Evangelical Faith and Historical Criticism

Evangelical FaithJust yesterday I received a new book edited by Christopher M. Hays and Christopher B. Ansberry, The Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2013). The book is a collection of essays on somewhat controversial topics raised by biblical scholars who attempt to study the Bible as a historical document and covers some of the same ground as my list few posts. This is just a quick overview of the book although I plan a full review soon. I have only read the chapter on Historical Jesus studies since I am covering that topic right now.

The book is concerned with evangelical scholarship and the findings of historical criticism and argues that a conservative interpreter of the Bible can be both “critical” and “evangelical.” Two clarifications are necessary before reading this book, however. By critical (or “historical criticism” in the title), this book means contemporary scholarship rather than nineteenth century Protestant liberalism. Those two are not always the same. The authors of the essays in this collection are discussing the current state of critical scholarship rather than examples of older Historical Criticism. By evangelical, this book means orthodox Protestants who believe the Bible has authority in matters of faith and practice. Evangelicals are those who understand the Gospel as something that reconciles people to God through the atoning death of Jesus. What is missing in the definition as given on pages 17-18 is a direct reference to inerrancy as defined by the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy. Nor does “evangelical” refer to political conservatism. It is unfortunate that the label “evangelical” has been co-opted by the media to describe American political conservatives from Fred Phelps to George W. Bush.

After an introduction by Hays, there are four chapters covering Old Testament issues (historical Adam, The Exodus, Deuteronomic Covenant, and Prophecy). The sixth chapter on pseudepigraphy and canon is mainly concerned with the idea of an author and the problem of some Pauline letters, James, 2 Peter and the traditional authors of the Gospels. Chapter 8 treats the problem of Paul in his letters versus Paul in Acts. Ansberry and Hays offer some concluding comments on doing “faithful criticism.” These are all current issues in conservative scholarship and most have generated a fairly substantial secondary literature. Google “historical Adam” for example, or read some of the reviews of Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. I cannot recommend using the word “myth” in some institutions; even talking about Q is enough to cause problems in some academic circles. For the most part, these are not just controversial: they are raging bitter debates among conservatives, the sorts of issues that can get you fired from a conservative church or seminary.

Every chapter in the book is interesting and worthy of in-depth discussion, but I want to focus my attention on the seventh chapter, which is devoted to studying the Historical Jesus. I asked in the previous post whether an evangelical can use the tools of historical criticism without accepting all the philosophical foundations lurking in the background of these methods. Michael J. Daling and Christopher Hays contribute the chapter on Jesus studies in the book and begin with the simple observation that Historical Jesus studies are among the most productive in biblical scholarship. There are dozens of monographs and essay collections published each year making significant contributions to the study of Jesus and the Gospels and many more less significant contributions. Daling and Hays therefore summarize four particular areas that seem to be perennial points of interest for scholars working in and around the Gospels, although three of their points are all related to miracles.

First, what did Jesus claim about himself? For much of the last 100 years, scholars have read Jesus’ self-designation “son of man” either as eschatological (usually citing Dan 7:14) or as meaning “human” (non-eschatological). If it is eschatological, is Jesus claiming to be a messiah, and if he is, what exactly does “messiah” mean to a first century Jewish audience? Since we are reading the words of Jesus as reported by his later followers, some scholars dismiss Jesus as an eschatological teacher. He was not trying to “establish the kingdom of God” nor did he see himself as fulfilling prophecy in any way.  His later followers thought that about him, but Jesus did not think he was a messiah. On the other hand, it is at least possible Jesus had some messianic self-awareness. Even the most skeptical of scholars will accept as fact that Jesus gathered followers, and that he designated twelve of them as his “apostles.” Almost everyone agrees Jesus taught something about the “kingdom of God,” although there is a great deal of ink spilt on defining what the kingdom was. What would a Jewish audience in Galilee think of a Jewish teacher who gathered twelve disciples and taught about the kingdom of God? It is at least possible (if not likely) they would have heard echoes of the Hebrew Bible and the twelve tribes of Israel. I would include Jesus’ description of his ministry in terms of a wedding celebration another echo of messianic ideas from the Hebrew Bible, and there are many others as well.

Second, Daling and Hays list miracles as a major problem for historical studies of Jesus based on the assumption miracles do not occur. I plan on returning to this issue later, but for now let me observe this is a major dividing point between an evangelical biblical scholar and a non-evangelical since most evangelicals do not dismiss the possibility of miracles occurring before reading the text of the Gospels. This is true for the two “big miracles” Daling and Hays discuss, the virgin birth and the resurrection. For many Christians, these are non-negotiable miracles involving Jesus, so to deny the virgin birth is tantamount to denying the faith! Since we are reading reports of miracles by devoted followers of Jesus, many scholars dismiss them as legend-making. However, if we understand miracles in the context of a messianic Jesus, then healing and resurrection are part of the eschatological landscape. A messiah that does not do miracles is more suspicious, at least from a Second Temple Period perspective. Since the virgin birth became a kind of litmus test to detect liberalism in the early twentieth century, few conservative scholars would openly question why Jesus is presented as “born of a virgin” in Matthew and Luke.

