The History of the Higher Criticism

By Canon Dyson Hague, M. A., Rector of the Memorial Church, London, Ontario. Lecturer in Liturgics and Ecclesiology, Wycliffe College, Toronto, Canada. Examining Chaplain to the Bishop of Huron.

What is the meaning of the Higher Criticism? Why is it called higher? Higher than what?

At the outset it must be explained that the word "Higher" is an academic term, used in this connection in a purely special or technical sense. It is not used in the popular sense of the word at all, and may convey a wrong impression to the ordinary man. Nor is it meant to convey the idea of superiority. It is simply a term of contrast. It is used in contrast to the phrase, "Lower Criticism."

One of the most important branches of theology is called the science of Biblical criticism, which has for its object the study of the history and contents, and origins and purposes, of the various books of the Bible. In the early stages of the science Biblical criticism was devoted to two great branches, the Lower, and the Higher. The Lower Criticism was employed to designate the study of the text of the Scripture, and included the investigation of the manuscripts, and the different readings in the various versions and codices and manuscripts in order that we may be sure we have the original words as they were written by the Divinely inspired writers. (See Briggs, Hex., page 1). The term generally used now-a-days is Textual Criticism. If the phrase were used in the twentieth century sense, Beza, Erasmus, Bengel, Griesbach, Lachmann, Tregelles, Tischendorff, Scrivener, Westcott, and Hort would be called Lower Critics. But the term is not now-a-days used as a rule. The Higher Criticism, on the contrary, was employed to designate the study of the historic origins, the dates, and authorship of the various books of the Bible, and that great branch of study which in the technical language of modern theology is known as Introduction. It is a very valuable branch of Biblical science, and is of the highest importance as an auxiliary in the interpretation of the Word of God. By its researches floods of light may be thrown on the Scriptures.

The term Higher Criticism, then, means nothing more than the study of the literary structure of the various books of the Bible, and more especially of the Old Testament. Now this in itself is most laudable. It is indispensable. It is just such work as every minister or Sunday School teacher does when he takes up his Peloubet's Notes, or his Stalker's St. Paul, or Geikie's Hours with the Bible, to find out all he can with regard to the portion of the Bible he is studying; the author, the date, the circumstances, and purpose of its writing.

Why is Higher Criticism Identified with Unbelief?

How is it, then, that the Higher Criticism has become identified in the popular mind with attacks upon the Bible and the supernatural character of the Holy Scriptures?

The reason is this. No study perhaps requires so devout a spirit and so exalted a faith in the supernatural as the pursuit of the Higher Criticism. It demands at once the ability of the scholar, and the simplicity of the believing child of God. For without faith no one can explain the Holy Scriptures, and without scholarship no one can investigate historic origins.

There is a Higher Criticism that is at once reverent in tone and scholarly in work. Hengstenberg, the German, and Horne, the Englishman, may be taken as examples. Perhaps the greatest work in English on the Higher Criticism is Horne's Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scripture. It is a work that is simply massive in its scholarship, and invaluable in its vast reach of information for the study of the Holy Scriptures. But Horne's Introduction is too large a work. It is too cumbrous for use in this hurrying age. (Carter's edition in two volumes contains 1,149 pages, and in ordinary book form would contain over 4,000 pages, i.e., about ten volumes of 400 pages each). Latterly, however, it has been edited by Dr. Samuel Davidson, who practically adopted the views of Hupfield and Halle and interpolated not a few of the modern German theories. But Horne's work from first to last is the work of a Christian believer; constructive, not destructive; fortifying faith in the Bible, not rationalistic. But the work of the Higher Critic has not always been pursued in a reverent spirit nor in the spirit of scientific and Christian scholarship.

