Someone asked me about an intersection I had with a well-known apologist regarding apologetic method and New Testament historical research a few years ago. While that exchange is water under the bridge imo, the topic hardly is. Christians need to be aware of the effects that presuppositions can have upon scholarship—especially our scholarship. We must be careful not to adopt naturalistic or unbelieving presuppositions at the outset of our endeavors—and thus end up reasoning like them. This includes historical scholarship and apologetics.
The following is an excerpt where I have addressed this issue long ago. I wrote this while in seminary. It became Appendix 1 in my first book, Manifested in the Flesh. Given the resurrection (forgive the irony) of pagan mystery religion claims against Christianity still today, this book is as relevant as ever. This particular chapter, however, is especially relevant to the scholarship issue and has more general applicability. We must be careful in our scholarship even about how we do scholarship.
In retrospect, some of my argumentation herein could be more nuanced, but the whole is relevant in general. I hope you find it as helpful.
Liberal and radical scholars always hide behind the mask of science claiming that they have produced works of reason and science over against the fanciful wishes of orthodox believers. They claim to simply report the facts without relying on supernatural interventions like believers do. This is the popular image they promote anyway. At least, in order to keep their university peers happy, they had better put up the front. Claims about faith are bad for business in the scholarly world, you see. The public must be led to believe that the scholars are hard-bent over “evidence” and the latest archaeology. The truth, however, is far from this public face. Dig even just a bit below the surface—like a few taps from the archaeologist’s hammer and trowel—and the whole facade crumbles to dust, and the skeleton of a dead specimen is exposed. The monster of liberal scholarship can be seen in all of its carnivorous glory.
Liberals have displayed a ferocious anti-Christian agenda from their beginning. In the early to mid-1800’s German scholarship began to brood under the nurturing wings of tax funded universities. The flurry of scholarship employed new humanistic methods of interpreting history which denied the possibility of divine revelation and miracles, and therefore of nearly every basic tenant of the Christian religion. Not surprisingly some historians immediately lowered their sights on the early church in order to determine how Christianity “really” developed. The new methods contrasted with established conservative scholarship, and two schools emerged around the study of early church history.
Church historian Philip Schaff, writing at the end of the nineteenth century, notes how this divide has affected historical studies. He writes,
Never before in the history of the church has the origin of Christianity, with its original documents, been so thoroughly examined from standpoints entirely opposite as in the present generation . . .
The two theories of apostolic history, introduced by Neander and Baur, are antagonistic in principle and aim, and united only by the moral bond of an honest search for truth. The one [Neander] is conservative and reconstructive, the other [Baur] radical and destructive . . . The one proceeds on the basis of faith in God and Christ, which implies faith in the supernatural and miraculous wherever it is well attested; the other proceeds from disbelief in the supernatural and miraculous as a philosophical impossibility, and tries to explain the gospel history and the apostolic history from purely natural causes like every other history.[i]
Schaff clearly saw the presuppositions of both sides. He knew that the two interpretations of history were primarily matters of competing faiths—belief versus unbelief—not brute scholarship per se. The sides argue over the same facts, read the same sources; but draw from two very different wells of interpretation: faith in God versus faith in matter. Schaff knew that these presuppositions determined what the scholars wrote, and how they told the story. He said, “The controversy turns on the question whether there is a God in History or not.”[ii]
The controversy does indeed hinge upon such a belief, but unfortunately it has always been the Christians who have been ridiculed for having “faith,” whereas the liberal critics are though of as “scientific.” The truth is that the liberals fall back just as much on faith, though their credo simply begins with anti-theism. Apologist Cornelius Van Til, who expounded the problems of presuppositions throughout his career, explains how differing views of God profoundly affect how one approaches the sciences, and by extension the historical sciences as well. I quote him at length:
[T]he difference between the prevalent method of science and the method of Christianity is not that the former is interested in finding the facts and is ready to follow the facts wherever they may lead, while the latter is not ready to follow the facts. The difference is rather that the former wants to study the facts without God, while the latter wants to study the facts in the light of the revelation God gives of himself in Christ. Thus the antithesis is once more that between those for whom the final center of reference in knowledge lies in man, and those for whom the final center of reference for knowledge lies in God, as this God speaks in Scripture.[iii]
The conflict, therefore, is never one of science versus religion, or facts versus faith. To set the argument up in that way is to assume an atheistic answer from the start. The question is whether the God of the Bible rules history or not; and how you answer that question will determine how you interpret the facts which come along. The facts cannot speak first, but are interpreted via the handler’s worldview. The Christian sees the facts through Christian ethics, the atheist sees facts through the distortion of atheistic reasoning and materialism. Thus it is not the facts only which need checking, but the coherence of the worldviews. In the end, one view must be proven heretical.
