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‘Higher Criticism’ is not the Bogeyman

‘Higher Criticism’ is not the Bogeyman

I recently came across a post by Roger Olson called “The Absurdity of “Higher Criticism” of the Gospels.” I think I am as bothered about his characterisation of higher criticism (hereafter HC)–indeed, even the use of the term–as he is about HC itself.

Olson implies that HC is basically a kind of biblical criticism* that is “…negative or destructive of the authority of the Bible.” He includes “redaction criticism” in the HC category, even though he gives an example of a conservative colleague of his who practised it.

He spells it out a bit further: “I am talking about that type of higher criticism commonly practiced in secular universities, liberal scholarly societies and groups such as the ‘Jesus Seminar’.”

With all due respect to Olson, that is a fossilised characterisation of approaches to the Bible (he did say ‘Jesus Seminar’, didn’t he?!) that some conservatives–not even all–found threatening to the authority of the Bible. I say found because I no longer think it is overwhelmingly the case–perhaps I am wrong. A generalist definition of HC might be instructive. Sharing my sentiment is the Pocket Dictionary of Biblical Studies entry for higher criticism:

A term that refers to the critical study of biblical texts, especially the evaluation of questions such as authorship, date, sources and composition. The term originated with J. G. Eichhorn and was contrasted with textual, or lower, criticism. Among conservative interpreters, the term higher criticism frequently implied the imposition of modern, “scientific” presuppositions upon the study of Scripture. These terms are no longer widely used by scholars. See historical criticism.

Olson’s post registers a larger problem with biblical scholarship in the USA that the UK doesn’t share (for various reasons): the polarisation between evangelical seminaries and the ‘secular’ University. Indeed, in my experience in the UK University, as both a PhD student and as a member of staff, I have found a range of perspectives among staff at theological departments/schools of Universities and their work is generally excellent. More could be said on the differences in the USA and UK–perhaps another time.

*In biblical studies, the term criticism is often used to help describe a specific approach to the biblical texts and questions. This practice hails from German critical scholarship of yesteryear.

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