What is the 'Critical' Reading of the Bible?
James T. Dennison, Jr.
In 1974, a book published by Yale University Press burst upon the theological and critical world like a bombshell. The author, Hans Frei, was, at the time, Professor at Yale Divinity School where he had labored in near obscurity since 1957. The book, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, catapulted Frei into the limelight of virtually every literary, theological and biblical movement of his day. In typically critical fashion, the Yale don attempted to straddle the ditchto keep one foot in his safely radical-liberal Yale climate, while placing the other foot over against his own safe environment. Critical liberalism (or what I prefer to call fundamentalism of the left) has presumed for more than two hundred years that the text of the Bible (as the text of any literary work) was to be read scientificallythat is, without any supernatural bias or presupposition. Frei's book suggested that this fashionable liberal fundamentalism left the straightforward reading of the Biblical narrative in eclipse. If the foundation of liberalism's critical hermeneuticnamely the gap or chasm between the text and the interpreterif this foundation were valid, Frei maintained it was no longer possible to read the Bible as narrative at all. The narrative world of the Bible was lost forever on the critical reading of the textreplaced with the world of the modern interpreter. Frei's blast was a plea for a return, in part, to a precritical, narrative reading of the Biblical text. And while it must be acknowledged that Frei's plea was courageous and poignant, it must be regarded as much a failure as the critical movement he came to distrust. Frei would not agree with the Hebrew scholar, Meir Sternberg, that the last two hundred years of Biblical criticism have been a waste of time, a "frenzied digging into the Bible's genesis, so senseless as to elicit either laughter or tears. Rarely has there been such a futile expense of spirit in a noble cause; rarely have such grandiose theories of origination been built and revised and pitted against one another on the evidential equivalent of the head of a pin; rarely have so many worked so long and so hard with so little to show for their trouble" (Poetics of Biblical Narrative  13). But Frei did observe the consequences of liberal Biblical criticism; empty pews all over Europe (especially Germany); moral relativism in traditional, mainline religious circles; theological fads; and a Bible regarded by postmodernists as a wax nose able to be tweaked whatever way the agenda-broker tweaks it. Hans Frei recognized that the modern interpreter could make the Bible say anything his preconceived agenda needed the Bible to say. Give Frei credit: he blew the whistle on the critical agenda and got the attention of the Biblical and theological world. Yet Frei himself has been eclipsedamong orthodox and evangelical scholars. With the exception of Carl F. H. Henry (who engaged Frei in a written dialogue a year before the latter's death in 1988), the neglect of Frei's analysis of the history and progress of post-Enlightenment biblical criticism is revealing: revelatory of the "borrowed capital" which drives much Reformed and evangelical work on the Bible (affirmations of inerrancy notwithstanding). Tragically, many orthodox teachers and ministers have fallen under the penumbra of the eclipse of biblical narrative.
Frei admits that there once was a time when the Biblical narrative was read, albeit naively, as a straightforward tale of truth. He calls this the precritical reading of the text. The paradigm shift in reading the Bible occurred at the Enlightenment, sometimes denominated the Age of Reason. The Enlightenment was the dominant mood of the 18th century and the names Voltaire, Bayle, Kant are intimately associated with this era of daring optimism and rebellion. Frei calls it an era of hermeneutical revolution. Whether the roots of the 18th century Enlightenment lie in 17th century Cartesianism and empiricism, I leave to the students of philosophy to decide. Frei regards the Enlightenment as the watershed: before the Enlightenment, the precritical reading of the Bible; with the Enlightenment, the critical reading of the Bible begins. From the Enlightenment, the Bible would never be the same again. Critical fundamentalism, Enlightenment fundamentalism reduced the Bible to the horizon of the prevailing culture, hermeneutics after the Enlightenment became a subtle form of philosophythe philosophy of the current predominant religious ethos.
For our purposes today, I want to establish what is meant by the higher criticism of the Scriptures. I want to define this liberal critical fundamentalism of the radical left from the biographical point of view. That is, I want to examine three individuals who, in my opinion, more than any others shaped, defined and embodied the critical quest for the Word of God. The three are: Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677); Herman Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768); and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781). Spinoza, Reimarus, Lessing: the Triumvirate of a truly scientific and critical approach to the Bible. Their legacy is utterly devastating to genuine supernaturalism, objective and concrete history in the text, eschatological or semi-eschatological reading of the Word of God. For the Reformed biblical theologian in the tradition of Geerhardus Vos, Meredith G. Kline, Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. and others, there is only radical antithesis between the Triumvirate and the reading of the text of the Bible as divinely inspired words from heaven. Scripture itself is an eschatological phenomenonan intrusion of the spoken word of the Triune God into time and space history. Special revelation is the penetration of the words of heaven's Lord into the arena of creation. Not so for the Triumvirate; and tragically, not so for many conservative, evangelical and often Reformed expositors of the Biblical text. In practice there is not much difference between the way many evangelical and Reformed preachers read the text of Scripture and the way mainline critical fundamentalists of the left read the text. In truth, we are eyewitnesses to a battle for the Bible by fundamentaliststhose of the right and those of the left. How sadly many Reformed and evangelical pastors and teachers reduce the Bible to the great dividethe chasm between meaning and applicationthe modern preacher and the ancient text. But if application is in the meaning and meaning is in the identification and participation in the Christ of the text, something more revolutionary than the critical reading of the Bible is being suggested. None other than a revolution of heavenly proportions is afoot when the Bible is read as the ipsissima verba Dei.
