Has Higher Criticism Proved We Cannot Trust the Bible

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2012
The assumption is that the investigative methodology used by the critics has proven there are errors in the Bible. However, as we thoroughly documented in our book The Facts on False Views of Jesus, when the critics speak of “assured results” they are being presumptuous. The mere fact that a majority of modern liberal, rationalistic theologians accept higher criticism is hardly a guarantee that such a methodology is either impartial or legitimate.

Has Higher Criticism Proved We Cannot Trust the Bible

Modern critics typically appeal to the “assured results” of rationalistic methods of higher criticism (e.g., source, form, redaction criticism) to “prove” that the Bible isn’t inerrant. As the 74 members of the so-called “Jesus Seminar” wrote, “The public is poorly informed of the assured results of critical scholarship, although those results are commonly taught in colleges, universities, and seminaries.”[1] Here the assumption is that the investigative methodology used by the critics has proven there are errors in the Bible. However, as we thoroughly documented in our book The Facts on False Views of Jesus, when the critics speak of “assured results” they are being presumptuous. The mere fact that a majority of modern liberal, rationalistic theologians accept higher criticism is hardly a guarantee that such a methodology is either impartial or legitimate. To rule “solely on the basis of the assured results of higher criticism” is unwise if such results are in fact anything but assured. The truth is that higher criticism and its methodology have proven themselves almost worthless. Far from proving an error in Scripture, they have only served by default to bolster the claim to the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible. Let’s see why.

The historical criticism of the skeptics suffers from the same conceptual illness as rationalistic antisupernaturalism. It assumes that the Bible is not divinely inspired, but was written by fallible men with personal agendas to uphold, and therefore has errors. If one assumes error, one can usually “find” error, whether or not the conclusion is justified (i.e., whether or not other possible explanations exist which are consistent with a position of inerrancy). What critics are unwilling to accept is that the last 200 years of intense critical study have never proven an error in the Bible. With millions of man-hours expended, this should be considered a most remarkable confirmation of biblical inerrancy. Thus it is the position of the higher critics who doubt Scripture that has been repeatedly overturned, and not that of the conservative Christian who upholds inerrancy.

Consider the conclusions of several scholars with impeccable academic credentials. Men having such encyclopedic knowledge could hardly have made the statements below and have them successfully gone unchallenged unless such statements were true.

Dr. John Warwick Montgomery graduated from Cornell University with distinction in philosophy, Phi Beta Kappa. Then he went on to earn the Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, a second doctorate in theology from the University of Strasborg, France, and seven additional graduate degrees in theology, law, library science, and other fields. He has written over 125 scholarly journal articles, plus 40 books, many of them defending Christian faith against skeptical views. He has held numerous prestigious appointments, is a founding member of the World Association of Law Professors and a member of the American Society of International Law, and is honored in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in American Law, The Directory of American Scholars, International Scholars Directory, Who’s Who in France, Who’s Who in Europe, and Who’s Who in the World. Men with the kind of background, temperament, and philosophical premises such as Dr. Montgomery simply do not believe in Christianity apart from sufficient evidence. Dr. Montgomery asserts as to alleged biblical contradictions, a favorite of the critics: “I myself have never encountered an alleged contradiction in the Bible which could not be cleared up by the use of the original languages of the Scriptures and/or by the use of accepted principles of literary and historical interpretation.”[2]

Dr. Gleason L. Archer was an undergraduate classics major who received training in Latin, Greek, French, and German at Harvard University. At seminary he majored in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic, and in postgraduate study he became involved with Akkadian and Syriac, teaching courses on these subjects. He has had a special interest in Middle Kingdom Egyptian studies, and at the Oriental Institute in Chicago he did specialized study in Eighteenth Dynasty historical records as well as studying Coptic and Sumerian. In addition, he obtained a full law degree and was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar. He has also visited the Holy Land, where he personally inspected most of the important archeological sites and spent time in Beirut, Lebanon, for a specialized study of modern literary Arabic. He holds the B.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary and the Ph.D. from Harvard Graduate School.

