Project Canterbury

Liberal Catholicism and the Modern World

Edited by Frank Gavin

Milwaukee: Morehouse, 1933.

The Old Testament

Instructor, General Theological Seminary

LIBERAL CATHOLICS accept and welcome the results of literary and historical criticism. It follows, therefore, that their estimate of the Old Testament as one of the sources of their faith differs considerably from that of the Fundamentalists. For the Fundamentalist the Old Testament is the word of God, because it contains definite commands given by God to Noah, to Abraham and the patriarchs, to Moses, and to the prophets. These commands were couched in clear and unmistakable language, and there could be no doubt as to their meaning. Their apprehension did not depend upon the ability of the human mind to discern the hand of God in history, to hear the voice of God speaking in everyday life. Everything was definite and straightforward. God spoke to Israel, as a father speaks to his child, telling them what they were to do, and how they were to worship Him. It is true that by this uncritical reading of the Old Testament God seemed at times to be strangely contradicting Himself, as when, for instance, having through Moses explicitly commanded sacrifice. [E.g. Numbers 28 and 29.] He later expressed His abomination of the cult. [Cf. Isaiah 1:11-15; Amos 5:21f.] But these contradictions could be, and were, explained away, though one can perhaps detect in the arguments a certain underlying uneasiness as to the cogency of the reasoning employed, and an only partially concealed regret that the deity had not seen fit to be more consistent.

It was the fact of the existence of these contradictions and inconsistencies within the Old Testament, together with other difficulties, which gave rise to modern literary and historical criticism. The other difficulties alluded to in the preceding sentence were of two kinds: first, the presence of curious duplications and repetitions in many narratives as, for instance, in the story of Jacob's deception of Isaac, where Jacob twice approaches his father, and twice receives his blessing; [Genesis 27:22, 23, 27.] and, secondly, the immorality and savagery of many of the commands purporting to have come from God. [E.g. I Samuel 15:1-3; Deuteronomy 7:1ff.] It was this second group of difficulties which were the more insistent, for they involved not merely inconsistencies and duplications within the Old Testament itself, which would not, perhaps, be apparent except on a close study of the text, but a radical contradiction of our Lord's revelation of the character of God. Any suggestion that the Church should rid itself of this embarrassment by a wholesale denial of the validity of the Old Testament revelation was rejected by thoughtful men as offering no solution of the problem. The Old Testament remained as the sacred book of the Jewish Church, from which Christianity had sprung; to reject it was to leave Christianity hanging in mid-air, without foundations. Its inconsistencies and immoralities had to be explained and accounted for, in view of the indubitable fact that Christian monotheism was frankly derived from the Jewish Church. The way in which the people of Israel had attained that faith was therefore a matter of fundamental importance.

The limits of this article do not permit anything approaching a detailed account of the steps by which the modern critical reconstruction of the Old Testament was reached. Only the salient points of the process can be mentioned. Of primary importance was the establishment of the fact that the Pentateuch was not the work of one man, but was composed of four independent documents, which had been placed together by a succession of editors. The oldest of these documents is to be dated about the year 850 B. C., if not earlier, and the latest about 450. The editors treated their material in various ways. Sometimes they were content to place a section of one document after a section of another. At other times, when two or more of them told the same story with variations, they would interweave the respective accounts in an intricate fashion, frequently preserving both variations at the expense of consistency. [The People and the Book, ed. A. S. Peake, Oxford, 1925, contains an excellent article by T. H. Robinson on "The Methods of Higher Criticism," which, as an example, shows step by step the separation of the two interwoven accounts in the first chapter of the story of Joseph, Genesis 37.] When it is realized that these four main sources have themselves been in part composed from earlier oral, and possibly written, traditions, and that even after 450, the date of the latest document, further supplementary additions were made to it, it is seen that the Pentateuch represents a literary growth of some five hundred years. And the fact that its component documents were, each of them, written to advance certain religious ideas, differing to a varying extent from each other, will explain many of the contradictions and inconsistencies within the whole, contradictions and inconsistencies which the successive editors did not feel it was in their province to remove.

A second point established was the fact that the present form of the Books of Judges and Kings, and also of the Books of Samuel, is the result of extensive editing of older material. The editor of Judges took as the foundation of his work ancient stories of tribal heroes, probably founded on fact, and set them in a framework of his own, which represented these local warriors as national leaders. It will easily be seen that this device, which implied the existence of a national unity, not as a matter of fact achieved until the time of David, conveyed an entirely wrong impression of the stage reached in the political development of Israel before the institution of the monarchy. But not only was an erroneous picture given of political conditions. The editor, by representing, as he thought, the successive oppressions of the people as being due to religious apostasy, and the judges as being raised up by divine intervention when the nation repented of its backsliding, gave a religious turn to what was, in its original form, simply secular history. Once the fact of this editing has been grasped, it becomes evident that there are in the Book of Judges two kinds of material--ancient stories containing at least a kernel of historical truth, and reflecting with some adequacy the conditions of the Israelite tribes during the period immediately following their entry into Palestine; and editorial comment, of no historical worth except as an indication of the philosophy of history held by the religious leaders of the nation in the sixth or fifth centuries before Christ.

