Symposium Introduction

Hays

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.

Panelists

Kenton Sparks

Ashleigh Elser

Sarah Whittle

Stephen Fowl

David Crump

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.


  1. 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).

  2. 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).

  3. Which I won’t dignify with a reference here.

  4. 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.

  5. 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).

Kenton Sparks

Response

Welcome to the Conversation

The Emergence of Historically Competent Evangelical Scholarship

I

THE PREVIOUS DECADE FEATURED a renewed and robust debate within our tradition about how evangelical theology should relate to modern biblical studies. Books from the “progressive” side of the debate included those by Noll, Marshall, Enns, McGowan, and Sparks.1 Two of these focused especially on biblical criticism. The first was by Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation, and the second was God’s Word and Human Words, written by yours truly. Pete’s book was excellent. As for my contribution, I would not make any grand claims about it. The book had its strengths and weaknesses, and if I wrote it today I would frame the discussion differently and alter my tack on certain issues.2 When one compares my book with that of Enns, the most obvious similarity is our shared commitment to the full humanity of Scripture. God’s book is historically and culturally contingent just like other books written by human beings. That is the main point. And if we take this point seriously, the result is a different way of construing biblical interpretation and of the theological reflection that flows from it.

Enns and I had somewhat different objectives, however. Enns wanted to help evangelicals read the Bible more responsibly. While I certainly shared this concern, I was also interested in creating some theological “elbow room” for evangelicals who wanted to participate more seriously in the larger guild of biblical scholarship. It is difficult to be a good scholar if one is committed to (or must live within the bounds of) the doctrine of inerrancy and the things that naturally come with it. Biological evolution and critical judgments about the Bible have been matters of “public knowledge” for quite a while. This public knowledge should be assumed rather than resisted by responsible evangelical scholarship.

The book under review, edited by Hays and Ansberry, is written by a cadre of younger scholars and so reflects a natural extension of the work done by Enns and Sparks. The scholars who’ve contributed to it—ten in all—attempt in each essay to work out some version of “believing criticism,” which integrates responsible, historically grounded readings of the Bible with a theological commitment to its status as God’s word. Candid, open, frank, and honest, the essays are an authentic departure from the older, defensive style of evangelicals in the last generation and, though the older approach is implicitly criticized, the essays reflects a deep respect for the evangelical tradition and for Scripture. Before I say anything else about the book, I want to commend the editors and contributors for their solid grasp of the scholarship, their open-minded theological reflection, and especially for their social courage. I will say more about this last point at the conclusion of my review.

I’ve suggested that Hays/Ansberry reflects a kind of “next step” on the heels of work done by evangelicals during the last decade. That a group of young evangelical scholars should stake out any public position in favor of the “historical criticism” is, so far as I recall, unprecedented within the history of evangelical scholarship. It is a welcomed development. Nevertheless, there is much in this book that harks back to the older approaches. Most of the authors are still reflexively protective of the human authors of Scripture, so that “inerrancy” and “infallibility,” while seldom used as words, implicitly shape the discussions. The book is framed by introductory and concluding essays (chs. 1 and 9), between which a series of articles tackle the traditional “flashpoints” of conflict between evangelical theology and historical criticism. My review focuses primarily on these “flashpoint” essays (chs. 2–8).

II

The first of the essays, “Adam and the Fall” (ch. 2), more or less sets the pattern for those to follow. The authors, Hays and Herring, assert that Adam was not a literal human individual and then labor to explain how Christian orthodoxy can subsist without this primal forefather. They admit that the doctrines of original sin and guilt necessarily fall with Adam but tell us that these doctrines are in fact quite foreign to both Genesis itself and to Paul’s later reflections on Adam in Romans 5 (to which I say, “Bravo!”). Now Hays and Herring are not naïve about the potential implications. They certainly realize that Paul assumed wrongly that Adam was an historical person, but for this they have an answer: “We do not panic that the Bible is ‘untrue’ because we appreciate that, even though the authors articulate these assumptions, the point of their writing is not to affirm, endorse or propagate these assumptions” (42). In other words, Paul did not affirm or propagate a belief in the historical Adam; he merely assumed this as a matter of Jewish tradition. Readers may recognize this as a very common argument in the repertoire of conservative biblical scholarship.

I must admit, I’m surprised to see this argument in such a progressive essay. Who among us would say that the meaning and significance of our own verbal discourse should be abstracted from our assumptions? This is a strange way to read any text, and a strange way to read the Bible. Far better that we admit it: Early Jews and Christians, and countless others after them, thought that Adam and Eve were literal individuals . . . and they were wrong. Scripture’s authority is not grounded in inerrant human authors. It is grounded in the God’s authority, by whom the errant, imperfect authors of Scripture were called as literary witnesses.

Chapter 3, “The Exodus,” is even more “traditional” it terms of its evangelical stance. While Ansberry admits quite openly that evidence for the exodus is lacking and that the historical event, whatever it may have been, was more modest than described in the Bible, he insists the something historical must lie at the core of the tradition. He writes: “If Yahweh never intervened on Israel’s behalf to deliver her from Egypt, then the nation’s identity as the elect people of God is deprived of its foundation . . . Thus, it is not entirely sufficient to claim that the exodus narrative paints an ahistorical yet theologically accurate portrait of Yahweh’s character and Israel’s identity.” This is essentially the same stance taken by traditional inerrantists like James Hoffmeier. If the exodus is not historical, biblical authority collapses with it.

Although I would agree for historical reasons that something of substance probably stands behind the exodus tradition, I cannot agree with the theological assertion that, in the case of the exodus, our faith hangs in the historical balance. Let us suppose (for the sake of discussion) that the early Israelites, as they began to understand their special relationship with Yahweh, expressed an understanding of this relationship by composing fictional narratives about an exodus. Would Israel in this case be any less “elect” than if the exodus actually happened in space and time? I’d say not. In fact, obviously not. That Ansberry does not entertain this option suggests that he still holds, however tenuously, to the old evangelical belief that biblical viewpoints that are expressed in historical narrative necessarily subsist in and depend on events that roughly mirror the narrative. Here is my question: Given that Ansberry realizes clearly there is a significant gap between the narrative claims of Exodus and the actual events, what’s the point of dogmatically asserting that an historical exodus is foundational for Christian theology? In my opinion we should avoid, as much as possible, making any explicit or implicit demand that confessing Christians should believe in historical events for which we’ve little or nothing of the expected evidence.

As I see it, Ansberry’s article with Hwang (ch. 4) is theologically more progressive. In an essay entitled “No Covenant Before the Exile? The Deuteronomic Torah and Israel’s Covenant Theology,” the authors accept as a matter of apparent fact that Moses did not write Deuteronomy. Given that Deuteronomy presents itself quite explicitly as the work of Moses, the authors ask: “Can a fraudulent, pseudepigraphic document function as a reliable repository of theological truth? From a modern perspective, this question has usually been answered in the negative. But, from an ancient perspective, things were not so simple.”

While Ansberry and Hwang clearly accept the standard critical viewpoint, their rhetoric from this point forward is decidedly traditional. Rather than admit that ancient authors often claimed to be someone they weren’t in order to gain the trust of readers, Ansberry and Wang instead argue that Deuteronomy represents an acceptable, legitimate case of pseudephigrapha. Their claim is grounded in the fact that authorship was in antiquity conceived of quite differently from what obtains in our own day, in a way that supposedly makes the attribution of Deuteronomy to Moses “traditional” rather than literal. The obvious result (though this is not spelled out) is that the human authors and editors of Deuteronomy were people of integrity rather than literary charlatans. One could easily describe this kind of pseudonymous composition as inerrant.

While the conclusions are not impossible, I see at least two significant problems in their thesis. First, although the ancients certainly viewed authorship through lenses different from our own (notice how many ancient authors chose to remain anonymous), the lenses did not legitimize false claims of authorship as a matter of course. In antiquity as in our own day, “pious frauds” were deemed legitimate by some (especially those who wrote them) and not by others (especially those who disagreed). Secondly, and more to the point, the biblical account of the discovery of the Josiah’s law book, a book that either was or included Deuteronomy, must have been a “sham” of some sort. Nothing in either the story itself (2 Kgs 22) or in the larger written history of Israel suggests that anyone had ever laid an eye on Deuteronomy before the late Judean monarchy. How can we believe that the book was lost in the days of the Judges (2 Kgs 23:22), before the temple was built, only to resurface centuries later as a long-lost book in the temple archives? This scenario stretches our credulity. Far more likely, given similar ancient scenarios (see Römer), is that the authors of Deuteronomy wrote the book during or not long before Josiah’s reign and passed it off as the words of Israel’s ancient lawgiver, Moses.3 We can assume that the authors found this literary move acceptable, but this would not mean that it was acceptable in every ancient point of view . . . nor in God’s point of view. We must remember always that what humans intend as evil remains evil, even if God intends it for good (Gen 50:20). The pious ruse that produced Deuteronomy presents us with an ethical conundrum rather than a fully legitimate literary strategy. I suspect that Ansberry and Hwang don’t recognize this because they are committed in some way to the inerrancy or infallibility of Scripture’s human authors.

Chapter 5, “Problems with Prophecy,” is the same story with a different tune. Here the authors (Warhurst, Tarrer, and Hays) tackle the age-old problem of unfulfilled prophecy. The poster children here are Daniel, who predicted that the eschaton would arrive in the days of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (second century BCE), and Ezekiel, who predicted that Tyre would be destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, never to rise again. As we all know, Daniel got it wrong. And Ezekiel himself admitted that the prophecy failed, as any modern traveler can confirm with a visit to the still thriving city of Tyre. But let us set these problems to one side for the time being. One biblical answer to this problem, prominent in the books of Joel and Jonah, is that God sometimes delays or cancels the fulfillment of his prophetic word. The authors of this article are quite warm to this theology and from it reason that “prophecy is concerned primarily with the broader outworking of God’s will” and thus may be fulfilled “in terms different, more expansive, more wonderful than what was revealed” (100). The optimism of the Warhurst, Tarrer, and Hays is fueled by Ezekiel’s aforementioned admission that his prophecy had failed, an authentic and transparent confession that the authors take as an endorsement for delayed or unfulfilled prophecies. So Ezekiel is “right,” even as he is “wrong.” That’s the idea.

But surely one will ask: Does an admission of failure mean that one has not failed? I don’t see how that can be right. If Ezekiel’s confession means anything theologically, it would be that God does his work through prophets who sometimes fail rather than through perfect prophets. What message could be more encouraging for those engaged in serving Jesus? I’m not sure why the essay’s authors do not consider this option, but they seem transfixed at one point with Deuteronomy’s rule for prophetic authenticity, namely, that the predictions of true prophets are always fulfilled. I will simply say that the rigid interpretation of prophecy that Warhurst, Tarrer, and Hays wish to overcome is precisely the view of Deuteronomy, so they’re unwittingly laboring against themselves. Once inerrancy is rejected, we are no longer forced to harmonize Deuteronomy’s law with Ezekiel’s confession. No human is perfect, prophet or otherwise. That’s just the way it is.

Chapter 6, “Pseudepigraphy and the Canon,” is not so different from chapter 4, which addressed the pseudonymous character of Deuteronomy. In this case the net is spread more broadly and addresses the issue as it pertains to the Pentateuch, Isaiah, John’s gospel, and Paul’s disputed letters. As in chapter 4, the authors (Ansberry, Strine, Klink, and Lincicum) admit that pseudonymous literature is found in the Bible and argue that the ostensible theological difficulties can be overcome. While I agree wholeheartedly on both counts, several claims made in the article are either grounded in or defend misguided notions of biblical inerrancy and infallibility.

First, an effort is made (in the case of the Pentateuch) to shift the locus of authority from the human authors of Scripture to the text itself and also to the Holy Spirit. The appeal of this approach is that we can ignore (I assume) any sticky questions about the ostensible human authors of the Bible. Here is how Ansberry et al. expressed it: “If Israelite literature is an expression of a collective tradition, it appears that the content of the material—rather than the ‘author’—constitutes the locus of authority. Put theologically, the work of the Holy Spirit in the composition and canonization of the text serves as the locus of authority, not the putative author(s)” (130–31).

There is sophistication here, but the claims strike me as conceptually muddled. To say that the locus of authority is “the content of the material” and also the “Holy Spirit,” as if the Spirit and text are two sides of the same coin, cannot be right. The content is human discourse and, even if inspired by the Holy Spirit, reflects the thoughts and ideas from particular human authors and editors, however anonymous, rather than the words of an elusive and many splendored “community.” While I agree that in the end we want to hear what the Spirit is saying, it seems to me that we must first attend to and hear something from the human authors. One can of course dispense with these human authors, and this is sometimes done in certain kinds of postmodern interpretation, but the result has nothing to do with historically sensitive readings of Scripture. We end up instead with an epiphenomenal “spirit word” that uses the old human discourse to occasion some other message for modern readers of the text. In this scenario, who would care what ancient Israelite theologians thought and believed? Certainly Ansberry et al. do not intend this outcome, but it is a natural outcome if one takes the human authors out of the picture.

Secondly, the authors claim that the “problem” of biblical pseudonymity is easily resolved if evangelicals will allow the phenomena of Scripture itself, rather than our preconceived notions about it, to dictate our theology of Scripture. They expressed this noble idea this way: “To claim that pseudepigraphy is irreconcilable with infallibility can arguably only result in subjecting Scripture to our own autonomous standard of perfection, instead of seeking the perfection Scripture has in a historically a posteriori act of discipleship.”

I agree wholeheartedly. We should discern the nature of Scripture from what God has actually given us rather than insist that God’s book must be of a certain sort. But Ansberry et al. seem to have missed their own point here. Precisely because Scripture includes pseudonymous literature, it reveals itself to be something other than the infallible word that Ansberry believes it to be. So, while the historical critical stance of the essay is far more open than is common within evangelical scholarship, the essay retains that old tendency to tell God what Scripture must be . . . namely, inerrant or infallible.

Third, in a posture that I find problematic, the authors seem willing to allow for theological diversity in Scripture so long as it doesn’t go too far (whatever that means). Notice how they respond to potential theological differences between Paul and the pseudonymous letters written in his name: “Ultimately, it may be fair to draw a distinction between the historical Paul and the canonical Paul, but to allow this distinction to yawn into an ugly ditch can only mean a disobedient refusal to hear the full testimony of Scripture from its canonical form; the potentially idolatrous enthusiasm for the early must not usurp the receptive posture necessary to receive the witness of the full canonical Paul.”

This is strong, ominous language, akin to what we’ve come to expect from conservative fundamentalism. To be honest, it does not match the tone of the rest of the essay, nor does it work as a matter of theology. I would ask: At what point do the obvious differences between Paul and “Paul” become an “ugly ditch”? Consider gender equality, for instance. Here the differences between Paul and pseudo-Paul are pretty obvious. Whereas Paul was an advocate for equality (e.g., Gal 3:28), the author(s) of the Pastoral Epistles, and also the editor who added 1 Cor 14:34–35 to Paul’s letter, were much less supportive.4 I would side with Paul over pseudo-Paul on this issue. Does this constitute on my part a “disobedient refusal to hear the full testimony of Scripture?” I don’t see how that follows from my straightforward exegetical observations. As for the threat of “an idolatrous enthusiasm for the early,” this would only be true if one always sides with Paul over pseudo-Paul. In my own case, I’d say the Pastorals have a clearer understanding of the delayed Parousia and a concomitantly better grasp of the institutional needs of the faith than Paul did.

Why do the authors take this cautious stance on the Pauline corpus? My sense is that Ansberry et al. are looking for a way to “rein in” the centripetal effects of historical criticism. They will tolerate theological differences so long as the extremes are avoided. While I understand the evangelical sentiments here, alas, that’s not how it works. The biblical authors and editors were different people from different times and places. They take us where they take us, and we must weigh out the voices, sometimes harmonious and sometimes discordant, in our effort to hear what the Spirit is finally saying to the churches.

Chapter 7 explores the long-standing debates about “the historical Jesus.” The authors, Daling and Hays, are utterly transparent in their discussion of some hotly debated issues, especially the historicity of the virgin birth and resurrection. Affirming strongly the former, they nonetheless admit the historical challenges of the virgin birth. Why are the earliest witnesses to the gospel, Paul and Mark, apparently unaware of this miraculous conception, and why do our earliest testimonies to this miracle, in Matthew and Luke, differ so much in the details of their birth narratives? One could reason from this evidence that the virgin birth was a product of theological reflection rather than historical testimony, just as later theological reflection resulted in an Immaculate Conception of Mary. To put this in the authors’ own words: “Within the framework of historical-critical inquiry, the account of the virgin birth does not seem as likely to be a fact of history as, for example, the claims that Jesus was an exorcist or a teacher” (171). Again, the authors affirm and suggest no other theological option to the virgin birth. But they are clearly up for the discussion, which is refreshing when we consider this: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of our favorite evangelical heros, very much doubted that Mary was a virgin.5 Perhaps faith in and obedience to Christ are possible even among the “heretics.” I’ll return to this theme directly.

While Daling and Hays give only an inch (and hardly that) on the virgin birth, they give more slack on the resurrection, at least as traditionally construed among evangelicals. At issue are those scholars who interpret the postmortem meetings of Jesus with his disciples as “objective visions” rather than tangible, physical encounters. Advocates of this view take an agnostic view of the empty tomb but believe that God indeed provided the disciples with impressions of their resurrected Lord. The view should be distinguished carefully from “subjective visions” that are initiated by the human mind rather than God. Daling and Hays reject outright the subjective vision position and ultimately reject the objective vision theory, but in the end they finally accept the latter as a legitimate (if mistaken) expression of orthodoxy. They write: “. . . advocates of an ‘objective vision’ remain within the stream of orthodox Christian tradition, construed in its broadest terms. That bare assertion, that whatever the disciples witnessed, they did so because God had acted decisively towards the crucified Jesus, is just enough to remain orthodox. It may be the edge of a precipice between hope and heresy, and it provides little by way of historical margins to buttress the faith, but it’s enough” (179).

I applaud the inclusive spirit and intellectual openness reflected in this stance but would express it differently. If orthodoxy has affirmed anything consistently, it is that Jesus Christ physically resurrected and left behind an empty tomb. When Daling and Hays include the advocates of “objective vision” among the orthodox, it seems to me that they’re actually promoting a shift in either the standards of orthodoxy or in our application of the creedal standards. This strikes me as obvious. But perhaps this issue is (or should be) beside the point.

Orthodoxy and heresy are often employed as ecclesial and soteriological ciphers, as if a dissenting view on said issue should land one outside of the church and, eventually, in hell. What if this is the wrong theological game to play? What if loving God and neighbor is much more important as a standard of Christian commitment than particular doctrinal affirmations? What if “heretical” Samaritans are in a much better place with God than the “orthodox” priests and Levites who ignore their neighbor in need? What if cooperation and fellowship should be grounded in love and friendship rather than theological ratiocination? What if God’s grace extends much further than the “visible church”? The point is not that discursive theology and doctrinal affirmation are unimportant. Rational reflection helps us better distinguish ethical success from failure and theology that promotes love from what hinders it. But in the inevitable dialectic between rational reflection and lived engagement, affection and engagement provide better footing for theological reflection than the other way around. Abstract intellectual games centered on categories like orthodoxy and heresy are quite foreign to the teachings and ministry of Jesus.