This background enabled Dr. Archer to become an expert in the issue of charges of alleged errors and contradictions in Scripture:

In my opinion this charge can be refuted and its falsity exposed by an objective study done in a consistent, evangelical perspective…. I candidly believe I have been confronted with just about all the biblical difficulties under discussion in theological circles today—especially those pertaining to the interpretation and defense of Scripture…. As I have dealt with one apparent discrepancy after another and have studied the alleged contradictions between the biblical record and the evidence of linguistics, archeology, or science, my confidence in the trustworthiness of Scripture has been repeatedly verified and strengthened by the discovery that almost every problem in Scripture that has ever been discovered by man, from ancient times until now, has been dealt with in a completely satisfactory manner by the biblical text itself—or else by objective archeological information.[3]

Given the fact that Dr. Archer has graduated from Princeton and Harvard, has done extensive studies in archeology and other areas, has become fluent in 15 languages, and has received full training in legal evidences, the above statement can hardly be summarily dismissed by critics.

But there are many similar testimonies by other renowned scholars. Dr. Robert Dick Wilson (Ph.D., Princeton), an Old Testament authority and author of A Scientific Investigation of the Old Testament, could read the New Testament in nine different languages by the age of 25. In addition, he could repeat from memory a Hebrew translation of the entire New Testament without missing a single syllable and do the same with large portions of the Old Testament. He proceeded to learn 45 languages and dialects and was also a master of paleography and philology: “I have made it an invariable habit never to accept an objection to a statement of the Old Testament without subjecting it to a most thorough investigation, linguistically and factually” and “I defy any man to make an attack upon the Old Testament on the grounds of evidence that I cannot investigate.” His conclusion was that no critic has ever succeeded in proving an error in the Old Testament.[4]

Rev. John W. Haley examined 900 alleged problems in Scripture, concluding, “I cannot but avow, as the [conclusion] of my investigation, the profound conviction that every difficulty and discrepancy in the scriptures is… capable of a fair and reasonable solution.”[5] Dr. William Arndt of the standard Arndt and Gingrich Lexicon concluded in his own study of alleged contradictions and errors in the Bible, “We may say with full conviction that no instances of this sort occur anywhere in the Scriptures.”[6]

Despite such testimony, the negative conclusions of higher criticism do underscore a key element in this discussion: that of how we should approach Scripture. Should we approach it with a trust of its claim to inerrancy—a claim based on solid evidence in support of it—or with a distrust which seeks to harmonize the data with our own negative presuppositions? As one scholar observed, “The truth is that most scholars end up with conclusions remarkably similar to the presuppositions with which they began their study.”[7] Indeed, if the very basis for every higher critical method is predicated upon “alien and unjustified philosophical presuppositions,”[8] is a person truly being objective and fair in his treatment of the biblical text when utilizing such methods, especially when “higher criticism ends up rejecting the truth of the biblical content it is supposed to clarify”? Higher criticism is not neutral; it begins with a negative and unjustified presupposition of errancy which flies in the face of facts. How then can its results be “assured”?

Presuppositions are not proven facts, and the philosophical, historical, or scientific assumptions underlying higher criticism are far from sound in themselves.[9]

Put another way, once one is at least willing to believe that Scripture may be inerrant, he should be logically forced to accept Jesus’ view of Scripture as inerrant on the basis of Jesus’ divine nature and verifiably accurate Gospel teachings. The critic who is unwilling to believe inerrancy unless it is 100 percent “proven” can never believe it because the state of human knowledge will always be less than 100 percent. It seems only fair that, given the phenomena of Scripture in general, including its claims to inspiration and inerrancy, fulfilled prophecy, archeological confirmation, accuracy in textual transmission, etc., the biblical text should be considered innocent until proven guilty. Further, no critical methodology can be considered legitimate by Christians if it questions the reliability of what God has clearly spoken. If men are presumed innocent until proven guilty, how is it we assume that God is guilty until we prove Him innocent?

The conclusion is that someone must be the judge of Scripture. Either it must be God who has already borne witness to its authority and inerrancy (Isa. 40:8; John 10:34; 5:46-47), or it must be human beings, who judge God to be in error. What an unfortunate situation the critics’ assumptions force them to! Critics must assume error where Jesus declares truth; they must assert the superiority of finite and fallen human reason above divine revelation. In essence, they must make an idol of their own minds, for in that they establish an authoritative criterion above that of God Himself, they commit a form of idolatry.

