From here on out, please follow me at http://worldviewofjesus.com/. I look forward to seeing you there!
God bless my friends,
January 2, 2013
In today’s world, we often hear about the ongoing debate between Darwinian Evolution and Intelligent Design (ID). This type of discussion may be popular among friends or acquaintances of varied belief systems or you may hear it on the news every now and again. The idea of ID is a very hotly contested theory among various scholars because of the theological and ideological implications that arise as a result of it.
At the forefront of this debate between ID and Darwinian Evolution is DNA. Since James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA in 1953, scientists have been trying to figure out exactly how the information within DNA could have possibly originated
(Meyer 2009, 12). In a way, DNA has
given a large amount of credence to the theory of design because there are no
other competing hypotheses that can make as much sense of the mass amount of specified
intelligible information mysteriously located within DNA than design.
The thesis for this article is to present convincing facts on the specified information contained within DNA to be the result of a divinely guided process rather than the random acts of naturalism. As you will come to see, naturalism is simply incapable of coming up with a scientifically and philosophically valid case for the presence of information contained within DNA. As we will come to see, the idea of chance being the sole contributor to such a vast amount of specified information is completely incomprehensible.
What is DNA?
I will present some quotes below by prominent individuals who have made remarks on DNA and the biological role it plays,
What lies at the heart of every living thing is not a fire, warm breath, not a ‘spark of life’. It is information, words, instructions…Think of a billion discrete digital characters…If you want to understand life think about technology – Richard Dawkins
(Dawkins 1996, 112)
Human DNA contains more organized information than the Encyclopedia Britannica. If the full text of the encyclopedia were to arrive in computer code from outer space, most people would regard this as proof of the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. But when seen in nature, it is explained as the workings of random forces – George Sim Johnson
(Sims Johnson 1999)
When Watson and Crick discovered the structure and information bearing properties of DNA, they did indeed solve one mystery, namely, the secret of how the cell stores and transmits hereditary information. But they uncovered another mystery that remains with us to this day. This is the DNA enigma – the mystery of the origin of the information needed to build the first living organism – Stephen Meyer
(Meyer 2009, 24)
On the whole, DNA can be described as a database that holds the information to create any living organism. It can be related to computer software for biological organisms. In fact, the king of software himself, Bill Gates, said this, “DNA is like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software ever created”
(Gates 1995, 188). The objective of
DNA is to produce a specified product, namely, biological organisms. Oxford
mathematician John Lennox affirms the quote above by George Sim Johnson by
noting that every one of the 10 to
100 trillion cells that are contained within each human body contain a database
that holds more information than an entire Encyclopedia Britannica (Lennox 2009, 136).
The process of how organisms are developed at the direction of DNA is extremely intricate so I will not be delving too deep into the specific details of how DNA works but I do feel it is important to have a basic understanding on the physical structure and function of the DNA molecule. The DNA spiral ladder is made up of a very long chain of molecules called nucleotides. The base of this spiral DNA ladder is made up of four different chemicals. These chemicals are called Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine and Thymine (aka A, G, C, and T). These chemicals are properly combined together to make a gene. Once instructed, these genes form instructions for making a protein
(Lennox 2009, 137-138). Of course,
organisms are made up of proteins. While there are many more steps along the
way that make up a more thorough summary of the DNA and its makeup, this should
serve as a simple foundation for the basic understanding and appreciation for
why DNA is pivotal in the ID movement.
Three alternatives to design will be discussed as a competing hypothesis for the origin of the information found within the DNA molecule. In my personal opinion, DNA is one of the most compelling scientific evidences for the existence of God because of the inconceivably enormous amount of specified information contained within such a small space (need a microscope!) that plays such a vital biological role in the life of every living organism. Information, by its very essence, requires intelligence. As you will come to see below, without intelligence, there is no information.
Many might ask whether or not design can be intelligently inferred simply on the existence of information contained within DNA. This is a perfectly legitimate question. If we were all honest with ourselves, I think we can probably admit to having thought about it at one point in time or maybe are still struggling with this dilemma of the possibility of chance. Thankfully, chance provides little comfort for those looking for a naturalistic explanation to the information contained within DNA.
The analogy of a book has been used a couple times thus far in this article when discussing the quantity of information contained within DNA. Books, by their very nature, communicate a message. Nobody that picks up a book believes that these letters arranged themselves by accident. The reader is fully aware that the book he has in his hands was written by an intelligent source. In reality, it would be absurd to suggest that any book was written at the hand of chance. However, when even more complicated information arises within our own DNA, people are much more easily convinced that different rules of logic apply. The reality is that nothing has changed outside of the fact that we are not dealing with a physical book but rather with information contained within our chemical makeup. Simply because information is transmitted in a different mode does not mean that intelligence was not behind the information. This double standard is fallible and falters on the basis of sound reason. Those that accept the intelligent origin of books but fail to accept the intelligent origin of DNA are making blind distinctions by failing to recognize the significance of what makes DNA so persuasive for ID; the existence of specified information.
In Lee Strobel’s book, “A Case for a Creator”, Strobel asks Stephen Meyer to describe how likely it would be for a one protein molecule (significantly less complex than what we predominantly see in our own bodies) to be created by mere chance,
First, you need the right bonds between the amino acids. Second, amino acids come in right-handed and left-handed versions, and you’ve got to get only left-handed ones. Third, the amino acids must link up in a specified sequence, like letters in a sentence. Run the odds of these things falling into place on their own and you find that the probabilities of forming a rather short functional protein at random would be one chance in a hundred thousand trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion. That’s a ten with 124 zereos after it!
(Strobel 2004, 228)
As you can see, those are not odds that you would want to bet against. Chance requires much more faith than that of ID. Information does not form by chance to create long elaborate messages regardless of the mode. Whether a message is written down on a Word document, post-it, notebook paper, textbook, software code, or DNA, information that communicates a message is the result of an intelligent agent. That is why the DNA has made such a positive impact on the ID debate in recent years because of the widespread acknowledgement that information will always have an intelligent source.
Now that chance has been viewed as an inconceivable candidate for the origin of information contained within DNA, another candidate that is given much credit in the scientific community is natural selection. Those that give credence to Darwinian Evolution often accredit the very same process to DNA. Evolutionary biologist and staunch atheist Richard Dawkins has given this theory much thought and credit in his book “Climbing Mount Improbable” published in 1996. However, there is an insurmountable problem that awaits those who say that natural selection is the mysterious culprit of the immense amount of information found in DNA.
The general premise behind natural selection is that organisms adapt to their surroundings in order to survive and reproduce by passing down favorable traits to their offspring. There is nothing wrong with the concept of natural selection on its own merits; however natural selection requires information-rich DNA to make it work
(Strobel 2004, 231). Do you see the
problem? Stephen Meyer provides an excellent insight on why natural selection fails
at explaining the origination of DNA information,
In other words, you’ve got to have a self-replicating organism for Darwinian evolution to take place, but you can’t have a self-replicating organism until you have the information necessary in DNA, which is what you’re trying to explain in the first place. It’s like the guy who falls into a deep hole and realizes he needs a ladder to get out. So climbs out, goes home, gets a ladder, jumps back into the hold, and climbs out. It begs the question.
(Strobel 2004, 231)
This quote by Dr. Meyer effectively highlights the absurdity of trying to claim that naturalism is a better explanation than a design. Organisms cannot adapt for survivability without having DNA information directing their bodies on how to do so. Naturalism cannot account for the DNA information because natural selection presupposes the existence of information-rich DNA. You cannot claim to know the origin of the information through a process that requires the information to begin with. It would be as ridiculous as trying to convince someone that the book they are reading did not have an author. Under this claim, the existence of information is acknowledged but there is a failure to acknowledge the source of the information. The same analogy can be used with natural selection; natural selection acknowledges the existence of information without plausibly explaining the source of the information. As absurd as it may sound, some people who would never reasonably accept the idea that books can by written without authors are unwilling to entertain the notion of the existence of DNA without a designer.
Chemical Affinities and Self-Ordering
A brief summary of chemical affinities and self-ordering in this context can be described as the inevitability of life coming into existence because of the amino acids in proteins and the letters that make up the DNA alphabet were “self-ordered”
(Strobel 2004, 232). This hypothesis
stems from the idea that the chemical attraction between each amino acid would naturally
guide them to their correct position which would consequently result in the formation
of a protein; which would then perform its proper functions as directed by the
information contained within the DNA (Strobel 2004, 232-233). However, there are
major flaws with this outlook on the origination of information on DNA and its
corresponding functions. The person who initially made this idea popular is
named Dean Kenyon and he coauthored a textbook, “Biochemical Predestination”. Ironically,
Kenyon rejected his own position on this issue after he reviewed additional
evidence. In the documentary, “Unlocking the Mystery of Life”, Kenyon said, “We
have not the slightest chance of a chemical evolutionary origin for even the
simplest cells” and said that the design hypothesis “made a great deal of
sense, as it very closely matched the multiple discoveries in molecular
biology” (Allen 2002).
Some skeptics may still try to cite examples in nature that would exemplify “self-ordering” (as originally hypothesized by Kenyon). In chemistry, there are many examples of bonding affinities (attractions) between different elements which explain the origination of a particular molecular
(Strobel 2004, 233). To use an
illustration of chemical forces at work, we can look to salt crystals.
Chemical bonds in salt crystals attract sodium ions to bond with chloride ions to make the salt crystal
(Strobel 2004, 233). However, there is a
very big difference between the chemical bonds between a salt crystal and the amino
acids found in cells. The big difference is that the amino acids show no signs
of demonstrating the same chemical attraction that salt crystals exhibit (Strobel 2004, 233). Not only did this
hypothesis of chemical affinities and self-ordering fail to explain why the
amino acids do not connect in the right place naturally, but it failed to
reveal the source of information. As Kenyon conceded, there is no evolutionary
explanation for the origin of information found in DNA.
Please do not feel overwhelmed by the complexity of this information. This is difficult material! For this particular topic, I would recommend the book titled, “Signature in the Cell”, authored by Stephen Meyer. Gaining an understanding of this material will take time and dedication but it will undeniably give you a greater appreciation for the brilliance of God’s design.
The facts have given us a progressively greater understanding about the magnitude of information contained within DNA which has allowed us to see God’s fingerprint within biology. DNA can easily be viewed as one of God’s most magnificent designs. The amount of information contained within DNA is nothing short of miraculous. However, what has led to this surge of continued belief in the naturalistic worldview given that the evidence does not support it? Given that the data for the existence of information is undeniable, what rational reason is there for placing faith in anything other than design?
The answer to these two questions can be found by observing the worldview of those who hold to a naturalistic worldview. By definition, naturalists cannot allow a supernatural explanation to be considered because their worldview does not allow for a God. God is not an explanation for naturalists because God is not real and therefore cannot serve as an explanation for the intelligible information found in DNA. This is the very unfortunate reality of an atheist. They are philosophically bound to explanations that do not consider God. With that being said, maybe Christians should not be continually plagued with the stereotype of narrow-mindedness.
After examining the three common alternatives to design, it should be clear that these alternatives fail to successfully account for the information within DNA in a manner that would discredit the theory of design. The naturalistic worldview does not make sense of the information because it cannot account for the source of this information. As Christians, we are perfectly within our reasonable rights to infer a supernatural intelligence as the source of the information because it can be logically inferred that all specified information originates from intelligence.
In closing, I hope this information has given you some perspective on how truly great God’s creation is. From the heavens to the earth to your cells, God has left his signature everywhere within this universe for us to explore and admire. For those that are having trouble finding God in this world, I genuinely wonder whether they are really looking at all.
Unlocking the Mystery of Life. Directed by Lad Allen. 2002.
Dawkins, Richard. The Blind Watchmaker. New York: Norton, 1996.
Gates, Bill. The Road Ahead. New York: Viking, 1995.
Lennox, John. God's Undertaker - Has Science Buried God? Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2009.
Meyer, Stephen C. Signature in the Cell. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.
Sims Johnson, George. Did Darwin Get it Right? New York: The Wall Street Journal, 1999.
Strobel, Lee. The Case for a Creator. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004.
January 1, 2013
I want to be delicate in my analysis of reader-response criticism because it has evidently been a sufficient criticism to merit legitimacy over the years within largely liberal Christian circles and the unbelieving community. However, as you will come to also see once this chapter is complete, I fail to connect with the legitimacy of this particular method of criticism of the Biblical texts. The thesis of this chapter is to communicate why the reader-response theory fails to present any credible objections to the historical reliability of the Biblical texts. Within my critical analysis of reader-response criticism, I want to unveil the fallacious reasoning that suggests the reader has the authority to unveil the true meaning of the text rather than the author. This form of reasoning allows for innumerable contradictions in the genuine understanding of the Biblical text itself.
What is Reader-Response Criticism?
The premise of reader-response criticism is revolved around how the reader responds to the Biblical text and therefore has a predominant role in creating the meaning of the text. The content of the text is taken from the literature by the individual reader for a singular interpretation that is specific to the reader. Meaning, the interpretation is likely going to be different for every reader under this theory. There are many aspects of this reader-response criticism that ultimately affect the outcome of the interpretation. These variants include prior literary or philosophical presuppositions of the reader.1
There are different schools of thought under reader-response criticism. Two prominent reader-response critics were named Stanley Fish and Wolfgang Iser. Their approaches generally represent the foundation in which reader-response criticism is based upon. Fish believed that “it is the reader who ‘makes’ literature”. He believed that the reader-response criticism should primarily revolve around the act of reading rather than on the history, biography, etc… of the text.1 Next, Iser held two positions that define his approach to reader-response criticism. He held that the meaning of a text is found in its content and that the meaning of the content is a conjecture of the reader. Iser maintained that the author’s intention should be considered but not without the intention of the reader being combined with it.1
After this brief summary of reader-response criticism, it must be acknowledged prior to reviewing the objections that the most important thing about criticism is that we assess whether the criticism effectively critiques the integrity of the language, texts, and the subject of the Biblical texts.1 The objections to this particular form of criticism should be understood in light of this fact. You may have already developed some objections of your own to this particular method of critiquing Biblical texts.
