The sainted (if we formally did this he would be one) confessional Lutheran Kurt Marquart said in his book Anatomy of an Explosion: Missouri in Lutheran Perspective:
Still it is a fact that the supremacy of human reason means different things to different people. Some historical critics are obviously and dramatically more radical than others. For example, some think that miracles cannot and do not happen, while others leave the question open. Both types of critics take for granted that critical reason must sit in judgment over the claims of the biblical writers. Both agree that biblical reports of miracles may be challenged, cross-examined, and found wanting by the critical scholar. The only difference is that while some hold that sound human reason rules out miracles in advance, others consider this inference unwarranted… The great German preacher Helmut Thielecke…. claim[ed] the right to leave undecided the question whether the Virgin Birth of Jesus really happened in fact, or ‘whether it was believing men who erected a sign,’ that is, invented the account to make a religious point!” (p. 115, CTQ edition)*
Of course today, even sophisticates believe in miracles but not the Bible. In any case, I am particularly interested in what I have bolded above. Obviously, if you are going to be critical of the Bible, you will focus on “human element”, i.e. “the biblical writers”. This is what the 19th c. German Lutherans who were “conservative” did (perhaps had to do if they wanted to survive in the academy), prompting LC-MS founder C.F.W. Walther to say: “it is unspeakable what the devil seeks by this divine-human Scripture”. (quoted in Marquart, 41)
Now, here are a couple quotes to ponder, from Paul Strawn’s (my pastor) paper: “Higher Criticism in Missouri: Dead or Alive?” (from the Congress on the Lutheran Confessions, May 4-6, 2011, Bloomington, MN.) evidently to be published in the future:
Probably one of the most startling aspects of an answer from Scripture given to a question posed by a seminarian while I was teaching in Nigeria in December of 2010 was that there was no follow-up question. The question had been posed, an answer from the Bible given, and that was enough. There was no “But was not Paul imposing his first-century training in Phariseeism upon the post-Pentecost Christian community?” Or “Does not James take a different view than Peter in this matter?” Or “Did not the Matthian community include that text in the gospel to explain a different matter entirely?” Instead, we simply moved on to another question. It is not that the Nigerians were ignorant: They knew their Bibles backwards and forwards, in their second or third language of English. The reason the Nigerians were satisfied with answers from the Word of God is that they did not practice higher criticism. What is higher criticism? In general it is the pursuit of the “human” or “human aspect” of Scripture. Higher criticism asks the question why a specific section of Scripture has been included in the Bible, at the specific place where it is found. Such a “specific section” can be as small as a single word, or as large as an entire book, or collection of books. Higher criticism seeks to discover, and reconstruct sources thought to have been used by Biblical writers (source criticism). It also asks the question as to why some texts are included and others not (canon criticism), and why they are put in the order in which they are found or modified in some way (redaction criticism). Higher criticism also seeks to discover unique types of texts (like hymns, poems or letters) in larger texts, and then theorizes as to the original contexts of their composition (form criticism). Startling to me in Nigeria, then, was the lack of even a hint of higher criticism within the seminarians’ questions. Even more startling: I noticed immediately. What could that mean except that after attending two Missouri Synod colleges, a Missouri Synod seminary, and then fifteen years of Bible studies, circuit meetings, and district conferences within the Missouri Synod, I had come to expect such higher critical responses to a text from the Bible offered as an answer to a question posed? And so to answer the question from the outset, higher criticism in Missouri: Dead or alive? I would be forced to answer at this point: Very much alive. (p. 1)
Note the definition of “higher criticism” he offers. Note the word “pursuit” there as opposed to “awareness of”, “interest in”, even “some limited study of”. Pursuit. Near the end of one section he writes:
In applying higher criticism to the Holy Scriptures, the creating Word, breathed by the Holy Spirit, pointing us to Christ, in always searching for the human and even insisting that such a search is necessary, are we slowly over time, ceasing to be Christians, and instead, becoming Christianites, interested in “Christianology” as opposed to “Christology”? Have we, has our humanity in Nestorian-like fashion, become the focus of the church? Has the analogy of faith become the “analogy of the faithful”? Have we unwittingly become that which Francis Pieper consistently addressed in his Christian Dogmatics, and that is “Ich” theologians, “I” theologians? The question ultimately is not whether higher criticism is dead or alive in Missouri. The question seems to be: What has higher criticism done, and what is it continuing to do to Missouri? (p. 16)
But what of the human aspect of Scripture? My pastor notes an interesting observation from Walter W.F. Albrect, writing in a 1947 dogmatics (created as part of the 100 year centennial of the Missouri Synod) The Abiding Word:
“Our old Lutheran theologians have been attacked as totally ignoring or even denying the human side of Scripture. It is true, they do not dwell at length on what we call the human side of Scripture. But why? When human writers speak in a human language to human addressees of human interests, can there be any danger that the human side of Scripture, correctly understood, will be overlooked?
Let me remind you of a few of the human things about the Bible that need no stressing because everyone who takes up this Book and reads it sees them…”
(vol. 2, Ed. By Theodore Laetsch, p. 1)
But not everyone is so willing to admit to the Divine nature of the Scriptures. So again, my question posed at the beginning of this post.
*Two other interesting quotes:
“If exegesis is to be practiced historico-critically, it must use the methods of secular historical science, i.e. criticism which allows only probability judgments, and the principles of analogy and correlation (cf. Troeltsch). Thereby it subjects itself in principle to secular-historical judgment” (theses presented for discussion in the University of Munich, quoted by Marquart on p. 114)
“It is not enough to say that historical criticism means ‘discriminating appreciation.’ ‘The historian,’ says [David] Lotz, ‘must cross-examine, test, weigh, probe and analyze all written records of the past. If he fails to do this he de facto surrenders his claim to the title of historian!’ (Forum Letter, May 1975, quoted by Marquart on p. 116)
As regards that first quote, of course this “secular historical science” was in many cases advanced by professing Christians. Although for many of them, universal human reason which could be shared by all (producing clear and distinct ideas) was not necessarily supposed to be opposed to the Bible – such was the claim at the time.