Key Terms for Understanding the Academic Discussion
One of the more difficult problems on the modern scene is understanding what people mean by the words that they use. If people are using the same words in different ways, they may have a hard time understanding each other. It is common for people to assume that others agree with them because they use the same words when they actually disagree radically. So it is important to realize the different ways that people may be using the same words.
The words conservative and liberal are used in so many different ways that they are almost meaningless. They also have completely different meanings in different areas of life. The word conservative might be applied to people who choose not participate in specific actions like drinking, smoking, or dancing. It may describe people who believe in limited government and low taxes. It may describe people who think that the past was better than the present. Often, a person will be a conservative in some values and not in other areas of life. Also, the terms liberal and conservative only really have meaning in context. For example, Dr. Childs received quite a bit of criticism from his peers at Yale for being so conservative. He accepted the documentary hypothesis which is at the heart of so much liberal scholarship, but he thought that it was largely irrelevant. He believed that the biblical text had to be treated as it existed regardless of its process of development. At the same time, most people in the conservative wing of Christianity would not regard Childs as being conservative since he assumed the documentary hypothesis. The reality is that the terms liberal and conservative only have meaning within the context of each person's own world view. For example, I consider myself a conservative Evangelical. I've been called a fundamentalist, a conservative, a neo-conservative, a neo-orthodox, a liberal, and a heretic depending on the world view of the people discussing my work. The same would probably be true for anyone in the field. I use the term conservative to describe someone who believes that the Bible is historically and theologically correct in its claims.
The word liberal has no more meaning than the word conservative. In some congregations, nearly anything that the pastor doesn't like is called liberal. It may refer to people who believe in stronger governmental influence in daily life. It might be used to describe people who are determined that no one has the right to evaluate their life style choices. It may be used for people who defend theological positions that regard either part or all of the biblical text to be incorrect. The words conservative and liberal are used in almost any controversial social or theological question, although the ways that these words are used are inconsistent. For example, some congregations would define a woman's right to full participation in congregational leadership as liberal while other congregations that define themselves as conservative would see full participation of women as simply fair and responsible behavior.
The phenomenon of liberalism is in some ways a direct result of the Protestant Reformation, and it may be rooted partly in Calvin's faith in the power of reason. One of the most important principles of the Reformation was Sola Scriptura. These words meant that church tradition was not the final authority for faith and practice. The only proper authority for the believer was the Word of God. That principle was at the heart of the Reformation. While that idea was true and vital, it was also in some ways problematic. If only God's Word was the authority for the church, the next question became whose interpretation of the Bible was to be accepted because it was interpreted in so many different ways. The Reformation never found a satisfactory answer to the problem. It didn't take very long before the denominations held their own church councils and published confessional documents like the Westminster Confession. These documents were in theory not authoritative. Only God's Word was the authority. However, the confessional documents were assumed to be the proper interpretation of the Word. So they were given a derived authority. In practice, this nearly returned the theological authority to the church meeting in council as it had been earlier in church history. In some denominations today, seminary students may be ordained regardless of their interpretation of specific Biblical passages, but a disagreement with the confession may bring their ordination into question.
The confessions provided a foundation for the theology of their denominations, but they did not provide enough guidance for the changing philosophical thought worlds grounded in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. After the Late Reformation, the theological faculty slowly became increasingly independent of ecclesiastical control. There were ancient classical roots for their new independence. As Europe had returned to literacy in the Renaissance, the classical Greek and Latin authors had been given an important place in education. Philosophers like Plato and Aristotle gained renewed attention. Greek philosophers had assumed that the trained scholar could determine the truth by the simple exercise of human reason. This spirit began influencing the theological faculty after the Late Reformation. It was assumed that the professional scholar could determine both the true meaning of God's Word and the historical process by which it was written simply by exercising his or her own reason. This spirit simply recapitulated Eve's choice to become intellectually autonomous in the Garden of Eden. Just as Eve's choice of autonomy had led to her rebellion, the new spirit of intellectual independence led to questions about how the Bible developed and whether it was accurate in everything that it said. Members of the theological faculties began to assume their independence from any authority outside of their own reason. Instead of submitting to the authority of God's Word, they submitted the Word to their own authority as scholars.