The final “flashpoint” chapter (ch. 8) addresses the perennial question of how we should understand the “Paul of Acts” in relation to Paul as depicted in his own letters. As in the previous essays, Kuecker and Liebengood are prepared to admit that critical scholars are at least partly right. The lives of Paul offered in the two strands of tradition do not cohere rigidly in terms of either biography or theology. Whether the gap between these is large or small depends, they tell us, on one’s interpretative assumptions rather than on the texts themselves. As they see it, much that we perceive as different in the two accounts is explained by generic considerations. Paul wrote letters for fairly specific occasions whereas the author of Acts wrote history for a general audience. Contextual conditions confronting the two authors were also different given that Acts was written several decades after Paul’s letters. For these reasons and others, Kuecker and Liebengood suggest that evangelicals should lower their expectation for agreement in the sources and embrace instead an “acceptable dissonance” in them (201). The question is not, they tell us, whether the two Paul’s are in all respects alike. The question is whether “Luke’s Paul and the Paul of the epistles bear witness to the same Messiah Jesus who pours out the Spirit and makes known the Father” (202, italics original).

Of course I agree with this last sentiment. Paul and the author of Acts were on the same team as followers of Jesus and evangelists among the gentiles. The author of Acts would not have written of Paul were things otherwise. But as Kuecker/Liebengood insinuate with their appeal for an “acceptable dissonance,” being on the same team does not mean that Acts and Paul agreed on all points. Consider how evangelicals in our own day portray Bonhoeffer and C. S. Lewis as members of their guild.6 Do they not realize that Bonhoeffer was a theological liberal, and that Lewis believed in evolution, denied inerrancy, viewed Joshua’s conquest as evil genocide, and included non-Christians among those to be saved?7 I’d suggest that similar gaps are visible when we compare Paul with “Acts Paul.” Acts has appropriated Paul as a spokesperson for its theological agendas. Did the author of Acts realize that his Paul had different views of natural theology, the Jewish law, Christology and eschatology from the real Paul? Hard to say. But the differences are obvious.

As we open the door to historical and theological diversity in the Bible—which, in my opinion, is what every thoughtful reader of Scripture should do—we must realize that the resulting dissonance cannot be controlled in a way that makes it “acceptable” rather than “unacceptable.” What could be more dissonant than Joshua’s command to kill Canaan’s children “without mercy” and the command of Jesus to love our enemies? We must accept these dissonant extremes, for they are factual realities and, more importantly, reflect the human story. Each of us harbors within us a dissonant capacity for good and ill, such as incited Luther (another evangelical hero) to write “A Mighty Fortress” and also to pen his agenda for persecuting and killing Jews. The essay of Kuecke and Liebengood, like most in this collection, criticizes but still stands within a tradition that’s afraid to face the whole truth about Holy Scripture . . . that whatever we make of its divine origins, it is a thoroughly human book.

III

I wrote God’s Word in Human Words to advance our evangelical engagement with modern biblical studies. While I’ve expressed some theological and philosophical disagreements with the authors and editors of Hays/Ansberry, it’s fair to say that their book manages to provide plenty of theological space for this broader engagement. Adam was not a literal individual. Moses did not write the Pentateuch. Isaiah was written by more than one prophet. Daniel’s prophecies are Hellenistic-era compositions. Some of “Paul’s letters” were not written by Paul. Traditional doctrines of the virgin birth and resurrection are fair game for discussion and, to an extent, for revision. Wow! How far we’ve come! Healthy academic theology must be ready to embrace the facts of “public knowledge” and to openly discuss any and all issues. In these respects, Hays/Ansberry represents the new face of evangelical biblical scholarship. I can only say “thank you” to the young scholars who’ve contributed to this book. I’d only suggest that, generally speaking, they’re still moored to some of the evangelical assumptions that have historically hindered mature theological reflection.

I mentioned at the outset that the authors and editors should be commended for their social courage. Evangelicals are notoriously poor managers of theological debate and dissent. “Heretics” have no rights, and love is sacrificed readily in the name of “doctrinal purity” . . . as if love is not itself the very foundation of doctrine. My prayer is that these young scholars, who’ve written from a deep respect for God, Scripture, and the evangelical tradition, will be treated well by the evangelical family and the institutions in which they serve.

 


  1. Mark Noll, Between Faith and Criticism: Evangelicals, Scholarship, and the Bible in America, 2nd ed. (Vancouver, BC: Regent College Publishing, 2004); idem., Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011); I. Howard Marshall, Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004); Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005); A. T. B. McGowan, The Divine Spiration of Scripture: Challenging Evangelical Perspectives (Nottingham: Apollos, 2007); Kenton L. Sparks, God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008).

  2. See Kenton L. Sparks, Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).

  3. Thomas C. Römer, “Transformations in Deuteronomistic and Biblical Historiography: On ‘Book-Finding’ and Other Literary Strategies,” ZAW 109 (1997) 1-11.

  4. On 1 Cor 14:34–35, see Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 699–708.

  5. Andreas Pangritz, Karl Barth in the Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 99–114.

  6. Note that the 2010 Evangelical Christian Publishers Association “Book of the Year” award was given to Eric Metaxus for Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy : A Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010). Respecting Lewis, see the open embrace he’s given on the Gospel Coalition’s website at http:/C:/dev/home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html/syndicatenetwork.com4.thegospelcoalition.org/article/9-things-you-should-know-about-c-s-lewis.

  7. For Lewis on inerrancy and Joshua’s conquest, see John Beversluis, C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion, Rev. ed. (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2007), 295–96.

  • Hays-Ansberry

    Reply

    Response to Kenton Sparks

    General Introduction

    Aristotle talked a lot about friendship. Friendship is valuable, he observed. Friends love one another. Friends listen to one another. Friends correct one another. The biblical witness values friendship also, as do the present authors. But it’s not for reasons of sentimentality that we open our responses with this theme, but because friendship provides an appropriate metaphor for conceptualizing an ethics of reading.

    Authors write to a particular audience, to an implied reader—that is, to a friend. Readers assume the subject position of the implied reader. They are invited into a relationship, into a friendship. They can decline the invitation; or they can enter into this relationship and accept the author’s work on its own terms and in accordance with its agenda.

    The reviews of Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism within this symposium are the work of friends. Our friends’ rebuke, correction, and criticism has identified significant issues within the broader discussion and illuminated points of tension between historical-critical forms of investigation and theological commitments. They have sharpened the conversation, identifying methodological, philosophical, and theological issues related to the constituent chapters of the book in general and the intersection of historical criticism and theological reflection in particular. For this, we are thankful.

    There were some points at which some of our friends may have listened with less care than we had hoped, perhaps not making the effort to engage the volume on its own terms. But even when people find themselves talking past one another, good friends will have the patience to persist in making themselves heard and also to change the topic of the conversation to something that matters to the other person. So in what follows, we’ll do a bit of explaining “Well, that’s not quite what we said,” complemented with “OK, let’s talk about that too.” Our hope in writing Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism (henceforth EFCHC) was to generate a robust conversation, and we are delighted that Syndicate Theology has facilitated such a dialogue.

    * * *

     One thing I very much appreciated about Prof. Sparks’ essay is that it exemplifies the way in which friends need not be either completely “for” or “against” a given piece of work (sycophantically affirmative or scathingly hostile), but can instead appreciate things that seem valuable while strongly critiquing things that seem problematic. However obvious this ought to be in intellectual circles, the polarization we are witnessing within evangelicalism indicates that such nuance and fraternity is lacking. For that reason, we are very grateful for Sparks’ strong words of affirmation and for his candor about his disagreements. This review, however critical at certain points, felt like a review from a friend.

    Prof. Sparks begins by giving a bit of the bibliographic backstory on how progressive twenty-first-century evangelicals have proposed to relate to modern biblical studies. He mentions works by himself, Enns, McGowan, Marshall, and Noll and quite rightly locates EFCHC downstream of that conversation. For my part, I (Hays) did intentionally construct this book in order to ask a complementary set of questions to those being asked by Sparks and Enns; the latter scholars focused especially on the issues like how to think of the doctrine of Scripture in light of things like historical criticism, while EFCHC focuses on how to think about all sorts of other doctrines in light of historical criticism, explicitly sidestepping the doctrine of Scripture. One reason for that is because I saw no need to recreate the wheel; another reason is because, however much I warmed to Sparks’ and Enns’ works, I did not want to limit my readership exclusively to those who share that paradigm (and because not all the collaborators of the book share that paradigm). We really do want to see inerrantist evangelicals engaging more robustly with historical criticism, and while we understand why Sparks thinks such an engagement will necessarily be hamstrung, we remain more optimistic.

    Throughout Sparks’ evaluation of the “flashpoints” of conflict between evangelical faith and historical criticism (the focus of the central section of EFCHC), he explores alternative ways to dissipate the theological vapors that threaten to combust and consume a proper appreciation of Scripture and an appropriate use of historical criticism. These alternative solutions broaden the discussion, enrich theological reflection on the individual issues, and chart viable avenues that one might pursue to navigate historical-critical and dogmatic bumps in the road. For that, we are delighted, since one of our big goals in EFCHC was to contribute to the generation of more creative and productive ways for engaging with the doctrinal challenges sometimes presented by critical conclusions.1

    At certain points, however, Prof. Sparks’ suggestions are presented as alternatives to an inaccurate construal of the arguments delineated in the constituent chapters, and we are sure he won’t mind if we push back a bit. Take the chapter devoted to the exodus, for example. In the light of his summary of the basic thrust of the piece, he disagrees “with the theological assertion that, in the case of the exodus, our faith hangs in the historical balance.” The problem is that the chapter agrees with his assessment. It asserts that Christian orthodoxy is indeed able to withstand an ahistorical exodus; and it acknowledges that the historicity of the exodus is not the foundation stone of Christian belief. Our faith does not hang in the historical balance. The issue is not faith qua the doctrines of the church. The issue is hope.

    The chapter suggests that, if God did not achieve some sort of deliverance of his people from Egypt, if the occurrence-character of the event is eliminated, then this weakens the foundation of Israel’s identity and future hope. As Prof. Sparks suggests, Israel would not be any less “elect” if the exodus account is a conflation of fictional narratives that reflect the people’s understanding of their special relationship with Yahweh. Israel’s election would remain; but the most dramatic historical basis of that election would be eliminated. The events recounted in these fictional narratives—events that are reiterated and recast in Israel’s creedal faith and cultic performance—would possess the power to shape the community’s identity and nurture hope. But the fact that none of those events occurred in space and time would also weaken their normative claims and limit the hope they convey. Hope may remain; but the basis of this hope would be weakened.

    As the chapter indicates, this has implications for the Christian hope. Of course, the Christian hope does not rest on a historical exodus. It rests on God’s redemptive action in Christ. The occurrence-character of this redemptive action is the very basis of Christian faith and hope. If the exodus is removed from the equation, the Christian hope remains. But its removal eliminates a piece from the larger puzzle, a demonstration of divine deliverance that serves as a basis of future hope. This consequence may not be life-threatening for Christian orthodoxy or doctrine. By focusing on the matter, the exodus chapter does not attempt to make a theological mountain out of a molehill; we are very intentionally denying that this historical slope is slippery. But the chapter refuses to pretend that nothing is lost in classifying the exodus as pure fiction.

    Prof. Sparks was generally quite positive about the chapter on “Adam and the Fall”, but he does take issue with the distinction drawn between what a biblical author “assumed” (i.e., Paul assumed that there was an historical Adam; Job assumed that the firmament was solid) and what he “affirmed.” He suggests by contrast that we should say, “Early Jews and Christians, and countless others after them, thought that Adam and Eve were literal individuals . . . and they were wrong.”

    I (Hays) felt a bit confused by the alternative Sparks presents in his review, not because I disagree with it, but because that is precisely what I think too. I am sure Paul believed Adam and the fall were historical, and I do think that he was wrong on those counts. The distinction I wanted to make between what an author assumed (by which I mean “took for granted” not “utilized as a matter of rhetorical expediency”) and what he affirmed has to do with my belief that Paul’s erroneous historical convictions do not negate the truthfulness of Romans 5. I still think that Romans 5 is true because I think that what Paul wants to do2 in Romans 5 is to talk about how the universality of sin and death are defeated by the universal potential of Christ’s death and grace.

    Perhaps this is more or less what Prof. Sparks thinks too, or perhaps he would rather say that, because Paul is wrong about Adam he’s also wrong in the rest of what he’s doing in Romans 5. I can’t quite tell, but I’d be grateful if, in light of my attempt at clarifying my stance, he might let me know whether he still thinks I have failed to grasp the nettle.

    Since Prof. Sparks offered a rather fulsome disagreement with the chapter on pseudepigraphy, we thought it might be appropriate to invite David Lincicum to offer a rebuttal:

    Rarely have I (Lincicum) felt my prose so significantly misunderstood, and I have paused to reflect on why that might have been the case. Two factors come to mind. First, the book has as its intention the address of evangelicals in terms they would understand. After prolonged debate and discussion, we agreed not to recommend a particular theological method (19)—although we agreed that more sophisticated theological methods were a pressing desideratum for evangelicals on the whole—but rather decided to present the critical debates in a deliberately simple manner, with some sense of how they might be made palatable to evangelicals. This is, in other words, not a recipe for how such critical data are “easily” overcome or subsumed within current evangelical frameworks, but a series of suggestions intended to provoke the reader to thought.

    Second, and perhaps more significantly, there is the matter of readerly context. Sparks writes from a lifetime of service and debate within evangelicalism, even if his relationship with those structures of power and thought has at times been a tensive one. But this context, immersed in evangelicalism, tempers how he hears and interprets statements in EFCHC. So, when I use the language of classic Reformation tradition as filtered through dialectical theology, he seems to hear the bastardized echo of this rich tradition in current North American hollow chambers. And when, with my nod to Lessing, I bemoan any ugly ditch that might open up between the canonical and the historical Paul, he assumes that I have in mind an inerrantist or infalliblist concern, when in fact I am rather making precisely the point about Sachkritik that he does (although I think his appeal to Gal 3:28 is optimistic): only a naïve historical positivism (substituted now for the positivism of inerrancy) can construct a one-way hierarchical relationship between the Paul of historical reconstruction and the Paul of tradition. When you have forged a hammer for the smashing of evangelical errors, every argument starts to look like a nail.

    These misunderstandings are themselves understandable, given the compressed scope of the volume and the minor aspirations of the essays themselves, but because they threaten to misconstrue some of the substantive intentions of the book, they deserve to be redressed.

    To conclude, I (Hays) want to affirm Sparks’ comments on love and “heresy.”3 Both those words can get misused in such academic contexts: “heresy” can be used as a rhetorical club in place of “I strongly disagree,” while “love” can be misunderstood as the uncritical affirmation you only give to someone in your theological clique. Both such usages misunderstand the term: not every disagreement is a heresy (even given a maximalist and positivist understanding of the term), and love does not require agreement. In spite of Sparks’ detailed disagreements with our book, his debate is couched in a frame that makes clear his genuine appreciation for the work. For honoring us with both overt affirmation and unflinching critique, we are very grateful.

    Occasionally, at this point of the rebuttal/blog the authors would whine about how mean people on the “other side” of this conversation have been. Frankly, however, if you are going to write a book and you are lucky enough to have someone read it and write a response, you can bet that they are going to be at least critical, if not nasty. But in the case of a book like EFCHC the absolute wrong response to such hostilities would be reciprocal nastiness or public wound-licking, because the goal of this book was to help evangelicalism to move forward together, not to splinter further. Anyone who writes works that are critical of others should be ready for a sharp response, and the onus is on the writer to ensure that passion for his or her ideas do not edge out love for the people of God.


    1. We don’t have space to respond to all of Sparks’ critiques, but we’re glad to have the opportunity to go back and forth on at least a few of them.

    2. Here, the reader will see that I have not entirely divorced my understanding of scriptural truth from authorial intention, even if I by no means identify the two. Or at least I want the reader to see that, and they should pay attention, because my authorial intention matters.

    3. Let the reader understand that the scare-quotes around the word “heresy” in Sparks’ review are to underscore that nothing heretical has actually been endorsed in EFCHC, even though we have said some things that many evangelicals would strenuously resist.

    • Kenton Sparks

      Kenton Sparks

      Reply

      Seeking Understanding

      I offer from the outset a whole-hearted “thank you” to the Hays/Ansberry team, to the other reviewers, and to the Syndicate (especially Christian Amondson) for making this dialogue possible. May God bless our pursuit of love and mutual understanding.

      As I said in my review, the positions taken up in Hays/Ansberry, if accepted by evangelicals, would advance considerably the quality of Evangelical scholarship and theological reflection. In general, I agree with both the content and tone of the volume and am quite happy to know that evangelicals of this sort are entering the guild and serving our faith community as biblical scholars and theologians. But my review did not focus on our agreements so much as on several positions taken up or assumed here and there with which I disagreed. An unexpected but perhaps necessary theme in the responses of Hays, Ansberry, and Lincicum is that, where I’ve disagreed, they would say I’ve almost certainly misunderstood what they’ve written. If we learn anything else from this dialogue, it would be the potential for misunderstanding even between friends who are members of the same guild, adherents of the same religious tradition, living within the same historical and cultural milieu, and writing in the same language. How much greater must be the opportunity for misunderstanding when we read the Bible.

      (1) The responses to my review highlight three points of possible confusion. Let us consider each in turn. First, Hays is confused because, as he understands them, my criticisms of the chapter on “Adam and the Fall” only point to agreement rather than disagreement. We agree that Adam was not an historical individual. We agree that Paul wrongly believed in the existence of this historical Adam. We agree that Paul’s confusion on this point does not negate the rich and valuable theological insights offered through his letter to Rome. So with what did I take issue?

      Hays and Herring argue that we needn’t be too concerned about what Paul errantly assumes (the historical Adam) if we can discern from what he’s asserted something true and valuable (that Christ redeems the world). This is reminiscent of a theological strategy commonly used to prop up inerrancy. Wherever the text is obviously problematic, we chalk this up to the author’s “assumptions,” as if these are background noise, and press on to discover the deeper truths that are being “asserted.” As I suggested in my review, I find this strategy wholly untenable. Verbal discourse always depends on and subsists within a network of underlying assumptions from which it cannot be hermetically sealed. Errors of assumption are no less damaging to the cause of truth and love than errors of assertion. Equally true is that errant assumptions by no means foreclose theological insight. The historical Adam described in Genesis and assumed in Romans captures beautifully the inherited predicament of humanity. We are born into a social world deeply fractured by our forebears. We will overlook this insight if we too quickly dispense with Adam as an errant assumption.

      If I’ve understood Hays correctly in his response to my review, he did not intend with his comments about “assumption” and “assertion” any support for biblical inerrancy. He used these words only pragmatically as a way of getting at what Paul offered his readers in spite of his errors and confusion. If that’s the case, and if he agrees that assumptions carry as much theological weight as assertions, then we have no real disagreement.