Objections to Reader-Response Criticism
The primary objection to reader-response criticism is grounded in the fact that the reader ultimately determines the meaning of the text and not the author. Given that being the case, the reader can ultimately undermine what the authorial intent of the literature in order to fit his self-proclaimed meaning into the text. While I can agree with the idea that text can be individually interpreted in a multitude of different fashions, it would seem rather farfetched to insist that the meaning actually derives from the readers’ perspective. To accurately critique the Biblical texts, the fact is that reader-response criticism is certainly not the most reliable method of doing so because it relies heavy upon the presuppositions of the reader doing the interpreting. There are five fundamental objections to reader-response criticism that highlight the drastic limitations of reader-response criticism and ultimately expose why it could never be effective at critiquing the Biblical texts.
The first argument that can be brought against reader-response criticism would be that the criticism brought against the Biblical text using this method are not comprehensive.1 Meaning that this method is not the holistic approach of the Biblical texts that is needed to come to an objective conclusion on the historicity of the Biblical texts and the meanings of them. This approach fails to provide the objective criticisms necessary to better understand where the Biblical texts are allegedly weak in terms of its historical reliability. Reader-response criticism cannot be a substitute for any conventional method of reliable historical research and analysis.1 By the subjective nature of an individual response; this method cannot be taken as a serious objection to the Biblical text.
The second objection relates to the orientation of the Biblical scriptures and how reader-response critics generally approach Biblical texts improperly. Many of these critics fail to see that the Bible shouldn’t be classified as secular literature. Many reader-response critics don’t interpret the Bible as a historical source or a literary document. They are ultimately focused on what the meaning of the text is in a contemporary setting rather than focusing on the original circumstances and intent of the text at the time it was being authored.1 While it should never be denied that the circumstances between now and the time of Biblical authorship have greatly changed, we should never change the meaning of the text to suit our situation but rather interpret the text in its proper setting and understand the meaning as it relates to our own modern-day lives.
The third objection is closely related to the second objection as it relates to the orientation of the Biblical texts itself. The second objection highlights how the Biblical texts shouldn’t be classified as secular literature and how the Bible has been reduced to fictional literature in the eyes of many reader-response critics. That is why the third objection highlights the flaw in their literary study of the Biblical texts. The flaw is that it approaches the Biblical texts as if they were fictional literature.1 The nature of the Biblical texts are full of meaning and powerful messages that have the potential to dramatically affect our lives. We can even go so far as to say that each one of us is affected differently by the message of the Bible. However, the meaning of the text in our hearts doesn’t truly change the meaning of the text itself. The study of the meaning of the words in the text is different from the study of the historical reliability of the text. When critiquing a work of literary fiction, the reader isn’t considering whether or not what he is reading is absolute and is freer to speculate and conjecture. The reality is that the foundation for literary fiction is falsehood. Readers must never approach the Biblical texts in a manner that is freer to easily dismiss the authorial intent and conjure their own message because of an unwise assumption that the texts are fictional.
The fourth objection to reader-response criticism is that the authorial intention of the Biblical text is of minimal importance in the interpretation of the texts.1 While it is true that the authorial intent isn’t completely ignored from the criticism, it certainly is a peripheral priority of the reader-response critic. Without placing priority on what the authorial intent was, we submit that any possible interpretation of the text is equally valid despite what the authorial intent was. When discarding the authority of the author, it is meaningless to assign a definitive meaning over it. Meaning would be relative in reader-response theory because it is all contingent on how the reader responds.
The fifth objection to reader-response theory is that it fails to provide a secure foundation for readers who actually strive to understand the true meaning of the text.1 Reader-response criticism relies heavily upon the creativity of the reader. However, as highlighted earlier, if the reader is highly predisposed to have a preconceived agenda prior to interpreting the literature or has already established concrete presuppositions of the material he is critiquing, then the creativity can flow freely without the worry of having to abide by set guidelines constituting reliable and accurate scholarship of the texts.
Examples of Reader-Response Criticism
Given the five fundamental objections to reader-response criticism, it is fair to say that the critics who advocate for this theory are not grounding their method of critique in a critique that permits optimal understanding of the Biblical texts. The reliability of this form of criticism is non-existent if you take into consideration the very nature of the criticism itself. The criticism is founded upon how one truly responds to the texts rather than placing priority on the message that was being communicated at the time of authorship.
Now that we’ve established the meaning of reader-response criticism and laid out the basic objections of its reliability and effectiveness, it is important to see how silly reader-response criticism would be in other parts of our daily lives. This can be done by laying out illustrations of reader-response criticism in order to fully appreciate the absurdity of the claims to understanding and truth that it makes over the Biblical texts.
