Baker Academic

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Two Authenticities - Le Donne

Below is an excerpt from my introductory chapter in Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity. This particular section was written during a time a social conflict in my life. In researching for this, I was hoping to understand better evangelical aversion to and general misunderstanding of historical Jesus research.  While many evangelicals whom I've known have voiced an interest in the topic and voice their support of historiographical rigor, there is an equally disturbing hostility to the discipline. Sometimes these two faces of evangelicalism can manifest simultaneously. These are dangerous waters to navigate I have found. What the below excerpt demonstrates is that sometimes scholars and churchmen use the same words and do not realize that they define these words much differently.  Shenanigans ensue.

Here it is:

The Two Authenticities [8]  

The story of the traditional authenticity criteria begins in Europe and then takes on new life in America. The following two sections will sketch the history of ideas behind their formation and reception. I will have an eye to the larger scope of their development, but I will specifically focus on their reception in America.

In the late nineteenth century, proponents of (neo-)Romanticism were keenly interested in “originality.” To be an originator bespoke genius and heroism. Building from eighteenth-century philosophers in Germany, [9] Scottish  author  Thomas  Carlyle  measured  the  major  movements of history by the (types of) heroes who moved history forward. [10]  Dagmar Winter points out the parallels in German Jesus research:
As [Keim, Baumgarten, Bousset, Wellhausen, Wrede, Holtzmann] began to examine the historical figure of Jesus, both concepts of genius [11]  and hero were easily applied to him. And both the concept of hero and genius bear not only a special relation to the divine, they also indicate a fundamental difference to the milieu whence their protagonist emerges. What had hitherto been a doctrinal appreciation of the uniqueness of Jesus was replaced with Jesus as the unique hero and genius… Jesus can be seen to pick up the threads again and be an even greater hero and genius by founding universal Christianity. [12] 
Given this backdrop, one recognizes the impetus for locating the ideas that were original to Jesus over and against his contemporaries. In order to establish Jesus as the great originator of Christianity (really, as the archetype of German Protestantism) it was necessary to establish his original teachings. In these contexts of German and British historiographical thought, “authenticity” could best be demonstrated through “originality.” [13]  Thus it is important to underscore the association between originality and authenticity. [14]  This interest in the teaching original to Jesus (and thus authentic) was foundational to New Testament studies
well into the twentieth century. [15]
In nineteenth-century America, the concept of “authenticity” developed along a much different track. While German Romanticism was concerned with genius of thought, Americans were much more interested in the uniformity that common sense provided. At the risk of over-simplification, one could say that the common American approach to the Bible’s  “authenticity”  was  more  democratic—that  is,  it  more  readily extolled the “common man” [16]  and less so the genius.
In reaction to what American evangelicals saw as “unbiblical” dogmas of man-made institutions (i.e. the traditional creeds of Congregational, Episcopal, Presbyterian churches), [17] many leaders of the Second Great Awakening sought to restore Christianity to the primitive models of the earliest Church. [18]  In order to do so, a groundswell of literature emerged claiming to be “Bible-only” principles derived from a “common-sense” approach to Scripture. [19]   Underlying this new rejection of Reformation Christianity was the common-sense emphasis of contemporary Scottish philosophers coupled with an enduring suspicion of institutional power. “Driving the rush into Bible-only-ism,” argues Christian Smith, was “the populist, individualistic, democratizing tendencies of the ideology of the Revolutionary and early Republic eras.” [20]  

But it was not long before this populist approach to the Bible was picked up and defended by the (so-called)  liberal  theologians  of  Yale  College  and  Princeton  Seminary. [21] What was once a rallying cry of revivalists had become the standard position of Presbyterian intelligentsia. Of course, Presbyterians had long defended the stance of the Westminster confession concerning Scripture, but did so now with new vigor:
The Old Testament in Hebrew…and the New Testament in Greek…being immediately inspired by God and by this singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical. (Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. 1, Sect. 8)
Notice here that Scripture was “authentical” inasmuch as it was divinely inspired and kept “pure.”  
Timothy Dwight (president of Yale from 1795 to 1817) and Archibald Alexander (the first professor and principal of Princeton Seminary from 1811 to 1840) were both heavily influenced by Scottish common-sense philosophers  in  service  to  “natural  theology.”  Using  only  the  “literal sense” of the Bible and a Baconesque empiricism, the project of natural theology was to explain, “often in considerable detail, what God’s purposes  were  in  creating  the  various  parts  of  nature.” [22]   In  Bacon  and Carlyle, these natural theologians found a means to defend their “biblical” understanding of the natural world. Interestingly, Carlyle’s thumb-print is evident in both camps: (1) the Romantic notion that the heroes of history were those that rose above common thinkers to produce something original; (2) the common-sense notion that principles about the world could be systemized and authenticated by any person with the powers of observation and a handle on empirical methods.

