5 The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. 6 Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, 7 desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.
— 1 Timothy 1:5–7 —
In his excellent commentary on the book of Joshua, pastor and Old Testament scholar, Dale Ralph Davis, addresses the problem of critical theories used to interpret the Bible. Taking aim at the documentary hypothesis, a view which conjures up multiple sources behind the Old Testament, Davis singles out the real problem of this approach—it eviscerates the reliability of God’s Word and mutes God’s message. By adding undo complexity, it obscures the clarity of Scripture.
In response to this cumbersome and faith-eroding approach, he gives wise counsel:
Simplicity is, in my book, a plus; the more complicated an explanatory critical theory becomes, the less probability it holds of being correct, since every additional element inserts new (frequently uncheckable) variables into the problem. Multiplying the variables in a theory multiplies the uncertainty of their (all) describing the true course of events. Whether for a book or a chapter, the customary critical proposals inspire less confidence than a naive one. For [Joshua] 22, someone will hold we have a Gilgal tradition and a Shiloh tradition — these may have been in conflict originally. Of course, a Deuteronomic editor contributes his material, and a Priestly hand adds his touches — nor must we forget another post-exilic redactor (cf. the commentaries by Gray and Soggin on Joshua 22). Someone else will speculate differently. There are no controls; it is sheer guesswork. What’s more, it seldom makes any difference (except to place question marks after the reliability of Scripture).
The real problem with such bloodless speculation is that, after having done it, its practitioners strangely enough do not bother to tell us what their literary monstrosity has to say to the flock of God. The problem with most commentaries of such genre is that they can in no way nourish the church in godliness. Do they provide technical help — linguistic, archaeological? Yes. But to them the Scripture is not warm. It is an artifact from the past, not an oracle from God. Nor should they wonder if the Church finds all their furrow-browed, pin-the-tail-on-the-tradition-centre activity next to useless. (Dale Ralph Davis, Joshua, 171n4)
Today, Davis’s words continue to apply to those critical theories of the Bible which are found in academic circles. But I would apply his words to any approach to Scripture, doctrine, or practice—academic or otherwise—that requires “analytical tools” to help us read Scripture. As Davis puts it, “the more complicated an explanatory critical theory becomes, the less probability it holds of being correct, since every additional element inserts new (frequently uncheckable) variables into the problem.”
This is sound counsel and should be kept in mind as we bring the Scriptures to bear on all of life. Indeed, all of life presses back against us, tempting us to shape and shade our reading of the Bible by any number of falsehoods. The more we rely on the complex tenets of these critical approaches to Scripture, the more likely we are to be led astray. Simplicity (which is not the same as being simplistic) should be a goal of all Bible reading and a wise guide to all theological formulations of Scripture.
To that end, let us pray and perspire to understand the Bible on its own terms and explain it by appeals to the whole counsel of God and not popular-but-complex theories that arise from outside the Scripture. Such complex approaches only lead to pride and division. By contrast, a singular (i.e., simple) focus on the Word of God is what leads to faith, hope, and love. As Paul said, “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.”
May that be our goal in Bible reading and all doctrinal formulation too.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds