“Are there things we are learning or can learn from contemporary biblical criticism?” Ensign, Apr. 1985, 37
Victor L. Ludlow, president of the Germany Frankfurt Mission; on leave from the Brigham Young University Department of Ancient Scriptures. The term biblical criticism means different things to different persons. A standard explanation of the term is that it refers to certain techniques used to examine the texts from which the Bible has been “translated.” Such studies are done to establish, as far as possible, the original wording of the texts, their authorship, sources, manner and date of composition, and so on. Such studies may create theological problems for those who hold the belief that the Hebrew and Greek portions of the Bible have been transmitted unchanged through the centuries. Latter-day Saints, however, are usually untroubled by evidence of textual change since we do not believe that the Bible has necessarily been transmitted in its original form. Indeed, the Book of Mormon indicates that many “plain and precious truths” have been taken from at least some of the books of the Bible from the time they were originally written. Thus, as Latter-day Saints, we can maintain an open and searching mind toward these new discoveries as they are announced, being careful, of course, that the evidence is complete and accurate before accepting conclusions about some of the changes that the Bible seems to have undergone.
To clarify the term biblical criticism, it would help to delineate two major forms of biblical criticism: textual criticism and the historical-critical method.
Textual criticism is sometimes called “lower criticism” because it deals with basic questions about sources, who wrote the document, how the text has been transmitted, what changes appear in the text between early and late versions, and similar concerns.
LDS scholars use many of the tools of textual criticism in, for example, analyzing the differences between the handwritten manuscript and the various printed versions of the Book of Mormon, what may have caused the changes, and when and how chapters and verses were established. LDS historians also use forms of textual criticism in studying the Doctrine and Covenants. The inspired nature and divine authority of the books is not questioned; the critic or scholar is simply trying to establish the manuscript’s background.
In contrast, the historical-critical method of biblical criticism is a type of “higher criticism,” which deals with more philosophical and subjective issues: the teachings, prophecies, and purpose of a particular book, for example, especially as they relate to authorship. These critics generally approach the scripture as a literary record or national history reflecting the author’s understanding rather than as inspiration.
This method assumes that historical reality is uniform and that what is true today can be objective criteria for evaluating the biblical past. For example, such criticism assumes that if we today cannot know who our government leaders will be ten years from now, the ancient prophets could not either. These scholars view the prophets as political commentators, social activists, or writers recording God’s works “after the fact” and maintain that it is impossible for anyone to foretell the future. Such critics rule out the Lord’s role in history and deny the possibility of prophecy.
Thus, although many tools of biblical criticism can be helpful, the rationalistic attitudes of some critics can greatly detract from the spiritual power of the Bible.
Even so, the extremes of biblical criticism which developed from 1850 to 1950 have been moderated in the past few decades by such archaeological findings as the Dead Sea Scrolls and by the emergence of new techniques of biblical study. In fact, as more evidence gathers, the validity of the Bible is being strengthened.
As we follow the Lord’s admonition to seek “out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118; italics added), we can combine the study of the scholars’ positive, constructive critical evaluations with the faith of the scriptural writers and the promptings of the Spirit to understand more fully the written word of God.
For us, the work of the critics can, at times, demonstrate scholastically what we know by revelation. Unfortunately, however, many critics have gone beyond discovering the nature of the original texts to deny the work of inspiration in nearly all of the books of the Bible. For us, this view is unacceptable. The Bible, though imperfect, is still the guidance of God as revealed to and expressed by his prophets.