Bible Study Lessons


 Part 1The Incredible Good News of the Gospel 

Part 2

Experiencing the Power of the Gospel

 Part 3Biblical Doctrines in the Light of the Gospel 

Part 4―Last Day Events (Eschatology)

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The science of Higher Criticism used towards the Bible: Explained


Defined as: “the science by which we arrive at a satisfactory acquaintance with the origin, history, and present state of the original text of Scripture.”[1]  Higher criticism “consists in the exercise of the judgment in reference to the text, on grounds taken from the nature, form, method, subject, or arguments of the different books; the nature and connection of the context; the relation of passages to each other; the known circumstances of the writers, and those of the persons for whose immediate use they wrote.”[1]


There are three schools of critical thought towards the bible: Form Criticism, Documentary Hypothesis, and the Oral Traditionists.


I. The Form Criticism view


The historical method includes the presupposition that history is a unity in the sense of a closed continuum of effects in which individual events are connected by the succession of cause and effect.  This does not mean that the process of history is determined by the causal law and that there are no free decisions of men whose actions determine the course of historical happenings.  But even a free decision does not happen without cause, without a motive; and the task of the historian is to come to know the motives of actions.  All decisions and all deeds have their causes and consequences; and the historical method presupposes that it is possible in principle to exhibit these and their connection and thus to understand the whole historical process as a closed unity.[2]


This closedness means that the continuum of historical happenings cannot be rent by the interference of supernatural, transcendent powers and that therefore there is no miracle in this sense of the word.  Such a miracle would be an event whose cause did not lie within history.…It is in accordance with such a method as this that the science of history goes to work on all historical documents.  And there cannot be any exceptions in the case of biblical texts if the latter are at all to be understood historically.[2]  Also, according to Bultmann, “an historical fact which involves a resurrection from the dead is utterly inconceivable.”[3]


Norman Perrin, in The Promise of Bultmann, says that “perhaps most important of all for Bultmann is the fact that not only are there no unique events in history, but also that history which historians investigate is a closed chain of cause and effect.  The idea of God as a force intervening in history as an effective cause is one which a historian cannot contemplate.”[4]


Answers to this argument:


But can the modern man accept a “miracle” such as the resurrection?  The answer is a surprising one: The resurrection has to be accepted by us just because we are modern men, men living in the Einstein relativistic age.  For us, unlike people of the Newtonian epoch, the universe is no longer a tight, safe, predictable playing-field in which we know all the rules.[5]


Since Einstein no modern has had the right to rule out the possibility of events because of prior knowledge of “natural law.”  The only way we can know whether an event can occur is to see whether in fact it has occurred.  The problem of “miracles” then, must be solved in the realm of historical investigation, not in the realm of philosophical speculation.[5]


It is far too late to-day to dismiss the question by saying that “miracles are impossible”….Science takes a much humbler and truer view of natural law than was characteristic of former times….Nature is not a “closed system”….In the last fifty years we have been staggered too often by discoveries which at one time were pronounced impossible.  We have lived to hear of the breaking up of the atom….This change of view does not, of course, accredit the miraculous; but it does mean that, given the right conditions, miracles are not impossible….[6]


The bible critic’s mindset:


To the radical critic, the presence of the miraculous is sufficient evidence for rejecting its historicity or at least sufficient reason to reject the “credibility of its witnesses.”[7]


The historian Philip Schaff adds to the above: The purpose of the historian is not to construct a history from preconceived notions and to adjust it to his own liking, but to reproduce it from the best evidence and to let it speak for itself.”[8]


In summary conclusion comments:


The radical critics are not lacking when it comes to ability and scholarship….The problem area is not their lack of knowledge of the evidence but rather their hermeneutics or approach to biblical criticism based upon their world view.[7]


The anti-supernaturalist bases his thinking on the presupposition that God has not intervened in history.  Therefore, he rejects evidence indicating the supernatural no matter how convincing.[7]


Modern science no longer views nature as a “closed system” and therefore cannot insist that miracles do not exist.  The historian should draw his conclusions from the facts at his disposal, not force the facts to conform to his presuppositions.[7]


A vivid example of a commitment to a presupposed conclusion:


J. Warwick Montgomery tells this humorous anecdote "Once upon a time there was a man who thought he was dead.  His concerned wife and friends sent him to the friendly neighborhood psychiatrist.  The psychiatrist determined to cure him by convincing him of one fact that contradicted his belief that he was dead.  The psychiatrist decided to use the simple truth that dead men do not bleed.[9] 


He put his patient to work reading medical texts, observing autopsies, etc.  After weeks of effort, the patient finally said, "All right, all right!  You've convinced me.  Dead men do not bleed." Whereupon the psychiatrist stick him in the arm with a needle, and the blood flowed.  The man looked down with a contorted, ashen face and cried: 'Good Lord! Dead men bleed after all!'"[9]


Montgomery comments: "This parable illustrates that if you hold unsound presuppositions with sufficient tenacity, facts will make no difference at all, and you will be able to create a world of your own, totally unrelated to reality and totally incapable of being touched by reality.  Such a tantamount to death, because connection with the living world is severed.  The man in the parable not only thought he was dead, but in a very real sense, he was dead because facts no longer meant anything to him."[9]   


IA. Form Criticism of the New Testament  


The form critics assume that the Gospels are composed of small independent units or episodes.  These small single units (periscopes) were circulated independently.  The critics teach that the units gradually took on the form of various types of folk literature, such as legends, tales, myths and parables.[10] 


Pericope: a "cutting around" or section.  The term is used of the individual, complete units of tradition about Jesus that circulated separately in the early church and were ultimately joined together to form the Gospels.[11]


