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 The Principles of Theology - Article 7

by W.H.Griffith Thomas


<< Part 4. The Permanent Elements of the Old Testament

Part 5. The Problem of the Old Testament Today

The term “Old Testament Criticism” is often heard today, and it is at once important and inevitable, for no one can use the Bible without being a “critic”; that is, one who exercises his judgment. There is nothing unlawful in criticism; indeed, it is absolutely essential. Another term is also very familiar, “Higher Criticism,” and this, too, calls for special attention. As Lower Criticism is concerned with the text of the Bible and involves the study and comparison of manuscripts and versions, so Higher Criticism investigates the origin, structure and contents of Scripture, being concerned with the historical setting and study of the books in the light of the times when they were presumably written. There is, however, a tendency to think that our view of the Old Testament has to be materially different from that of our forefathers, and it is sometimes thought that Higher Criticism is so technical as to be possible only for scholars and that ordinary Christians have nothing else to do but accept the decisions of scholarship. But this is not the case, since ordinary Christians are dependent on scholars for two things only: a true text and a true translation, and when these are obtained every Christian has a right and a duty to test all things for himself. It is admitted by leading scholars themselves that ordinary Christians can decide the outstanding problems from a careful study of the English Bible alone. It is, therefore, important to understand in general what is involved in the modern critical discussions of the Old Testament. It is true and fair to say that the simple but all-important issue is the historical trustworthiness of the Old Testament as it has come down to us today.

1. The Critical Problem. This is both literary and historical.

(a) There are three crucial points in the literary aspects. (1) The question of documents. It is generally admitted that the Pentateuch, and to a great extent the rest of the Old Testament, is composed of different strata, but it is quite another question whether the dissection favoured by modern criticism can be proved to be true. (2) The date of Deuteronomy. It is allowed on every hand that this is the key to the critical position. Criticism says that it was not written by Moses, but discovered in the time of Josiah (2 Kings 22), having been composed perhaps a century or so before. It is perfectly true that if this critical position is correct the ordinary view collapses. The book is either substantially Mosaic, or else it is not. This is a definite and direct issue on which the two schools are absolutely at variance. (3) The date of those parts of Exodus and Leviticus which are connected with a Tabernacle worship, now technically known as the Priests’ Code. Do these date from the time of Moses or from the age of Ezra? These elements are practically inclusive of the vital literary issues.

(b) There are also three crucial points in the historical aspect. (1) Are the prophets before the law, or may we still use the old term, “the law and the prophets”? (2) Does the Theocracy as depicted in the Pentateuch date from the time of Moses, or was it not an actual fact before the Babylonian Exile? (3) Was Israel’s religion of Monotheism in its purity a late evolution or an early revelation? It will be at once seen that there is a close connection between these two aspects, and it does not seem possible to separate them. Modern criticism, however, argues that they can be distinguished, while extreme criticism, which is decidedly more logical, says this is impossible. The difficulty is that extreme criticism, as represented by some of the leading scholars like Kuenen and Wellhausen, approaches the Old Testament with purely naturalistic and rationalistic presuppositions, and on the basis of these dissects the documents. It is difficult to see how conclusions can be accepted when supernatural premisses are denied. Even moderate criticism is constantly arguing about Israel’s religion, based on the literary grounds of dissection. So that it seems impossible to say that the problem is literary and not historical, since on the basis of the literary dissection historical conclusions are drawn. Even admitting to the full literary strata and different authors, this is no argument for placing the earliest documents as late as the ninth century B.C. So that the real problem facing us today is the trustworthiness of the Old Testament, both as a historical record and as a spiritual revelation.

2. The Reaction. There does not seem much doubt that during the last few years the whole question has been reopened, and matters that were thought to be settled beyond all doubt are being discussed as fully as ever. In Germany and in England there are leading scholars who have raised the whole question connected with the critical theory, both in regard to its documents and to its presupposition of evolution as accounting for Israel’s religion. Archæology is bearing its testimony in favour of the historical accuracy of the Old Testament, and new schools of criticism are rising in which the whole critical hypothesis is subjected to a severe and destructive criticism. It is being allowed by an increasing number of scholars that the fundamental principles on which the modern criticism of the Old Testament has proceeded are no longer tenable.

3. The Claim of the Old Testament. Meanwhile, it is important to remind ourselves of the actual facts of the case. The Old Testament, with its thirty-nine books of varied kinds and dates, offers an immense field for study, in which questions arise that cannot possibly be settled without careful critical consideration. But the book, as it now stands, is marked by three elements, each of which must be faced and explained.

(a) The Old Testament professes to be the record of a supernatural, continuous revelation to mankind in general, and then to Israel. This, whether right or wrong, is quite obvious, and calls for a proper explanation. The real question is whether the Old Testament view of religion is the result of a Divine revelation or of a human evolution. There is no doubt that the Old Testament itself founds everything on a belief in a Divine intervention with “Thus saith the Lord” as its keynote.

(b) The presence of this revelation gives to the book a remarkable unity, which in spite of its variety is patent to all careful readers; indeed, the presence of these two elements of variety and unity is one of the most striking features of the book. Starting from the earliest period of the human race, the Old Testament proceeds through the patriarchal period to the Mosaic age, and the time of the Monarchy, and at each point there is a development and yet a unity of conception which links later books with the former in the one profound thought of an expected Deliverer, the Messiah.

