Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 7. The Higher Criticism

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XVI. Later Theology

§ 7. The Higher Criticism

It cannot be said that during the period under consideration American Scholarship contributed anything of material value to the higher criticism of the Bible. It has to its credit the great New Testament Lexicon (1893) of Professor J. Henry Thayer of Andover Seminary and the equally pre-eminent Hebrew Lexicon (1893) of Professor J. Henry Thayer of Andover Seminary and the equally pre-eminent Hebrew Lexicon (1891) edited by President Francis Brown of Union Seminary, assisted by Professor Briggs of Union and Professor Driver of Oxford. But in the higher discipline its work was of a more mediating and imitative character. Few of our leading scholars took an unyielding attitude to the spirit of the times. Manfully and with unassuming temper, Green of Princeton defended the ancient opinions in a debate with President Harper of the University of Chicago and later in his books, The Higher Criticism of the Pentateuch (1895), The Unity of the Book of Genesis (1895), and General Introduction to the Old Testament (1898). With the exception of more searching work by still living scholars, still fewer of our writers took radical ground. Here we may mention only the lucid books of Orello Cone of St. Lawrence University, Levi L. Paine’s suggestive Evolution of Trinitarianism (1900) with its appendix challenging the apostolic authorship of the fourth Gospel, and particularly Edward H. Hall’s Papias and his Contemporaries (1899), which connects the Gospel of John with the Gnostic movement of the second century. The majority of our scholars took a moderately progressive stand. As the pregnant debate approached the New Testament, American scholarship maintained largely a dignified silence but refused to move the previous question. The most substantial contribution of our scholars in the whole field of Biblical literature is probably Ezra Abbot’s Authorship of the Fourth Gospel (1880), which, while it defends the widely disputed apostolic authorship of the book, admits the cogency of opposing opinion and the discrepancies between the fourth Gospel and the other three. George P. Fisher, Professor of Church History in the Yale Divinity School and author of a very usable History of the Christian Church, sensed the vital import of the criticism of the gospels and devoted the greater part of his careful and well-poised works on The Supernatural Origin of Christianity (1870) and Grounds of Theistic and Christian Belief (1883) to a vigorous and able defence of the historicity of the gospels. But while doing so with full conviction, he is clear-sighted enough to declare:

  • The Bible is one thing and Christianity is another. The religion of Christ, in the right signification of these terms, is not to be confounded with the Scriptures, even of the New Testament. The point of view from which the Bible, in its relation to Christianity, is looked on as the Koran appears to devout Mohammedans, is a mistaken one. The entire conception, according to which the energies of the Divine Being, as exerted in the Christian revelation, are thought to have been concentrated on the production of a book is a misconception and one that is prolific of error.
  • Or as T. T. Munger, Professor Fisher’s neighbour in New Haven, has it in his notable essay on the New Theology: “It [the Bible] is not a revelation but is a history of a revelation; it is a chosen and indispensable means of the redemption of the world, but it is not the absolute means,—that is in the Spirit.” While Marvin R. Vincent is right in saying that “Germany furnishes the most and the best,” our theologians have maintained an open mind in the study of the book upon which their whole discipline rests.