The “battle for the Bible” wars rage on. They take place in university faculties, seminaries, blog posts, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, in angry altercations in Starbucks . . . ad nauseam. Phrased with less sophistication at a more popular level, many are asking: “Is the bible true?”
Rushing to the defence of the factual reliability, or even inerrancy of the Bible, one finds Norman Geisler, G.K. Beale, Josh McDowell, collections of essays such as Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?, and so many more authors and books besides, more indeed than I could even begin to collate in a footnote.1 On the other hand, there is a well of scholars from various traditions that, in one way or another, want to conceive of the relationship between some of the Bible’s historical referents on the one hand, and its historical factuality on the other, in minimalist terms. Popular names include John Shelby Spong, John Dominic Crossan, and Marcus Borg.2
Importantly, these debates go deep, raising important questions about evangelical identity, the relationship between church and academy, Bible reading methods, the integrity of Christian faith, and so on. Given these high stakes, debates often have a way of generating more heat than light, as seen in at least one online review of Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism (EFCHC).3
Precisely because the subject is so important in contemporary ecclesial and academic discourses, it won’t go away. Big questions are on the table. Of course, many boil the complex set of problems down to the question of whether a scholar believes that the Bible is “inerrant” or not, a word usually understood in terms of its articulation in the Chicago Statement. “Yays” and “nays” are shouted from different corners to answer the question, with equal confidence, marking a substantial ecclesial divide. But if this path is taken, and if the Bible is asserted to be factually inerrant (see Article XII of the Chicago Statement), then it follows that historical-criticism should not be allowed to challenge the historical claims of the Bible. The analytical tools that historical critics deploy, such as source, textual, tradition criticism etc., must therefore be used only 1) for the purpose of defending the inerrancy of the Bible, or 2) for particular constructive projects, such as elaborating the “intent” of the original author, a better contextualisation of a text in its historical particularity, and so on. The evangelical church is thus carefully insulated from the full welter of historical-criticism’s concerns, tasks, and discussions.
Quite a few scholars of a more evangelical bent have thus sought, with increasing frequency over the last twenty years or so, to offer a third, mediating option that resists the zero-sum, either-or trajectory prevalent particularly in North America.4 Scholars such as Peter Enns, John Webster, Kenton Sparks, and John Goldingay could be mentioned, despite their sometimes robustly different perspectives.5
The Hays and Ansberry book can be loosely associated with this mediating “third way”, simply because they seek to move beyond the polarising deadlock. But they are to be included in this set carefully for one key reason: they are clear, in EFCHC, that “[t]his is not a book about inerrancy” (1, italics mine). Rather, they deliberately avoid the reduction of the problems to that issue. They have offered proposals that instead seek to demonstrate a constructive encounter between evangelical faith and historical criticism, even when the arguments of historical-critics challenge the historical or factual veracity of this or that part of the Bible. And when this is done, they contend, “historical criticism need not [be seen to] imperil any of the fundamental dogmatic tenets of Christianity” (5).
This book, then, probes the theological implications of delving into the conclusions of historical-critics, without “pulling the chute” when things get uncomfortable in terms of factual veracity. Certainly they will use historical-critical methods critically, but they will also not back away from the difficult questions historical-criticism can raise. If some have sought to insulate the church from this kind of engagement with historical-criticism—thereby ill-preparing the next generation of evangelicals to negotiate them—they will instead explore the interaction constructively, with a view to elaborating the theological implications of the full gamut of historical-critical claims. In other words, they seek to advance what Hays calls a “critical faith” as well as “faithful criticism”.
This approach, summarised in chapters one and nine, is then demonstrated in a number of case studies in chapters two through to eight. Chapter two explores critical denials of the historicity of Adam, and suggests that hamartiology does not suffer as a result. Chapter three wrestles with the theological implications surrounding doubts about the historicity of the Exodus. Chapter four explores the claim that the Deuteronomic Torah is a “pious fraud” (74). Chapter five considers problems with failed biblical prophecy. In all of these chapters, constructive attempts are made to negotiate the problems with critical integrity and faithfulness to theological orthodoxy.
All of this suggests that EFCHC is a positive book. It seeks to offer resources for evangelicals who are as dissatisfied with polarised, defensive solutions, as well those who would dismiss creedal orthodoxy with an insouciant wave of the hand. But precisely because this book offers a mediating “third way”, it is no surprise that it comes under criticism from very different angels. Likewise, our Syndicate respondents offer varied assessments. Almost all of them find much to praise, though critical issues usually come to the fore in such a forum. To wit, Kenton Sparks wonders if EFCHC has taken seriously enough the claims of historical-criticism, and worries that the authors are still taking an unhelpful apologetic stance. Ashleigh Elser voices a similar complaint. Sarah Whittle appears to be in broad agreement with the Hays and Ansberry project, and seeks to further develop a line of argument in conversation with the chapter devoted to the Deuteronomic Torah (chapter four). Stephen Fowl worries that EFCHC underplays important theological themes, precisely those that would be most helpful for negotiating the matters tackled in the book. David Crump is unpersuaded that “historical-criticism” itself has been sufficiently defined or critiqued.
About the Editors
Christopher M. Hays (DPhil, University of Oxford) is professor of New Testament at the Biblical Seminary of Colombia.
Christopher B. Ansberry (PhD, Wheaton College Graduate School) is lecturer in Old Testament at Oak Hill College in London.
To at least note those I mentioned, see for example Josh McDowell and Dave Sterrett. Is the Bible True . . . Really?: A Dialogue on Skepticism, Evidence, and Truth. Coffee House Chronicles (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2011); Norman L. Geisler and William C. Roach, Defending Inerrancy: Affirming the Accuracy of Scripture for a New Generation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011); G. K. Beale, The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism: Responding to New Challenges to Biblical Authority (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008); James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary, eds., Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?: A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture (Wheaton, IL.: Crossway, 2012).↩
See, for example, John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991); John Dominic Crossan, How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation (New York: HarperCollins, 2015); Marcus J. Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001).↩
Which I won’t dignify with a reference here.↩
For an elaboration of the import of my geographical delimitation, see Michael Bird’s “Inerrancy in International Perspective,” in Five View on Biblical Inerrancy, edited by J. Merrick, Stephen M. Garrett (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 145–173.↩
Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005); John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, Current Issues in Theology, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Kenton L. Sparks, God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008); John Goldingay, Models for Scripture (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1994).↩