      (2) The second point of confusion regards the historicity of the Exodus. And again, the claim is made that Ansberry and I actually agree and that I’ve misunderstood Ansberry’s discourse. He claims in his response that we together believe that the Christian faith can subsist apart from an historical Exodus. While I take him at his word on this point, it is not the impression I get from certain parts of his essay. Allow me to cite again a quotation from the essay that I provided in my original review:

      If Yahweh never intervened on Israel’s behalf to deliver her from Egypt, then the nation’s identity as the elect people of God is deprived of its foundation . . . Thus, it is not entirely sufficient to claim that the exodus narrative paints an ahistorical yet theologically accurate portrait of Yahweh’s character and Israel’s identity. (70, italics mine)

      I don’t think I’m taking this quotation out of context. The discussion around and following from it yields the same feel. Israel’s election is grounded in and to some extent is lost if the Exodus did not take place, and because of this is it “not sufficient” to describe the Exodus story as theologically insightful fiction. This argument seems quite clear to me, and I disagree with it as expressed here. As I see it, Israel’s election is not grounded at all in particular historical events but rather in the relationship of God to Israel during the course of its entire historical and social experience. Consider my own children. Whether they were adopted or born into my family, they are equally my children. The same was true of Israel’s relationship with Yahweh.

      Moreover, in the case of the Exodus I’d say much is gained when we recognize it as a story of deliverance rather than history. What sort of God would kill indiscriminately all of Egypt’s firstborn children in order to save his own people? And why would this God, upon securing Israel’s freedom, order them almost immediately to invade Canaan and kill all of its inhabitants . . . including even children and animals? Although I actually suspect there is something historical behind both the Exodus and conquest stories, I doubt that God acted in these events in the ways described in the biblical text. The God we meet in Jesus Christ was not a God who does these kinds of things. The Israelites misunderstood God at points, enlisting him in their stories as a sponsor rather than critic of their exploits. But God loved them just the same. And it is this love that we ourselves experience in Christ.

      I’ll be interested in Ansberry’s response to this. But in the end, we’re not very far apart given what he’s said in his first response to my review. Faith in Christ does not hang in the balance when it comes to an historical Exodus.

      (3) Lincicum is clearly the most frustrated of my interlocutors, and I don’t blame him. When we feel that we’ve been deeply misunderstood and on that basis misrepresented, it is frustrating. We shall try to clear it up, though I think there remain some substantive issues to consider. At issue are our respective views of Pauline pseudepigrapha and biblical pseudepigrapha generally. On this subject, I do believe that I’ve in some way misunderstood his comment (on p. 156) about the “ugly ditch” between the historical and canonical Paul. Here is the argument in question:

      Ultimately, it may be fair to draw a distinction between the historical Paul and the canonical Paul, but to allow this distinction to yawn into an ugly ditch can only mean a disobedient refusal to hear the full testimony of Scripture from its canonical form . . .

      I previously understood Lincicum to be saying something like this: “We can perhaps draw distinctions theologically between what Paul himself wrote in Romans and what was written in Paul’s name in 1 Timothy, but if we construe this as an ugly ditch, in which the two Paul’s disagree, this can only reflect a disobedient refusal to hear the full testimony of Scripture.” What Lincicum seems to have meant, however, is something like this: “When we draw theological distinctions between what Paul himself wrote in Romans and what was written in Paul’s name in 1 Timothy, we should not construe these differences as an ugly ditch. To so construe this difference reflects a disobedient refusal to accept the Bible God has actually given to us, which includes the writings of Paul and pseudo-Paul.” If this last scenario is in fact what Lincicum intended, then we agree. Otherwise, the quest for mutual understanding continues.

      There is another point on which we may still disagree. Allow me again to repeat a quotation from the book that I offered in my original review. Here it is:

      To claim that pseudepigraphy is irreconcilable with infallibility can arguably only result in subjecting Scripture to our own autonomous standard of perfection, instead of the perfection Scripture has in a historically a posteriori act of discipleship. (155)

      It seems to me that Lincicum’s prose is quite clear. He is arguing that the presence of pseudonymous literature in the Bible can be reconciled with biblical “infallibility” and “perfection” if we do not foist upon Scripture our own, preconceived notions of infallibility and perfection. We should instead allow the phenomena of Scripture—what God has actually given us—to inductively shape our expectations for infallibility. If this is his main point, then I don’t believe we agree. As I see it, when we allow pseudonymous literature and the other problematic phenomena in Scripture to speak with full voice, we’ll realize that it is precisely our expectations for infallibility and perfection that are misplaced. The Bible is neither infallible, nor inerrant, nor perfect, nor whatever other word we’d use to construe it as insulated from the foibles of human influence. It is God’s authoritative word as given through finite, fallen human beings like you and me. We should read Scripture with this in mind.

      Lincicum has suggested that there may be underlying philosophical assumptions that have caused me to misread his essay. If this is the case, then it’s likely that these assumptions have created other misunderstandings. I hope that we can clear these up in the unfolding discussion.

    • Stephen Fowl

      Stephen Fowl

      Reply

      A Measure of Charity

      My observation and question was really sparked by the small discussion regarding Paul and Adam and what Paul assumed about Adam. I think Kent is right to note that interpretation always involves judgments about things assumed, but unsaid, and things directly said. The various ways these things interact with regard to any particular text will vary and may often be a matter of scholarly argument. I think both Chris and Kent seem to agree with that.

      More specifically, the issue focused on whether Paul assumed that Adam was an historical figure. There seemed to be general agreement that Paul (along with all of his contemporaries and many subsequent believers) all assumed Adam was an historical figure, and they were wrong. I wonder, however, if that assumption is justified. It is not clear to me that Paul tips his hand one way or another on this point. I realize that Origen was not a contemporary of Paul’s. Nevertheless, in On First Principles he certainly seems to entertain doubts about the historicity of many of the details of the creation account. He does not specify Adam in particular, but it would not be surprising, given his comments, that he might well have had doubts about an historical Adam. I don’t currently have access to Origen’s homilies on Genesis and am not enough of an Origen scholar to know if he clarifies this elsewhere and am happy to be corrected by those who know more. Apart from such correction, we are justified in assuming Origen would have had his doubts about Adam’s historicity, or aspects of it. Moreover, he offers his judgments here in such a way that he does not think his doubts are surprising or unusual. Obviously, Origen and his interpretive habits had their opponents within the church.

      This at least raises the question about whether someone like Paul could have entertained similar doubts, reading Adam as a figure to make his points about Christ in Rom. Moreover, it suggests that we modern critics might well need to extend a measure of charity when it comes to drawing conclusions about what ancient authors did and did not assume. It seems to me that in the absence of evidence, we should presume that they did not hold beliefs that they should have known were obviously incorrect.

      I gather that Kent and Chris would say that neither Paul nor any of his contemporaries could have suspected that there were aspects of the Genesis account of creation that might not have been historically accurate. They are wrong, but not really blameworthy. Origen at least leads me to wonder whether this is the case. That is, whether a first century Jew would have presumed the existence of an historical Adam or entertained some doubts about Adam’s historicity while still finding it possible to use the Genesis accounts to explicate aspects of Christ’s work seems to me to be a more open question than either Kent or Chris seem willing to grant.

    • Christopher Hays

      Christopher Hays

      Reply

      Working with the Data We Have: Thoughts on Paul and Adam

      I am very pleased that Prof. Fowl has weighed in on this conversation, since cross-pollination between panelists will surely enliven the conversation. I also want to thank Prof. Fowl for warning us against the dangers of modern arrogance. In principle, I should say that I am not opposed to the idea that a first-century Jew might have disputed the historicity of Adam, even if I don’t know of one who did so. I am not sure that Origen is an ideal person to cite, because the disanalogies between him and Paul are significant. A third-century scholar, educated in Alexandria, with a massive library and a research patron would ostensibly have a better chance at encountering data that would incline him to doubt the historicity of Adam . . . even if we don’t know that he did so.

      It also bears note that the reasoning Prof. Fowl applied to Origen was slightly different than what we can apply to Paul, insofar as Paul (unlike Origen) has not given us indications of skepticism about the historicity of Genesis 1-3. The textual data we have in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 is most naturally read as expressing a supposition about the historicity of Adam. Indeed, 1 Cor. 15:21–22 (“For since(epeide) death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”) does seem to posit a relationship of almost “causal fittingness” between the advent of death through Adam and the advent of the resurrection through Jesus. In short, the relevant texts in Paul’s writings do seem to indicate a supposition that Adam was historical.

      Prof. Fowl comments, “It seems to me that in the absence of evidence, we should presume that they did not hold beliefs that they should have known were obviously incorrect.” Now, I very much agree with that statement, but I don’t believe it applies in this case. We are not operating with an absence of evidence; Paul has indeed commented on Adam in more than one place. Additionally, I don’t think that Paul “should have known” that it is “obviously incorrect” to believe in an historical Adam. As far as I can tell, from the information available to him Paul would have little reason to think that the Genesis 2–3 account is non-historical.

      If we had other evidence that made us think Paul was using Adam figuratively (or understood Genesis 1–3 in a non-historical fashion), that would be significant (nothing leaps to my mind, but I am happy to be corrected). If we had evidence that a number of first-century Jews did in fact doubt the historicity of Adam, that would be at least helpful.  But even if we did have a handful of examples of Paul’s contemporaries who denied Adam’s historicity, we would still examine whether Paul’s writings indicated that he personally was a skeptic about Adam’s historicity. Obviously, the mere existence of a contemporary or antecedent author who holds a non-dominant view does not in itself constitute evidence that Paul held the same view.

      Since the evidence of which I am aware indicates that Paul did suppose Adam to be historical and that his Second Temple Jewish contemporaries at least generally shared this supposition, the remaining reason we might have to doubt Paul’s belief in an historical Adam is because we think it theologically unfitting for a canonical author to have such an historically erroneous view about a figure on whom he comments. (I fleshed this point out in more detail in EFCHC, so I won’t abuse Syndicate’s space repeating it.) I personally do not consider it terribly problematic that a biblical author would think something historically or scientifically inaccurate about a subject on which he comments, and I would guess that Prof. Fowl and I could find some examples texts where we agree that precisely that happened. And I don’t think that my skepticism about Paul’s knowledge of human origins bespeaks a lack of charity. I just think it’s probably the most responsible handling of the historical and textual data of which I am cognizant.

    • Kenton Sparks

      Kenton Sparks

      Reply

      I Err . . . You Err

      I would echo in response to Steve most of what Hays has said. We are not actually dealing with an absence of evidence but rather lots of evidence that early Jews and Christians believed in a literal Adam. I’m no Origen scholar either, but it’s clear that his philosophy was entirely different from what  we find in Paul and the other biblical writers. Even the Hebrew writer, who would I suppose stand closest to Origen philosophically, assumes that Adam’s sons (Cain and Abel) are historical figures. So the onus would be on those who think otherwise to adduce evidence to the contrary.
      Also, I don’t think it’s particularly uncharitable to judge that Paul (or anyone else) got this or that wrong. Error is endemic to human perception. I err . . . you err . . . all God’s children err. In this case, I’d say that charity should prevent us from looking disparagingly on Paul’s assumptions about Adam. He was a man of his times . . . just as we are.
    • David Crump

      David Crump

      Reply

      Integral Intersections

      I appreciate the opportunity to participate in this conversation, and I thank the editors and numerous authors and reviewers for their graciousness in facilitating this dialogue. I have some observations that I will hold off on making until my review is publicized in a few days. In the meantime, I’d like to offer a few thoughts sparked by the current interesting exchange with Prof. Sparks.

      First, I think that there are two different but related circles of conversation happening coincidentally with each other. Each can be engaged separately, but they also intersect at points that make each integral to the other. The first circle of discourse concerns the nature of historical criticism, a discipline that attempts to set aside confessional, faith affirmations in order to read the Bible as one would read any other ancient document, subjecting it to the same means of skeptical analysis as one would apply to Homer’s Iliad. The second circle of discourse concerns the role of faith in Bible reading, specifically what parameters does Christian confession require for distinguishing a “faithful” from an “unfaithful” reading of Scripture? How are these parameters determined, especially with respect to the Christian theological traditions? These two different circles intersect at points like this: Can one assent to certain “non-traditional” interpretations of the Biblical text offered by historical criticism (such as affirming that there was no exodus from Egypt, nor was there a physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus) while also maintaining a sufficient affirmation of the authority and “believability” of Scripture? More specifically, can a scholar still claim to be an evangelical while embracing the tools and the assumptions employed in reaching such critical conclusions?

      Addressing questions in the first circle is not the concern of EFCHC. Settling these debates requires the marshaling of historical and textual evidence while adjudicating alternative readings. EFCHC would have been a MUCH larger book had the authors tried to cover these debates chapter by chapter! Their reasons for declining that particular assignment are as obvious as they are sensible. What the readers of this particular piece of the conversation needs to remember, then, is that confidently affirming the superiority of one reading over another—i.e. we can say definitively that there was never an exodus; there is no way that the Paul who wrote 1 Corinthians and Romans could be the same man who wrote the Pastoral Letters—is typically a judgment call made by the person asserting the claim. Many of these critical questions continue to be debated by competent scholars, and the dividing lines do not necessarily follow predictable divisions between evangelical/non-evangelical scholars. For example, the scholarly world is fairly divided over such questions as whether or not the author of the book of Acts actually knew the apostle Paul and had him in mind as he composed his history of the early church; the votes are also about 50/50 on whether Paul wrote the Pastorals.

      Of course, without reviewing all of the evidence, argument and counter-argument here the reader is simply left with my assertion of my own opinion of the matter. So, why do different scholars come to different conclusions after studying the same body of evidence? Why do Prof. Sparks and others conclude that the Pastoral letters are pseudepigraphal while other scholars, including myself, conclude that they are Pauline (others refuse to lump the three letters together and argue that one or two are Pauline while the remainder is not). Obviously, something other than mere objective evidence is in play when we make these decisions. Without devolving into ad hominem statements (i.e. I guess I’m just a better historian than you are . . .) I think it would be wise for us to admit that there is a significant degree of subjectivity at the root of a good many of our “academic” judgments.

      Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that historical criticism has swept into the church in order to replace naïveté with scientific certainty and substitute objective knowledge for the subjectivity of faith. None of us are as objective as we think we are. So I return to the second circle of discourse. I suspect that whether or not a scholar is sympathetic to this particular critical theory or that other one over there has a lot to do with what he/she believes or feels intuitively should be the proper answer to my earlier questions: Can I assent to this particular “non-traditional” interpretation of the Biblical text, carved out by the tools and abiding by the assumptions of historical criticism, while also maintaining a sufficient affirmation of the authority and “believability” of Scripture? Can my conscience as both an honest scholar and a faithful follower of Jesus Christ rest if I embrace this critical conclusion as my own? Different people will give different answers to those questions, regardless of the historical evidence involved. Addressing this tangle of hermeneutical, presuppositional questions is, I think, at the heart of our conversation; at least, it is if we want to make progress in mutual understanding and critical insight.

      I look forward to reading what everyone else thinks.

    • Kenton Sparks

      Kenton Sparks

      Reply

      Intuition, Rationality, and Historical Criticism

      David and I met at a colloquium a few months ago. He has a gift for lifting the veil on what’s actually going one behind the surface of what we’re doing. His comments here are no exception.
      David Crump is quite right . . . Recent research is revealing the profound role of intuitive subjectivity in our ostensibly “rational” judgments (see especially Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind). This is as true of historical critical judgments as of any other kind of judgment. Crump cites as an example the debate about Paul’s role in the composition of the Pastoral Epistles. While we may disagree on this particular question, we certainly agree that judgments about the theological content and style of the Pastorals are quite subjective.
      But some “critical” judgments are much more secure than others. The differences in theology, language, ostensible historical events, and assumed social contexts in the Pentateuch preclude absolutely any possibility that a single human author has written the whole. And the historicity of some of the events narrated in the Pentateuch (such as the creation and flood stories) are precluded by the basic insights of modern science, most especially biological evolution.
      When one accepts as “true” this kind of public knowledge, one becomes somewhat less committed to the theological and communal intuitions that have long shaped Christian judgments about other critical issues, such as the who wrote the Pastorals. If I am reflexively defensive of the Bible and its authors, I’ll almost certainly believe that Paul wrote (or was involved in writing) the Pastorals. But if I assume (as a matter of subjective intuition based on biblical content) that early Christians were as I and other humans are, then I’ll more open to the idea that the differences between Romans and Galatians, on the one hand, and the Pastorals on the other, point to very different authors. And as I see it, in their Greek style, use of theological terminology and assumptions about church context, Romans is quite removed from 1 Timothy.
      What’s the main point? Intuitions are primary in our judgments because they account for far more variables than rationality can. Rationality is powerful when juggling four balls conscientiously, but intuition unconsciously juggles the hundreds of balls that must be managed to yield good decisions. So admitting that judgments are intuitive and subjective does not mean that all judgments are equally compelling, nor that we should never offer confident critical judgments like: “Moses certainly did not write the Pentateuch.”
Ashleigh Elser

Response

How Now Shall We Read?

IN 1878, JULIUS WELLHAUSEN wrote in his Prolegomena zur Geschicte Israels that the Torah was “no literary unity, and no simple historical quantity.”1 The frequent textual inconsistencies and historical discrepancies catalogued by Higher Critics presented difficulties that were not imaginary “but actual,” Wellhausen insisted, “and urgent.” More than a century after the publication of Wellhausen’s Prolegomena, however, this urgency seems largely to have fallen out of vogue. But while source divisions and the synoptic problem no longer animate theological discourse as they did in the days of Barth or Bultmann, these concerns remain urgent to many of my undergraduates—particularly those who identify as “evangelicals.” To these students it seems obvious that the acceptance of something like the Documentary Hypothesis would have consequences for theological reflection; or that the recognition of the signs of literary craft in the composition of the gospels or the adaptations of Babylonian creation myths ought to inform their understanding of revelation. They are caught, as I was at their age, between two faces of evangelicalism. On the one hand, they feel bound by commitments to those dogmatic claims that structure membership in this community—inerrancy prominently among them; on the other, they share an earnestness about the practice of reading Scripture, a sense that these texts ought persistently to reform and renew the way a person thinks, the way they perceive the world. These students feel the anxious theological weight of historical criticism more acutely than their peers (or indeed, than many of their instructors) precisely because it has the potential to pit these two faces of their tradition against one another.

The essays collected together in Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism are directed towards students like my own. These essays thoughtfully illuminate many of the challenges that historical criticism presents, asking their readers to suspend modern categories of authorship, historiography, or prophecy that might have previously conditioned their judgments about the Bible’s authority in order to explore how historical research might inform rather than threaten faith. There is much to admire and much to learn in these essays, and they are an excellent reminder of the fact that evangelicals seem uniquely poised to respond to the charge of Wellhausen and many biblical scholars after him to reflect theologically on the changing face of the biblical text. While questions about the serious theological ramifications of modern biblical scholarship have fallen from the purview of mainstream Christian theology, these debates are certainly not dead among evangelical scholars or the wider evangelical community. And this book represents an auspicious turn in that conversation from the more antagonistic postures toward biblical criticism that once characterized evangelical books on this subject, like the weathered red paperback I can see on my bookshelf that reads (in apocalyptic font) The Battle for the Bible.2

Over the last several decades, evangelicals have often been caricatured for their selective plundering of the sciences—dismissing the value of history or archaeology when they challenge established orthodoxies, or else claiming them as substantive evidence of those orthodoxies they are said to confirm. This book promises a different mode of engagement with historical science—a model of “critical faith” that is “rooted in Christian orthodoxy, marked by a receptivity to truth wherever it may be found, and open to the revision of traditional assumptions or beliefs in light of that truth.”3 But there is a tension here, in this definition and in this text—a tension that mirrors the two faces of the tradition I spoke of above—between a rootedness in orthodoxy and a willingness to follow truth (or Scripture) wherever it might lead.