God has left us no alternative: If we do not accept Him at His word, we are left with precious little. Dr. J. I. Packer is correct when he writes:

Liberal theology, in its pride, has long insisted that we are wiser than our fathers about the Bible, and must not read it as they did, but must base our approach to it on the “assured results” of criticism, making due allowances for the human imperfections and errors of its authors. This insistence has a threefold effect. (1) It produces a new papalism—the infallibility of the scholars, from whom we learn what the “assured results” are. (2) It raises a doubt about every single Bible passage, as to whether it truly embodies revelation or not. (3) And it destroys the reverent, receptive, self-distrusting attitude of approach to the Bible, without which it cannot be known to be “God’s Word written.” … The result? The spiritual famine of which Amos spoke. God judges our pride by leaving us to the barrenness, hunger, and discomfort which flow from our self-induced inability to hear His Word.[10]

Dr. Harold Lindsell comments on the complications of the critics’ claim that no one can really understand the Bible apart from accepting the legitimacy of the critics’ “findings”:

Worst of all, and this must be said again and again, it makes the Bible a closed book to the common man. He cannot read it and know what it means if the historical-critical conclusions are correct. No ordinary reader of the Bible could possibly come to this conclusion simply by reading it. The conclusion the common reader would draw would be antithetical to those of the higher critic. Also, the evangelical faith itself is mistaken if the historical-critical methodology is correct.[11]

Unfortunately, portions of evangelicalism itself are now infected. In adopting higher critical methods, some evangelicals are accepting the premise that man can profitably sit in skeptical judgment on the Bible, God’s Word. We seriously doubt that these evangelicals would ever have considered that Jesus did not say the things He did had they never been exposed to something like redaction criticism. If one casts doubt on Jesus’ own words, or the authenticity of Daniel and Isaiah, or the historicity of Adam and Eve or Jonah, when the biblical and historical data are conclusively in their favor, one certainly no longer trusts wholly in God’s Word.

In the end, we are forced to agree with Dr. Montgomery that the conclusions of higher criticism are far from assured; they are in fact unworthy of our trust:

I have pointed out again and again that such “assured results” are nonexistent, that redaction criticism, documentary criticism, and historical-critical method have been weighed in the balance of secular scholarship and found wanting, and that the burden of proof remains on those who want to justify these subjectivistic methods, not on those who take historical documents at face value when their primary-source character can be established by objective determination of authorship and date.[12]

Thus to adopt a conclusion about the errancy of the biblical text on the basis of the discredited methodology of higher criticism is not only highly suspect, it is entirely unfounded.


  1. Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and The Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York: Macmillan, 1993), p. 34.
  2. John Warwick Montgomery, The Shape of the Past (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1975), p. 176.
  3. Gleason Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), pp.11-12.
  4. Robert Dick Wilson, Scientific Investigation of the Old Testament, pp.13, 20, 130,162-63; David Otis Fuller, ed., Which Bible? (Grand Rapids: Grand Rapids International Publications, rev. 1971, 2nd edition), p. 44.
  5. John W. Haley, Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982, rpt.), p. vii.
  6. William Arndt, Does the Bible Contradict Itself? (St. Louis: Concordia, 1955, rpt.), p. XI.
  7. Harold Lindsell, The Bible in the Balance (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), p. 282.
  8. Norman L. Geisler, “Philosophical Presuppositions of Biblical Errancy,” in Geisler, ed., Inerrancy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), pp. 306, 319-20. See also Maier, The End of the Historical-Critical Method, pp. 11-50.
  9. J. Barton Payne, “Higher Criticism and Biblical Inerrancy,” in Geisler, Inerrancy, p. 333.
  10. J. I. Packer cited in Harold Lindsell, The Bible in the Balance (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), p. 282.
  11. Lindsell, Bible in the Balance, p. 301.
  12. John Warwick Montgomery, Faith Founded on Fact (New York: Thomas Nelson, 1978), p. 47.

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  2. gary on November 5, 2016 at 7:14 pm

    Higher Criticism is the greatest threat to Christianity today. If not squashed, it will decimate conservative Christianity. Here is an example of the consequences of Higher Criticism:


  3. Idx: Higher Criticism - Bible Resource Library on February 6, 2018 at 10:14 pm

    […] John Weldon (John Ankerberg site) – Has Higher Criticism Proved we cannot trust the Bible? […]

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