The Attitude of Modernism Toward the Bible

By Melvin Curry

The term modernism is misleading. Modernism is as ancient as it is modern; and the first century church had its share of trouble with modernism. Second Peter describes a group of modernists who deny the Lord who bought them, ridicule the promise of the Second Coming, and in defiance of the supernatural affirm the uniformitarian cliche, “All things continue as they were from the beginning” (1:4).

When Paul attacks “the wisdom of the world” in First Corinthians 1:18-25, he speaks to the basic problem of modernism. Modernists are not in fact wiser than other people; they simply rely on human wisdom as opposed to God’s revelation in Scripture. The modernism of the twentieth century is a product of the Age of Reason. It is an attempt to fuse Biblical teaching with modern philosophical and scientific learning.(1) In the process, however, the Bible is made to conform to the new learning.

Wick Broomall observes that “the great divide between historic, conservative Christianity and what is known as Liberalism is found in the concept of Biblical inspiration.”(2) Modernists deny that the Biblical writers produced an inspired book free from error. Human reason and experience become the test of what in the Bible is inspired and what is in error. But modernists, as James D. Bales remarks, “make the attack from within religious bodies instead of flying under their true colors as enemies of the Bible.”(3)

All men, in so far as they act consistent with their basic presuppositions, reason in a circle.(4) Edward J. Young quotes J. R. Rushdoony on this point: “In other words, all reasoning moves in terms of its basic presuppositions, either God or autonomous man, interpreting all reality in terms of the presuppositions.”(5)

This is true both with liberal and conservative approaches to the Scriptures. Liberalism boasts about being free from dogmatic presuppositions-“the documents must be allowed to tell their own story.” Herbert F. Hahn writes:

This is not to say that the work of a liberal critic was no more objective than that of a conservative theologian. There is a great difference between a dogma assumed to be true from the start and a hypothesis to be tested in the light of the facts. The liberal critics would have been the first to agree that the evolutionary view of the Old Testament history could be maintained only as the result, not the presupposition, of a critical examination of the relevant evidence. But the conception of historical development seemed to them as inevitable deduction from the evidence of successive changes in the religious institutions of Israel. The only historical reconstruction possible on the basis of the sources was one which showed an evolutionary growth.(6)

There is a vast difference, however, in postulating naturalistic evolution instead of divine revelation as “an inevitable deduction from the evidence of successive changes in the religious institutions of Israel.” Are these changes attributable to God or to autonomous man? Or, must autonomous man be given the advantage irrespective of the evidence? These questions must be answered honestly by those who seek to know the truth.

When it comes to the matter of revelation and inspiration, these terms are always defined and described on the basis of the individual writer’s presuppositions. For instance, Arthur S. Peake, a typical liberal theologian, gives the following description of inspiration:

If the devout and serious reader finds in Carlyle or Ruskin, in Tennyson or Browning, a richer nourishment than he can gain from many a page of the Old Testament and some pages of the New, why should he not boldly say that the modern writer has experienced a deeper and fuller inspiration?(7)

According to Peake, inspiration is not determined by the supernatural influence exerted on the writers by the Spirit of God, “by virtue of which their writings are given Divine trustworthiness.”(8) For him, inspiration is determined by the favorable effect the author’s writing has on the reader. Here naturalism stands out in bold relief against supernaturalism. The determining factor is human rather than divine.

The modernistic theology of the nineteenth century was extremely optimistic in its outlook. The ideas of the inherent goodness of man and the inevitability of progress were incorporated into an evolutionary concept of the religion of Israel. The books of the Bible were subjected to a destructive criticism based on anti-supernatural presuppositions. Hahn describes this critical approach as follows:

It required an entirely different approach to the Bible to expound it according to its original intention and meaning-a different conception of the nature of the Bible which would permit more objective principles of exposition. Such a new conception became possible when the tendency generated by humanistic studies to regard all ancient literature as the product of human culture had removed the old distinction between sacred and profane writings.(9)

The results were horrifying to those who believe that the Bible is in truth the very word of God. For instance, a quotation from George Adam Smith will demonstrate the practical effect of this religio-historical criticism:

We who have reached middle life can remember what time and anxiety the pastors of our boyhood used to expend upon the double and sometimes contradictory stories of David’s life; for instance, the two very different accounts of his first introduction to Saul. Their attempts to reconcile these involved-even when one thought that they succeeded-so much intricate explanation as to distract them from the clear presentation of the moral issues, which it was their first duty as preachers to present and enforce to their people. But they did not succeed. The stories are irreconcilable. What an advantage, then, has the preacher of today who can frankly say: “These are two different traditions of the same event,” and confine himself to the rich material of moral issues of the one or the other!(10)

The issue became increasingly clear: if believing the Bible contains historical contradictions has an advantage over believing that the accounts of David’s life do not contradict each other, cannot the same thing be said with reference to the moral framework of the Bible. One is left, therefore, to pick and choose which moral precepts are right and good and which commandments are based on faulty human judgment. No wonder relativism in ethics has become so prevalent today. It is impossible to establish absolute moral standards from a book that is considered to be a collection of “profane writings.”

Modernists rely heavily on three methods of literary criticism in evaluating the authorship and date of the books of the Bible: the documentary hypothesis, form criticism, and redaction criticism. Each of these methods will be discussed briefly.

The documentary hypothesis affirms that Moses did not really write the five books attributed to him, called the Pentateuch. Moses may have been an historical personage, however, and some of his laws are no doubt incorporated into the books that bear his name. The theory holds that there are four main literary sources of the Pentateuch, namely, J, E, D, and P. It is often called the Graf-Wellhausen theory because these scholars arranged the JEDP order of the sources.

As early as the time of Benedict Spinoza certain facts in the Pentateuch raised questions: Why is Moses often spoken of in the third person? and, How does one account for the death of Moses in Deuteronomy, if Moses is the author? Serious problems began to appear to various scholars, such as Jean Astruc, who noted the two different names for God, Elohim and Yahweh, the striking repetitions of the same events, e.g., as detected when one reads the accounts of creation and the flood, and unresolved inconsistencies and anachronisms in the text of the Pentateuch. Thus, on the basis of the two divine names Astruc suggested that Moses had used two older sources, E and J, the latter supplementing the former. Other scholars increased the number of documents to four: P (for the priestly materials found especially in Leviticus), E, J, and D (for the Deuteronomic materials), then Wellhausen reversed the order to JEDP.

According to the documentary hypothesis an unknown writer in Judah around 950 B.C. (dates vary from scholar to scholar) collected isolated myths and stories and presented them chronologically within a religious setting. The J symbol not only stands for the name Jahweh but also for its Judahite source. Sometime before 750 B.C. another writer, independent of J, made a similar collection in Northern Israel, called the E document. The symbol E. also designates it the Ephraimite source. After the fall of the Northern Kingdom, a writer in Judah compiled a harmony of JE around 700 B.C. The D document is associated with the discovery of the Book of the Law in the Temple area during Josiah’s reign (621 B.C.), written to give support to the king’s reforms. An editor working around 550 B.C. combined JE with D, and sometime between 500-400 B.C. a group of priestly scribes wrote the P document. Another editor combined JED with P and re-edited the whole, thus the Pentateuch was completed in its present form by 400 B.C.

Each document, of course, has its own peculiarities, and Wellhausen arranged them to fit the framework of Hegelian philosophy, using the prophetic movement as a central hub. The development was from natural religion (JE) to ethical monotheism and universalism (D) to the counter dialectic of emerging ethical law (P and Ezekiel). Scholars have modified Wellhausen’s approach but basically it still stands accepted among liberal Old Testament scholars. More recently isolated documents have been suggested, such as the Holiness Code (H), the Lay source (L) of Eissfeldt, the Kenite source (K) of Robert H. Pfeiffer.