This criticism proposes that the evangelists were not so much the writers, as the editors of the four Gospels.  They took the small units and put them in an artificial framework to aid in preaching and teaching.  Phrases such as “again,” “immediately,” “after a few days,” “while on the way” and “after this” are not historical.  Instead they provide a fictitious framework for gluing together the separate units or episodes.  These chronological phrases serve as connectives for the various literary units.[10]


Form Criticism eventually became more than a literary analysis.  It developed into a historical analysis and began to pass judgment on the historicity of various passages or units.[10]


Answers to this argument:


L.J. McGinley climaxes the criticism against the form critics' position regarding the transmission of isolated units in the oral tradition by emphasizing that "were the Gospels mere compilations, their heterogeneous origin should be conspicuous in the tenor of their story.  Yet it is a striking fact that in these three converging and diverging narratives there reigns a simple but unmistakable consistency; there is no contradiction in Jesus' doctrine nor in His deeds, no inconsistency of word with action; the story of His success and failure flows logically to its end; the description of the land in which He lived and the people whom He encountered; a land and people never seen by many of the early Christians, has never been convicted of inaccuracy.  Such unanimity of presentation would be impossible in a collection of isolated units.[12]


Underlying the whole business of the transmission.....are two factors whose influence on the preservation of accuracy must have been considerable.[13]


There is, for one, the fact that the early Church was Jewish in background and in outlook.  Every Jew had been trained to treat tradition with great respect and with the utmost care.  Those Jews who became Christians inevitably attached their reverence for tradition to the new tradition which had to do with Jesus: and, as they had been careful to preserve the old traditions with accuracy, so were they careful with regard to the new.[14]


The other factor is the early Church's deep conviction regarding Jesus' authority, for He was the events of history had shown.  This was the fundamental reason that stories of Him were told and preserved; and this was sufficient reason to ensure that these stories would be perpetuated with the utmost accuracy.[14]


It has been set forth that a "fundamental principle of the method called Form Criticism is this: the synoptic Gospels are a collection of small, independent units artificially linked together by the evangelists."[12]


L.J. McGinley has reacted to this by claiming that "while admitting readily that the evangelists employed various, independent sources in composing their Gospels, that the transition from scene to scene is frequently stereotyped and sometimes awkward....we must still reject this concept of patchwork Gospels in which the role of the evangelist is restricted to that of a compiler.[12]


C.H. Dodd has observed that "none of the gospels would ever have come into being, were it not for fact that the individual pieces of the oral tradition were proclaimed from the beginning as elements of a coherent story."[15]


In summary conclusion comments:


Form Criticism sounds like a scientific method.  If it were, you would find consistency of interpretation.  But the interpretations of a single saying vary widely.  Not only are interpretations widespread but form critics often can't agree whether a pericopae is a miracle story or a pronouncement story....One would expect consistency in historical reconstruction if Form Criticism were a true science.[16]


Pericope (redirected from pericopae)─An extract or selection from a book, especially a reading from a Scripture that forms part of a church service.[17]


J. Warwick Montgomery has analyzed Form Criticism and has concluded that it fails because "the time interval between the writing of the New Testament documents as we have them and the events of Jesus' life which they record

is too brief to allow for communal redaction by the Church."[18] 


Redactor: one who edits, revises, or shapes the literary sources that he has at hand.  The "separation" of tradition and redaction is the primary task of form criticism.[19]


In a recent periodical Peritz sums up the views of form critics by stating that "it is only in one thing they all agree, namely that the earliest disciples of Jesus were too ignorant in literary method or too indifferent to biography or history, to make an effort to perpetuate the memory of their Master."[20]   The great fault of Form Criticism is its imaginative subjectivity in evaluating tradition.[20]



1. James Gardner, (1858). The Christian Cyclopedia, p.206, Glasgow: Blackie and Son.

2. Rudolf Bultmann, (1961). Kerygma and Myth (Ed. By H.W. Bartsch). Translated by Reginald Fuller, p.291-292

3. Rudolf Bultmann, (1961). Kerygma and Myth (Ed. By H.W. Bartsch). Translated by Reginald Fuller, p.39

4. Norman Perrin, (1969). The Promise of Bultmann. In the series, The Promise of Theology, edited by Martin Marty, p.38

5. John Montgomery, (1964). History and Christianity, p.75-76, Inter-Varsity Press.

6. Vincent Taylor, (1935). The Formation of the Gospel Tradition (2nd Ed.) p.135, Macmillan and Co.

7. Josh McDowell, (1993). Evidence that demands a verdict (vol.2), p.16. Thomas Nelson, Inc.

8. Philip Schaff, (1882). History of the Christian Church (vol.1) p.175, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

9. John Montgomery, (1967). The Altizer-Montgomery Dialogue, p.21-22, Chicago: Inter-Varsity.

10. Josh McDowell, (1993). Evidence that demands a verdict (vol.2), p.189. Thomas Nelson, Inc.

11. R.A. Spivey and D.M. Smith, (1969). Anatomy of the New Testament, p.463-466

12. L.J. McGinley, (1944). Form Criticism of the Synoptic Healing Narratives, p.9-10

13. Josh McDowell, (1993). Evidence that demands a verdict (vol.2), p.219. Thomas Nelson, Inc.

14. James Martin, (1959). The Reliability of the Gospels, p.67

15. C.H. Dodd, (1936). The Apostolic Preaching, p.55

16. Robert Mounce. Interview (2 July 1974).


18. John Warwick Montgomery, (1964). History and Christianity, p.37

19. Josh McDowell, (1993). Evidence that demands a verdict (vol.2), p.202. Thomas Nelson, Inc.

20. Ismar Peritz, (1941). "Form Criticism as an Experiment." Religion in Life (vol.10), No.2, p.202&205




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