This fact drove home to Schaff the point that the radical scholars of his day paralleled the heretics that the early Church in question had to deal with. He explained, “This modern criticism is a remarkable renewal of the views held by heretical schools in the second century.”[iv] The reason the nineteenth century liberals worked so hard to defend the Gnostics and to liberate them from the label “heretics,” was because they loved and identified with that theology. The same can be said for nearly every radical scholar: the various presentations of the “historical Jesus” or the “real Jesus” all oddly seem to look a lot like their authors. Lutheran scholar John Warwick Montgomery comments on this continuing trend: “Yet in the twentieth century there has been a powerful tendency to create Jesus in the image of the time rather than to find out what the documents say about Him.”[v]
The various attempts all revolve around the lust for human autonomy and consequently the methodology has become increasingly Arian. Arius, you will remember, is the arch-heretic of the early church who essentially argued that Jesus was not divine but only a finite creature. This belief appeals to unbelieving hearts (in all ages) which also see Christ as merely human, and so the pseudo-scholarly mills begin to churn, trying to produce a justification of Arian historiography—history written on the assumption that miracles do not happen and that Christ was not divine.
Theology always rules every idea below it and every undertaking of man will show the effect of his theological beliefs at some level. When we read the nineteenth century critics, this is exactly the picture we get: the ultimate commitments of materialism and historical determinism rule the facts. One of the most important popularizers and scholars of the era, Ernest Renan, illustrates this for us: he writes, “That the Gospels are in part legendary, is evident, since they are full of miracles and of the supernatural.”[vi] Did you get that? “Since,” or “because” the Gospels include accounts of miracles, then they must of necessity be legends and myths. No real or true account would included such uncivilized barbarism as . . . miracles. The trap door of the naturalistic mind snaps shut and the case is closed! In their presupposed system, miracle equals forgery; the possibility is denied up front.
The Gospel of John as a Test Case
Many scholars have noted the presuppositional nature of New Testament studies. Leon Morris in his studies on the Gospel of John notes that conservative scholars have been accused of holding “dogmatic presuppositions.”[vii] Liberals do not like our belief in a God Who rules history, you see. But Morris counters with five presuppositions, compiled by J. A. T. Robinson, which have clearly driven liberal scholarship.[viii] He concludes, “[I]t is these presuppositions rather than a careful weighing of the evidence that has usually been decisive.”[ix]
Such bias has had damaging effects on the course of Biblical scholarship. For starters, it has led to the careless treatment of evidences. Morris explains, “An interesting aspect of much recent Johannine study is the refusal to take seriously the evidence that the apostle John was the author. Very few recent scholars make a sustained attempt to grapple with the evidence.”[x] Of course, evidence is not that important when the scholar has already made up his mind that the Gospel in inauthentic and that there is no God who judges history. Evidence can, in this case, actually become a hindrance: not only is combing through facts and evidences boring work, but think what consternation comes from evidence that continually confirms your enemy’s case. The way around such problems is to ignore them, or present elaborate theories of early Church history which essentially act as a smoke-screen behind which to ignore the problem. When one’s assumptions rule the procedure, all kinds of problems can be explained away and then tossed down the memory hole. Morris complains, “For long enough it has not been the evidence but the presuppositions that have decided the matter.”[xi] He laments that modern methods have provided a framework with which to ignore the classic works of historical evidence, such as the work of B. F. Westcott: “Westcott these days is not so much controverted as by-passed.”[xii] Likewise, New Testament scholar Donald Guthrie decries the dismissal of original sources themselves. He writes,
The evidence of Irenaeus has been subjected to searching criticism and many scholars have not been disposed to grant its validity. Their reluctance to do so springs mainly from the fact that Irenaeus’ evidence conflicts with their critical conclusions.[xiii]
