The Word of God
Dan Vogel, ed.

“Search the Scriptures Critically”
John A. Widtsoe

[p.265]In the field of modern thought the so-called higher criticism of the Bible has played an important part. The careful examination of the Bible in the light of our best knowledge of history, languages and literary form has brought to light many facts not sensed by the ordinary readers of the Scriptures. Based upon the facts thus gathered, scholars have in the usual manner of science proceeded to make inferences, some of considerable, others of low probability of truth. These have been heralded far and wide and among those who prefer to follow than to investigate for themselves, groups of adherents have been formed for or against the various biblical hypotheses derived from higher criticism. The commanding place of the Bible among Christians has made these controversies of especial concern.

To Latter-day Saints there can be no objection to the careful and critical study of the scriptures, ancient or modern, provided only that it be an honest study—a search for truth. The prophet Joseph Smith voiced the attitude of the Church at a time when modern higher criticism was in its infancy. “We believe the Bible to be the Word of God as far as it is translated correctly.” This article of our faith is really a challenge to search the scriptures critically. Moreover, the Church had just been established, when Joseph Smith under divine direction, set about to revise or explain the incorrect and obscure passages of the Bible. The work then done is a powerful evidence of the inspiration that guided the Prophet.

[p.266] Whether under a special call of God, or impelled by personal desire, there can be no objection to the critical study of the Bible.…

Earnest efforts, employing every available device, have been made by lovers of the Bible to discover [transmission] errors, and thus to purify the text of the Bible. The various existing manuscripts have been compared with minute care to detect differences. Quotations from the Bible by ancient writers, when perhaps earlier copies were extant, have been assembled and compared. The human toil given to such labor is a noble example of the esteem in which the sacred scriptures are held. It is another evidence of his greatness that Joseph Smith was one of the early workers in the so-called textual criticism of the Bible.

Another group of workers have undertaken to discover the origin, authorship, and history of the many parts of the Bible. Their avowed objective is not to discredit the Bible, but to discover truth. To accomplish their purpose, methods of literary and historical criticism have been employed. From dissimilarities in style and contemporary historical sources, and by other means it has been inferred, for example, that certain books of the Bible are composites of several original manuscripts, or have been written by several authors. This is the so-called Higher Criticism. However honest and God-fearing these workers may be, many of their conclusions and explanations remain in the field of inference, not of fact. Whether the Pentateuch and Joshua are made up from four original documents, or the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation were written by two different writers, or Paul did not write the Epistle to the Hebrews, may ever remain in the region of hypothesis, so far as the findings of Biblical scholars are concerned. The purpose of Higher Criticism may be acceptable; but its limitations must ever be kept in mind.…

Higher criticism is not feared by Latter-day Saints. New facts with regard to the Bible are eagerly sought. Suggested inferences are respectfully considered and accepted or rejected, as they merit. Least of all do Latter-day Saints accept every new hypothesis of Biblical origin or history. As has been said, we distinguish carefully between facts and inferences and claim the right with other intelligent people to determine for ourselves the weight of probability of the truth of any presented opinion.

[p.267] The only worthy criticism, whether of the Bible or of any other human possession, is one that seeks for truth. There is a class of students who always seek for the errors in things. Such negative critics become menaces, for they find the errors inherent in all human works, and fail to note the truths. The positive critic searches for the truth in the book or the science, or the man he studies; naturally, he discovers the errors as he moves along; but, out of his search comes a balanced judgment. It is by our strength, not by our weakness, that we are to be judged. We are not concerned with “the mistakes of Moses”; we need to understand his successes, if we are to know how and why Israel entered the Holy Land.

Destructive Biblical criticism leads nowhere. Constructive Biblical criticism enhances greatly the joy of reading and studying the Book of Books. All knowledge should be applied in the study of the Bible, but the labor should be approached in the true spirit of science—as a search for truth, and with a prayer for truth. Thus, bidden, truth always arrives.

John A. Widtsoe was a General Authority of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1921 until his death in 1952. “Biblical Criticism” is excerpted from In Search of Truth (Salt Lake City, 1930), pages 81-93, and Evidences and Reconciliations: Aids to Faith in a Modern Day (Salt Lake City, 1943), pages 97-101.