A good modern day example of the ineffectiveness of reader-response criticism would be how liberal scholars interpret the Constitution in a manner that wasn’t intended by the framers of the document. We see these types of misinterpretations done at the peril of the American population as well as the government which was designed to uphold the basic principles of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Those in governmental power are sworn into office with the oath of upholding these documents. Those that consider the Constitution to be living document interpret the Constitution in a manner that suits their best interests at any point in time. This approach to the Constitution has failed to honorably validate the original intention and meaning of the Constitution. This is what we are seeing when we see the Bible approached in exactly the same way. We acknowledge that historical documents cannot be subject to reader-response theory because of the existence of an objective and meaningful message that was being communicated at the time of authorship and it would be completely unreliable to frivolously and irresponsibly interpret a document of this nature merely on a response to the text. Reader-response criticism doesn’t work for the Constitution nor does it work for the Bible.
The Bible has meaningful messages to convey. The written text was authored the way it was for an objective reason. When I verbally communicate with my friends or colleagues, I have a definitive message that I am trying to convey. When I proclaim to my wife that “I’m going to the store”, I don’t imagine she would interpret the meaning of my statement to mean that I’m taking a plane to the other side of the country. However, under the principles of reader-response criticism, the possibility wouldn’t necessary be invalid as it is primarily contingent on the reader’s (listener in this case) response to my declarative statement. This is clearly an extreme example of the insufficiency of reader-response criticism, but I think it is illustrative to how bizarre of a method it truly is. The idea that the reader is in control of the meaning of author’s message is delusional.
The merits of any document are to be found upon a thorough investigation of the document itself. We must evaluate the historical basis for the text, textual framework of the text, genre, audience, context, author, geographic location, etc… These are essential components of understanding the true meaning of the text as it was originally written. Once we can delve deep enough into the text to properly understand what the text was trying to convey, then it is possible to interpret the text in terms of its genuine meaning.
The reality is that we will never fully agree on the meaning of all texts. The many denominations of Christianity should give us an indication as to the complexity of these texts when it comes to its meaning. If every Christian thought the texts conveyed an identical meaning, there would be only one denomination. However, among all the denominations, the overall message of the New Testament literature is overwhelmingly clear; Jesus Christ died for our sins and was resurrected on the third day. This is the basis for our Christian faith and it must never be compromised by irresponsible methods of critique such as reader-response criticism.
Ultimately, the Christian message cannot be masked by those who seek to find an alternative meaning based upon naturalistic presuppositions. Those that try haven’t found a sound basis for their foundational presuppositions that guides them throughout their studies. Unfortunately, their naturalistic presuppositions will lead them to their demise if they fail to acknowledge the fault in their own reasoning and acknowledge the true message of Christ.
Some may say that Christians are doing the same thing towards these texts but with theistic presuppositions. I can wholeheartedly and proudly admit that I have theistic presuppositions, however Christians must answer the challenge posed in Peter 3:15 that states, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” Our understanding of our own doctrines is an essential factor when communicating with those that feel that reader-response criticism is capable of exploiting the alleged fallacies in the Biblical texts.
In all honestly, I do not fully comprehend how this form of criticism is worthy of any credible merit in any realm of scholarship. Unfortunately, those that are convinced that our own cognitive devices are capable of performing such extreme feats of Biblical interpretation on the foundation of a mere response have made this article a necessary one. I would love to say that most people should know better but apparently it is easier to read and respond than to read, study, read, study, and then respond after a sufficient familiarity of the text has been adequately established.
In closing, I’d wish to fully provoke your curiosity in understanding what it truly means to assign relative meaning to the Biblical texts. Under reader-response criticism, any possible interpretation would be acceptable without argument. Now think about what it means to have a Bible that has communicated a definitive message that the Lord has divinely provided. I think I’m going to place my trust in God’s Word rather than allow my trust to be dismayed by those who claim authority over it and interpret it at their own will at their own peril.
John 14:6 – “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me"
 Steven L. McKenzie and Stephen R. Haynes. To Each Its Own Meaning (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press)
 Stanley Fish. Is There a Text in This Class? (Cambridge: Harvard University Press)
 Robert Stein. A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group)
November 8, 2012
In our effort to objectively challenge historical criticism, I am going to put forth my strongest effort to critically assess the validity of form criticism. The topic of historical criticism has challenged many Evangelical Christians around the world, many of which have been overwhelmed by the alleged findings of the historical criticisms that they cannot reconcile their faith in Christ. With that information being outlined, the thesis for this article is to objectively examine the credibility of form criticism and its advocates in their attempts to retrieve historical information from the Biblical historical documents.