The nature of theological liberalism is a determined independence from any authority outside of the theological faculty's exercise of its intelligence. Authors like Wellhausen rewrote the Bible's history almost purely on the basis of their own assumptions about the text. Authors in this camp shared the assumption that Israel's history could not have happened the way that it was recorded in the Bible. They assumed that the actual development of the biblical text could be determined solely from the internal evidence of the text filtered through the professional scholar's reason. While the term liberal refers to authors who hold many different opinions, they usually share strong skepticism about the historical accuracy of the Biblical text and strong faith in the ability of the professional scholar to figure out the truth often without the benefit of external evidence.
While agreeing loosely on these beliefs, authors in the liberal camp represent a vast spectrum of opinions from reasonably Evangelical to the opposite theological extreme. It would be unfair and incorrect to claim that liberals are by definition not Christians. Many people on the left know and love the Lord. They have just been taught theological beliefs that are perhaps unfortunate. This web site will use the term liberal to refer to authors within the Christian tradition who assume that significant parts of the Bible's history and theology are not correct.
What does the word Evangelical mean? The word actually transliterates a Greek word that means good news or gospel. In the broadest definition, every Christian is an Evangelical. A German form of the word was used by Luther to describe his Reformation. By this definition, every Lutheran has a right to call himself an Evangelical. The largest mainstream Lutheran denomination chose as its name the Evangelical Lutheran Church despite the fact that few of its pastors or teachers would affirm the inerrancy and historical accuracy of the biblical text. The word has also been used in a more broad way. The Evangelical Scholarly Initiative funded by PEW trusts offered research fellowships to doctoral students who were willing to use the word Evangelical to describe themselves. A completely different meaning for the word Evangelical can be seen in The Evangelical Theological Society. ETS is a learned academic society made up of students, teachers, and laymen who are interested in topics related to Biblical Studies (although only people with masters or doctorates in the field can be full members). To be a member of ETS, people have to sign a statement every years claiming that they accept the inerrancy of the Biblical autographs. That definition of Evangelical is commonly used in the conservative Christian orbit, and it is the way that I use the word.
The word Fundamentalist has had an interesting history. It began during the Modernist controversy. Modernists are today called liberals by conservatives. When seeking a defense against the liberals of their day, the conservatives passed around a short list of beliefs that simply reflected the Apostles' Creed. The beliefs in it included things like Christ's deity and salvation through His name. Everyone who signed the list of fundamental Christian beliefs was a Fundamentalist. The problem was that the list was not set in stone. Over time, churches added more and more items to the list of fundamental truth. Some church lists came to include hair style, clothing, and practical life decisions that had little to do with doctrine. As this happened, the word fundamentalist moved out of the conservative mainstream, and it became associated with the furthest right wing of the church. As this happened, the media began to use it as a scare term to describe religious radicals while people on the right used the term to distinguish themselves from the rest of the conservative world. As that happened, the word Fundamentalist sometimes became associated with a Dispensational (and young earth) perspective that was at odds to some degree with other conservative traditions. As the media began to depict fundamentalists as dangerous, the media began to use the word to describe Muslim suicide bombers who threatened anyone who disagreed with them. Christian fundamentalists were then tarred with the same brush as dangerous people. The word was then applied to Mormons who lived in small scattered settlements and continued to practice polygamy. Then it was applied to Jewish settlers in Israel who thought that they were called by God to drive the Palestinians out of the Promised Land. Finally, it has come to be used to describe Humanist Fundamentalists who claim that man is god and who work in a determined way to remove Christianity from the country. So today, the word is almost meaningless. It means whatever it is used to mean by those who use it.
One of the fundamental characteristics of conservative Evangelical Christianity is a belief that the Word of God is inspired and inerrant. The inspiration, inerrancy, and authority of God's Word is central to everything that I do. Often though, conservatives declare that they believe in inerrancy, but they don't want to think about the issues involved in that claim. What does inerrancy really mean? That is not a simple question to answer. There are currently at least eight different definitions for inerrancy in use in the Evangelical orbit. Not all of these definitions are of equal value . By inerrancy, some pastors claim that God would never allow His Word to be copied incorrectly. That definition is rarely used by pastors who can read Greek because they have to wrestle with the textual apparatus at the bottom of each page in a Greek New Testament. The textual apparatus lists different readings found in Greek manuscripts that were copied as early as the second or third centuries AD. The earliest fragment of New Testament text was copied only ten or twenty years after John wrote his gospel. Yet among all of the early manuscripts, there are minor differences that resulted from incorrect copying by hand. The great majority of these differences are so minor that they don't even affect the way that the text is translated. However, there are a few problems that are more important. Perhaps the most serious of these in the New Testament is the last half of the last chapter of Mark's gospel. It is hard to know how Mark's gospel may have originally ended.
