The Bible and Knowledge 3 (RJS)

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We continue our discussion of Kent Sparks’s book God’s Word in Human Words (GWHW) moving into Chapters 2 and 3:  Historical Criticism and Assyriology and The Problem of Biblical Criticism. 

Before diving into the topic of Biblical Criticism, Sparks considers Historical Criticism in the context of the study of the history and languages of ancient Mesopotamia, a truly fascinating topic. This is my kind of light reading. I have Kramer’s The Sumerians (a great book), Woolley’s The Sumerians, Oppenheim’s Ancient Mesopotamia, Dalley’s Myths from Mesopotamia and several others on the book shelf next to me as I write this post.

Sparks draws three basic conclusions from the considerations of chapter 2.

1. Historical criticism is a rigorous and scholarly endeavor.

Historical-critical judgments are products of academic expertise, in which intellectually gifted scholars apply their respective trades to very complex linguistic and archaeological data from the ancient world. … Consequently a certain humility is warranted when those outside a discipline wish to inquire about and evaluate the tried and tested conclusions of scholars in that discipline. (p. 70)

2.  Human communication – both verbal and textual – is often something other than it appears at first glance.

Ancient texts are particularly rich in these ambiguous and deceptive qualities, since they were composed in genres quite different from our own and in contexts unfamiliar to us. According to historical criticism, the best way to compensate for our literary ignorance is to examine the texts with a critical eye and to attempt, as best we can, to situate the texts within the ancient world that produced them. (p. 70-71)

3. Modern critical scholars do not approach the biblical texts with more skepticism than other ancient texts. Historical criticism, plain and simple, is nothing more or less than reading a text in light of its context.

Sparks ends the chapter with two questions – the first leads into chapter 3: What are the results when the same methods are applied to biblical texts? The second is the question we need to consider as we read both these chapters (and the ones to follow).

To what extent is it legitimate to read the Bible through the lens of historical criticism?


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Our faith is grounded in human history – a history with remains that can at times be read, touched, excavated, and even played in. This real history is subject to analysis by standard scholarly method. The third (rather long) chapter of GWHW presents an outline of the results of historical criticism applied to the text of the Bible with an introductory context:

If modern biblical criticism is to be proved right (or at least partly right) in the eyes of confessing evangelical Christians, then it must be proved right by taking the Bible seriously. … On this score, one thing is clear: Scripture presents itself both as the words of God and, often, as the words of human authors. (p. 76)

One more point before we get started. None of the perspectives that I present below are embraced by every critical scholar; in some cases even I have questions about the critical conclusions. So biblical scholarship is not something that offers us a long list of assured results. Nevertheless, as a rule, the views described below are widely held by scholars, and, in many cases are essentially matters of consensus. But more important in my opinion is that not a single view presented below fails to take the biblical evidence very seriously. I find this true even where I end up disagreeing in some measure with the standard viewpoint. (p.77)

Sparks then proceeds through a discussion of the problems within the Pentateuch; the problems of Israelite historiography in Samuel-Kings and 1-2 Chronicles; the three authors of Isaiah (pre-exile, exilic, and post-exilic); Ezekial’s prophecy about Tyre; the problem of the Gospels; the problem of the pastoral epistles; the problem of Daniel and Revelation; the problem of the Bible’s theological and ethical diversity; the  problem of the Bible’s exegesis; and the role of propaganda. All covered in some 53 pages (p. 77-129) with footnotes, a few tables, but no pictures – as an outline of the issues, not an exhaustive treatment (of course).

If you have questions read the book.  Sparks is a good writer and lays out the material in a readable fashion.  Many of the issues he discusses are not particularly subtle. Some of them are issues that confront the lay reader even without particular training in biblical studies.  It can be difficult to read the Bible in the light of common knowledge and retain a standard evangelical view of inspiration. Of course most evangelical scholars do have a more sophisticated view of scripture and inspiration. Yet there remain flashpoints that cause dissension and strife. Sparks includes some of these in his discussion as well.

According to Sparks the conclusions of biblical criticism, even with a  good dose of epistemological humility

  1. Challenge traditional dating and authorship
  2. Raise serious questions of historicity for key events
  3. Suggest that scripture presents diverse theological views
  4. Question motives and insights of the biblical authors

These concerns must be reckoned with. As Sparks says: If the practitioners of biblical criticism are right on even a modest portion of their claims, then God’s written word certainly reflects more humanity than traditional evangelicals might expect. (p. 132)

Some dismiss the questions with the claim that “biblical criticism is passé at best and dead at worst.” But this is not a very realistic claim (Perhaps not even for historical Jesus studies). 

The overly optimistic claim to be able to get behind the text to the real Jesus, dissect Q into layers of development, or provide a complete reconstruction of the process of the composition of the Pentateuch are dead or mortally wounded – and rightly so.

The move by some to a postmodern antirealism (where the text can mean almost anything – the importance is not audience and author, but present perspective) is not worth serious consideration (although it can resemble in some ways the allegorical approach of early church fathers). 

But it is equally true that the traditional literal reading of scripture is an intrinsically antirealist approach. If we can trust the evidence of our senses and our reason the pentatuech is not univocal (one author); the earth is not six to ten thousand years old; there was no global flood; and while we can argue about details of purpose and design, common descent is as nearly proven as anything can be in modern biology…

Ultimately we all are – or act as if we are – practical realists. We believe we can trust the evidence of our senses and our reason. In the field of biblical studies this means taking a chastened and more realistic approach to the text we have through the methods of historical criticism:

In practice this kind of scholarship does not look very different from the older brand of historical criticism. It weighs out the evidence, draws conclusions, and then decides how convincing those conclusions finally are; and it is not afraid to speak with confidence when confidence is warranted. But scholars who fully embrace this postmodern approach tend to be interested in different kinds of academic questions, and tend to be more attentive to the way in which their own perspectives affect their scholarship. Ideally they are also more open to reconsidering their scholarly convictions in the light of new evidence or arguments. (p. 130)

So what does this mean for the church?

This leads us to one of the most important questions confronting our evangelical church today. How do we incorporate modern historical criticism into our reading of scripture? To suggest that we should read the bible through the lens of historical criticism (or science) is, in my opinion, to deny the nature of the text as inspired by God, through his Spirit, for his purpose. On the other hand, to ignore the results of historical criticism (or science) and read the text in the traditional literalistic sense is an inherently antirealist approach. It prevents true understanding of the text by eliminating historical context from real consideration, it ignores the very real evidence of the text itself, and I suggest that it diminishes the very power of our faith.

Don’t we need to read the Bible as story, through the lens of faith, and informed by historical criticism?

What do you think?

One approach to work some of this out is the subject of the next several chapters of GWHW.

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

  • Kyle

    It’s a difficult, but rewarding endeavor. I personally think one of the tragedies of “historical criticism come to the masses” is that some people of faith (and some of unbelief) simply aren’t capable of thinking through the issues, or at least aren’t willing to do so. They therefore reject historical criticism fideistically going back to their previous beliefs, or reject their faith completely assuming that all of the results (which they aren’t able to think through on their own) must be true, and not understanding that even if they were (which I don’t think they are) faith would still be possible. Both seem to be reading the data with the filters of a historical period, whether they are overly trusting of the narrative or overly suspicious. Neither trust nor suspicion alone merit warrant as evidence toward truth.
    The third way is a more satisfying path, but it’s one that requires time and effort. If you are the typical conservative who has never really delved into these issues, then realize that it will be challenging at first…but keep pressing on, because there is calm after the storm. As Kent says in this book, the results aren’t assured (and he even disagrees with much of the ‘assured results’ of historical criticism in this book and elsewhere).
    Later in the book Kent will get into the doctrine of accomodation as a means of moving forward. I agree, and as I read again Calvin’s doctrine of accomodation as presented in the Institutes recently, it made even more since than on my previous readings. Gibbs (link below) suggests some further questions to Sparks’ discussion of accomodation, and I think we need more work in fleshing out this doctrine. John Hobbins (of Ancient Hebrew Poetry) and Michael Heiser (of The Naked Bible) have been doing a good job online of suggesting how the church can accept the results of science and historical criticism, while keeping faithful and remaining evangelical.
    Here is a link to Mike Heiser’s Bellingham Statement on Inspiration that deals with these issues, and another link to a critical, but positive review of Kent’s book by Jeffrey Gibbs in the Review of Biblical Literature.

  • RJS

    Interesting links Kyle,
    My intent here is not so much to review Kent’s book as it is to try to think through the issues and start a discussion. Mike Heisler’s rather long statement certainly captures much of my thinking.

  • Kyle

    Heiser’s statement is long…but accurate. His is the type of thinking we’re going to have to do in order to formulate an accurate and faithful doctrine of inspiration, while being as honest as possible with the text that God has given us.
    I linked to Gibbs review, not so much as a review or response to Sparks (They don’t differ that much despite what Bob Yarbrough says…), but because he discusses some questions concerning what we mean by accomodation.
    If we’re going to be serious about being critical scholars and evangelicals, then we’re going to have to think long and hard about exactly what our doctrine of accomodation means. Heiser is doing that, Hobbins, Enns, Sparks and many others who are evangelical, primarily Old Testament scholars are doing that. The rest of us who care deeply about loving God with all of our mind, need to get into the discussion as much as possible.