At their best, these essays lend weight and depth to historical critical concerns, and challenge prior interpretive frameworks or accounts of inspiration with close attention to both historical critical scholarship and biblical texts. The chapter on pseudepigraphy, for example, carefully builds a case for the reconsideration the category of authorship and its relationship to authority, using historical critical tools to explore ancient accounts of authorship and to understand better how biblical authors themselves located authority and inspiration in various documents.

But I worry that often, in their admirable efforts to commend engagement with modern biblical scholarship to the wider evangelical community, these essays still blunt the challenges of historical criticism, subjugate them to doctrinal concerns, or take seriously only that which would demand the slightest of modifications to evangelical dogma. Indeed, the defense and fortification of that dogma in light of the historical critical project seems to be a central theme of this text. The authors insist, again and again, that “historical criticism need not imperil any of the fundamental dogmatic tenets of Christianity,” or that challenges to Mosaic authorship “need not pose a threat to Christian orthodoxy” or that even if we called the historicity of Genesis 2–3 into question, we would still be able to retain our understanding of original sin, and thus “Christian theological orthodoxy would not be undermined.” I think an alternative title to this book might have read: “Historical Criticism: It’s Not So Challenging After All.”

Take for example Christopher Ansberry’s chapter on the historicity of the exodus. Here, Ansberry considers the increasingly popular view that the events of the Israelites’ mass migration out of Egypt are largely fictional, stating, “this chapter will reflect on the theological implications of historical-critical proposals regarding the exodus in order to determine whether they are compatible with Christian faith.”4 In other words, the aim of this chapter is not to consider how historical critical insights might change the way we read the exodus narratives, nor to sharpen our sense of what we are looking at when we watch the Israelites cross the Red Sea. Rather, this chapter seeks to determine a way of reckoning with the issues that modern biblical scholars have illuminated—the paucity of evidence for a historical exodus—in a way that will not threaten Christian orthodoxy, a mode of interpretation that will prove “compatible with Christian faith.”

Ansberry begins by laying out brief summaries of maximalist and minimalist approaches to biblical historiography. The former holds to the historical veracity of the exodus “in time and space” based on the Bible’s own witness while the latter disputes the historicity of the event on the grounds that there is no external evidence whatsoever to support such a mass migration. Ansberry admits that “no direct evidence has been recovered to substantiate the details of the biblical account,” but he determines that the minimalist approach yields “problematic results” and thus must be rejected. These results are deemed problematic not based on a critique of the historical methodology behind them—though that argument could certainly be made—but instead on dogmatic grounds. Ansberry explains that “without some sort of ‘exodus’ through divine intervention, the grounds for Israel’s election, identity, and unique relationship with Y—h are bogus” and therefore also “the Christian hopes of release from spiritual bondage and the ‘Babylon’ of this present age are diminished, thinned, and attenuated.”5

Ansberry then turns to a discussion of cultural memory—framing the exodus history as a dynamic process of communal narration by which past events have been creatively redescribed and recombined in order to provide a foundation for communal practices and corporate identity. He explains, “As a narrative representation of the past, the exodus account seeks to answer questions of signification (‘What does this mean?’), rather than modern questions of historical veracity (‘Did this really happen in this fashion’?).”6 We might expect this to signal a transition to an exploratory discussion of signification, a close engagement with biblical texts and a look at how historical criticism might challenge us to consider the way that the Exodus cycle mingles fiction with fact. Instead, the remainder of this chapter is dedicated to a dogmatic argument on the need to retain a kernel of historical truth for the exodus event.7 While in the end, Ansberry is remarkably willing for this kernel to take a wide variety of forms (various smaller migrations or a metaphorical escape from “Egyptian hegemony” in Canaan), his aims are clearly apologetic.8 A widened sense of what might stand behind the exodus narrative seems of secondary importance to the author’s efforts to champion a vague understanding of the historical reality of the exodus as a triumphant remedy to an otherwise “nihilistic view of history.”9 In the end, one is left with the impression that this engagement with historical criticism was less a real challenge and more an occasion to bolster and reinforce evangelical doctrine in the face of what might have previously seemed threatening—an occasion to participate in what Ansberry straightforwardly calls at the end of his essay a “defence of the faith.”10

It is not entirely clear to me that the best way to persuade students and seminarians of the virtues of historical criticism is to dogmatize away the serious difficulties these scholars raise to the ways we have long read and thought about Scripture, or our traditions. I worry that we risk forfeiting the possibility that historical criticism might truly critique and enliven our reading practices and sharpen and our theology if the challenges of these critical perspectives only serve as means for us to make slight readjustments and shore up the authority of our own dogmatic claims.

Wilhelm Herrmann—a colleague of Julius Wellhausen’s, who taught theology for many years at the University of Marburg—was himself an advocate for the benefits of historical criticism in work of theological reflection. Herrmann argued that the ongoing work of historical-critical scholarship provides a continuous occasion for the renewing of our minds in our searching of the Scriptures, that it has the capacity to make the familiar wonderfully strange again. But he warns that “we lose this advantage entirely if historical research is made to serve the ends of apologetics instead of remaining true to its own laws.”11 The impression given in many places in this collection is that the results of historical research ought to be considered from a defensive posture, and taken on if and only if they do not force us to reconsider too dramatically those things which we have always thought to be true of God, or of the story of God’s involvement with his people.

The challenges that are dismissed over and again in these essays are also presented mainly as challenges to orthodoxy, and not to reading and interpretation. How might historical research not simply widen the field of the historical referent behind the exodus event, but actually change the way evangelicals read and interpret these narratives? How might points of “slippage between the way that the Bible describes historical events and the way those events actually occurred in time and space” not simply be acknowledged and dogmatically negotiated, but interpreted in their own right?12 How might the recognition of these points of slippage become not only permissible within readjusted dogmatic frameworks but beneficial to the work of biblical interpretation? How might what we once would have called “errors” become themselves sources of meaning and revelation? Perhaps these questions stray too close to the one dogmatic issue that this book declares in its second sentence it will not address. “This is not a book about inerrancy,” Christopher H. Hays writes, though perhaps it ought to be. And this may account, in some respects, for why this book’s engagement with historical criticism hovers at the level of dogma and rarely touches down to the implications of these proposals on the actual texts before us.

I have long been a staunch defender of the merits of historical criticism, and I always hope that my students will come to see it as a kind of Socratic teacher—an invigorating challenge to old forms of thought and ways of reading that might help them to think and reflect theologically in new ways. Historical criticism provides an occasion to pause over narrative discrepancies or historical slippages and ask “But what is revelation?” Is it the bare facts of history, or their literary representation, or the sanctification over time and through tradition of so many fallible voices and fallible thoughts that God nonetheless saw fit to employ? “The task of the evangelical biblical scholar,” Hays wisely reminds us, “must not be to peddle pious truisms but to make plain the witness of scripture on its own uncomfortable terms.”13 To do this honestly, with the full weight of historical criticism’s challenges and with respect to that other face of evangelical life, it may be time to talk again about inerrancy.


  1. Julius Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel (New York: Meridian, 1958), 6.

  2. Harold Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976).

  3. Christopher M. Hays and Christopher B. Ansberry, eds., Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism(Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 211.

  4. Ibid., 56.

  5. Ibid., 71. It remains unclear to me why a non-literal exodus would necessarily threaten Israel’s relationship with God, but specifically Christian hopes of a release from “spiritual” bondage—particularly because there is another story of the release of the people of God that remains virtually undisputed on historical grounds—the very Babylon here mentioned as metaphor.

  6. Ibid., 66.

  7. Ibid., 71.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Ibid., 73.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Wilhelm Herrmann, The Communion of the Christian with God (New York: Putnam, 1906), 77.

  12. Hays and Ansberry, Evangelical Faith, 1.

  13. Ibid., 8.

  • Hays-Ansberry

    Reply

    Response to Ashleigh Elser

    I (Hays) loved Ashleigh Elser’s opening comments, and especially the reference to Howard Lindsell’s The Battle for the Bible, which adorned my family’s bookshelves during my childhood. (In junior high I picked it up once, and was disappointed to find out that it had nothing to do with war at all). Elser is a scholar who understands the milieu, and the fears, to which EFCHC wants to speak. As a person who has lived in a number of foreign cultures during the past decade, it’s a joy to find someone who (as it were) speaks my language and knows my hometown.

    Elser is one of the reviewers who suggests that it would have been valuable for us to write a different sort of book, perhaps one about inerrancy or perhaps one about the way that historical criticism contributes to our interpretation of Scripture. She is quite right to have broached these possibilities, because I did indeed consider writing a book of the former and the latter sort. So perhaps this is a good place to explain why we chose to write the sort of book we did, rather than some other book.

    Let’s start with the proposal that the book deal with inerrancy instead. The past couple of decades have witnessed the proliferation of books about inerrancy, from evangelical, ex-evangelical, and avowedly non-evangelical perspectives. I (Hays) do not personally have anything to say on the topic that has not already been said, but still, when I first conceived of this volume and sat down to draft an introductory chapter, I wrote (rather scathingly) about inerrancy. Because I was mad. As I have described elsewhere, I felt frustrated by aspects of my conservative education, and I wanted to show that you could still be a critical biblical scholar without abandoning your faith.

    I changed my approach, however, for a few different reasons. First and foremost, I realized that being right about historical criticism was far less important than being loving, to both my readers and my opponents. Second, I realized that believing in inerrancy did not make one incapable of engaging historical criticism; even though that theological commitment will influence the way people interact with critical theses, I have every reason to think that the conversation between historical critics and inerrantists can be a good deal more robust and constructive than it has been in the past (with some notable exceptions, of course). Third, I realized that I wanted more evangelicals to be doing good criticism, so that I had more conversation partners who, like Ashleigh Elser, know where I am coming from and can help me along. Fourth, I realized that if I made the rejection of inerrancy a litmus test for participation in the conversation, I would seriously cut down the potential readership for the book, which would mean that I would be able to help fewer students and pastors who worry about historical criticism, and that I would be able to generate fewer evangelical conversation partners on historical criticism.

    So I changed the book quite radically. I rewrote the introductory chapter and complemented the original panel of non-inerrantist authors with contributors who are indeed inerrantists, as well as being excellent scholars. People like my co-editor Chris Ansberry and my co-author Mike Daling help me speak better to a wider sector of evangelicalism, and they help control my tendency towards disparaging hyperbole. They show me when I am being presumptuous and careless. They also present me with winsome possibilities of how an evangelical can do historical criticism and be an inerrantist, preventing me from painting all inerrantists with a broad brush, as if Craig Blomberg and Norm Geisler could be lumped together. So I am glad that we did not in final analysis make the book about inerrancy. Inerrancy is very relevant to historical criticism, no doubt, but it is not the only thing that is relevant. So we wrote a book that was not about inerrancy.

    Before talking about the other book that Elser suggests we might have written, it would be good to address her concern that EFCHC endorses a “defensive posture.”1 (And here one wonders how one can say “I’m not being defensive!” without sounding defensive . . . perhaps emoticons would help.) What Elser identifies as the apologetic flavor of the volume’s engagement with historical criticism in general (and the exodus in particular, on which see our conversations with Kenton Sparks and Stephen Fowl) is intimately related to the project’s theological or dogmatic evaluation of historical-critical proposals. She contends that the constituent chapters hover at the level of dogma and suggests that the challenges posed by historical criticism are subjugated to doctrinal concerns. With respect to the doctrinal interest of the volume, she’s quite right. This approach to historical criticism, however, is not an exercise in subterfuge. Mapping the theological ramifications of the historical criticism is the explicit purpose of the volume.

    As Elser noted throughout her review, EFCHC seeks to provide an accessible account of the theological consequences of certain historical-critical conclusions. It explores the theological implications of historical-critical opinions on specific issues in order to assess whether they fall within the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy. In so doing, it attempts to demonstrate that engagement with this family of methods does not jeopardize the historic and ecumenical faith of the church in se. If the book has an explicit apologetic edge, this is it (and it’s quite the opposite of what Elser suggests). This form of engagement with historical criticism may foreground theological observation ahead of interpretive reflection, discussing the dogmatic ramifications of historical-critical judgments instead of the interpretive potential of these judgments. By focusing on the doctrinal implications of historical-critical proposals, however, the volume does not intend to minimize the interpretive possibilities these approaches may provide. Instead, it operates under the assumption that, before one lowers the “drawbridge” and receives these interpretive possibilities, the family of methods that open these new horizons must be accepted.

    Notice the defensive metaphor in this last line. It is not coincidental, even if it is tongue-in-cheek. We selected the metaphor to reflect, not how we (the editors) feel about criticism, but how we were raised to feel about criticism. EFCHC aims (as the first word of the title indicates) to speak to a specific audience, a specific set of commitments and fears. To whatever degree one has never felt those fears (or to whatever degree one resents an earlier catechesis into those fears), the book’s theological inquiry will seem procrustean. If, however, one shares those fears, the book’s critical engagement runs the risk of seeming arrogant and impious.

    The conviction (central in U.S. evangelicalism, laughable in liberal German Protestantism) that historical criticism is a theological danger zone must be addressed for those of us who work with or as evangelicals. The conservative supposition that the acceptance and use of historical criticism inexorably leads to heterodoxy demands careful consideration. And the belief that this family of methods disdains theology as much as Julius Wellhausen disdained theologians and theological journals requires modification.2

    This lets us circle around to the second sort of book that Elser proposes would have been valuable to write: a book on the way that historical criticism contributes to and modifies our understanding of what Scripture is and how to interpret it. The editors of this volume wholeheartedly agree with Elser’s claim that historical criticism has much to offer in one’s reading and interpretation of Scripture. Similarly, the individual chapters indicate how historical criticism problematizes certain readings, generates new questions, and recalibrates one’s expectations concerning the nature of authorship, authority, historiography, and prophecy, just to name a few. The questions and challenges raised by this family of methods are beneficial for the work of biblical interpretation, because they enrich our understanding of what these scriptural books are without necessarily denying that the books are also Scripture.

    Nonetheless, in the light of the target audience of the book, celebrating the ways that criticism enriches our reading of Scripture before acknowledging the fear that historical criticism destroys the faith would be pastorally tantamount to putting the cart before the horse. This book primarily addresses the theological fear: it attempts to demonstrate that, on the whole, the historical-critical project is not at odds with Christian orthodoxy. If one accepts this claim and engages with historical criticism, then the family of methods may take root and bear fruit through the interpretive possibilities that accompany their use.

    We do appreciate that this is epistemologically backwards. As biblical scholars, our inclination is to sort our methods out the most honest way we can, and then let the chips fall where they may. But as teachers and as members of the church, we want to meet our students where they are presently and to help them along. Our strategy in this book is to clear a lot of theological space for our students, so that they can have a more honest encounter with their interpretive methodology, rather than gingerly mincing along for fear that at some point they will unwittingly knock over the pillars of their faith.

    So Elser is quite right: it would be very valuable to write a book about how historical criticism can be productive for our reading of Scripture, for our understanding of revelation; she is also right that we could have written a book (as many others have done) on the way that historical criticism influences your doctrine of Scripture. But we wrote a different book, with a particular audience, which is perhaps disappointing to some readers. It would be quite fun to have a book that does what EFCHC does, and talks about doctrine of Scripture, AND elaborates how historical criticism enriches interpretation. Still, early in one’s career, one writes smaller books, and a couple years after finishing EFCHC we do not wish that we had attempted something more ambitious! As they say in Latin America, poco a poco se come el coco: the coconut is eaten little bit at a time.


    1. Interestingly, this contrasts with Prof. Sparks’ applause of the volume for being “an authentic departure from the older, defensive style of evangelicals in the last generation.”

    2. See Julius Wellhausen, Briefe, ed. Rudolf Smend, with Peter Porzig and Reinhard Müller (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013), 31–32.

    • David Crump

      David Crump

      Reply

      What is Critical About Faith?

      One of the very few benefits I’ve discovered in growing older, besides the swashbuckling grey highlights in my beard, is the repeated sense that I’ve had this conversation before. Deja vu increases with age. The questions raised in Ms. Elser’s fine essay, together with her reference to Lindsell’s Battle for the Bible (1976), have reminded me of another book—more important than Lindsell’s, although I’m sure he sold many more copies – edited more than 35 years ago by my doctoral supervisor, I. H. Marshall. The Eerdmans publication, New Testament Interpretation: Essays on Principles and Methods (1977), was a work that significantly influenced me in my early days at New Testament studies. Marshall’s work was trying to accomplish some of the same things that Hays and Ansberry are seeking to do in EFCHC—introduce the evangelical wing of the church to the methods and results of higher criticism. NTI did not give as much attention to the possible theological constraints we may (or may not) want to impose on the use of critical method, but it did give more attention to the interaction between one’s view of inspiration/inerrancy and the historical challenges of critical method. It was a well-received piece of work.

      The conversations we are having now are not new. They have been ongoing for a long time. Though I’m no historian of American evangelicalism, I cannot help but wonder what stage we are at now in seeing this particular wing of the church “penetrated” by the findings of higher criticism? I know that there will always be hold-outs and backwaters in every community, but I wonder if EFCHC and the rest of us should be talking about the resistance of American fundamentalism to the work of higher criticism, rather than identifying the target audience as evangelicals, especially as many old style fundamentalists prefer to be called evangelicals nowadays. Just wondering. What do you think?

      More importantly, Ms. Elser is bothered by the way EFCHC subjects its discussion of the conclusions reached by way of historical criticism to various “doctrinal concerns” that should remain secondary to the discussion, if raised at all. She suggests that the authors’ method here impinges on the proper use of historical method which should be allowed to proceed without any such constraint, allowing “the chips to fall where they may.” The implication is that if the fruit of historical criticism requires the modification of Christian confession/theology/doctrine, then so be it. Let the rewriting begin. The implication, if I understand correctly, seems to be that the science of historical criticism ought to function as the final arbiter of what constitutes an acceptable Christian belief. In other words, the question of the day becomes: has the object of your faith been scientifically verified lately? (Don’t worry. Only half of my tongue is in my cheek.)

      I realize that I am again raising questions that are beyond the scope of this particular book, but at the end of the day we cannot have a useful discussion about the usefulness of historical criticism without eventually getting to grips with the limits of the method, the effects that those limits have on the conclusions being drafted, and what the relationship is between those methodological limits and the subject matter of Christian theology.

      Here are a few examples of what I am trying to get at:

      1) I claim that I am a Christian because I believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the savior of the world who died on the cross, was raised from the dead (thereby leaving the tomb empty) and ascended into heaven where he was enthroned at the right hand of the Father. This confession is the center piece of the Christian faith (however some may want to redefine the nature of resurrection). If anyone can provide some objective, scientific, empirical evidence to substantiate that faith statement (regardless of their definition of resurrection), I’d like to see it. So here I sit believing something about which historical criticism remains not just mute but singularly inarticulate. In fact, I think it noteworthy that many Biblical scholars will no longer refer to the resurrection as an “historical” event, not become they do not believe it occurred but because it eludes the grasp historical critical method. An odd way to define history, if you ask me.

