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THE CONSTRUCTIVE ACHIEVEMENTS
OF THE HIGHER CRITICISM.*
WHEN Some clerical Presbyterian objected to Dr. Briggs's plea for the Higher Criticism of the Bible, "That he or any one should presume to criticise the word of God!" he not only begged the question in debate, but put himself in evidence that the vulgar idea of criticism as something merely negative and depreciatory infects a good many persons for whom such a mistake should be impossible. To say a favorable criticism is for such a contradiction in terms. And even for those who know that criticism is simply judgment and appreciation, Biblical criticism is often so much finding fault, a process of tearing down and pulling to pieces, to which no constructive process corresponds. Such a conception certainly implies the grossest ignorance of the course of Biblical criticism and the results it has so far attained, but that much of this course has had a negative character is not to be denied. Why should it be? There is nothing in the allowance that requires apology. To find that certain things are not as they have been supposed to be is a good step towards knowing what they really are. And no maxim has been more injurious than that which formulates the absurdity that we should destroy nothing till we had something as good to put in its place. The incapacity for intellectual suspense has been the fruitful mother of a brood of feeble notions and hypotheses, having neither the promise of this
A paper read at the Seventh Annual Meeting of the Conference of the Middle States and Canada, held in the Lenox Avenue Unitarian Church, New York, November 10; in Brooklyn, November 14; in Boston before the Unitarian Sunday School Union, in Channing Hall, Dec. 7, 1891.
world nor of that which is to come. "He that believeth shall not make haste," nor he that would believe in the abiding truth. A humble willingness to wait awhile, to go out like the patriarch not knowing whither, and not insisting that we shall know before we budge an inch, is the prime condition on which Truth reveals herself to earnest minds. The temper of the pious objector of our day is too often that of the country parish which wanted a meeting-house built on the exact site of the old one, the old one not to be disturbed until the new one was completely finished. The temple of religious truth is not going to be utterly demolished, but certain alterations have got to be made, if it is going to stand the brunt of wind and weather; and they cannot be made without a good deal of demolition. When they tried to patch the central tower of Chichester Cathedral, it came down with a rush, and so filled up the church inside that there was no room for the worshippers. A good deal of critical patching in our churches bids for a like result, and argues that a more heroic method would be better in the end. It cannot be too clearly understood that a new particular affirmation, corresponding to every one that criticism sets aside, is not to be had, and the demand for it is irrational and absurd. To ask triumphantly, "If Moses didn't write the Pentateuch, who did"? or "If John didn't write the Fourth Gospel, who did"? is an exact equivalent of Mark Twain's reasoning with respect to Adam's grave: "If it wasn't Adam's grave, whose was it?" The later criticism of the Bible has opposed a hundred sheer negations to traditional opinion, which, from the nature of the case, it has not been able to make good with corresponding affirmations. Its denials of the authorship of various books to various persons have all this character. The attempts to follow up the denial with a new affirmation have all been vain, and this is precisely what we should expect.
But this also should be borne in mind, that the negations of criticism for the most part are negations of traditional opinions about the Bible, not of its own affirmations.
titles of the books in either Testament are merely records of traditional opinions in the main, not parts of the books themselves. But the negations which criticism has opposed to many things, as to verbal or to plenary inspiration, have no Bible warrant, not even that of the titles, or the glosses of the chapter headings and the running titles, which have perverted judgment to an incalculable degree. I know a Unitarian minister who says: "I don't care a rap for your criticism. I propose to take the Bible at its face value." But its face value is like that of the enamelled women whom we sometimes meet upon the street. It has been painted an inch thick with the glosses of the theologians. "To this day," said Paul, "there remaineth a veil in the reading of the Old Testament." He said that it was done away in Christ. Is it not rather true that it has been remade thicker by the Christian centuries than it ever was before, and that the New Testament has undergone a similar disguise and transformation? Nine-tenths of the negation of the modern critic is negation of the glosses of interpreters and theologians that have come in between the Bible and men's eyes, and spoiled for them its actual proportions and obscured its glorious beauty.
By the Higher Criticism of the Bible is meant, or should be meant, that criticism which is not merely explanatory of the text, either with reference to bringing out its meaning or to economizing its moral and religious helps, and which is still less the subjection of the Bible to the necessities of particular systems of theology, of which we have had a great abundance all the centuries down. The Higher Criticism is an attempt to view the different parts of the Bible in a large and general way, to discover when the different books were written, and, if possible, by whom they were written, though this particular is of much less importance than the other; and yet, further, their relations to their separate times,—how they were influenced by these, and what influence they had upon them, if haply in this way the line of evolution may be traced from the beginning to the end of that millennium
which roughly synchronized with the literary creation of the Bible from its earliest to its latest part,- from the ninth century B.C. to the second after and inclusive. Within the limits of this criticism there is room for copious exegesis; for Thoreau's trout in the milk is no better circumstantial evidence than is many a text whereby there hangs a tale, though it must always be remembered that, as the trout may have been dropped into the milk-pan in the buttery, so may the special text have been the after-thought of some redactor or the intrusion of some careless scribe. When all has been done that can be done, the external and the internal evidences sifted, the language and the style of different books compared, the parts of each that are not homogeneous differentiated by these and other tests, there must remain around the circle of our definite knowledge a photosphere of vague, uncertain light that seems to come and go. But this photosphere, which is the scorn of dogmatists and the despair of those whom the dead certainties of an earlier stage have corrupted with a passion for others equally defunct, is, perhaps, one of the most valuable contributions of the Higher Criticism to our treasury of spiritual gains. It keeps the scholars still at work, nursing the unconquerable hope for some more definite result. It nourishes a wholesome sense of incompleteness and uncertainty in the teachers and the taught, like that which Cromwell tried vainly to encourage when he said to the Westminster divines, "I beseech you, by the bowels of the Lord, to consider it possible that you may be mistaken."
The method of Dogmatic Criticism was to begin with the most secret counsels of the Trinity and go searching through the Bible for some confirmation of those imaginary things. The method of the Higher Criticism is to begin with what is most surely known, and slowly and cautiously to work out its way from that into the adjacent region and then into the regions more and more remote. The most obvious outcome of this process is the negation and destruction of a great many traditional conceptions and the introduction of