  • RJS

    Kyle,
    I agree – we need to think about all of these issues and accommodation is a useful approach.
    You commented that it is difficult for traditional evangelicals to embrace historical criticism and and wrestle with this issues.
    This is where I think focus I tried to emphasize in the last post (with rather cheesy illustrations) comes in. I think that we need to change the image of scripture from foundation of faith to illuminator of God. I am convinced that this is both a more realistic understanding of scripture as we have it and an approach more in keeping with the scriptural approach to scripture.

  • http://mysticallimpet.blogspot.com Travis Greene

    Don’t we need to read the Bible as story, through the lens of faith, and informed by historical criticism?
    Yes. We shouldn’t be afraid of knowledge. The more I can learn about the Bible, and the culture it was written in, the better I’ll understand it (though of course, understanding is still not the main point).
    We’ll certainly understand Isaiah better, for instance, when we realize the vastly different historical/political situations to which the various (I thought there were only two) writers are speaking, on behalf of God.

  • Eric

    I’m reading Sparks’ book now, and like it a lot: Truly a third way approach. He believes the Bible is inspired, but also believes we need to take seriously the well-substantiated points made by Biblical criticism. The evidence of the problems that he outlines in the third chapter, and that RJS notes in the post, is sobering. I was particularly interested in the examples he gives of Bible authors who interpreted other parts of the Bible using interpretative approaches that evangelicals today think are improper. I’m looking forward to the later chapters, where he discusses how he thinks evangelicals should address the problems.

  • http://homewardbound-cb.blogspot.com ChrisB

    “Historical-critical judgments are products of academic expertise, in which intellectually gifted scholars apply their respective trades to very complex linguistic and archaeological data from the ancient world. … Consequently a certain humility is warranted when those outside a discipline wish to inquire about and evaluate the tried and tested conclusions of scholars in that discipline.”
    3 things:
    1. This is going to sound to some like he’s saying, “Science is the new Vatican, you may not argue with our interpretation.”
    2. The quoted statement isn’t unique to him. You heard these things from the Jesus Seminar. You probably got them from all the old “historical Jesus” guys from the 19th century.
    3. Yes, but. What he’s engaged in isn’t rocket science, and it is done in full public view. People are, rightfully, on the lookout for the distinct odor of hostile presuppositions and alternative interpretations of the same body of facts.
    And, of course, there are different voices in every field. There are those who think we have absolute proof Jerico fell long before Israel arrived (of those who think Israel arrived), and there are those who look at the same data and say it’s perfectly consistent with what we should expect from the biblical data.
    I’m always skeptical of people who come along and say, “You’ve been reading the Bible wrong for 2000 years, but I can tell you the truth.” Whether it’s new age gurus, modern skeptics, postmodern theologians, or scientists with a wonderful new discovery, it always strikes me as a bit too convenient that only now can we truly understand the revelation God left for us.

  • Kenny Johnson

    Eric,
    “I was particularly interested in the examples he gives of Bible authors who interpreted other parts of the Bible using interpretative approaches that evangelicals today think are improper. I’m looking forward to the later chapters, where he discusses how he thinks evangelicals should address the problems.”
    Yes, but they were inspired. Or so we believe. So wouldn’t their interpretation, if not their methodology also be inspired?

  • dopderbeck

    Kyle — thanks for the link to that outstanding statement! What is Bellingham? Who is involved in that effort? This is the sort of thing we (or at least I) need: a group of trained people who can devise a statement on Biblical inspiration and authority that is more robust than the Chicago Statement.
    RJS — I generally agree that any informed reader must come to grips with Biblical criticism — historical, text, and redaction as well as as narrative and canonical. However:
    (1) I’m not sure I’d make as strong a statement as you do about trusting our senses. I am not a Lockean empiricist, or a Reidian common sense realist; nor is anyone who is truly a “critical” realist. The application of reason to sense data does not produce inerrant results.
    (2) We do need to acknowledge that most scholarly Biblical criticism is self-consciously carried out according to methodological atheism. This is NOT to say that all critics are atheists; it is simply a methodological posture, much like methodological naturalism in the natural sciences. It is very fair, IMHO, to ask whether such a methodological posture can possibly yield objective results if we truly believe the text is in some sense inspired by God.
    (3) I continue to think Sparks’ summary was unfair to evangelical and other confessional scholars who have worked on the historiography of the Bible, including Iain Provan and Tremper Longman, as well as some Jewish writers. Again, a “critical” realism needs to be critical about historiography as well.

  • Kenny Johnson

    ChrisB,
    This is my fear… That we give in too much to the criticism and then read the Bible according to their understanding. What happens when they’re proven wrong? And they have been proven wrong before. Biblical criticism at one time said that the Gospel of John was a late 2nd cent document. Now we know that it’s almost certainly a late 1st cent. document and that church tradition seemed more correct than modern scholarship.
    Is there an assumption here that there isn’t good modern evangelical scholarship that counters the criticism? Or is it that the evangelical scholarship is in the minority? Or that it’s tainted because it’s got an agenda?

  • Kent Sparks

    Hello ChrisB:
    A few comments …
    “it always strikes me as a bit too convenient that only now can we truly understand the revelation God left for us”
    I certainly deny this in the book, arguing that God has spoken through the ages in spite of the fact that all interpretations, even the best, ancient or modern, misunderstand the text even as they understand it. But that said, insofar as the Bible is an historically contingent document, we are ever and always in a better position to understand it historically as our recovery of the ancient sources and ancient world progresses, and as successive generations have a go at integratig the ever-increasing evidence.
    “Science is the new Vatican, you may not argue with our interpretation.”
    Unless one is trained in the biblical languages, every time one opens the Bible they are dependant upon scholarship that is profoundly complex and a tradition of interpretation that stretches back for centuries … in fact, even if one is trained in those languages, it is via that tradition …
    That said, I do point out in the book that the person in the pew, confronted by historical critical viewpoints, has warrant to simply ignore it or deny it in some cases … until, at some point, the evidence becomes so culturally pervasive that it must be engaged in a meaningful and constructive way … evolution, for instance, is so obviously pervasive (and I would argue, true) that the pew sitter can no longer ignore it … I’d say we’re getting to the same point regarding the historical situatedness of the Bible and its theology …
    “What he’s engaged in isn’t rocket science”
    Actually, it is … That’s my point. Pick up a cunieform tablet from 2000 BCE and give it a read … and try to imagine that there are scholars who, not only read it, but actually figured out how to decipher that chicken scratch … imagine a mind like Lambert’s, that sees the fragment of a text in the Berlin Museum and remembers that it joins another fragment in London … apart from pure genius, we’d have no idea about Mesopotamian and Egyptian and Hittite texts … These text provide the contextual backdrop for the Hebrew Bible. And once you know that backdrop, via those texts, it all looks different … and it all looks different in ways that someone untrained simply can’t imagine.
    This is true, by the way, in every academic discipline. People can believe what they will, but its simply wise to admit when there are lots of things that we don’t know … but that others do know.

  • dopderbeck

    Just one other thing, appropos of RJS’ mention of historical Jesus studies: I think we also need to understand and acknowledge that the consensus among critical scholars is that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are fabricated, or at least are of essentially no testimonial value. Some Christian scholars accept this conclusion and take the route of “liberal” theology: they argue that belief in the Resurrection is solely a matter of faith and/or that Jesus was not “bodily” raised from the dead (he was raised in “spirit” or in the “hearts and minds” of his followers).
    But I’d daresay that many — I want to say “most” but have no empirical data — Christian scholars feel that it’s important to carefully examine and qualify the critical methodology and conclusions on this point. I believe — perhaps he can confirm — that Scot McK will accept many text and redaction critical conclusions about the Gospels, but would reject most of the conclusions of historical criticism concerning the Gospels. Another example of this is Pope Benedict’s recent (and excellent) book on Jesus.
    I don’t think the conclusions of these Christian scholars who qualify the historical-critical views on the Resurrection are based only on an “objective” evaluation of the evidence. There are always methodological, confessional and presuppositional issues at play in any historiography, and even moreso is this the case when the text under review is assumed by some to be “scripture.”
    Again, this isn’t to suggest we can go back to the naive common sense realism that seems to inform some confessional Evangelical views of scripture. But I’m not so sanguine that adopting as-is the methodological posture of critical scholarship vis-a-vis scripture is really a “third way.”

  • dopderbeck

    Kent (and others) — I agree with you that a lay person often cannot penetrate the details of specialty disciplines. But, isn’t it fair to say that there is considerable debate about many of the conclusions of historical criticism? I note this passage from Jewish scholar Ziony Zevit’s book “The Religions of Ancient Israel”:

    The study of ancient Israelite religion is in a quandary. Intellectual certainty that the flood of philological, historical, and archaeological research initiated since the 1950s would provide an adequate description has dissipated. . . . Conversations about Israelite religion in academic circles — more typically in the United States than in other countries — are overcast by a sense that after all is said the past remains fundamentally unknowable, and, consequently, all that has been claimed since the 1950s about the past, the history of Israel and Israel’s religion and all that will be claimed is essentially unreliable and untrue.