      Granted, should anyone ever produce Jesus’ bones and be able to guarantee they are his, I’d be among the first to chuck my Christianity and join the naysayers. History is that important. On the other hand, I am confident that those particular bones will never be found because my faith assures me that Jesus’ resurrected body ascended, bones and all, into heaven two millennia ago. At least on this faith question, historical criticism is not the final arbiter of what I can or cannot believe about either the Biblical narrative or the historical events standing behind the text. If historical criticism has so little bearing here, at theological ground zero, then by what criteria does it become the adjudicator of acceptable readings of scripture, or of acceptable theological outworkings, elsewhere?

      2) The Biblical narrative has typically been understood to define revelation in terms of the combination of event + interpretation (whether verbal or written). Though EFCHC has not explicitly defined its view of revelation in this way, I strongly suspect that it explains why the authors remain committed to testing the outcomes of historical critical research against the theological standards of evangelical confession. It strikes me that the motivations behind one’s work make all the difference here. If one wants to pursue historical research for its own sake, then “letting the chips fall where they may” without regard to any theological fallout may be appropriate. On the other hand, if one wants to remain a Christian in the process, then testing the results of one’s research against the Christian theological tradition and asking questions of coherence or incoherence is the only thoughtful way to proceed. Though I disagree with many of their theological musings on this score, I believe that the authors of EFCHC are touching on very important questions when they repeatedly insist that the presumed results of critical method are asked to dance with Christian theology. Is the pairing a hospitable one or not? If only Julius Wellhausen had given greater attention to these concerns. Perhaps the father of the Documentary Hypothesis could have prevented his own faith from falling victim to a lifetime of critical undermining.

      3) All interpretation is symbiotic. Everyone brings a preexisting theology to the text which informs and shapes what they are able to see and how it can be interpreted. In return, interpreters hopefully allow the results of their historical-critical exegesis to shape their theology so that it is a truly Biblical theology honestly taking account of the text received as divine revelation. Round and round we go from framework to details and back again. So, let’s suppose that the revelatory combination of event + interpretation is judged to be an important enough piece of the Christian faith that it is simply impossible for a scholar to accept the arguments mounted by colleagues dismissing any historical basis for Israel’s exodus from Egypt. While some will see that scholar as stubborn, too conservative or too constrained by his theology, given the ongoing debate on this subject, and the existence of both maximalist and minimalist schools of interpretation, why is it any more “naïve” or intransigent for a scholar to insistence that there must have been some sort of “exodus-like” historical event standing behind the Old Testament exodus tradition than it is for a more “critical” scholar to go whole hog and insist that nothing of the sort ever happened at all? Is the critical skeptic’s acceptance of the methodological presuppositions of historical criticism any less a faith position than other scholar’s insistence that something exodus-like must have happened? I do not think so. Naturally, many will insist that the evidence must tell the difference, but that is exactly what the evidence consistently fails to do! Why else are there maximalists and minimalists all investigating the same materials?

      At the end of the day, I am an evangelical who first learned about historical criticism from a book published in 1977. At times I even practice historical criticism. I think it is important work to do. But I do not understand the almost blind acceptance of each new critical theory that rolls down the pike by so many who work in this field. I certainly do not understand Christian scholars who want to make theology subject to the results of critical studies.

    • Ashleigh Elser

      Ashleigh Elser

      Reply

      The Carrot is the Stick

       

      I want to begin by thanking the authors, Christopher B. Ansberry and Christopher M. Hays, who have shown themselves to be remarkably gracious interlocutors. I am thankful for their book, and for the occasion it has provided for those of us who feel in various ways attached to the evangelical community and its engagement with scripture and scholarship to speak to one another.

      The combination of the two responses to my essay makes it clear to me that if the authors of this volume and I disagree, those disagreements are small, and within a narrow territory (the kind that lends weight to small disagreements). These disagreements, by my lights, are mostly pedagogical. Given the audience of this book (evangelicals) and its subject matter (the challenges of historical criticism), I see the authors’ point, made in the final lines of their essay, that such large and unwieldy tasks must be eaten like coconuts: poco a poco. But I disagree, I think, with where one ought to begin. Starting points are instructive, after all, and persuading students of the virtues of a scholarly discipline by minimizing its potential affects on or challenges to our present ways of thinking seems to be an effective means of calming anxieties, but perhaps less effective in commending engagement with that discipline. In the case of historical criticism, it has been my experience that the carrot is the stick. That is, historical criticism is compelling to many evangelical students precisely because it is capable of posing significant and yet still edifying challenges to their interpretation of these familiar texts and to the ways they have previously thought about revelation.

      The disagreements between Professor Crump and I appear to go a bit deeper. And although I think that there is some distance between the rather modest case I make above and what Crump understands me to have said, in the end this may prove a salient illustration of our differences. That is, for me there is a fairly wide distinction between the suggestion that historical criticism might stand to inform our reading of the Bible and in turn serve as a source for theological reflection and the dogged insistence Crump reads as implicit in my essay that historical criticism “ought to function as the final arbiter of what constitutes an acceptable Christian belief.” Crump is right—this is not a new conversation. Debates about the costs and benefits of plundering the Egyptians are as old as the tradition itself, as well as anxieties about pagan wisdom, pagan rhetoric. But for as long as we have feared the consequences of this move, we have found teachers among the likes of Plato, Avicenna or Nietzsche. I do not think this will change.

      Crump understands historical criticism’s challenges on strictly negative terms, as an ominous threat to the substance of faith—something that could only attenuate Christian claims and enfeeble our speech about God. What I try to commend above is not the “blind acceptance” of some knowledgeable nihilism, but the humble consideration that these scholars who have paid so much attention to our sacred texts may have something to teach us about them. There are differences, true, between reading the Bible as an artifact and reading it as scripture, but there are likely blindnesses that attend to each of these readerly postures—blindnesses best exposed by reading alongside those who have been apprenticed to engagement with these texts on different terms. I can still remember the first time I learned from one such reader that the story of Babel never mentions pride. This is a slight example, but it was the beginning of my own long education in the forms of blindness that might accompany dogmatic reading. Where I have objected above to engagements with these other readers that are driven primarily by doctrinal concerns rather than a shared an interest in the words on the page, these objections are not to dogma or belief as such, but to those habits of thought that re-establish the old boundaries and antagonisms, and make for hardened, torpefied readers who are incapable of being pulled up short by the texts in front of them.

      In his commentary on the Psalms, Origen of Alexandria writes that whoever receives scripture as inspired by the Creator of the world ought not to be surprised by texts that are obscure, or that appear contradictory, for we should expect to find within scripture the same difficulties met by those who study the system of the universe. God’s creation, God’s revelation, ought to be considered on a scale appropriate to its complexity. On these terms, the scientist and the historical critic alike may offer us instruction not in nihilism, but in reverence, if only that they remind us of the difficulties of considering the works of God’s hands and in this way slow our attention.

      The Bible is full of gentle reminders that the appearance of outsiders or enemies can be deceiving—that antagonisms are not always what they seem. As Marilynne Robinson once said, meditating on Jacob’s wrestling that mysterious stranger: in the fiercest struggle, the most frightening adversary may have come to bless you.

      In the end, I don’t take my reflections above as an account of why theology ought to subject itself to the findings of critical study (though there are certainly both books and panels on this website that argue that point well). Instead, I’m making what I take to be a much smaller point: that theology ought to be accountable to our ongoing reading and interpretation of scripture. And when our interpretive faculties have been dulled by those dogmatisms that persuade us we already know all that we need to know, that we have already understood, we may well need gadflys and “passionate pagans” to give us new eyes to see and ears to both hear and interpret the words on these pages before us.

Sarah Whittle

Response

Scripture Making

The Authority of Moses and the Apostle Paul

I AM GRATEFUL FOR Hays and Ansberry’s attempts to articulate the need for a sensitive and theologically thoughtful engagement with historical critical scholarship. To reject the findings of such work or refuse to engage would be to purposely remain in ignorance in the face of some fairly compelling evidence and strikes me as particularly unhelpful for evangelical scholarship. As the book demonstrates with a range of texts, problems, and approaches, there are ways in which the results of historical-critical scholars can be the basis for a greatly enriched understanding. In this response I would like to look in particular at an issue emerging from the essay “No Covenant Before the Exile? The Deuteronomic Torah: Mosaic Authorship.”

Partly because the question of Mosaic authorship is one of the first stumbling blocks that beginner students encounter and partly because my research in Paul’s letter to the Romans led me to see that the Apostle Paul has appropriated “Moses” in a way that I recognised from the essay, this short response will extend the work done in the book into the Paul’s reception of “Moses” and therefore extend some of the conclusions about authorship, authority, tradition, and reception. If evangelicals have responded to historical-critical scholarship’s conclusions that canonical Deuteronomy is exilic or post-exilic by attempting “to shield the document from the force of such reconstructions”1 this is a proposal to lay bare the Deuteronomistic Moses and see some of the results.

First a brief look of the historical-critical state of play. In a section on the provenance of the Deuteronomic Torah, Ansberry and Hwang set out the grounds for and against a pre-exilic and then an exilic/post-exilic Urdeuteronomium using internal and external evidence. As the study moves on to look particularly at compositional history, three basic categories are proposed. The first is that the core of Deuteronomy (4:45—26:19; perhaps also 28:1–69) was composed in Josiah’s reforms and a later writer(s) incorporated new material along with old, pre-Deuteronomic material in the exilic period. The second is that Deuteronomy evolved in several editions. Unlike the first proposal, this removes key material (5–11; 6:18—18.21) from the core of the text and situates those chapters in the exilic period. The third is for dating layers of redaction, with the earliest version of Deuteronomy in a post-586 setting. As the authors put it, “Even if the core of the document is situated sometime in the pre-exilic period, this core is generally agreed to have been expanded in the exilic and post-exilic periods to produce the canonical form of Deuteronomy.”2

So historical-critical work on Deuteronomy has seriously problematized issues of dating and authorial ascriptions of parts of Deuteronomy to Moses have been rejected. Where do we go from there? One option is to ignore such conclusions. Another is to engage with the findings of the historical critics working at uncovering redactional layers of Deuteronomy or attempting to establish its relationship with 2 Kings 22–23, to give just two examples. If we have to move on from Mosaic authorship, and it is my view that we do, what kind of integrity does Deuteronomy have and where does authority lie? In fact, out of the challenges that historical-critical scholarship presents to the provenance and therefore authority of the text some rather creative and positive implications for Moses and the authority of Moses emerge, shedding significant light on the nature of Scripture and authority.

Hindy Najman has been developing ideas around rewritten bible and authority and has proposed the idea of “Mosaic Discourse” to express a range of texts which invoke Moses as authoritative for interpretations of Mosaic law and tradition.3 In Seconding Sinai, Najman sets out four aspects of Mosaic discourse: 1. It claims the authority of older texts in the tradition by reinterpreting them in an authoritative way. 2. The new text describes itself as an authentic expression of the Torah of Moses. 3. It is said to be a re-presentation of the revelation at Sinai—with an emphasis is on an access to revelation through a re-creation of the Sinai experience, so that even in destruction and exile the strategy “emphasises the presentness of the Sinai event.”4 4. The new text is said to be associated with or produced by Moses, a claim that “serves to authorise the new interpretations as divine revelation or dictation and as prophecy or inspired interpretation.”5 According to Najman’s proposal, authority is based in the person of Moses and ongoing authoritative interpretations are made in Moses’ name. And according to this claim, the book of Dueteronomy is the origin of the Mosaic discourse.

Turning to the text of Deuteronomy, one striking feature is the way in which the Sinai event is relativized; Moses addresses his audience on the plains of Moab as if they are those who themselves experienced Sinai: “The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. Not with our fathers did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us alive here this day” (5:2–3). On the face of it, that clearly is not true! Yet here we have the Mosaic discourse at work; the authority of Moses and the Sinai event is reinterpreted as Deuteronomy declares the day an historic day of covenant making, exhorting the people as though they stand before the Lord at Horeb (4:10, 15; 9:10; 18:16). In the words of David Allen “The text is a re-presentation, a ‘deutero-nomos’ that translates the events geographically to the Moabite plain, chronologically to the close of the wilderness period, (and subsequently to (post)-exilic generations) and in terms of audience to those who could not themselves have been witnesses to the events (cf. Deut 2:16).”6 There are many more examples of Deuteronomy functioning as the basis for the Mosaic discourse. Does knowing Deuteronomy’s re-presentation of Moses and re-statement of Moses’ authority alter our perception of the authority of the text?

According to Najman, this approach becomes increasingly important in Rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity. So subsequently, when Paul places Christ in the wilderness with the Israelites (1 Cor 10:4), claims that the Corinthian’s Israelite “ancestors” serve as an example for them (1 Cor 10:6), or states that the Israelites at Sinai “put Christ to the test” (1 Cor 10:9), I would argue that he is not being disingenuous or merely clever. Moreover, when he appropriates the Sinai covenant motif and its renewals for Christ believers (Rom 9:25–26, cf. Hos 2:23b–c and 1:10 b–c) or compares and contrasts his own ministry in the new covenant with that of Moses (Exod 32–34 in 2 Cor 3) he is not proof texting or looking for a handy authority figure.7 No, Paul’s instructions and claims to authority even within the communities of Corinth and Rome should map on to Moses’ authority, because authority resides in Moses. Paul is being faithful to the tradition of appropriating Mosaic discourse. And he is working backwards as well as forwards.

Since Deuteronomy presents the literary paradigm for Mosaic discourse, the ongoing, present, participation in the Sinai event, regardless of one’s geographic or chronological position, it is the obvious place for Paul to go for authorisation of the incorporation of the gentiles into this covenant-making tradition and into the people of God. And all of this backed up by the authority of Moses, demonstrating that in Paul’s time it was still possible to produce texts that participated in the Mosaic discourse. Paul stands in the interpretative tradition, invoking Moses for the ongoing work of God.8 Clark Pinnock in The Scripture Principal has a has a broad and dynamic proposal for authority that goes someway towards explaining how such a corporate project might function when he says that it becomes apparent that “inspiration is not one single activity but a broader superintendence over a process of Scripture making that is not simple but complex . . . We are not privileged to observe how, in hidden and mysterious ways the Spirit worked alongside the human agents in the creative literary work, but we can plainly see what was done.”9

Historical criticism alerts us to the complicated relationship between Deuteronomy’s claim for Mosaic authority and the fact that it is likely to have been composed or largely redacted in the exilic or post-exilic period. This short response has highlighted the idea of Moses’ authority being carried forward enthusiastically and with integrity in authoritative interpretations. And Deuteronomy is a text with an inbuilt requirement that it be interpreted for the next generation. We can see this in Paul’s reception of Deuteronomy and the Mosaic discourse; he is being true to the nature of the text when he makes use of the motif of Deuteronomic covenant renewal, the promises to the Fathers, the covenant blessings and curses and the wilderness tradition, when he appropriates them for the life of Christ believers. As we are open to the findings of historical criticism, we also need to be open to rethinking authority in a different sense. It is quite apparent that the authors of Deuteronomy intended the book to be used in this way. Moreover, given the prevalence of Deuteronomy in Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity, it appears that many other interpreters of Scripture who went before us agreed.


  1. Christopher B. Ansberry and Jerry Hwang, “No Covenant Before the Exile?,” in Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism, edited by Christopher M. Hays and Christopher B. Ansberry (London: SPCK, 2013), 74.

  2. Ibid., 82. The authors do not deny that Deuteronomy lacks “authentically Mosaic traditions” but assert that Deuteronomy in its final canonical form does not derive from Moses himself (84 n. 27).

  3. Hindy Najman, Seconding Sinai: The Development of Mosaic Discourse in Second Temple Judaism (Leiden: Brill, 2002).

  4. Ibid., 17.

  5. Ibid.

  6. David M. Allen, Deuteronomy and Exhortation in Hebrews: A Study in Narrative Re-Presentation, WUNT 2.238 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008), 184. As Brevard Childs puts it “The writer of Deuteronomy consciously relativizes the importance of chronological time when describing the new generation as being fully involved in the events of the past” (Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (London: SCM, 1979), 222).

  7. Linda Belleville says of Paul’s engagement with Exod 32–34 in 2 Cor 3, “He introduces only those features of the text that meet his purpose and adapts them to fit his particular situation. So, the fact that Paul makes sustained use of Exodus 34:28–35 says nothing about the primary importance of this text; it merely indicates that various aspects of Moses’ behaviour and the Israelites response provide a good foil for what Paul wants his readers to understand” (Belleville, Reflections of Glory, Paul’s Polemical Use of the Moses-Doxa Tradition in 2 Corinthians 3:12–18, JSNTSup 52 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1981), 297).

  8. Sarah Whittle, Covenant Renewal and the Consecration of the Gentiles, SNTSMS 161 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

  9. Clark H. Pinnock, The Scripture Principle (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), 63.

  • Hays-Ansberry

    Reply

    Response to Sarah Whittle

    Everyone is conditioned or influenced by their environment. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In the most general terms, one’s cultural context, gender, race, socioeconomic class, and community, to name just a few, influence the way in which one perceives the world. These conditioning factors contribute to human understanding. And they contribute to one’s reading and interpretation of texts. By bringing these influences to bear on one’s reading of a text, fresh questions may be asked, new horizons may open, and alternative expressions of a text’s voice may be heard. The potential drawback, however, is that these influences may lead to the imposition of concepts or values that are foreign to the witness of the text. Among other things, historical-critical methods help to guard against the imposition of foreign or anachronistic concepts on one’s reading of a text. As Sarah Whittle recognizes, this is one of the interpretive benefits of historical criticism; historical-critical methods illuminate the historical dimensions of Scripture and help to clarify ancient perceptions of authorship and authority.

    In conversation with the chapter devoted to the Deuteronomic Torah, and in the light of Hindy Najman’s treatment of the hermeneutical dynamics of “Mosaic discourse,” Dr. Whittle extends the discussion of ancient perceptions of authorship and authority to Paul’s reception and use of Moses and Mosaic texts. This is a valuable discussion that sketches some of the ways in which post-Deuteronomic readers within different communities participated in the interpretation and re-actualization of Mosaic discourse. Dr. Whittle suggests that Paul—much like those who came before him (see Jubilees and 11QTemple)—continued the legacy of appropriating Mosaic discourse in certain letters to early Christian communities. If this is the case, the conception of authorship and authority that seems to underlie the Deuteronomic Torah may also serve as a backdrop for understanding Paul’s use of Mosaic discourse. Likewise, the Deuteronomic paradigm of integrating interpretations into a seamless whole that is attributed to Moses may inform one’s understanding of Paul’s interpretation of Mosaic texts and his integration of these interpretations into a broader Mosaic discourse. While Dr. Whittle’s observations concerning Paul’s use of Moses’ authority and Mosaic discourse are brief, and her examples raise several questions, she nonetheless broadens the scope of the discussion within the volume and provides some food for further thought.

Stephen Fowl

Response

Things Done (pretty well), and Things Left Undone

EVANGELICAL FAITH AND THE Challenge of Historical Criticism. One can always argue about whether the titles of volumes actually correspond to the content. I do not want to do that. Rather, I want to note that this title informs readers that this volume enters into an arena that is often marked by sharp polemic, uncharitable interpretive habits, and deep anxieties around the perceived stakes involved in the discussion. To the authors and editors great credit they admirably avoid all of these. Although there are twelve different contributors to the various parts of this volume, the tone is measured throughout. The contributors treat their respective tasks with both seriousness and clarity. Moreover, one gets the impression that this volume arises from the contributors’ hard won personal struggles both as scholars and teachers. Finally, despite the large numbers of contributors the book has its own internal coherence. This is a volume one can engage.