Benedict Spinoza was born Baruch Spinoza in 1632 in Amsterdam to a Portuguese family of displaced Jewish heritage. His parents had emigrated to Holland, ostensibly in search of freedom and life (Philip II of Spain was a vigorous defender of the Inquisition including the execution of Jews as well as Protestants). Baruch changed his name to the Latinized Benedict when he turned his back on the Jewish ghetto in which he had been raised and abandoned the religion and tradition of his culture. Spinoza's repudiation of his cultural-religious past was ratified by the Jewish synagogue in Amsterdamhe was excommunicated in 1656. In 1670, the first of his famous books appeared anonymously. The Theological-political Treatise (Tractatus Theologico-politicus) was quickly identified as issuing from the pen of Spinoza. His second famous work, the Ethics, appeared after his death in 1677. In these two volumes, we find the fundamental elements of a critical approach to the Bible. It is Spinoza's work displayed in these two treatises which has earned him the title "Father of Modern Biblical Scholarship". Hence, as early as 1670, a radical, revolutionary, naturalistic approach to the Bible was launched in Holland and quickly spread to England, Germany and France. Today this critical naturalism is the basic presupposition of all theological liberalism and all higher criticism of the Bible. The downgrade begins with Spinoza.
I have alluded to Spinoza's root presupposition about the Bible, namely naturalism. This means that nothing in the Bible is supernatural; nothing! the whole Bible and all of its parts are reduced to the horizontal. (And I note, in passing, that all liberal fundamentalism is reductionistica mere variation on anti-vertical horizontalism. Or, to put it as Spinoza did, practical theology displaces revealed theologythe practice of ethics supplants doctrine, creed, miracle, transcendence.) Therefore emerging from Spinoza's naturalistic view of Scripture is a concomitantly reductionistic moralism. The real value of the Bible lies in this, according to Spinoza: love God and love your neighbor. And it was precisely this which attracted Spinoza to Jesus (insofar as he was attracted to Jesus). More than Moses, more than the rabbis, Jesus embodied the spiritthe ethosof the Golden Rule. Jesus supremely and superbly obeyed the rule to love God and his fellow man. In fact, said Spinoza, Jesus himself was saved by keeping his own Golden Rule. Note how Spinoza's bibliology (doctrine of the Bible) spawns Spinoza's soteriology (doctrine of salvation). If the Bible is reduced to naturalistic ethics, we should not marvel at the logical fruit of ethicismnamely, salvation by works. This is not crass Roman Catholic works salvation (so abhorrent to the Protestant temperament); Spinoza's soteriology is a sophisticated works salvation born from critical and proto-Enlightenment savvy. But it is still as deadly and as fatal. Call it a second justification by works of penance (as Rome does) or call it salvation by obedience to the Golden Rule of loveit is still heresy and inimical to a supernatural Bible and a supernatural salvation.
Spinoza is a zealous anti-supernaturalist. There is in fact for Spinoza no supernatural GodGod is himself reduced to naturalistic immanence and this is one reason Spinoza is often labeled a pantheist. No supernatural God and no supernatural revelation (word of God) and no supernatural miracle (deed or act of God). No supernaturalism period! Spinoza boldly describes any approach to the Bible which regards the Scriptures as a supernatural, divinely-inspired revelation as "superstition". In fact, more than superstitiontraditional Jewish and Christian views of the supernatural origin and inspiration of the Bible are diabolic. They are the root causes of modern man's problems. Intolerance, prejudice, war, poverty, ignorance: responsibility for all these social ills Spinoza lays at the doorstep of supernatural religion. The solution? to borrow a phrase from Voltaire with which Spinoza would heartily agreeecrasez l'infame ("destroy the infamy"). Destroy supernatural religion. Spinoza (as Voltaire) is clear: the kingdom of darkness is the orthodox Jewish or orthodox Christian interpretation of Scripture as divine, supernatural revelation. The new dispensation, the new kingdom of light and truth and virtue dawns with Spinoza and his radical naturalism. Everything before him was the age of ignorance and delusion.
And the methodology of Spinoza's naturalism? If he repudiates a supernatural method of approaching truth or reality, what does he put in its place? If the Bible is not to be interpreted or understood from above (divine and supernatural light), how is it to be interpreted and understood? Spinoza's answer in a wordrationalism. Reason alone is sufficient to understand the Bible. But the Bible, you say, is revelation. Not so, rejoins Spinoza, it is not a vehicle of revelation, it is merely, only, solely a vehicle of reason and the universal truths of reason. Spinoza is truly a revolutionary. He is repudiating the historic orthodox relation of revelation and reason for the antithesis. Reason trumps revelation. Reason amends revelation. For Spinoza, reason stands over against revelation. Revelation therefore is completely redefined by Spinoza. All that was heretofore attributed to revelation is from Spinozan rationalism on attributed to reason. For Spinoza, the Bible, as traditionally understood, becomes the great barrier to human progress. A supernatural Bible destroys freedom and tolerance. Reduce the Bible from the sacred to the secular and a new eraa golden age of tolerance and freedom and love and joy will emerge. We must understand that Spinoza's angst, his 17th century angst, drives him to invent an entirely new method for interpreting the Bible. And every post-Spinozan has reacted in his own angst precisely the way Spinoza reacted. If we take the lesson of our own rebels of the 60'sthe flower children, the Woodstock generationthe fundamental premise of those marchers, demonstrators, protestors, drop-outers was "up against the wall" with the establishment. Benedict Spinoza is a 17th century hippie. He is revolted by the establishment culture of his eraboth Jewish and Christianand he invents a weapon of destruction in order to build a new societya great societyan enlightened society. And the role of the Bible in Spinoza's new society of rational man is that of a moral textbook.