    Zevit then discusses four differing paradigms that have impacted historical studies (including Biblical-historical studies) since the 1950′s.
    Is Zevit crazy? Or, if one drills deep into the specialty, is the picture more fragmented than a lay person can manage?

  • Eric

    Kenny Johnson (#8) — sure, you can assert that the Bible authors’ own method of interpretation that are inconsistent with current evangelical methods of interpretation are in fact inspired if you want to (although I wouldn’t subscribe to that view) . . .
    But where does that leave you with respect to evangelical methods of interpretation that are more strict than the Bible authors’ own (inspired) methods?
    One other question for others above who are critical of Kent’s conclusions: Are you actually reading his book, which is very well argued, IMHO? Its easier to argue these issues at a high level, but if you get into the weeds of the actual examples, which are very powerful, you have a much, much harder case to make.

  • dopderbeck

    Let me throw one other example out there: John Goldingay of Fuller Seminary. Goldingay has written a very interesting book on scripture (“Models for Scripture). Here is his take on some of the issues were discussing (from a document on the Fuller website here: http://documents.fuller.edu/sot/faculty/goldingay/cp_content/OT501_Pentateuch/501documents/StudentQuestionsonthePentateuch.doc)
    Notice how Goldingay accepts historical criticism in a qualified way. Is this “good enough” for an evangelical approach, or not?

    1 Genesis 1—11 is a parabolic account of events that really happened. That is, God created the world, it was good, it went wrong in terms of people’s relationship with God, of family relationships, of relationships with the supernatural world, of the workings of society, and God tried the idea of destroying it but realizing that this would get no one anywhere. But what literally happened we do not know – we cannot get behind the symbols.
    2 Probably most of the scholarly world thinks that Genesis 12—50 is more or less pure fiction. The difference in its portrait of life makes me think it more likely that it is based on actual historical events – e.g., ancestors coming from Mesopotamia, God making promises to them. I am influenced by the consideration that I know this is God-validated scripture and I think it unlikely that God inspired pure fiction here because I don’t think the story then “works” (though I am happy with that idea elsewhere – e.g., Ruth).
    3 Similarly most of the scholarly world likewise thinks that the exodus-Sinai-wilderness-conquest story is more or less pure fiction. The unlikelihood of Israel inventing such a story makes me think it is more likely that it is based on some real events, at least such as happened to a small group of people with whose story other people in Palestine then identified. Again I am influenced by the consideration that I know this is God-validated scripture and I think it unlikely that God inspired pure fiction here because I don’t think the story then “works”.
    4 So how do I talk to unbelievers about this? You tell them the truth. That takes the conversation back to Jesus.
    5 What value can be gained from historical fiction? It can give us a true picture of God’s ways. E.g. Gen 1; Exod 32—34.

  • Kenny Johnson

    Eric,
    Actually I didn’t mean to argue that their method was inspired, but that their interpretation was.
    And I’m not so much critical of Kent, but cautious.

  • Kenny Johnson

    Didn’t Fuller at one time change their statement of beliefs — in relation to Biblical authority from “inerrant” to “infallible”. One, meaning, I guess, without any error, the other meaning, I guess, all-”true.”

  • ChrisB

    Kent said:
    “God has spoken through the ages in spite of the fact that all interpretations … misunderstand the text even as they understand it.”
    I haven’t read your book, and I don’t wish to offend, but this sounds like trying to have it both ways. You can say God has supernaturally used the text anyway, but we understand it, or we don’t.
    “at some point, the evidence becomes so culturally pervasive that it must be engaged in a meaningful and constructive way … evolution, for instance”
    Great example. People are falling away from the Faith left and right because of that topic.
    Now there are people running around saying Moses didn’t exist, the Exodus didn’t happen, the conquest of the promised land didn’t happen, David didn’t exist or didn’t rule the kingdom the Bible describes, every prophecy of Isaiah that came true was written after the fact, the Torah was written after the Exile, etc etc.
    We end up with a book that could have been by Aesop or Grimm as easily as by God. Of what value is that? We end up falling into Lessing’s ditch — if we’re lucky.
    “And once you know that backdrop, via those texts, it all looks different … and it all looks different in ways that someone untrained simply can’t imagine.”
    Or someone who hasn’t been taught how to interpret the data to achieve the appointed results.
    Expect a pushback.
    And, no, this isn’t rocket science. You’ve got people who do quantum mechanics before their coffee looking over your shoulder. Not in your specialty, but still quite smart.

  • Kent Sparks

    Hi dobderbeck:
    (1) “But, isn’t it fair to say that there is considerable debate about many of the conclusions of historical criticism?”
    Quite true, in biblical studies and in every academic disciplines, there is vigrous debate about lots of things. But in the background of the debate in each discipline is basic agreement that makes the conversation possible. In biblical scholarship, for instance, the following is generally assumed by scholars (excepting religious conservatives):
    1. Moses did not write the Pentateuch
    2. Isaiah was written by more than one author, and that these authors were separated by centuries.
    3. The Daniel Apocalpyses were written in the 2nd century by an author who thouht that the world was about to end.
    4. The four gospels contradict each other in some respect or other.
    Examples of debated points would be:
    1. Does P date before J? Or, is there such thing as J? Or, is P a supplement or self-standing document?
    2. How and when did Hebrew monotheism arise?
    3. Did the earliest Israelites come from the lowlands of Canaan, or from the desert fringe, or both?
    4. To what extent was 1 Isaiah (Is chs. 1-39) edited after the 8th century prophet’s lifetime?
    5. Which of the Jesus traditions are historical, and which are not?
    6. What is the genre of John’s gospel?
    It’s not really feasible for an evangelical scholar to enter the debate with arguments like, “Moses really wrote most of the Pentateuch in the second millennium BCE,” when that’s already considered impossible by scholarship.
    There are points of the scholarly concensus that I have questions about. For instance, (1) it seems possible that the pastorals were somehow relate to Paul but not actually penned by him (hence, in some way, Paul was the “authors”). (2) As for the Song of Songs, I don’t think that it was a celebration of sexual freedom so much as a warning that sex, while beautiful and powerful, is also dangeous. (3) I think that David was not so bad as the scholarship sometimes paints him. (4) I have serious questions about both the conventional “Lutheran” reading of Paul and also about the “New Perspective.”
    Scholarly dialogue addresses disagreement, but it only possible because of basic agreements.
    (2) Chris B said: “I haven’t read your book, and I don’t wish to offend, but this sounds like trying to have it both ways. You can say God has supernaturally used the text anyway, but we understand it, or we don’t.”
    Please read the book. Because a main point of the book is precisely that interpretation does not yield bologna nor perfection … it can only yield an adquate grasp of what we’re interpreting.
    (3) “People are falling away from the Faith left and right because of that topic [Evoluation].
    Yes, indeed. Because Evangelicals tell them that evolution cannot fit into a Chrisitan worldview. Once they’ve seen the evidence for evoluation, that’s the end of faith … But consider my friend, Fred Turner, son of the famous anthropologist Victor Turner. He became a Christian because of evolution. Having seen its beauty and complexity, he deduced … “There must be a God!”
    (4) “You’ve got people who do quantum mechanics before their coffee looking over your shoulder. Not in your specialty, but still quite smart”
    Undoubtedly, Chris, there are many people out there with more smarts than I have (from what I hear, RJS is a good example :-)). Perhaps you are a part of that non-exclusive club. But that doesn’t have anything to do, really, with my main point: expertise and competence in one discipline does not qualify one to offer expert judgments in another.
    (5) Back to dobderbeck: “Notice how Goldingay accepts historical criticism in a qualified way. Is this “good enough” for an evangelical approach, or not? 1 Genesis 1—11 is a parabolic account of events that really happened.”
    “Good enough,” sure. Though I’d point out that the cloest parallels to what we have in the Genesis cosmologies are ancient “scientific” texts, including myths (which were consulted as sources for scientific compositions).

  • Kenny Johnson

    “the following is generally assumed by scholars (excepting religious conservatives):”
    But why are the opinion of religious conservatives scholars invalid? Because they aren’t in line with the mainstream?
    “It’s not really feasible for an evangelical scholar to enter the debate with arguments like, “Moses really wrote most of the Pentateuch in the second millennium BCE,” when that’s already considered impossible by scholarship.”
    Again, are we assuming too much — Namely that the critics are right and a challenge to their assumptions is therefore just silly?
    I’m sorry, I’m all for talking about a debating the issues. But it seems that you have your own biases against conservative religious scholars.
    And even though the mainstream will sometimes argue “There’s no debate.” I think that’s BS.
    I think it’s wrong for conservative Christians to argue that belief in evolution and faith in Christ are incompatible — but so too, do I think it’s wrong to disregard the criticisms of evolution, for example.
    In the same way, I think it’s wrong to say you have to believe Moses wrote the Pentateuch in order to have a true faith — I also think it’s wrong to say that scholars can’t argue for the fact that Moses did write it.

