumptions about Him and ourselves. One of the pitfalls of Narrative Criticism is treating the text as merely narrative that is no more than a fascinating story to analyze, not as divine revelation. As we noted above, Walsh demonstrates his assumptions about God in such statements as, “In his last speech, Yhwh says that he will delay the punishment for Solomon’s sin and punish Solomon’s son instead (11:12). This does not square with our theology or our notions of justice, divine or human; however, it would not bother the ancient Israelite implied reader. Transgenerational reward and punishment were a theological axiom for preexilic Israel (see Exod. 34:6–7)” (Walsh, 36–37). This is an example in which the text reveals to us our assumption about God and is designed to teach us how God actually is. If this action by God is in fact contrary to our theology and notions of justice, as Walsh, notes, then we must find out why this is so. Walsh sees this as merely an interesting aspect of the narrative, whereas it is, in fact, a revelation of God that is designed to overturn our assumptions about God by His actions which are contrary to our presumptions about how God should act. This is not simply an exercise of the interpretation of a narrative. Rather, it is an opportunity to grow in our understanding of who God is.

Mosaic Authorship Mosaic Authorship Mosaic Authorship Mosaic Authorship


It is evident that the conclusions of biblical criticism, though having the appearance of a “scientific” enterprise, are produced on the basis of the subjective evaluations of the critic. Such statements as the following evidence this: “The presence of a second literary hand is sometimes evident in a distinctive way of thinking or theological stance. When a definite change in theological approach is accompanied by other indications of a different literary hand the likelihood of a second literary source is greatly increased.”[86] It is the subjective opinion by which the critic concludes that there is a change in theological approach. The subjective nature is brilliantly expressed by Habel: “Difference in literary style are sometimes easier to feel than to define.”[87] Often, the critic completely misses the meaning of the passage which would if discerned, eliminate the notion that there is a change in theological approach. However, if there is a change in theological approach, there is no reason proposed on the basis of which to conclude that there is a different literary tradition. Is not one and the same author capable of changing theological approaches? For the critic, the expression “change in literary approach” is equivalent to “a contradictory or conflicting theological approach.” However, the conclusion that theological approaches are contradictory, or conflicting is also due to the critics inability to have any real insight into the text. The biblical critic is trained to jump immediately to the conclusion that distinct theological approaches are a clue to distinct literary traditions. Because he is trained this way, there is no interpretive effort to understand the text in terms of a unity. Distinct theological approaches, or other “evidence,” automatically signal distinct literary traditions and are therefore interpreted that way. The biblical critic has presupposed the validity of his approach and does not allow for the possibility that the text can be explained any other way. So, any contrary evidence or argument is rejected out of hand on the basis the subjective judgment that any other approach is naive or uninformed or unscholarly.

There is an important principle that is seemingly lost on the critical scholar, a principle expressed by Jesus in His dialogue with Nicodemus. After having explained to Nicodemus the principles of the new birth, Nicodemus expressed his doubts, “How can these things be?” Jesus responded with a statement that captures the principle that was true for Nicodemus and is true with reference to the claims of modern criticism: “If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (Jn. 3:12). The point is, if we cannot believer the Word of God when it tells us about things that we have the capacity to verify or falsify, then how can we trust it when it tells us about things that we have no capacity to investigate? This principle is illustrated by the claims of Tradition History as expressed by Rast:

Martin Noth’s well-known work on the Deuteronomic History pays attention to features which can be said to belong to a redaction history of that work. Like Engnell, Noth contended that the books of Joshua through Kings do not represent the continuation of certain of the sources isolated by documentary criticism in the Tetrateuch. Rather, these books are made up of an amalgam of traditions, to which Noth also gave the name Deuteronomic History. As they now lie before us, they are held together by the theological viewpoint of the Deuteronomic historian. Writing at the time of the exile of Jehoiachin to Babylon, the Deuteronomist attempted to present Israel’s history from the time of Moses to the calamity of the exile as a history in which God’s faithfulness to the promise given to the patriarchs continues, even though Israel is often wayward in her deeds.[88]