Spinoza constructed an entirely new hermeneutic for interpreting the Bible in accordance with his rationalistic canons. First, the Bible is a book like any other book and is to be interpreted as one would interpret any other book. Second, Scripture arises from inside historynot from outside history. It must therefore be interpreted historicallythat is, not supernaturally. Reason alone is the exegetical key. Internal witness of the Holy Spirit?no way! Real, true intrusion of the above into the below?absolutely not! Genuine typological connection between prophecy and fulfillment?nonsense!
You begin to realize what the critical reading of the Bible implies. It implies a reductive method of applying rational, ethical truths contextually; that is, applying rational, ethical truths to the contemporary cultural context. In fact, Spinoza is the real father of Biblical contextualization. If the dominant context is rationalism, interpret the Bible rationalistically. Rationalistic truth is universal truth and according to this hermeneutical canon of Spinoza, nothing particularistic or unique to Israel or the church is valid or true or morally binding. Only that which is true for all people universally, at all times, in all conditionsonly that is true! Rationalistic truth discards all unique supernaturalism, while retaining all naturalistic universal truthsthe so-called truths of reason. Spinoza is not only a radical reductionist; he is a radical separatist. He separates the meaning of the Bible from its truth. The truth of the Bible is notis not the plain meaning of the text. Truth is what lies behind the textbehind the text in the universal truths of reason. We must pause here in order to allow this point to soak into our minds. Spinoza maintains that there is a radical separation between what the Bible means and what the Bible meant. What it means to the 17th century reader or hearer is notis not what it meant to the person who wrote it. The person or persons who wrote the Bible were superstitious primitives. But the person who now reads the Bible (as Spinoza now reads the Bible) knows that the true meaning of Scripture is distinct and separate from the plain meaning of the words on the page. The hidden truths, behind the plain meaning of the text, are the universal truths of reason.
This is the beginning of the so-called historical method of Biblical interpretation. It is more accurately called the historical-critical method and Benedict Spinoza is its father. The historical meaning of the Bible is not straightforward actual time and space truthas if everything in the Bible were true history. No, noa thousand times NO. Spinoza argues that a historical approach to the Bible realizes that the historical facts recorded in Scripture are contradictoryin fact, the Bible is full of contradictions. So the true interpreter of the Bible must get to the true, scientific history behind the contradictions and the superstitions. True historicity of the Bible is its secularization or historicizationthat is, reducing the history in the Bible to the secular, universal, rational truth.
What about Jesus and the traditional typological approach to Christology? Spinoza maintains that Jesus is not the object of Scripture; he is the subject of the universal truths of reason. In fact, according to Spinoza, Jesus is the first human to intuitively perceive Spinoza's agenda before Spinoza. Remarkable! Jesus measures up to Spinoza! For Jesus is no more than a 17th century moralista rationalist like Spinoza. Hence any soteriological focus on the life, death and resurrection of Christ is absurd. Spinoza is emphatic: dead bodies do not rise and Jesus' dead body was no different. "Salvation" for Spinoza is keeping the Golden Rule. Jesus kept it and thus he too was saved by keeping it.
One final point with respect to Spinoza. How was this new approach to the Biblethis historical-critical methodto be communicated? Were not the majority of the masses bound by their creeds, dogmas, superstitious and traditional view of religion? Indeed they were, so they needed guidance; they needed direction from the wise and learned scientific thinkers of their age. They needed to realize their dependence upon the intellectual elite of their daypeople like, guess who, Spinoza. These savants would liberate the masses from the bondage of superstition, ignorance, prejudice, priestcraft (the buzzword for dependence on clergy). The modern answers to modern man's dilemmas reside with the expertsexperts in rationalistic, historical-critical, naturalistic, man-centered, scientific truth. As one scholar perceptively notes, Spinoza invited modern 17th century man to exchange one form of tyranny for another: the tyranny of traditional orthodoxy for the more scientific tyranny of Spinoza. My observation is that the reductionism of fundamentalismeither from the left or from the rightthe reductionism of fundamentalism is tyrannical, destructive of liberty and a form of slavery no matter how sophisticated the elitism, nor how ostensibly orthodox. Beware! Beware the religious system which makes its adherents subject to the power of a control-freak pastor or elder or teacher. I say bewareit is the ugly face of the Enlightenment with all its concomitant death wishes.