  • dopderbeck

    Kent (#19) — But I think plenty of “religious conservatives” accept all or most of the points you mention as settled. Yes, I know, very conservative evangelicals debate all or some of them. But isn’t it fair to say that a significant number of Evangelical scholars agree that Moses didn’t write (all) of the Pentateuch (I don’t know how you could be absolutely certain that he didn’t write some of it or at least some of its source material), or that there are multiple Isaiahs, of that the Synoptic Gospels present a “Synoptic Problem?”
    BTW, Scot McKnight, I’m just about certain, will disagree with you on the Pauline authorship of the Pastorals. Scot?
    I agree with what you’re saying about evolution. The problem there is us. The facts of nature are what they are, and whatever Gen. 1-11 is, it evidently is not strictly “literal,” whether that’s a question of genre, accommodation, or something else.
    Re: Goldingay: I’m more interested in your reaction to his statements about Gen. 12-50: he says “Probably most of the scholarly world thinks that Genesis 12—50 is more or less pure fiction. The difference in its portrait of life makes me think it more likely that it is based on actual historical events – e.g., ancestors coming from Mesopotamia, God making promises to them. I am influenced by the consideration that I know this is God-validated scripture and I think it unlikely that God inspired pure fiction here because I don’t think the story then “works”.”
    Is that just fundamentalism? If Goldingay’s conclusion is “influenced by the consideration that I know this is God-validated scripture,” is his conclusion methodologically disqualified as “scholarship?”

  • Rick

    per Sparks:
    “In biblical scholarship, for instance, the following is generally assumed by scholars (excepting religious conservatives)”
    Does that make them wrong?
    Coincidentally, Justin Taylor posted this quote from an article from (conservative) scholar Carl Trueman:
    “Now I worked in secular universities long enough to know that liberal colleagues are bright enough to spot a conservative at five hundred feet. Just because you avoid contributing to certain volumes or using certain words, or because you choose to laugh when certain people to the right of you are mocked, does not win you respect from the secular academy. It is a sad fact but, as far as biblical studies and theology go, only giving up all that is distinctive about the Christian faith will ultimately do that for you.”
    http://www.reformation21.org/counterpoints/wages-of-spin/look-its-rubbish.php
    Also regarding the scholarship aspect, per Jason Sexton in Themelios:
    “Serving in the broad academic arena is good for evangelicals, breeding rigorous scholarship in demanding contexts. But one wonders if Sparks is really willing to be tested there. Specifically, the question begging to be posed to historical critics who adopt serious engagement with postmodern epistemology is whether their discipline can be performed with any confident relevancy at all. Can one rely on critical scholarship while still seeking to be dislodged from constraints by modernism? Does a postmodern or nonfoundational historical-criticism really exist? Or is “reading texts contextually” from a tamed practical realism (with little criteria to determine this and no description of how this might work) simply unrealistic? Further, with the seeming absence of little if any argumentation from recent critical scholarship, this book could have easily been written ten years ago. What if historical criticism becomes passé as a modern, rationalistic, Cartesian edifice built by nineteenth- and twentieth-century German scholarship? Does Sparks have a backup plan?”
    http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/publications/34-1/how-far-beyond-chicago-assessing-recent-attempts-to-reframe-the-inerrancy-debate

  • RJS

    Rick,
    It doesn’t actually take rocket science, or even rigorous expertise in ANE studies to realize that – what ever takes its place – the traditional evangelical approach to scripture is antirealist in the extreme.
    When Jason says something like

    What if historical criticism becomes passé as a modern, rationalistic, Cartesian edifice built by nineteenth- and twentieth-century German scholarship? Does Sparks have a backup plan?”

    He’s just being stupid (yes I mean to be that blunt). Will our understanding continue to evolve and grow? – yes, of course. Will some of the conclusions be thrown out? – again yes, of course. And are some of the extremes unsupportable (see the post above)? – yes. Sparks would agree on all counts I believe.
    But — we will not “unlearn” Sumerian and Mesopotamian history (and if we do it is a dark age not an advance).
    We will not be able to ignore the evidence for more than one Isaiah or the non Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. This isn’t going to go away.
    This kind of argument makes me despair when I hear it applied to science. Science also changes and grows – but we will not suddenly realize that the earth is 10000 years old and that there was a bottleneck in human population 4000 years ago (Noah) and a suddenly appearance of languages with the Tower of Babel shortly after.
    Quantum mechanics works – we may supplant it, but the theory that supplants it will include QM within as QM includes classical mechanics. This may seem beside the point – but in order to return to a literal interpretation of Gen 1-11 we would have to throw everything we know about modern physics out the window. A little tinkering around the edges won’t do it. Even more significantly, the evidence for the evolutionary development of life will not vanish. We must reckon with this.
    In both biblical criticism and science we will move forward – on empirical grounds – practical realism! And the church will follow – no doubt. Wouldn’t it be better if we could actually lead?

  • RJS

    Kenny,
    I don’t like using the term “religious conservative” here – but will anyway because I can come up with no better term.
    I think that “religious conservatives” are discounted because of the basis for their conclusions.
    So – all biologists except “religious conservatives” accept the common descent of man and the gradual evolution of the species. All geologists except “religious conservatives” accept that the earth is 4.6 billion years old. We could continue…
    In my experience “religious conservatives” hold to certain opinions on the basis of a theology of scripture, not on the basis of biology, geology, or the evidence of ANE studies.
    When a “religious conservative” gives reasons that do not begin with a presupposition of a certain doctrine of scripture – I’ll listen. I may or may not agree.
    I say this primarily because I find that the doctrine of scripture held by so many of these “religious conservatives” fails on multiple counts. The contradictory evidence and conclusions are overwhelming.

  • dopderbeck

    RJS — so what then do you make of the Goldingay quote I offer in #21? I feel caught in between here. The naive doctrine of scripture and hermeneutic on offer in popular evangelicalism fails us. But, I think it’s just not so simple if we approach the text, as we must, with the assumption that it is inspired scripture.
    Methodological naturalism in the natural sciences is an important boundary condition because, by definition, “natural science” studies the operation of uniform natural laws. But when this assumption gets ported into Biblical studies, as it does with “scientific exegesis” and critical methods, we’re confusing categories, aren’t we? This text, we assert, unlike any other text, didn’t come about by entirely ordinary means, because it is theopneustos. Whatever else this might mean, it must mean that a methodology that seeks to exegete the text just like any other ordinary ANE text inevitably will to some degree misapprehend the nature, significance, and meaning of the text — right?

  • RJS

    Kent (and ChrisB),
    I do nothing before morning coffee, least of all quantum mechanics (which, as it happens, is my favorite course to teach).
    I think that the discussion of expertise may overstep a bit. Expertise and competence in one discipline does not qualify one to offer expert judgments in another. We all rely on outside expert opinion in various areas, but we learn to trust and evaluate those authorities. I am not going to turn off my brain and be spoon fed regurgitated knowledge from experts – and it almost seems that this is what you are suggesting.
    When I think about the bible and biblical criticism I look at Christian and nonchristian scholars, at what they say and how they think about the problems at hand. I cannot read Sumerian cuniform text, or even Hebrew, so I rely on scholars who do. I don’t generally accept pronouncements – but I do listen to reasons with a general faith in the truthfulness of the scholars. It is this approach – reading both “conservative” and not so conservative christian scholars as well as nonchristian scholars that informs much of my thinking.

  • http://faithandfood.morizot.net/ Scott Morizot

    I suppose I’ll venture my two cents. Having long held an interest in ancient history, I’m pretty familiar with how much we sometimes construct from relatively little. I don’t have a problem with that. But we do fill a lot of gaps with what seems reasonable or with what fits from scattered bits of information.
    When it comes to textual criticism of ancient works, my postmodern skepticism tends to show. I’ve read bits of the historical textual criticism (the topic doesn’t interest me all that much) and they are often imposing suppositions on the text. They could be true. Or might not.
    Sometimes they simply ignore or discount data which I would actually consider history. For instance, it’s taken as ‘fact’ these days that Mark was written first and the other two ‘synoptic’ gospels were to some extent or another based on it. However, we have multiple recorded statements from the first couple of centuries that all agree with each other and which all trace their provenance through known people to an apostle who was around at the time. And while they are not identical, they all agree that Matthew was written first, then Mark (based on the testimony of Peter), then Luke, and much later John – by John. I don’t have all the quotes and sources handy, but I consider those better historical sources about a text than anything you can glean from the analysis of a text itself.
    I also find that this whole discipline of textual criticism tends to read into ancient culture assumptions of a literate culture even when they say they are doing otherwise and are considering the oral nature of the culture. Not always by any means. But it is a strong tendency.
    However, by and large, I just don’t care. At this juncture, these are the texts the Church has given us and which are useful for a whole lot of things within the context of “the pillar and ground of the truth”. There are a host of things, many of them historical, that matter a very great deal in our faith. The Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth central among them all. Who actually penned the oral tradition of the Torah? Not so much. When and by whom Isaiah was penned? By the time the LXX was translated and that’s really all that matters when we view it through the lens of Christ. There simply isn’t much in this area of discipline that matters to me. A text in isolation can mean just about anything you want it to me. I didn’t become Christian because it had the best text. I ultimately became Christian because it has the best story of what it means to be a human being and by far the best Lord.
    Though, honestly, I’m not too surprised so many can’t see that. I listen to people and I can’t blame them for not believing in the God in whom they don’t believe. I wouldn’t believe in that God either.

