Saturday, January 11, 2014

Book Review: Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism

Reading this book review will be challenging–and possibly frustrating for some–because it addresses topics rarely addressed in evangelical circles. Although it does not appear as such, this is a work of apologetics. It aims to defend the results of historical criticism against evangelicals who fear its conclusions.

The book aims to challenge evangelical students, pastors and scholars to consider the implications of historical criticism for their faith. Throughout the volume, the various authors address major issues such as the historicity of Adam & Eve, the historical reliability of the Exodus tradition, pseudopigraphy in the Bible, revised prophecies and the historical Jesus. The chapters seek to address how best to engage and accept the outcomes of critical scholarship, and whether to actively pursue critical scholarship as evangelicals.

The world of academic biblical scholarship has had little evangelical presence or engagement since its beginnings in the 17th century.[1] As such, the field has parameters, assumptions and established findings that are foreign to typical evangelical understandings of the Bible. One of the questions of this volume is how evangelicals can interact with the broader academy within these assumptions.

Typically, evangelicals embraced a modernist perspective to achieve their task. A fine, recent example of this perspective is Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?, edited by James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary.[2] Such works make compelling, although never completely persuasive, arguments based on archaeology and other historical data. They aim to give enough evidence that the biblical writings and beliefs are deemed plausible. Such engagements can be helpful within the evangelical community, but frequently miss the current state of biblical research.[3]

Hays and Ansberry's book discusses topics pertinent to evangelicals not as they are discussed within the evangelical community, but as they are discussed in the academy. In each chapter, the authors summarize the current state of academic discourse on the topic before playing a hypothetical game of "what if.” For instance, in the initial chapter on Adam & Eve, the authors present the textual, cultural and literary reasons why critical scholars frequently deny their historicity. The authors then ask how evangelical theology would need to change if their conclusions were correct. With few exceptions, the contributors of this volume do not offer counterarguments, but assume–for the sake of argument–the validity of the critical work. They then offer a theological assessment of the remains. In the case of Adam & Eve, they conclude that denying their historicity would not nullify the doctrine of original sin, but only the Catholic and Protestant doctrine of original guilt. Although I could quibble with their exegesis of Romans 5 and the inconsistencies of accepting Paul’s historically ignorance on the matter, while holding to his theological faithfulness, such criticisms would miss the point of the chapter. The point is to diminish the fear that many evangelicals have when confronted by historical critical claims.

At the end of the volume, they conclude that one may accept the currently accepted results of historical criticism and remain sufficiently orthodox, even evangelical.[4] There was much that I found interesting in the book. Even when I demurred, I found their discussions worth reading. Let me state clearly that evangelicals must improve their engagement with the issues put forth in this volume with more rigor. Furthermore, evangelicals must stop ostracizing those who engage them at all.[5]

Unfortunately, I do not believe the volume’s aim is accomplished. In regards to the discussion of prophecy, the authors suggest that “just as a potter can change the design of his pot even after beginning to shape it, so also God can act in a manner different from what he had foretold, should people’s behavior so incline him.”[6] The merits of whether or not open theism is evangelical can be debated elsewhere, for the matter here is much more preliminary–the contributors of this volume have a different understanding of the nature of the Bible than most within evangelicalism. The issue of God stating one thing and doing another underlies much of this volume. A belief that God or Scripture can say one thing and something else come about seems a bridge too far for evangelical belief.

Throughout the volume, the contributors presuppose that the Bible saying something historically incorrect does not hinder it’s theological truth. The examples throughout the volume are many–Paul and Jesus’s incorrect assessment of Adam & Eve’s existence, failed prophecies being reimagined at later times, the author of Act’s fabricating portions of Paul’s historical narrative, attributions of authorship being incorrect, etc. The acceptance of these conclusions would fundamentally alter how most evangelicals, from the pew to academia, relate to the Bible.

We all agree that Scripture is divine, yet accommodated through the languages, styles, and personalities of its human authors. From these articles, it would seem that they disagree that divine speech is contained in the words of Scripture.[7] We agree that these words should be understood within its historical-linguistic context, but the words themselves remain the divine message for each generation.

Instead, it seems that the contributors to this volume view the Bible as an artifact of history that has an underlying message, which is divinely inspired. To find the message, the text should be critically stripped of its cultural assumptions and inadequacies so that it may be appropriated through the ongoing work of the Spirit to each generation. To give an example, on this view the existence of an historical Exodus does not matter as long as the encultured memory of such an event shapes Israel theologically–even if this memory is a creation of latter generations and fictionally represented as historical in the pages of Scripture. On this view, the Holy Spirit may still use this message to speak to latter generations and shape them for understanding Jesus as bringing a new Exodus.