Similarly with the Books of the Kings. The editors had at their disposal the official records of the court, the archives of the Jerusalem temple, and certain popular tales, such as the stories of Elijah and Elisha. From these they made selections, utilizing, for the most part, only that material which would best lend itself to teaching the lesson which they wished to convey--that faithfulness to the God of Israel resulted in prosperity, and disobedience in calamity. Their own comments, frequently historically unjustified, were directed to the same end. It is recognized, accordingly, that here, too, as in the Book of Judges, the distinction must be made between two kinds of material--that which contains historical information, and that which is the (frequently mistaken) comment of the editors. [J. A. Bewer in The Literature of the Old Testament, Columbia University Press, deals admirably with the material in Judges, Samuel, and Kings. This is a standard, popular, though scholarly, work on the subject, and the best book of its kind in English.]

A third achievement of the critical study of the Old Testament is the recognition of the fact that the prophetic books are also editorial compilations. This was a discovery of prime importance. An uncritical reading of the Book of Isaiah, for instance, results in the impression that that prophet was largely interested in predicting events which were not to happen until, in some cases, three hundred years or more after his time. But the application of the critical method to the book has revealed that only a very small part of the material contained therein comes from the prophet of the eighth century; and that in that material he deals entirely with the circumstances of his own age, giving utterance to the divine condemnation of the immoral policies pursued by the statesmen of Judah, and declaring the punishment which God was about to inflict upon the nation for its failure to trust in His almighty power. Isaiah, that is, prophesied for his contemporaries. So, too, did Amos, Hosea, and Micah. Their prophecies were written down, partly by the prophets themselves, partly by their disciples, and preserved. Hundreds of years later, certain men of insight, discerning that their utterances contained truths which were significant for all time, and realizing that they would not be read by the ordinary man unless they were presented in a form relating them to "modern" conditions, edited them by interpolating their own comments and anonymous prophetic oracles and eschatological poems. Since by far the greater part, if not all, of this material was of a later date than the prophetic works thus edited, the result was the impression, which for so long remained dominant, that the great prophets were chiefly concerned with prediction. The realization, however, that, with some minor exceptions, the books of the prophets in each case contain material originating over a period of from two hundred to five hundred years, effects a striking change in our view as to the nature of their significance. [For the prophets, cf. Bewer, op. cit., also T. H. Robinson, Prophecy and the Prophets, Scribners, 1923.]

These are the main points of what may be called the analytical work of the critics, and it should be noted that they were established by means of a searching study of the text of the Old Testament itself. Criticism did not begin with certain preconceived theories, into conformity with which the text was forced; but, confronted with contradictions and inconsistencies in what was traditionally held to be the record of God's self-revelation, it attempted honestly to face those difficulties, with a view to making ultimately a reconstruction of the material at hand, and so discovering just how Israel actually did come to that faith which was essential to the Incarnation. To this reconstructed record we now turn.

Once again, the limits of this article will permit only a very summary outline of the development. It begins with a group of nomad tribes, emerging from the desert into Palestine, the worshipers of a god whom they called Yahweh, and whom they believed to be in some sense localized in Mount Sinai in Northern Arabia. Other minor deities also claimed their attention, but Yahweh stood out from these in individuality and power. This Yahweh was a dread god, manifesting himself in the volcano, the earthquake, the storm; a god whose primary characteristic was destruction; a god of war, who seized upon his devotees, and, without care for their survival, hurled them frenzied into battle, that his wrath might be glutted with the blood of his enemies. [Reflections of this destructive note in the Hebrew idea of God, a note which was never entirely lost, are to be found in Judges 5; Isaiah 2:12-19; Psalm 29; et al.] In the mind of these tribes morality had little or no connection with the religion of Yahweh. [This is not to say that they were immoral, but simply that the sanctions of their morality did not derive from Yahweh. The Old Testament is by no means lacking in indications of the austere morality of the desert.] This connection was established by Moses, who taught the group of tribes who came under his influence that their God was a moral being, who was roused to action not only in moments of crisis, but who was interested in their everyday life, who demanded justice in the relations between man and man, and clan and clan; that he was a creating as well as a destroying deity.