  • RJS

    dopderbeck,
    A methodology that seeks to exegete the text just like any other ordinary ANE text inevitably will to some degree misapprehend the nature, significance, and meaning of the text — right?
    I would put it a little differently – a methodology that assumes a “methodological naturalism” up front will come up with a fully natural result. Many scholars fall in this camp – and they’ll never find faith (or almost never anyway).
    I find NT Wright the best counter example here (not for OT but for NT and biblical studies in general). He approaches the text with a mind oriented toward God – but then lets the text be what it is, he doesn’t force it into a predetermined mold of what “scripture” must be. Or at least so it seems to me.
    So I think we take on faith that scripture is a God given revelation of his work with his people. It is designed to train us in wisdom leading to salvation. But then we let the text be what it is – and not force it into a predetermined mold of what “scripture” must be.
    In your quote Goldingay says:The unlikelihood of Israel inventing such a story makes me think it is more likely that it is based on some real events, at least such as happened to a small group of people with whose story other people in Palestine then identified.
    I think that this is right – it matches my thinking right now. And watching a NOVA show The Bible’s Buried Secrets (available on line) made something of the same point – there may well be an element of historicity at the level Goldingay suggests. I don’t see any reason to conclude that the most skeptical, minimalist scholars are correct – that it is all fiction. But is this really enough historical basis for you or for the church? I think that it is enough historical basis for me.

  • Kent Sparks

    Hello all. Thanks for considering my work so thoughtfully
    [1] dopderbeck said: I’m more interested in your reaction to [Goldingays] statements about Gen. 12-50: he says “Probably most of the scholarly world thinks that Genesis 12—50 is more or less pure fiction. The difference in its portrait of life makes me think it more likely that it is based on actual historical events – e.g., ancestors coming from Mesopotamia.
    Actually, there are a lot of scholars who would argue that the patriarchal tradition might reflect traditions from the “ancient ancestors,” as it were, but that’d hold more for the Jacob traditions than for the Abraham traditions (which appear to be pretty late, for lots of reasons). Even in the case of the Jacob traditions, it is already assumed that the Arameans are in Syria (c. 1000 BCE). So the traditions, however old, don’t seem to be much older than the Israelite settlement (c. 1200 BCE and after).
    [2] RJS said: “We all rely on outside expert opinion in various areas, but we learn to trust and evaluate those authorities.”
    Absolutely. As I point out in the book, we are dependant upon the judgment of others in profound ways (hence, the value of tradition) and must make good choices about where we will put our trust. I can know enough in some cases to take a stab at evaluating the evidence, but in something like quantum physics/general relativity—you know, singularities and the debate about whether there was an original singularity or a revolving cosmic cycle—I simply have no way of knowing who’s right.
    [3] About Sexton’s comment, “But one wonders if Sparks is really willing to be tested there. Specifically, the question begging to be posed to historical critics who adopt serious engagement with postmodern epistemology is whether their discipline can be performed with any confident relevancy at all.”
    Sexton doesn’t seem at all aware that “postmodernism” is essentially a rejection of modern epistemology, not a particular destination beyond it. Lots of postmodern readers (practical realists, critical realists, etc) believe that certainty is warranted in all kinds of cases. What they would deny is that certainty is a guarantee of being right. So, for instance, I’m quite certain that Moses did not write most of the Pentateuch and wouldn’t waste my time reading a paper that argued that he did, any more than an astronomer at U Penn would read “A New Defense of Ptolemy.” In this case I admit that I could be wrong, but I can’t imagine the possibility of evidence to the contrary. But if an angel were to tell me, or if I died and was confronted at the pearly gates by Moses, with five books in hand, then I’d gladly change my mind.
    [4] “In biblical scholarship, for instance, the following is generally assumed by scholars (excepting religious conservatives)” Does that make them [conservatives] wrong?
    No. It could be that everyone else is wrong and that conservative evangelical scholars are right … but I doubt it. (sorry about the word “conservative” … not quite sure what work to substititue … “fundamentalist”?. Besides, I consider myself conservative in the sense of theological orthodoxy.
    [5] quote from an article from (conservative) scholar Carl Trueman: “Now I worked in secular universities long enough to know that liberal colleagues are bright enough to spot a conservative at five hundred feet … It is a sad fact but, as far as biblical studies and theology go, only giving up all that is distinctive about the Christian faith will ultimately do that for you.”
    My experience does somewhat resonate with Trueman’s. In spite of my serious scholarship and publications with major journals, Cambridge and Oxford Press, etc., I am still viewed with suspicion in some circles because I believe in God and have confessional commitments. Lot’s of friends in the guild have sent emails like, “Hey Sparks, interesting book there .” Distinctiveness as a Christian is essential for our witness … but if that distinctiveness involves publishing nonsense, the result is damaging to the church’s witness. IMHO, the direction that Trueman and Westminster are choosing unfortunately heads in that direction. But that does not make me a better person or a better Christian than the Westminster crowd… the ultimate concern is love for God and neighbor, which has little to do with getting our historical and theological facts straight (a lesson we learn from the heretic Samaritan).

  • dopderbeck

    Kent: my point about Goldingay is not re: the various views in the scholarship, but it is about his methodology. Is his method — assuming up front that the text is inspired and allowing that assumption to shape his conclusions — valid in your view? This seems to me a good test case, b/c Goldingay is not shy about accepting many critical conclusions.
    RJS (#28): re: NT Wright — yes — but understand that NT Wright is ridiculed by critical NT scholars, who have gone so far as to establish a fictional “NT Wrong” character (see here: http://www.biblioblogs.com/featured-blogs/200902/) Kent — what do you think of NT Wright’s NT scholarship?
    Re: is it “good enough for my church or for me”: yes and no. Yes, in the sense that that Jesus is Risen, and that is unchanged if the OT histories are as minimal as the critics suggest. No, in that I’m just not convinced that the critical scholars’ methodology is entirely sound. In this sense, I agree with many of Scott Morziot’s (#27) comments: I am a critical realist who perhaps takes “critical” more seriously than others. As for my church, I’m thankful that my pastor, though very conservative, is smart and thoughtful guy — he wouldn’t agree with me, but he wouldn’t totally freak out. We actually trade thoughts about this stuff all the time.

  • dopderbeck

    By way of more direct example, here is what the critical scholar posing as NT Wrong says about NT Wright’s work:

    If there is anything that is a testimony to the failure of the New Perspective, it’s the unbelievably contrived stretches which result when Wright tries to apply his ideas in a full commentary on Romans (in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary). It’s like watching a defender of the Ptolemaic view of the universe adding epicycle upon epicycle. His very defence of the New Perspective shows something must be wrong with it. Talk about hoist with your own petard.
    The same trajectory from apologetic response to contrived results can be seen in his approach to eschatology: the Bible sounds a bit nasty, doesn’t it?; let’s interpret it so it goes away (and after a brief period somebody like Edward Adams comes along and points out that the problem hasn’t gone away… and then the whole apologetic edifice is constructed anew by another generation of apologetic biblical scholars).
    Although the Bishop of Durham claims to take a critical approach to the Gospels, in actual fact he would go so far as to defend the historicity of the most patently unhistorical events, such as — as a random example — Matthew’s zombie-saints.

    Do you want to swallow all this?

  • Kyle

    Kent,
    Thanks for the continuing dialogue throughout these discussions. I’d be interested what you think of the general direction of Mike Heiser’s statement that I linked above.

  • Kyle

    Dopderbeck,
    You’ve gotta remember that NT Wrong is also setup as a caricature against the majority of scholarly biblioblogs (which are primarily from a Christian perspective). NT Wrong is a brilliant Old Testament scholar, but he clearly has a chip on his shoulder. His opinions in no way are the standard view toward NT Wright, even among the most critical. Most unbelieving scholars are appreciative of his work (even though they do often pick on the fact that he considers the zombies to be possibly historical).

  • RJS

    dopderbeck,
    With respect to the NT Wrong caricature – I think Kyle says it well.
    And as one who has spent now 28 years in secular academia – as graduate student, postdoc and professor – I would say that a Christian perspective, and I don’t really care what field, is an outsider perspective. There is often some level of ridicule and derision. In some fields it is mild, because it need not impact scholarly work (one can stay “underground”). In others areas of endeavor it is much more integral to the pursuit (and OT or NT studies are excellent examples).
    So as Kent said distinctiveness as a Christian is essential for our witness … but if that distinctiveness involves publishing nonsense, the result is damaging to the church’s witness. One of the hardest things for me to deal with is the knee jerk expectation that all Christians are creationists – in the young earth sense. I would much rather fight battles that actually mean something. (The second hardest thing to deal with is the expectation that to be Christian is to be sexist to the core.)

