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The Fundamentals, Higher Criticism and Archaeology

Indispensable to the conservative case against higher criticism was the "testimony" of archaeology. Many of the authors of The Fundamentals referred to the extraordinary evidence discovered by archaeologists. The science of archaeology was authenticating God's word and providing conclusive proof that radical critical theories were specious and dishonorable.

By Mark Elliott
Bible and Interpretation
July 2005

At the beginning of the twentieth century, fierce debates on the critical study of the Bible had caused severe polarization in the churches of Protestant America. Tensions arose over the impact of science on traditional religious doctrines and American culture at large. Liberals insisted that the Bible be subjected to the same analysis as other literature. Many educated Protestants de-emphasized the literal reading of the Bible and embraced a modern scientific study of the text. They were not threatened by a critical investigation of the Bible; they welcomed it.[1]

Opposing liberal machinations, conservatives rallied forceful support. Mere proclamations of faith were inadequate; the theories and the supporters of Julius Wellhausen's Documentary Hypothesis known as higher criticism were to be challenged publicly and directly. The conservative case was formulated in a series of booklets called The Fundamentals,[2] in which doctrinally motivated biblical scholars and theologians affirmed traditional Christian doctrines and attempted to captivate the Protestant mind. A handful of authors included archaeological evidence in a vigorous defense of their interpretations of God's revelations in the Bible. The Fundamentals reached thousands of ministers who could demonstrate to ardent believers the value of archaeological data that was appropriate for the articulation of Christian faith.[3] Hundreds of thousands of traditional Protestants who previously had a limited understanding of higher criticism were at once alerted that the biblical narrative was sanctioned by the Lord and the spade. New archaeological data unavailable to resolute Christians were now testifying to the eternal truth of Scripture and countering blasphemous theories. Archaeology had entered the public realm and reassured the faithful.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the critical study of the biblical text was an acceptable approach for serious study at many major universities and seminaries.[4] Conservative or traditional arguments opposing scientific criticism of the Bible had been losing ground among Protestants for years. An old style theology that eschewed or scorned science appeared medieval to many educated Christians. Sweeping condemnations of higher criticism and heresy trials to silence its advocates were shunned by many Protestant scholars.[5] D. W. C. Huntington, chancellor of Nebraska Wesleyan University, rejected the rhetoric of those ministers who engaged in sweeping denunciations of higher criticism. This type of activity "prejudiced more intellectuals and ministers than all that is called higher criticism."[6]

George Gordon, a minister in Boston, wrote, "Among intelligent people the Bible can never again be what it has been, the complete and infallible authority; from its first page to its last, upon faith and practice."[7] Gordon further admitted that "those who try to defend dogmatic Christianity in its unmodified and unreconstructed form are beaten."[8] Biblical criticism for Gordon was indispensable: "The more serious and fundamental the criticism is, the more obviously it is the product of the Spirit of God."[9]

Henry C. King, professor of theology at Oberlin, deplored the "bitter and arrogant spirit" that was prevalent "in the early stages of higher criticism in America."[10] King wondered how anyone familiar with modern scholarship could challenge the "legitimacy . . . of the higher criticisms." King maintained that Christians must recognize that traditional religious views cannot remain immune from the new scholarship. Change was inevitable, if not desirable.[11]

George Harris, professor at Andover Theological Seminary, argued that an overly zealous defense of Scripture imperiled the Bible. Harris believed that the insistence on the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible should not be a religious doctrine venerated by Protestants. This violated the spirit of the Reformation. Harris was so convinced of the basic premises of higher criticism that he wrote:

It would be difficult to find an intelligent person who holds to the inerrancy of all parts of the Bible, or who is disturbed by the modifications and readjustments of criticism. Indeed, it is great relief to know that some statements are not true . . . .[12]

Liberal or modernist views on higher criticism were not insulated in a few elite universities. Support for the historical and critical study of the Scriptures would not be the sole preserve of scholars; eventually it spread into the churches. Based upon a later survey, Walter F. Peterson believed that by 1910 approximately 25% of Protestant ministers were supportive of higher criticism.

The conservative answer to modernist inroads was to not compromise but to preach the Gospel. For years, traditional religious principles had been losing ground to liberalism. Higher criticism and its general findings were studied at most major universities and seminaries. Liberal Protestants adopted its basic hypotheses. Many traditionalists were persuaded that they must attempt something dramatic to reaffirm Christian truth and counter the seduction of biblical criticism and other modernist tendencies.