Hans Frei notes that Spinoza marks the beginning of the great reversalthat is, the great reversal by which the Biblical story is fitted into another world. No, not the eschatological worldnot the heavenly world, but the earthly world of the modern scientific thinker. Biblical hermeneutics has never been the same since Spinoza. Hegel saidall philosophy begins with Spinoza. Noticenot Aristotle, not Plato, not Descartes: all philosophy begins with Spinoza. This man's influence was and still is huge! His impact on the English Deists has just been catalogued in a massive 832-page book from Oxford University Press by Jonathan Israel (Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750). Kant and Schleiermacher both paid tribute to Spinoza. If Hume awakened Kant from his dogmatic slumbers, Spinoza kept him awake and Schleiermacher, building on Kant, wrote essays and letters in praise of the excommunicated hero.
Herman Samuel Reimarus
The English Deists form the bridge between Spinoza and our next critic: Herman Samuel Reimarus. Building intentionally and unintentionally upon Spinoza's naturalism, the Deists demolished (in their estimation) the case for Christianity (that is, the case for the Bible as supernatural revelation) and built in England a religion of nature. Reimarus devoured the exegetical work of the Deists; joining his colleagues from across the Channel in demythologizing the miraculous in Scripture (especially the bodily resurrection of Jesus) and ridiculing the concept of genuine predictive prophecy (for example, Isaiah 53 had nothing to do with the death of Jesus on the cross). Reimarus joined the Deists in maintaining that Old Testament prophecy had no real contact with New Testament fulfillment and that the reports of a bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth were frankly a hoaxa lie.
Reimarus was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1694; he died in 1768. He is remembered today chiefly from the original title of Albert Schweitzer's monumental Quest for the Historical Jesus. Schweitzer reviewed the original search for the Jesus of historythe non-supernatural Jesus behind the textin Von Reimarus zu Wrede ("From Reimarus to Wrede") published in German in 1906. Wrede was Wilhelm Wrede, inventor of the so-called "messianic secret" interpretation of the synoptic gospels. Schweitzer's book began with Reimarus because Schweitzer regarded Reimarus as the great "stalwart" (i.e., stalwart foe of biblical orthodoxy). "Seldom has there been a hate so eloquent, so lofty a scorn," wrote Schweitzer of Reimarus's magnum opus, "The Goal of Jesus and his Disciples." Eloquent hate and scorn for what? a divine and supernatural Bible, as well as a divine and supernatural God-man. And yet this hateful scorn was kept hidden. Reimarus was an intellectual coward—he cloaked his public life in the guise of orthodoxy while writing more than four thousand pages of personal manuscript material describing his utter contempt for supernatural Christianity. Peter Reill, shrewd historian of the Enlightenment, has described Reimarus as a Jekyll-Hyde chameleon.
But exactly what was in that manuscript trove which the Hamburg professor left to the Wolfenbuttel Library on his death?manuscripts discovered and published (without Reimarus's name) by the Wolfenbuttel librarian, our next critical personality, G. E. Lessing? Reimarus left seven principal manuscripts dealing with Biblical topics ranging from the credibility of Israel's crossing the Red Sea to the historicity of the resurrection of Christ. Each of the seven broadsides adopts Spinoza's religion of nature methodology. In other words (as Reimarus's Deist books affirmed), true religion is religion based on reason alone, not revelation. The Bible is not revelation, according to Reimarus; in fact, the Bible is contradictory (at best) and fraudulent (at worst). The charge of fraud may shock us, but remember Schweitzer's remark about Reimarus"eloquent hate."
Let us examine Reimarus's treatment of the resurrection narratives in order to better understand his unique contribution to the critical reading of the Bible. Since the synoptic and Johannine accounts of the resurrection of Jesus differin fact contradict one another according to Reimarusnothing may be truly known about what really happened to the corpse of Jesus following the crucifixion. The religion Jesus preached ended with the cross; Christianity started with the story of an empty tomba story concocted by Jesus' disciples. Precisely here is the point of Reimarus's significant advance over Spinoza. Reimarus is the first critic to distinguish the religion of Jesus from the religion of the disciples. Yet from Reimarus to the present postmodern day, liberal fundamentalism distinguishes Jesus himself from what comes after Jesus. What Jesus himself taught and did is one thing; what the disciples and the later Christian community taught about Jesus is another. Hence from Reimarus on, the critical "what it meant"/"what it means" dichotomy must distinguish between what Jesus meant (and what that means to us today) as well as what later Christianity meant (or what that means to us today).
In other words, since Reimarus, we must not only get behind the text of the Bible to the real truths of reason, we must get behind the words of Jesus to the real truth of the morally virtuous one. But the teaching of the disciples and the later Christian church? that is fraud, hoaxReimarus was boldthat is a lie. Either orthodox, supernatural Christianity is true or it is a lie, said Reimarus. Either/Orno middle ground. Back to the resurrection of Christ as the classic test case again: "Matthew spun the story of Christ's resurrection out of his head," said Reimarus. But why, according to Reimarus, did the disciples perpetrate this hoax? The answer lies in the eschatological message of Jesus.