Subjective Conclusions

In the first place, the critics who were the leaders, the men who have given name and force to the whole movement, have been men who have based their theories largely upon their own subjective conclusions. They have based their conclusions largely upon the very dubious basis of the author's style and supposed literary qualifications. Everybody knows that style is a very unsafe basis for the determination of a literary product. The greater the writer the more versatile his power of expression; and anybody can understand that the Bible is the last book in the world to be studied as a mere classic by mere human scholarship without any regard to the spirit of sympathy and reverence on the part of the student. The Bible, as has been said, has no revelation to make to unbiblical minds. It does not even follow that because a man is a philological expert he is able to understand the integrity or credibility of a passage of Holy Scripture any more than the beauty and spirit of it.

The qualification for the perception of Biblical truth is neither philosophic nor philological knowledge, but spiritual insight. The primary qualification of the musician is that he be musical; of the artist, that he have the spirit of art. So the merely technical and mechanical and scientific mind is disqualified for the recognition of the spiritual and infinite. Any thoughtful man must honestly admit that the Bible is to be treated as unique in literature, and, therefore, that the ordinary rules of critical interpretation must fail to interpret it aright.

German Fancies

In the second place, some of the most powerful exponents of the modern Higher Critical theories have been Germans, and it is notorious to what length the German fancy can go in the direction of the subjective and of the conjectural. For hypothesis-weaving and speculation, the German theological professor is unsurpassed. One of the foremost thinkers used to lay it down as a fundamental truth in philosophical and scientific enquiries that no regard whatever should be paid to the conjectures or hypotheses of thinkers, and quoted as an axiom the great Newton himself and his famous words, "Non fingo hypotheses": I do not frame hypotheses. It is notorious that some of the most learned German thinkers are men who lack in a singular degree the faculty of common sense and knowledge of human nature. Like many physical scientists, they are so preoccupied with a theory that their conclusions seem to the average mind curiously warped. In fact, a learned man in a letter to Descartes once made an observation which, with slight verbal alteration, might be applied to some of the German critics: "When men sitting in their closet and consulting only their books attempt disquisitions into the Bible, they may indeed tell how they would have made the Book if God had given them that commission. That is, they may describe chimeras which correspond to the fatuity of their own minds, but without an understanding truly Divine they can never form such an idea to themselves as the Deity had in creating it." "If," says Matthew Arnold, "you shut a number of men up to make study and learning the business of their lives, how many of them, from want of some discipline or other, seem to lose all balance of judgment, all common sense."

The learned professor of Assyriology at Oxford said that the investigation of the literary source of history has been a peculiarly German pastime. It deals with the writers and readers of the ancient Orient as if they were modern German professors, and the attempt to transform the ancient Israelites into somewhat inferior German compilers, proves a strange want of familiarity with Oriental modes of thought. (Sayce, "Early History of the Hebrews," pages 108-112).


In the third place, the dominant men of the movement were men with a strong bias against the supernatural. This is not an ex-parte statement at all. It is simply a matter of fact, as we shall presently show. Some of the men who have been most distinguished as the leaders of the Higher Critical movement in Germany and Holland have been men who have no faith in the God of the Bible, and no faith in either the necessity or the possibility of a personal supernatural revelation. The men who have been the voices of the movement, of whom the great majority, less widely known and less influential, have been mere echoes; the men who manufactured the articles the others distributed, have been notoriously opposed to the miraculous.

We must not be misunderstood. We distinctly repudiate the idea that all the Higher Critics were or are anti-supernaturalists. Not so. The British-American School embraces within its ranks many earnest believers. What we do say, as we will presently show, is that the dominant minds which have led and swayed the movement, who made the theories that the others circulated, were strongly unbelieving.

Then the higher critical movement has not followed its true and original purposes in investigating the Scriptures for the purposes of confirming faith and of helping believers to understand the beauties, and appreciate the circumstances of the origin of the various books, and so understand more completely the Bible?

