As the common story goes, the Bible lost its place of authority in the American mind when Darwinism and German theological liberalism cracked its foundations in the last half of the nineteenth century. In The Erosion of Biblical Certainty: Battles over Authority and Interpretation in America (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), Michael J. Lee pushes back that timetable, arguing that the Bible began to lose authority in the early eighteenth century when, ironically, orthodox Christian interpreters unwittingly contributed to its demise.
In this well-documented account of Americans’ engagement with the rise of biblical criticism, Lee, assistant professor of history at Eastern University, explores interpreters from the early eighteenth to the early nineteenth century and shows how they relied increasingly on historical evidence in their defense of the Bible’s authority. Influenced by European interpreters from Benedict de Spinoza, Jean Le Clerc, and John Locke to Johann Jakob Griesbach and J. G. Eichhorn, Americans increasingly employed historically based arguments in their biblical interpretation.
With the rise of skeptics and deists in the eighteenth century, American Christians dared not ignore the challenges raised against the authority and reliability of the Bible. They decided the best way to meet those challenges was to do battle on the ground of the skeptics and deists themselves, to turn their weapons of historical evidence back on them. But by doing so, they gradually conceded that the battle could be fought and won on the basis of historical evidence.
In the first part of his book, Lee focuses on the eighteenth-century fight against skepticism and deism, treating Cotton Mather, Jonathan Dickinson, Jonathan Edwards, and a number of Harvard lecturers. While earlier Puritians used Ramist logic and appealed to Scripture’s authority from its self-authenticating voice, Mather responded to critics like Spinoza by moving toward both Cartesian (pure reason) and Newtonian (evidential) thought, basing his defense of the Bible on empirical evidence from history. While Mather continued to embrace the supernatural in interpretation and fully affirmed the inspiration of Scripture, he cracked open the door to historical criticism’s ascendency.
Lee goes on to argue that Jonathan Dickinson and Jonathan Edwards illustrate two approaches to defending the Bible against the deists by appropriating empirical and rational arguments. On the one hand, Dickinson believed he could persuasively defend the Bible on the deists’ ground, and he made appeals to general truths about God and religion that they would affirm, downplayed the particularities of Christianity, and claimed that the historical accounts in Scripture conformed to modern historical standards of reliability. By subjecting the Bible to historical examination, Dickinson inadvertently placed the Bible under the authority of historical evidence.
On the other hand, Edwards “selectively utilized certain strains of evidential and probabilistic arguments” while refusing to fight on the grounds of the deists because he believed to do so would concede to their epistemology (54). Lee rightly portrays Edwards’ biblical interpretation by recognizing both his engagement with and use of historical evidence to defend the Bible’s reliability and his broader interpretive patterns that relied on a typological, harmonic, and redemptive view of Scripture.
In the second half of the eighteenth century, many American theologians gradually began to place greater confidence in natural reason. By examining the Dudleian Lectures at Harvard on the topics of revealed and natural religion from 1755 to the end of the century, Lee traces how they relied more and more on evidentiary arguments with the intention of defending the Bible’s authority. In doing so, they slowly eliminated the need for divine illumination in reading Scripture.
In the second part of the book, Lee turns to the early nineteenth century to show how Europeans’ historical arguments came back to haunt American theologians who had embraced history to defend the Bible. The introduction of textual criticism in America appeared to undermine the very text of the Bible. American Christians responded by accepting that scribes introduced corruptions into the transmitted biblical text, but they held that such evidence did no damage to the core doctrines of the Christian faith. Then J. G. Eichhorn used history to undermine the historicity of the Bible in a whole new way by arguing that Scripture must be interpreted in its historical context, an idea that recast the Bible as a historically situated text like any other book.
In his treatment of the nineteenth century, Lee focuses on how Unitarians, particularly Joseph Stevens Buckminster and Andrews Norton, embraced both textual criticism and historical criticism. They claimed to read the Bible objectively, yet used the findings from these emerging fields to argue against traditional Christian doctrines such as the Trinity.
Because American theologians were confident in the Bible’s historical and factual veracity, they believed they could fight a battle on the grounds of empiricism and win. But “they erred in trying to reduce a supernatural revelation into something comprehensible by the natural tools of investigation” (183). Instead, Lee suggests that they could have drawn from the Protestant tradition to find that they needed guidance from a transcendent God to illuminate divine revelation.
Lee relates a fascinating tale that sheds light on the rise of historical criticism in America. Historians and biblical scholars do well to listen to this story and consider how American Christians engaged with the ideas emerging from the Enlightenment era and were affected by it in unexpected ways. Lee captures the ethos of the age, and it is hard to deny that in response to new ideas on the nature of evidence and the hope of historical study, Americans reformulated their understandings of both Scripture and biblical interpretation.
In reading Lee’s fine work, I think it is important to keep in mind a few thoughts for perspective. First, Lee focuses his volume on questions related to biblical authority and historical criticism. Thus, he understandably aims not to describe the exegetical methods of his subjects in total. So it’s important to bear in mind that at least some of these exegetes approached exegesis with more complexity than can be seen here. For example, Mather embraced typology in his exegesis and even dabbled in gematria, the Kabbalistic method of interpreting Hebrew words by computing numerical values of Hebrew letters to determine their meaning. Lee recognizes complexity explicitly with Edwards (206n72). The reader should be aware of such complexity with other exegetes as well.
Second, readers should also bear in mind that while Lee traces a trend in biblical interpretation, not all biblical scholars ended up as theologically liberal as the Unitarians that form the primary subjects of the second part of his book. He features these two figures to illustrate the unexpected consequences of conservative theologians defending the Bible using history. To balance his discussion, Lee offers a brief snapshot of Moses Stuart, a Trinitarian who was significantly influenced by historical criticism, to show its impact on conservatives. I would mention that the nineteenth century also witnessed theological conservatives who held a more balanced view of historical criticism and biblical authority, such as Charles Hodge. Lee acknowledges this point briefly, but the reader should take care to recognize how this era did not wholly shift to a lack of faith in the Bible—especially for the average American—or to a complete rejection of the need for the Holy Spirit in interpretation.
Finally, Lee argues that these biblical scholars could have done better by pulling on their Protestant tradition for guidance, since people like Luther and Calvin accepted historical errors in the Bible while also holding to the self-authenticating voice of Scripture. As Lee puts it, a “few minor historical inconsistencies” did not take away from Luther and Calvin’s high view of Scripture (184), and “Calvin and Luther accepted that there were minor historical errors and inconsistencies, and this did not trouble them” (188n11).
This claim that Luther and Calvin accepted historical errors in the Bible has been called into question by John Woodbridge in his Biblical Authority, where he offers helpful historical perspective on these theologians’ views of Scripture. While Lee rightly notes that American interpreters could have found help in their Protestant heritage because they identified the authority for the Bible in its self-authenticating voice and elevated the need for God’s illumination in interpreting Scripture, to suggest that the Protestant tradition commonly accepted errors in the Bible is misleading and lacks necessary historical nuance.
That said, The Erosion of Biblical Certainty deserves a wide reading by early American historians, students of the history of biblical interpretation, and biblical scholars themselves. All will benefit in seeing not only how eighteenth-century questions of epistemology shaped early America, but also how American Christians arrived at their general practice today of interpreting the Bible through a historical lens.