When this common-sense notion was applied to the Bible, two hermeneutics manifested. First, the Bible became the common person’s guide to understanding the natural world. Second, any person could interpret the Bible, using only the Bible as a guide for interpretation (viz. the idea of the Bible’s self-attestation). Underlying both was the idea that the (King James) Bible, from cover to cover, was authentic. Moreover, it was the guide by which all other facts about the natural world could and should be authenticated. When this “Biblicism” approach was adopted by the natural theologians at Princeton, a particular motive was apparent. As a reaction to the skepticism of David Hume and Thomas Carlyle (although adopting much of their philosophical framework), the theologians at Princeton latched onto a Bible-only approach in order to free themselves of the rigidity of Calvinism:

The liberals’ motive was usually to overthrow what they viewed as the thick and oppressive dogmatic systems of orthodox Calvinism. To do so, these liberal Protestant leaders of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries hammered away against doctrinally concerned evangelicals with the slogan of returning to “the Bible only” as a means to purify theology in order to arrive at the simplicity of biblical beliefs. [23] 

So, as American evangelicalism was coming of age, both the “liberal elites” (e.g. Charles Hodge, Robert Baird) and “conservative laymen” (e.g. John Nelson Darby, Dwight L. Moody) launched a “Bible-only” offensive against any who challenged their particular understanding of the universe. [24]  Despite their many differences, they agreed that the Bible was the divine  guidebook  for  interpreting  human  experience  and  scientific research.

To illustrate, B. B. Warfield wrote: “A proved error in Scripture contradicts not only our doctrine, but what the Scripture claims, therefore, its  inspiration  in  making  those  claims.” [25]   Here  we  see  the  strongest statement of the most recent theological topic of this period: the doctrine of inerrancy. [26]  Not only was the Bible divinely inspired (a longstanding Christian position), but now it was without error. If one were to find a single error in the Bible, according to Warfield, it would disprove the authenticity of Scripture. [27]  Seeing the problem created by his bold stance, Warfield retreated to the position that the Bible was inerrant, not as it stands now, but as it existed in the “original autographs.” This retreat to the  authenticity  of  lost  originals  was  adopted  by  fellow  Princeton professor A. A. Hodge. [28]  Thus, the idea of “originality” was associated with “authenticity” among the American Biblicists as well, however with very different motives and assumptions than their Romanticist counterparts.

In this climate of Bible-only theology, common-sense philosophy, and the American incarnation of empiricism, the need to prove the Bible’s “authenticity” became paramount. Baptist moral philosopher Francis Wayland claimed in 1835 that the “proof of the authenticity of the Holy Scriptures” should be treated as a particular example of “the general laws of evidence.” [29]  In 1844, Mark Hopkins (president of Williams College) wrote that the properly inductive approach to Scripture “decides nothing on the grounds of previous hypothesis, but yields itself entirely to the guidance  of  facts  properly  authenticated.” [30]   Here  Hopkins  echoes a standard formula of Bacon and suggests that the Bible will provide its own proofs of authenticity, which will be corroborated by any person of sound mind and free from “previous hypothesis.” 

Such appeals to “proofs of authenticity,” argues George Marsden, provided evangelicals arguments of probable “evidences that formed strands of a rope of virtual certainty.” Marsden continues, “Working from Common Sense premises, they argued that the authenticity of Scripture was as well established as many other of our beliefs that we rely on even in matters of life and death.” [31]  The authenticity of Scripture, according to the Biblicist view, was  self-evident  within  Scripture  and  available  to  any  individual equipped with common-sense. This remains a common view among American evangelicals today.

In sum, the concept of “authenticity” and the pursuit of “originals” developed from Romanticism among German higher critics by extolling the geniuses and heroes of society. At the same time, “authenticity” and the appeal of “original manuscripts” developed among common-sense, Bible-only  evangelicals  in  America.  As  we  will  see  below,  the  introduction of the traditional criteria in America made for an uneasy mixture of motives and assumptions.


  1. So ... the concern for authenticity was born not from secular skepticism or rational suspicion of the roots of faith, but out of a religious agenda, in particular a Protestant agenda?

    1. Well, the phrase "secular skepticism" is going to sound like a polemic to some... If you're in the BB Warfield camp, those German mainliners looked pretty much like secular skeptics.

      In short, in Europe the concern for authenticity was born from a desire to arrive at an assured minimum, or core by which the original Jesus could be measured. Lots of Protestant underpinnings there. In America, the concern for authenticity was born from a desire to prove that the Bible was indeed the divine field guide for the Cosmos. Again, lots of Protestant underpinnings... but the Second Great Awake folks might have taken that designation as a polemic too.


  2. Anthony, I think that one of the most important points you make in this essay, and in this section of this essay, is about how the Americans interpreted the influx of German higher-critical scholarship solely on their own terms, and thus misappropriated it to a large extent. If only these were isolated incidents. How many times in the previous two years did we have conversations that included the phrase, "But that's not what Bultmann really meant"??