Guthrie understands the situation: “It is difficult to approach the problem without preconceptions.”[xiv] In noting the path of Johannine studies since Westcott’s days F. F. Bruce comments that Westcott’s argument was, “cogent enough to those who shared his presuppositions;”[xv] but others soon arose with “other presuppositions” claiming variously: 1) the author created a “fictitious narrative under the guise of an apostolic eyewitness,” 2) the Beloved Disciple was a idealized character, not a real person, or 3) Mark preceded John and therefore any material in John which does not fit the narrative of Mark cannot be historical.[xvi] To Bruce these various permutations of theories are, “more ingenious than convincing.”[xvii]
Liberal scholars have often been as candid, or at least obvious, with their presuppositions. J. Louis Martyn believes that if we can even slightly detect in the Fourth Gospel, “the voice of a Christian theologian who writes in response to contemporary events and issues,”[xviii] then, “it becomes imperative that we make every effort to take up temporary residence in the Johannine community.”[xix] In other words he thinks that if we can perceive a possible theological influence upon the Gospel which we decide is not original with Jesus himself, then that outside influence must become the ruling framework for understanding the origin of the Gospel as a whole. This approach, however, begins by assuming that the Gospel is the work of mere men and purely historical forces, and not the word of God. Ruling God out in this way is a dishonest approach which frankly begs the question; and yet the liberal scholars praise each others’ works as if each page were a revelation from God. Of course, when you do not believe in supernatural revelation, you have to get it somewhere.
In the case of the Fourth Gospel, however, we would do well to consider the statement of Guthrie that, “It would seem at least a reasonable conclusion to maintain that there are no irrefutable historical grounds for rejecting the identification of the beloved disciple as John the son of Zebedee.”[xx] If we can honestly make this claim—and the work of Bruce, Carson, Guthrie, Morris, Westcott, etc., gives us good warrant—then we should not be too bothered by spectacular theories which derive from diminishing or destroying the role of God’s apostle, or which require outrageously intricate webs of historical patchwork to make their case. Further, we should immediately understand that those theories can only arise where the theorist has little or no theological need for infallible revelation: for example, liberals like Martyn, or Roman Catholics such as Raymond Brown. In the traditional approach, as D. A. Carson notes, “We are freed from the suffocating burden of trying to reconstruct the Johannine community out of merely possible inferences . . . and are driven to listen more acutely to what the Evangelist says about Jesus.”[xxi]
New Testament Studies in General
The phenomenon of presuppositional bias lay at the root of all Biblical studies, and affects every area of the discipline. The liberal scholar and mouthpiece Rudolf Bultmann certainly did not hide his radical motivation: “The cosmology of the New Testament is essentially mythical in character . . . Can Christian preaching expect modern man to accept the mythical view of the world as true? To do so would be both senseless and impossible.”[xxii] This was his selling point to the modern mind, and his starting point theologically: “Miracles are mythical and do not happen in the real world, now let’s understand the Bible this way!” Similarly he rants,
It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles . . . to expect others to do so is to make the Christian faith unintelligible and unacceptable to the modern world.[xxiii]
Of course this understanding fails at the outset: it is only because men have obeyed God’s ethical laws in history that many technological advances have come about. Historical and Biblical studies are no different, even if liberal scholars see no need for God’s “mythical” revelation today. Evangelical scholar George Eldon Ladd finds the same candor in Bultmann:
Bultmann frankly admits his presuppositions . . . As a historian, Bultmann candidly rejects the biblical worldview, which he insists is intolerable in the twentieth century . . . Neither can the modern historian believe in a God who acts directly in history.[xxiv]
Ladd mentions this in the greater context of New Testament criticism as a whole. He critiques the naturalism inherent in much of the field, saying that often,
A scholar is not considered to be truly “critical” unless he accepts the basic naturalist presuppositions of the modern historical-critical method, rejects every trace of the supernatural, and interprets the Bible exclusively in strict historical terms as the word of men.[xxv]
The situation leaves no room for progress between believers and unbelievers in the realm of New Testament studies. There is no neutrality. You must either adopt naturalistic standards, or allow for the supernatural—either assume that no god acts in history, or believe that God can, and has, inspired his holy apostles. Ladd spies well the division between the competing methods: “Between scholars who hold this view of criticism and evangelical scholars, there is little if any common ground for mutual interaction or scholarly debate.”[xxvi]