  • Rick

    “It could be that everyone else is wrong and that conservative evangelical scholars are right … but I doubt it. (sorry about the word “conservative” … not quite sure what work to substititue … “fundamentalist”?. Besides, I consider myself conservative in the sense of theological orthodoxy.”
    I think “fundamentalist” would perhaps be a more helpful distinction, since (in my opinion) there are plenty of high quality conservative scholars (both evangelical and non-evangelical) that do not fall into the fundamentalism trap.

  • Kent Sparks

    [1] dopderbeck: About Goldingay on Gen 12-50 and Wright/New Perspective
    I like Goldingay’s work … he thoughtful and has good scholarly judgment. His comments on Gen 12-50 are circumspect and lack detail, so I’m not sure what he means … but I suspect that John does not believe in a literal Abraham who lived in the historical period before the settlement and was the literal father of Israel.
    As for Wright, I like the sense and general direction of his work but, overall, find it difficult to embrace his project in detail. To many arguments are based on other arguments, and on other arguments, possibilities, etc. I’m not keen on the New Perspective and probably would get distracted reading a commentary on Romans that was founded on the theory … but I’d be equally distracted by “Lutheran” reading of Romans.
    [2] Kyle: I went to Heiser’s site but found no document … only comments saying that he had posted a document on scripture, etc. If you have the material, please send it to me at kent_sparks@verizon.net.
    Thanks again, all, for the conversation.

  • dopderbeck

    Kyle — yeah, but I think NT Wrong is a true expression of how non-religious NT scholars think of religious ones. Try expressing an opinion on the biblical-studies listserv that supports any kind of confessional position. Even some religious ones speak that way — see e.g. Jim West’s blog.
    RJS — I’m an academic as well, don’t forget. “Religious” perspectives are suspect in mainstream legal scholarship as well. The belief that law is rooted in any sort of transcendent morality generally is either scoffed at or politely ignored as irrelevant. But there is a growing movement towards recognizing specifically religious perspectives on law — without things devolving into culture wars. I’m hosting a conference at my law school on this theme next fall.
    As a Christian scholar, I believe in interdisciplinarity. I don’t think confessional Christians should have to check their faith commitments at the door of the academy. I agree whole-heartedly that much of the evangelical scholarship in various fields that preceded us failed to be truly interdisciplinary and intstead opted for the culture wars. Can we forge a better path without just rolling over the other way — including in Biblical Studies?

  • RJS

    For those who might be looking for the statement Kyle refers to in #1 and #32 – It won’t show up in IE 7; but seems to show up fine in other browsers (firefox or safari for example)

  • Kent Sparks

    With thanks to RJS:
    Kyle … some thoughts on Heiser:
    Excerpts from Heiser: “[1] These shortfalls should not be construed as errors, since to do so would be to charge the human author with possessing the limitations of humanity, as though the writer could have circumvented those limitations … Rather, God used humans as they were, with all their limitations, much in the same way He left the task of evangelism and administration of His Body, the Church, to weak human beings … [2] His work of providence was sufficient at every point of the way to ensure that the words that he intended to be in Scripture, and no others, are in fact therein … [3] Any writer or editorial hand whose work of composition or editing preceded the final form of a given canonical book and whose work finds expression in the final canonical text was a participant in the process of inspiration … [4] At times their own context for writing or quoting a text required that the earlier Scripture text of the Old Testament be repurposed in a different literary form or adapted to reinforce a specific exegetical or theological point found elsewhere in the canonical text.”
    My comments: I’ve extracted a few portions of Heiser’s statement for comment. Overall, I hate to meddle in what obviously reflects careful thought … the statement is workable and would allow a confessing Christian to meaningfully engage Scripture as a human, as well as divine, document. But that said, here are my comments: [1] I’d resist Heiser’s effort to free Scripture’s authors from error. They were not always culpable for their errors, but they did err. My chief concern would be to affirm that God doesn’t err in Scripture, which is a different matter. [2] Talk of God’s “intentions” is a complex matter. Did he intend for his human creatures to sin, or did he not so intend? The answer to that question depends on lots of things that I simply don’t know or understand … mystery … In a similar way, talk about God’s intentions in Scripture is messy business … I doubt that God “intended” to create a record of Christ’s resurrection in the same way that he “intended” to command that the Israelites kill all of the Canaanites. That is, just as you and I do things that God did not in some sense intend, so too was this true of the biblical authors … Like us, their thoughts and writings included elements that are foreign to God’s purposes (but at the same time, sovereignly within his purposes, I suppose). [3] Inspiration is a way of saying that the text is from God, but as Heiser’s statement explicitly points out, inspiration takes on many shapes and dimensions. In most cases, I doubt that the biblical writers were any more “inspired” than non-biblical writers … inspiration affirms something about the text … that, though written by a human being, it is nonetheless something from God … but I’d not envision inspiration as some kind of mechanism that produced the text., excepting a few special circumstances that Heiser notes in his statement. [4] I’d just say that the NT writers interpreted the OT according to the hermeneutical canons of their day. We do the same, but our canons of interpretation differ from those of the NT writers and hence produce different sorts of readings.

  • Kyle

    Kent,
    Thanks for your thoughts. I appreciate how you’ve made yourself available for extended discussion on the web. I’ve followed your discussions here and recently stumbled upon your discussion at Andy Naselli’s blog. I’m sure you’re busy, so taking the time to discuss these topics with fellow Christians is helpful.
    Dopderbeck,
    I think the biblical studies list (I’m assuming you mean the Yahoo group) is a good example of how some unbelieving scholars views confessional scholars. Of course, some believing scholars post there, but I don’t think the posts/comments on that list are normative of most SBL scholars. The majority are from a subset of the biblical studies guilld who hold to a particular interpretation that is very hotly debated by believers and unbelievers (I’m referring to Lemche, Thomson and Davies who all regularly contribute). All three are very strong in their rhetoric against confessional scholars…and sometimes against their scholarship too.
    I don’t know if you are familiar with Alan Bandy’s interviews with various believing and unbelieving scholars on this topic, but here is a link (Christian Faith and Scholarship). Thomson and Davies are examples of the extreme in my opinion (take for instance Davies’ comments about Kenneth Kitchen…it’s nothing but pure ad hominem…I don’t always agree with Kitchens either, but how does name calling help anything?).
    I think Crossley is much more typical of unbelieving scholarship. He obviously doesn’t follow Wright’s conclusions, but is very respectful and appropriates some of Wright’s research when necessary. All of the linked interviews are helpful, including the one by Scot McKnight. I think most unbelieving scholars have as much respect for Evans, Wright, Hurtado, Bauckham, etc. as they do for Segal, Crossan, Casey, etc.

  • dopderbeck

    Kyle — thanks! Very helpful. Yes that Yahoo! list is the one I was thinking of. Are you in the scholarly guild?
    Roseanne: you said: In most cases, I doubt that the biblical writers were any more “inspired” than non-biblical writers … inspiration affirms something about the text … that, though written by a human being, it is nonetheless something from God … but I’d not envision inspiration as some kind of mechanism that produced the text., excepting a few special circumstances that Heiser notes in his statement.
    I respond: I’m getting a little frustrated at this conversation. You’re making huge, huge, theological assertions here, frankly kind of blithely and without any regard to historical context, or so it seems to me. I think this is unfair and not really reflective of your overall program in these posts — which I support — of developing a theology and apologetic that isn’t just a defensive wall against “secular” knowledge.
    We all know there are ranges of well-developed views on what constitutes the locus of “inspiration” and what “inspiration” might mean, with big implications for one’s entire theological system depending on which approach you take. Can we interact thoughtfully with the whole range of views without just tossing off this kind of atom bomb?
    I mean, what are you really saying here: like liberal theology, that “inspiration” inheres in the fact that these are “inspiring” stories of human religious sentiment; like neo-orthodoxy, that “inspiration” refers to “revelation” that is produced by but separate from the text; like some post-conservative evangelicals who see “inspiration” as an ongoing function of text, Spirit, and community; like Roman Catholics who see “inspiration” as referring to “revelation” to be discerned by the teaching authority of the Church; or something else?
    All I hear is a critique of the conservative evangelical view that “inspiration” refers to the Spirit’s verbal plenary authorship of the text and its consequent total inerrancy — and at that, the critique is directed only at a very conservative understanding of what inerrancy must mean and what sort of hermeneutical conclusions about the text might be appropriate, which many conservative evangelicals today don’t really hold. A reasonable, informed and faithful Christian might still decide that the traditional evangelical view is unworkable, but let’s interact with it fairly and offer some sort of meaningful, thought out, historically situated alternatives.

  • RJS

    dopderbeck,
    I didn’t say that – Kent did, in response to Heiser’s statement. I haven’t had time the last couple of days to sit down and carefully think it through. And this is a topic where I do want to think about it first.

  • dopderbeck

    RJS (#42) — Oops, sorry, my bad!!