    I would also say that this initial misappropriation of the Protestant liberal German scholarship of that time, and its effect on North American seminaries to this day, is why people like Karl Barth and Bultmann-revisited are the first stop for many post- or fading-conservative scholars on their way out of theologically restrictive contexts.

    1. Chris, "misappropriation" suggests that the Americans did something wrong. But it's not clear why you might think this. For certain, we're not required either to reject the work of a particular thinker or to adopt that thinker's world-view wholesale. Isn't the American religious experience one of synthesis of a wide collection of different ideas, many born elsewhere?

      What you write reminds me of the discussion here about memory distortion (or "refraction"): the idea of bending someone else's ideas to suit one's own purpose is awfully close to what we do to perception to transform it according to a pattern we can remember. I sometimes suspect that when you and Anthony talk about "memory", you're really discussing something like what I would call "cognition". In any event, if we accept memory distortion as inevitable and even desirable, then what's wrong with borrowing pieces of someone's intellectual program without actually adopting the entire program? Do we forgive the former because we assume it's unconscious ... because I would question that assumption.

  3. Larry, I'm well aware of what "misappropriation" means, which is why I used the term. But I didn't say that "we" Americans did this. Rather, the ones Anthony is referencing in that essay did. I think you're blurring two things here that are related but distinct. To answer your question directly, though..."What's wrong with borrowing pieces of someone's intellectual program without actually adopting the entire program?" Nothing, but there is something wrong with borrowing pieces of someone else's program, not understanding what you're borrowing and/or simply assuming that they mean in their context what you mean in your context, and then holding them responsible for what your lack of understanding and ensuing disagreements. This is how careers and families can be raked over the coals, and we've sat and watched it happen far too many times in the last year or two alone in Christian higher education. The issue that Anthony is discussing in that essay, the competing definitions of "authenticity," is a clear example and it still has lingering effects today.

  4. Chris, your reply came across to me with a bit of vitriol. That's fine; we should speak honestly and frankly to each other. But personally, I'm not in favor of raking people or families over coals. You wrote that "the" Americans committed misappropriation, and if you meant by this to refer to certain Americans and not others, you didn't make that clear (for that matter, neither did Anthony). In any event, I never said "we Americans", though I figure I belong in any discussion of "the Americans", and if that discussion places me in the "we" of folks who identify as American, I'm fine with that (perhaps your current University affiliation has you feeling a bit Tory).

    As for "not understanding what you're borrowing and/or simply assuming that they mean in their context what you mean in your context, and then holding them responsible" ... sounds like an apt description of 1800 years of Christian-led scholarship about Judaism. I can't imagine that you think I would condone such scholarship. But neither of us could be naive enough to imagine that all older scholarship is fully understood by those who come along later, that all scholarly movements are faithful to their founders, or that all opposition to the works of a particular scholar are based on a correct understanding of that scholar. Sometimes stuff gets misunderstood, and sometimes stuff is distorted to serve the interests of the distorters, and mostly it's hard to tell one from the other. This is a lot like how I understand memory to work.

    As for what is taking place in Christian higher education ... is that what we're talking about here? If so ... I'm clearly not qualified to debate this question with you, but that won't stop me from making a blunt comment. I believe that I stand in the firmest possible opposition to what's happened to Anthony and others like him. As someone who loves Christianity, I cannot believe how badly it can be served. But if we're talking about what's happening in institutions of Christian higher education, we're not talking about something as neat and narrow as the lingering effects of different definitions of "authenticity". We are talking about the uneasy relationship between two goals of higher Christian education: (1) to pursue knowledge, and (2) to strengthen (or at least preserve) the faith of Christian students. So long as (2) remains a goal of Christian education (and in particular, so long as Christian faith is seen as fragile and under general attack), then those appointed to preserve the faith will keep an eye (a careful eye, a wary eye, a suspicious eye, depending on the relative weight placed on these two values) on those pursuing the knowledge. Too bad that those we appoint to protect the faith do such a bad job of it. But power is exercised to protect the interests of those in power, as poorly as those interests may be understood.

    1. Larry, I can see how you might sense the vitriol. I confess it's there, but not really aimed at you. Neither my current institution nor anything else will ever make me feel less American. The Americans that Anthony and I are referencing (I must disagree with you; I think it's very clear in Anthony's essay whom he is discussing) were those who appropriated the concept of "authenticity" as a reference to the inerrancy or infallibility of Scripture, which is not what it referred to in the German context. You ask concerning Christian higher education, "Is that what we're talking about here?" Well, yes; at least, I was earlier. And I think that was clear in his initial post that it was in this context that he was trying to figure out why certain groups of American evangelicals have such a strong negative gut reaction to historiographical rigor.

      Regardless, and as always, you know I appreciate you and your contributions to this discussion.