In my last post, I mentioned that there were three intellectual challenges to Christianity in the nineteenth century: European Higher Criticism, Biblical Archaeology, and Evolution. These three issues were pressing matters for the theologians and biblical scholars at Old Princeton, and they handled these challenges differently. Today we will look at the first of these challenges.
European Higher Criticism
For several generations before the founding of Princeton Theological Seminary, European biblical scholars had been focusing their steady, penetrating, analytical, gaze at explaining internal tensions in the Old Testament. Their focus was on trying to understand how the biblical books came to be, and their explanations were typically at odds with traditional ideas.
The most famous of these controversies concerned the authorship of the Pentateuch. This discussion began in earnest with Spinoza (1632-77) and came to a head with Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918). Wellhausen’s famous Documentary Hypothesis said that the Pentateuch was not a single book written by Moses, or any one person. Rather it was made up of four originally independent documents (JEDP) originating much later than the time of Moses, and separated by geography, time, and ideology. These sources were not brought together until the postexilic period by a group of priests.
The problem with this was not so much the mere suggestion that sources were used in the forming of the Pentateuch. Conservative scholars granted the existence of source material that predated the Pentateuch. One later example is E. J. Young, professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, who thought it “perfectly possible that in the compilation of the Pentateuch Moses may have made excerpts from previously existing written documents” (An Introduction to the Old Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964], 153). Discerning the sources that Moses compiled was not a problem.
The real problem is the historical conclusions Wellhausen arrived at, which can be seen already in the title to Wellhausen’s 1883 source-critical magnum opus: Prolegomena to the History of Israel. Analyzing source documents was prolegomena—merely the first step to a complete rethinking of Israel’s history.
This rethinking of Israel’s history is best seen by how Wellhausen dated the Law of Moses. Based on a very complex set of arguments which centered on the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, Wellhausen argued that the Law of Moses was not written until after Israel returned from Babylonian exile. Specifically, Wellhausen argued that priests were responsible for transforming Israel’s faith from one of simple relationship with God (think of Abraham’s interactions with God) to rigorous legalism that kept God at a distance, mediated by priests.
Wellhausen’s theory caught on quickly among biblical scholars (many of whom had been working toward a similar solution). It was felt that Wellhausen’s theory was to that point the best theory for explaining some of the properties of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament (for example, similar patterns of vocabulary and style that recur throughout the Pentateuch).
Whether or not Wellhausen arguments are good ones is not our focus here, however. Our focus is on the understandable reaction to all this from the Princeton scholars. They argued that Wellhausen’s theory undermined the truthfulness of the Old Testament. As a result, a number of Old Testament scholars at Old Princeton invested a significant amount of their academic energy in taking Wellhausen and others on.
Their counterargument was to demonstrate flaws in Wellhausen’s theory and make a case for an early date of the Law of Moses. If the early date of the law could be established, then Wellhausen’s whole thesis was undercut. One example of this reaction is Geerhardus Vos’s 1886 master’s thesis at Princeton Theological Seminary—which he wrote at the tender age of 24 and entitled “The Mosaic Origin of the Pentateuchal Codes.” The origin of the law was his primary concern.
This response to Wellhausen is what the Old Testament faculty at Old Princeton was known for. Most notable was W. H. Green (1825-1900), who built much of his fifty-year career on responding to Wellhausen, as can be seen in the following titles: The Pentateuch Vindicated from the Aspersions of Bishop Colenso (New York: John Wiley, 1863); Moses and the Prophets (New York: Robert Carter, 1883); and The Higher Criticism of the Pentateuch (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1916).
An important reason why Wellhausen was met with such energy is not simply the idea itself. Rather, it was the popularity of the idea in seminaries and that future pastors and missionaries were being taught it. The ferocity of reaction to Wellhausen and others was prompted by fear of what his ideas could do to the people in the pew. For example, Green reserved some of his more caustic (and sarcastic) comments for John William Colenso (1814-83), the Anglican bishop who brought higher critical views to the mission field of Natal. Green and others felt they were at a crisis moment when biblical authority—even the Gospel itself—was at stake. This is why Green and others focused their energy on holding at bay this influence.
There is another factor in all of this that I would like to bring up here. The reason why authorship issues were such a focus at the time is that biblical scholars were trained primarily linguistically. They were trained to read the Hebrew text carefully and make judgments as to the text’s consistency, flow, and coherence. Much of what dominates biblical scholarship today—the historical context of Scripture vis-à-vis archaeological and historical studies—was at best in its infancy back then. Higher critical and conservative scholars came to polar-opposite conclusions, but they did so on the basis of the same linguistic methodologies.
This does not mean, however, that Old Princeton was wholly focused on purely linguistic arguments or simply content to rest in traditional formulations. Although not front-and-center, we do see in the writings of Old Princeton a true sensitivity for understanding Scripture in its historical context—even if that meant rethinking older views. This brings us to the other two challenges of the 19th century: extra-biblical archaeological evidence and evolution.
Old Princeton’s reaction to higher criticism reflected the traditionalist dimension of its history. How it handled biblical archaeology and evolution, although not developed nearly as thoroughly, helps us see the more progressive and flexible side of this tradition. We will look at this in the next post.