Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Problems with Paul

To see that one has been mistaken in one’s manner of apprehending the past is not a loss but a gain. It is always better, safer, and more profitable, to know that one does not know, than to go on building on a basis that is imaginary.
—W.C. van Manen, “Paul” (1902)
Book review (and promotion): A Wave of Hypercriticism: The English Writings of W.C. van Manen, edited by Robert M. Price. Tellectual Press (Valley, WA 2014). For the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook, and in trade paperback.

My former church, like many other forms of Christian fundamentalism, teaches that “the Holy Scriptures are the highest authority and standard by which matters of soul and doctrines of salvation are judged.” One must simply accept, “by faith” and without interference from biblical scholarship, “the Holy Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, as the divinely inspired and revealed Word of God.” This little formula of blind acceptance is articulated in the church’s monthly newspaper, which laments, “We live in a time in which the authority, holiness, and inerrancy of the Holy Bible has been placed under doubt and suspicion by those who challenge it as a divine revelation of God’s will toward men.”1

Actually, though, there have been waves of questions lapping at the scriptural foundations for a long time now. As have the complaints from those trying to keep things propped up, like this one from the second century A.D.: “Now this heresy of yours does not receive certain Scriptures; and whichever of them it does receive, it perverts by means of additions and diminutions, for the accomplishment of its own purpose; and such as it does receive, it receives not in their entirety.”2

Facsimile reproduction of Luther’s German Bible  [Flickr page]

For all his literalism, sola scriptura, and fervent medieval piety, Martin Luther did a bit of picking and choosing of scripture himself. There were some surprised expressions on the faces of my former brethren when I told them that Luther was critical of the book of James, who he said

does nothing more than drive to the law and its works; and he mixes the two up in such disorderly fashion that it seems to me he must have been some good, pious man, who took some sayings of the apostles’ disciples and threw them thus on paper; or perhaps they were written down by someone else from his preaching.

That wasn’t all; Luther wrote that he could not put Hebrews “on the same level with the apostolic epistles,” noting that some of its teachings seem “to be against all the Gospels and St. Paul’s epistles.” Jude clearly seemed to him a copy of 2 Peter, and he also had problems with Revelation and Esther.3

One of the many theological squabbles Luther got himself into was with the humanist Catholic reformer Desiderius Erasmus, who was “perhaps the real progenitor of what would become the thoroughly modern approach to reading the Bible,” the Higher Criticism.4 This approach led to questions about Moses and then Jesus. Had Moses really delivered the 613 commandments of the Torah? Had Jesus really preached the Sermon on the Mount? Or were these much later collections of material from disparate sources?5

By the early 1800s, some of the epistles that had been attributed to the Apostle Paul were being questioned. Now this was a big deal, because the Pauline epistles are critical to Protestant Christianity. As my friend Robert M. Price puts it, Paul was not crucified for you, but it is Paul who tells you what Jesus’ death meant.

Dr. Price summarizes what the 19th-century critics were doing to Paul in his new book The Amazing Colossal Apostle. The first to deny Pauline authorship to one of the epistles was Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834): “Although he accepted 2 Timothy and Titus as Pauline, he rejected what he termed ‘the so-called First Epistle of Timothy.’ In an 1807 essay, he showed how this epistle contradicted all other Pauline materials in the New Testament.” Before long, “other scholars widened the scope of the investigation and discovered many of the same relations and contrasts between the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) on the one hand and the remainder of the Pauline letters on the other. Today, virtually all critical scholars agree that the Pastoral Epistles are not the work of the historical Paul.”6

Then F.C. Baur (1792-1860), “the founder of the Tübingen School of New Testament criticism, whittled down the Pauline canon even further.” He was left “with only the four Hauptbriefe (‘principal epistles’), 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans, as authentic and unassailable, minus a few questionable passages here and there.”7 The waves were getting stronger, crashing against the old foundations that Luther had lain. But at least his cornerstone, Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, remained. It was, Luther said in his preface to Romans, “the most important piece in the New Testament. It is purest Gospel.”

Bible Criticism: A Prickly Issue  [Flickr page]

Around the turn of the twentieth century, along came a “wave of hypercriticism” from some impudent Dutch theologians. Nothing was to be spared, not even Romans. Notable among these critics, the so-called Dutch Radicals, was Willem Christiaan van Manen. In a 1898 essay, “A Wave of Hypercriticism,” he observed of the situation, “Was it not enough that criticism had left untouched only four authentic epistles” in the New Testament? The critics had been a demanding bunch, now that the penalties for questioning Holy Writ were limited to verbal attacks and no longer involved a gruesome and painful death. Their efforts were not appreciated by the old guard:

“Righteous” indignation, reasonable trembling, ill-concealed conservatism, joined hands with lukewarmness and lack of desire for impartial research. Yet the fact cannot be denied that this wave of hypercriticism is rejected by the “best critics of Germany.” But rejected does not mean destroyed. The scruples mentioned are not done away with, the arguments are not weakened.

