What is “Higher Criticism”?


Would you please tell me something about what is meant by the term “higher criticism”? Thank you.


Biblical criticism divides into two basic groups: lower and higher. Lower criticism, usually called textual criticism, is the study of the original documents behind Scripture in order to determine as closely and as carefully as possible the intended meaning of the original text, so that a passage may be better understood and appreciated. When we look up the relevant meanings of the original Hebrew and Greek words that underlie our familiar translations, we are doing the work of a textual critic.

Now we come to the term higher criticism, which you question. Higher criticism is not concerned with the words themselves or their meanings but rather with investigating the source of the original text (the identity, purpose and style of the author; the author’s purpose in writing, the date of the writing, the language, the location, circumstances, etc.).

Higher criticism is often negative because the higher critic, rather than seeking to understand the Biblical writer and his situation, may inject irrelevant information from his own resources, which may or may not be accurate, and so influence the understanding of the Scripture text.

God never asks us to accept blindly what He has said. He encourages, even commands us to apply our minds and study. “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). Criticism in and of itself is neither good nor bad. It is simply the science of inquiry. It becomes good or bad according to the accuracy, integrity and understanding of the critic and the information he relates to the subject.

The problem with much Biblical criticism is that:

1) Critics often disregard the Divine authorship and authority of Scripture, and deny the superior right of God to act apart from how a human being would act. From the vantage point of a human’s limited experience and knowledge, they try and judge the validity of the Bible. What they cannot duplicate themselves, or prove to their own satisfaction, they deny.

2) Critics often reason from erroneous assumptions. Again, they are drawing from their own experience, and not allowing God the right to be superior in knowledge or understanding. They are limiting God’s information to the limits of their own human understanding and treating it like any human-authored literary work, which it is most definitely not.

3) Critics often miss the message of the Bible and overemphasize the insignificant. Not looking for the message of the Bible and not being acquainted with its Author, they focus on meaningless details while ignoring the knowledge that could lead them to genuine faith and understanding.

Higher criticism goes wrong when the critic’s conclusions contradict clear Scripture statements. For example, suppose the critic takes the position that the book of Revelation was composed by the apostle John, when the book says clearly that it is “the revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave Him,” which Jesus “sent and signified…by His angel unto His servant John” (Rev. 1:1). Can we then expect the critic’s subsequent statements to be correct?

Higher criticism errs again when the critic reasons from the standpoint that the Bible is false until proven true. Higher criticism also errs when the critics make themselves the ultimate judge of what can or cannot be done, of what is right and what is wrong.

Criticism can be good, but often it comes down to a mortal man telling God what He should say and do.

Whatever critics say, the words of Paul still hold: “Let God be true, but every man a liar” (Rom. 3:4).