Loss of Transcendence - Lesson 9

Contemporary Biblical Criticism

In this lesson, you will explore contemporary biblical criticism, which encompasses various approaches and methodologies for studying the Bible. You will delve into the historical development, major approaches such as historical criticism, literary criticism, and socio-historical criticism, and their subcategories. Additionally, you will examine the impact of biblical criticism on theology, including both its positive and negative aspects, and the concept of the loss of transcendence. By the end of this lesson, you will understand how to engage with biblical criticism, appreciate its contributions, and recognize its limitations.
James Houston
Loss of Transcendence
Lesson 9
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Contemporary Biblical Criticism

NT730-09: Contemporary Biblical Criticism

I. Introduction to Contemporary Biblical Criticism

A. Historical Overview

B. Purpose and Goals

II. Major Approaches to Biblical Criticism

A. Historical Criticism

1. Source Criticism

2. Form Criticism

3. Redaction Criticism

B. Literary Criticism

1. Narrative Criticism

2. Rhetorical Criticism

C. Socio-Historical Criticism

1. Social-Scientific Criticism

2. Postcolonial Criticism

III. The Impact of Biblical Criticism on Theology

A. Positives and Negatives

B. Loss of Transcendence

IV. How to Engage with Biblical Criticism

A. Understanding its Limitations

B. Appreciating its Contributions

  • Explore the loss of transcendence in modernity, examining its historical and philosophical context, defining transcendence and immanence from biblical and historical perspectives, exploring the impact of various movements on theology, and considering responses to the loss of transcendence.
  • In this lesson, you will gain insight into the Greek world's origins of language and culture, the evolution of Greek history and thought, and the differences between Greek and Roman history. By examining the works of Luke as a Roman historian, you will better understand the cosmic and intimate nature of Christian history.
  • The Christian historiographical revolution redefined history as linear and purposeful, contrasting with ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish approaches and profoundly impacting the study and writing of history.
  • In this lesson, you gain a deep understanding of the Dark Ages, the Reformation, and the factors that led to the loss and eventual restoration of transcendence in Christianity.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insights into the Reformation and Enlightenment's historical contexts, key figures, and events, as well as their impact on society, religion, and the loss of transcendence, ultimately discovering ways to reclaim transcendence in the modern world.
  • In this lesson, you gain insights into the loss of transcendence in modern society, its consequences, the role of Christianity in addressing the issue, and strategies for engaging with secular culture and promoting spiritual renewal.
  • This lesson teaches you about Radical Christianity, its importance, and how to cultivate it through deepening your relationship with God, prioritizing spiritual growth, and practicing radical love and social justice in a world experiencing a loss of transcendence.
  • Through this lesson, you grasp the factors contributing to the loss of biblical authority and learn strategies to reaffirm its importance in Christianity.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insights into contemporary biblical criticism, its methodologies, impact on theology, and learn to appreciate its contributions while recognizing its limitations.
  • By examining biblical criticism and its various forms, you gain insight into how Christians can respond thoughtfully, affirming Scripture's authority while engaging with criticisms and maintaining a commitment to truth.
  • By examining the loss of the soul, you'll understand its diminishing importance in modern life and learn to integrate science and spirituality for a holistic, transcendent perspective.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insights into classical interpretations of the soul and their interaction with Christian theology, while also understanding their modern theological implications.
  • This lesson equips you with a comprehensive understanding of the embodiment of faith, its historical development, theological implications, and practical applications in the Christian life.
  • By studying this lesson on embodiment in community, soul, and culture, you will learn how these concepts impact spiritual formation and shape your understanding of Christian faith and practice.
  • The lesson on embodiment and self-sacrifice offers insights into the New Testament, emphasizing Jesus' incarnation, the human body as the Holy Spirit's temple, and self-sacrifice as a key Christian virtue, while providing theological and practical applications.
  • This lesson equips you to understand the biblical concept of sin, the factors contributing to its loss, and offers practical steps to reintroduce sin in teaching and preaching for a more complete Christian faith.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insight into the cardinal sins and their contemporary significance, learning how to identify and combat them in modern society for personal and spiritual growth.
  • In this lesson, you gain insights into C.S. Lewis's critique of the loss of transcendence in modern society, his theological perspectives, and his emphasis on imagination in Christianity.
  • This lesson offers an in-depth analysis of the theological differences between Oxford and Cambridge and their impact on the loss of transcendence in modern theology.
  • What then did Lewis write about in The Abolition of Man? The symbol is that the immediate threat is not the abolition of man, but the abolition that there are men without chests. And he means that being without a chest is living two dimensionally and not three dimensionally. It’s not that you just live in space and time, but that you live with space, time and God or, indeed, space, time and morals. And so really it’s simply to live an amoral life. And you begin to lose your emotional life when you live with amorality.