There were actually less differences in the Hebrew texts than the Greek texts before the Qumran scrolls were discovered. Before then, the earliest Old Testament texts were only a thousand years old. The earliest Greek texts were almost a thousand years older than that. Most of the surviving Hebrew manuscripts were also preserved within the Massoretic tradition that preserved the text with great care (at least after 600 AD). That situation changed with the Qumran scrolls. Many Hebrew texts were found in the clay containers at Qumran that were copied between 200 BC and 70 AD. They represented four families of Hebrew texts that had developed through the years. The most shocking differences were found in the Hebrew text of Jeremiah. The Greek translation of Jeremiah was created around 300 BC. The Greek translation is called the Septuagint, and the name is usually abbreviated as LXX. The Greek translation of Jeremiah was strikingly different from the Hebrew Massoretic text. It was one third shorter, and it put whole blocks of chapters in a different place in the book. The problem with the Qumran evidence was that the scrolls contained a Hebrew copy of the book of Jeremiah that was the Hebrew equivalent of the LXX. That suggests strongly that the LXX was a translation of a different Hebrew text than the Massoretic text. Frank Moore Cross argued that there was a "Proto-Septuagintal" Hebrew text at Qumran for much of the Old Testament, although that claim has been controversial. Cross reconstructed the LXX text from Qumran, but he did so partly by reading LXX content into lacunae (or holes) in the manuscripts. While it is not clear whether there was a Hebrew text of the whole Septuagint at Qumran, there was clearly a Proto-Septuagintal text of Jeremiah. There have been a number of suggestions for why the Greek text of Jeremiah was so different from the Hebrew text. One possibility is that there were two original texts of Jeremiah. After all, Jeremiah 36:17-28 recorded the Jehoiakim cut up the scroll of Jeremiah's prophecies and threw them into the fire. After that, Jeremiah rewrote his prophecies and added more to them. So perhaps both versions have survived.
Another difficult question is whether the Hebrew or the LXX is really closer to the original reading of the text. The Roman Catholic and Reformation churches have always assumed that the Hebrew text was closer to the original. The Eastern Orthodox churches have always assumed that the Greek LXX was closer to the original than the current Hebrew text which was preserved by the Pharisees and their descendants for so many years. There is no a good way to answer that question. When we look at the way that the New Testament quoted from the Old Testament, sometimes the New Testament quoted from the Hebrew text. Sometimes it quoted from the Greek text. Sometimes it quoted a text that seems to be neither one. Of course, the rules for quoting a source were far looser in the first century than they are today. So the whole topic may be pointless. Another aspect of the copying problem is that the apparent contradictions were sometimes brought into the account by copying the original text incorrectly. There are a number of examples of this in the Old Testament. II Kings 24:8 claims that Jehoiachin was 18 years old when he came to the throne. II Chronicles 39:9 claims that he was only 8. Of course, Thiele's studies of Israel's chronology have to be taken into account here. Often claims that appear contradictory to us were both accurate ways to describe a king's reign.
Another view of inerrancy that is sometimes claimed is that God would never allow His Word to be translated incorrectly. That is usually claimed by people who do not compare translations of the text very carefully. Every translation is also an interpretation. A word or sentence in one language often can not be translated completely into another because the words or grammatical expressions have different ranges of meaning in different languages. Every person who translates a Biblical text has to decide what he believes the passage teaches and then translate it in that context. A good example of this can be seen in Amos 3:2. The New American Standard begins this verse with the words, "You only have Me among all the families of the earth." The King James Version has God saying to Israel, "You only have I known among all the families of the earth." In this case, the KJV got it right. "Know" in this text is technical treaty usage. It refers to a sovereign/vassal treaty relationship. Not understanding the meaning of the line, translators of the NIV and NASB got it wrong. That kind of problem is not uncommon. This view of inerrancy is sometimes coupled with the claim that one English version like the KJV is the accurate version while other versions are corruptions of the text. Actually, any translation of the text is less accurate than the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic text. The common claim that only the KJV is the inspired text would have surprised many people in the generation that saw the KJV translated. It took 30 years before almost anyone was willing to use the KJV. Among other problems with the text, the translators included the king's name in the New Testament. They apparently did so to honor their patron. Almost everywhere that the name Jacob appeared in the New Testament, the translators of the KJV replaced it with the English name James. So Jesus did not have a brother named James, and the New Testament does not include a book of James. In the Greek, Jesus' brother was named Jacob. The disciple was named Jacob. The New Testament book was named Jacob. James is simply not a Greek or Hebrew name. The KJV established such a strong tradition that the translation of Jacob as James was carried over into other English translations of the New Testament down to the present time. If that simple fact isn't believed, readers are encouraged to check any Greek New Testament text.