No. It has not; unquestionably it has not. It has been deflected from that, largely owing to the character of the men whose ability and forcefulness have given predominance to their views. It has become identified with a system of criticism which is based on hypotheses and suppositions which have for their object the repudiation of the traditional theory, and has investigated the origins and forms and styles and contents, apparently not to confirm the authenticity and credibility and reliability of the Scriptures, but to discredit in most cases their genuineness, to discover discrepancies, and throw doubt upon their authority:

The Origin of the Movement

Who, then, were the men whose views have molded the views of the leading teachers and writers of the Higher Critical school of today?

We will answer this as briefly as possible.

It is not easy to say who is the first so-called Higher Critic, or when the movement began. But it is not modern by any means. Broadly speaking, it has passed through three great stages:

  1. The French-Dutch.
  2. The German.
  3. The British-American.

In its origin it was Franco-Dutch, and speculative, if not skeptical. The views which are now accepted as axiomatic by the Continental and British-American schools of Higher Criticism seem to have been first hinted at by Carlstadt in 1521 in his work on the Canon of Scripture, and by Andreas Masius, a Belgian scholar, who published a commentary on Joshua in 1574, and a Roman Catholic priest, called Peyrere or Pererius, in his Systematic Theology, 1660. (LIV. Cap. i.)

But it may really be said to have originated with Spinoza, the rationalist Dutch philosopher. In his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (Cap. vii-viii), 1670, Spinoza came out boldly and impugned the traditional date and Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and ascribed the origin of the Pentateuch to Ezra or to some other late compiler.

Spinoza was really the fountain-head of the movement, and his line was taken in England by the British philosopher Hobbes. He went deeper than Spinoza, as an outspoken antagonist of the necessity and possibility of a personal revelation, and also denied the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. A few years later a French priest, called Richard Simon of Dieppe, pointed out the supposed varieties of style as indications of various authors in his Historical Criticism of the Old Testament, "an epoch-making work." Then another Dutchman, named Clericus (or Le Clerk), in 1685, advocated still more radical views, suggesting an Exilian and priestly authorship for the Pentateuch, and that the Pentateuch was composed by the priest sent from Babylon (2 Kings, 17), about 678, B.C., and also a kind of later editor or redactor theory. Clericus is said to have been the first critic who set forth the theory that Christ and his Apostles did not come into the world to teach the Jews criticism, and that it is only to be expected that their language would be in accordance with the views of the day.

In 1753 a Frenchman named Astruc, a medical man, and reputedly a free-thinker of profligate life, propounded for the first time the Jehovistic and Elohistic divisive hypothesis, and opened a new era. (Briggs' Higher Criticism of the Pentateuch, page 46). Astruc said that the use of the two names, Jehovah and Elohim, shewed the book was composed of different documents. (The idea of the Holy Ghost employing two words, or one here and another there, or both together as He wills, never seems to enter the thought of the Higher Critic!) His work was called "Conjectures Regarding the Original Memoirs in the Book of Genesis," and was published in Brussels.

Astruc may be called the father of the documentary theories. He asserted there are traces of no less than ten or twelve different memoirs in the book of Genesis. He denied its Divine authority, and considered the book to be disfigured by useless repetitions, disorder, and contradiction. (Hirschfelder, page 66). For fifty years Astruc's theory was unnoticed. The rationalism of Germany was as yet undeveloped, so that the body was not yet prepared to receive the germ, or the soil the weed.

The German Critics

The next stage was largely German. Eichhorn is the greatest name in this period, the eminent Oriental professor at Gottingen who published his work on the Old Testament introduction in 1780. He put into different shape the documentary hypothesis of the Frenchman, and did his work so ably that his views were generally adopted by the most distinguished scholars. Eichhorn's formative influence has been incalculably great. Few scholars refused to do honor to the new sun. It is through him that the name Higher Criticism has become identified with the movement He was followed by Vater and later by Hartmann with their fragment theory which practically undermined the Mosaic authorship, made the Pentateuch a heap of fragments, carelessly joined by one editor, and paved the way for the most radical of all divisive hypotheses.