Reimarus describes Jesus' message as eschatological because that message is rooted in Jewish apocalyptic politics. Jesus latched on to the phrase "kingdom of heaven" or "kingdom of God" and preached the imminence of this kingdom everywhere he went. The phrase "kingdom of God" denotes an earthly, Jewish, political kingdom in which Israel's political oppressors are destroyed. Jesus' call to repent in anticipation of the kingdom of heaven is actually a call to get ready for liberation from Israel's enemies and to prepare for the earthly kingdom of Israel synonymous with the kingdom of God. In fact, Reimarus said that Jesus' triumphal entry on Palm Sunday was a "nakedly political" grab for power. Jesus was forcing the issue with Rome six days before his death. Jesus attempted a power-play which he hoped would lead to mass uprisings against Israel's Roman oppressors. His hopes failed. Jesus' very own death ended his hopes of an earthly, political, Jewish kingdom. After his death, his disciples were devastated. They had hoped for power and prestige in Jesus' earthly kingdom. That was now impossible with Jesus in the grave. So in order to preserve their power-grab and to insure their prestige and influence over the masses, the disciples stole Jesus' body, invented the story of his resurrection and resurrection appearances, and transformed Jesus' earthly eschatological message into a message of a spiritual kingdom in which the masses were deliverednot from Romebut from the oppression of sin and death. Later, after the disciples died, the early church continued the story of deception because the church wanted cultural power and influence in the pagan Greco-Roman world. An "other worldly" religion was precisely what would guarantee the church's lust for political or cultural control. Thus far, Reimarus's "The Goal of Jesus and his Disciples."
Needless to say, this is a radical reconstruction of the message of Jesus and his disciples. No wonder Reimarus was afraid to publish this essay during his lifetime: coward he was, but he was no dummy. Many persons suspected that Reimarus was the author of the anonymous manuscriptpublished by Lessing posthumously. But it was not until Reimarus's son donated copies of his father's papers to the Gottingen Library in 1813-1814, that the world knew for certain what Lessing knew in 1774. After 1813, the world was no longer deceivedby the dead Reimarus.
What then is the use of the religion of Jesus? For Reimarus (as for Spinoza before him), the religion of Jesus remains valuable to society for its "glorious morality." And who will direct and encourage us in imitating this morality of a deluded Jewish peasant? The intellectual and academic elite of an Enlightened and rationalistic-scientific culture. Reimarus's dreadful legacy is a tyranny of the learned over the duped and deludedthe ignorant masses. With respect to Either/Or, it would be preferable in my opinion to choose biblical orthodoxy (even if it were a fabulous myth) over this moralistic totalitarianism. Either Reimarus or orthodoxy! Orthodoxy (even at its worst) seems positively angelic in comparison with this "eloquent hatred."
Gotthold E. Lessing
But now, to Reimarus's publisherGotthold Ephraim Lessing! Spinoza has given us a critical reading of the Bible which reduces Scripture to the natural truths of reason. Factor in the English Deists as providing the fuel for Reimarus's enmity and the Fragmentist (as he was known from the "Wolfenbuttel Fragments") has given us a further critical reading of the Bible; especially the teaching of Jesus, which is eschatologicalthat is, a horizontal, political triumphalism ending in delusion. Lessing, reacting to and advancing Spinoza, the Deists and Reimarus, will erect a mighty chasm, and on the nether side of that ditch, he will take refuge in contradiction while dignifying the lie by the term "paradox".
G. E. Lessing was born in 1729, the son of an orthodox Lutheran pastor. Shortly after his matriculation at the University of Leipzig in 1746, he wrote a letter to his father in which he rejected orthodox Lutheranism. His career for the next twenty years was that of a dramatist, literary critic, author. In 1770, he became Librarian at Wolfenbuttel where he found the fragments of Reimarus. He died in 1781.
With Spinoza and Reimarus before him, Lessing was a bitter opponent of supernatural Christianity. He regarded the supernaturally inspired Bible and the orthodox creeds as a form of oppressionthe vehicle of religious absolutismthe tools of an authoritarian caste: priests, clerics, religious dupes. The liberation of mankind would occur only when orthodox claims were destroyed. But how to destroy orthodox Christianity while retaining "religion"? Lessing's solution to the dilemma was to erect a ditcha yawning chasm between the accidental truths of history and the necessary truths of reason. Lessing's famous "ugly ditch" was his proposal to preserve man's religious consciousness, while separating and removing that consciousness from historical fact. Simply put, man's inner spiritual being is not dependent on historical facts. Inner religious spirituality is more certain than debatable historical facts. Let us again take the resurrection of Christ as our example. Previous anti-supernaturalistsSpinoza, the Deists, Reimarushad proved that the bodily resurrection of Christ did not happen; naturally, dead bodies do not rise. Lessing agreed. But whereas Spinoza used the reports of Christ's resurrection to launch an investigation into the universal truths of reason, and Reimarus had dismissed the reports of Christ's resurrection as a fraudulent hoax, Lessing said, "It doesn't matter." Jesus' body did not rise from the dead; the disciples probably did invent the talebut it doesn't matter. Christianity is still truethe chasm which separates history from man's inner religious being protects the latter. That is, faith, joy, hope, religious consciousness: these are all impervious to historical fact. Historical investigation cannot touch man's inner religious sense. Hence human religion remains, even if specific historic religions, such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam, prove to be false. Lessing preferred Christianity because it was the tradition of his culture, but in his famous tale of the three rings (representing the three major world religionsone ring genuine, the other two copies)in the end no one knew which ring was authentic and it did not matter. In short, Christianity is true even if the resurrection of Christ is a lie. The truth of Christianity is notcannot bedependent on a verifiable historical fact.
