Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism (a new book on a recurring problem)

Today we have an interview with Dr. Christopher M. Hays (DPhil, University of Oxford), who, along with Christopher B. Ansberry, has edited Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical CriticismHays and Ansberry have brought together a dozen evangelical scholars to tackle some of the more vexing challenges of historical criticism—such as Adam, unfulfilled prophecy, the historical Jesus—and analyze their impact on Christian beliefs.

A common theme in evangelicalism is that the conclusions of historical criticism dissolves the foundations of faith. Avoiding the defensiveness and combative polemics that often characterize these debates, this book ushers readers towards an alternate evangelical approach to biblical scholarship, one marked by faithful criticism and critical faith.

Hays is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow on the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Oxford. He specializes in the subject of Christian wealth ethics (i.e. how to be moral with money), and is the author of Luke’s Wealth Ethics: A Study in Their Coherence and Character (Mohr Siebeck, 2010). He also takes occasional breaks from theological navel-gazing as an associate of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics. He is a member of the Theological Education Initiative of United World Mission, and in the autumn of 2013 he will be moving to South America to train Latino pastors and theologians.

Okay, first off, explain what “historical criticism” is. It’s got a bad reputation with some people.

At one level, the term historical criticism describes the way that biblical scholars peer into the historical back-story to the biblical text … kind of like the way an investigative journalist pokes around for the back-story of a White House press-release.

Looking into the events behind the press-release doesn’t necessarily mean that you disbelieve the statement; it means you want to understand what factors led to the formulation of the document (to help you understand the document better).

Sometimes, of course, this sort of inquiry goes beyond “filling in the gaps” and becomes about wrestling with some tricky data within the text. After all, the biblical materials create some interesting challenges for interpreters.

For example, a lot of scholars have thought that the events of Paul’s life as described in the book of Acts don’t square neatly with what Paul himself narrates in Galatians 2. So historical criticism tries to evaluate what seems likely to have happened, and perhaps whether we can explain how these apparently dissonant accounts came about.

Similarly, historical critics ask if (or to what degree) the exodus happened just as described in the Old Testament, or if the prophet Isaiah actually wrote all the chapters attributed to him.

The questions are not generated by a negative bias against Scripture, as is sometimes thought. Questions around Paul’s biography or the book of Isaiah are generated by the biblical texts themselves. The historical nature of the biblical exodus is an issue raised in archaeological research.

In general, historical criticism is not automatically hostile to Christianity or disrespectful of Scripture. It is a mode of historical investigation that tries to handle as honestly as possible the real challenges of the biblical, literary, and archaeological data available.

Still, this way of describing things falls short of the full significance of historical criticism.  It’s actually about doing good history in order to figure out what sort of literature the Bible is.

As Lawson Stone, Professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, puts it, historical criticism asks: “What kind of account of past events is the Bible? How does what we learn about past events from other sources illuminate the Bible’s account in comparison or contrast with other accounts?”

Which is to say: historical criticism isn’t an automatic liability for Christian scholarship; it’s a productive tool that helps us to hear the Scriptures better.

So is your book an introduction to historical criticism?

Actually, no; there are plenty of capable introductions to historical criticism out there, so my colleagues and I didn’t feel the need to pen another one.  Instead, we wanted to ask a question that we think is worrying a lot of Christians, especially those in their early days in seminary: what does historical criticism do to our faith?

(For a quick glimpse into what made us write this book and how we changed as went along, check out this piece in The Colossian Forum.)

Does historical criticism necessarily undermine Christian doctrine?

First, it’s important to bear in mind that there is no one “historical criticism” and not all historical critics come to the same conclusions on these matters; they have a wide variety of opinions on a wide variety of historical issues.

But historical criticism has challenged some of the ways that individual Christian doctrines are formulated. For example, historical critics generally think that some of Paul’s letters were written by someone besides Paul, and that the Pentateuch and Isaiah were written (at least in part) by people long after Moses and Isaiah. We don’t have to conclude that this invalidates the truthfulness of those books, but these critical perspectives should encourage us to think carefully about how we understand their truthfulness.

Historical criticism raises doctrinal issues in relation to other biblical texts. If historical criticism problematizes the assumption that there was a first human couple (Adam and Eve), that could affect our understanding of the nature of sin. This doesn’t determine whether or not humanity is sinful, but it might affect how human sinfulness is conceived.  So we’ve got to think that topic through.

Another issue, close to my heart, has to do with the Gospels. The Gospels are not modern journalistic accounts of Jesus’s life. Ancient biographies and histories don’t function in a manner identical to modern biographies and histories, and this helps account for the distinct emphases and details in the various Gospels’ depictions of Jesus.

Christians don’t need to be worried by this. We don’t have to conclude that the Gospels give specious accounts of Jesus’ life; we don’t have to assume that engaging with historical Jesus scholarship means that will we slide all the way down the slippery-slope and conclude that Jesus was never raised from the dead. But historical criticism does raise some perplexing and thought-provoking questions, and it’s important that Christian scholars learn to respond to these with wisdom, insight, and faith.

Historical criticism is not about the conclusions one draws but the questions one asks and the methods of historical investigation.

So, instead of defending one historical critical perspective or repudiating another, in this book we wanted to trace out what would be the theological consequences of various historical critical perspectives. What happens to the faith if, say, NT Wright is right about Jesus? Are things different if Dale Allison is right, or if Gerd Thiessen is right?

In the end, we don’t want to pretend that nothing is at stake with historical criticism. There’s lots at stake! We really just want to make two basic points:

  1. We want to show that not all historical-critical view-points lead to heresy (there is no satanic druid cabal slaughtering goats behind closed doors at the Society of Biblical Literature meetings!); you can be orthodox and a historical critic.
  2. Since some historical critical perspectives do damage the way Christians historically have understood their faith, evangelicals should be at the forefront of the discussion, helping shape good critical scholarship rather than ceding the field to people who don’t have the same theological concerns.