In 1806 De Wette, Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Heidelberg, published a work which ran through six editions in four decades. His contribution to the introduction of the Old Testament instilled the same general principles as Eichhorn, and in the supplemental hypotheses assumed that Deuteronomy was composed in the age of Josiah (2 Kings22:8). Not long after, Vatke and Leopold George (both Hegelians) unreservedly declared the post-Mosaic and post-prophetic origin of the first four books of the Bible. Then came Bleek, who advocated the idea of the Grundschift or original document and the redactor theory; and then Ewald, the father of the Crystallization theory; and then Hupfield (1853), who held that the original document was an independent compilation; and Graf, who wrote a book on the historical books of the Old Testament in 1866 and advocated the theory that the Jehovistic and Elohistic documents were written hundreds of years after Moses' time. Graf was a pupil of Reuss, the redactor of the Ezra hypothesis of Spinoza. Then came a most influential writer, Professor Kuenen of Leyden in Holland, whose work on the Hexateuch was edited by Colenso in 1865, and his "Religion of Israel and Prophecy in Israel," published in England in 1874-1877. Kuenen was one of the most advanced exponents of the rationalistic school. Last, but not least, of the continental Higher Critics is Julius Wellhausen, who at one time was a theological professor in Germany, who published in 1878 the first volume of his history of Israel, and won by his scholarship the attention if not the allegiance of a number of leading theologians. (See Higher Criticism of the Pentateuch, Green, pages 59-88). It will be observed that nearly all these authors were Germans, and most of them professors of philosophy or theology.

The British-American Critics

The third stage of the movement is the British-American. The best known names are those of Dr. Samuel Davidson, whose "Introduction to the Old Testament," published in 1862, was largely based on the fallacies of the German rationalists. The supplementary hypothesis passed over into England through him and with strange incongruity, he borrowed frequently from Baur. Dr. Robertson Smith, the Scotchman, recast the German theories in an English form in his works on the Pentateuch, the Prophets of Israel, and the Old Testament in the Jewish Church, first published in 1881, and followed the German school, according to Briggs, with great boldness and thoroughness. A man of deep piety and high spirituality, he combined with a sincere regard for the Word of God a critical radicalism that was sttrangely inconsistent, as did also his namesake, George Adam Smith, the most influential of the present-day leaders, a man of great insight and scriptural acumen, who in his works on Isaiah, and the twelve prophets, adopted some of the most radical and least demonstrable of the German theories, and in his later work, "Modern Criticism and the Teaching of the Old Testament," has gone still farther in the rationalistic direction.

Another well-known Higher Critic is Dr. S. R. Driver, the Regius professor of Hebrew at Oxford, who, in his "Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament," published ten years later, and his work on the Book of Genesis, has elaborated with remarkable skill and great detail of analysis the theories and views of the continental school. Driver's work is able, very able, but it lacks originality and English independence. The hand is the hand of Driver, but the voice is the voice of Kuenen or Wellhausen.

The third well-known name is that of Dr. C. A. Briggs, for some time Professor of Biblical Theology in the Union Theological Seminary of New York. An equally earnest advocate of the German theories, he published in 1883 his "Biblical Study"; in 1886, his "Messianic Prophecy," and a little later his "Higher Criticism of the Hexateuch." Briggs studied the Pentateuch, as he confesses, under the guidance chiefly of Ewald. (Hexateuch, page 63).

Of course, this list is a very partial one, but it gives most of the names that have become famous in connection with the movement, and the reader who desires more will find a complete summary of the literature of the Higher Criticism in Professor Bissell's work on the Pentateuch (Scribner's, 1892). Briggs, in his "Higher Criticism of the Hexateuch" (Scribner's, 1897), gives an historical summary also.

We must now investigate another question, and that is the religious views of the men most influential in this movement. In making the statement that we are about to make, we desire to deprecate entirely the idea of there being anything uncharitable, unfair, or unkind, in stating what is simply a matter of fact.