I can certainly recommend The Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism for readers who want to read more deeply on these controversial topics. The essays are excellent examples of faithful Christians interacting with the tools and methods of historical criticism, asking questions of the text and struggling with issues on an academic level. In most cases, they are open to the possibility that a faithful Christian can hold views that are “less than conservative.”


3 thoughts on “Evangelical Faith and Historical Criticism

  1. Thanks for this preliminary review, Phillip! There is so much of this nature being published, both in books and the Internet (mostly blogs) that reviews and summaries are definitely helpful. On an issue not directly related but within Evangelicalism (per your def., perhaps minus the [implied?] inerrancy part), The Washington Post just ran an article titled “U.S. evangelicals headed for showdown over gender roles”.

    My reply was “headed”? Shouldn’t that be “in showdown”, not just headed for? Similar for “inerrancy” or how to deal with “higher criticism”. There is no longer any question to me that the scene is far different now, for Evangelical scholars, theology students and lay people, than it was in my last active Evangelical days, the early 90s. Lots of change in the last 20-30 years!

    I do think there is a polarization going on… and that in some ways progressive Evangelicals are closer to mainline progressives than to conservative Evangelicals.

    Now, as to the subject of miracles… it is an important one, and a good “entry point” to exploring that complicated ground “between” supernaturalism and naturalism. A couple quick points: Indeed, miracle working and healing (often including exorcisms) seemed common fare in Second Temple Judaism. This “charismatic” worldview should never have been relegated to the ancient past by either rationalist Evangelicals nor 19th century liberals.

    The system which deals most openly and deeply with issues such as this, trying to make reasonable sense of what may be going on with “miracles” and various “paranormal” phenomena is Process theology. It should not be identified with previous (mostly naturalistic) liberalism, and of course is not “orthodox” (mostly supernaturalistic) either. It takes some new “categories” and ways of understanding God and reality to deal with intellectual rigor and honesty with things like miracles.

    • Showdown, polarization, probably. I suggest perhaps a retreat of conservatives, maybe a withdrawal from public discussions. Remember the Scopes Trial, Fundamentalism (as it was called then) won the battle and lost the war, and retreated from public discussions until maybe the 1980s? The whole “born again” movement? Denominations seem to go through that kind of glacial split between left and right, liberal and conservative with regularity. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is not all that positive for Christianity as a whole!

      Maybe the “Evangelical showdown” will be more acceptance of the non-American approach to being evangelical, which this book follows, rather than the ETS style inerrancy.

      I think in a large group like the Evangelical Theological Society, this retreat/withdrawal is constant as new issues arise and people get fed up and leave. The Inerrancy debate in the 80s over Gospels with Gundry, etc. drove the pro-scholarship people out (into SBL, IBR) and the conservatives who didn’t think that was enough also left (eventually, Geisler, et al). The ETS gospels groups are not all that far from Gundry now, but everyone is all excited about Historical Adam and they do not notice anymore. (For a while the Open Theists took the heat while we read papers on Q or authenticity.

      More conservative groups (even those I participate in) tend to drive out their best and brightest for being too bright, sadly.

      • Interesting! I think a lot of understanding this dynamic revolves around the interplay of personal maturation (stages of human development, including cognitive but not exclusively cognitive) and institutional maturation. Institutions are the slower to change, by a lot. Given the issues of one’s livelihood and personal/family ties being often tied to one form or another of institution (and/or theology and worldview), it makes this all painfully complex.

        That’s part of why I’ve about determined to give my “mature” (let’s not say elderly or “senior”, tho I’m certainly the latter) years to educating mainly about maturation and developmental issues and the dynamics of negotiating the world (or a sub-culture). Maturation and deeper learning often puts one at odds with one’s milieu…. And those who don’t really get issues of development will unduly resist change and “development”, making it much harder on others around them.

        I’ve learned there ARE relatively clear and consistent markers for relatively distinct “levels” of development (with some overlaps or gray areas). Fowler has done a pretty good job for “stages of faith”…. I don’t know if anyone has done a lot with refining or building upon his work, now a few decades old, within Christian circles. If you do, please let me know.

        In the broader arena of general human and societal development, the key theorist I know of (and so acknowledged by many) is Ken Wilber. If you are not familiar with his work, which does touch on both spirituality (a LOT) and religion (less but still substantially), I’d highly recommend some interaction with his system, Integral Theory. Also with the Inst. under that name, and some of his associates or dialog partners. I have found his “Integral Spirituality” (ca. 2007) of particular usefulness, and re-read much of it a couple times, and marked it up since it is like a reference work or text more than light reading. (It builds on “A Sociable God” and other of his earlier works).

        Perhaps the best Xn “text” (but very readable) AND testimony of applied Integral Theory is “Integral Christianity” by Paul Smith, a 45+ year pastor, now retired. Also highly recommended! That more Christians do not pay close attention to this kind of approach is very limiting and discouraging to inter-disciplinary people like me.

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