Do you know the main weaknesses of the popular critical approach to the Gospels? A New Testament scholar presents a list of flaws.
A key issue in theology today is the relation between faith and history, or, to state it precisely, the historical integrity of the biblical witness to Jesus Christ. In the forefront of the discussion looms the Synoptic problem. Just how sturdy are the foundations of saving history? If the kerygma be historical to the core, the Gospels can scarcely be otherwise without exposing a fatal weakness in biblical Christianity.
The challenge of radical form criticism is therefore serious, for it threatens to undermine our knowledge of the historical Jesus and remove the grounds of our whole proclamation. Far from restricting itself to a neutral analysis of the material, form criticism has attempted a new synthesis that systematically extracts the supernatural out of history, leaving us with a “Christ” we cannot know and a “Jesus” we cannot worship. The form criticism being treated here is that radical brand which views the gospel accounts as primary witnesses, not to the life of Jesus, but to the beliefs and practices of the primitive Church. It is marked by a heavy dose of historical pessimism, intentionally aimed, it would seem, at weakening the historical basis of the kerygma.
The force of the following eleven propositions is to show that radical form criticism actually impedes truly historical research and is destructive of Christianity. The theses aim to expose weaknesses in the form critical argument and to offer an alternative methodology.
1. Primitive Christianity is stamped by the impact of the person and work of Jesus Christ. No other explanation can possibly account for the rise of the Church and its theology. But form criticism reduces Jesus’ influence to near zero, supplying instead the story of how the “tradition” wrote the first life of Christ! It is assumed that virtually all reliable recollection about Jesus was either annihilated or suppressed in the brief interval that separated his earthly life from the period of gospel preaching, but such skepticism is untenable.
2. At the outset of the apostolic age, we are confronted by a messianic belief in Jesus and an affirmation regarding his resurrection. Radical form criticism, however, denies Jesus’ messianic self-consciousness and his bodily resurrection. It thus creates for itself a riddle at the genesis of Christianity. Several imponderables are put in the place of the Gospel: Why was Jesus executed at all if not for messianic pretensions? Did martyrs die for a “Christ” who was no more than a geometrical point that had position but no magnitude? The riddle is insoluble if no claims of Jesus underlie this messianic faith and no empty tomb supports the Easter message.
3. Members of the early churches were as interested in details about Jesus “for his own sake” as we are, and found in their midst informed persons acquainted with these details. It is idle to suggest, as form criticism often does, that no biographical motive lies behind the Gospels. Luke’s prologue (1:1–4) alone is sufficient to demonstrate the unity of history and faith in the minds of first-century believers. It is only a fanciful existential hermeneutic that can happily suspend the historical affirmations of the Gospel in the thin air of myth. The Gospels are basically didache, not kerygma—that is, they supply information about the life of Jesus helpful in various ways to the Christian walk.
4. The apostles played a decisive role in the early years of the Church. The Book of Acts describes the strategic control they exercised over the spread of the Gospel. Jesus had intentionally selected them for training in evangelism (Mark 3:14). The picture painted by form criticism of the free creation and flow of tradition is quite unhistorical. After his conversion, Paul visited Jerusalem and conferred with Peter (Gal. 1:18). The verb he uses has the nuance of “consulting a person to acquire information.” There was an authoritative source of information about the facts and doctrines of Christianity in the apostolic collegium in Jerusalem from which Paul derived his “tradition.” The disciples of Jesus were not translated to heaven at the Resurrection. They remained to lead the community Christ founded. Their presence prevented the occurrence of precisely the situation envisaged by form criticism. It guaranteed the continuity and integrity of the historic Christian faith.
5. The great and unwarranted assumption of radical form criticism is that the community exercised a large creative role in the production of gospel tradition. This assumption violates the temporal framework of the New Testament, whose vision is oriented backward to the Resurrection and forward to the Parousia, and which stresses the receptive character of faith. We are witnesses and stewards of saving history. It is a passive role of preserving, proclaiming, waiting. Paul, for example, kept clear in his mind the distinction between his own words and the words of Jesus (1 Cor. 7:10, 12, 25). Form criticism creates a host of extra problems by following its assumption through to the bitter end. The New Testament knows nothing of this creative role.