The Views of the Continental Critics

Regarding the views of the Continental Critics, three things can be confidently asserted of nearly all, if not all, of the real leaders.

1. They were men who denied the validity of miracle, and the validity of any miraculous narrative. What Christians consider to be miraculous they considered legendary or mythical; "legendary exaggeration of events that are entirely explicable from natural causes."

2. They were men who denied the reality of prophecy and the validity of any prophetical statement. What Christians have been accustomed to consider prophetical, they called dexterous conjectures, coincidences, fiction, or imposture.

3. They were men who denied the reality of revelation, in the sense in which it has ever been held by the universal Christian Church. They were avowed unbelievers of the supernatural. Their theories were excogitated on pure grounds of human reasoning. Their hypotheses were constructed on the assumption of the falsity of Scripture. As to the inspiration of the Bible, as to the Holy Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation being the Word of God, they had no such belief. We may take them one by one. Spinoza repudiated absolutely a supernatural revelation. And Spinoza was one of their greatest. Eichhorn discarded the miraculous, and considered that the so-called supernatural element was an Oriental exaggeration; and Eichhorn has been called the father of Higher Criticism, and was the first man to use the term. De Wette's views as to inspiration were entirely infidel. Vatke and Leopold George were Hegelian rationalists, and regarded the first four books of the Old Testament as entirely mythical. Kuenen, says Professor Sanday, wrote in the interests of an almost avowed Naturalism. That is, he was a free-thinker, an agnostic; a man who did not believe in the Revelation of the one true and living God. (Brampton Lectures, 1893, page 117). He wrote from an avowedly naturalistic standpoint, says Driver (page 205). According to Wellhausen the religion of Israel was a naturalistic evolution from heathendom, an emanation from an imperfectly monotheistic kind of semi-pagan idolatry. It was simply a human religion.

The Leaders Were Rationalists

In one word, the formative forces of the Higher Critical movement were rationalistic forces, and the men who were its chief authors and expositors, who "on account of purely philological criticism have acquired an appalling authority," were men who had discarded belief in God and Jesus Christ Whom He had sent. The Bible, in their view, was a mere human product. It was a stage in the literary evolution of a religious people. If it was not the resultant of a fortuitous concourse of Oriental myths and legendary accretions, and its Jahveh or Jahweh, the excogitation of a Sinaitic clan, it certainly was not given by the inspiration of God, and is not the Word of the living God. "Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost," said Peter. "God, who at sundry times and in diverse manners spake by the prophets," said Paul. Not so, said Kuenen, the prophets were not moved to speak by God. Their utterances were all their own. (Sanday, page 117).

These then were their views and these were the views that have so dominated modern Christianity and permeated modern ministerial thought in the two great languages of the modern world. We cannot say that they were men whose rationalism was the result of their conclusions in the study of the Bible. Nor can we say their conclusions with regard to the Bible were wholly the result of their rationalism. But we can say, on the one hand, that inasmuch as they refused to recognize the Bible as a direct revelation from God, they were free to form hypotheses ad libitum. And, on the other hand, as they denied the supernatural, the animus that animated them in the construction of the hypotheses was the desire to construct a theory that would explain away the supernatural. Unbelief was the antecedent, not the consequent, of their criticism. Now there is nothing unkind in this. There is nothing that is uncharitable, or unfair. It is simply a statement of fact which modern authorities most freely admit.

The School of Compromise

When we come to the English-writing Higher Critics, we approach a much more difficult subject. The British-American Higher Critics represent a school of compromise. On the one hand they practically accept the premises of the Continental school with regard to the antiquity, authorship, authenticity, and origins of the Old Testament books. On the other hand, they refuse to go with the German rationalists in altogether denying their inspiration. They still claim to accept the Scriptures as containing a Revelation from God. But may they not hold their own peculiar views with regard to the origin and date and literary structure of the Bible without endangering either their own faith or the faith of Christians? This is the very heart of the question, and, in order that the reader may see the seriousness of the adoption of the conclusions of the critics, as brief a resume as possible of the matter will be given.

