Scholar suggests higher criticism has roots in France

It isn’t every day that something said by the notorious Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin contributes to a point made during a seminary lecture. But John Woodbridge drew the connection in the opening of  the 2007 Day-Higginbotham Lectures at Southwestern Seminary, March 22-24.

“Joseph Stalin, generally not considered to be an evangelical, made a rather interesting comment that could possibly be useful to us,” Woodbridge said. “Stalin said on one occasion that… ‘he who tells the best story, wins.’”

Woodbridge, who is research professor of church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill., said this principle is especially important when studying the history of the Bible. It may explain why historians often attribute the rise of higher criticism to the works of German scholars while missing a French connection.

“What people think about biblical authority is often determined in some regards by the story tellers who have indicated what the history of the Bible might be,” he said during his lecture series titled “Towards an Understanding of the Bible’s Authority during the European ‘Enlightenment.’”

Woodbridge recounted a debate between two French scholars from the 17th century, Richard Simon and Jean LeClerc. Woodbridge said the debate, “constituted an essential turning point in Western European thought.”

Richard Simon, one of the leading scholars in Paris in the 1600s, published a work titled "Critical History of the Old Testament" in 1678. Woodbridge called this publication “one of the most important books in the history of criticism.” Simon proposed the “Public Scribes Hypothesis.” This hypothesis posits that after the Jewish exile to Babylon, Jewish scribes completed the compilation of the Pentateuch. In other words, they finished what Moses started. Tragically, Simon’s hypothesis called into question the Bible’s infallibility.

Simon’s book was poorly received in France, and 1,300 copies of the first edition were burned in a government bonfire. This evidenced Europe’s conservatism and acceptance of the doctrine of biblical infallibility at that time, Woodbridge said.

Between 1685 and 1687, Jean LeClerc criticized Simon’s hypothesis, calling it a mere fabrication. But LeClerc’s views further undermined the authority of Scripture. He denied that Moses was even the author of the first five books of the Bible. He also wrote that the only wholly-inspired words in Scripture were the words of Jesus and the words of some of the prophets.

Woodbridge said that prior to the Simon-LeClerc debate, the prevailing belief among European thinkers was biblical infallibility. Scientists such as Isaac Newton saw no contradiction between the natural sciences and Scripture. In fact, they thought that science should be tested against Scripture. However, the issues brought out in the debate signaled a shift in the European attitude toward Scripture and the “unhinging” of science and ethics from the Judeo-Christian worldview.

“It is important for us to learn more about these particular turning points, unhinging episodes that contributed so significantly to creating the cultural climate in which we minister today,” Woodbridge said. “With the Holy Spirit’s empowering, we need to be about the work of hinging and re-hinging. The work of hinging is related to the ministry of preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world. The work of re-hinging is related to helping our contemporaries who have abandoned the Christian faith to understand that true wisdom is always conformable to the teaching of Holy Scripture.”

In his second lecture, Woodbridge applied the ideas that emerged from the Simon-LeClerc debate to two theories that undermine the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

Woodbridge discussed the Pietist tradition, from which modern Wesleyan and Pentecostal movements have come, and pointed out that many do not see the doctrine of biblical inerrancy in Pietism.

“Consequently, many Wesleyans and many Pentecostals do not believe that [biblical inerrancy] is part of their heritage,” Woodbridge said. “One of the things I will try to do is to try to rectify the story to show that the Pietist tradition certainly had in it the doctrine of biblical infallibility and inerrancy.”

Second, Woodbridge said that in Germany there exists “a major historiography that argues that Martin Luther was indeed the founder of higher criticism.” Woodbridge said the argument claims that Luther had a Christological focus in the way he read Scripture, so he was unconcerned about “what was on the left or what was on the right, and consequently, he was prepared to do higher criticism.”

But Woodbridge argued that Simon from Paris, rather than Luther, was the real influence behind the work of Johann S. Semler, a German scholar who has been called the “father of higher criticism.” Some higher critics have suggested that Scripture is a mixture of inspired truth and human ideas. Woodbridge refuted this concept.

“The view that you can, with your own reason, look at Scripture and separate what is from God and what is from man takes you away from preaching the whole counsel of God,” he said.

In addition to teaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Woodbridge is author of “Revolt in Pre-Revolutionary France,” “Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Roger/McKim Proposal, and co-author with Timothy George of “The Mark of Jesus.” Woodbridge has also served as senior editor for “Christianity Today” magazine.

Woodbridge delivered his first lecture during chapel, March 22. He delivered the other two lectures in conjunction with the regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society which was hosted at Southwestern Seminary, March 23-24.

Archived Flash Media and MP3 recordings of Woodbridge’s first lecture during Southwestern’s chapel service may be viewed, listened to or downloaded through the seminary’s Web site, www.swbts.edu.

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