Lessing's chasm would require a bridge; and Schleiermacher, Hegel and other 19th century romanticists and idealists would provide a reconstruction of man's inner religious consciousness so as to preserve "faith", "joy", "hope". Whether this 19th century program focused on man's feeling of absolute dependence (his God-consciousness, thus Schleiermacher) or whether one focused on man's participation in the dialectic of the absolute Spirit (thus Hegel), it was an attempt to justify reason over against revelation. Lessing proposes the subjectivization and interiorization of religion and moral values. Truth emerges from historical lies.
After Lessing, man's journey to freedom lies withinnever without to God, but always and ever within to the self. All preaching; all religious teaching; all religious living must now be measured from this side of the chasm, this side of the ugly ditch, this side of the objective/subjective dichotomy. All religion on the nether side of Lessing's ditch must be measured anthropocentrically. In a real sense, Lessing redefines the entire golden chain of the apostle Paul in order to reflect this radical religious subjectivism. The sojourn is not one of the soul going out of itself to God; the pilgrimage is rather the interior journey of the self/the mind to self-understanding, self-realization, self-development, self-fulfillment. Lessing is the "priest" of the "new orthodoxy"the baptism with self-absorption and the profession to pacify oneself with the warm fuzzies of "scientific religion."
All of you will recall Paul's golden chain in Romans 8:28, 29: whom God foreknew, he predestined; whom he predestined, he called; whom he called, he justified; whom he justified, he glorified. Now Lessing's Golden Chain of Rationalism: whom the self calls, it calls to abandon supernaturalism for the inner freedom of internal religious consciousness; whom the self justifies, it justifies by faith alonethat is, by inner surrender to the liberating forces of destiny; whom the self glorifies, it glorifies with the assurance of immortalitythe immortal self. Here you discover a little known fact of the Rationalistic Enlightenmentall traditional biblical doctrines (effectual calling, justification, adoption, sanctification, glorification) are recast and redefined rationalistically, but still "religiously." The new orthodoxy of rationalism can use the vocabulary of historic Christian orthodoxy while completely recasting the meaning of the terms. We are accustomed to this bait and switch technique with neo-orthodoxy (Emil Brunner, Karl Barth), but we forget that every deviation of liberal fundamentalism is duplicitousit uses the orthodox language of Scripture with radically new and different meaning. Consider once more Lessing on the resurrection of Jesus. Yes, Jesus "rose", but not in the body. Yes, the resurrection of Jesus is "true", but not historically as a true fact.
In following Lessing, we have crossed over a chasm which places us in an entirely new sphere of discourse: historically false, but religiously true. What, then, is the point? As a Pittsburgh Seminary systematic theology professor once said, "If they found the bones of Jesus of Nazareth tomorrow, it would not make any difference to my faith or to that of the church." For Lessing, the religious value of man's inner quest is being and doing good. Moral virtue is the absolute; it's the Santa-Claus-Is-Coming-To-Town ethicbeing good for goodness sake. And ChristianityChristianity is to be redefined as well as harnessed for this great quest for moral virtue in mankind. Here is Lessing's resultant Christianitypractical moral virtue so that all mankind may be good and may be encouraged in goodness to the end that virtue may come on earth as it is in man's inner religious being.
And the vehicle to accomplish this progressive moral improvement of the human race? Education! Lessing's last book, The Education of the Human Race (1780), was a tour de force of his subjective progressivism. He observed that the New Testament replaced the Old Testament in progressive fashion (Christianity replaced Judaism); now with the use of rationalism, reason replaces the New Testament (the Enlightenment replaces Christianity). The ever-expanding goal is to transcend the truths of revelation with the more interior and valid truths of reason. In fact, Lessing boldly (but consistently) defines Biblical revelation as an earlier primitive stage on the road to man's enlightenment. The Bible contains material that is not of the truths of reason (Spinoza and Reimarus's reductionism); rather the Bible contains material which is to become the truths of reason. The Bible is not an end in itself; it is only a means to an endthe progressive transformation of Scriptural truth into moral and religious truth. Faith now stands opposed to history. The path of evolutionary development via education is the new epiphany. Education as religion; education as messianismit all goes back to Lessing's ditch.
The genetic line of development in the critical reading of the Bible runs from Spinoza to Reimarus to Lessing. The critical approach to the Word of God is defined by this trio and that approach is fundamentally antithetical to the historic understanding of Scripture. If historic Christianity regards the Bible as a true record of time and space events, the critical view redefines historical truth as that which lies behind the text. If historic Christianity regards salvation as coming from outside man (heterosoterism), the critical view regards salvation as arising from within man himself (autosoterism), that is, man's practical application of moral principles to the emerging life of virtue. If historic Christianity regards the bodily resurrection of Jesus as central to the believer's life, the critical view dismisses the resurrection of Christ as ignorance, deceit or of no consequence. If historic Christianity regards eschatology as directed to heaven and the future, the critical view regards eschatology merely horizontallythe kingdom of God no higher and no further than man's own horizon.