The Point in a Nutshell

According to the faith of the universal church, the Pentateuch, that is, the first five books of the Bible, is one consistent, coherent, authentic and genuine composition, inspired by God, and, according to the testimony of the Jews, the statements of the books themselves, the reiterated corroborations of the rest of the Old Testament, and the explicit statement of the Lord Jesus (Luke 24:44; John 5:46-47) was written by Moses (with the exception, of course, of Deuteronomy 34, possibly written by Joshua, as the Talmud states, or probably by Ezra) at a period of about fourteen centuries before the advent of Christ, and 800 years or so before Jeremiah. It is, moreover, a portion of the Bible that is of paramount importance, for it is the basic substratum of the whole revelation of God, and of paramount value, not because it is merely the literature of an ancient nation, but because it is the introductory section of the Word of God, bearing His authority and given by inspiration through His servant Moses. That is the faith of the Church.

The Critics' Theory

But according to the Higher Critics:

1. The Pentateuch consists of four completely diverse documents. These Completely different documents were the primary sources of the composition which they call the Hexateuch: (a) The Yahwist or Jahwist, (b) the Elohist, (c) the Deuteronomist, and (d) the Priestly Code, the Grundschift, the work of the first Elohist (Sayce Hist. Heb., 103), now generally known as J. E. D. P., and for convenience designated by these symbols.

2. These different works were composed at various periods of time, not in the fifteenth century, B.C., but in the ninth, seventh, sixth and fifth centuries; J. and E. being referred approximately to about 800 to 700 B.C.; D to about 650 to 625 B.C., and P. to about 525 to 425 B.C. According to the Graf theory, accepted by Kuenen, the Elohist documents were post-exilian, that is, they were written only five centuries or so before Christ. Genesis and Exodus as well as the Priestly Code, that is, Leviticus and part of Exodus and Numbers were also post-exilic.

3. These different works, moreover, represent different traditions of the national life of the Hebrews, and are at variance in most important particulars.

4. And, further. They conjecture that these four suppositive documents were not compiled and written by Moses, but were probably constructed somewhat after this fashion: For some reason, and at some time, and in some way, some one, no one knows who, or why, or when, or where, wrote J. Then someone else, no one knows who, or why, or when, or where, wrote another document, which is now called E. And then at a later time, the critics only know who, or why, or when, or where, an anonymous personage, whom we may call Redactor I, took in hand the reconstruction of these documents, introduced new material, harmonized the real and apparent discrepancies, and divided the inconsistent accounts of one event into two separate transactions. Then some time after this, perhaps one hundred years or more, no one knows who, or why, or when, or where, some anonymous personage wrote another document, which they style D. And after a while another anonymous author, no one knows who, or why, or when, or where, whom we will call Redactor II, took this in hand, compared it with J. E., revised J. E., with considerable freedom, and in addition introduced quite a body of new material. Then someone else, no one knows who, or why, or when, or where, probably, however, about 525, or perhaps 425, wrote P.; and then another anonymous Hebrew, whom we may call Redactor III, undertook to incorporate this with the triplicated composite J. E. D., with what they call redactional additions and insertions. (Green, page 88, cf. Sayce, Early History of the Hebrews, pages 100-105).

It may be well to state at this point that this is not an exaggerated statement of the Higher critical position. On the contrary, we have given here what has been described as a position "established by proofs, valid and cumulative" and "representing the most sober scholarship." The more advanced continental Higher Critics, Green says, distinguish the writers of the primary sources according to the supposed elements as J1 and J2, E1 and E2, P1, P2 and P3, and D1 and D2, nine different originals in all. The different Redactors, technically described by the symbol R., are Rj., who combined J. and E.; Rd., who added D. to J. E., and Rh., who completed the Hexateuch by combining P. with J. E. D. (H. C. of the Pentateuch, page 88).

—Fundamentals, The