Fundamentalism of the Sources: Problems with Some Practices of Source Criticism – Part 8

At long last, I must justify the title: Fundamentalism of the Sources. Why this title? In short, because the critic practicing in the manner stated previously reads each source as a fundamentalist would read the bible as a whole.

How does a fundamentalist read the bible as a whole. Well, there are many facets to such a reading, and different kinds of fundamentalism. One thing that shows up frequently, however, is failure to grasp the mode of discourse in the text. Nowadays people say that someone is in error because they are “literalists”. The word is ill chosen, but it gets the job done sometimes. But the Tradition has a better way of diagnosing the problem.

The Tradition distinguishes holds (1) that the literal sense is always true – because God is the primary author, but that (2) the literal sense sometimes works in a (a) proper way and sometimes in an (b) improper way. In short, the Tradition distinguishes the proper literal sense from the improper literal sense.

The basis of the distinction is this: Is the term (or locution) being employed in the full sense of the term; that is, is there no noteworthy literary device? Or is the term (or locution) not being employed in the full sense of the term; that is, is there a noteworthy literary device? If there is a noteworthy literary device, if the term or locution is not employed in its full sense, then the literal sense is improper. If there is no noteworthy literary device, the literal sense is proper.

Example: If I say, “He walked across the street,” the sentence is in the proper literal sense. If the ship captain says, “All hands on deck,” he uses “hands” in an improper sense. He means all persons who are able bodied. Here the definition of “hand” does not convey what the captain really means but only part of what he means. He is using “synecdoche,” whereby the part stands for the whole. Hyperbole is similar: “I bet you a million dollars that….” Well, not really a million. Maybe ten cents.

Now, Scripture has many locutions and terms in the improper literal sense. Not all. But not none. Indeed, not a few.

Example. “God walked in the garden in the cool of the day” (Gen 3). Well, the definition of walk refers to legs, but God has no legs. Ergo, God cannot, properly speaking, walk. But he can accompany. He can be present with. Thus, in a beautiful, but poetic (or improper) manner of discourse, Scripture expresses God’s intimacy with Adam. The author is not asserting by implication that God has legs. He is not an idiot. He is inspired by God; his mind is loftier than ours, more than likely. As elevated, it most certainly is loftier than ours. We bow before the loftiness of Scripture. We do not drive a German Tank over it. We take our shoes off when we read Scripture. We do not sully its pristine snow, its gorgeous flowers with our boots. In this reverent mode, we know always to read Scripture in the loftiest possible way. Thus, when it attributes walking to God, we do not crawl along the dirt as the accursed serpent, finding the lowest meaning and attributing to the human author some anthropomorphic idea. Far be it from us to do so. Rather, we allow Scripture to give us wings, so that we may see here the most marvelous description of God’s tender mercy, accompanying the sinner. (And of course, not just saying to the sinner, “That’s ok. Hey, there is no law anyway. Why don’t we all just go to heaven?” No. He asks a gentle, but very searching question: “Where are you?”)

So, how do some practices of Source Criticism fall into fundamentalism?

Well, they attribute characteristics XYZ to one author, and ABC to another. Further, they see these characteristics as in contradiction. One author portrays God as “earthy and walking”, while the author portrays him as “lofty and transcendent”. One author says “one pair, not seven” while the other says “seven pairs, not one”. What the critic is doing in each case is reading the text as though no literary device is being employed. When he says “walking” he means something darn well close to walking. At the least, he means something non-compossible with “saying ‘Let it be’.” Thus read, this text contradicts that text. Further, the non-compossibility of both assertions is the leverage for the inference that there are two authors.

In short, and cutting through all the camouflage and subtlety that really is there in this or that practice, I am submitting that some practices (a logical “some,” standing in fact for many) of Source Criticism are based on fundamentalist readings of the so-called primary sources, which fundamentalist readings fail to take stock of the nuance of the actual text itself and indeed even at times posit error in the originary source. In short, the ur-sources are read as though written by sloppy thinkers. “Some thought there was some ‘vault’ in the heavens, like a saucer!” [Audience responds: Ha ha ha! Man I’m glad for Galileo and Steve Jobs!]

Then, after the inference is drawn and the ur-texts are taken as Gospel truth, all the exceptions observed – for life indeed is messy, especially in the Bible – must be account for and accounts are offered.

For instance, the first inference for Isaiah is that Isaiah the First runs from 1-39. But upon inspection, there are too many things in Isa 1-39 that contradict the anti-temple views of the supposed Isaiah. Thus, the critics say that these pro-temple passages belong to Isaiah the Second. (I know the proper lingo, Second Isaiah. I am adding a touch of irony here.) After these passages are shuffled to Second Isaiah, then the inference has more consistency.

The reasoning in the cleanup job looks circular.

But more things follow. The Redaction Critic comes and posits all his theories on the basis of the upshot of the state of the question according to Source Critics. The Dating is also dependent in some not insignificant measure on Source Criticism. Also, the interpretation hangs in the balance.

How should we interpret the juxtaposition of Gen 1 and 2? Especially if they are held as contradictory? Well, perhaps they are contradictory on the surface, but the author just meant to intend something very basic and banal. Worse, perhaps the authors indeed contradicted and thus teach us nothing, but invite us to think for ourselves. Or perhaps the juxtaposition just shows us that there were rival Jewish bodies of thought, and that no one nowadays should be dogmatic. (Note: That is how the alleged real contradictions in the views of the monarchy are read: As warring factions of schools of thought. Then the Critic tells his students, perhaps even without words dis-evangelizing them: “Come to me, all you who now are confused. I will seduce you the more. Welcome to the Machine of Post Modernity.”) More frequently, the same message as the previous is more softly presented in this fashion: “Each source is like a theological text. It purports to explain the transcendent mysteries in words. But the mysteries are lofty. The words, lowly. Just as he tried his best, so we try our best. Everyone has his model for God. You can come up with one too.”

2 thoughts on “Fundamentalism of the Sources: Problems with Some Practices of Source Criticism – Part 8

  1. Well said, well said. Selectively reading in the proper sense what is intended in the improper sense allows one to reject divine inerrancy and thus divine inspiration and thus divine revelation. Selectively reading in the improper sense what is intended in the proper sense allows one to reject miracles and the supernatural and thus divine revelation. No surprise then that the person bent on undermining divine revelation chooses the improper for the proper and the proper for the improper as he sees fit.

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