In my years teaching Gospels, I have found that the single most frustrating section of the course is section on Historical Criticism. Usually students do not see the point of the discussion and would prefer to leave it to the professionals. My purpose here is to give a light summary and definition of three key critical methods and then assess the value of these methods for the evangelical.
Source Criticism is the study of the use of literary sources by the Gospel writers including the order the in which the gospels were written and the use of hypothetical sources. It seems somewhat obvious that there is a literary relationship between the three synoptic gospels – why does Matthew look a great deal like Mark? Why are there verses that are word-for-word the same in Matthew and Luke?
Form Criticism is the study of the per-literary sources use in the Gospels with an emphasis on the forms which these elements appeared in the “life setting of the early church.” This is more or less a step backwards from Source Criticism since Form critics asked what elements of tradition a writer might have had at his disposal as he created his gospel. This method begins with the assumption that no one wrote down what Jesus said and did for a very long time but people circulated stories of what did and did orally. This units were subject to the sorts of changes that affect any folklore, so the units develop until they were eventually collected into the gospels as we know them. The Form Critic is interested in the earliest possible “form” of a story and determining what situation might have led to the development of the original story.
Redaction Criticism is the study of the way in which the Gospel writers used their sources. The focus here is on how they edited the sources and the individual contributions of the writers to their sources, or better, the communities in which the gospel was developed. A position on Source criticism must be taken: who wrote first, Mark or Matthew? Then a Redaction critic will study how Matthew adapted mark for his (new) church situation.
Can these methods be used by evangelical scholars who have a commitment to inspiration and inerrancy? I believe that they can, but judiciously. First, there is a literary relationship between the three synoptic gospels. To deny that seems to me to be purposely ignoring the obvious because you are afraid of what the explanation might be. Second, if there is a literary relationship, then it is obvious that the gospel writers used at least one other gospel as a source, and may have had other sources as well. Luke states this in his prologue, so I see no trouble in the observation that Matthew used Mark, or Luke used Matthew. I see no problem with Matthew using a sayings document for that matter if such a thing existed. Third, that there were orally transmitted stories about Jesus seems equally obvious. The existence of these stories is one of Luke’s motivations for writing an “orderly account.” And it is a fact that some of the stories grew to legendary and fanciful myths, as we find in the (much later) New Testament Apocrypha.
However, just because we can use these methods does not mean we should. It seems to me that every Bible reader has to have some basic idea of the literary relationship and an understanding that the writers were highly creative, Spirit-lead individuals who sought to explain who Jesus was in a way which impacted their community. The problem comes when we get stuck on Source, Form, or Redaction Criticism to the point that we never actually read the text of the gospel with understanding. These methods usually obscure and distract as much as the help us understand the words of the Gospels.