Does Dr. Dominick S. Hernández affirm Higher Criticism? This question was raised in an interview of Dr. Russell Fuller on the popular podcast and YouTube channel Conversations That Matter (hosted by Jon Harris). The next day Southern Baptist Theological Seminary responded with their own interview where Dr. Hernández attempts to affirm orthodox hermeneutical principles and answer some of the specific passages that were brought into question by Dr. Fuller. This seemingly set the narrative as a classic “he said, she said” debate, or did it? Fortunately for us there is a third witness that holds great authority and is able to bring great clarity, that is Dr. Hernández’s dissertation (attached at the bottom of the article for you to download).
In this article we will examine some key points of Dr. Hernández’s dissertation and see if he affirms Higher Criticism or if he holds to an orthodox hermeneutic.
First, we need to understand what Higher Criticism is so we can understand what we are comparing Hernández’s position to. Higher Criticism comes out of Critical Theory and was the dominate hermeneutic (interpretation) employed by the modernists of the late 1800’s and early-mid 1900’s. Higher Criticism specifically looks at the literary structure of books of the Bible and criticizes the historical orthodox interpretation. This of course led to not only a non-literal interpretation of the Bible, but a view that the Bible was not in any practical way inerrant.
This hermeneutic is used to discredit the Bible and to deny verbal plenary inspiration of the Bible. Ultimately this leads to an interpretation where the individual is the authority over the Bible instead of the Bible having authority over you. Or we might say it makes it, so we criticize the Bible because we don’t want the Bible to criticize us.
Canon Dyson Hague explains Higher Criticism in more detail:
What is the meaning of the term “Higher Criticism”? At the outset it must be explained that the word “higher” is an academic term, used in this connection in a purely special or technical sense. It is used in contrast to “Lower Criticism.” Higher Criticism means nothing more than the study of the literary structure of the various books of the Bible. Such study is indispensable to ascertain the author, date, circumstances, and purpose of a writing.
It must be stated that there is a higher criticism which is reverent in tone and scholarly in work. But the work of the higher critic has not always been pursued in a reverent spirit nor in the spirit of scientific and Christian scholarship. In the first place, the leaders of this movement based their theories largely on their own subjective conclusions. They have based their conclusions largely on the very dubious basis of the author’s style and supposed literary qualifications. Style is an unsafe basis for the determination of a literary work. Because a man is a philological expert does not insure that he is able to understand the integrity or credibility of a passage of Scripture any more than the beauty or spirit of it. The qualification for the perception of Biblical truth is spiritual insight.The Fundamentals for Today, Pg. 13
As you can see, Higher Criticism is a big problem and it would be an enormous sign of danger if a professor at the most prominent Southern Baptist Seminary was holding and applying this hermeneutic. It becomes even more exasperating if we consider the history of SBTS as they once expelled this exact liberalism in the Conservative Resurgence years ago.
Let’s examine some key portions of Dr. Hernández’s dissertation. The first quote we will look at Hernández’s gives some insight into his hermeneutical method:
Even better exegetical explanations of various passages dealing with the fate of the wicked can be accomplished by looking outside of the Bible and gleaning from comparable ancient Near Eastern literature that exhibits analogous language and word pictures. Several ancient Near Eastern compositions not only display similar language to Job’s, but also deal with the prominent theological issue of retributive justice. (Pg. 21)
As you can see Dr. Hernández’s is not shy about looking outside of Scripture to help interpret the passage. This is not in and of itself a bad practice as historical context often helps us understand the narrative of a passage. The troubling part of this quote is that he is seeking extra-Biblical passages to understand the theological teaching of retributive justice. What compounds the concerns about his hermeneutic is that these extra-Biblical passages are actually passages on pagan mythologies that he compares and in some cases even applies to Scripture.
Hernández gives some of his insight to Job 10:8 (Your hands have made me and fashioned me, An intricate unity; Yet You would destroy me.) when he says:
In Isaiah, God swallows Death in a divine act of judgment upon the chaotic force responsible for swallowing others. Death is swallowed and eliminated so that God might bring comfort to God’s people. In Job 10:8, Job accuses God doing the exact opposite—God causes chaos by deeming innocent creation wicked, creating injustice by favoring the wicked, and taking on the character of the destructive Ugaritic god Mot. (Pg. 86)
First off, what Hernández said is blasphemous, but we can see his hermeneutic shine as he compares the Bible with a pagan source material and subjectively concludes that Job is saying God acts like a pagan god. Hernández goes as far as to say that Job is accusing God of taking the character of a pagan god that isn’t even mentioned in this passage (or the book).
Next, we are going to see what Dr. Hernández has to say about the firstborn of death. This was a key part of both interviews, so it is of particular importance. The passage being examined is Job 18:13 “It devours patches of his skin; The firstborn of death devours his limbs.”