The problem that seems to escape the notice of the critic is if the history of Israel from the time of Moses did not, in fact, occur in the way in which the “Deuteronomist” portrayed, then there is no real basis upon which to trust his claims concerning the supposed faithfulness of God. If this account is not real history, meaning it did not really occur the way the text portrays it, then God did not, in fact, demonstrate faithfulness to Israel, and in fact, there is no reason to believe He would demonstrate any faithfulness to Israel during the exile. If we cannot trust the text to tell us the truth about earthly matters, then we cannot trust it to tell us about heavenly matters. The critic destroys the historical reliability of the text while trying to retain the spiritual message, but in the end, the critic destroys both the text and the message of the text.



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[1] M. A. R. Habib, A History of Literary Criticism and Theory from Plato to the Present (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 1.

[2] Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary (2002), s.v. “Criticism.”

[3] Immanuel Kant, Kritik der reinen Vernunft (Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 1998); Critique of Pure Reason, tran. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[4] Christopher B. Kaiser, Creational Theology and the History of Physical Science: The Creationist Tradition from Basil to Bohr (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 11.

[5] Michael C. Legaspi, The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 17 (emphasis in original).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 18.

[8] Ibid., 136–37.

[9] Niels Peter Lemche, The Old Testament Between Theology and History: A Critical Survey (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 33–34.

[10] Lemc Niels Peter Lemche, The Old Testament Between Theology and History: A Critical Survey (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 33–34.he, The Old Testament, 37.

[11] Ibid., 97.

[12] Ibid., 261.

[13] Handbook of Biblical Criticism, 3d ed (2001), s.v. “Biblical Criticism.”

[14] John Barton, The Nature of Biblical Criticism (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 1.

[15] A. Richardson and W. Schweitzer, ed., Biblical Authority for Today (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1951), 241–44; quoted in Edgar Krentz, The Historical-Critical Method (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 2.

[16] Handbook of Biblical Criticism, 3d ed (2001), s.v. “Biblical Criticism.”

[17] Barton, Biblical Criticism, 57.

[18] James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (New York: Free Press, 2008), xiii.

[19] Edgar Krentz, The Historical-Critical Method (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 33.

[20] Ulrich Wilckens, “Über die Bedeutung historischer Kritik in der modernen Bibelsexegese,” in Was heisst Auslegung der Heiligen Schrift? (Regensburg: Friedrich Pustet, 1966), 133; quoted in  Krentz, Historical-Critical Method, 33.

[21] Werner Georg Kümmel, The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of Its Problems, trans. S. McLean Gilmour and Howard C. Kee (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970), 13.

[22] James M. Byrne, Religion and the Enlightenment from Descartes to Kant (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 65.

[23] Ibid., 11.

[24] R. J. Delahaunty, Spinoza: Arguments of the Philosophers (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Books, 1985), 16.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Roy A. Harrisville and Walter Sundberg, The Bible in Modern Culture: Theology and Historical-Critical Method from Spinoza to Käseman (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 25.

[27] Ibid., 37.

[28] Travis L. Frampton, Spinoza and the Rise of Historical Criticism of the Bible (New York: T&T Clark, 2006), 8.

[29] Baruch Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, in Complete Works, trans. Samuel Shirley, ed. Michael L. Morgan (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2002), 458–60.

[30] Harrisville and Sundberg, The Bible in Modern Culture, 39.

[31] Frampton, Spinoza, 14.

[32] Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, 508–9.

[33] Frampton, Spinoza, 16.

[34] Ibid., 17. The quote from Dungan is, “Speaking for myself, I had always thought that the historical-critical study of the Bible had nothing to do with politics. . . . I never knew that I was a foot soldier in a great crusade to eviscerate the Bible’s core theology, smother its moral standards under an avalanche of hostile historical questions, and, at the end, shove it aside so that the new bourgeois could get on with the business at hand.” David Laird Dungan, A History of the Synoptic Problem: The Canon, the Text, the Composition, and the Interpretation of the Gospels (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 148.

[35] Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, 161.

[36] Etienne Gilson and Thomas Langan, Modern Philosophy: Descartes to Kant (New York:  Random House, 1963), 132.