To begin I would like to probe the larger framework within which the contributors offer their specific chapters. The introduction contains three sentences filled with italics for emphasis. These are not the only things worth reading in the introduction. Nevertheless, taken together they account for some of the animating forces and hoped for results of this volume. Here they are excised from their context:

1) “Consequently, this book discusses the theological challenges that confront the biblical interpreter who engages with historical criticism” (5).

2) “As such, it is the goal of the present volume to illustrate that historical criticism need not imperil any of the fundamental dogmatic tenets of Christianity” (5).

3) “But the crucial question which this book hopes to pose is: to what degree do the enscripturated events, attributions and expectations need to have occurred as described in order to maintain the integrity of evangelical Christian theology?” (13).

My view is that the first of these sentences raises a hope on which the volume fails to deliver. This is not a volume that deals with theology very much at all. Further, there is little discussion of or even recognition that there are a large number of volumes that do address these theological matters. In addition, this volume is not really interested in historical criticism in its current fragmented state.1 It is mostly interested the judgments that biblical scholars offer about the historicity of various aspects of the Bible.

The second sentence is certainly one I agree with, but it would require a much more fulsome engagement with all of the practices that might go under the name of historical criticism in order to illustrate its point.

The final sentence is really “the crucial question this book hopes to pose.” It is where the various contributions expend the majority of their effort. Matters of historicity, rather than a more general account of historical criticism, drive this volume. Even so, this sentence also raises some difficulties. First, although the introduction offers a limited and generous definition of evangelicalism taken from the Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology, without some sort of magisterial body or some unifying creedal statement, it seems impossible to render judgments about whether and how any particular claim affects the “integrity of evangelical Christian theology.” Nevertheless, this theoretical problem does not have much impact on the specific chapters of the volume. This is because most of the contributors operate, either in practice or explicitly, with a more generalized account of Christianity as represented by the creeds of Nicea and Chalcedon.

There is also a larger difficulty here. In various evangelical contexts I have been, and even in my home context in a Jesuit university, one from time to time encounters the view that if Scripture is inaccurate in any of its parts, if all of the “events, attributions and expectations” in Scripture did not happen, then Christianity (or at least someone’s faith) is in peril. This is a high stakes affair that requires pastoral and pedagogical wisdom to address each case as it comes. Nevertheless, at a conceptual level one must ultimately address this view by bringing students to a new and better theological understanding of the nature, purposes, and ends of Scripture within the divine economy. If one does not get to this point, if one instead focuses on getting the students to understand ancient literary, generic, and historiographic conventions so that they can bring the right set of historical expectations to Scripture, one has just kicked the can down the road. Eventually, some historical problem will arise in some form that cannot be addressed with these new historically sophisticated tools.

A theological account of Scripture must be theoretically primary, even if the process for arriving at it is indirect. This volume does not really attempt such an account. Perhaps this is because such an account would involve an engagement with “inerrancy” in ways that would defeat the larger rhetorical aims of the book. There are some hints and gestures toward this type of theological account in the introduction. For example, John Webster’s dogmatic work on Scripture is mentioned, but not taken up in a way that provides a theological account of Scripture. In addition, there are other volumes that do this and some would even do this in a way that many would count to be “evangelical.” There is little, if any, engagement with them here.

All of this is to say, that I would not introduce students to this book until the necessary theological groundwork was in place. With that in place, however, these chapters become much more useful. By the end of the chapters on Gen 2–3 and Exodus (chapters 2 and 3 of the volume), most of the themes and issues of the whole volume have already made an appearance. I say this not to diminish the achievements of later chapters, but to account for my focus on these two. Chapter 2 takes on Adam and the fall. Here one gets introduced to some issues of source criticism and the conventions of ancient Near Eastern notions of historicity. The aim here is, at least in the first instance, to get readers to recognize that these texts may not address the questions we want to address to them. Hence, one should not judge these texts to be historically deficient in doing something they never sought to do. This is an important caution. At the same time, Christians sometimes must address questions to Scripture that the initial authors or editors of a text never thought to answer. Christians confidently do this because of the theological conviction that in Scripture God has graciously provided a crucial resource that they need to journey back to their true home in God. Some recognition of this necessity would have been useful in this and other chapters.

The chapter on the exodus begins by citing G. E. Wright’s conviction that at least for evangelicals it is crucial that the events in the Bible actually took place. This is because the events are the medium of divine revelation. It goes on to note the obvious consequences for a faith founded on this conviction if it turns out that the events transpired in other ways or not at all. To my mind, this claim invites a sustained theological argument that shifts the burden of mediating revelation from the events to the text. That would then reconfigure the relationships between believers and the events discussed in Scripture in ways that might alter a believer’s relationship to various historical questions. That never really happens. Instead we are offered a very generous account of the scholarly state of play on the whether some sort of exodus from Egypt took place. It appears that neither the minimalist camp which denies any sort of exodus nor the maximalist camp really wins the day. The data are equivocal, indirect, and inconclusive.

Nevertheless, one of the overriding concerns of this volume comes to clear expression here in this chapter on Exodus. The concern here is that if the events narrated in Exodus (or elsewhere in Scripture, presumably) do not find some historical foothold then Israel’s identity, Christian identity, God’s character, and believers’ faith and hope could be set adrift. Of course, this raises the question of how much of a foothold is enough?

I would also like to suggest that for the theological issues around identity, God’s character, and believers’ hope, historical footholds are not sufficient. Historical investigation could in theory falsify Christian and Jewish claims. Historical investigation cannot establish a basis for Christian doctrine or hope. Let us assume that we found irrefutable historical evidence establishing that a large number of Israelites left Egypt on a clearly specifiable day, traveling through the route laid out in Exodus. Such evidence would not be sufficient to sustain Jewish or Christian faith or hope. This is because faith and hope are not primarily founded on the events, but on the conviction that it was God who did it. That conviction cannot be historically demonstrated one way or another.

Unless the theological claims about God’s action (mediated by the words of Exodus) lies at the base of one’s understanding of these events, then the exodus, even on the maximalists’ account, is simply a very large slave revolt. Of course, if there were no exodus at all, then that could falsify some doctrines or convictions. That possibility may be sufficient reason for evangelicals to engage in such historical investigations, but such engagement on its own cannot provide the basis for faith, hope, or love.

The volume also contains chapters on the provenance and compositional history of Deuteronomy as well as well as the more general chapter on pseudepigraphy. These are sandwiched around a chapter on prophecy and its relationships to the events covered in those prophecies. There are also chapters on Jesus and Paul. These authors, again, are generous in their accounts of the critical landscape. Although, this attitude is a strength of the volume as a whole, I wonder if the authors might have offered some sharper criticisms about the strength of specific historical claims, about the nature of the evidence, about the methods we have for evaluating that evidence, about the level of speculation that is often involved in scholarly judgments, and about the need to proportion assent to evidence. That is, perhaps there is a need to be a bit more critical about the claims of historical critics. This might work to undermine the contributors’ larger aims of encouraging evangelical involvement in these various critical practices. Nevertheless, biblical scholarship seems to be entering a period where many “assured results” are being probed and questioned on scholarly grounds. It is an exciting time from a scholarly perspective and that is worth noting too.

Throughout these chapters one gets the message that the results of various historical reconstructions are not catastrophic for “the integrity of evangelical Christian theology.” At the same time, this reality should serve as a call for deeper evangelical engagement with the practices of professional biblical scholars. This may well be true. Apart from a larger theological account of Scripture within the divine economy, however, one gets the impression that much of this engagement could simply become a defensive shoring up of potentially problematic claims about the relationships between particular convictions and specific events related in Scripture. Moreover, as the careers of numerous evangelical scholars show, there are often differing views between scholars and university presidents and boards about what is catastrophic for evangelical theology.

Nevertheless, I am sympathetic to the argument for such engagement that is offered in the conclusion to the chapter on the historical Jesus. The authors make the claim for the need to engage in at least some of these historical investigations. “To forego active engagement would be to abandon the title of ‘expert’ to many scholars whose views the orthodox academic finds deeply objectionable, thereby to leave the laity of our congregations unnecessarily vulnerable to the extremes of unchecked historical caricatures” (181). As someone who often speaks to congregations who have had exposure to the work of John Dominic Crossan, I can only say, Amen.

The volume concludes with a plea for evangelical scholars to be faithful critics with a critical faith. The editors recognize that scholars will bring a variety of interpretive concerns to bear on the Bible. Historical-critical interests and theological interests along with others are welcome. At this point, however, I would like to raise a larger question with regard to the practices of professional biblical scholars and how these are related to the theological concerns scholars may wish to bring to Scripture.

If you were to pick up a journal in the field of biblical studies or to attend a professional conference of biblical scholars, two things would strike you. First, the material under discussion is both exceedingly diverse and complex. Secondly, those who are fully participating in the discussions and debates are able to address the diversity and complexity relatively well. What I mean is they are able to figure out where the critical issues lie; they can make judgments about the weight and relevance of particular claims; they can come to a conclusion which they can defend, revise, or abandon in the light of new evidence or superior arguments. This shows that these scholars have been more or less well formed to be particular types of readers. It is simply the case that you cannot successfully and proficiently enter into these professional discussions and debates without prior formation. Those with PhDs in biblical studies recognize this.

Alternatively, the academic formation of professional biblical scholars is generally weakest when it comes to theological matters and how to bring theological concerns to bear on scriptural interpretation. If, as the contributors to this volume argue, evangelical biblical scholars should bring both historical and theological concerns to bear on Scripture, how are they to be formed to read theologically? How are they to manage the relationships between these two different types of reading? How are conflicts discerned? How are resolutions negotiated? How does one establish priorities between these two ways of reading? My point is not to claim that the historical and the theological will always be in conflict. Neither is one easily reducible to the other. Rather, I simply want to recognize that the type of balance advocated in this volume does not happen naturally. It requires just as much formation on the theological side as the historical side. Currently, however, only one of these sides receives much attention in most graduate programs in biblical studies. I suggest that addressing this issue should rise to the top of any set of priorities evangelical scholars would want to set for themselves if they were to move forward in the light of the proposals in this book. The fact that these chapters are marked by an irenic tone, a generosity of perspective, and an openness to engagement should be a good indication that such progress is possible.


  1. I may be mistaken, but only in the conclusion does a phrase like, “the family of historical critical methods” appear (e.g., 208). Even here, however, it is not clear how widely the contributors really engage the members of this family.

  • Hays-Ansberry

    Reply

    Response to Stephen E. Fowl

    I (Hays) will freely admit to feeling a kind of geeky excitement when I saw that Stephen Fowl had agreed to write a review of EFCHC. As a Wheaton grad twice over who did a doctorate with the venerable Anthony Thiselton, Prof. Fowl is one of the most theologically and hermeneutically sensitive biblical scholars out there. His review did not disappoint; it provided us with a great deal of fodder for conversation and reflection.

    Perhaps I can begin addressing one of the stark critiques that Fowl makes early in his review: that EFCHC “fails to deliver” on its promise to “discuss the theological challenges that confront the biblical interpreter who engages with historical criticism.” Here Fowl’s concern seems to be specifically that we do not discuss fundamental theological questions relating to the doctrine of Scripture and the nature of revelation; that is the sort of inquiry at which Fowl excels and it is true that we (quite intentionally) do not explore that topic. Rather, the “theological challenges” we referred to were those specified in the other sentence Fowl cites: “to what degree do the enscripturated events, attributions and expectations need to have occurred as described in order to maintain the integrity of evangelical Christian theology?” The latter sentence was intended to clarify what was meant by the former, but we quite understand Fowl’s disappointment that we did not elaborate a more fundamental theological account of the nature of revelation and Scripture.1

    So, why not? Why didn’t we explain what we thought would be the right way to understand Scripture, especially if we sympathize with Fowl’s logic in saying that “a theological account of Scripture must be theoretically primary”?

    Fowl anticipates one of the reasons: if we have to talk about a doctrine of Scripture, then we have to talk about inerrancy, and if we talk about inerrancy, then we are going to lose one half of our audience. Naturally, if this book were intended as an account of the “right way to do historical criticism,” then we probably would have to just resign ourselves to losing half (or more) of our audience. But the book had a more modest goal: to say that evangelicals simply should be more earnest about doing historical criticism. In light of that modest goal, a detailed doctrine of Scripture would be counterproductive.

    Second, one of the book’s priorities was to model collaboration on the subject of criticism between evangelical scholars of very different stripes: we wanted to show that inerrantists and non-inerrantists could talk productively about these matters without descending into the sort of rancor that has characterized a lot of evangelical engagement on this subject hitherto. (We are grateful that Prof. Fowl recognized that this was no small challenge, and flattered that he thinks we succeeded.) Unfortunately, defining a doctrine of Scripture would have eliminated the diversity we needed to achieve this goal. “Ecumenical” endeavors choose to say less, to leave certain things under-defined, in order to have a specific conversation with a larger group. So “less was more.”

    Third, we did not define a doctrine of Scripture because, frankly, I (Hays) was not ready to do so in much more detail than merely, “Whatever God wants the Bible to do, it does truly.” Other people have written such works, with which EFCHC can helpfully be paired, but as a biblical scholar in my twenties, I lacked the requisite clarity to write my own. And I think that my cloudiness on that matter is a direct result of the problematic way some evangelicals have hitherto tended to talk about the doctrine of Scripture: long on speculative syllogisms and short on the actual historical phenomena of Scripture. To wit, evangelical doctrines of Scripture tend to follow this sort of logic: Scripture is the *W*ord of God; God is perfect; therefore Scripture must be perfect. This ambiguous but powerful syllogism then distorts the way that one interacts with historical criticism, insofar as criticism’s conclusion that things might not have happened historically as described in the Bible is seen to be an example of Scripture not being perfect. Is that sloppy reasoning? Absolutely. But I think it is representative of how the conversations on this subject tend to work, and I think that having a larger measure of the relevant and probable historical critical data is helpful in providing a more nuanced account of Scripture’s truthfulness. So in that sense, I do not agree with Prof. Fowl that a doctrine of Scripture is theoretically primary; I don’t think attempts to construct a doctrine of Scripture in advance of engaging with historical criticism can be successful precisely because one of the greatest benefits of historical criticism is to help us see what sort of texts the Scriptures are.

    Notwithstanding that we demurred from providing a theological account of Scripture’s nature and purposes in the divine economy, Prof. Fowl is certainly right that the general contours of such an account could provide a valuable heuristic framework for understanding certain historical-critical proposals. Prof. Fowl suggests that the most natural place for such a discussion is the chapter devoted to the exodus. And he’s right. In view of G. Ernest Wright’s conviction that the events reported in Scripture constitute the “chief medium of revelation,” some discussion of the locus of revelation is in order.

    This is tricky territory for evangelicals. Many, if not most, evangelicals have parted ways with Wright and those of his stripe. They no longer locate revelation in the actual events within Israel’s history. Put differently, the purported events re-presented in Scripture are not the locus of revelation. Rather the text represents the locus of revelation; its re-presentation and interpretation of the event serves as the focus of attention and “the chief medium of revelation.” As Fowl suggests, this shift reorients one’s conception of the event. It removes the burden from the event and places it on the text. It excuses one from reconstructing the event. It acknowledges that, even if one is able to reconstruct the event, its meaning or signification remains unclear. It helps one to understand that faith is not necessarily rooted in the event, but rather in the theological interpretation of the purported event. This reconfigures the relationship between believers and the events recorded in Scripture. As Fowl indicates, it may even alter a believer’s relationship to certain historical questions.2

    But herein lies the rub for many evangelicals. While the textual re-presentation of purported events, rather than the actual events or Israel’s testimony to these events, may represent the locus of revelation (at least as far as we have access to it today), the occurrence of the event is fundamental for many. The text may take pride of place, but the occurrence-character of the event remains a necessary antecedent. Or put differently, Prof. Fowl is certainly right that mere “historical footholds are not sufficient” for faith, but some of them are necessary. By shifting the burden to the text, one may relieve the event of the burden of disclosing its own significance. But if the event remains a principal part of the text’s revelatory account, then a theological account of the nature of Scripture or a judgment concerning the locus of revelation does not solve the problem. A treatment of these matters may ameliorate certain concerns or soften the force of particular questions. Nonetheless, without an understanding of ancient literary, generic, and historiographic conventions that recalibrate one’s historical expectations, a theological account of Scripture remains a conceptual framework. If attention to ancient historiographic conventions to the exclusion of a theological account of Scripture is tantamount to “kicking the can down the road,” perhaps attention to a theological account of Scripture to the exclusion of ancient historiographic conventions is tantamount to kicking the can back up the road.

    Prof. Fowl concludes on a matter with which we feel strong agreement: the importance of theological education in biblical studies programs. He makes the case precisely because the critical issues raised by historical scholarship require theologically astute engagement. But let me (Hays) sharpen the point: the problem is perhaps less about the amount of attention that theology gets in a graduate program on biblical studies than it is about the sort of theology that gets attention in a graduate program on biblical studies. In an evangelical context, most Bible MAs I have seen actually include a number of theology classes. The problem with some of these classes (again, in the evangelical context) is that they tend to only use theologians from within the evangelical canon (i.e., they leap from Paul to Augustine to Luther/Calvin to Packer/Grudem, reading all the former in the light of the latter). They tend to skip the great continental theologians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, i.e., precisely the people who grappled with Scripture after F. C. Baur, and if such figures are read, it tends to be in small selections or via second-hand summations.

    For me (Hays), it was revolutionary to take a class on Barth (at Wheaton, I hasten to say, though admittedly not during my degree in Biblical Exegesis), and to read his account of a threefold sense of revelation. Learning that there were a lot of different ways in which I could think of revelation, and of the ways that Scripture could be revelatory, gave me a lot of hope and resources when trying to deal with the historical questions that had arisen for me during my previous biblical studies. It seems obvious to me that the commitment to serious theological inquiry in dialogue with honest and probing exegetical and historical-critical study—the sort of approach exemplified by people like Prof. Fowl and Prof. Sparks—marks the way forward for even very conservative Christian scholarship, even if the latter will likely conduct that dialogue in a different fashion.


    1. The ambiguity of the book’s title may also have generated expectations that we would attempt something more comprehensive than we did. Our working title for the text was actually Strange Bedfellows: Evangelical Faith and Historical Criticism. It aimed to communicate an interest in the more modest question of whether our faith was really incompatible with criticism, rather than to elaborate a comprehensive account of how evangelicals should use historical criticism. Alas, our publishers were afraid that the title would suggest an interest in sexual ethics, and suggested a rather more subdued title in hopes that it would encourage classroom use!

    2. As an aside, Prof. Fowl expressed his wish that we had acknowledged that “Christians sometimes must address questions to Scripture that the initial authors or editors of a text never thought to answer. Christians confidently do this because of the theological conviction that in Scripture God has graciously provided a crucial resource that they need to journey back to their true home in God.” Personally, I (Hays) am quite happy to acknowledge as much, especially because I know that Prof. Fowl does not mean that we can expect Scripture to answer any and every question we’d put to it (e.g., asking Genesis how old the earth might be). But I have a genuine uncertainty as to how I ought to think about what sort of historically foreign questions I can or can’t put to the Bible. Fowl indicates the relevance of the sort of questions that help us on our journey back home to God. While I agree with the premise, I feel like my selection of such questions still runs the risk of being ad hoc, circumscribed by an unspoken (or perhaps unconscious) set of expectation about what questions are reasonable. I would be earnestly delighted to hear Prof. Fowl’s comments on this subject, since I do not feel capable of sorting it myself.