The vehicle to propagate the conservative cause was the publication of twelve paperback volumes called The Fundamentals published from 1910 to 1915. The project was principally sponsored by Lyman Stewart, a successful oil man from Los Angeles. Stewart hoped to counter the deleterious consequences of liberalism with a publication representing true Christian faith and its understanding of the Bible:

This will be such a testimony . . . doubtless as has never before been presented simultaneously to the English speaking churches, and will tend to temporarily check error and purify the streams through which the gospel is to be given to the heathen. But the influence of this testimony would be much greater if it could be sent also to the Protestant preachers and teachers of the other leading languages of the world.[13]

A wide range of conservative scholars and theologians, whose agenda was to articulate the traditional Christian religious doctrines regarding Christ and the Bible, contributed to The Fundamentals. A majority of the writers of The Fundamentals were millenarians. They believed that the world was descending into chaos and wickedness, and that judgment was imminent, which would be signaled by the return of Christ. Their intended audience was clearly delineated in the foreword as "ministers of the gospel, missionaries, Sunday School superintendents, and others engaged in aggressive Christian work throughout the English speaking world."[14] The enterprise was surprisingly successful; more than 3,000,000 copies were distributed! Over ninety articles were published. Twenty-nine were "devoted to safe-guarding the Bible," and a majority of these attacked higher criticism. Only two articles focused solely on evolution.[15]

Not all contributors renounced the scholarly probing of Scripture; however, several acknowledged that "restrained" higher criticism was an appropriate study of the biblical text. Canon Dyson Hague a lecturer at Wycliffe College in Toronto argued "the term Higher Criticism then, means nothing more than the study of the literary structure of the various books of the Bible . . . . Now this in itself is most laudable. It is indispensable."[16] W.H. Griffith Thomas a professor at Wycliffe College wrote that "all possible expert knowledge" on the Bible must be made accessible:

We do not question for an instant the right of Biblical criticism considered in itself. On the contrary, it is a necessity for all who use the Bible to be critics . . . . What is called "higher" criticism is not only a legitimate but necessary method for all Christians, for by its use we are able to discover the facts and the form of the Old Testament Scripture.[17]

Another author of The Fundamentals, James Orr, a prolific scholar and widely known as an evangelical theologian of undisputed orthodoxy was a professor of Theology and Apologetics at the Union Free Church College in Glasgow, Scotland. He insisted that structure of the Bible must be impartially examined:

By all means let criticism have its rights. Let purely literary questions about the Bible receive full and fair discussion . . . . No fright, therefore, need be taken at the mere word, "Criticism."[18]

As laudable as these testimonies were, in reality, they were a minority opinion and insincere proclamations of the benefits derived from higher criticism. As long as conservatives controlled the scope of biblical criticism and limited textual investigations to philology and syntax, they were buoyant in sanctioning its contribution to Scriptural clarification. However, when higher criticism diverged from traditional Bible study, ardent conservatives issued a caveat to the community of faith that Christian doctrines were in jeopardy. The Fundamentals was created to convince Christians that the Bible was a unique source of the knowledge of God. The authors' task was to inform and nourish religious faith because the secular techniques employed by most higher critics undermined, in their opinion, the trustworthiness of the Scriptures. The writers of The Fundamentals were simply unwilling to accommodate their understanding of the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible to a serious critical undertaking. Inevitably, when higher critics ventured beyond philological pursuits and challenged such treasured theological truths as biblical inspiration or Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, they were then questioning the Lord's authority: Robert Anderson, author of a work titled The Bible and Criticism wrote in The Fundamentals regarding the dangers of Wellhausen:

. . . it [higher criticism] directly challenges the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ as a teacher; for one of the few undisputed facts in this controversy is that our Lord accredited the books of Moses as having divine authority.[19]

