How I Was (Temporarily) Deceived
It was back in the mid-1990s. I was a student at the University of Alberta, majoring in history and minoring in English. I suspected that my path was leading to seminary — I took a keen interest in matters theological. When I had spare time outside of my studies, I read voraciously. To serve my appetite, Edmonton featured a variety of decent used book stores. My story takes us to one of these.
On campus at the U of A was a large mall — HUB mall. Student accommodations climbing several floors on each side, there were shops and restaurants on the main floor. Near one end was a small used book shop. Between classes I would often browse their selection. One day in the small “Religion” section, an attractive cover beckoned a closer look. It was a paperback by Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg. As I paged through The Book of J, I seemed to be entering a new world of scholarship. It sounded so erudite and confident. The book claimed that large swaths of the Pentateuch were not authored by Moses, but by a mysterious author designated as ‘J.’ It took a couple of return journeys to the bookstore to enter a little more into their argument and its conclusions. One of those conclusions was that ‘J’ was likely a woman. This was serious scholarship, and I was beginning an academic career — so, like anything published on Facebook today, it must be true. I didn’t buy the book; after all, I got the gist of it by just browsing and, besides, didn’t have the cash.
Thankfully, my deception didn’t last overly long. My bus route home from the U of A took me along Whyte Avenue, through the Old Strathcona neighbourhood. In that neighbourhood were several really good bookmongers. One of those was Alhambra Books. I decided to get off the bus near there and spend a half hour or so checking whether they had any new volumes. Indeed, they did. There in the tall stacks of Christian books (of which they had many at the time) was a volume from “The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company.” Today that company is still around, but their books appear only with ‘P & R’ on the spine. If you don’t already know what ‘P & R’ signifies, you can miss some good stuff. But this one had the name of the publisher entirely spelled out and that served my edification, because I knew I was Reformed, so this would probably be a good book. Besides, it was related to the subject of the previously mentioned book that seemed so persuasive. The title: The Five Books of Moses, by Oswald T. Allis. Subtitle: “A reexamination of the modern theory that the Pentateuch is a late compilation from diverse and conflicting sources by authors and editors whose identity is completely unknown.”
Oswald Allis introduced me to a solid critique of what is known as the Documentary Hypothesis. According to this notion, the Pentateuch was written long after the events it purports to describes, not only in Genesis, but also in Exodus-Deuteronomy. Moses was certainly not the author. Instead, critical scholars, beginning during the Enlightenment period, posited that there were several authors/editors. They go by the names J, E, D, and P. ‘J’ stands for the Jahwist — one of his characteristics is the use of the personal name of God, Yahweh (or Jahweh). ‘E’ stands for the Elohist — he’s known for using Elohim. ‘D’ was the Deuteronomist, responsible for much of that book. ‘P’ was the Priestly source, the one who wrote much of the holiness codes and so on. Allis ably shot holes right through all of this. This JEDP stuff could only be held by people who don’t take the Bible seriously as the Word of God. Obviously, the arguments of The Book of J were built on this Documentary Hypothesis and they didn’t hold any water either. I would have heard this theory demolished in seminary eventually, but I was thankful to providentially discover Allis already a couple years before.
All of this came rushing back to my mind as I was reading Carl Trueman’s contribution to God, Adam, and You. Trueman’s task was to survey what modern theology has taught about original sin. One of the modern theologians mentioned is Karl Barth. Barth has become somewhat cool, but his doctrine of Scripture leads somewhere a bit warmer. Trueman highlights one of the problems with Barth:
…Barth sees part of the key to understanding Adam to be an acceptance of the implications of the documentary hypothesis of the Pentateuch, which for him makes it clear that the events recounted should not be taken at face value. (page 197)
In a footnote, Trueman provides the proof. Barth is quoted as referring to Genesis 3 as a Yahwistic text, whereas Genesis 2:2-3 is a Priestly text. It sounds so scholarly and sophisticated — but it is unbelief. Barth has taken this theory about the Pentateuch and used it to deny the historicity of the creation of Adam. The Documentary Hypothesis not only emerges from theological liberalism, it also reinforces it.
I’m thankful that Allis came along to steer me away from the abyss. If there’s any lesson to be learned in this, it’s that when we encounter a new idea in the field of biblical or theological studies, we should be extremely cautious. This new idea could prove to be exceptionally dangerous. Especially when you’re a young person, before climbing on board, you’ll want to check and see if people you can trust have critiqued this appealing new idea. Search for those who’ve offered critiques with biblical arguments and humbly hear them out. As Proverbs 18:17 says, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” It’s wise to hear out what others have said. And as John says in 1 John 4:1, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”