A Summary of Form Criticism
The beginning of form criticism started between the years of 1914-1918 shortly after the War. The three main scholars in the field of form criticism were Karl Ludwig Schmidt, Martin Dibelius, and Rudolf Bultmann. While these individuals were the ones whose work dominated the early field of form criticism, they based their methodology on the work of previous Bible critics that dates back to the Enlightenment. Form criticism is the translation of the German word Formgeschichte. The literal translation of this word is “history of form”. A traditionally accepted definition of form criticism is, “a method of study and investigation which deals with the pre-literary stage of the Gospel tradition, when the material was handed down orally”.1 As we can clearly see, the goal is to critically assess the form in which the information was preserved prior to being written down with the goal of identifying whether it was recorded reliably in order to test the historicity of the Biblical material that we have today. Form critics have used this practice to come up with a conclusion that is often unlike what Christians revere as history. A prominent form-critic by the name of G.E. Ladd explains,
“A close study of these forms led to the critical conclusion that in its earliest stages, the material in the Gospels was passed on orally as a series of disconnected units, anecdotes, stories, sayings, teachings, parables, and so on…This means that the indications in the Gospels of sequence, time, place, and the like are quite unhistorical and untrustworthy and must therefore be ignored by serious Gospel criticism”
After reading that quote, you may be wondering, “What do they believe?” That is an excellent question that is worth addressing. E.V. McKnight laid out a summary of the positions that were arrived at through the implementation of form criticism:
1. The “two document” hypothesis was accepted. Meaning, Mark and Q served as sources for Matthew and Luke.
2. Mark and Q, as well as Matthew and Luke, were influenced by the theological views of the early church.
3. Mark and Q contained not only early authentic materials but also materials of a later date
You may question why this was ever accepted as a valid theory. Donald Guthrie provides four reasons why there was a significant rise in the acceptance of form criticism:
1. The form critics were able to account for the amount of time from the Synoptic Gospel events to the writing of the events
2. The questioning of the historicity of the Gospel of Mark
3. The desire to update the gospels from the first century view to the world of the twentieth century.
4. To position the literary materials in their original setting2
To gather further insight in addition to Donald Guthrie, it would be beneficial to see what two of the most prominent form critics concluded after their implementation of the practices of form criticism. Given that form criticism sets out to account for the time between the events themselves and the time the document was actually written, their opinion on whether they think there is evidence that is capable of supporting or invalidating the stories of the Synoptic Gospels would be useful. The two form critics that will be looked at more closely are Martin Dibelius and Rudolf Bultmann.
Starting with Martin Dibelius, the author of Form Tradition to Gospel, A Fresh Approach to New Testament and Early Christian Literature, Gospel Criticism and Christology, Jesus, and numerous others, is known to be one of the first prominent form critics. Dibelius never believed that there was a “purely” historical witness to Jesus. Dibelius claimed that the first century expansion of the early Christian church wasn’t due to the historical reliability of the resurrection but because the people who accepted Christ were content with the story of salvation.
Rudolf Bultmann is a prominent New Testament scholar that is known for his work in form criticism and has written many books on form criticism that include The History of the Synoptic Tradition, Jesus and the World, Theology of the New Testament, and Jesus Christ and Mythology. He is known for being very skeptical of his assessment of the Synoptic Gospels and he concludes that “one can only emphasize the uncertainty of our knowledge of the person and work of the historical Jesus and likewise of the origin of Christianity” Bultmann is known to be more responsible for the field’s thoroughness and maturation than Dibelius or Schmidt because Bultmann developed form criticism to a more advanced level.2 Bulmann practiced form criticism with the presupposition that the canonical gospels were “pre-scientific” and he greatly desired to modernize them. Evolutionary dogma heavily influenced him in the formulation of his methods.2
It is clear that neither of these advocates of form criticism placed too much stock in the historical validity of the synoptic gospels during the practice of their form criticism. While so many Evangelical Christians place their entire faith in the reliability in the Synoptic Gospels, what information or mindset has led scholars of form criticism to completely reject the reliability of the Synoptic Gospels? It is important to highlight the unnecessary presuppositions that inspired their understanding of the form critical data in order to comprehend if they are in the objective mindset that is ideal for historical studies of this magnitude. If philosophic presuppositions were held at the time of assessing data from form critical research, what affect did this philosophic presupposition have on the interpretation of the data? What was the philosophic presupposition that the data was filtered through? Most importantly, was this presupposition ideal for conducting objective historical analysis or would it drastically skew the findings? Below, I’ll be closely assessing the most common and destructive critiques against form criticism.
Common Objections to Form Criticism
The most common objections relate to philosophically and scientifically related presuppositional foundations implemented in the interpretation of their findings, subjective theorizing about their data, and the categorization of highly subjective material reveals preconceived agendas. While these are few of the primary objections to form criticism, they will be enough to provide you with a foundational understanding of the negative consequences of form criticism and allow you the opportunity to see numerous reasons why these methods of form criticism have failed us in the past at uncovering the truth of the Biblical texts.