The issue of inspiration united nearly all the writers of The Fundamentals. Conservative Christians were capable of determined resistance to any scholarly endeavor that proposed doctrinal revision. The question before these writers was not "merely literary, nor historical," but a restatement of religious principles: ". . . the whole matter resolves itself into one question: Is the Old Testament the record of a Divine revelation?"[20] Disputing the doctrines of the inspiration and the inerrancy of the Old Testament was tantamount to impeaching the teachings of Christ. The results of higher criticism offered believers undesirable choices. Either Christ was mistaken regarding the veracity of the Old Testament and was unable to distinguish a pious fraud from an original document, or Jesus understood that his teachings were false, but he "taught them as truth . . . . In either case the Blessed One is dethroned . . . ."[21] The faithful rejected higher critical alternatives because they had a simpler option: Jesus had "identified himself with the Hebrew Scriptures . . . . And this being so, we must make a choice between Christ and Criticism."[22]

It was apparent to the contributors of The Fundamentals that Christ taught that Scripture was inspired by God and that there must be a "recognition of the supernatural revelation embodied in the Bible."[23] If the critical approach to the biblical text is widely endorsed, the consequences are indisputable; Jesus is not divine, and His teachings are misleading. For conservatives, criticism must advance with reverence and a true spirit. William Craven of Knox College maintained that the New Testament's authenticity was vitally connected to the Old, and it was essential that Jesus' testimony to the truthfulness of the Hebrew Scriptures had to "remain unimpaired."[24]

Indispensable to the conservative case against higher criticism was the "testimony" of archaeology. Many of the authors of The Fundamentals referred to the extraordinary evidence discovered by archaeologists. The science of archaeology was authenticating God's word and providing conclusive proof that radical critical theories were specious and dishonorable.[25] However, only two of the articles in The Fundamentals written by G. F. Wright and M. G. Kyle[26] focused entirely on archaeological data to support of the Bible's historicity. The evidence had been assiduously debated in their previous works, but in The Fundamentals the authors were not so restrained in their evaluation of the evidence or its significance for biblical studies.

Professor George F. Wright taught at Oberlin College and held the peculiar professorship of "The Harmony of Science and Revelation." Wright's scholarly conceptions were typical of other conservative practices: mixing archaeological data, i.e., the Amarna letters, the Black Obelisk, the invasion of Shishak and the laws of Hammurabi, with Christian doctrines and appeals to faith. For example, the evidence for the Hebrew sojourn in Egypt was so convincing to Wright that these details represented the biblical author's personal experience or a direct Divine revelation.[27] For Wright, it was evident that the Documentary Hypothesis was baseless because the Bible could not have been edited or revised, for "it circulates best in its entirety." No editor could have abridged the Bible "without impairing its usefulness."[28]

Much of Wright's analysis was based on conjecture not archaeology. He argued that the Amarna letters demonstrate that it would have been "a miracle if Moses and his band of associates . . . had not left upon imperishable clay tablets a record of the striking events through which they passed."[29] Citing no particular evidence, Wright insisted that many of the forty-two locations mentioned in Numbers 33 during Israel's wanderings in the Sinai have been determined:

. . . it is not a fictitious list, nor a mere pilgrim's diary, since the scenes of the greatest interest, like the region immediately about Mount Sinai, are specially adapted to the great transactions which are recorded as taking place.[30]

According to Wright's interpretations, archaeological evidence was indeed a testimony of the truthfulness of Scripture. There were so many "positive confirmations" of the statements from the "sacred historians" he proclaimed that "there have been no discoveries which necessarily contravene their statements."[31] Biblical history had been attested "in so many cases and in such a remarkable manner . . . [it] can be nothing else than providential."[32] Wright interpreted these events as inspired archaeology where God provided positive archaeological data to those whose faith had been weakened and would "not be left to grope in darkness." The Lord had revealed these monuments at this opportune time "when the faith of many was waning . . . and the very stones cried out with a voice that only the deaf could fail to hear."[33]

Of course, this was not a scholarly presentation of archaeology. There were no footnotes and little analysis of the results of an excavation.[34] Wright's audience was only tangentially interested in an archaeological discussion. He was a propagandist providing an archaeology of faith and an antidote for the heresy that was plaguing the faithful. His God acted through archaeology to help Christians comprehend their faith and clarify the essence of Christian truths. Wright's archaeology was a "scientific method" for demonstrating God's revelation.

