Historical Criticism and Evangelicalism: A Uneasy Relationship (my post at respectfulconversation.net)

Over at Respectful Conversation, Harold Heie is continuing his series “American Evangelicalism: Present Conditions, Future Possibilities.” This month’s topic is “Evangelicalism and the Modern Study of Scripture.” My contribution to this topic is “Historical Criticism and Evangelicalism: An Uneasy Relationship.

The purpose of this post is to offer a constructive description of the nature of this uneasy relationship. Here are three snippets.

Scripture’s function in evangelicalism is to lay down the basic map of Christian thought and practice, what we are to understand about God, Christ, Scripture itself, the human condition, and Christian practice. The task of historical criticism, on the other hand, is to peer “behind” Scripture and inquire as to its origins and meaning as understood within the cultural context in which the various texts were written. These two diverse approaches to Scripture are not easily compatible….

What complicates matters considerably for evangelicals, however, is that the general contours of historical criticism are widely persuasive, even universally so outside of evangelical (and fundamentalist) communities….

The tensions between evangelicalism and historical criticism have not been settled, nor will they be in the near future, at least as I see it. There seems to be an implicit détente, where it is acceptable to mine historical criticism and appropriate its theologically less troubling conclusions but to draw the line where those conclusions threaten evangelical theology.

This sort of back and forth dance can ease tensions temporarily, but it virtually guarantees that each generation of thoughtful evangelicals, once they become sympathetically exposed to historical criticism, will question where lines should be drawn and why seemingly arbitrary lines have been drawn where they are.

I hope you can make your way over and look at the other contributions and take part in the conversation.

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  • Andrew Dowling

    Excellent summation of the issues historical criticism presents to evangelicalism. As you note, modern evangelicalism’s rise was very much a reaction to many of the currents which arose via historical criticism in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. I think ,speaking honestly, evangelicalism will have to evolve into something fairly different for it to ever gel comfortably with the conclusions historical criticism presents.

    The underlying issue for people IMO is one of comfort. An inerrant Bible provides a ‘safety net’ for people amidst their spiritual struggles and doubts. When the safety net begins to get transformed (into something other than a safety net . .can’t think of an adequate metaphor here!) by historical/form critiques, many people get uncomfortable and even disturbed. Given the choice of the comforting “rock” of the Bible as ‘God’s inerrant Holy Word’ and the much more turbulent, less closed formulation of the Bible viewed from critical scholarship, and it’s not surprising many choose the former.

  • Brian P.

    I think one significant difference between the controversies of the late 19th/early 20th century and today is where the controversy is centered. Then, it was a controversy of the seminary and the denomination. Only the seminarian was exposed to historical criticism and question was much more one among the leadership of a denomination about what they should teach their parishioners. Today, there is the Internet and Kindle. And there are popular authors who cover what were once only addressed in scholarly channels. Today, everyone reads each other’s theology. Or at least, everyone can and indeed some inquisitive ones do. Their been an unprecedented erosion of hierarchical control due to the further democratizing forces of our technologies of the present era. A good set of topics to cover Pete would involve putting these conversations into contexts. How does one have the respectful conversation not just among academics, but also between lay person and family member, between lay person and friend, as a lay person within a small group environment, as a lay person in an after service conversation, as a lay person with a pastor. Not only our exegesis must be more grounded but where and how we do our exegesis must be more grounded too because that too is part of, if not a center of, the real story and its impact into our lives and any hope of advancing the Kingdom.

  • Apropos of mining historical criticism for useful conclusions, the paradigmatic example of this is the evangelical fascination with N.T. Wright. By and large they are not willing to do the difficult work he has done — engaging modernity and post-modernity in a more or less honest and straight-forward way — but they are happy to take his conclusions (concerning the historical Jesus and the plausibility of the bodily resurrection) and go back to believing (more or less) what they’ve always believed.

    But, as you indicate, little by little, the battle lines are being redrawn and I believe the outcome of the wars over evolution and inerrancy are essentially decided, whether or not we live to see it. At some point– even if the rhetoric of inerrancy is retained –the most that it can possibly mean is “the scriptures are very, very important and it is essential to your well-being and the well-being of our community that you treat them as such” (there will be less and less need to lose sleep over the details, however).


  • James

    “Some people think there’s a God because they have a religious experience. Some…because they believe the priest. But others want evidence, evidence that will appeal to reason.” (Jim Holt) Some think there’s a God, we might add, because they have historically accurate Scriptures. They too look for evidence that inspires faith. Trouble is, the accumulative evidence of historical criticism seems negative–faith stifling. Christian critics look for evidence, but more subtly. They don’t want a God “who lets himself be intellectually trapped.” (Holt) So their natural theology including the phenomena of Scripture is minimalist. God reveals himself in many ways, they say. Thus the rub. And it will always exist because evidence has a dotted line relation to revelation.

  • I really do appreciate this newer blog, Respectful Conversations.

  • Susan_G1

    I just read the most recent post at Respectful Conversations, on the inerrancy of Scripture. It was great! Intelligent, whimsical, thought-provoking, insightful. Thank you.