A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism

Gignilliat, Mark. A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism.

This is a great intellectual snapshot of Old Testament studies from the last 300 years.

Spinoza: he first tries to show the connection between Descartes’ rationalism and Spinoza’s conclusions. There is a movement away from the substance of the things themselves to the actual thinking process.

Much of Spinoza’s argument consists of typical academic grand-standing: we are neutral, etc.  He does make one important claim: the bible doesn’t make metaphysical claims. Not surprisingly, this allows Spinoza to operate on a hidden metaphysical claim:  deism. Another payoff (or more likely, crippling debt) from Spinoza’s method is the view that the Bible is a natural book with a natural history.

In light of that, Spinoza’s natural history denies Mosaic authorship, places divine law in naturalistic categories, and rejects miracles because scientific law is absolute.

M. L. De Wette: History Becomes Religion

Biblical critic as romantic rationalist.  While de Wette himself was probably a critic, he claims that Johann Herder protected him from the wasteland of biblical criticism.Herder had rejected the Enlightenment’s devaluing of historical particulars. The Enlightenment also ignored the relationship between language and culture. Herder even suggested a link between language, culture, and consciousness.

Unfortunately, de Wette’s foundation, already weakened by criticism, was shattered by Kant. The result is that we now focus on “timeless truths,” truths that only exist outside of space and time. To be fair, de Wette saw where this was going and backed off.

De Wette later discovered Schelling’s lectures on art, where Schelling argued that art manifests the Absolute. The surprising payoff is that this meant that Kant’s dominant philosophy was only a partial reflection of the Absolute.  

Julius Wellhausen: Israel’s History and Literary Sources

He says he learned from Ritschl that Graf said the law came after the prophets chronologically. Wellhausen’s project aimed to reconstruct Israel’s history from various sources.  Well. wasn’t simply saying that there were different authors for the Pentateuch. That wasn’t new. He used those various sources to construct an Israelite religion based off that most pure form of human expression: 19th century German liberalism.

Herman Gunkel

While he began on a promising note that we must understand the writings as the ancient Hebrews did, leading to the idea of a Sitz im Leben, Gunkel never transcended the methodological naturalism that crippled German scholarship. 

Gerhard von Rad

Von Rad’s life was filled with dangerous irony.  He championed the OT but was appointed by Nazis to teach at Jena.  He openly condemned the Nazi church but was later forced into the German army.  He ended the war as a prisoner of war in an American camp. 

Problem of the Hexateuch: Moses + Joshua. 

Brevard Childs

While he lived in the Northeast growing up, Childs had the background and manner of a Southern aristocrat.  He taught himself Greek while on the way to World War II.

When Childs was in Europe, he studied under the legends of the time.  


Behind almost all of these critics is a desire to get to the reality “behind the text,” whether it is “ultimate feeling” or “real history.”  The author does a good job in showing the influence of German philosophical movements on the critics without reducing the critics’ position to German romanticism.

Spinoza’s Ethics

What would God and religion look like if geometers ran the place?  It’s about as exciting as you would imagine it to be. Spinoza represents one of the early high points of Continental rationalism.

Thesis:  There is only one substance, God.  We, however, are not God (and hence, not substances).  Rather, we are modes of God. Reality is one substance and an infinity of modes. The reason Spinoza says this is because if there is another substance, however finite, it would limit God as substance.

Substance: what is in itself, and conceived through itself.

Mode: anything conceived of within the substance.  A mode is an affectation of God’s attributes (I.28)

God, or Nature

Spinoza does not equate God with nature.  He makes several dictions. God is nature naturans, nature naturing.  Everything else is nature natured (29).

As a practical pantheist, unsurprisingly, Spinoza rejects any freedom for God or man.  God can’t be free because that would posit the possibility of something being other than it is. A thing is an idea in God’s mind.  That idea is necessary (since God is necessary and that idea is God). Therefore, there can’t be otherwise.

Man’s essence: man’s essence is formed by certain modes of God’s attributes (II.11).  On one hand substance is God and an infinity of modes. On the other hand, it seems we are modes of modes of God.

Spinoza rejects substance-dualism (obviously, since he is a monist), but he isn’t a materialist.  A physicalist reduces everything to the physical. Spinoza reduces everything to the mind of God. I am an idea in God.

If my body is ultimately an idea in God’s mind, and pace Aristotle (and almost all of the philosophical tradition) we don’t distinguish bodies by substance, then how are they distinguished?  They are distinguished by motion and rest (II.13).

The Few Good Parts

Spinoza isn’t a materialist, despite his sloppy reasoning on mind and body.  For Spinoza, and classical theism, though Spinoza rejects the rest, matter reduces to mind.  This is correct.

Spinoza famously says that the only aspects we have access to are “thought” and “extension.” I don’t think that is entirely true, but let’s not reject it outright.  He isn’t saying that all is thought and extension. He says that is all we have access to. In heaven, and this is I speaking, not Spinoza, we will have access to more.


It seems self-evident that I am more than a mode of something.  I have a substance. I have parts. I am not a part. On Spinoza’s view, however, I am a mode of God.  I don’t think he goes so far as to say that I am a part of God, but that’s where his reasoning leads.

Traditional theology made a distinction between God’s natural knowledge and his free knowledge. Natural or necessary knowledge would be concerning God’s essence, mathematical truths, etc. His free knowledge is what he decrees. Spinoza collapses this distinction.  Spinoza can’t imagine God as considering alternatives since those alternative ideas, being ideas in God, would also be necessary. Scripture, on the other hand, and common sense, posit that God did at least ask conditional questions.

Spinoza says that the mind (which he calls an “idea of an idea,” II.29) cannot have an adequate knowledge of itself since its awareness of things is external.  This doesn’t seem right. The classical tradition gives us good reasons for thinking that the mind is self-presenting.

Spinoza’s actual ethics ends with a whimper.  We call something good not because there is a universal of goodness, as the Tradition teaches, but simply because that’s how it is in our mind, and that is arbitrary.  We aren’t yet at egoism, but we aren’t far away.