By Daniel H. King
One of the most often made self-criticisms of so-called Higher Criticism is its inability to offer “assured results.” Students of the history of research recognize that with changes of presuppositions come distinctive changes in results. Thus Old Liberalism read the ethical Kingdom of God into every .page of the life of what it called the “historical Jesus.” In the same way Bultmann read his existentialism into the thought and life of the Teacher. Within a few short years, a scholar like Bowman could be so bold as to refer to this outdated philosophical mold as Bultmann’s “red herring”! And while we concur with his judgment in respect to Bultmann, we wonder whether Bowman and others of his persuasion may have a few red herrings of their own?
In fact, it is our considered opinion that they do. Every generation of students considers itself alone devoid of such pre-philosophies, but leave it to the next generation to uncover the inconsistencies of the past and ignore its own! One should not be deceived into thinking that only scholars of yesteryear and conservatives of every era are weighed down by such presuppositions. Let us briefly survey a few of the most obvious ones that characterize liberal critics of the Gospels and lead to the wide-ranging pictures of the “real Jesus” gleaned from their articles and books about him:
First, there is made a distinction between what the Germans call Historie (what actually happened) and Geschichte (an account of past events in terms of their contemporary significance), and it is thereupon asserted that the early church’s concern was primarily with the latter, the former being a matter of almost complete indifference to them. The church was concerned with the Christ of faith and not the Jesus of history. But, as a matter of fact, this distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith is purely a modern philosophical and theological division. The early church made no such distinction. The same applies to the dichotomy between the two concepts of history, represented by Historie and Geschichte. No evidence whatever has been forwarded to demonstrate either distinction. Both are grounded solely on assertions made by men of reputation and are repeated out of reverence for their high learning and the uniqueness of their approach.
Second, many scholars assume that a theological motivation in the writing of the Gospels excludes a concern for historical authenticity. While we would not be found contending that the Evangelists were without theological motivation, since all of the evidence points in the other direction, we would with all due force deny that this caused them to have little respect for historical or other verities.
To advocate the reverse, in whatever theological form or philosophical language one may disguise his views, is to contradict the basic nature of the movement and the stance of its adherents toward honesty and probity. For it is certain that the church was absolutely convinced that the things that the Gospels claim for Jesus and about Jesus were completely and in every detail correct. Once more, we are here dealing with a modern distinction and not an ancient one.
Third, it is presupposed that the supernatural element in the Gospel tradition cannot be treated as historical. It is thus decreed in advance that the historical Jesus, both in His deeds and in His words, will be compatible with the anti-supernaturalistic world-view, or as R.T. France has dubbed it, “the closed mind,” of modern scientific man. This anti-miraculous, supposedly scientific approach is based on the unproved and unprovable dogma that Nature behaves with invariable uniformity. Moreover the God of this dogma ought to be spelled with a small “g,” since he is a “god” who does not act. In the words of the esteemed Princeton scholar B.B. Warfield:
It is appropriate that this miraculous life should be set between the great marvels of the virgin-birth and the resurrection and ascension. These can appear strange only when the intervening life is looked upon as that of a merely human being, endowed, no doubt, not only with unusual qualities, but also with the unusual favor of God, yet after all nothing more than human and therefore presumably entering the world like other human beings, and at the end paying the universal debt of human nature. From the standpoint of the evangelical writers, and of the entirety of primitive Christianity, which looked upon Jesus not as a merely human being but as God himself come into the world on a mission of mercy that involved the humiliation of a human life and death, it would be this assumed community with common humanity in mode of entrance into and exit from the earthly life which would seem strange and incredible. The entrance of the Lord of Glory into the world could not but be supernatural; His exit from the world, after the work which He had undertaken had been performed, could not fail to bear the stamp of triumph. There is no reason for doubting the trustworthiness of the narratives at these points, beyond the anti-supernaturalistic instinct which strives consciously or unconsciously to naturalize the whole evangelical narrative (From his essay, “The Historical Christ”, in The Person and Work of Christ, p. 32).
Fourth, the narratives and sayings of the Gospels are presumed to owe their origins to the early church instead of the life of Jesus, unless clear reasons can be adduced for regarding them as authentic. As Ernst Kasemann has put it: “The obligation now laid upon us is to investigate and make credible not the possible unauthenticity of the individual unit of material but, on the contrary, its genuineness” (“The Problem of the Historical Jesus,” Essays on New Testament Themes, p. 34). This is tantamount to saying that a man is guilty until proven innocent! Such an approach has never been used in such a full-scale way upon any piece of ancient literature before. It is generally conceded that Josephus wrote Wars of the Jews, the Antiquities, etc. Were someone to attack the authorship of one of these documents on such flimsy grounds, his attempt would be summarily ruled out of order and the case thrown out of court! Yet Kasemann and others lodge such bold assertions with scholarly impunity!
Fifth, the figure of the Jesus of the Gospels is alleged to be the product of the Church rather than the Church being the product of the Christ described in the canonical Gospels. But, as John W. Wenham has so prudently observed, “To regard the great mass of Gospel teaching as the creation of the Christian community seems to posit a marvellous effect without a plausible cause. Here is what may fairly be claimed as the greatest literature of all time, yet supposedly created by the imagination of an undistinguished community. It seems far easier to suppose that the Jesus of the Gospels created the community than the community created the Jesus of the Gospels.” This assumption meets with the problem that communities as such are not thus creative – not in music, art, philosophy, science, morals, or religion. Communities can furnish favorable conditions for creativity, can help at the start and radically modify the result afterwards, but it takes creative personalities to account, in all such realms, for the unique, original discoveries. For instance, Johann Sebastian Bach’s music was largely lost sight of for a century, and then gathered around it an enthusiastic following of those who hailed Bach as the prince of musicians. It would be preposterous, though, to suppose that the community of his followers created the music, and that Bach was only an imaginary mouthpiece through which the group spoke. Nothing like the originality of Bach’s music or Jesus’ unique contribution to ethical and religious life and thought is ever explicable without creative personality.
Sixth, it is supposed that there was a long interval between the uttering of Christ’s words and their committal to writing. It is widely accepted that the church was entirely dependent on oral tradition for forty or more years. On the surface one may see that this is a supposition without proof of any kind. Were we to grant this, for sake of argument, the first Gospel was still written at a time when there were a few people alive who were contemporary with Jesus and could have easily exposed the portrait when it appeared in written form as fanciful or fraudulent.
Seventh, it is assumed in connection with the foregoing point that the memories of the writers were no better than those of present-day scholars and, therefore, would have been prone to forget exact details and enlarge the happenings in a legendary way. Two facts militate against this presupposition: To begin with, oriental memories especially those of trained teachers – are incomparably more retentive than our own. Any instructor in the Jewish traditional law and lore, of Mishnah and Talmud, will attest to the long periods of time in which entire bodies of traditional material was handed on from teacher to student; each tradent forming a link in the chain and cognizant that he must accurately reproduce the words of those who have gone before. Also, and infinitely more important, is the fact that their memories were not left unaided in recollecting the events of Jesus’ life and the words from His mouth. Their mental capabilities were promised help from God: “But the Comforter, even the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said unto you” (Jn. 14:26).
Guardian of Truth XXVII: 8, pp. 231-232
April 21, 1983