This teaching was a tremendous step forward in the direction of a true idea of God. The creative note thus sounded received a strengthening as a result of the contact of the Israelites with the peasant religion of Canaan--the worship of innumerable local deities, the Baals, who were regarded as the givers of rain, the dispensers of fertility. The Israelites, when they settled in Palestine, and turned to agriculture, would quite naturally take the precaution of propitiating these gods, whose business it was to bestow prosperity, and whose province seemed at first in no way to encroach upon that of Yahweh. There were consequently for a time two poles to their religion: on the one hand, Yahweh, terrible and just, and on the other, the Baals, benign and amoral. But Yahweh through His very uniqueness was strongly individual. From the first there had always been in His character, as they had grasped it, a note of jealousy and intolerance of other gods. The Baals, however, because of their number and similarity, had little or no individuality, and were certainly in no way intolerant. The result was that little by little the Baals were absorbed into Yahweh, and came to be regarded as local manifestations of Him. The Baal sanctuaries were taken over by Yahwism. The stories of theophanies told at the local shrines were revised so as to make Yahweh the deity who had thus revealed Himself. The sacrifices and gifts which would ensure fertility were brought not to the Baals, but to Yahweh, who was now regarded as the God of the land, the bestower of prosperity. This syncretism had two results, one good and the other bad. In the first place it related the religion of the people more closely to their everyday life. It provided Yahwism with institutions which were necessary for it to survive in these new surroundings. It impressed upon the Israelites the creative side of the divine character. On the other hand, however, the new familiarity with Yahweh weakened the idea of His transcendence. The immoral character of much of the Baal worship, taken over and offered to Yahweh unchanged, blurred the stern nomad morality, which, under Moses, had come to be derived from Him. The rivalry of the sanctuaries tended to dissipate the unity of Yahweh, and virtually, though not nominally, to substitute pagan polytheism for monolatry.

It was against these latter effects of the syncretism that the great prophets of the eighth century raised their protest. They proclaimed afresh the majesty and transcendence of Yahweh. They insisted that Israel existed for Him, and not He for Israel. They thundered out His moral demands, presenting them as the guide of life, domestic, national, international. They condemned the easy-going worship of the sanctuaries as a self-centered dishonoring of God. But in all this they made no call to repentance, for they believed that the nation had gone too far to retrace its steps. Repentance was henceforth impossible, only doom awaited a people who had apostatized from their God, and they announced in words pregnant with horror how this doom would come.

The predictions of Amos and Hosea were fulfilled. The Northern Kingdom fell before the Assyrians in 722, but the Southern Kingdom of Judah remained, though now a vassal state of the Assyrian Empire, for more than a hundred years. In the last quarter of the seventh century a program of reform [Now contained in the Book of Deuteronomy.] was published, which endeavored to give effect to the demands of the prophets by purifying the cult. But before this could be implemented, Judah fell before the Neo-Babylonian forces, and the exile supervened. The center of gravity for Yahwism now shifted for the time being to Mesopotamia. There the spiritual leaders of the nation worked out a thorough and far-reaching reformation. Forced by their contact with other peoples, who made great claims for their gods, they thought out the implications of their faith. The result was an explicit monotheism, the belief in Yahweh as a holy God, who had chosen Israel to be his holy people. [The great prophets were clearly monotheists, but their monotheism remained implicit. The nation as a whole, before the exile, did not advance beyond monolatry.] It was the vocation of Israel to maintain that holiness, and this could be done only by a policy of rigid national and religious exclusiveness. The history of the nation was rewritten to enforce this lesson, and ancient customs which lent themselves to the realization of this policy were codified, given the status of law, and ascribed to definite commands of Yahweh, mediated through Moses. [The editorial process referred to above as the second point established by the critical method.] When as a result of the conciliatory policy of the Persians, who in 539 gained control of the Babylonian empire, the re-establishment of Jerusalem as the national and religious center of the people of Yahweh was permitted, the exclusiveness which had been built up among the exiles was, though with some difficulty, enforced in the Palestinian community, and became dominant. [The Books of Jonah and Ruth may be noted as protests against an extreme form of this exclusiveness.] The Priestly Code was adopted, the people ceased to be a nation and became a Church. They devoted themselves to the fulfilment of the Law, and waited eagerly for the day when God would intervene in human history, and exalt them to the position to which they were destined by the fact of the divine choice. [This hope appears to have been held in some form even before the exile. Cf. Amos 6:18. Expression of the post-exilic expectation is found, for instance, in Isaiah 9:2-7; 11:1-8.] The prophetic books were edited to encourage this hope, and the prophets thus (erroneously) represented as alternating their oracles of doom with messages proclaiming the future glory of the nation. [Cf. what was said above regarding the third point established by the critical method.] It is this messianic belief which forms one of the chief links between the Old Testament and the New.