The presuppositional nature of New Testament studies reminds us once again that the real problem with historical questions and the Gospels is not ultimately intellectual, but ethical. Gary North presents this point clearly: “The real motive of higher criticism is ethical . . . man’s problem is not a lack of knowledge about God, but a lack of obedience to God. The higher critics seek to confuse men by blurring the universal ethical requirements of God’s holy word.”[xxvii] We are reminded that historical judgment, and in fact all judgment, can never be value-free. It will never take place in a truly neutral setting, but will conform to the ethical rules of the scholar’s underlying commitments. New Testament scholar C. H. Dodd noted as much in 1939: he writes,
In any passage of history where the spiritual interests of mankind are deeply involved, the historian, if he is to be more than a mere chronicler, is forced to make judgments of value, explicit or implicit, upon the subject-matter with which he deals, and these judgments will affect his presentation. In the case of the New Testament such judgments cannot be avoided. The report given of the data will show that the reporter either affirms or denies the main assumptions which the New Testament makes.[xxviii]
Dodd proceeds to make it clear that the worldview of the Bible indeed conflicts directly with that of the unbelieving world around it. This battle climaxed in the cross of Jesus Christ, and afterward in the preaching of that cross. Against those who argue that Paul and the other New Testament writers were at home in the pagan world, and propagated pagan myths, Dodd responds,
We have the testimony of the Apostle Paul that after his best endeavors, his Greek hearers still felt the Gospel to be ‘foolishness.’ It is possible, by sympathetically studying, say, the Hermetic writings, to put oneself temporarily in the position of those Greeks, and to feel just how foolish this ‘word of the cross’ must have sounded.[xxix]
The foolishness of the cross (1 Cor. 1:18-31) cuts through all sophistication and gets right to the corrupt heart of the issue. It pulls back the shade from the hidden secrets of the heart and exposes our trifling excuses—so often falsely labeled as “science” or “reason”—for the cowardice and spiritual sloth that they are. A message so simple and so “foolish” as the Gospel, forces the hand of mankind: it makes him choose either God or self. Dodd concludes that the Gospel “might be stated in Hellenistic terms, but it shattered the presuppositions of Hellenistic religion.”[xxx]
Such a foundation as the Gospel forces us to adhere to unmovable standards for what we accept as scholarly progress or not. These standards in turn assure that our Biblical and historical studies remain true to God’s demands and honest about the limitations of bare scientific historical investigation. A method which accounts for the authors’ presuppositions must analyze rival theological commitments in addition to considering evidences; and then compare the theories based on their inherent plausibility along with their interpretations of the data. We will logically have to ask which theological framework is in itself superior before we pursue which one accounts for the evidence best.
On the other hand, if overly critical and skeptical methods have free reign, and a sound traditional views are ignored, a chaotic situation ensues in which the only obvious results are confusion and the abandonment of the authority of the text. D. A. Carson explains that the web of presuppositions and beliefs created by some scholars, “rests on merely possible inferences, not particularly plausible ones, the resulting matrix being used as a grid to eliminate the most natural inferences from both internal and external evidence.”[xxxi] Thus the main result of beginning with humanistic assumptions, he argues, is that the histories and conclusions turn out just as arbitrary and chaotic as the human will itself. The liberal says, “I’ll have the Gospel du jour!,” or rather, “I’ll cook the pot myself!”
While we should be vigorous in seeking progress, we should likewise be wary of naturalistic methods which force us to deny the truth of God and the requirements of His world-order. On humanistic grounds Christian scholars gain nothing unless they are replacing it. This means that New Testament scholarship is as much a war as a dialogue. Bultmann himself knew this. He envisioned his theological coup d’ètat of New Testament studies as a monumental task: “It will tax the time and strength of a whole theological generation.”[xxxii] Conservative scholars would do good to have a long-term vision of comparable weight.
