Pesky Presuppositions Relating to Biblical Criticism

CS Lewis in an essay against modern Theology and Biblical criticism wrote that “I do not wish to reduce the skeptical element in your minds. I’m only suggesting that it need not be reserved exclusively for the New Testament and the creeds. Try doubting something else.”

Lewis was coming against the vast numbers of liberal New Testament (NT) scholars that were prevalent in his day and still remain to this day. These scholars display great levels of skepticism against traditionally held views of the NT. One of the most common errors that is made within NT scholarship is coming to the NT with presuppositions, specifically presuppositions regarding early ecclesiology and its development, prophecy and Christology.

Many critical scholars like to hold to beliefs similar to the Bauer Thesis, currently a belief system defended by Bart Ehrman, author of Misquoting Jesus, as made popular in The Da Vinci Code.1 This thesis holds to the notion that the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, which they claim was heavily influenced by Emperor Constantine, declared the deity of Christ the official position of the church (supposedly despite a multitude of beliefs and no prior agreement within the church) and that the books of the NT were for the first time declared to be true Scripture at that council. These beliefs have been heavily criticized and yet many scholars still hold to them and work off the presuppositions within them. Let’s look at the first example.

Many critical scholars believe that II Peter is a pseudonymous book (written under his name only, not written by him). While I do not have time to get into all of the arguments for and against this position, one of the evidences that critical scholars like to use is II Peter 3:16. In this verse Peter explicitly calls a certain grouping of Paul’s letters Scripture. So scholars working with the presupposition that Paul’s letters were not considered Scripture until later on in ecclesiastical history immediately have to force a later date for II Peter, which then requires the book to be pseudonymous. While there are a host of other NT verses which support the evidence that the ecclesiastical community considered, or were being taught to consider, the Apostolic letters scripture, critical scholars seemingly ignore those verses and apply their presuppositions to this verse. Their reasoning in the end is circular.2

Clearly they are not looking directly at the evidence and all possible options, they are working off of a biased position. As Lewis advised “if anyone present tonight has felt the same shy and tentative doubts about great Biblical critics, perhaps he need not feel quite certain that they are only his stupidity.” Let’s go to another example where presuppositions are brought to the text.

When we come to the Gospel Luke most critical scholars immediately argue for a date post 70 AD. The possibility for a date prior to 70 AD is not even entertained due to the presupposition that Jesus’s prophecy in Luke 20 regarding the destruction of Jerusalem must have been written after the destruction of Jerusalem.3 But a true historian should not come to any historical document with a presupposition on what can or cannot happen or what did or did not happen. Alas these critics are coming to history with a philosophical presupposition. However, am I just biased because I’m a Christian?

Let’s look at a few more facts when it comes to Luke. Nearly all scholars will hold that the the apostle Paul was martyred by Emperor Nero in either 67 or 68 AD, that includes critical scholars. We know that Luke was written to Theophilus and that Acts was also written to Theophilus, no one disputes this. In the book of Acts, Luke immediately starts off by saying that this is the second letter in which he has written to Theophilus meaning that Luke was written prior to Acts, no one disputes this. Think about how suddenly the book of Acts ends in chapter 28. The book ends with Paul still in prison in Rome. There is some dispute whether this was his first or second imprisonment but nonetheless he is still alive. Two major events that a historian of Luke’s caliber would be sure to include in his letter to Theophilus would be the martyrdom of Paul, his dear friend, and the destruction of Jerusalem had they happened yet. Neither of these facts are recorded. It seems logical, if not necessary, to date Acts prior to 67 AD, the death of Paul. This creates a major problem with a dating of Luke that is post 70 AD like so many scholars do. If the second letter written by Luke (Acts) had to have been written prior to 67 AD, even a child would assume that his gospel was written prior to 67 AD, which was prior to the destruction of Jerusalem. The only reason not to assume this is if you come to the text with a philosophical presupposition that Jesus could not have predicted the destruction of Jerusalem. This is very weak scholarship.

Let’s now look at the example of presuppositions regarding Christology. A late date, in the past a very late date prior to archaeological evidence which caused such a late date to be impossible, is given to the Gospel of John by critical scholars.4 One of the primary reasons for giving this late date to John’s gospel is the high Christology within it. The presupposition that critical scholars take is that a high Christology was developed late, by comparison of other writings, in ecclesiastical history. Therefore the high Christology seen in John must mean that it has a late date. This type of thinking makes several major errors that almost seem so obvious that it boggles the mind that such educated scholars can make these errors.

The first error in this line of thinking is that it overlooks the high Christology within Paul’s epistles, which even the most critical scholars give dates as early as 15 to 20 years after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Let’s look at just one passage, though there are many. Philippians 2:6-11 is generally considered to be an early Christian hymn that Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, works into his letter. This hymn is very likely the earliest preserved writing relating to Jesus. This passage starts off by declaring that Jesus “existed in the form of God” prior to His Incarnation. For a first century Jew to include this, or for that matter for any Jew to even compose this with the strict monotheism declared in the Old Testament (OT), is shocking. Philippians 2:6 is very similar to John 1:1. Yet for some reason so many scholars overlook this extremely high Christology in this extremely early passage when they try to date John. As Lewis wrote “they claim to see fern-seed and can’t see an elephant ten yards away in broad daylight.”

Another mind-boggling error when it comes to the belief that a high Christology developed later on in the early church is the high Messianic status that is given in the OT. There are many places that we could go for this but let’s look at just one example. Isaiah 9:6 which is clearly a Messianic description, portrays the coming Messiah as follows: “and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.” The two words Mighty God are the word El-Gibbor in Hebrew. This is important because in Jeremiah 32:18-19 the same word, El-Gibbor, is used by Jeremiah as he prays to God: “Ah, Lord God! You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power… O great and mighty God. The LORD of hosts is His name.” Did you catch that El-Gibbor (mighty God) is YHWH (LORD) and the Messiah will be called El-Gibbor, so if the Christ is to be called El-Gibbor, already without any New Testament teaching He is given a name that one would think only God could have… because only God can have the name El-Gibbor. If this isn’t a high Christology I don’t know what is. The OT sure makes it sound like the Messiah, “existed in the form of God” from its teaching alone. This is a beautiful foreshadowing of the more clear revelation that will be given of the Triune God of both testaments. These are just three verses from the OT that show a high Messianic view, there are many more. To believe that a high Christology developed late is to completely miss not just the facts of the New Testament but to overlook the entire Bible as a whole.

Lewis wrote that he had “learned in other fields of study how transitory the ‘assured results of modern scholarship’ may be, how soon scholarship ceases to be modern.” Some of the truths that seems obvious within the Bible are so easily overlooked by many scholars that I’m convinced they do not have eyes to see nor ears to hear. We should pity them, we should pray for them and we should not think ourselves more intelligent than they are. For it is not by our own intellect that we see what they do not, it is completely by the grace of God.

Citations:

1.The Heresy of Orthodoxy by Michael Kruger and Andreas Köstenberger

2.  “The Authenticity of Second Peter,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 42 (1999): 645-671.,

3.The Reformed Study Bible by RC Sproul

4. The Reformed Study Bible by RC Sproul

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Photo by Giammarco Boscaro on Unsplash

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