  • Through this lesson, you gain insight into Jacques Ellul's critique of technological society, its consequences, theological implications, and the need for a countercultural response in the face of modern challenges.
  • This lesson guides you in understanding the loss of transcendence, seeking understanding, and retaining hope amidst the challenges of modern society.
  • You gain insight into Jacques Ellul's life, his views on the loss of transcendence, and the influence of his work on theology and society.
  • You will learn about the concept of technique in the modern world, its characteristics, societal effects, and the spiritual implications it holds for faith and transcendence.
  • In this lesson, you gain insights into the implications of technique on society, its challenges, and ways to respond from a biblical perspective, ultimately aiming to strengthen human connections and reclaim transcendence.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insights into the Psalms' structure, types, role in ancient worship, and their significance in modern Christian life, prayer, and spiritual growth.
  • In this lesson, you will explore the role of domestic involvement in the Psalter, its significance in Ancient Israel's worship, and the impact of the Psalms on the community, values, and beliefs.
  • Gain insights into the connection between biblical eschatology and secularity, understanding key aspects and themes while learning to reclaim the transcendent in eschatology.
  • This lesson offers insight into the theological tensions between immanence and transcendence, their impact on modern theology and worship, and the practical steps for reintegrating them into the Christian life.
  • In this lesson, you gain insight into the concepts of immanence and transcendence, their effects on theology and culture, and the importance of integrating both for a balanced Christian worldview.
  • In this lesson, you gain insight into time and eternity, God's relationship with them, and their impact on human experience and theological concepts such as soteriology, eschatology, and Christian living.
  • Gain insight into Old Testament concepts of time, the role of numbers and patterns, the significance of time in biblical prophecy, and the theological implications concerning God's sovereignty and human responsibility.
  • This lesson provides insight into the New Testament's complex understanding of time, addressing concepts such as the Kingdom of God, the present age, and eternal life, and offering guidance for Christian living.
  • In this lesson, you gain insight into the loss of transcendence in modern society and learn how to recover and foster a transcendent view within your personal faith and church life.

This course on the loss and recovery of transcendence in our contemporary culture is, of course, appropriate for all Christians, but, I think, especially for us here in North America, for the political prominence of a Christian religious culture that we’ve had in North America that makes us all the more exposed to the secularisation of contemporary Christianity. 

In this next section, which may be a concluding one to this theme, I want us to turn attention to the contemporary various intensities of literary criticism or historical criticism that is impacting our understanding of commentaries on the Bible today and then to conclude with some of the steps that we ourselves need to take in facing all of this. Very helpfully, the Calvinist scholar from Calvin College Alvin Plantinga has suggested that there are three intensities of literary criticism or historical criticism that have impacted our commentaries on the Bible today. There’s an ideology, in other words, behind all of these. They have as their common denominator a faith in man and not in God. It’s not faith in inspiration of scripture. It’s not faith in the work of the Holy Spirit as the interpreter and reader of scripture. Its faith in human intelligence. And so these three fundamental forms have dominated Western scholarship.

The first is that of Troeltsch. And Troeltsch’s approach to Scripture is a study in skepticism. It’s what we call a hermeneutic of suspicion. Because you start reading the Bible by doubting that it’s true. You don’t have an open mind to it. You just question fundamentally certain of the presuppositions that previous generations of scripture have held onto. You doubt its divine inspiration; you doubt its historical veracity; you even doubt its Biblical integrity. You start and you end with skepticism. Now, in a law court, you don’t start with skepticism. You start with the fact that you’re not already condemning the poor man in the dock. You’re giving him every opportunity to justify what he’s done or if he’s done it. So there he is in the open box and a judge has an open mind. Not so with the Bible. The Bible’s in the dock, but the criminal is judged as a criminal before you’ve even heard him speak. So that’s what we might call the ideology of intolerance. What seems to be open-mindedness is not open-mindedness one little bit.

