Theology as Dissonance Reduction: Hinckley G. Mitchell’s conclusions from 1910

“I have long had a suspicion that Christian theology, from the Urgemeinde on, has been an extended exercise in dissonance reduction.”
– Jim-bob

Hinckley G. Mitchell - New York Times, 28 October 1905
Hinckley G. Mitchell – New York Times, 28 October 1905

Soon after pondering Jim-bob’s comment, I was reading an article in The Harvard Theological Review from 1910 which was written by an academic and ordained Methodist minister who was considered a radical liberal in his day, Hinckley G. Mitchell. It seems that Hinckley was deeply challenged by the documentary hypothesis, and realized that it was hard to escape at least some of the theory’s basic conclusions – in particular that the Bible was composed from a number of earlier sources. As much as he wants to quibble with the detail of the documentary hypothesis, he somewhat reluctantly concludes that it contains a great deal of truth, and this is especially so in comparison with the older, although much more straightforward, ‘Moses Done It Hypothesis’. (These days, while we can still agree that the Pentateuch is composed from  multiple sources, it appears that the ‘documentary’ basis is less sound… but times have, of course, changed.) Hinckley’s limited support of ‘the higher criticism’ led to his expulsion from Boston University in 1905, at the hands of some Methodist bishops.

So, what did Hinckley do with his new insight? Does he reject the idea of divine revelation as a facade, and pursue a strictly materialist theory of religious development?

If you answered ‘no’ to that question, you guessed right. Hinckley G. Mitchell concludes his Harvard Theological Review article with this classic – if unintended – expose of the different stages of dissonance reduction:

it can hardly be doubted that the documentary hypothesis, in substantially the prevalent outlines, has come to stay: that is to say, we shall have to accept the theory that the earliest narratives of the Old Testament are composite productions, compiled from various sources in which had been embodied the unfolding conceptions of the Hebrews concerning their past. If I were asked to go more fully into detail, I should say that this theory will finally be modified to this extent, namely, that the critics will have to agree to refer the original of Deuteronomy to a date nearer 700 than 621 B.C., and more clearly to recognize the existence in all the documents of material derived from oral and written sources, older, and in some cases much older, than the documents themselves. These concessions made, the result will be just what it was in the case of the [Darwinian] theory of evolution. At first we rejected and anathematized it, because some who held it ignored God, and we saw no way to reconcile it with faith in his sovereignty; but, when we realized that no law can execute itself, we accepted the new doctrine, and soon found it even more worthy of ‘his eternal power and godhead’ than our previous ideas concerning the origin of the world. So also we shall finally adjust ourselves to the idea of evolution as applied to the Pentateuch and the Hebrew Scriptures generally, and find in it one of our strongest arguments for the divinity of their origin.

– Hinckley G. Mitchell, ‘Has Old Testament Criticism Collapsed?’ The Harvard Theological Review 3.4 (Oct. 1910): 480.

It seems that, while times have changed, they yet remain the same. Apart from the odd and partial exception,  historical criticism over the last two or more centuries has been commandeered for thoroughly religious purposes.


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