The best definition of inerrancy is the one used by the Evangelical Theological Society. ETS members sign a statement every year that they affirm the inerrancy of the Biblical autographs. An autograph is the copy of the book of Genesis that Moses himself wrote. That first copy is assumed to be inerrant and inspired. ETS recognizes that copying errors have crept into the text through the years, but that doesn't affect the inerrancy of the autographs. This is the position that I defend. However, it is also not without problems. To some degree, it is a theoretical affirmation because none of the autographs have been preserved. The text that we have today is actually only inspired and inerrant to the degree that it reflects the autographs. Another problem with that definition is that a few biblical books may not have had an autograph. Books like Psalms and Proverbs were collected over a long period of time. That's why Proverbs claims to include proverbs that were collected in Hezekiah's time which was centuries after Solomon. The usual response is that each individual Psalm or Proverb was its own autograph, but that answer is at least a little uncomfortable. As a working model, I simply assume that the text is correct as it currently reads despite the problems with any definition of inerrancy.
Neo-Orthodoxy was invented by Karl Barth after World War II. Barth seems to have been a Christian, but his theology did a lot of damage to the church. Today, about half of the congregations and seminaries in the country teach Neo-Orthodoxy. Barth's view of the Bible was rather complicated. He thought that Scripture was a vehicle that God used to communicate to people. When people read or heard the Word, God spoke to them through it. (In that, he was not far from the truth.) However, he also claimed that God's use of Scripture to communicate was only somewhat related to the content of Scripture. He assumed that the Bible contained a lot of things that were not actually true, but God used them to communicate anyway. Barth tried to find room for a real relationship with God amid a theological context that assumed the Documentary Hypothesis and the rest of liberal theology. Barth believed that everyone deserved God's condemnation. He believed that God created hell as a place that everyone deserved without God's grace. Barth believed that salvation was only possible by God's grace through Christ's death and resurrections. However, he then claimed that God would never actually send anyone to hell. It was an object lesson for what we all deserved without the grace of God that came to every man. He did not believe that the church was called to save the lost because everyone was already saved. Barth believed that Jews and Christians had been given a special covenant with God to announce to the world the salvation that they already had in Christ. At that point, Barth's theology departed from Christianity. While Barth may have been a Christian himself, his theology made it difficult for anyone else to be converted. That's one reason that Neo-Orthodox churches tend to die slowly from a spiritual famine. There are many real Christians involved in Neo-Orthodox denominations, but they tend to be people who were first converted in more conservative congregations. It is also true that Neo-Orthodox people represent a vast theological spectrum from those who believe almost everything in the Bible to those who believe almost nothing in it. Pastors who work at the conservative end of the Neo-Orthodox world may actually teach the gospel in church, and people may be truly converted under their ministries despite the theological weaknesses of their positions.
It must also be recognized that Barth was a German theologian. As such, he was intentionally ambiguous. German theologians typically wrote in a way that was difficult to understand in a systematic way. If readers had to struggle to understand their positions, they were assumed to be deep thinkers. So Barth sometimes made statements that sounded like a universalist. Other times, he denied that he was a universalist and made claims that sounded more orthodox. As is normal with German writers, his Church Dogmatics can be interpreted in several ways.
THE DOCUMENTARY HYPOTHESIS
The documentary hypothesis has been the dominant form of liberal Old Testament theology for over a century. While it is a mistaken view of the Bible, it is assumed by about half of the academic world today. Many schools will not give a job interview to anyone who rejects it. Many journals will not print articles that do not assume it. The documentary hypothesis still dominates the left wing of the field, but it is increasingly under fire from positions further to the left. Authors like Thompson and Lemche now teach that the whole Old Testament was a fictional account written around 200 BC. This position has been growing every years. Those who accept it are often called Minimalists. They have been leveling the same kind of attacks against the documentary hypothesis that its defenders have been leveling at conservatives for many years.
