Is Orthodoxy Compatible with Modern, Biblical Criticism?

Is Orthodoxy Compatible with Modern, Biblical Criticism?

In his first homily on the creation of the world, St. Basil the Great writes:

Now it is Moses who has composed this history; Moses, who, when still at the breast, is described as exceeding fair; Moses, whom the daughter of Pharaoh adopted; who received from her a royal education, and who had for his teachers the wise men of Egypt; Moses, who disdained the pomp of royalty, and, to share the humble condition of his compatriots, preferred to be persecuted with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting delights of sin; Moses, who received from nature such a love of justice that, even before the leadership of the people of God was committed to him, be was impelled, by a natural horror of evil, to pursue malefactors even to the point of punishing them by death; Moses, who, banished by those whose benefactor he had been, hastened to escape from the tumults of Egypt and took refuge in Ethiopia, living there far from former pursuits, and passing forty years in the contemplation of nature; Moses, finally, who, at the age of eighty, saw God, as far as it is possible for man to see Him; or rather as it had not previously been granted to man to see Him, according to the testimony of God Himself, “If there be a prophet among you, I the Lord will make myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream. My servant Moses is not so, who is faithful in all mine house, with him will I speak mouth to mouth, even apparently and not in dark speeches.” It is this man, whom God judged worthy to behold Him, face to face, like the angels, who imparts to us what he has learnt from God. Let us listen then to these words of truth written without the help of the “enticing words of man’s wisdom” by the dictation of the Holy Spirit; words destined to produce not the applause of those who hear them, but the salvation of those who are instructed by them. —Hexameron

It has become somewhat common for many Orthodox Christians to promote modern, biblical criticism, as if it were undeniably compatible with the Orthodox faith. The implicit goal is to destabilize the Protestant view of Scripture, so that Sola Scriptura itself is destabilized.

It is my contention, however, that certain ideas emerging from modern, unbelieving scholarship are largely incompatible with Orthodox tradition. Further, such ideas are not necessarily mandated by the content of Scripture itself.

In this post, I’ll draw out some of the implications of embracing the ‘results’ of biblical criticism for the Orthodox Christian faith. In doing so, I hope to demonstrate that Orthodoxy—though not promoting Sola Scriptura—is fully dependent on the Divine inspiration of the Holy Scriptures, as well as a rejection of liberal-critical scholarship.

Modern, biblical criticism insists that Moses is not the author of the Pentateuch—the first five books of the Old Testament. Such an idea has ostensibly been refuted by source criticism, linguistics, and even careful study of the text itself. Though each of these critical approaches can be significantly challenged, in this article I only wish to explain what a rejection of Mosaic authorship actually implies for the Orthodox faith.

The Fathers Were Universally Wrong

The idea that the Bible emerges out of the tradition of the Church and is properly contextualized within the tradition of the Church is quite hollow if the results of modern scholarship have demonstrated the Fathers to be both naïve and unlearned concerning their own sacred texts. One might say that the Fathers were equally uninformed concerning the size of the universe or the revolution of the Earth around our sun. Such a comparison will not work, however, for the reason that the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch is structurally significant for how the Fathers thought about the Pentateuch-as-scripture.

St. Basil above begins to preach on the creation week for the very reason that it was authored by Moses, and was therefore worthy of contemplation. What would St. Basil say if we told him that the creation week was authored, not by a Prophet of God, but rather by an anonymous ‘priestly author’ associated not with divine revelation, but rather with promoting his own sect? What would St. Basil say if we told him that the Scriptures contain material written to refute the work of this ‘priestly author?’ (Indeed, modern scholarship has allegedly discovered that ‘Deutero-Isaiah’ (Isa. 40–55) contains a polemic against the “priestly account of creation.”)

The Fathers based their study of Scripture on certain viewpoints related to its origin. It is a self-contradiction to profess the Patristic interpretation of Scripture while rejecting their very motive for studying it.

