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a collection of essays on somewhat controversial topics raised by biblical scholars who attempt to study the Bible as a historical document and covers some of the same ground as my list few posts.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.”


Book Review: Michael Graves, The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture

Graves, Michael. The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us. Grand Rapids, Mich. Eerdmans, 2014. 201 pp. Pb; $24.00.  Link

Michael Graves (Armerding Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College) is a well-qualified student of the literature of the early church. He is the author of a monograph on Jerome’s Hebrew Philology (Vigiliae Christianae Supplements, Brill, 2007) and he translated Jerome’s Commentary on Jeremiah (Ancient Christian Texts, IVP, 2012). This monograph is focused on how the early church understood Scripture as well as how they interpreted it. In general, the earliest Christians readers of the Bible regarded it as true, but they approached Scripture with methods “very much at home within the cultural context of the Greco-Roman world” (9). That Scripture was “inspired by God” is axiomatic for these interpreters, the implications of the inspiration of Scripture are in many ways different than what a modern reader of the Bible might assume to be the case.

Graves, InspirationGraves develops twenty “entailments” of the early Church doctrine of inspiration arranged into five chapters. In each chapter he defines his thesis (“Scripture is useful for instruction” or “Scripture has multiple senses,” etc.)  In most cases he illustrates how non-Christian writers had similar commitments to their sacred literature, often using Philo or rabbinic literature, and occasionally the Qu’ran. Graves then illustrates the thesis in the writings of the church fathers. Origin, Jerome and Augustine are the often cited, but he demonstrates his thesis with a wide variety of fathers. He then makes a few evaluative comments on how the early church differs from modern approaches to Scripture. For some of his entailments, there is little difference between the ancient and modern views. For some of the hermeneutical sections, however, the difference between modern approaches to Scripture and the early church is quite striking.

First, Scripture is useful. All early Christians not only accepted Scripture as useful for instruction (2 Tim 3:16), but also that every detail of scripture has meaning. Even peculiar or extraneous details could be mined for theological significance. Graves illustrates this with Ephrem the Syrian’s interpretation of the three decks of Noah’s ark in Gen 6:16 as representing the three levels of Paradise. Numbers were frequently allegorized, so that the 318 men who helped Abram in Gen 14:14 represented Jesus, since the abbreviation for Jesus in Greek adds up to 18, and the symbol for 300 is tau, which looks like a cross (24-25). Most modern readers would find little in these methods.

Second, Scripture has a spiritual dimension. Because of this spiritual dimension, divine illumination is necessary to interpret the Bible. Only a believer has the spiritual acumen to understand the various “senses” of Scripture. In fact, the spiritual sense was more important than the literal. Unlike modern readers of scripture who demand close attention to the literal sense (although rarely agreeing on what “literal sense” means), most writers in the early church cared little literal meaning of Scripture. Graves comments that “virtually all Christians in antiquity believed that the Old Testament laws should be understood as teaching spiritual truths instead of practices to be observed (51). Augustine famously said that the Old Testament was death to him when he took it literally, only the spiritual sense made it alive. One of the key ways the early church found spiritual meaning in the Old Testament was to find predictions of the life of Jesus in the stories of the Old Testament. This is of course what the writers of the New Testament did, the earliest writers simply expanded on this method.

Third, the early church recognized that Scripture often employs modes of expression that are sometimes puzzling. There are “riddles and enigmas” to solve, but this is not too different than the approach of Greek readers to their own classical documents. Allegorical interpretation of mythic literature was common, even Homer was allegorized to discover deeper, philosophical meanings. The early church writers believed God hid deeper truths in the Scripture in order to reach people at different levels of spirituality and to encourage people to seek deeper things. Like many post-modern philosophical texts, obscure and enigmatic language was thought to better communicate profound ideas. Unfortunately, many of the earliest writers took this to the extreme of finding “deeper meanings” even in the etymology of a word, especially names. While a modern scholar recognizes creative use of language by the writers of the Bible (such as wordplay), few would be convinced by this method today. Since Scripture employed enigmatic expressions, it ought to be appreciated as fine literature. This was not appreciated early, since in translation the artistry of the original Hebrew was lost, but eventually early church writers described the Bible as artistic and having “marvelous sublimity” (79).