Such is the development of the religion of Israel in its main lines, as it has been reconstructed by the critical method. Other trends of thought are reflected in the Books of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, non-nationalist, non-legalist, and more universalist in their scope, showing that even in the fourth and third centuries there were in Jewry men who, if they did not attain the lofty splendor and missionary enthusiasm of Deutero-Isaiah, at least shared his outlook in that their religion was not bounded by the limits of their own nation. [The prophet of the sixth century who composed the oracles contained in Isaiah 40-55.] These men show that Judaism was not altogether uninfluenced by the impact upon it of Hellenistic culture, and are accordingly, in a sense, harbingers of Christianity. [It may be noted here that the Psalter contains material giving expression to every type of religion found in the Old Testament.]

For those who accept this reconstruction in its broad outlines, the result is a radical change in their belief, not in the fact, but in the media of divine inspiration. The center of gravity is shifted from a few outstanding individuals to the body of the faithful as a whole. The fact that God inspired the leaders of the people, as Moses and the prophets, to reveal His character and to declare His will, stands firm. But those leaders did not appear out of all relation to their times. They were influenced by the development which had preceded them, and, in part, because of that development were able to respond to the voice of God calling them to direct it in a new phase. Furthermore, when the prophets had delivered their message, it was the Church which preserved it, made it its own, and ultimately gave it its authority. Had the message of the prophets not eventually commended itself to the Church, it would certainly not form part of our tradition today. Witness the fact that the message of the "false prophets" has been lost; they are "false" because the corporate consciousness of the spiritual community, under the guidance of God, failed to stamp their doctrine with the seal of its approval.

In other words, it was through the corporate consciousness of the Church that the Holy Spirit worked then as now. The leaders had their parts to play in mediating His message, but it must not be forgotten that frequently in their lifetime they were not accepted as leaders. This is certainly true of the great prophets of the eighth century. Amos was expelled from Bethel, and the preaching of Isaiah was evidently without immediate effect except upon a small group of disciples. It was due to the faith and constancy of these disciples that they were later recognized as the inspired messengers of God. It will therefore cause us no disquiet when we realize that the books which have traditionally been assigned to certain outstanding figures are largely composed of material emanating from authors and editors of a later age. For they too were working in the power of the Spirit, content themselves to remain nameless as they enshrined the teaching of their masters in a frame, often calculated to bring out its hidden lights and shadows, and to make it speak to the heart of other ages than that for which it had been delivered. Such a sentence as "It is with reluctance that one is driven to assign a thought so finely expressed to an interpolator" is meaningless to those for whom inspiration reaches beyond the individual to the whole Church. [Skinner on Isaiah 48:17-19, Cambridge Bible, first edition.]

The Old Testament in its present form is then the product of the corporate life of the people of Israel, extending over a period of a thousand years or more. It represents their response to God, teaching them, leading them, guiding them. Underlying the book is the living tradition which is prior to it, and which will enable us to recognize its value and it is this which we must try to apprehend, and to which we must endeavor to respond. Our tendency is possibly to be content with the book, to limit our response to that. But to limit our response to the response of Israel to God is to thin the stream of the tradition, to ignore the Spirit which has given the letter birth.

And it is the whole tradition which is valid, the whole Old Testament which is the record of God's revelation of Himself, and of Israel's response thereto. To deny inspiration to those passages which, not without reason, offend the moral sense of Christianity is to fail to respond to the truth to which they give expression. Deuteronomy 7, verses 2 and 3, might seem to be simply a manifestation of bloody intolerance. But underlying it is the hardly won conviction that the immoralities of the Canaanite religion must no longer be allowed to flaunt themselves in the worship of Yahweh. It indicates an advance in the apprehension of him as a moral being. This truth is expressed in terms which, on other counts, reflect a still inadequate idea of God, but to admit this is not to deny inspiration to those who were insisting that His worship and His worshipers must be clean. The passage forms part, and an important part, of Israel's response to God's self-revelation. Again, the genealogical tables which comprise the 10th chapter of Genesis might seem to be without religious significance. Yet they represent the conviction, held by those who compiled them, of the unity of the human race, a conviction which prepared the way for the universalism of Deutero-Isaiah. This early stage of universalism is as much a part of God's revelation as are the lofty periods of the great prophet of the sixth century. The essentially Protestant attempt to shut up the revelation into selected passages, to say, "that is inspired which finds me," cannot be allowed, for it is a response, not to the living tradition, but merely to the book which it produced, and it isolates the individual writing from the Church which gave it its authority. Similarly must the "proof text" method of exegesis be rejected as an isolation of the part from the whole, as an ignoring of the living tradition. The Old Testament points forward to Christ, not in virtue of the fact that certain passages speak of a coming deliverer, but because the progressive self-revelation of God, to which the book is a response, will find completion only in the Incarnation.

Liberal Catholics in accepting the results of criticism are not assenting to an undermining of the foundations of the Christian faith. Rather they are welcoming a discipline which has delivered the record of God's self-revelation to Israel from the realm of legend, and placed it in the clear light of history, where, examined and tested, it has ceased to be a source of embarrassment, while it remains a source of our faith.

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