Book review: Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism

Book cover

I’ve been reading a few books on the Old Testament lately. Paradoxically, this is probably the one I most disagreed with, yet also the one I gained the most from.

Historical criticism

The Bible can be studied devotionally (to grow closer to God), theologically (to learn more about God) and historically (studying the books of the Bible in the same way as any other historical documents). The first two approaches seek to learn from the Bible, but the third approach tends to critique the Bible and make judgments about it.

The editors note that evangelical christians tend to believe in Biblical inerrancy, and since modern historical criticism doesn’t make this assumption, evangelicals have generally been suspicious of it as destructive to faith. But this means that historical scholarship is conducted largely without evangelical input.

Therefore the editors have chosen seven topics that present difficulties for evangelical faith and examined whether accepting historical critical conclusions represents a threat to core evangelical doctrines.

Asking the right question?

I have a little difficulty with this basic approach. It seems to assume that core evangelical doctrines are true and judge the acceptability of historical criticism on that criterion. But surely the correct question is whether the conclusions of historical criticism are true, and then adjusting belief accordingly?

But in the editors’ defence, they are writing for a constituency that is very suspicious of any threat (as they see it) to the Bible, and are therefore being very cautious in what they are attempting, hoping to make at least a small step towards acceptance of historical criticism by evangelicals.

Topics covered

  • Adam and the fall
  • The exodus: fact, fiction or both?
  • When was the book of Deuteronomy written?
  • Problems with prophecy
  • Pseudepigraphy (writing in another person’s name) in the Bible
  • The historical Jesus
  • Differences between Paul in Acts and his epistles

In each topic, the different authors outline the questions addressed by historical-critical study and the various positions held by scholars. Then they ask the question: what if the historical critics are right, would that affect core christian doctrines?

Unsurprising answers?

Evangelical christians may be surprised how little of core christian doctrine they think is affected if the conclusions of historical criticism are accepted.

  • They conclude that core christian doctrines, for example as summarised in the creeds, do not depend on a literal Adam and Eve, the Mosaic authorship of the Torah, or the exact authorship of any book (remembering that many books make no clear statement about authorship).
  • Most ‘problems’ with prophecy (e.g. doubtful fulfilment of predictive prophecy, possible ‘prophecy after the fact’ and later re-interpretation and deferral of eschatalogical hopes) arise because we see prophecy as prediction, and judge it through modern, literal, western eyes. We should rather see it as often being a warning or expressing hope, and thus conditional on human response.
  • The Bible writers were not writing dispassionate history, so each selected, adapted and interpreted both history and doctrine to meet their objectives. This gives different nuances to different books, but doesn’t necessarily indicate lack of truth.
  • There are however limits. So while the authors accept that the exodus is part history and part cultural memory, they nevertheless reject the minimalist view while also questioning the maximalist view. Likewise, there are aspects of the life of Jesus which they believe we need not, and cannot, have historical doubts about.

Thus, without endorsing all the findings of historical criticism, they conclude that it presents few challenges to faith, and provides some useful insights into how God has worked in the world and through scripture.

A personal assessment

An extremely helpful summary

In one book we have thoughtful summaries of seven issues which may challenge our faith in the Bible, with useful references to the different viewpoints. I found this very useful, especially the chapters on the exodus, prophecy, pseudepigraphy and Paul.

An important book for evangelicalism

While I wouldn’t describe myself as an evangelical, it is probably the most active part of present-day Protestantism. Yet, as the authors note, it has not been willing to learn much from historical criticism. Hopefully this book will help remove a few of the fears and encourage christians to develop a more robust and intellectually solid faith.

The last chapter gives some useful “advice for the journey” (if you can get through some dense discussion beforehand). They suggest we need to:

  • remember that God’s revelation to us must always be conditioned by the culture and worldview of the recipients;
  • recognise and have faith in the Holy Spirit’s role in history, in the writing of scripture and the compilation of the canon, and even in our own thinking; and
  • welcome and participate in historical study, but always prayerfully and while living in obedience – the goal is both critical faith and faithful criticism.

Personal disagreements

The authors more or less assume the inspiration of the entire Bible, and then see what the Bible and historical criticism tell us about how God went about this. Given their audience, there was probably little else they could have done, but it sometimes means they make assumptions I wouldn’t make, and at other times they concede more ground (even if only for the sake of argument) than I would.

I won’t elaborate here, because I intend to come back to some of these issues in greater detail.

The last word

Even though I had some fundamental disagreements with their approach, I found this book extremely helpful in getting a background to issues I had read little about, and in thinking through the limits and limitations of evangelical belief and historical criticism. It has made me a stronger and better informed christian.

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