Christ Was Wrong About the Pentateuch

Progressive evangelical scholars (like Kenton Sparks) have attempted to appropriate liberal-critical scholarship within Christian evangelicalism. Such scholars actually suggest that, because Christ professed the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch (John 5:46), evangelicals should re-evaluate their Christology so as to allow for Christ to commit serious, factual errors.

This is not surprising, coming from within an evangelicalism where Christology plays little (or no) significant role in soteriology. But from an Orthodox point of view, such an idea annihilates theosis. The divine Logos assumed human nature so that human nature might be perfected through union with Him. If Christ erred about the Scripture, then this has serious implications regarding the incarnation—not to mention our ability to be saved ‘in Christ.’ Human nature would have been less-than-fully perfected in the incarnation, so that—in turn—theosis is rendered impossible. It is rendered something less than a fullness of maturity and glorified perfection in the uncreated light of God.

If we read Scripture in submission to both Christ and His Church, we must take the words of Jesus seriously.

The Church is Wrong About the Nature of the Old Testament

The Fathers of the Church did not merely read Scripture allegorically. On the contrary, they viewed Scripture as possessing many ‘dimensions’—dimensions that include both literal and allegorical interpretations.

Further, allegorical interpretation was seen as a genuine effort at reading the Old Testament for all its worth. Moses wrote in allegory because the Holy Spirit inspired Moses to write with an allegorical dimension. St. Gregory of Nyssa went so far as to insist that Moses was aware of the allegorical element in his own writing. Modern, biblical criticism (by contrast) insists with the unbelievers that there is no real allegorical interpretation of the Bible. For them, allegory is an ad hoc effort to dismiss what these ancient writings actually say.

In my own studies, I have witnessed liberal evangelicals citing ‘allegorical interpretation’ in the early Church—not in order to learn such a method for themselves, but in an attempt to dismiss the Old Testament as relevant to our Christian faith. (e.g. Such elements are prominent in the writings of Eric Seibert.)

Modern Biblical Criticism Destabilizes and Destroys the Whole Shape of the Christian Narrative

According to Jesus Christ, Abraham “saw my day, and was glad” (John 8:56). By contrast, much modern, biblical criticism insists that there was never an Abraham at all.

St. Paul argues that Israel was chosen and called from Abraham-onwards (Rom. 4:1-25) to be a “light of the world” (Rom. 2:17–24). Of course, that vocation has been fulfilled in the work of Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:21–31). But modern scholars reject this idea at every point:

“Actually, the earliest writings in the Bible attest to worship of Yahweh as one god in an Israelite pantheon, the son of the high god El. It is laughable to insist that this attests to ‘progressive revelation’ on the part of God.”

But if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.

If the early Israelites were just like all the other nations, then they were just like the other nations. If this is true, then Israel was not called to be light of the world. This idea would be a post-exilic ‘invention.’ And what does this do to the teaching of the great Apostle Paul, so reverenced by Fathers such as St. John Chrysostom and Blessed Theophylact of Ohrid? It destroys it.

If Christianity is not true, then I would like to move on with my life. I have no interest in talking from both sides of my mouth, so that I can be respectable to the secular world, and yet identify as an Orthodox Christian in the other. Let us be forthright and honest about the implications of modern, biblical criticism—if indeed its conclusions are justified.

In another article, I will explain why I reject some of the conclusions of modern, biblical criticism, particularly with regards to the Pentateuch.

Comments

  1. Fr. Nicholas Finley says

    I very much appreciate what you write above. I have been completely disgusted by the way modern biblical criticism rips apart the seem-less robe of the Scriptures. I studied Biblical Studies at Seton Hall University for my undergraduate in Religious Studies after completing my Priestly Formation at St. Tikhon’s. My studies even at a “Catholic” university were astonishing to say the least. Had to read such gobbilty-gook as Schussler Fiorenza and the like. Churned my stomach. Thank you for your forthrightness and may the Lord abundantly bless your work.