Fourth, Graves deals with the problem of historical accuracy of Scripture. In the twentieth century, the historicity of Scripture has been far more controversial than any of the other “entailments to inspiration” in this book. Recent inerrancy debates concerning the accuracy of the Old Testament (historical Adam, etc.) would make as little sense to the ancient writers as their allegorizing numbers makes to us. Nevertheless, writes such as Augustine and Jerome sought to answer potential objections raised by the pagans. Augustine thought Scripture, “when rightly interpreted, will never contradict what we learn from the natural world, when the facts have been correctly understood” (97). Not only was Scripture factual, it will not conflict with “pagan learning.” This should not be a surprise since most of the ancient writers had typical classical educations in Greek philosophy. Commenting on Genesis 1 Basil said the findings of natural science and Scripture are fully compatible (96). This is would be a remarkable thing to say today, since science dismisses Scripture entirely and (some) conservative Christians dismiss the findings of science as a vague conspiracy against Christianity.

Fifth, Scripture agrees with truth. On the one hand, all of Scripture is consistent and self-confirming. The ancient writers often harmonized details between the testaments since they were committed to the fact that Scripture does not deceive. For someone like Augustine, this means reports in Scripture of David’s adultery (for example) are accurate even if this implies David was far from saintly.  Scripture is true, even if some of the characters in Scripture are bad people. Since the focus of Scripture is God, any teaching derived from Scripture ought to be “worthy of God” himself. For a writer like Origen, the stories of Joshua’s slaughter of the Canaanites was disturbing, but his allegorical interpretation of the events brought the teaching of Scripture into harmony with the nature of God.

Conclusion. For some modern interpreters of Scripture, the commentaries of the earliest church are so foreign that they seem of little value. I confess that I struggle to be interested in ancient commentaries and theological texts. At less than 150 pages without the end notes, this book offers a useful introduction to a complex topic for even the non-specialist.

After surveying this material, Graves says that reading the earlier writers of the church offers insight into the “rich and complex reading of Scripture” which “underscores the element of subjectivity involved in interpretation” (147). Every generation of the church has attempted to read Scripture as an authoritative revelation from God, but also to read Scripture within the culture of the day. Perhaps this is the warning of a book like this: what seems to be the proper method of interpretation today may seem strange in a hundred years. What lasts is the commitment to read and apply Scripture as God’s word.


NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Can We Still Believe the Bible? – Blog Tour Begins Monday


Starting Monday March 17, various scholars will be commenting on Craig Blomberg’s new book from Brazos, Can We Still Believe the Bible? An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions. Blomberg offers answers for six common challenges to the Bible in a modern context including the reliability of the original manuscripts, the canon, Bible translations, inerrancy, historical reliability of narrative events, and the problem of miracles. Blomberg is well-known for his contributions to the study of the Gospels and has written numerous books on these sorts of issues. I have had a copy for a couple of weeks and think it will be a valuable resource for pastors and laymen who are looking to answer misinformation that commonly circulates about the trustworthiness of the Bible.

Can We Still BelieveOne thing that makes this book valuable is that Blomberg wants to answer the critics who make the Bible less reliable by questioning manuscript evidence, canon or translation methods, but also Christians who claim too much about the Bible on these issues. In addition to what might be called apologetic issues, Blomberg includes a chapter on miracles. This is more philosophical since the miraculous is usually ruled out a priori when critics approach the Bible. This chapter also deals with the idea of myth and how that may (or may not) relate to the stories we read in the Bible.

Brazos Press has set up a website for the book with and overview of the contents as well as a number of videos from Blomberg talking about some of the issues he covers in the book. The schedule for the Blog Tour includes contributions from Daniel Wallace, Ken Schenck, Joel Watts, Lee Martin McDonald, Darrell Bock, Michael Bird, Nijay Gupta, Matthew Montonini, David Capes, and Craig Keener. I was assigned chapter 3, on the reliability of English translations of the Bible. My comments on the chapter will appear here on Thursday, March 20.

As a promotion for the book, Brazos is giving away five copies of the book and a Grand Prize of four books from Baker Academic in addition to a copy of Can We Still Believe? You can enter the giveaway starting March 17, so visit the website and check it out.

National ETS 2013 in Baltimore

I am heading for Baltimore this afternoon to attend the National meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. I always enjoy ETS, even though it is smaller than the SBL/AAR meetings later in the week.  I am not giving a paper this year, but I am a “moderator” for a Gospels/Acts parallel session tomorrow morning.

9780310331360Because I am serving as a moderator, I will not be able to attend what promises to be one of the main events of the conference. November 19 there will be a panel discussion featuring Albert Mohler, Kevin Vanhoozer, Michael Bird, Peter Enns, and John R. Franke onthe topic of Inerrancy. These five scholars are the contributors to Zondervan’s Five Views on Inerrancywhich is due be released December 10. This will likely be a heavily attended session, given the topic and participants.

The Bible Gateway is going to live-blog and live-Tweet (@biblegateway) the event from from 8:30-11:40 AM EST. If you are not in Baltimore for the meetings, be sure to  check out the Bible Gateway blog.

If you are in Baltimore, have a great time and enjoy the crab-cakes.