Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.



Although many reasons can be found why heresies arise in the church of Christ, one important reason for modern heresies is what has been called “higher criticism.” Higher criticism ostensibly inquires into the origin of the sacred Scriptures; that is, it asks the question: How did the Bible come into existence?

Although many answers have been given to this question by higher critics, they all come down to one point: Scripture is not, partially or in its entirety, the Word of God. It is well that we look into this question as we consider modern heresies. 

The Origin of Higher Criticism 

Higher Criticism has its origin in modern philosophy, particularly the Enlightenment. Antithetical to the Reformation of the sixteenth century was a movement called the Renaissance. The Renaissance had its beginning earlier than the Reformation. Its beginnings can be traced back as early as the publication of Dante’s Divine Comedy, written in the early part of the thirteenth century. The Renaissance was a humanistic movement that exalted man’s reason, made man the center of the universe, and made man’s mind the standard of truth. The entire world had no other purpose than man’s pleasure. Although some have claimed that the Renaissance is merely one facet of the Reformation and that the two movements were two sides of the same coin, the fact is that the Renaissance was anti-God, while the Reformation was God’s renewal of the true church of Christ, and a rescuing of that church from the deadly embrace of Roman Catholicism.

The child of the Renaissance was modern philosophy, which is thoroughly rationalistic. Many of the modern philosophers, beginning with Malebranche and Descartes, claimed to be religious men; but they separated faith from reason. They spoke of an area of faith, the object of which was contained in the Scriptures and was accepted without proof, and an area of reason, in which only that which met the canons of rational proof could be accepted.

For example, Descartes himself claimed that the truths of God, man, and creation could be rationally proved and ought to be accepted because they could meet the criterion of reason, but a reason divorced from and not under the control of faith. It is not hard to see that this view of the relation between faith and reason was utterly destructive of religion. One cannot, psychologically or spiritually, divide his mind into two compartments, in one of which he holds to his faith, and in the other of which he accepts what reason dictates as truth.¹ The inevitable result of such thinking is that faith disappears entirely and reason is enthroned as the final standard of truth.

We should understand that such a conclusion means that man is enthroned and God is ruled out of His own universe.

That reason takes the front seat became evident in Deism, a heresy that arose in Great Britain, but was transported across the English Channel to the continent of Europe and across the Atlantic Ocean to America, where it formed the theoretical basis for the democracy imbedded in the Declaration of Independence and The Constitution of the United States of America

Deism teaches that the relation between God and His world is analogous to the relation between a watchmaker and the watch he makes. God created the world in such a way that it operates according to “natural law,” so that it is not in need of any providential guidance on God’s part, but can run by itself and under its own power. God, so to speak, winds it up; from that time on it runs mechanically.

Following this notion, Deism accepted as truth nothing but what could be proved scientifically, or, which is saying the same thing, by human reason. Everything that takes place in this world is explainable in terms of natural law; and whatever man may believe, if it cannot be demonstrated scientifically, had to be relegated to the realm of myth, legend, or superstition. Thus, angels, devils, miracles, and everything supernatural were automatically ruled out as being untenable. The world is a closed system. It is subject to no “outside” influences. Those who claim that God intervenes in the world reduce God to a deus ex machina, an improbable god who enters only periodically to straighten out some tangled problem.

In this general intellectual climate higher criticism was born.

The Nature of Higher Criticism 

It was inevitable that the principles of rationalism and Deism would be applied to the Bible and the question of how the Bible came into existence.

It is not so easy to describe higher criticism, however, for it has many different faces, and the views promoted by higher critics run through a wide spectrum from downright unbelief to various attempts to make Scripture partially divine in origin and partially human—the percentage of the divine and of the human varying with the particular higher critic.

Another element enters in at this point that must be briefly mentioned. In an effort to explain the fact that Scripture was written (though under divine inspiration) by different men, whose background, upbringing, personality, style of writing, and individual characteristics are evident in their writings, Reformed theologians spoke of a “human element” in Scripture. Usually these theologians did not mean that the human element limited the divine inspiration of the Bible, but they wanted to emphasize that Scripture was not written by dictation. Reformed thinkers had often been charged with this error.

Nevertheless, the use of the terminology was unfortunate, because higher critics took hold of the term and used that “human element” to explain the presence of what they insisted were errors in the Scriptures, human errors, errors that appeared because of the role that humans had in the original writings.