Melvin Kyle, more than any other writer during the first decades of the twentieth century, energetically employed archaeology in defending the veracity of the Scriptures. Kyle was hopelessly compromised by his fundamentalist views which he merged with archaeology, but few scholars promoted the conservative theological and archaeological agenda vis-a-vis the veracity of the biblical narratives as well as Kyle, a professor at Xenia Theological Seminary and holder of the Newburg Research Chair of Biblical Theology and Biblical Archaeology. According to Kyle, Xenia was the first theological seminary in America to "give distinct recognition to the science of Biblical Archaeology as a separate Department of Seminary work."[35]

At first glance, Kyle's contribution to The Fundamentals resembled a substantive difference to the less-than-scholarly style employed by Wright.[36] Kyle's essay was heavily footnoted, and he frequently referred to the recent archaeological excavations in Palestine. However, Kyle's initial assumptions on the value of pottery chronology were rather ambiguous: "The pottery remains are not to be undervalued, and neither are they to be overvalued."[37] His deliberations on religion, and culture,[38] Babylonian influences on Palestinian civilization,[39] Elephantine papyrus,[40] and biblical geography[41] gave his work the appearance of authority in comparison to the writing of the amateurish Wright. Kyle's archaeological conclusions were all conservative and positivist, and most had been divulged in his previous works. His essay was true to the principles of The Fundamentals. Kyle informed his readers that the revelation from the spade in Palestine had affirmed the revelation from God;[42] furthermore, Kyle wrote that archaeology had provided the "necessary material for . . . the surest foundation of apologetics."[43]

Kyle's promulgations had a unique twist. The science of archaeology was clearly in harmony with Scripture. Conservatives who had battled the diabolical results of science were then informed that they could exploit an objective field of study to preserve the sanctity of the Bible. The biblical text was "everywhere being sustained" by archaeology, while the great critical hypotheses were not. In fact, Kyle claimed there was not one higher critical theory that was "supported by the results of archaeological research."[44] The science of archaeology was "uniformly favorable to the Scriptures at their face value, and not to the Scriptures as reconstructed by criticism."[45]

Understanding Kyle's approach is not difficult; it was an appeal for the apologetic nature of archaeology in support of the biblical text. The purpose of The Fundamentals was to fortify the faithful and verify the contents of the Bible. Was it effective? Ernest Sandeen argues that The Fundamentals "had little impact upon biblical studies . . . .[46] Apart from several conservative theological journals that hailed the publication of these volumes as a 'notable undertaking,' scholarly journals "ignored the whole enterprise."[47]

Assessing the influence of The Fundamentals is difficult. The name will live on in a movement designed to coalesce reactionary evangelism in countering modernism in the 1920s. Members of the fundamentalist movement will recall the publication of The Fundamentals "as the origin of their crusade."[48] Many scholars were indifferent toward these volumes, but the academic community generally ignored apologetic interpretations of the biblical text in most publications and not just The Fundamentals.

The legacy of The Fundamentals was to impart orthodox doctrine among conservative Protestants. Few conservative lay people or theologians read Wellhausen or major academic works on higher criticism or archaeology. Nevertheless, for hundreds of thousands of conservative Protestants, The Fundamentals was their first introduction to the debates pertaining to the critical investigation of Scripture. The faithful were informed for the first time by their ministers that archaeology supported their belief in an inspired and inerrant Bible. They were introduced to a host of conservative scholars who endorsed Christian principles and advanced scholarly methods in support of biblical literalism. Thousands of theologians who had never bothered to read obscure academic journals were now able to proclaim from the pulpit the salubrious results of archaeological research. Readers of The Fundamentals found ample evidence that the modern science of archaeology was in accord with the biblical narrative while repudiating higher criticism.

Though appraising the impact of The Fundamentals may be problematic, its theological content and doctrinal principles represented a vigorous movement dedicated to supporting the accuracy and reliability of the Bible. The Fundamentals' contributors were the leading spokesmen for a substantial portion of conservative Protestant Americans. They defused critical theories and reached a much larger public than their opponents. Several created a continuity between archaeology and faith, an ongoing historical process in which God moves and works. Protestant believers understood that archaeology could serve and protect faith. More important, The Fundamentals' theological opinions and negations of critical scholarship appeared time and again in conservative and popular publications throughout the twentieth century.


*The above essay was modified from Biblical Interpretation Using Archaeological Evidence, 1900-1930. Edwin Mellen Press, 2002.

