Let’s talk about criticism. For starters, let’s understand what criticism really is. To criticize something or to critique it, implies that you are examining an argument or a writing or a performance of some sort, and trying to determine its accuracy or its worthiness. While there are nuanced connotative differences between the words criticize and critique, at their essence, they both refer to analyzing something and measuring it against a standard. To criticize an argument or writing is to approach it with the presumption that it may be at least partially inaccurate or incomplete and to articulate what about it is lacking.
The bible has been generally treated by Christians (since the 4th century, I suppose) as being above criticism. It is their absolute standard. Many people over the years have criticized/critiqued the bible, and this has been a perpetual sore spot among Christians.
Higher Criticism, popularized in the 19th century, was an approach to the bible that did not assume divine authorship and purported to approach the Bible as if it were any other piece of literature, with the intent to derive meaning from the author’s intent and audience and context.
Higher Critics have been viciously excoriated by Evangelical Christians who indignantly ask “how dare they criticize the Bible?” The conservative Christian reaction (actually over-reaction) was that the Higher Critics were simply opposed to God (and therefore, God’s Word), and were seeking to undermine it with sophistry—carefully constructed arguments that sound rational but are in actuality, intended to deceive. Now, this was probably true in some cases. Some of the higher critics (and perhaps many of the liberal Christians who latched on to Higher Criticism) quite likely had a subversive agenda, and Higher Criticism gave them a semi-credible authority that justified it.
The mistake that the conservative Christians made (and indeed, continue to make) was they flatly denied the premise of higher criticism. They rarely responded to the substance of the Higher Critics’ arguments and instead, denounced them for daring to question the inerrancy and absolute authority of what they believed to be the inerrant and complete Word of God. They basically reaffirmed their assumptions, and condemned the higher critics as heretics for challenging those assumptions.
The predominant Evangelical position is the assumption that the Bible is The Standard against which everything else must be measured. Their thought is that if you don’t cling to the Bible as your ultimate standard, then you will find that you have no foundation for life, and in a spiritual sense, will find yourself floundering aimlessly in an ocean of spiritual hopelessness.
I think the basic premise of Higher Criticism is sound and useful—to evaluate the biblical writings to determine the author’s meaning in view of their intended audience and context—so long as one is honestly seeking the truth and not merely using sophistic arguments to serve a hidden agenda. Determining the author’s intended meaning allows us to make better sense of the text than we would be able to do if we simply applied a literal interpretation to almost every passage.
To the Christians who find themselves incensed by this, I would ask why it is poor practice to approach the biblical writings this way? If I am holding a copy of the books of Moses and a copy of the writings of William Shakespeare, would it not be fair for one to ask why one is regarded as the absolute Word of God and the other is not?
The next logical question then is, by what standard do we evaluate literature, including the bible? Experience, reason, emotion, and spiritual insight all help us wrestle with this question, although we must be quite ready to admit that none of these by themselves are the standard. Most Christians won’t like that answer, but what authority makes the Bible the Standard? Their “authority” is merely popular opinion propagated through religious institutions. Once you start to peel back the assumptions behind this popular opinion, the rationale quickly falls apart.
Now to answer the question of The Standard. What should our standard be for evaluating any statement or writing? To say “the Truth is our standard” is a bit nebulous and could easily be claimed by any ideologue. As I see it, God has placed us in a universe with signposts, but without an unambiguous standard. For many people, that is not good enough. Their need for certainty will lead them to reject a pursuit of Truth because they value certainty over the truth, and they would prefer to believe a narrative that offers them certainty.
For me, the only unassailable way forward is to view The Truth as the ultimate standard. Truth is the ultimate reality—the thing that stands on its own and transcends subjectivity, irrespective of individual perspectives and opinions. The Truth is what is, and if you are pursuing the Truth, you will eventually find God. For, if there is a God, then He is the author of Truth. Truth flows from Him. It is the story He has written.
Now we will never be able to wrap our minds around or fully conceptualize the Truth in this lifetime. Truth is infinite, and our brains and bodies are finite. But the pursuit of the truth is what puts us on the right path.
The periodic criticism or critiquing of our views is healthy. That is what drives us to grow and learn, and, if we continue to seek the truth, will actually strengthen our faith. This is difficult, for it requires that we be willing to allow our beliefs to be proven false.
Truth stands on its own. Reality is reality. Eventually, lies and error will crumble away as they reveal themselves to run counter to reality. Every philosophical system, every religion, every political construct will eventually hit a point where it falls short of encompassing reality. For Truth is infinitely greater than every human system, and infinite truth can only be encompassed by the infinite. Infinite reality can only be fully grasped by the Author of reality.
And so that is what we seek. We seek reality. We seek truth. We seek God. And we gratefully embrace the signposts we find along the way, but we do not stop forever to worship a signpost. For were we to do that, we would stop learning and growing, and we would continue to fall far short of The Standard.