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Why We Need to Teach Historical Criticism

Why We Need to Teach Historical Criticism April 29, 2013

In the latest issue of Theology 116.3 (2013) is a series of articles by Aussie authors about the New Atheists and Biblical Study. Articles include:

Mark G. Brett
“Dawkins and Badiou: Two Atheist Approaches to the Bible.”

Dorothy A. Lee
“The New Testament and the New Atheism: Alternative Narrations.”

Neil Pembroke
“Young Australian Christians reading Dawkins and Hitchens: A Qualitative Study.”

Neil Ormerod
“Theology and the New Atheism: Science, Religion and Metaphysics.”

I was particularly interested in Pembroke’s article, not the least because I used to play tennis with him, but because his article makes an interesting point about what does or does not disturb college-aged Christians when they read Dawkins and Hitchens .Pembroke got twelve students to read portions of The God Delusion and God is Not Great. In the post-reading interviews, Pembroke points out that some students were amused by Dawkins/Hitchens, others believed that the book was more rhetorical than reasoned, many arguments were flawed, and the tone of the books were angry. However, note Pembroke’s conclusion about what did disturb students:

Since all the participants are university students and undertook this exercise as part of an introductory course in philosophy of religion, it is unsurprising that they were able to critique a number of the arguments presented by Dawkins and Hitchens. It is quite striking, however, that their encounter with an historical-critical approach to the Bible caused them so much consternation. It was obvious in listening to them that this was completely new information for them. Clearly biblical criticism is not part of the conversation in their congregations. That their Christian education is deficient in this regard is most disappointing. Quite apart from anything else, it leaves them, and their fellow parishioners, vulnerable to new atheists’ rhetoric.

What this means is that our Christian young people are more likely to be turned off the faith by reading Robert Funk than by reading Richard Dawkins. Say what you like about Peter Enns (I’ve got a soggy fish I hope to slap him with soon), but at least Pete is forcing evangelical educators to think more clearly about how they explain biblical critical issues related to sources, dating, canon, genre, and history in a coherent and compelling manner than just reiterating, “The Bible says …” combined with a literalist hermeneutic.


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