Van Manen’s 1898 essay is one of a few that he wrote in English, which have seen little exposure. In The Amazing Colossal Apostle, Dr. Price suggests “that the revolutionary hypotheses of van Manen were never given a chance.” He thinks “it is not that the Dutch Radical critical paradigm was tried and found wanting; it was found distasteful and not tried. But the rationalizations of our vested interests lose some of their hold on us if we come to recognize them for what they are.” He hopes that “the time is finally ripe for van Manen, once dismissed with scorn like Nietzsche’s mad prophet, to receive his due and a sympathetic hearing. Like light from the farthest stars, his shocking tidings have taken a long time to reach us, but perhaps now we are ready to see and comprehend”7

Tellectual Press’s new book

In furtherance of that, Dr. Price has asked my company Tellectual Press to publish a book compilation of these English-language essays by van Manen, which we have entitled, like van Manen’s introductory work quoted above, A Wave of Hypercriticism. He’s contributed an Introduction and an Afterword, and oversaw my efforts to make van Manen readable by splitting up his monumentally long paragraphs. The book is now available for the Amazon Kindle, the Barnes & Noble Nook, and in trade paperback.

Van Manen “began as a skeptic, eager to debunk and to refute” those few of his fellow countrymen who were questioning even the Hauptbriefe, says Dr. Price in his Introduction, adding that the deeper van Manen “delved into the issues and the arguments, the more he began to see their point and, worse yet, to suspect they were right.” Van Manen was finally able to shrug off the shackles of pious obligation, directing himself, as he urged others in 1898, to undertake “free and impartial research as to the authenticity of the Pauline leading epistles.”

Bob Price proclaims van Manen. Apologies to Gustav Doré.

If you want to get “acquainted with the Pauline leading epistles” for the purpose of arriving at “a possible answer to the question as to their origin,” van Manen urges you to “read and study them according to form and contents without cherishing beforehand a decided opinion as to their origin.” Simple, sensible advice. Who can argue with it?

Yet how many Bible readers and proponents (the latter category far outnumbering the former) are mentally capable of such a dramatic step, even today? They “cherish beforehand” a most decided opinion indeed, not just about Romans, Corinthians, et al., but the entire motley collection of sixty-six ancient books. Many have a hard time acknowledging any flaws in the supposedly inerrant “Word of God,” even about the most blatant and transparent contradictions.8

Whether they “begin by accepting the authenticity or not,” van Manen admonishes his fellow scholars to “always leave room for the opposite opinion.” Otherwise, their attempts to explain the text “is not free but bound, bound to tradition, bound to fiction.”

You can see why even liberal Protestants have a hard time with this. What’s at stake, says Dr. Price in his Afterword, “is the undermining of the very foundation of Protestant theological authority: the Apostle Paul.” A hundred years after the Wave of Hypercriticism reached the last bricks in the edifice of a Christianity that still dominates our social and political discourse, perhaps it’s time to take uncover our eyes and take a look.


  1. Laestadian Lutheran Church, Voice of Zion, March 2007. Similarly, the Päivämies newspaper of the LLC’s Finnish counterpart complained, “Nowadays, even in Finland, some church workers call into question the Bible’s revelation of God” (No. 17, 2006). 

  2. Tertullian, “Prescription Against Heresies,” Ch. 17. In Philip Schaff, ed., Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3. 

  3. It is quite an irony that one of the two men for whom the Laestadian Lutheran Church was named would have been in hot water with the church elders for his reservations about these books. See An Examination of the Pearl, §4.3.4, for my original of this summary with references. 

  4. Theodore P. Letis, “From Lower Criticism to Higher Criticism: Joseph Priestly and the Use of Conjectural Emendation.” Journal of Higher Criticism, 9/1 (Spring 2002), 31-48. Available at depts.drew.edu/jhc/LetisPriestley.pdf

  5. Thanks to Dr. Price for these three sentences, as well as his thoughtful review of this entire blog posting. 

  6. Robert M. Price, The Amazing Colossal Apostle: The Search for the Historical Paul (Signature Books), loc. 729. 

  7. Id., loc. 1003. 

  8. For example, was Jesus’ grandfather Jacob or Heli? Was Abiathar the high priest when King David ate the consecrated bread, as Jesus said, or his father Ahimelech, as 1 Samuel says? Did Judas splatter his guts out after falling headlong (on something sharp, presumably) in the field he bought, or did he hang himself? Matthew says one, while Acts says another, and doing both would be quite a trick.