This differs rather extensively from the traditional evangelical message, which states that God has worked in historical events–the pinnacle being the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus–and that the Bible provides God’s divine commentary on the events. Can these events be proven historically beyond any shadow of doubt? Of course not, but evangelicals have affirmed the self-authenticating nature of Scripture by the work of the Spirit as sufficient for providing confidence in its words. This seems to have been Jesus’s understanding of Scripture, and as a fellow evangelical my presuppositions concerning Scripture begin there.[8]

The primary problem for traditional evangelicals reading this volume will not begin with historical method or appropriation of conclusions, but with a presuppositional understanding of the inspiration of Scripture. If evangelical belief maintains that the very words of Scripture are inspired, then this volume will not prove successful in its aims.

I frankly admit that Old Testament apologetics are difficult in the face of the current state of historical criticism. The types of arguments made in regards to the New Testament simply do not work for the Old Testament. Issues such as textual criticism, canon formation, authorship and prophetic fulfillment–to name but a few–are far more difficult in regards to the Old Testament than the New Testament for a host of factors. As such, I applaud the contributors to this volume for their efforts in attempting to address directly these issues as they stand in current research. Even if I do not follow them in their conclusions because of my underlying presuppositions, I pray that their volume will open a fresh dialogue within the community of those who call themselves evangelical.


Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer G. Kyle Essary served as a church planter in Asia from 2006-2013, and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in Old Testament studies in order to return to Asia and better teach how the Old Testament points to Jesus.


[1] There are exceptions of course, but on the whole the academic discourse has been moved forward through the work of mainline, Catholic and unbelieving scholars. Although some evangelicals have been excluded from the conversation, there has also been a history of willful disengagement and creation of evangelical counterparts that seek academic rigor, but require evangelical belief for membership.

[2] Mary Lou has recently written a good review of the book for this site: http://apologetics315.com/2013/11/book-review-do-historical-matters.html

[3] An example would be discussions of authorship for OT books. Studies in the ANE continue to show that questions such as “Who is the author of this book?” are anachronistic since the concept of author and book that we bring to the text arose in later points of history than the composition of these documents. An example of the shift in thinking can be found in the first half of Karel van der Toorn’s Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. Although his presuppositions are in direct opposition to Christian thinking, some of his points on the nature of ancient texts are useful.

[4] The meaning of evangelical would need to be revised, as even the Bebbington quadrilateral may not fit the meaning of evangelical presented in this volume. Historically, evangelical commitment also entails commitment to inerrancy, which this volume would deny.

[5] The case of Bruce Waltke–one of evangelicalism’s finest Old Testament scholars of the past fifty years–serves as a glaring example of someone ostracized by certain quarters for even addressing certain difficult issues.

[6] Kindle edition, loc. 2075.

[7] See for instance Article VI of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which states, “We affirm that the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration.”

[8] See John Wenham’s excellent book Christ and the Bible for an analysis of Jesus’s handling of Scripture.

3 comments :

G. Kyle Essary said...

I'm commenting so that I'll be notified if anyone comments in the future.

Marvin Torgeson said...

There is nothing better suited to this skeptical generation than the satanic idea of "if thou". If thou art a scholar then cast thyself down from the belief in God's word and you will prove your devotion to scholarship". It seems many follow this temptation and jump off into unbelief daring the rest of Christianity to follow their sinful example. In response, you hear their insidious words "poor trifler of scripture, he didnt know that none of it was really to be trusted".

Historical critical translates into "we will show by history that God's word is dubious at best and cannot be counted upon to uphold the weight evangelicals place upon it".

I say. Thanks for nothing, as an ex atheist I had this kind of faith, I believed God's word to be deficient, insufficient and ancient stories that were irrelevant to modern man. The faith of these scholars and my past atheism are equivalent.

G. Kyle Essary said...

Marvin,
Thanks for your comment. There is little doubt that many a young scholar is tempted to compromise their biblical conviction in order to gain praise from those in academia. The temptation to compromise in order to be accepted is not confined to biblical studies by any means though.

I think there is an important distinction that needs to be made between bring rightly critical of our interpretations of God's word, and being critical of God's word. God's word is inerrant and sufficient, but those of us who read it are sinfully prone to error and insufficient in our abilities to constantly exegete it. Thus, we must be critical of how we interpret the text, but never compromise that an inerrant truth lies behind a proper interpretation.

As a confessional Baptist, I hold that the very words of Scripture are inspired, but I must constantly work to understand those words more thoroughly and "rightly divide the word of truth" through faithful interpretation. Such thoroughness demands study the languages, consideration of the culture, analysis of intertextual witness and overall biblical theology, etc. Thus, I must hold my particular interpretations as provisional in nature, while maintaining the authority of the text to which the Spirit bears witness.

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