Philosophic and Scientific Presuppositions
The claim that form critics have used philosophic or scientific presuppositions when assessing data is not uncommon. In fact, it is likely the strongest argument against form criticism. I’ll begin with a quote from Donald Guthrie concerning how Rudolf Bultmann’s presuppositions negatively impacted his historical work:
“Bultmann’s disillusionment led him to seek an approach to the Gospels which would emancipate him from the need for historical demonstration. Only so could the simplest, in his opinion, ever come to faith. He was further prompted to his non-historical approach by his commitment to existential philosophy”8
It is believed that form criticism is the product of historical skepticism derived from source criticism, which was ultimately laid out by the philosophical foundation of the Enlightenment.2 It has been deemed that much of the findings of form criticism are found while maintaining philosophical presuppositions. Eta Linnemann remarks on the difficulty of having “prejudgments” made prior to performing form criticism:
“A more intensive investigation would show that underlying the historical-critical approach is a series of prejudgments which are not themselves the result of scientific investigation. They are rather dogmatic premises, statements of faith, whose foundation is the absolutizing of human reason as a controlling apparatus”
From a historian’s point of view, it would be unwise to enter into an investigation of history with presuppositions that would alter the findings in a search for truth. For example, if I was a historian on a search for truth about the lives of the founding fathers of America and I went into this search with the presupposition that all of these individuals were the products of fiction, I would have to compromise the truth value of my historical findings in order to manipulate the evidence to make it appear as though the evidence we have isn’t reliable enough to place our trust in. Clearly, this is an extreme example but one that illustrates the point that what these form critics have done over the last century with the New Testament Synoptic Gospels is comparably absurd.
Form criticism is also rooted with the assumption that evolution is the process of progression from the simple to the complex.2 Kebler describes Bultmann’s form-critical analysis in the following:
“It [Bultmann’s concept of the development of the synoptic tradition] was a process as natural as that of biological evolution: simplicity grew into complexity…, an effortless evolutionary transition from the pre-gospel stream of tradition to the written gospel”
The form critics, similar to evolutionary biologists, posit the concept of gradual change over time. In this case, they felt that the synoptic text were compiled by the early church and were not the testimony of eyewitness accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus. The form critics assume that the early church did this to suit their own purposes and not for historically accounting for the life of Jesus Christ.2
During the period of time that oral tradition preserved the information contained in the Synoptic Gospels, which is roughly 30-40 years, the form critics would be merely speculating as to how this information was somehow transformed into a legendary or mythological tale. It is noted by Guthrie that, “The very fact that our historical data for the first thirty years of Christian history are so limited means that form critics inevitably had to draw a good deal of imagination, although none of them were conscious of doing so”.8 Essentially, these conclusions drawn by the form critics aren’t historical at all. When you take into account that the presuppositions traditionally accepted by the form critics do not allow for the possibility of an objective historical conclusion, it would be unreasonable to say that the findings of these form criticisms were the result of honest historical research.
I.J. Peritz discusses the subjectivity of conducting form criticism:
Form criticism thus brings face to face with the obligation either to acquiesce in its faculty method and conclusions or to combat them. What is involved, however, is not the alternative between an uncritical attitude and criticism, but between criticism and hyper-criticalism. A critical view of the Gospels does not claim strict objectivity. It is hard to tell sometimes where poetry ends and history begins. It is highly probable that there is no underlying strictly chronological or topographical scheme; and that they are not biography in “our sense.” But this is far from admitting that we have no reliable testimony from eyewitnesses: that the Church from its Christ of faith created the Jesus of history, instead of from the Jesus of history its Christ of faith”
When we view this observation, we can see that the form critics aren’t being entirely forthcoming in their presentation of their subjective interpretation. Form critics attempt to turn the story on its head by saying that the Christ of faith came after the Jesus of history. It seems as though that the form critics are a little too “hypercritical” of the historical evidence we do have and hence make the whole process of withdrawing information from the Synoptic Gospels impotent. Robert Mounce makes a valid assessment on the subjectivity on form criticism by analyzing the inconsistencies found across the board in the field of form criticism:
“Form Criticism sounds like a scientific method. If it were, you would find consistency of interpretation. But the interpretations of a single saying vary widely. Not only are interpretations widespread but form critics often can’t agree whether a pericopae is a miracle story or a pronouncement story – the two can be woven together. One would expect consistency in historical reconstruction if Form Criticism were a true science”
While many form critics parade form criticism around like a sophisticated method of retrieving historical knowledge, by pealing back the layers of subjective analysis and speculative guesses we can confidently conclude that form criticism is largely unscientific. While they all undeniable agree that Jesus’s disciples were too ignorant and uneducated to effectively document the life of Jesus, we can all identify their method of criticism is founded on their imaginative analysis filtered through numerous presuppositions of historically subjective information.2
Preconceived Agenda when Interpreting
Based on the above philosophical and scientific presuppositions of the form critics when entering into their historical analysis of the Synoptic Gospels, we can say with confidence that they are likely interpreting the collected data with a preconceived agenda.2 Form criticism is distinct from many other methods of historical analysis in that it can be largely considered to promote subjectivity in its findings. By comparison, grammatico-historical methods of interpretation are much more objective in its findings as they accept the findings of the Bible without prejudice. The reason for this distinction is that form criticism is largely based on the presuppositions of the form critic. In addition, the large amount of information that is still unknown about the oral period gives the form critic the freedom to wildly speculate.2
This is evidently clear when it comes to the acceptance of miracles. We see that Dibelius and Baltmann weren’t open to the possibility of miracles within the Synoptic Gospels. From the beginning, we see that they are entering into the analysis of the Synoptic Gospels with the presupposition that the literature is false. Gutrie notes that, “Both Dibelius and Bultmann reject the miraculous and therefore the historicity of the gospel accounts of miracles. This is not so much the basis of ‘form’ as on philosophical and theological grounds”.8 Their philosophical and theological presuppositions weren’t allowing their mind to be open to where the evidence took them so they had to find another way to make sense of the evidence.
