Second of Three Parts

As a method, form criticism is not in itself wrong, and conservative scholars engage in this kind of research also. In modern critical scholarship, however, form criticism is not an innocent affair, largely because of the various presuppositions upon which it is based. They can be briefly summarized in the following points:

1. The modern form critics believe that in the so-called twilight period of oral tradition (from c. A.D. 30–60), the gospel stories and sayings circulated as separate units in the various Christian communities. It is the task of the scholar to find out which of these units were original and authentic, and which are later additions.

2. For Bultmann and his followers believe (and this is the second major presupposition) that nearly all these units were gradually altered and embellished under the influence of the beliefs held in the various Christian communities. In the Gospels, for example, these critics generally distinguish four layers. The first and lowest layer consists of Jesus’ own words, or authentic memories of his deeds. The second consists of contributions of the earliest post-Easter Palestinian community. The third is formed by the contributions of Hellenistic churches. The fourth and last is the contribution of the evangelists themselves. The three top layers are so thick that it is very difficult to penetrate to the layer at the botton. This also explains Bultmann’s statement quoted above: “We know, strictly speaking, nothing of Jesus’ personality.” The rest of the New Testament (and the Old Testament as well) is subjected to similar methods. Second Corinthians is said to consist of four or five smaller letters or fragments of letters; First Corinthians consists of two, Philippians of three, First Thessalonians also of three, and so on.


The whole procedure is unacceptable to us for several reasons.

1. It ignores the fact of the inspiration of the Bible by the Holy Spirit. Often this is not even discussed. The Bible is seen and treated as any other human book; the only acknowledged difference seems to be that it is the book of the Christian community to which we ourselves belong. As the basic document of this community it is unique, but this is only a historical judgment. Seen merely as a document, it is not in any way different from any other human document.

2. The whole procedure is one of pure arbitrariness and subjectivism. When form criticism started, Martin Dibelius found in the Synoptic Gospels eighteen stories that in his opinion were almost certainly authentic, i.e., spoken by Jesus himself. Later, Bultmann studied the same material and concluded that only three of them were authentic. Today Bultmann accepts only some forty sayings in all the Gospels as genuine. And yet it is quite common in the circles of form criticism to speak of the “assured results” of scientific theological study. What is “assured,” when the one scholar rejects what the other accepts?

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3. This naturally leads to the next objection: there are no scientific criteria. R. H. Fuller mentions the following three: First, anything that clearly presupposes the post-Easter situations must be eliminated from Jesus’ sayings. Secondly, everything that is paralleled in Jewish apocalyptic and rabbinic tradition must also be eliminated. Thirdly, authentic sayings must exhibit Aramaic features (The New Testament in Current Study, p. 33). But are these criteria really scientific? Are they not typical examples of scientific question-begging? Fuller himself admits that none of these criteria is really foolproof. As for the first two he says: “They yield no complete certainty, for on some points Jesus could have agreed with the post-Eastern church.… Jesus might also have quoted or used with approval Rabbinic teaching.” About the third point he admits: “Of course the earliest Aramaic-speaking church could also have used poetic forms, and certainly its creation would undoubtedly exhibit Aramaic linguistic features, just as the authentic logia (words) of Jesus.” But what then, one may ask, is left of the validity and usefulness of these criteria? The German theologian Ernst Käsemann seems to be too right when he openly admits: “We simply do not have formal criteria to find out which aspects can be genuinely attributed to Jesus Himself” (in G. Bergmann, Alarm um die Bibel, 1963, p. 103). And this is no wonder, for the Gospels are the only sources of our knowledge of Jesus. The form critics do not have secret sources of information on the basis of which they can evaluate the Gospels. They have to work with these Gospels, and with nothing else. Obviously, then, almost everything one says about what lies behind the Gospels is mere guesswork. And yet the results are often presented as the “assured results” of scientific study.

4. Closely related to the foregoing is the form critics’ disregard of the existence of eyewitnesses in the early Christian communities. Bultmann and others believe that all the additions and embellishments that took place in the “twilight period” happened within these Christian communities. But must we then believe that these communities first shaped the additions, for kerygmatic or theological reasons, and afterwards started to believe them as historical facts? And must we further assume that all the eyewitnesses who had been present during Jesus’ ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection accepted this whole process? As A. M. Hunter says: “Reading the form critics, we easily get the impression that when the Gospel tradition was taking shape, all the eyewitnesses of Jesus had either ‘fallen asleep’ or were in safe hiding” (Interpreting the New Testament [1900–1950], 1951, p. 39). Really, the small time-lag separating the historical facts and the written documents is too small to explain this whole process. The development of German folklore, for example, required centuries!