Form criticism attempts to uncover the units of oral tradition which lie behind the written traditions recorded in Scripture. This oral tradition began as brief hero tales, then developed into extensive legends, and finally into story-cycles. Many centuries later these story-cycles were written down in permanent form. Form criticism is applied to the writings both of the Old Testament and the New. Hahn’s description is as follows:

Accordingly, the prophetic writings were to be regarded as compilations of small units-some stemming from the prophets themselves, ethers contributed by their disciples-rather than as “books” written entirely by the reputed authors.(11)

Martin Dibelius was a German New Testament scholar who is acclaimed as the originator of the form criticism school in New Testament studies. His form-critical approach aimed at getting behind the literary documents to the independent units of oral tradition, and he conceived the New Testament writers to be compilers instead of authors. Dibelius looked for the historical “situation in life” (Sitz im Leben) of the early church from which traditions about Jesus were embellished with extra materials. These situations in the life of the early church called for authoritative pronouncements to justify such things as the abandonment of the Sabbath, the exclusion of divorced persons from membership, and the acceptance of Gentiles in the church, and grew out of both the Palestinian and the Hellenistic communities. Each unit of tradition was self-contained, brief, sometimes narrative in form, and often centered around sayings of Jesus. He divided the units of oral tradition into (1) paradigms or pronouncement sayings of Jesus, each with its own particular point; (2) narrative tales and miracle stories, such as the feeding of the five thousand or the walking on the sea, after non-Christian models; (3) legends or hero tales about Jesus and those around him, like the story of Jesus in Jerusalem at twelve years of age; and (4) myths (though few in number) wherein the supernatural breaks through the barriers of time and space as it did at the transfiguration of Jesus.

The form-critical approach intensified the problem of the quest for the historical Jesus and pointed ultimately to the need for radaction criticism to explain the theological and confessional interests of the gospel authors, who are supposed to have created the Gospels in their present form. Redaction criticism took up where form criticism left off and in a sense reversed its basic principle, assuming the gospel writers to be creative authors instead of mere compilers of oral tradition. Rather than examine the “situation in life” of oral tradition, it searches for the situation in which the Gospels took their present form. Documentary criticism had viewed Matthew, Mark, and Luke as Synoptic Gospels, dependent on two principle sources (the materials in Mark and the so-called Q document), and considered the first three Gospels to have no literary connection with John’s Gospel. Redaction criticism, however, has less of the Synoptics versus John in its approach. It seeks to answer such questions as, Why the abrupt ending of Mark? Why did Matthew and Luke begin the life of Jesus with different materials in the infancy narratives? or even, Why three Synoptics and John? The method attempts to show that Matthew and Luke purposefully altered the material of Mark and centers on the theology of each Gospel. Redaction criticism is supposed to demonstrate how the literary journey from tradition to Gospel is completed.

Now it is time to draw a conclusion from our survey. When modernists disregard the integrity of the books of the Bible, the historic foundation of Christianity crumbles. Christ’s death was prophesied in the Old Testament and His vicarious sacrifice is portrayed as an historical event in the New Testament. Edward J. Young points out:

As a preparation for this sacrifice God sent His servants the prophets through whom He announced to the sinful world the coming of the Redeemer. The prophets, therefore, are not to be regarded merely as religious geniuses or leaders. To consider them as such and nothing more, is completely to misunderstand them. Nor were their messages of human origination. For prophecy, despite all come by the will of men, but holy men spake as they were borne along by the Holy Ghost.(12)

In the words of Amos, “Surely the Lord Jehovah will do nothing except he reveal his secret unto his servants and prophets. The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord Jehovah hath spoken; who can but prophecy?”

Truth Magazine XXII: 40, pp. 646-649
October 12, 1978

1. Bernard Ramm, “Liberalism,” Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, p. 322.

2. Wick Broomall, Biblical Criticism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1957), p. 13.

3. James D. Bales, “Modernism,” What is Wrong? Edited by Thomas L. Campbell (Fort Worth: Campbell-Caskey Publishing Co., 1950), p. 21.

4. Edward J. Young, The Study of Old Testament Theology Today (London: James Clarke and Co., 1958), p. 26.

5. Ibid., quoting J.R. Rushdoony.

6. Herbert F. Hahn, Old Testament in Modern Research (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1954), p. 10.

7. Arthur S. Peake, The Bible: Its Origin, Significance, and Abiding Worth( New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1922), p. 402.

8. Benjamin B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, ed. Samual G. Craig (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1948), p. 173.


10. George Adam Smith, Modern Criticism and the Preaching of the Old Testament (New York: A.C. Armstrong and Son, 1901), pp. 78, 79.

11. Old Testament in Modern Research, p. 134.

12. Edward J. Young, My Servants the Prophets (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1952), pp. 191, 192.