(c) The revelation and its unity are proved by the claim to inspiration found in the Old Testament. Whether we think of the earlier portions, or follow the story down through the ages, observing annals, poetry, prophecy, the supreme thought at every point is the presence of an all-pervading power that stamps these books as spiritually vital and ethically efficacious for human life. It is this threefold claim to a Divine revelation, a Divine unity, and a Divine inspiration that stands out quite obviously in the Old Testament and compels attention and demands explanation.

4. How, then, may ordinary students of the Bible test the various critical hypotheses of the present day? The following are suggested as some of the ways by which an examination can be made and conclusions derived.

(a) A careful consideration of the historical fact of the Jewish nation. Modern criticism compels a complete reconstruction of the national life, as recorded in the Old Testament, and as there is nothing whatever in Jewish history to support this reconstruction the question at issue becomes a very vital one. [1].

(b) The evidence of Archæology. Very few can discuss questions of Hebrew philology, but the evidence of archæology is available for, and tangible by all. During the last sixty years a vast number of discoveries have been made in Egypt, Palestine, and Assyria, and not one of these has gone to support the critical position. Not only so, but a number of leading archæologists, formerly critics, have abandoned that view and now oppose it.

(c) The necessity of spiritual work. No one doubts the blessing of the Spirit of God on those who hold the conservative view. The seal of the Christian Church is on the books as they are, and the lessons have been brought home to us in their present form, so that any doctrine of the Bible for spiritual men must bear the stamp of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Truth. The conservative view has been abundantly blessed in all ages, but it can hardly be said that the critical view has had this seal.

(d) The witness of our Lord and His Apostles. This does not mean the invocation of the authority of Christ to close all questions, but simply the adducing of the witness of the Old Testament in support of the contentions of historical scholarship. The witness of Christ and His Apostles is clearly in harmony with the Jewish and the Church’s view of the Bible, and the only question between our Lord and His opponents was as to the interpretation of that Scripture, the authority of which both sides accepted.

(e) The testimony of spiritual experience. There is that in the Bible while defies dissection and analysis because it transcends all historical and literary severances. The Bible is foremost a spiritual book, brought home to the heart by the Holy Spirit, and it is here that much criticism entirely fails us. Truth requires verification by the spiritual man, and when the Word of God is allowed to be our “critic” (Heb. 4:12) it soon reveals its true character to the thoughtful, open-minded, spiritual follower of Christ.

The matter is thus vital and is not merely literary, but historical, theological, and spiritual. This does not mean that there are no difficulties in the old view, but it does imply that the new view does not remove them. Nor is there any real standing-ground between the conservative and rationalistic positions, for if the modern critical view is correct, not only is the conservative position wrong, but Jewish history, Church history, and experience during the centuries, and even the New Testament are all wrong. Is it possible that the tradition of centuries is essentially erroneous? The deepest interests are also involved, for it is proving impossible to stop short with the Old Testament, and the same scholars are now engaged on a dissection of the New Testament, which tends to give a picture of Jesus Christ our Lord scarcely discernible from a naturalistic and Unitarian position. So that what is required is a threefold criticism: a Lower Criticism, dealing with words and sentences under the guidance of grammar and dictionary; a Higher Criticism, which gets behind the text and endeavours to discover all that is possible of times, circumstances, conditions of various books; and not least of all what may be called a Higher Criticism, which is based on spiritual sympathy, insight, and experience. This last is often possessed by humble, true-hearted souls, who do not know anything of literary, critical, and historical problems, but who do appreciate the religious and spiritual aspects of the Old Testament, and whose sincere judgment calls for respectful consideration before any merely intellectual conclusions can be regarded as entirely satisfactory. “The musical know what is music.”

We may rest perfectly satisfied that no criticism of the Old Testament will ever be accepted by the Christian Church as a whole, which does not fully satisfy the following conditions:

1. It must admit in all its assumptions, and take fully into consideration, the supernatural element which differentiates the Bible from all other books.

2. It must be in keeping with the enlightened spiritual experience of the saints of God in all ages, and make an effectual appeal to the piety and spiritual perception of those who know by personal experience the power of the Holy Ghost.

3. It must be historically in line with the general tradition of Jewish history and the unique position of the Hebrew nation through the centuries.

4. It must be in unison with that Apostolic conception of the authority and inspiration of the Old Testament, which is so manifest in the New Testament.

5. Above all, it must be in accordance with the universal belief of the Christian Church in our Lord’s infallibility as a Teacher, and as “the Word made Flesh.”

It is not too much to affirm that when modern Higher Criticism can satisfy these requirements, it will not merely be accepted, but will command the universal, loyal, and even enthusiastic adhesion of all Christians.


>> Introduction to Article 8




[1] “The critical hypothesis, as it at present stands, assumes that the Jewish national consciousness was deliberately and successfully falsified, and that what the Jews have always believed to be the beginning of their religious life was really the end of it. I believe that this is both incredible and impossible” (Dean Wace, Paper read at the Victoria Institute, June 1913).




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The Principles of Theology

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Article 7

>> Introduction

>> Unity of Old & New Testaments

>> Spirituality of the Old Testament

>> Temporary elements of the O.T.

>> Permanent elements of the O.T.

>> Problem of the O.T. Today

Content of The Principles

>> Index

>> Preface by J I Packer

>> Introduction

>> 1 - Trinity

>> 2 - Christ

>> 3 - Descent into Hell

>> 4 - Resurrection

>> 5 - Holy Spirit

>> 6 - Holy Scripture

>> 7 - The Old Testament

>> 8 - The Three Creeds

>> 9 - Of Original or Birth Sin

>> 10 - Of Free Will

>> 11 - Of the Justifcation of Man




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