[1] F. M. Szasz, The Divided Mind of Protestant America, 1880-1920 (University, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1982), 99-100. For the Protestant struggles in the early twentieth century, see J. Barr, Fundamentalism (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977); K. Cauthen, The Impact of American Religious Liberalism (New York: Harper & Row, 1962); W. R. Hutchison, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976); G. M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelism, 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980); and M. E. Marty, The Irony of It All, 1893-1919, vol 1 of Modern American Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).

[2] R. A. Torrey and A. C. Dixon, eds., The Fundamentals, 4 vols (Grand Rapids: Baker House, 1917).

[3] Ibid., I:5.

[4] For the rise of higher criticism in the United States, see I. V. Brown, "The Higher Criticism Comes to America, 1890-1900," Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society 38 (1960): 193-212; W. F. Peterson, "American Protestantism and the Higher Criticism, 1870-1910," Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters 50 (1962): 321-9; and Szasz, 15-29, 68-83.

[5] See Szasz, 27-9 and accompanying bibliography.

[6] Peterson, 326.

[7] G. A. Gordon, The New Epoch for Faith (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1901), 171.

[8] Ibid., 173.

[9] Ibid., 174.

[10] H. C. King, Reconstruction in Theology (New York: Macmillan, 1901), 111.

[11] Ibid., 118.

[12] Ibid., 78.

[13] Szasz, 78-9.

[14] R. A. Torrey and A. C. Dixon, eds., The Fundamentals, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker House, 1917), I: 5.

[15] E. R. Sandeen, "The Fundamentals: The Last Flowering of the Millenarian-Conservative Alliance," Journal of Presbyterian History 47 (1969): 55-73. Sandeen has broken down and categorized the ninety articles in The Fundamentals in the following manner: "twenty-nine articles devoted to safe-guarding the Bible, another group of thirty-one articles providing an apologetic for doctrines other than the Bible, and a third group of thirty articles devoted to personal testimonies, attacks upon variant forms of belief, discussions of the relationship of science and religion, and appeals for missions and evangelism . . . [of] twenty-nine contributions devoted to the Bible . . . seven might be classified as panegyrics, and two others discussed archaeological confirmation of the biblical statements. But fifteen authors either directly attacked higher criticism or contested the critics’ interpretation of passages," 70-1.

[16] D. Hague, "The History of Higher Criticism," The Fundamentals, I: 10.

[17] W. H. G. Thomas, "Old Testament Criticism and New Testament Christianity," The Fundamentals, I: 128.

[18] J. Orr, "Holy Scripture and Modern Negations," The Fundamentals, I: 96.

[19] R. Anderson, "Christ and Criticism," The Fundamentals, I: 112.

[20] Thomas, 133.

[21] Hague, 35.

[22] Anderson, 121.

[23] Orr, 101.

[24] W. Craven, "The Testimony of Christ to the Old Testament," The Fundamentals, I: 227.

[25] See the following essays for examples: F. Johnson, "Fallacies of the Higher Criticism," The Fundamentals, I: 65-8; Anderson, 116; Thomas, 141-3; and D. Heagle, "Tabernacle in the Wilderness," The Fundamentals, I: 187-92.

[26] G. F. Wright, "The Testimony of the Monuments to the Truth of the Scriptures," The Fundamentals, I: 293-314; and M. G. Kyle, "The Recent Testimony of Archaeology to the Scriptures," The Fundamentals, I: 315-33.

[27] Wright, 300.

[28] Ibid., 307.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., 309.

[31] Ibid., 314.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Wright briefly mentioned the excavations at Gezer and Tell el-Hesi, but his discussion was less than half a page, 308.

[35] M. G. Kyle, "The Bible Light of Archaeological Discovery," Bibliotheca Sarca 74 (1917) 2.

[36] Kyle, "The Recent Testimony," I: 315-33.

[37] Ibid., 319.

[38] Ibid., 320-3.

[39] Ibid., 323-4.

[40] Ibid., 325-6.

[41] Ibid., 327-9.

[42] Ibid., 322.

[43] Ibid., 328.

[44] Ibid., 330.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Sandeen, 65. Apparently, it was decades after the publication of Wright’s and Kyle’s essays in The Fundamentals that G. Ernest Wright was even aware of their existence. See G. E. Wright, "Archaeology, History and Theology," Harvard Divinity Bulletin 28 (1964), 86.

[47] Sandeen, 65.

[48] Ibid., 73.