This suspicion is confirmed upon investigating the identity and action of the Firstborn of Death (ְבכוֹר ָׁמ ֶות ), which is depicted as consuming יֹאכל his prey. This is the only time such a character is mentioned in the Bible. Thus it is imperative to look to the ancient Near Eastern materials to see if any information might be gleaned that could provide a landscape for understanding this character. It is important to note that no discernible character named the Firstborn of Death has been discovered elsewhere in ancient Near Eastern literature. Yet, since the Firstborn of Death is personified through its eating in v. 13, it is reasonable to look into the Canaanite parallels of Mot, the god of the netherworld.
Sure enough, in Ugaritic texts there are references to Mot swallowing his victims similarly to the Firstborn of Death in Job… Drawing upon the Canaanite imagery of Mot assists in revealing that ב ֵדי עוֹרוֹ does not simply refer to a type of skin ailment or a portion of the skin, but rather, an entire being. (Pg. 141-143)
Notice he is referring to the “firstborn of death” as a character that is mentioned in the Bible. He also is consistent in treating “death” and “the firstborn of death” as proper nouns by capitalizing them numerus times in his dissertation. This particularly is criticizing Scripture with extra-biblical material by jumping to the conclusion of mythology. The passage in question is not referring to “the firstborn of death” as a character, and certainly not a pagan god, but clearly a deadly disease.
Hernández continues his comparisons as he examines the next verse Job 18:14 “He is uprooted from the shelter of his tent, And they parade him before the king of terrors.”
The Israelites—and thereby, the poet of Job—were part of the ancient Near Eastern thought world in which Death was personified, considered to be a voracious entity, and in which there was a ruler over the netherworld. Thus, personified Death in Job, though admittedly could have been derived from the Ugaritic deity Mot, could have also quite naturally emerged within the ancient Israelite milieu. Consequently, there seems to be a clear personification of Death in Job 18, but there is no certain evidence that this persona is borrowed from the Canaanites or alludes to this exact Ugaritic deity who is never called a “king.” Since the apparent epithet “King of Terrors” has yet to be found in the Ugarit corpus of literature, a direct alignment with Mot is uncertain, though possible. It is safe to say, however, that the “King of Terrors” is at least a reference to Death personified, as is Death in the epithet “Firstborn of Death.” It may be that the author personifies Death as the King of Terrors, and the Firstborn of Death functions as Death’s agent in transferring entities into the netherworld through consumption. (Pg. 146-147)
Notice in particular the statement “It is safe to say, however, that the ‘King of Terrors’ is at least a reference to Death personified, as is Death in the epithet ‘Firstborn of Death.’” Hernández is once again resting his hermeneutic on an extra-biblical source to interpret what the passage is saying, and to claim that death is being presented as a character. It is also worthy to note that Dr. Hernández specifically is making this claim of the “poet of Job” and not Bildad. This reveals that he believes it is the author of Job who believes in and presents mythological creatures, not merely a friend of Job who had poor theology.
Near the conclusion of Dr. Hernández’s dissertation he seems to completely reveal his hermeneutic as it gives birth to a conclusion that the Bible is inconsistent. A practical denial of biblical inerrancy is always the result of Higher Criticism and we can clearly see this conclusion in Hernández’s writings.
Bendt Alster notes that, “a critical attitude towards existing values…may be considered an unmistakable sign of ancient Near Eastern ‘wisdom’ literature.” 1050 In Job, there is a full-blown clash between the traditional and the critical—between Job’s friends’ wisdom and what Job presents as a sort of counter-wisdom. Given Alster’s well-founded statement, Job’s extremely critical position on traditional wisdom, voiced through his observations relating to the prosperity of the wicked, might be the essence of wisdom in the book. Perhaps it is through Job’s criticism of the traditional wisdom espoused in Proverbs and in the Torah that the book of Job makes its greatest contribution to the wisdom tradition. The conventional biblical principles concerning retribution that Job criticizes are held in common with several thematically comparable ancient Near Eastern compositions that use similar imagery and rhetoric to address the same issues as Job. Therefore, the idea that Job provides wisdom in presenting the contrary to that which was generally considered to be wise in the Bible and ancient Near East deserves further investigation. (Pg. 288-289)
Hernández praises Job’s contribution of wisdom through his criticism of what is taught in the book of Proverbs and in the Torah. “Perhaps it is through Job’s criticism of the traditional wisdom espoused in Proverbs and in the Torah that the book of Job makes its greatest contribution to the wisdom tradition.”
After examining Dr. Hernández’s dissertation, I believe it is clear he is affirming and applying Higher Criticism to the Bible, but I encourage you to watch both interviews and to read the dissertation so you can come to your own conclusions.
Ultimately, if Dr. Hernández is affirming and applying Higher Criticism, it is a very bad sign for the SBC and American Christianity in general. Higher Criticism attacks the fundamentals of the faith by taking away the only firm foundation we have been given, the Bible!