6. The evidence opposes the hypothesis that Christian ideas and practices were historicized by being read back into the Gospels. Certain concerns in the early Church we know well—e.g., circumcision, tongues, Gentiles, Spirit, churches. But none of these receives any considerable treatment in the Gospels. On the reverse side of the coin, the parable form and concepts like “son of man” and “kingdom of God” seldom appear in the same guise in the Epistles or Acts. Apparently, then, the gospel writers were careful to respect the boundary between the pre- and post-Resurrection period of history.
7. Form critical arguments are often circular. From a gospel account, a setting in the community is reconstructed, and this is used to explain the origin of the story. The confusion arises from mixing up possible motives for preservation with ultimate origins. Obviously the pericopae were recorded to meet a pastoral need in the churches. Papias told us that in the second century. But it is foolish on that account to conclude that the material was simply invented. Indeed, Bultmann carries the logic to absurd limits, in that he trusts a chunk of tradition only when it contradicts some known belief or practice in the Church! We meet genuine history, in his estimation, only at those points in which Christians disobeyed their Lord. This approach is unworthy of a reputable historian, let alone a faithful Christian.
8. In its analysis of the “biology of the saga,” form criticism is oblivious to the small time lag separating the historical facts and the written documents. Mark was written in the sixties, if not the fifties. The teaching tract “Q” circulated in the forties. Paul received his account of the tradition in the mid-thirties. Many of the apostles and associates of Jesus lived throughout the entire period in which the Gospels were recorded. Where is the time for the creation, collection, and collation of these community sagas? The events of Jesus’ life were not hidden from public gaze (Acts 26:26). There were witnesses for both the defense and the prosecution of Christianity. The development of German folklore, for example, required centuries. The Gospel exploded into life in the midst of well-attested history, almost fully grown at birth.
9. Form criticism seldom responds to external evidence. The older approach of orthodoxy held perhaps too uncritical an attitude to the witness of the Fathers. But the new radicalism seems to doubt whatever the tradition says. Hans Conzelmann, for instance, cares little for the extensive archaeological confirmation of the Book of Acts. The testimony of Papias regarding the production of the four Gospels has a strong claim to authenticity—e.g., that Peter stands behind Mark’s Gospel. But if this is so, the edifice of form criticism is severely shaken; for any thought of the controlling influence of the apostles goes contrary to the assumption of the free creation of material.
10. The obvious analogy to the transmission of gospel stories is to be found in rabbinic practices. Christianity was conceived in a Jewish milieu and adopted numerous forms and procedures from Judaism. In form, Jesus’ teaching resembled that of the rabbis. Like Isaiah before him, he gathered disciples to himself to entrust to them his teaching. These disciples assumed positions of leadership in the infant Church and passed down the deposit of teaching. The Church was not a rabbinic academy. Yet the parallels in her handling of the tradition are numerous and striking. And the comparison, developed by Harald Riesenfeld and Birger Gerhardsson, offers a substantial guarantee of the accuracy and continuity of the tradition. The Gospels as historical records can command our deepest trust.
11. Form criticism has become an instrument for the extension of the “new quest” of the historical Jesus. It is not an autonomous literary science aiming only at classification but an editing device designed to rid the Gospels of the supernatural Christ. The Jesus we now meet is a prophet who called for decision in the light of impending divine action, whose existence was “authentic” and truly “free.” He wears in fact a Bultmannian face. But this is a Jesus the Gospels know little of. Stripped of his claims, his miracles, his predictions, his resurrection, he is as emaciated a figure as the old quest could present. Harnack offered a teacher we cannot worship, and Bultmann offers us a phantom Christ we cannot know (historically).
The argument presented above severely reduces the role of form criticism as it has been practiced by many. Indeed, it goes further than simply rebuking its practitioners for over-enthusiasm. It contends that form criticism as a method applied to the Gospels is vastly overrated. For it is a speculative attempt to demonstrate the transmission of materials that are primarily historical. Hence its results have been fragmentary, mutually contradictory, and largely unfruitful. Our initial concern is with historical research, which attempts rather to elucidate the meaning of the data in the context of the first century. Our aim is exposition, not reduction.
A story or saying in the Gospels is not one penny the better or the worse for having a form critical label attached to it. But as practiced today, radical form criticism actually impedes truly historical research and challenges the legitimacy of biblical Christianity. Evangelicals must stand up to resist the tide. At stake are the integrity of the Gospels and the reality of our Saviour.
T. Leo Brannon is pastor of the First Methodist Church of Samson, Alabama. He received the B.S. degree from Troy State College and the B.D. from Emory University.
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