    • Stephen Fowl

      Stephen Fowl

      Reply

      Along the Road Laid Down by Christ

      I am deeply flattered by Chris Hays’ expression of “geeky excitement.” It is, however, probably a sign that both of us need to get out more. I also appreciate his clarifications in response to my comments. I have learned both from his responses and the very thoughtful comments of my colleagues on this virtual panel. It reminds me that no matter how well we all do an enterprise like this, there is no substitute for face-to-face engagement. I hope he and I will have the chance to do that soon.

      Although I remain convinced of the a theology of Scripture should be primary to any account of the ways in which believers of any stripe might engage with the work of professional biblical scholars, I certainly appreciate the aims and concerns that led Hays et al. to construct their volume as they did. Given the overwhelmingly irenic tone of this volume, it strikes me that that they have done what they could have done to ensure the largest possible audience for their claims. Given that, I want to respond by reiterating a point I made briefly and by asking a further question.

      First, it would seem to me that given the desire to increase Evangelicals’ engagements with the work of biblical scholars by showing that the theological stakes are lower than some might think, there is an equally strong argument for demystifying such scholarly work on its own terms as well. Here are a few thoughts about that. The practices that go under the name historical criticism are pretty diverse. Moreover there is a wide range of scholarly activity that is neither theological, but could not really be characterized as “historical critical” either. If one were to look over the program book for any recent SBL meeting this is clear. Indeed, glancing at the program book confirms that biblical scholarship is a highly fragmented enterprise.

      In terms of interpretive method, it is clear that no single interpretive approach can persuasively lay claim to deliver the meaning of any particular biblical text. Indeed over the past 30 years biblical scholars as a group have become much more sophisticated hermeneutically. It has become extremely difficult to sustain the claim that the meaning of a biblical text is simply one thing and all other interpretations are either error or something subsidiary or derivative. Instead the large institutions that sustain biblical scholarship tend to let a great number of methodological flowers bloom while abstaining from judging which flowers are the prettiest.

      Even in terms of the more narrow questions around historicity that EFCHC focuses on, there are sharp disagreements about how to embark on and carry out certain historical investigations (e.g. questions around the historical Jesus). Further, there is an increasing sense among NT scholars that we know a lot less about the composition of the gospels and their interrelationships than we once thought. We argue a good deal about the nature and shape of various types of evidence and how to evaluate such evidence. I do not mean to say that we are inept. Indeed, there is a great deal of sophistication and erudition among biblical scholars. My point is that there is both extraordinary diversity within the guild and that many once settled views are no longer settled. One need not have, and probably cannot have, a single view about “historical criticism” because the term refers to too many different things. Given the rhetorical aims that led to the side stepping of many theological issues around Scripture, I wonder if there should have also been some attempts to de-mystify (not debunk) “historical criticism.”

      In addition to this observation, I wonder if there may be too easy an assumption that being “evangelical” entails some sort of commitment to inerrancy. At the very least there seems to be some slippage in the way the term “evangelical” or “Evangelical” is used. I do not have a dog in this fight, but it seems to me that it is one thing for, say, the Evangelical Covenant Church (which does not have a commitment to “inerrancy” as such) to articulate its own confessions, practices and standards. Then, as necessary, the ECC can discuss and argue with itself about whether any particular belief or practice is consistent with its identity. It is not at all clear to me how “Evangelicalism” as such does this? What are the canonical standards? Who gets to decide? The ETS? Colleges with confessional statements? Add to this a third use of “evangelical” as when someone identifies as an evangelical Episcopalian or Presbyterian. In those cases, the denomination’s identity plays a significant role in adjudicating debates about particular practices, beliefs and patterns of interpretation. No doubt, evangelical members of these denominations participate in those debates in ways that reflect a particular level of commitment to Scripture. Nevertheless, the term evangelical signifies that they are more like one constituency within a larger body. From what I gather so far, with regard to the important discussions this book engages in, people slip back and forth between these things. Perhaps resolving this is simply a question for another day.

      Finally, in a footnote Chris asks for my further thoughts about questions Christians put to Scripture that Scripture’s authors never thought to answer. Here are a few further thoughts: Sometimes Christians have to answer questions that Scripture puts on their theological agenda without actually answering. For example, Christians had to address how their retention of Israel’s commitment to God’s singularity squared with their commitment to Jesus’ divinity. Both claims are central to Scripture but their tensions and their ultimate resolution was not. Sometimes the contexts in which Christians find themselves raise issues and questions that the writers of Scripture could not have anticipated. Here one thinks of how Christians should address issues surrounding the use of military drones or global warming. Sometimes those contexts themselves need to be understood and diagnosed theologically with the help of Scripture. I am thinking here of how Christians might theologically understand various ways they might inhabit societies that are profoundly marked by consumerism, nationalism, and racism. Clearly, this is not an exhaustive taxonomy of such questions.

      Chris is concerned that this selection of questions, “will be ad hoc, circumscribed by an unspoken or unconscious set of expectations about what questions are reasonable.” I do not think of this as a “risk;” it is inevitable. Christian communities by virtue of their relationship to Scripture are always engaged in such arguments about how best to embody Scripture in the contexts in which they find themselves. When and as it seems appropriate, they should avail themselves of the work of biblical scholars. More importantly, however, they depend on their common prayer and worship, as well as the power of the Spirit. They need to be vigilant about their manifest capacities to read in ways that underwrite their sin; they need to cultivate sustained attention to a variety of voices both within and without their communities; they need to confess and repent of their sin when they fail. Argument, debate and discussion are built into Christianity because of its commitments to Scripture. There seems little point in trying to eliminate all argument. Rather, Christians need to focus on how to make those arguments sound, productive, and edifying

      One of the things that may be most troubling to some evangelicals is that this account does not make Scripture and its interpretation an end in itself. In this account, Scriptural interpretation is instrumental to pursuit of the ends of the Christian life, ever deeper communion with God and neighbor. Scripture is the vehicle to bring us to our true home in God along the road laid down by Christ. I suppose that is why I pushed to make a theology of Scripture theoretically primary to an account of how to engage the work of biblical scholars.

      Finally, let me reiterate my thanks to the contributors to this volume and to Chris Hays in particular for their good work, even temper, and grace towards their critics.

David Crump

Response

Though I Walk through the Valley of the Shadow of the Critics

EVANGELICALS HAVE WRESTLED WITH the challenges raised by the methods and conclusions of higher criticism for a long time. The recent book, Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism (Baker Academic, 2013), edited by C. Hays and C. Ansberry continues that conversation with a collection of essays targeting conservative members of the church who remain suspicious of historical criticism in particular. Nine chapters covering a wide swath of historical-critical concerns in both the Old and the New Testaments intend to show that accepting the results of historical-critical investigation will not necessarily undermine the gospel, evangelical faith, or orthodox Christian doctrine. It will be interesting to see how convincing their arguments prove to be among their conservative, target audience.

I know that I have one long-standing question about historical criticism that is still waiting for an answer. What is historical criticism, exactly? The assortment of methodologies dealt with by the various authors in this collection is another example of the ill-defined character of this discipline. Once the basic question of definition has been asked, we ought then to ask: what is the appropriate relationship between Christian faith and historical evidence? Is the task at hand primarily one of illuminating Scripture or of providing evidence for the reasonableness of faith?

I confess that the exact definition and methodology of historical criticism has always eluded me, and I do not think it is only because I can be a bit dim-witted. The term is slippery, regularly being used to denote a variety of different methodological tools as if they were interchangeable. Here are some of the apparent “meanings” that I have identified (both in this book and in others), proceeding from the least to the most controversial applications.

1. In its most innocent form, historical criticism is nearly synonymous with the grammatical-historical method of biblical exegesis. Investigating the details of historical context, cultural background, and the linguistic content of a written text are essential to an accurate understanding of any Scripture passage, and are often presented as the sine qua non of an historical-critical reading of the Bible. For example, reading the Gospels’ portrait of Jesus in light of the diverse messianic expectations known to exist in Second Temple Judaism would be an example of this application of historical criticism, where it serves the non-controversial purposes of reading and understanding Scripture more accurately (see chapter 7, “The Historical Jesus”).

2. Identifying internal evidence for the evolutionary, editorial development of a biblical book or passage is also sometimes described as historical criticism. Chapter 4, entitled “No Covenant Before the Exile? The Deuteronomic Torah and Israel’s Covenant Theology,” illustrates this use of the term in its discussion of the book of Deuteronomy and the various attempts to determine whether it is a pre- or a post-exilic document. To the extent that investigators draw on historical information external to the biblical text, this is obviously an exercise in historical analysis, but insofar as the analysis becomes wholly internal, comparing one supposed layer of textual tradition with another, the analysis morphs into a purely literary enterprise and is best described (I think) as a form of literary or tradition criticism. Speculating on the compositional history of a text by analyzing internal evidence alone is a very different process from interpreting a text in the light of external evidence, material or otherwise. So why do we continue to label both of them as historical criticism?

3. Another sense of historical criticism, closely related to #2 above, involves speculating about the compositional/editorial history of a text when it is read through the lens of a particular literary theory serving as a template for interpretation. The classic example of this is the application of the Documentary Hypothesis (the JEDP theory), or one of its many reformulations, concerning the Pentateuch. This, too, is more literary than historical criticism since there is no real external, historical evidence to be had in this debate. The Documentary Hypothesis is only historical in the sense that it offers the hypothetical “history” of a collection of texts constructed on the basis of a prior theoretical reconstruction of its sources, tradents, and original Sitz im Leben. This approach may emulate the scientific method insofar as it tries to offer an all-encompassing, explanatory hypothesis that best accounts for the available, textual evidence. But, for this same reason, it is also a (viciously) circular argument that can easily leave critics trapped in their own methodological straightjacket. The theory determines our reading of the evidence which continues to bolster the explanatory power of the theory. Round and round we go. However, repetition alone is not an argument unless one seeks to convince via boredom. Nor does this logical circle necessarily justify the reigning theory so much as it may testify to the need for a paradigm shift in the way we approach the evidence, allowing for a new theory to emerge.

4. The most commonly understood task of historical criticism involves comparing the historical claims of Scripture against extra-biblical records and archaeological evidence related to the biblical story in order to evaluate the historical reliability of the biblical narrative and perhaps to rewrite the story where “needed.” Revisiting the stories of the exodus and the Israelite conquest of Canaan in light of the relevant archaeological discoveries, much of which appears to conflict with the accounts laid out in Exodus and Joshua, are examples of this brand of historical criticism, as demonstrated in chapter 3, entitled “The Exodus: Fact, Fiction or Both?” This is also the point at which more conservative readers of Scripture will begin to feel most uncomfortable, for now extra-biblical information is not being used to illuminate Scripture (as in #1 above) but to judge or to contradict it.

5. Adjudicating questions of pseudepigraphic authorship is, perhaps, best categorized as a subset of #3 above. Chapter 6, “Pseudepigraphy and the Canon,” is an example of this type of exercise, at least in its discussion of Paul’s writings and the debate over the so-called deutero-Pauline letters. A theory of false attribution (i.e., the Apostle Paul did not actually write those books, despite his name being attached to them) is proposed (presumably, though see below) on the basis of textual observations made throughout a collection of writings fit to a theory of development. The logic in this type of analysis shares the same circularity described above in connection with the Documentary Hypothesis. Do the facts fit and therefore validate the theory? Or does the theory predetermine the interpretation of the facts? Can a different sort of relationship be imagined between these facts and an alternative, historical reconstruction?

I honestly do not understand why the authorship of John’s gospel is included in the discussion of pseudepigraphy found in chapter 6. Since none of the Gospels make any explicit claims to authorship—such as, “I, John, am writing this to you”—analyzing the internal or external evidence concerning alternative authorships has nothing to do with false claims about authorial origins. None of the canonical Gospels, therefore, can be labeled as examples of pseudepigrapha. Thus, with this observation we arrive at the outer edges of these confusing, multiple definitions of historical criticism. Perhaps the authors have included pseudepigraphy under the umbrella of historical criticism because it also requires judging a text in light of an historical reconstruction—in this case, it is a theory about authorship rather than compositional development.

In any case, my questions remain. Is the “historical” component in historical criticism referring to the posited literary development supposedly found within a text when it is viewed through the correct hypothetical lens? In other words, are we talking about composition history?

Or is the historical component in historical criticism found through the empirical data of world history when that information is placed alongside the historical evidence found in the Bible? In which case, historical criticism is about using external evidence to evaluate the historical claims of Scripture.

Or is historical criticism to be so broadly defined that it includes any study of any type of historical question that has any bearing on Scripture, no matter how theoretical or detached from external, empirical evidence?

I ask these questions, at the risk of sound like a nit-picking prig, because the discipline of historical criticism has always struck me as being terribly undisciplined in this regard, presenting itself as such a fuzzy, ill-defined beast that once you grab a hold of it you are never quite sure what you are grabbing onto, much less where it wants to take you.

Of course, anyone who maintains the historical basis of the Christian faith has to engage some brand of historical method, but we cannot afford to forget the historicist foundation stones of modern historical criticism. As codified by Ernst Troeltsch these non-negotiable principles of acceptable historical method include (1) skepticism (don’t be naïve; if it does not happen today, it did not happen then), (2) correlation (events occur as links in the chain of imminent, historical causation; there is no transcendent, divine causality), and (3) analogy (all historical events are similar to each other; there is no such thing as an utterly unique, inexplicable event). Any discussion of historical criticism and its usefulness to evangelical faith cannot ignore the epistemological limitations imposed by Troeltsch’s methodological triumvirate. At what point must the evangelical Bible reader part company with Troeltsch’s reining trio? Surely, such a departure must happen eventually? When it does occur, what are the criteria for parting ways at that particular juncture and not somewhere else? If we have accepted the working constraints of correlation and analogy up to “this” particular point (whatever historical point that may be), then what would ever compel us to shed those constraints and why? By what criteria, other than personal, idiosyncratic preferences, do we make such historical and hermeneutical judgments? None of these questions are addressed in this book.

More questions also need to be asked about the continued dominance of some rather dubious theories over the domain of historical criticism. Let us not forget, for instance, that J. Wellhausen’s famous JEDP theory was built from the earlier work of W. M. L. De Wette, whose own research had drawn deeply from the pools of German Romanticism and the all-pervasive anti-Judaism of his day.1 Both De Wette and Wellhausen described Judaism as a lamentable “degeneration” from earlier Mosaic religion. The supposedly objective and scientific late dating of Priestly material, then, was the result of nineteenth-century religious romanticism crossbred with European anti-Semitism; the odd progeny now holding court and making judgment over the Pentateuchal account of Israelite history.

Similarly, contemporary discussions of Pauline pseudepigrapha trace their lineage to the work of F. C. Baur who was also deeply influenced by German Romanticism. But it was Baur’s infatuation with Hegelian philosophy and Hegel’s argument for the universal unfolding of historical dialectic that was most influential in his identification of only some of Paul’s letters as genuinely Pauline and others as pseudepigrapha. The so-called Pauline pseudepigrapha is primarily the fruit of Baur’s commitment to fitting the New Testament canon into his theory of Hegelian dialectic as illustrated in early church history.

I recognize that one runs the risk of falling into the trap of the genetic fallacy when pointing out the flawed origins of critical theories. But the point is not simply to dismiss all theories proffered by flawed, culturally conditioned scholars (so much for the rest of us!). The point is to call attention to specific, pervasive, and enduring legacies where the power of prejudice over observation continues to shape (one might say misshape?) academic discourse. I contend that anyone who wants to argue for theories like the Documentary Hypothesis or the pseudepigraphal status of the Pastoral Letters today ought to include an explanation of how their own position is not reflective of the historical, philosophical, and religious prejudices that were formative influences in the theory’s creation. Without some deliberate intervention, missiles launched from skewed foundations tend always to fly off course.

Without this minimal level of methodological self-consciousness, apologetical appeals to such scholarly virtues as “critical faith” and “faithful criticism” that go on to produce “assured results” and “historical insights” will only continue to serve as linguistic placeholders substituting for the more obviously (though, perhaps, unwittingly) intended sense of “interpretive theorizing,” “theoretical conjecture,” and “personal opinion.”

It is certainly good for Christian faith to be informed. It is important, even necessary, for Christian faith to be honest in the face of historical difficulties and challenges. But Christian faith never needs to submit itself to the standards of reasonableness that rule over the academy. Despite their protests to the contrary, I fear that this is exactly what the authors of Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism have done.


  1. See Anders Gerdmar, Roots of Theological Anti-Semitism: German Biblical Interpretation and the Jews, from Herder and Semler to Kittel and Bultmann (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill), 77–94.

  • Hays-Ansberry

    Reply

    Response to David M. Crump

    David Crump’s review, in significant ways, struck us as not having been focused on the same topics were were trying to address in EFCHC, even though the additional topics he raises are certainly valuable. Prof. Crump addresses a number of significant issues, ranging from the slippery nature and many faces of historical criticism to the philosophical assumptions and questionable logic of particular approaches. These are important matters, no doubt. That notwithstanding, those topics are peripheral to the purpose and agenda of the volume (in fact, we very intentionally made them peripheral in order to have a different sort of conversation than those which have previously prevailed).

    I (Hays) should say from the outset that I quite liked Prof. Crump’s schematization of the sort of inquiries that fall under the umbrella of “historical criticism” (I may well commend the organization to my students in the future). The term is unruly, and Ansberry and I did go back and forth about whether or not we might utilize a different expression (Higher criticism? Modern biblical criticism?), but in the end we decided that trying to tame this particular terminological beast was probably not the best use of this volume’s space. Instead, we were guided by interacting with the critical topics that felt most emotionally and theologically poignant from an evangelical perspective, irrespective of the distinct methodological considerations at play in each topic.

    After all, EFCHC is not an exercise in criticizing historical-critical methods. This does not mean that a critical appraisal of the assumptions and methods associated with this family of approaches is unnecessary. It is indeed necessary. But it falls outside the purview of the volume. As the constituent chapters within the book indicate, EFCHC attempts to evaluate the theological implications of certain approaches and proposals that are tarred with the same historical-critical brush (whereas, as Prof. Crump points out, the various critical approaches differ quite dramatically). In so doing, it seeks to approach the matter of evangelical engagement with historical criticism from a different angle. Rather than dismissing this family of approaches as methodologically or philosophically beyond the pale, we assume that these approaches might well contribute to and enliven one’s reading of Scripture. And rather than assuming that the use of historical-critical approaches inevitably leads to heterodoxy, the essays suggest that, in the light of the theological implications associated with specific proposals, these critical methods can be applied in ways that remain well within the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy.

    To suggest, then, that the absence of critical reflection on historical-critical approaches betrays the volume’s lack of methodological self-consciousness misses the very purpose of the project. This is not another attempt to debunk historical criticism. It is an attempt to reflect on the conclusions of particular readings within the historical-critical family. To be specific, it is an attempt to evaluate historical-critical proposals pertaining to specific issues in Scripture theologically. Whether the volume has achieved this goal is another matter for discussion. But to criticize the work for not addressing matters it never pretends to entertain diverts attention from its goal and potential contribution to the relationship between evangelical faith and historical criticism.