This dreary record of the beginnings of the critical approach to the Bible (this fundamentalism of the left)may anger us, frustrate us, confuse us. But it remains the presupposition of much of biblical scholarship, much of the preaching in the contemporary church, much of the moralistic (indeed rationalistic) viewpoint of the man and woman in the pew. Hans Frei's 1974 book was his own protest against the arid and meaningless conclusions in the eclipse of biblical narrative. But tragically, Frei had no real answer to put in the place of his own perceptive analysis of the downgrade. For all his erudition and philosophical penetrationfor all his brilliance, he could not go backHans Frei, modern man, could not go back to orthodoxy. His last book, published posthumously in 1992 entitled Types of Christian Theology, embraced the critical assumption, i.e., the literal meaning of the Biblical narrative does not necessarily mean factuality. Indeed, Frei wrote, the central New Testament person is Jesus Christ, but is this person the chief character in a narrative construct, an historically factual person or a "reality" under some ontological scheme (i.e., an existential reference point)? Frei, modern man, could not embrace concrete supernaturalism; objective historicity in Biblical events; heterosoteric redemption; the genuine centrality of the bodily resurrection of Christ for the New Testament kerygma; eschatology which intrudes itself into the life of the believer through union with Christ. No more than Benedict Spinoza, Herman Samuel Reimarus, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Hans Frei could not go back to a precritical reading of the text. Lessing's ditch was too wide and Frei himself was bound too much by the presuppositions of the critical pre- and post-Enlightenment era.
But Geerhardus Vos was not! Or was he? Did not Vos emphasize the historical interpretation of Scripture! Does this not sound somewhat like Spinoza? And did not Vos emphasize the eschatological character of the preaching of Jesus! Does this not align him with Reimarus? And did not Vos emphasize the progressive character of revelation! Does this not align him with Lessing? God forbid on all three counts. The man who was at home with the critical discussions never capitulated to the critical reductionism. Geerhardus Vos studied in Berlin, Germany and Strassburg, France, in part, to hear and learn criticism firsthand from its best proponents at the time: Dillmann, Weiss, Holtzmann. And he read Schweitzer, Bousset, Gunkel, Gressmann (even expressed his appreciation to Ned Stonehouse for exposing him to Dibelius and Bultmann). But while Geerhardus Vos was critically informed and conversant, he never joined the critical ranks. Vos learned from the critics, but what he learned was always subject to his own orthodox presuppositions.
Why did Geerhardus Vos not dismiss the critics as a fundamentalist would dismiss the critics? Why did Vos spend so much time wading through page after page of radical higher critical material? Why? because he had no fear of the critical method and its results. Why? because Geerhardus Vos was possessed and obsessed with genuine supernaturalism. The antithesis between Vos and the critics is the antithesis between supernaturalism and naturalism. Foundational to his Dutch Reformed roots and his Old Princeton training is his faith in the Bible as divine revelationa real word from God to man unseparated and undiminished by Lessing's ugly ditch or Kant's noumenal/phenomenal divide. And Vos's supernaturalism takes us beyond critical reductionism to a rich, inexhaustible treasure-house of God's being and acting. Supernaturalism for Vos is not mere tradition; it is not an abstract ideal; it is not a theory nor an aesthetic method; supernaturalism for Vos is a vital organic realityit is a living (Christ is the life), breathing (the breath of the Holy Spirit is transforming) drama applied, existential, experiential, actual. Vos's hermeneutical paradigm far transcends the horizontalism of Spinozaa supernaturalism manifest in history (hence incarnational). Vos's hermeneutical paradigm far surpasses the eschatological politicalism of Reimarusa supernaturalism of eschatological intrusion and penetration (hence mystical union). Vos's hermeneutical paradigm far outdistances the liberal progressivism of Lessinga supernaturalism organically unfolding itself in time and space as a flower bud to blossom (hence continuity even in discontinuity unto the visio Dei).
At every point of Vos's biblical-theological method, he has anticipated and he has eclipsed the critics. His profundity is even today lost on the critical world because their eyes are closed to the antithesis from which he operatesthe wonderful, marvellous antithesis of a Bible historically true, eschatologically alive and organically connected. Higher criticism is no threat to vital supernaturalismhistorical, eschatological, organic. But a dull and moribund supernaturalism; a supernaturalism stagnant in tradition and dogma; a supernaturalism as moralistically reductionist as liberal fundamentalism; a supernaturalism which veils the tyranny and vicious power-brokering of agenda minded gurussuch a supernaturalism is a mere shibboleth, a facade, a shell, an empty vanity, clouds without water, trees without fruit.
Let us never forget what spurred Spinoza and others to resist orthodoxy. Besides their own depraved minds, it was orthodoxy's lust for political and earthly power. Voltaire said it perfectly, to orthodoxy's shame: said Voltaire, persecute Christians and they supply martyrs; give Christians power and they persecute in turn.
The contemporary Reformed movement is known more and more to the watching world as a tyrannical and persecutorial movement. Vicious, ugly, totalitarian personalities masking themselves and their movements in the proverbial veiled fist. None of this has anything to do with the gospel of salvation by a God-man who dieddied in shame and humiliation, weakness and love. The gospel by which the Reformed world is more and more identified is the gospel of the ugly sneer, the furious and unrelenting attack on a minute deviation from some individual's self-defined scheme of orthodoxy (which renders the brother or sister suspect, insufficiently orthodox, a victim of the kangaroo court conducted by the elite expert). If the Reformed world continues in this bitter and vicious direction, she will awaken to her new orientation one daya fundamentalism of the left. And we will stand eclipsed as God passes his light to some other element of Christendoma body of men and women who love Jesus Christ, who love one another, who love the church because their history has been merged with Christ's history, their lives have been semi-eschatologically united with Christ's life, their pilgrimage is an on-going journey to the celestial city where they shall see their Lord face to face. Thenthenthe narrative will be eclipsed. It will be eclipsed in what criticism has never seen or heard or thought or feltit will be eclipsed with God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit themselves.