A positive and optimistic view of Biblical studies will place the scholar or student in the midst of the Bible itself while they study the higher critical claims. Only from within that Biblical framework and upon its One Foundation is the kingdom of God built. For too long students have been made to slave over the works of higher critics in order to taste the dregs of unbelieving skepticism (the liberal sacrament!); and the liberals have filled the ullage of Christian ignorance with vinegar instead of pure wine. The endeavor sends students home from seminary having studied a whole lot about the Bible, without having studied the Bible much at all. Then they go fill pulpits and feed congregations . . . ? I propose a return to dependence upon the law and language of God. It is not Baur and Bultmann, but every Word from the mouth of God that feeds us.
In the meantime, let the higher critics “drown in their own footnotes, the way that Arius died by falling head-first into a privy. Let the dead bury their dead, preferably face-down in a scholarly journal.”[xxxiii] Arian theology (denying that Christ is God) leads to Arian scholarship, Arian history books, Arian classrooms, Arian pulpits, Arian governments, and Arian culture. It also leads to the judgment from God that Arianism deserves, in both history and eternity. Our presentation of the New Testament and of early Church history, and our communication of the same to posterity are matters of eternal import. Lest we be found unfaithful teachers, we must tear up faulty scholarship from its corrupt root, and replant the seeds of godliness in its place.
[i]Phillip Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Volume 1, Apostolic Christianity from the Birth of Christ to the Death of St. John, A.D. 1-100 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1996 (Original Third Edition 1890), 205, 208.
[ii]Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Volume 1, p. 208.
[iii]Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology. In Defense of the Faith, Vol II (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, (Orig. 1932)), 9.
[iv]Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology, 210.
[v]John Warwick Montgomery, Where is History Going? Essays in Support of the Historical Truth of the Christian Revelation (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany Fellowship, Inc., 1972 (1969)), 54.
[vi]Ernest Renan, The Life of Jesus (New York: The Modern Library, 1927 (1863)), 33.
[vii]Leon Morris, Studies in the Fourth Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1969), 216-7.
[viii]Morris, Studies in the Fourth Gospel, 217.
[ix]Morris, Studies in the Fourth Gospel, 217.
[x]Morris, Studies in the Fourth Gospel, 216.
[xi]Morris, Studies in the Fourth Gospel, 218.
[xii]Morris, Studies in the Fourth Gospel, 265.
[xiii]Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 258-9.
[xiv]Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 241.
[xv]F. F. Bruce, “Johannine Studies Since Westcott’s Days” in B. F. Westcott. The Epistles of St. John (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1966), lxi.
[xvi]Bruce, “Johannine Studies Since Westcott’s Days.”, lxi.
[xvii]Bruce, “Johannine Studies Since Westcott’s Days.”, lxiii.
[xviii]J. Louis Martyn, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel (Nashville: Abingdon, 1979), 18.
[xix]Martyn, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel.
[xx]Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 249.
[xxi]Carson, The Gospel According to John (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 81.
[xxii]Rudolf Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology” in ed. Bartsch, Hans Werner Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate. tr. Reginald H. Fuller (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961), 1, 3.
[xxiii]Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology”, 5.
[xxiv]George Eldon Ladd, The New Testament and Criticism (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1984), 47.
[xxv]Ladd, The New Testament and Criticism, 39.
[xxvi]Ladd, The New Testament and Criticism, 40.
[xxvii]Gary North, The Hoax of Higher Criticism, 37-8.
[xxviii]C. H. Dodd, “The New Testament” in The Study of Theology. ed. Kenneth E. Kirk, 217-46 (New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1939), 242. I have added the last string of italics.
[xxix]Dodd, “The New Testament.”, 238.
[xxx]Dodd, “The New Testament.”, 238.
[xxxi]D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, 80.
[xxxii] Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology,” 15.
[xxxiii] North, The Hoax of Higher Criticism, 52. I have edited the name Arius in this quote.