We would not be so concerned about this all if it were not for the fact that the Bible itself, when it describes the origin of Scripture, does not so much as breathe a word about any human element, and, in fact, repudiates the very notion.II Timothy 3:16 speaks of the Scriptures as being “God-breathed,” and II Peter 1:21 specifically repudiates the notion of a human element when it assures us that Scripture did not come by the will of man, but by the Holy Spirit who “moved” men to write.

I will give brief descriptions of some of the more common higher critical explanations of Scripture, from the very liberal to the more “conservative.”

The most liberal of higher critics do not consider the Scriptures to be written by God the Holy Spirit in any sense of the word. If they speak of the inspiration of Scripture at all, they put it on the same level as the inspiration of Shakespeare in the writing of his sonnets. They look at Scripture as a human record of the history of religion as religion gradually emerged from pagan polytheism and superstition to more modern forms of religion. While some are willing to admit that once there lived a man by the name of Jesus who may have died on a gibbet, what the gospels contain about Him is mythology and legend.

Others also speak of the Bible as containing myths and legends, but prefer to explain the New Testament especially as an effort to put into mythological or legendary form what the early church believed was true of Jesus. The early church considered Jesus to be a great teacher, a miracle worker, a man who died for His principles, and whose spirit lives on in His followers. These followers of Jesus expressed their faith in Christ by means of stories of miracles that, though not true, express eloquently what they considered Jesus to be.

Many higher critics reject the traditional authorship of various books. Some consider the Pentateuch to be the work of at least four different writers who lived at different times and who had different reasons for writing what they did. The same refusal to accept the traditional authorship of books is applied to Isaiah. Usually two different men are said to have written Isaiah, but some claim that as many as three or four had a hand in the book. This denial of Isaiah’s authorship is more pernicious than it appears, for the fact that Isaiah predicted Judah’s captivity and return under Cyrus is considered by the critics to be impossible, and so chapters 40-66 of Isaiah’s prophecy had to be written by someone who lived after the captivity.

Frequently Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are not considered to be the writers of the gospel narratives by their name, but the four gospels are said to have emerged in their present form over a long period of time, in which many writers and editors had a hand in the writing, and during which process of writing, one gospel narrative was used in the composition of another.

As we drift through the maze of what is euphemistically called biblical scholarship, we find other ideas that keep cropping up. Some promote what they call a Sitz im Leben view of inspiration. This German expression really means that the authors of Scripture reflect the conceptions of the universe of their time, the culture and superstitions of their time, the erroneous ideas that may have been current in their time concerning events, the times they happened, and the outcome. The result is that there are errors of different sorts in Scripture in historical narratives, geographical descriptions of places, numbers, etc.

Yet others are not at all loath to explain Scripture in strange allegorical ways in order to make the Bible harmonize with their preconceived notions concerning creation and the flood, and thus introduce evolutionism into the church.

Such men as Dr. Ralph Janssen, who was fired from his position in Calvin Theological Seminary in the early twenties, believed that the miracle of the rock that spewed forth water in Rephidim was no miracle at all, but only a fortunate discovery of water in the rock by Moses. He taught many things current in the thinking of higher critics. He taught that the manna was a natural plant that grew in profusion in the wilderness; that the stories of Samson were myths that Israel invented in imitation of Greek mythology; that Moses’ monotheism was developed from pagan sources during his years in the wilderness; and that much of Jewish religion was gleaned from heathen practices. While Dr. Janssen was deposed for his views, those views live on in the Christian Reformed Church.

All are efforts to destroy Scripture as the Word of God.

¹ While this sort of theory may sound strange to the reader, we ought to remember that something very similar is held by evolutionists who claim to accept Scripture. Some argue that while the Bible teaches a creation in six days of twenty-four hours, science teaches an old earth. If one questions a theistic evolutionist about his faith in Scripture and Scripture’s teachings, he will say something like this: “In church on Sunday I worship and make use of the Scriptures; but in my laboratory or observatory I am a scientist.” The impossibility of holding to such a division in the human mind is demonstrated by the fact that those who talk that way soon invent elaborate theories, such as the so-called Framework Hypothesis, to reinterpret Scripture so that it can be twisted in its meaning to agree with science. Science wins out; Scripture is destroyed.

² Contrary to revisionist historians, to be found also in the Christian Reconstructionist Movement, such leading men as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and others were nothing but Deists. The very language of the Declaration of Independence is Deistic.