Northwest Theological Seminary
The above is a slightly revised version of an address delivered at the Kerux Conference of August 2001 at Lynnwood, Washington. For publication, I have attached a select list of sources for further reading.
Allison, C. F. The Rise of Moralism (London: SPCK, 1966).
Allison, Henry E. Lessing and the Enlightenment (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1966).
Bagley, Paul J., "Spinoza, Biblical Criticism, and the Enlightenment," in John C. McCarthy, ed., Modern Enlightenment and the Rule of Reason (Wash- ington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1998) 124-49.
Becker, Carl. The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1932).
Berti, Silvia. "At the Roots of Unbelief." Journal of the History of Ideas 56/4 (1995): 555-75.
Capaldi, Nicholas, "The Enlightenment Project in Twentieth-Century Philoso- phy," in John C. McCarthy, ed., Modern Enlightenment and the Rule of Reason (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1998) 257-82.
Cooper, Alan, "On Reading the Bible Critically and Otherwise," in Richard E. Friedman and H. G. M. Williamson, eds., The Future of Biblical Stud- ies: The Hebrew Scriptures (Atlanta, GA: Sholars Press, 1987) 61-79.
Craigie, P. C. "The Influence of Spinoza in the Higher Criticism of the Old Testament." Evangelical Quarterly 50/1 (1978): 23-32.
de Moor, Leonard. "The Problem of Revelation in Eighteenth-Century Ger- many: With Particular Reference to Lessing." Evangelical Quarterly 39 (1967): 66-74, 139-51, 205-15.
Force, James E. "The Origins of Modern Atheism." Journal of the History of Ideas 50/1 (1989): 153-62.
Garrett, Don, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
Harrisville, Roy A. and Walter Sundberg. The Bible in Modern Culture: Theol- ogy and Historical Critical Method from Spinoza to Kasemann (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1995).
Hazard, Paul. European Thought in the Eighteenth Century (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1973).
Henry, Carl. "Narrative Theology: An Evangelical Appraisal." Trinity Journal 8 (1987): 3-19.
Howard, Thomas A. "Jacob Burckhardt, Religion, and the Historiography of 'Crisis' and 'Transition'." Journal of the History of Ideas 60/1 (1999): 149-64.
Hunsinger, George. "What Can Evangelicals and the Postliberals Learn from Each Other? The Carl Henry/Hans Frei Exchange Reconsidered." Pro Ecclesia 5/2 (1996): 161-82.
Lamm, Julia, "Schleiermacher's Post-Kantian Spinozism: The Early Essays on Spinoza, 1793-94." Journal of Religion 74/4 (1994): 476-505.
________. The Living God: Schleiermacher's Theological Appropriation of Spinoza (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1996).
Norris, Christopher. Spinoza and the Origins of Modern Critical Theory (Ox- ford: Basil Blackwell, 1991).
Pailin, David, "Lessing's Ditch Revisited: The Problem of Faith and History," in Ronald H. Preston, ed., Theology and Change (London: SCM Press, 1975) 78-103.
Reedy, Gerard, "Spinoza, Stillingfleet, Prophecy, and 'Enlightenment'," in J. A. L. Lemay, ed., Deism, Masonry, and the Enlightenment (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1987) 49-60.
Reimarus, Herman Samuel. The Goal of Jesus and His Disciples (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1970).
Riches, J. K., "Lessing as Editor of Reimarus' Apologie," in E. A. Livingstone, ed., Studia Biblica 1978-II. Papers on the Gospels (Sheffield: JSNT, 1980) 247-54.
Rogerson, J. W., "Philosophy and the Rise of Biblical Criticism: England and Germany," in S. W. Sykes, ed., England and Germany. Studies in Theological Diplomacy (Frankfurt: Peter D. Lang, 1982) 63-79.
Sandys-Wunch, John. "SpinozaThe First Biblical Theologian." Zeitschrift fur die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 93 (1981): 327-41.
Schmidt, James. "The Question of Enlightenment: Kant, Mendelssohn, and the Mittwochsgesellschaft." Journal of the History of Ideas 50/2 (1989): 269-91.
Schmitz, Kenneth L. "Lessing at God's Left Hand," in John C. McCarthy, ed., Modern Enlightenment and the Rule of Reason (Washington, DC: Catholic University Press of America, 1998) 213-31.
Smith, Steven B. Spinoza, Liberalism, and the Question of Jewish Identity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997).
Strauss, Leo. Spinoza's Critique of Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).
Thiessen, Gerd, "Historical Scepticism and the Criteria of Jesus Research or My Attempt to Leap Across Lessing's Yawning Gulf." Scottish Jour- nal of Theology 49/2 (1996): 147-76.
Van den Hengel, John. "Reason and Revelation in Lessing's Enlightenment." Eglise et Theologie 17 (1986): 171-94.
Wessell, Leonard P. G. E. Lessing's Theology: A Reinterpretation (Paris: Moreton, 1977).
West, Cornel. "On Frei's Eclipse of Biblical Narrative." Notre Dame English Journal: A Journal of Religion in Literature 14/2 (1982): 151-54.