Bultmann wanted to “demythogize” the New Testament in order to make it relatable to modern people. However, there appears to be a strong antisupernatural bias by taking this position. It limits what you are allowed to accept as historically true. Given that Bultmann used this presupposition when practicing form criticism, he immediately chalked up Jesus’ baptism, temptation, transfiguration, miracles, and resurrection as legendary.2 Bultmann described these narratives as “instead of being historical in character are religious and edifying”.
Both Dibelius and Bultmann held that these miracles accounts are unhistorical and can be classified as myths. However, are there grounds for making that type of claim solely by using form criticism? Given the nature of form criticism, it would be impossible to make an objectively historical case for mythological Hellenistic concepts to have influenced the Synoptic Gospels without relying upon presuppositions already predetermined to those findings. Unless they were already convinced that the Synoptic Gospels were influenced by Hellenistic concepts, form criticism wouldn’t have been the vehicle to lead them to that conclusion.
Ironically, Bultmann himself doesn’t find the miracles in the Synoptic Gospels to be comparable to the ones found in Hellenistic traditions, “In general, however, the New Testament miracle stories are extremely reserved in this respect [in describing cures], since they hesitate to attribute to the person of Jesus the magical traits which were often characteristic of the Hellenistic miracle worker”. Given that Bultmann concedes that the Hellenistic mythological miracle workers were largely different from the miracle working found by Jesus, what would inspire such a loyalty to the theory that Jesus had been plagiarized by Hellenistic sources? It appears that their loyalty to theories that easily explain away large amounts of genuine information with little evidence requires the person doing the dismissing to have a strong bias in the opposite direction if he is going to knowingly dismiss information without good objective reason.
On the surface, form criticism may appear to be a genuine practice of Biblical evaluation with the intention of gathering deeper insight into the Biblical text. I would caution you from placing stock into the findings of form criticism. Form criticism is not oriented towards objectively seeking truth from the Biblical text. Form critics enter the practice of performing their form criticism with philosophical and scientific presuppositions. Their conclusions cannot be genuinely historical because they will inevitably reflect their bias presuppositions of the Biblical text.2
It is perfectly reasonable to assume that objectivity is possible when analyzing the Synoptic Gospels. The grammatico-historical method has done so by safeguarding hermeneutics by highlighting the need for objectivity.2 It is done in other methods of historical study but it doesn’t seem to be relied upon in form criticism. Positing conspiracy theories of the early church formulation of these stories and/or how the Jesus story evolved from Hellenistic sources fall tremendously short when evidence is weighed and viewed objectively without negative presuppositions.
 E. Basil Redlich. Form Criticism (Edinburgh: Nelson & Sons)
 Thomas L. Thomas & F. David Farnell, The Jesus Crisis (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications) Chapter 5
 Josh McDowell. Evidence for Christianity (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc) Chapter 15
 George E. Ladd. The New Testament and Criticism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans)
 Edgar McKnight. What is Form Criticism? (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress)
 Martin Dibelius, Form Tradition to Gospel (New York: Scribner’s Sons)
 Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Kundsin, Form Criticism (
 Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press)
 Eta Linnemann, Historical Criticism of the Bible, Methodology or Ideology? (Grand Rapids: Baker)
 Werner Kelber, “The Oral and the Written Gospel” (Philadelphia: Fortress)
 Ismar J. Peritz, “Form Criticism as an Experiment.” Religion in Life 10 (spring 1941)
 Robert Mounce. Personal interview conducted by Josh McDowell, July 2, 1974
 David Atkinson and David Field, New Dictionary of Christian Ethics & Pastoral Theology (England: Inter-Varsity Press)
 Rudolf Bultmann, History of Synoptic Tradition (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson)
 Rudolf Bultmann, “The Study of the Synoptic Gospels” in Form Critcism (Cleveland, OH:World)