  • Kent Sparks

    Hi dopderbeck:
    Sorry to frustrate you. Perhaps an example will help.
    Suppose that Luke decides a biography of Jesus should be written to serve as a testimony to his life and its import for humanity. And let’s then suppose that he sorted through the available sources, thought about the matter, and then wrote his biography. And let’s suppose that he did this just as anyone else would have done it … no special insights, no secret whisperings in his ear … he wrote a biography by inquiry and reflection.
    Now let’s suppose that this testimony again and again proved itself a suitable witness to Christ’s life, such that Christian leaders–in an effort to preserve this and similar testimonies, both biographical and theological (e.g., Paul)–selected Luke’s little book to be included in a canon of authoritative religious literature. The selection process included fits and starts … debates about which books should be in, and which should not … some books were little debated (Luke, for example), whereas others were apparently hotly debated (e.g., Revelation).
    The process is profoundly human, but it is God’s way of giving us his text … in and through human hands. In this sense, the text is inspired … it is understood as from God …
    As Heiser points out, our description of the process might be different for a prophetic book, wherein God appears to dictate some of the words (but even here there are complexities).
    For a similar but more robust description of this view, that humans speak and God adopts their word as his own, see Nicholas Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse.
    If this view of Scripture doesn’t suit you, dopderbeck, can you explain what is lost, practically speaking, when one moves from your position (whatever it is) to something like I have described.

  • RJS

    Kent,
    I think the example you give reflects how I think about scripture as Word of God these days. And the inspiration – the power of the Spirit – was in the formation of the canon as much as in the writing of the texts (which means I won’t discard 2 Peter for example).
    Inspiration was also in assembly of the Pentateuch – but this doesn’t mean literal history, it means that it fulfills the purpose for which it was intended.

  • Your Name

    RJS: Yes, we’re on the same page. In the same way that I want to avoid a trap that contrasts the “natural process of evolution” with “God’s creative activity” (as if the two are exclusive options rather than descriptions of the same thing), so too I want to avoid contrasting the “human process of Scripture” with its “Divine inspiration.”
    We’re created in God’s image … we already have the native capacity to understand something about God and to write about it.

  • Kent Sparks

    … that last comment was from me.

  • dopderbeck

    Thanks Kent. Perhaps this is “prophetic” — I picked up the Wolterstorff book you mention as well as “Reason Within the Bounds of Religion” last week and its high up on my reading pile.
    In my Missional Theology I class at Biblical Seminary that I’m taking right now, we’re reading Grenz and Franke’s “Beyond Foundationalism,” which I read once before on my own. In their discussion of scripture, they “appropriate” Wolterstorff as follows:

    If the final authority in the church is the Holy Spirit speaking through scripture, then theology’s norming norm is the message the Spirit declares through the text. The Spirit does not address this message to us by means of a double discourse that centers on what the biblical author said (not merely intended to say) by authoring the text, as Wolterstorff suggests. Rather — to push Wolterstorff’s own terminology further — the Spirit speaks by ‘appropriating’ the Biblical text itself.”

    I like this. I also like Grenz and Franke’s notion that the Spirit speaking through the text into the community of the Church is engaged in eschatological “world building.”
    Yet, I have at least two issues I’m not sure I can resolve with this approach:
    (1) Is this really a fair treatment of what theopneustos means? I’m certain that most conservative evangelical exegetes, going back to Warfield, would say no, it is not. I lack the exegetical chops to even attempt to adjudicate this question. Of course, there is an underlying question of method: is it even possible to come up with an “objective” exegesis of 2 Tim. 3:16 and related passages and then to build systematic theology from that starting point?
    (2) Is this an adequate statement of scripture’s authority for the life and faith of the church? In your work, Kent, you acknowledge the “wax nose” problem for accomodationist views, and if I recall you suggest the Patristic rule of faith and the great tradition as a corrective (or I might be confusing or conflating you with Joel Green here). That seems like a good start — but I’m still left wondering if the Protestant principle of sola scriptura can survive — i.e., whether we can then construct doctrine and ethical precepts without the aid of an interpretive Magesterium.
    I’m guessing that I’m typical of many other alert and educated evangelical lay people in that I feel I lack the tools and the confidence needed to deviate significantly from the positions offered to me by my faith tradition. Who am I to question D.A. Carson or Greg Beale, or the collective efforts of the Chicago Statement signers and the Evangelical Theological Society, the official Statement of Faith of my home church, etc.? In many ways, I feel rather at sea about exactly how to parse these questions — in spite of, or maybe because of, lots of time and money invested in studying them.

  • Rick

    Although both of you are in agreement about the process, it still sounds like RJS is putting more emphasis on the inspired writers than is Kent.
    Ben Witherinton in his interview with Michael Bird:
    “I am arguing for a lot of different things in my Living Word book out this fall. One of the main points is that we are making a mistake by looking at the Bible as a ‘text’ in the modern sense of the word. The environment in which the Bible was written is an oral culture, a culture in which only 10% or so of the populus could read and write. Among other things then, the fact that we have a plethora of people leading Christianity who could read and wrote these books speaks volumes about the social level of the authors. They were not bucolic peasants, and they were all deeply steeped in the OT. Furthermore, they all had a strong sense of how sacred texts, inspired texts, functioned in a basically oral culture. A good example of where this study is going comes early when I deal with what Paul says in 1 Thess. 2– he says that his converts received his preaching of the Gospel as not merely the words of human beings, but as it really was, the inspired word of God. In other words, the primary sense of the phrase word of God applies in the first instance to an inspired oral proclamation, in the second instance to Christ himself, and in the third instance, to a written sacred text, the OT (see 2 Tim. 3.16). In other words, Paul, and other NT writers believed they were speaking and writing God’s Word, inspired by God’s Spirit telling the truth about God, Christ, salvation and other subjects…..It is true to say that Scripture is one form of tradition that has become a sacred text. So yes, Scripture contains a plethora of different traditions. But to say this is not enough. What was believed about these sacred texts is that they were God-breathed, and so different in various ways from other traditions which were more mundane or purely human. Without an inadequate undestanding of ancient views of inspiration and how they effects texts, we can’t get very far in discussing the relationship of ordinary traditions to inspired or sacred ones.”
    http://euangelizomai.blogspot.com/2007/09/ben-witherington-on-scripture.html

  • RJS

    dopderbeck,
    In your emphasis of theopneustos aren’t you putting a lot of weight on a word used only once in scripture and in a context at that. I don’t think that we should rip it out of context and set it up as a free-standing proposition. So part of the context is:
    All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.
    Scripture is inspired for a purpose – and using the word theopneustos with out the qualification of that purpose strikes me as wrong.

  • RJS

    Rick,
    Certainly Paul in the teaching in his letters thinks that he is speaking the word of God (and I don’t doubt that he was)- and this is closer to “prophetic” writing than to anything else – he is passing on a word from God.
    But I am not sure that this is equally true for all parts of his letters.
    This is not true of the writers of the gospels or acts.

  • RJS

    And – to add to my last comment. I do not think that this means that God preserved Paul from the common knowledge understanding of his day. The fact that he referred to Adam as a unique individual doesn’t mean that he was inspired to know that Adam was a unique individual. Or that we must conclude that Adam was a unique individual. It means that Paul was passing on the message that God had given to him in the context of the “common knowledge” of his culture and upbringing.

  • Rick

    “But I am not sure that this is equally true for all parts of his letters.
    This is not true of the writers of the gospels or acts.”
    According to…..?
    How do we determine which is which (and to what degree)?
    What does this do to hermeneutics, especially in regards to the study of authorial intent (since certain portions were not written under inspiration)?
    Dopderbeck may be right, this approach may be raising up the authority of a Magesterium.
    “It means that Paul was passing on the message that God had given to him in the context of the “common knowledge” of his culture and upbringing.”
    Agreed- but that would fall under the inspired writer theory that Kent does not appear to hold.

  • RJS

    Rick,
    I don’t think it raises the authority of a Magesterium. On your first two questions “According to…..?” and “How do we determine which is which (and to what degree)?” — I don’t think that these are relevant questions, and I don’t think that getting all the lines right matters.
    Scripture isn’t first and foremost a law book or a series of propositions (although it certainly contains some laws and possibly even some proposition); and following the mission of God isn’t achieved by submitting to some human construct – church hierarchy or Chicago statement, although it absolutely requires being in fellowship with a Christian community, a local church.
    We stand on the foundation of faith in God, not a foundation of scripture. We are in relationship with God – and part of that relationship is maintained by reading and interacting with the scriptures. Scripture is a lamp that, with the power of the Spirit, illuminates the nature of God as we come into relationship. This can be through story (and I think that Job is story – never intended to be history), through history presented in a manner acceptable to the original culture (Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Mt, Mk, Lk, Jn, Acts), through didactic letters to churches (Romans), through apocalyptic prophecy, through poetry and proverbs, and so on.
    We are in relationship and we are called to relationship with God and with others. I think that we interact with the text of scripture, discussing and interpreting it as a part of that relationship, that conversation.