The second of Troeltsch’s assumptions was that you are working from the principle of coherence. And what Troeltsch means by coherence is that every effect has a natural, that is to say, a this-worldly, not a supernatural, cause. Now, of course, what lies behind the principle of coherence is what first arose in the 17th century and that is a new form of imagination, an imagination about nature. Nature became, as it were, the overthrow of creation. Creation is now having her ways, not the Creator. And it’s very interesting that about the 1670s, Bishop Boyle, famous for his Boyle’s Law on gas and one of the founding members of the Royal Society, wrote an interesting treatise on the concept of nature vulgarly so-called. It was becoming popular to talk about nature and he, as a Christian, was protesting that you should never talk about nature. You should talk about creation. And as a founding member of the Royal Society, as one of its incipient scientists, he was the one that should know. Well, this scientist is protesting as a Christian that we’re creating a new fantasy of the imagination that we call nature.


One of my first Christian books when I moved in this adventure from Oxford to Regent was to write a book on I Believe in the Creator. And I suggested in that book, that was written way back in 1974, that Christians should never talk about nature. Never. They should always talk about creation. Well, we as Christians have been very slippery about that ever since.

The third thing that Troeltsch is building on all his criticism is on the principle of analogy. That is to say, that the laws of nature in Biblical times must be the same as they are today. In other words, your vivid imagination about how they crossed the Red Sea doesn’t operate, and again I use the word the laws of nature, but I’m using it in the secular fashion. Or that the dead have never been resurrected, therefore Christ never was resurrected either. So with these three principles, this is how you start your study of criticism.

In contrast to this German critic, a French critic Pierre Duhem living at the end of the 18th century, doesn’t go as far in these assumptions. In other words, he’s prepared to use his reason to reason his way out of some of the enigmas, of some of the difficulties. He’s prepared to explain some of the miracles. But still the premise with which he operates is that the only way of interpreting scripture is by reason alone, that exegesis is rational and therefore it’s adrift from the Hermeneutica Sacra, that is to say, the orthodox understanding of sacred hermeneutics, which is that you open the Bible and you pray that God will illumine you, pray that God will guide you by his Holy Spirit in your interpretation and acceptance of the scripture. He doesn’t stand for that at all. There’s no premise then for Christian meditation and contemplation on scripture. He’s a kind of middle man in-between. He’s moderate. But he’s still intrinsically a rationalist.


And thirdly, there’s Baruch Spinoza, that we’ve already mentioned—this Jewish renegade that was decried as an atheist both by the Jews as well as by the Christians. And he goes much further in saying that reason alone is the sole arbiter of truth and therefore of interpreting the Bible. For him, faith has no role in Biblical interpretation. And so he’s so much more radical and is not prepared in any way whatsoever to think of the Bible as a sacred text. So with all of these three, none of them accept it as a sacred text. They accept it’s simply a primitive text or a series of texts, but that’s all.

Now, one of the things that had helped very strongly Calvin to understand the plain meaning of the text was to recognise that any fruitful Biblical scholarship in the future had to be based on the double knowledge of both Hebrew and Greek. And the dilemma was that there were those, especially Pietist German theologians, or exegetes rather, who, in admiring profoundly the way of Christ as Christians, saw the importance of the Greek. And this is one of the dilemmas that Biblical seminaries have had ever since. It’s so easy for us to think that we, as seminary students, begin with Greek and not Hebrew. And the answer is, of course, because we’re concerned about the New Testament. Why? By beginning in the New Testament, we’re not understanding the whole counsel of God. And so we have to begin where the scriptures begin, with Hebrew. And so knowledge of Hebrew is primary to knowledge of Greek.


In the consequence of this, one of the weaknesses of overcoming criticism is that most Christian leaders have a Greek but not a Hebrew background. And as we’ve seen, this has been the weakness of the Church throughout the centuries. So that right through the first 1,500 years of the Church, there were, as we’ve seen, hardly a handful of Hebraic scholars that understood the Old Testament text. And the consequence of this then brings us to the situation that we are facing today and that is that in the context of what has happened, we have lost our moorings much more than we realise.