The documentary hypothesis was pulled together by a series of earlier authors, but it was put into its most popular form by Julius Wellhausen. He was a radical Hegelian, and he applied Hegel's philosophy to Biblical history. The documentary hypothesis began with the assumption that no one could read or write in the highlands of Canaan until the United Monarchy. Then king David hired Canaanite scribes to record Israel's history. These scribes went through Judah and wrote down the stories that people were passing around the camp fires. Those stories used the name Yahweh (or Jehovah) for God. So their stories are called the J material. Wellhausen taught that those stories had little historical truth. They may have had an original kernel of truth, but they were constantly changed as they were passed on by oral tradition. The J material was claimed to have been present in some of the material in the Pentateuch. Later, another group of Canaanite scribes wrote down the stories that were being passed around the camp fires in the northern tribes. These stories used the name Elohim for God, so their contribution is called the E material. Then in king Josiah's time, the religious leaders in Jerusalem wanted to turn Israel into a monotheistic culture and they wanted to make Jerusalem the spiritual center of the nation. So they invented the book of Deuteronomy as a holy con job and they passed it off as Mosaic. They then went through all of Israel's earlier historical material and rewrote it. This rewritten history ran from Genesis to II Kings, and it is called the Deuteronomic History. The people who invented Deuteronomy added the D material to the text. Then after the Babylonian captivity, the priests wanted to explain why the exile happened. So they rewrote everything from an earlier age. They added the P layer. The people who added each kind of material are called the "redactors." So the text that we have today is thought to be a combination of J, E, D, and P material along with a lot of other sources like H for the law codes. In recent years, it has become popular to move J forward in history so that it is no longer associated with the United Monarchy.
There are a few problems with this model. The first problem is that it destroys the whole idea of an inerrant autograph. The second problem is that it is based almost entirely on speculation. Most of the arguments that were originally used to support it are not very strong. For example, whenever there are two parallel accounts like Genesis 1 and 2, the two accounts are assumed to have come from different sources. These arguments fall apart when you study the actual way that literature was written in the Old Testament age. The third problem is that there has never been complete agreement about which verses should be assigned to which sources. A good example of this can be seen in a book by Yehuda Radday and Haim Shore titled Genesis: an Authorship Study (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1988). Radday and his associates began with the assumption that the Documentary Hypothesis had to be correct. They were concerned that there had been so little agreement about which verses in Genesis should be assigned to which redactors. So they developed a computer program that would track the small parts of Hebrew that people use without thinking about it. Then the tracked Genesis with the program. They assumed that they would find four kinds of Hebrew that they could then associate with J, E, D, and P. When they ran the program, they found that there were in fact four kinds of Hebrew in Genesis. However, the four kinds were divine speech, human speech, narration before the Joseph account, and the narration of the Joseph account. They also noted that the two kinds of narration were very similar to each other. Radday, Shore et al argued that at least in the book of Genesis, the documentary hypothesis could not possibly be correct. Since the documentary hypothesis is such a dominant presence in the academic world, it is important to understand the evidence used to defend it. On useful summary of evidence for it can be seen in Jeffrey H. Tigay, "An Empirical Basis for the Documentary Hypothesis." Journal of Biblical Literature 94 (1975): 329-342.
While most Evangelicals properly reject the documentary hypothesis, a few things should be said in its favor. First, in its classical form at least, the documentary hypothesis assumed that David and Solomon did rule in Jerusalem, and it affirmed much of the content of biblical history after that time. Those assumptions are less popular in the current academic culture. So the documentary hypothesis today is almost a relatively conservative position within the context of the field as a whole. Another thing that has to be said is that Genesis does give some evidence that it was written with the use of sources. This can be seen in the repetition of words like Genesis 5:1, "This is the book of the generations of..." These may reflect original sources that Moses used when writing the book. However at this remove, it is impossible to reconstruct very well the sources that might have once stood behind the text. Another thing that has to be admitted is that Genesis used names for God in a way that is hard to explain. There do seem to be sections of the book which were characterized by the use of different names for God. It may be impossible to go back in history and explain why Moses wrote the book this way. It is interesting that the rest of the Pentateuch contained little strong evidence for original sources (despite a century of attempts to identify them there). Having said all of that though, there are rather few articles that assume the documentary hypothesis that are very useful for conservative and Evangelical readers.
Copyright © 2009 Dr. Rodger Dalman