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5. Again and again we see that in the application of the form-critical method the presuppositions are decisive. Take, for example, the fact of the empty tomb in the resurrection story. It is beyond a doubt that all the Gospels mention this fact. Yet nearly all form critics reject the reality of the empty tomb, because they do not find it in Paul’s kerygma, as recorded in First Corinthians 15, which is the earliest resurrection tradition known to us. At first glance this seems to be a rather strong case. Here at least there seems to be textual evidence for the critical view. In reality, however, the case is extremely weak. In his summary of the tradition that he himself had received from others (most likely he means the other apostles) and had delivered to the congregation in Corinth, the Apostle does speak only of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Yet a careful study of the whole chapter makes it quite clear that the reality of the empty tomb is definitely implied in Paul’s kerygma. First of all, there is the whole argument about the resurrection body of the believers (vv. 35–50). This argument would be meaningless if the Apostle had not believed that Jesus’ own resurrection was a bodily one. Secondly, there would have been no need for the Apostle to “defend” the resurrection Gospel against the opponents in Corinth, if he too had believed in a purely spiritual resurrection. We may be sure that his opponents, who were deeply influenced by the Greek idea of an immortal soul, did not have any objection to a “spiritual” resurrection. Simply by agreeing with them Paul could have settled all differences. Thirdly, in 15:3 the Apostle emphatically speaks of “buried” and “raised on the third day.” The addition of the word “buried” is again meaningless if it does not speak of the reality of the resurrection as the fact of being raised from the grave. As Julius Schniewind says: “The Empty Tomb has already asserted its place in the kerygma in First Corinthians 15; otherwise the presence of ‘was buried’ and ‘on the third day’ is inexplicable” (Kerygma and Myth, I, 73). Therefore I believe that Kirsop Lake, who belonged to the nineteenth-century school of liberalism, was far more honest when he wrote that “the story of the empty tomb must be fought out on doctrinal, not on historical or critical grounds” (Historical Evidence for the Resurrection, 1907, p. 253). Here at least we have an honest acknowledgment of the true situation. Applying it to the many modern denials of the empty tomb we can only conclude: There cannot be an empty tomb, for this would shatter the whole modern conception of the impossibility of a real resurrection.

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6. Finally, if this method is correct, there is no absolute certainty left. Everything becomes ambiguous and subject to doubt. No one, I believe, has expressed this with more honesty than Professor Gerhard Ebeling did in a discussion of the modern historical-critical method. He openly states that we may not stop half-way. We have “to expose ourselves relentlessly to the vulnerability, the insecurity and the dangers.” We have “to go ahead with the critical examination of our foundations, to let everything burn that will burn and without reservations await what proves itself unburnable, genuine, true—and to adopt this attitude at the risk that much that seemed established may begin to rock, that indeed some things may even be temporarily considered shaky which upon ever new examination then prove to be stable after all, that thus many mistakes and errors are made, much asserted and much taken back again, that our path takes us through serious crises, bitter struggles, bewildering debates and the results are apparently weakness and collapse,” until we find that version of Christianity which withstands even the most vicious critical attack (Word and Faith, 1963, p. 51). But this means, of course, that for the time being, nothing, literally nothing, is finally certain. And even that which is certain today may become uncertain tomorrow. We are and remain dependent upon the results of the critics.

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For all these reasons, the whole modern method is absolutely unacceptable for us. The attitude that comes to the fore in this method is not belief but unbelief. Here man lords it over Scripture; everything depends on his judgments. No one can any longer be sure about the message of the Gospel. Indeed, we must say that there is no Gospel left. Jesus Christ becomes a foggy figure of the past, and no one knows for sure who he was, what he did, or what he meant to do. Skepticism is the order of the day, and the Gospel disappears in the mists of human subjectivism and relativism.

And what does all this mean for the layman? Nothing else than that he is again relegated to the state of tutelage. Again, as in the Middle Ages, he is dependent upon the priest—the high priest of modern scientific theology. R. H. Fuller tries to deny this. He rightly assumes that the ordinary believer does not want his faith “to be tied down to what the professors tell him at any given moment.” But this is not necessary, either. The believer does not depend on the professor. “What he believes in is Christ as he is proclaimed by the living church today.… This Christ is not a myth, but the Jesus of Nazareth, in whom, according to the kerygma and to faith, God has acted decisively for man’s redemption” (R. H. Fuller, op. cit., p. 142). All this does not sound bad, but is it really the solution? How can the ordinary believer trust the “Gospel,” the kerygma that is proclaimed in his church, if the very theologians of his church tell him and all the other believers that nothing is yet fully certain about this kerygma? Professor Geering seems more honest and more to the point, when he openly admits in an article in The Outlook (Sept. 25, 1965): “If the Bible is to continue to be the rule of the church’s faith and practice, and the basis of continuing reformation, the study of it must necessarily be the task of the specialist. The Bible is a book from the ancient world and must be studied in the light of modern scholarship and all that it can tell us about the world that bequeathed us the Bible. The Holy Spirit is no more likely to reveal all its truth to the lay-reader, however sincere, than He is to reveal the cure to the lay medical practitioner.”

Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”

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