Nerve-wracking and Dangerous Theological Disputes

Theological disputes must have been nerve-wracking…and dangerous!

The standard texts of OT introduction often begin with the rise of historical criticism in the 17the century with Spinoza. This is followed by a parade of critics who questioned and substituted the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch with the ‘Fragmentary Theory’ or ‘Documentary Hypothesis’: beginning with Jean Astruc (1753), Johann Eichhorn (1780-1783), De Wette (1805) and climaxing with Julius Wellhausen’s JEPD, “Documentary Hypothesis” (1876-1878). I am probably dated in terms of OT expertise, but it is arguable that this standard theory is most strongly advocated by Otto Eissfeldt, The OT: an Introduction (1934); translated by Harper & Row (1965).

I was amused/alarmed when I came across John Calvin’s reference to doubts cast upon the Mosaic Authorship of the Pentateuch way back in 1559:

9. I am aware of what is muttered in corners by certain miscreants [rascals bawl], when they would display their acuteness in assailing divine truth. They ask, how do we know that Moses and the prophets wrote the books which now bear their names? Nay, they even dare to question whether there ever was a Moses. Were any one to question whether there ever was a Plato, or an Aristotle, or a Cicero, would not the rod or the whip be deemed the fit chastisement of such folly? The law of Moses has been wonderfully preserved, more by divine providence than by human care…To sum up the whole in one word, it is certain beyond dispute, that these writings passed down, if I may so express it, from hand to hand, being transmitted in an unbroken series from the fathers, who either with their own ears heard them spoken, or learned them from those who had, while the remembrance of them was fresh…
10. What, then, do those babblers, but betray their snarling petulance [canine shamelessness] in falsely alleging the spuriousness of books whose sacred antiquity is proved by the consent of all history? But not to spend labour in vain in refuting these vile [filthy] calumnies, let us rather attend to the care which the Lord took to preserve his Word. [Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.8.9-10. Emphasis mine]

Of course, the issue of historicity and authorship should be settled by careful analysis of the text and related historical evidence, rather than by merely appealing to authority (however distinguished).

Calvin’s spicy language, e.g. “miscreants, the rod or the whip as fit chastisement for folly, babbles with snarling petulance and vile calumnies,” was representative of oratorical duels of his times. It is actually mild compared to Martin Luther when he called for a plague to come down onto the house of his disputants (in contemporary language it could be “May your family die of AIDS”).

Theological disputes must have been nerve-wracking…and dangerous!

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