This book does not doubt that historical criticism can be dangerous; fueled by atheistic hostility or over-weaning skepticism, some historical critics have suggested devastating theses (e.g. that the covenant is nothing but monarchical propaganda; that the Scripture’s prophecies are poisoned draughts swallowed by fools expecting a blessed future; that Christ’s bones mouldered and crumbled in a forgotten tomb). But fundamentalist obscurantism can also imperil the faithful. Far too many believers have been taught to understand the Bible in modern terms removed by millennia from the ancient cultures that composed the sacred texts. In this way, Christian doctrine has been pitted against science, archaeology, and ancient history. Under such sad conditions, people’s faith can be snatched and devoured by evolutionary biology, by the Epic of Gilgamesh, by vaticinium ex eventu, by an archeological record lacking evidence of a million-man-march from Egypt, or by a Gospel Synopsis that shows divergent details in the Evangelists’ depictions of Christ. Sure, atheistic critical scholarship is dangerous, but so is benighted pietism. (p. 205)

So would you describe yourself as an historical critic?

I wouldn’t describe myself as an historical critic any more than I would describe myself as a philologist or a classical historian. Historical criticism is something I do as part of my work interpreting the New Testament, just as word-studies and investigation of Roman history are things I do to help me interpret the New Testament.

Historical criticism is just one of the preliminary stages of the process of biblical interpretation, like text criticism, discourse analysis, or rabbinic studies. It’s a tool that helps us get interpretive clarity so that we can better discern how it is that God spoke through the text, and more importantly, how he speaks to us to today.

Rather than calling myself an historical critic, I would want to describe myself as a theologian (even though my expertise is in New Testament studies rather than Barth or Aquinas).  My job as a biblical scholar is to help the people of God hear the message of the word of God and think more robustly about God the Word. Historical criticism helps in that process, because it draws us into the world in which God chose to reveal himself to us.

Why is historical criticism important for the evangelical Church?

Historical criticism is important for evangelicals because of our high view of Scripture. We evangelicals love the Scripture; we believe it, we trust it, and as we read it we expect to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit. And for this reason, we should be excited about historical criticism, because it helps us lay aside our own assumptions and expectations about the Bible in order to see more clearly the sort of literature that God has been using to speak to us.

If you believe that the Bible is inspired, and you realize that the inspired Bible incorporates (for example) a bunch of different accounts of Jesus’ life that differ on historical details, then that helps you figure out what sorts of things God does and doesn’t want to communicate through his inspired Scripture.

It shapes our expectations about what kind of book the Bible is and the kind of information it is prepared to deliver.

I should stress that this way of interpreting Scripture is nothing new to evangelicals or the historic Christian Church. This is already a big part of how we read the Bible. For a long time we’ve done this sort of interpretation piecemeal, allowing our knowledge of, e.g., literary genre to help us think more carefully about what sort of questions the Bible intends to answer.  As I say in the book,

We evangelicals of course recognize that asking about historicity is quite the wrong approach to a variety of other biblical texts. If I were to read the parables of Jesus or the Revelation of John and ask ‘Did these things happen?’ most people would readily recognize that I am asking the wrong question. The truthfulness of the Parable of the Prodigal Son does not depend on whether or not the events described happened: they didn’t. But that does not prevent it from telling us about God’s delight at the repentance of sinners. Likewise, the truthfulness of Isaiah’s rhetorical question ‘Was it not you who cut Rahab to pieces, who pierced the dragon?’ (Isa 51:9) does not depend on whether or not God actually speared and filleted a mythical chaos monster; God never hunted dragons like a knight in a medieval romance. But that does not falsify Isaiah’s delight in the fact that God brings order out of a dangerous and chaotic world for the good of his people (and his promise that God will do so again). Finally, the truthfulness of the book of Revelation does not depend upon the (past or future) historical appearance of giant demonic scorpions or seven-headed beasts emerging from the sea: these things never occurred (nor will they occur). But that does not belie the book’s claim about the past and future suffering of the people of God at the hands of mortal and demonic powers. (Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism, p. 30)

We all recognize that this sort of sensitivity to the sort of literature the Bible is helps us understand the sorts of things God wants to reveal to us through that Scripture.

Historical criticism can be a tool providing greater insight into the sort of literature the Bible is, so that we can better hear what God is trying to say to us, and so that we can stop fighting to defend perspectives (for example, a 6,000 year-old earth or the creation of humans out of dirt) that the Bible doesn’t ask us to defend.

Your book also seems to be driven by pastoral concerns

Yes. The fact is that evangelicals haven’t done a good job thinking about historical criticism means, and we’ve left our students and laity vulnerable.

Some historical critics who don’t share our confessional perspectives have raised important challenges to the way that we commonly understand the Bible and this can make people afraid that the Bible can’t be trusted. And sometimes, as a result of this, people lose their faith.

Let’s be honest: there are some tricky data to account for and some tough archaeological and historical questions to answer. And we evangelical scholars have often done a lousy job in providing answers to those questions because we haven’t been willing to wade into the fray, to engage in rigorous but respectful debate, and to help provide a critical and faithful account of Christian belief.

So my collaborators, co-editor, and I think that evangelical scholars should be doing historical criticism as an expression of loving our students and parishioners, not to mention as an expression of loving God with all our minds.

another article on inerrantist biblical scholars and "protective strategies"
7 problems with a recent evangelical defense of the historicity of Genesis 1-11
Reading John: An Interview with Christopher Skinner
if historical criticism is so bad for you, how come it's so convincing? huh?

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