For those who have never been exposed to source criticism (you lucky dogs, you!), it is the attempt to find different sources in a given text. Sometimes, this enterprise is quite harmless. Finding out where Ronald Reagan got his quotes from during his Challenger Disaster speech can be fun and enlightening.
Sometimes, however, it is not quite so harmless. When scholars try to find four different sources in the Pentateuch (so-called J,E,D, and P sources, which stand for Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomistic, and Priestly), none of which are traced back to Moses, problems arise. The most serious problems have to do with applying an overly strict criteria for discerning the sources. For example, the so-called Jahwist and Elohist sources are so designated because the Jahwist used the name Jahweh for God, whereas the Elohist used the name Elohim for God. Are we seriously to believe that one author couldn’t possibly have used both names for God? Usually, this argument also depends on a manufactured contradiction between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, and the order of creation. The argument goes that the order of creation in chapter 1 is plants, animals, man, whereas in chapter 2, it is man, then plants. Keil and Delitzsch answered this argument well over a century ago, but no source critic has ever listened, seemingly. Chapter 2 is not talking about all plants, only cultivated plants. The reason of chapter 2 is quite clear: there are no “plants” because there was no rain, and because there was no man to till the ground. In fact, chapter 2 cannot possibly be talking about all plants, because most plants, in fact, do not need man to till the ground. Chapter 2 is simply saying that cultivated crops did not really get going until after the creation of the cultivator, namely, man. Therefore, there is no contradiction whatsoever between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.
Another big problem with saying that basically nothing came from Moses is that Jesus said it did. The liberals will typically argue that Jesus was only saying what the people of the day said. That is quite a stretch. Jesus had no problem correcting the people when their notions were in error. On the question of who wrote the Pentateuch, why would we believe that Jesus wouldn’t have corrected the people on this important point? Isn’t it much simpler and easier just to say that Moses did, in fact, write it, and that Jesus and the people He talked to both believed it because it was true?
So, the distinction between the Jahwist and the Elohist is a manufactured one. The question I want to raise is this: what is the appeal of this kind of source criticism? A generous estimation would probably point to the desire to see the prehistory of the text. Where did it come from, and are there previous sources on which the writer relied? Of course, this is all speculation in the case of the Pentateuch, since no such sources actually exist in any recognizable form. For the historical books of the Kings and Chronicles, there are references to other works that are cited. It is debated whether these refer to sources of which we now know nothing, or whether they refer to sources that are already in the canon. If the former, then the Lord did not consider it vital for us to have those sources, for in God’s providence, we don’t have them (notice the free use of “God” and “Lord” in the same sentence there). If the latter, then it is simply a biblical version of footnotes!
However, there remains another much more negative possibility, one which I consider more likely as a general explanation (of which there could, of course, be exceptions). It could be that source critics desire to eliminate final contexts of specific statements so that the final authority of a given text is eradicated. A text without a context is a pretext. There are several reasons why I consider this more likely. Firstly, source criticism does have the effect of atomizing texts, fragmenting them into thousands of tiny contextless pieces. Secondly, source critics almost never give the editor any credit for meaning anything. Usually some form of stupid redactor is implied. Thirdly, a very woodenly literal hermeneutic is applied in order to “see” the fractures. If, however, a different hermeneutic is employed, no fractures exist at all. Fourthly, source criticism comes almost entirely from a liberal set of assumptions: the non-inerrancy of Scripture, the cultural relativity (and therefore non-abiding nature of its authority) of Scripture, and the position of man as judge over Scripture instead of vice versa. Fifthly, it is quite suspicious that the more foundational a text is to Christian theology, the more likely it is to be shredded to pieces by the source critics. The prime examples are the Pentateuch, Isaiah, and the Synoptic Gospels.
It is important to note here that not all those of a liberal or moderately liberal persuasion are in favor of source criticism. There are a few Brevard Childses out there, who advocate studying the text in its final, canonical form. Also, in more recent years, rhetorical and literary criticism has become far more popular and influential (and far more productive, too, in my opinion, in the realm of theology). I had hoped that the Documentary Hypothesis was on the wane, even in liberal circles. But it is still quite alive and well, and even assumed in many liberal quarters. This author, at least, hopes that it dies soon.