  • Kent Sparks

    Hi Dopderbeck:
    [1] “Is this really a fair treatment of what theopneustos means?”
    First, it’s unlikely that the author of 2 Tim 3:16 had a clear notion of what “theophneustos” meant. I suspect that he had some sort of dictation in mind, but I don’t think we can be sure. He certainly viewed the Bible as divine and, hence, as different from other books. But whatever he meant, his doctrine of Scripture would be very different from modern doctrines (like the ETS, “inerrant in originals”) and postmodern doctrines (adopted human discourse). I’d say the doctrine of Scripture that stood behind 2 Tim was partly right and partly wrong, but still useful and onto something important. Similarly, my own doctrine is probably overcompensating for problems that I perceive and underemphasizing things that are important.
    [2] Is this an adequate statement of scripture’s authority for the life and faith of the church? In your work, Kent, you acknowledge the “wax nose” problem … if I recall you suggest the Patristic rule of faith and the great tradition as a corrective … but I’m still left wondering if the Protestant principle of sola scriptura can survive …
    Obviously, I think that it is … but I say this with awareness that even my own view … while appearing to me as an improvement on fundamentalism … is ever in need of revision and correction. As for the “wax nose” problem, that is in part corrected simply by caring about the Bible and what it says. The problem with SOME (but not all) strands liberal and neo-orthodox interpretive tradition is not its doctrine of Scripture (accommodated human speech) but rather the modern tendency to then discount the text as an authoritative source of truth and insight.
    Protestants are not sola scriptura … like everyone else, we read the text within an interpretive tradition that is reflected in our doctrinal statements and in the interpretive authorities that we trust … The trust placed in Carson and Beale are good examples … whatever they say is accepted by many as gospel, though I’d judge their views to be very foreign from what most Christians have thought and said through history … theologically, their tradition is an important but small dot on the page of Christian history.
    [3] also like Grenz and Franke’s notion that the Spirit speaking through the text into the community of the Church
    I agree that the spirit speaks through the text, but I would probably nuance it differently. To my mind, the first priority for a reader of Scripture is to listen attentively to what the human author said, which respects the integrity of both the human author and of the divine author, whose choice it was to speak through a human author. Ultimately, the spirit will speak through that encounter, but its clear enough that to some extent we always misunderstand both what the human author said and what the spirit is saying … that’s just how it goes. In my book I accentuate how God can actually speak through errant readings of Scripture. So, for instance, if I am one of those mystical types who randomly flips open my Bible for direction on some problem or issue, the Spirit might provide a message using a text that I badly misread.
    [4] Who am I to question D.A. Carson or Greg Beale, or the collective efforts of the Chicago Statement signers and the Evangelical Theological Society, the official Statement of Faith of my home church, etc.?
    Millions, yea billions, of Christians implicitly or explicitly isagree with them. So you’d not be alone.

  • dopderbeck

    RJS (#50) — yes, a lot of weight is put on that passage — but it is the locus classicus of the doctrine of inspiration, even though it isn’t the only passage that touches on the nature of inspiration. Re: the purposes mentioned in that passage — yes — but I don’t think that impacts inspiration per se. I think those purposes get to the question of authority. If scripture is inspired by God it must be treated as the words of God, meaning that we must submit to those words. But for what purposes is scripture authoritative? I think 2 Tim. 3:16 illustrates those purposes. It might be helpful, I think, to note that “for constructing a detailed history of Israel” or “for critiquing the findings of the natural sciences” are not listed among those purposes. But I think we should be clear that this relates to authority, not inspiration.
    Re: #54 — I don’t think we can avoid this question so easily. The Church cannot function without doctrine and still remain authentically the Church. For example, say a person denies the deity of Christ. Can that person lead the Church?
    Who sez? (In the diocese of the Episcopal Church where I live, the Bishop in fact seems to deny the deity of Christ…)
    The Protestant view is that scripture, tradition, reason, and experience are sources of authority, with scripture the final normative authority, concerning such questions. The Catholic view is that tradition is co-extensive in some respects with scripture. Either way, without such sources of authority, we can’t even start to determine what the “centered set” of generous orthodoxy should look like. We can talk about what sort of authority scripture is, how it should be interpreted, what it means for it to be inspired; and certainly we can agree that doctrinal statements are always second-order statements that are always in some ways provisional and imperfect — but still, I think we have to be clear that scripture is authoritative for the faith and practice of the Church.

  • RJS

    dopderbeck,
    A lot of emphasis in modern evangelical circles is put on 2 Tim 3:16.
    On the other hand a lot of emphasis is placed on Mt 16:18-19 in RC circles and in the early church as well (read Cyprian among others).
    I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.
    I think that the emphasis put by “church as institution” on Mt 16 and the emphasis placed by modern evangelicals on 2 Tim 3:16 both reflect misuse of scripture. They misunderstand the nature of church and the nature of scripture respectively.

  • RJS

    Let me try this a little differently – you seem to want a fool proof path by which to judge. Scripture says Jesus is divine therefore the local Bishop who denies this is wrong and incompetent to serve. QED – case closed.
    I don’t think that we have any fool proof path by which to judge except on our knees before God, relying on the power of his Spirit. We don’t get certainty by relying on church institution and we don’t get certainty by relying on the inerrant scripture.
    It simply ain’t so easy – we have to enter into relationship and listen.

  • Kyle

    Dopderbeck,
    I’m not an academic if that’s what you mean by “scholarly guild.” Neither do I have my doctorate. I am a member of various biblical studies societies, write articles, reviews, etc. for journals and such, but my only interaction with real scholars is in my current calling. I’m a church planter in Asia, with a special desire to connect professors and qualified pastors with short-term teaching opportunities in Asia (paritcularly China). There is a deep desire for theological education amongst the house churches in China, and the resources to provide that teaching are readily available in the US, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, etc. The problem is getting the two sides connected.

  • Ted M. Gossard

    Interesting thread.
    I intend to read this book, but I’m wondering just how much we have to concede. I really am enjoying LeRon Shult’s book on Christology and Science, but in his thoughts on the Incarnation he seems ready to concede the virgin birth as myth, in the same category as Adam and Eve in the garden. Maybe he’s doing that for the sake of argument; the book is interesting, and really a good stretch for me.
    This reminds me too much of New Testament prophecy, and how it’s worked out (correctly, I believe) in Christian fellowships where it’s practiced today. There is the words from God, but there is the human element which may be fallible. And we need discernment to tell the difference.
    But I don’t believe Scripture is the same as that. Or exactly what is this saying about Scripture, I wonder?

  • RJS

    Ted,
    I enjoyed Shults’s book – but I agree, he seems to give too much away and does it for reasons that often don’t seem compelling to me. Virgin birth is a good example.

  • dopderbeck

    RJS — yes, when it comes to something as basic as “Jesus is Lord,” we must be able to say QED, case closed. If not, why bother calling ourselves “Christ”-ian?

  • RJS

    dopderbeck,
    I think we can and must say QED case closed – but I don’t think that we can do this on a ground of “inerrant scripture.”
    The scripture is inerrant
    The scripture says A
    Therefore A – case closed.
    I don’t care what A is – I find this kind of reasoning untenable. Both scripture and our life before God is messier than this.

  • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

    I hate to keep flogging the same subject here (and I’m not going to hyperlink my blog again, you can find the article if you want), but I’m going to try till somebody at least addresses it. . .dopderbeck, RJS, and Kent are all dancing around 2 Tim. 3:16, and (at least in the thread so far), RJS is the only one who’s acknowledged that verse to be in the context of verses 14-17 (Kent, I haven’t read your book yet but I’m going to buy it–and, I suspect, appreciate it very much).
    What I’m getting at is something I discovered first when I read 2Tim in the 1901 American Standard version. The crucial verb “is” isn’t in verse 16 at all in ASV, and when I went back and looked, there’s no “be” verb in the Greek text either. I don’t claim to be a Greek expert, but it seems to me that the very interpretation of v. 16 as a declarative statement about “all scripture” (particularly as “all of our current canon”) is simply off base for two reasons (in ascending importance):
    1) “All scripture” without the qualifier “holy scripture” could refer to anything that is written; Paul clearly didn’t mean that. Therefore, it makes sense to assume that he means the “holy scriptures” that are antecedent in verse 15. This leads me to:
    2) Paul is legendary for run-on sentences. I suspect that 14-17 is one of those, and 16 is actually a dependent clause of 14-15–in other words, Paul is only describing as “theopneustos” those scriptures he previously referenced, as being the ones Timothy has learned from his youth, that are “able to make you wise for salvation. . .” Read this way, Paul is saying that whatever scriptures Timothy learned that are able to make one wise unto salvation (themselves possibly a SUBSET of those Timothy had learned), these are God-breathed and profitable. That, of course, is somewhat of a no-brainer statement.
    The issue is, Paul isn’t trying to make a declarative statement about the authority of scripture at all. He’s saying that those scriptures which are sourced (whatever that means) from God are effectual. To use this verse as the foundation of a whole dogma about scriptural authority is plain-and-simply counter to what Paul is saying.
    This, then, leads us to the broader picture of discerning, within the scriptural texts, what of them is God’s message, what is the (perhaps inspired) rumination of godly men, and what is other stuff–possibly still true and profitable, but not divine. The interesting thing is, when we approach the texts asking them how they self-label, a very different set of priorities rises to the top, than those in most Evangelical (or other) theology.


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