[37] Ibid., 132–33.

[38] In Spinoza, the “conatus” is the force in every animate creature toward the preservation of its existence.

[39] Gilson and Langan, Modern Philosophy, 138–39.

[40] Ibid., 37.

[41] Spinoza, Theological Political Treatise, 460.

[42] Ibid., 392.

[43] Ibid., 391.

[44] Harrisville and Sundberg, The Bible in Modern Culture, 60.

[45] Delahaunty, Spinoza, 1.

[46] Christian Hartlich, “Historical-Critical Method in its Application to Statements Concerning Events in the Holy Scriptures,” trans. Darrell J. Doughty (Madison, New Jersey: Institute for Higher Critical Studies), [Online], available: < hartlich.html.> [30 September 1996].

[47] Ibid.

[48] Steven L. McKenzie and Stephen R. Haynes, ed. To Each Its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and Their Applications (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 7.

[49] Walter E. Rast, Tradition History and the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), 10.

[50] Ibid., 11.

[51] Ibid., 10.

[52] Ibid., 14–15.

[53] Aristotle, Poetics, trans. W.H. Fyfe., vol. 23, Aristotle in 23 Volumes (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press;, 1932) VI.1449b. Aristotle, Aristotelis Opera Omnia (Parisiis: Editoribus Firmin-Didot et Sociis, 1927), VI.1449b.

[54] Habib, A History of Literary Criticism and Theory, 61.

[55] John C. Holbert and Alyce M. McKenzie, What Not to Say: Avoiding the Common Mistakes that Can Sink Your Sermon (Lousiville: Westminster Knox Press, 1972), 175

[56] Edgar V. McKnight, “Reader-Response Criticism,” To Each Its Own Meaning, 230.

[57] Edgar V. McKnight, Postmodern Use of the Bible: The Emergence of Reader-Oriented Criticism (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988), 14–15 (emphasis in original).

[58] Tremper Longman, III, Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1987), 38.

[59] Jerome T. Walsh, Old Testament Narrative: A Guide to Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 76.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Schuyler Brown, “Reader Response: Demythologizing the Text,” New Testament Studies 34 (April 1988): 232.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Peter Cotterell and Max Turner, Linguistics & Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1989), 55.

[66] McKnight, Post-Modern Us of the Bible, 19.

[67] Ibid., 17–18.

[68] Both of these questions are posed in Joseph Owens, Cognition: An Epistemological Inquiry (Houston, Texas: The Center for Thomistic Studies, 1992), 16.

[69] Ibid., 20.

[70] C. J. Hookway, “certainty,” in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, ed. Ted Honderich (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 129.

[71] Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

[72] McKnight, Post-Modern Use of the Bible, 17–18.

[73] An example of someone who holds this belief is Finis J. Dake, Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible: The New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1961), 97, John 4:24, note r.

[74] Thomas A. Howe, Objectivity in Biblical Interpretation (Charlotte, NC: Thomas A. Howe, 2015), 224–25.

[75] Powell, Narrative Criticism, 2.

[76] Ibid.

[77] Ibid., 7-10.

[78] Ralph Fasold and Jeff Connor-Linton, ed. An Introduction to Language and Linguistics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 162.

[79] Often referred to as a scientific approach to literature, Formalist analysis emphasizes the objective and literal interpretation of a literary text in terms of its tone, theme, and style. It is considered scientific because its approach is unembellished and literal. Like New Criticism, Formalist Criticism does not consider elements outside of the text itself, such as politics or history or culture. Formalist Criticism focuses on the form of a text rather than its content.

[80] David M. Gunn, “Narrative Criticism,” in To Each Its Own Meaning, 201–2.

[81] Paula Gooder, “Narrative criticism,” in Searching for Meaning, 80.

[82] Walsh, Old Testament Narrative, 36

[83] Ibid., 34–35

[84] Or in; or within

[85] Or reptiles

[86] Norman Habel, Literary Criticism of the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 15.

[87] Ibid., 18.

[88] Rast, Tradition History, 17.

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