    Among the important issues raised by Prof. Crump, his observations concerning the epistemological limitations that accompany historical criticism in general and “Troeltsch’s methodological triumvirate” in particular are especially significant. In view of the “historicist foundation stones” of both Troeltsch’s historical method and historical criticism, the limits of these approaches cannot be denied. The volume is in total agreement on that count (thus the section “Servant or Master? Being Critical of Historical Criticism” in ch. 1 and the section “Faithful Criticism” in the concluding chapter). Historical criticism is not enough; it is insufficient. To approach the Bible strictly from a historical-critical perspective results in a theologically deficient understanding of its transcendent claims and its witness to God’s supernatural activity within history. But the limitations of historical criticism should neither mitigate nor muffle its potential contributions. For all that Prof. Crump has to say concerning the raucous confusion surrounding historical-critical methods, to conclude that this family of approaches simply criticizes, judges, or evaluates the historical claims of Scripture focuses on one side of the methodological coin at the expense of the other. If, as the conclusion to the volume suggests, these limited, historical approaches may be counterbalanced by theological approaches in a dialogical context, then the totalistic claims of each may be restrained, the contributions of each approach may be received, and strange bedfellows may develop a constructive relationship. Neither historical-critical nor theological approaches to Scripture are sufficient on their own; one needs both in order to respect the Scriptures as historical documents that are theologically revelatory. The options are not mutually exclusive, but they are potentially mutually corrective and mutually enhancing.

    Even though EFCHC was not a book on theological and critical methodology, we do very much share Prof. Crump’s opinion that these are conversations in which evangelicals need to participate; while we would not have felt equal to the task of writing a systematic methodological treatise theologically critiquing all critical methodologies, I (Hays) have enjoyed exploring this issue with respect to historical Jesus studies. Historical Jesus scholars in particular have been interested in the sorts of issues Prof. Crump mentions (and people like Dale Allison, Leander Keck, and Paul Minear have done some flat-out fantastic work on these topics).

    In a different context, I have mapped out what I consider to be some of the crucial moving pieces in the debates on historical Jesus studies.1 In addition to articulating my concerns with the reliability of the so-called criteria of historicity used in Jesus scholarship (I have been convinced by Dale Allison’s view that these are much more aptly thought of as indices: helpful in degrees, but no source of methodological certainty), I discuss the way in which theological convictions influence our interaction with the historical data about Jesus. The conventional historical indices work in isolation on the extreme naturalist end of the spectrum, where the hermeneutic of suspicion is most strongly operative. But if we move by degrees towards a hermeneutic of consent (faith?), other methods can be brought to bear. Making one step away from predominant suspicion, one can engage with notions of orality, eye-witness testimony, and living memory. Then, depending on whether one is amenable to the possibility of theistic agency, all the aforementioned methods can be brought to bear on transcendent topics (e.g., miracles and the deity of Christ). Further along the trajectory towards a hermeneutic of consent one can adopt the theological interpretive framework of the Gospels themselves (not only accepting what they think about the events of Jesus’ life, but also about the meanings of those events). Finally, one can even bring to bear elements of the Christian theological tradition, depending on one’s understanding of how revelation works. Personally, I feel quite comfortable operating towards the far end of a hermeneutics of consent, and for that reason I share Prof. Crump’s discontent with a way that a great deal of historical criticism is practiced. If he writes a book on theological method and historical criticism, I will read it with great enthusiasm. Unfortunately, EFCHC did not aim to be that book.

    One of the smashing characteristics of Syndicate Theology as a journal is that it draws together a diversity of scholars to probe a work on every side, and expose weaknesses from one side that scholars with a different set of commitments would overlook. It is especially illuminating for us as authors to see how different reviewers react to the same topics. Prof. Crump expressed his concern that we have submitted the Christian faith “to the standards of reasonableness that rule over the academy,” allowing critical presuppositions undue sway in our research. Ashleigh Elser, by contrast, felt that the book was defensive and worries that we attempt “to dogmatize away the serious difficulties” raised by historical criticism. Thus, our reviewers express opposite fears about the integrity of the volume.

    Now, I do not doubt that both scholars can point to moments in the book that illustrate their concern, places where Prof. Crump would say we have given too much credence to critical scholarship and places where Ashleigh Elser would argue that we have been unduly hampered by our theological commitments. These opposite reactions are, however, entirely to be expected, precisely because we are claiming that both critical and theological commitments must be brought to bear as Christians evaluate these topics. It is indubitable that the authors of this volume have not arrived at the optimal synthesis of these considerations, but after all, such a balance will only seem optimal to those with the same epistemological constitution.

    We are very appreciative that Prof. Crump would take the time to elaborate his concerns with historical criticism and to underscore the urgency of a methodologically mature theological engagement with criticism. As Christians, we share many of Prof. Crump’s concerns with historical criticism, though perhaps we do not consider it synonymous with death, as is implied by the title of Prof. Crump’s review “Though I Walk through the Valley of the Shadow of the Critics.” To elaborate on the allusion to Psalm 23, however, we would argue that the pastoral and theological dangers of the “Valley of the Shadow of the Critics,” undeniable though they be, should not preclude us from proceeding thither. Rather, as the psalmist says, we do not need to fear that place, we do not need to fear the more radical critics, insofar as we believe that the Lord is our Shepherd (and theirs!), and that he is with us. We do trust that his rod and staff will guide, protect and comfort us. And we’re grateful to Prof. Crump for his guidance as well.

    Conclusion

    This conversation in Syndicate Theology feels like progress. While there have been moments in which the discussion slipped into traditional ruts, there were also moments of genuine and constructive interchange, and we are grateful for the time each of our reviewers invested in this conversation. Indeed, the very fact of a dialogue on these subjects with such a range of interlocutors in progress indeed.

    There are other indicators that evangelicalism can and is getting better at having these conversations; to conclude, I want to share how my seminary engaged with historical criticism this year. I (Hays) teach at a conservative evangelical seminary in Medellín, Colombia. With the hiring of a couple young professors, the seminary community (from the students to the board) began asking good questions about what it meant for a conservative evangelical seminary to engage with and teach about historical criticism in an environment that primarily trains pastors for non-academic ministry. Instead of recurring to the caricatures or truisms that predominate in less healthy forms of this debate in the U.S., the administration proposed something remarkable (without my instigation, NB): they convened a faculty day-conference on historical criticism. One of our senior professors, Theo Donner (a Dutch scholar who is an inerrantist and holds a PhD from Cambridge), gave a pair of long talks about the history of modern biblical criticism; an Old Testament professor, Milton Acosta (a Colombian scholar with a PhD from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) offered his take on the gravity of critical problems and some possible ways forward; a handful of faculty members talked about how they engage with historical criticism in the classroom. Fears were expressed; questions were answered; misunderstandings were dispelled; and we learned together about how to be better teachers and more responsible thinkers with respect to these tricky issues. Perhaps we are at a time when these sorts of conversations could be had in a wide variety of evangelical schools; perhaps the sort of engagement we saw at my seminary and that we have had here in Syndicate Theology can become normal.


    1. Christopher M. Hays, “Theological Hermeneutics and the Historical Jesus: A Critical Evaluation of Gadamerian Approaches and a New Methodological Proposal,” In The Quest for the Real Jesus, edited by Jan van der Watt, 129–57. Biblical Interpretation. Leiden: Brill, 2012.

    • David Crump

      David Crump

      Reply

      Clarifying Misunderstandings

      I want to begin by clarifying a misunderstanding that has gotten our conversation off on the wrong foot. When the editors of “The Syndicate” asked me to write of review of EFCHC I requested clarification on exactly what type of review they were interested in. Their response increased my enthusiasm for the project. Here is an excerpt from my instructions. I was told to:

      . . . focus—if possible—on the single point within the larger arguments set forth in the book, (either because you disagree or because you wish to press the argument further) . . . our hope is to use the book as a window into the subject matter, or to put it another way, we hope that the essays and the dialogue that ensues will focus on “the thing” the book is about, and not necessarily the book itself. (emphasis mine)

      I wrote my review accordingly, which is worth noting since I am not generally known for following instructions. Just ask my wife. But this is the first time in my life that I have gotten into trouble for doing what I was told! Oh well, no hard feelings. Now that this has been cleared up I’m sure that our conversation will proceed without a hitch.

      In any event, I must continue to insist that the questions and concerns I raise regarding historical criticism are “peripheral to the purpose and agenda of the volume” (i.e. EFCHC) in the same way that the sun is only “peripheral” to a shadow. You can study the shadow and what it does to one’s view of the landscape all you want, but failing to consider its complete dependence on the sunlight radiating from above is finally to misunderstand everything else there is to know about that shadow. Hence, my repeated insistence on the importance of taking account of the presuppositions and philosophical points of origin of historical criticism even in a book such as EFCHC.

      Perhaps I should draw another distinction in order to clarify my concerns further. I think it is important to distinguish two related but independent uses of historical research in Biblical interpretation. First, there is the grammatical-historical method (GH) which has been widely used for centuries by different sectors of the church, both ancient and modern, before and after the Enlightenment. A thorough, rigorous competency in the relevant historical and literary contexts of ancient literature is essential to this method of Bible reading. The GH is not for linguistic light-weights or the historically naïve. Second, there is the more narrowly defined method under discussion here: the historical-critical method (HC). This approach plows in the same fields of historical investigation as GH, but it pursues its goals with an important difference: HC has hitched its plow to a very particular set a mules. They are Enlightenment mules, wearing very big blinders that forever prevent them from plowing in any direction that would admit to seeing divine activity in history.

      I am not asking for HC to be “debunked” as the authors suggest. Far from it. I simply refuse to cede the field of historical, Biblical investigation to Enlightenment methodologies which, as a matter of principle, allow no room for the acts of God. Neither will I nod in unison when others admire the so-called “assured results” of such research. I’ve seen too many of today’s assured results become tomorrow’s rejected hand-me-downs. Though I may sound cantankerous, I ask that you not confuse my position here with an obscurantist’s avoidance of critical thinking.

      The authors insist that a dialogue between the results of HC and more theological approaches to scripture may produce “a constructive relationship” that is beneficial to all parties. I might be able to agree with this in theory as long as a few points are clarified. First, can we agree that HC does not hold exclusive sovereignty as the one and only way to approach historical research? The implication here seems to be that anyone who questions the value of HC is guilty of being an a-historical, anachronistic Bible reader. Avoiding this over simplification is one of the reasons I made the methodological distinction of the previous paragraph. Second, I also get the sense that the term “theological approaches to scripture” is code for “readings that allow for faith in the possibility of God’s working in history.” If that is the case, then there are several different conversations to be had here depending on how the terms are defined, with each of them looking a bit different than the other.

      To be honest, I have difficulty finding the supposedly constructive outcomes the authors indicate can be generated by the types of “conversations” illustrated throughout EFCHC. Rather, it strikes me that all of these conversations follow basically the same script:

      Scripture: Here’s my narrative of God’s work in history. What do you think about it?

      HC: Well, first, I can’t allow for God. Second, the currently available empirical evidence tells me that it couldn’t have really happened that way.

      Scripture: Oops. Well, then. What am I permitted to say? What do you think did happen? Feel free to use whatever clever means necessary to come up with something more amenable to your methodology so that I can rewrite myself.

      I hope you will excuse a bit of over-simplification in order to make my point. But I cannot see how this imaginary conversation is far off the mark.

      Finally, I must give credit to my colleague, Old Testament professor Richard Whitekettle, for the title of my review, “Though I Walk through the Valley of the Shadow of the Critics.” My intent was not to say that such ventures always lead to death nor to suggest that one should never embark on this journey. Yet, I cannot help but remember the friends, colleagues and others whose spiritual remains litter the hallowed halls of academia because their Christian faith was eventually snuffed out by the accumulated weight of HC’s assured results.

      I could say more. I find that I always can. But I suspect it’s time to listen to some responses. Thanks for listening.

       

    • Christopher Hays

      Christopher Hays

      Reply

      Clearing Up an Over-Simplification

      George Bernard Shaw said, “I often quote myself, it adds spice to my conversation.” Now, the differences between my writing and that of the great Irish playwright are legion, and as such no amount of self-citation will make me less of a bore at cocktail parties. But perhaps in the present instance, self-citation is a necessary social evil.

      While Prof. Crump and I do have our differences of perspective, perhaps the most significant point of discrepancy is about what I (and the authors of EFCHC) actually think! So, to dispel any confusion, I’ll try to point to some places where I have aimed to address some of Prof. Crump’s concerns, and indeed, deny what he alleges.

      Prof. Crump asks, “First, can we agree that HC does not hold exclusive sovereignty as the one and only way to approach historical research?” Absolutely yes. In that spirit, earlier in this very thread I said, “Historical criticism is not enough; it is insufficient. To approach the Bible strictly from a historical-critical perspective results in a theologically deficient understanding of its transcendent claims and its witness to God’s supernatural activity within history.”

      Indeed, in the same post, I described out how, in the case of historical Jesus studies, I see various historical methods complementing traditional criticism and in varying degrees functioning in harmony with theological convictions. But I don’t believe that these sorts of comments are foreign to EFCHC. For example, in the introductory chapter, I say,

      It should certainly be admitted that historical-critical inquiry does have its dark side, and one need not read long to amass many examples of a certain species of tiresome rhetoric among its adherents (e.g. language of the sort claiming that historical criticism at long last wakens its practitioners from their dogmatic slumber, and frees the New Testament from the theological bondage to which it has been forcibly suppressed). One wonders if the cavalier confidence of such historical critics might not render them like the guards in the cover art on this volume. They are so certain that dead men do not rise that they snore at their posts, blithely unaware of the singular eschatological moment occurring at their backs, as the resurrected God-man steps nimbly out of his casket, over their snoozing forms, and strolls out of the tomb, leaving behind those assured that the doors of life and death are firmly barred against the hand of the Pantocrator (7; page numbers follow the Baker version)

      evangelical faith FC

       

       

       

       

       

       

       

       

       

      So, at this point, one might raise the question: must historical criticism be viewed as an ideology whose demands are total? If we answer “yes” to that question . . . then evangelicals should steadfastly refuse to practice it. If an ethics of belief will allow only those things that pass the bar of verifiable history, defined in Late Modern terms, then the ideologically determined historical method can permit nothing approaching an orthodox, much less evangelical, Christianity. But if it is possible to approach historical criticism itself critically, to employ its methods in a non-totalizing fashion, to assign to it the position of an unworthy servant in its master’s house, then evangelicals must engage (and criticize) the method with full vigor. (7–8)

      Prof. Crump is to be commended for not allowing the fundamental theological commitments of the Christian faith to be crowded out by an empiricist or atheist form of historical criticism. He reminds us that belief in the actuality and action of God in history is not an ancillary feature of Christian faith, and rightly cautions against an evangelical form of criticism that would kowtow to functional agnosticism in hopes of garnering a modicum of intellectual credibility. I agree wholeheartedly, which is why I was a little surprised when the authors of EFCHC we are depicted as rolling over to historical critical atheism (“Well, first, I can’t allow for God. Second, the currently available empirical evidence tells me that it couldn’t have really happened that way.”).

      Now, even though the book repeatedly affirms that it is less occupied with which critical view is right and more about what would happen if historical critics were right, we nonetheless do on many occasions repudiate precisely the atheistic criticism put in our mouths by Prof. Crump’s script. Let me offer some examples just from chapters that Ansberry and I wrote.

      The minimalist conception of the exodus as a fictional account penned in the Persian or Hellenistic periods not only erases ancient Israel’s pre-exilic identity; it also undermines her future hope and diminishes our Christian confidence in the liberating faith to which it bears witness. But it is important to note that minimalist conceptions of the exodus are not the only historical-critical possibilities; they represent only an extreme form of historical-critical research. As Christians, our commitment to the fundamental dogmatic tenets of the faith may preclude us from adopting this radical position and its nihilistic view of history . . . [T]he fact that a good deal of minimalist scholarship erodes the foundations of the faith seems a compelling reason for the conversation to be joined by more evangelical scholars who are deeply committed to the Christian faith. By reflecting on the historicity of the exodus, its meaning, as well as its narrative re-presentation from a theological frame of reference, we not only participate in the defense of the faith, but we also take part in and carry on a hopeful, liberating tradition that has endured millennia. (71–72)

      While Jesus is characteristically coy about his divinity in the Gospels, his deity is suggested by miracles such as the calming of the storm and feeding the Israelites in the wilderness, miracles in which Jesus performs the sort of deeds which are traditionally unique to God. Without these miracles, the historical case for his divinity is diminished. In other words, the miracles of the Gospels do contribute to the extent and reliability of our theological affirmations about Jesus. While a negative judgment about the historicity of a given event does not falsify those theological beliefs, whittling away at those events does narrow our historical grounds for assenting to the theological propositions of the Scripture. (169–70)

      One cannot open the umbrella of Christian orthodoxy wide enough to shelter any form of denial of the resurrection from the charges of heresy. Whether couched in terms of a “subjective vision” or brashly construed as an apostolic conspiracy, denial of the historicity of the resurrection is a denial of Christianity. Without the resurrection, Christ’s central proclamation, namely, that the eschatological Kingdom of God was at hand (Mark 1:15), would be exposed as nothing more than wishful thinking. Accordingly, Christian hope in the New Creation and in resurrection from the dead is baseless, for if Christ were not raised from the dead, we would have no reason to think that we will be . . . (179–80)

      Christian faith can bear all sorts of debate about the historicity of given events in the life of Christ. It can shrug off dispute over the order in which people claimed to have experienced the resurrected Christ and can even accommodate disagreement about what precisely they experienced. But the facticity of Jesus’ unique and divinely effected resurrection from the dead in space and time is the defining trait, the conditio sine qua non, of the Christian faith. (180)

      Faithful critics peer closely and delightedly into moments in time when God allowed mortals to see his glory, if only briefly, if only his back, even if their horizons were circumscribed by the cleft rock-walls of their historical finitude (cf. Exod 33:17–23). Christian historical criticism clambers its way into the cave with Elijah, to question God and to be answered, to learn things it never knew, to be proved wrong by the Almighty (cf. 1 Kgs 19.11–18). Even if our ears yet ring from the sounds of winds, earthquakes, and roaring fire, from the clamor of our competing philosophies, prejudices, and presuppositions, with historical-critical inquiry we take very seriously the fact that every moment in the process of Scriptural inspiration was one in which God passed by. And so we will strain our eyes and ears to see and hear what the Lord has done and what the Lord has said. (221)

      In sum, I do think that Prof. Crump’s over-simplification was sufficiently far off the mark to warrant our response, and perhaps even to justify extended citation of the book.

      Prof. Crump and I had a lovely email exchange this past week, one which I found tremendously encouraging. We talked about missions and our respective writing projects, and Prof. Crump was warm and kind. In that exchange, Prof. Crump’s example reminded me of the fact that, however much we have distinct and strongly held academic convictions (indeed, convictions that we both consider to be of spiritual and pastoral import), we are most importantly part of the same Church, members of the same body, and co-workers in the harvest. I am grateful for his balance between intellectual rigor and Christian charity, and I hope that the same balance will mark our continued conversations beyond the conclusion of this Symposium.

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