Initial Thoughts in a New Book Defending Evangelical Biblical Scholarship

Initial Thoughts in a New Book Defending Evangelical Biblical Scholarship May 17, 2012

Earlier this year, Crossway released Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?: A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture edited by James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in suburban Chicago (hereafter DHMMF)

Briefly stated, the book is a sustained defense of what the authors consider to be the traditional and nearly universal understanding throughout church history of the Bible as the inerrant word of God. What prompted the volume was Kenton Sparks’s 2008 volume God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship. In that book, Sparks not only laid out his vision for the need for evangelicals to come to terms with critical scholarship (which includes acknowledging the errors of Scripture), but named names among evangelical scholars for failing to do so.

I recently finished reading DHMMF, but this is not a full review. I want to think more about how to approach this issue most constructively. Here I want to offer some initial thoughts and general impressions of the book. I intend to look at specific essays later this summer where these and others impressions will be drawn out with more specificity. It is likely that at that time other evangelical scholars will want to chime in on this site, too.

So, here are some initial thoughts, in no particular order whatsoever.

1. I agree that, for the most part, DHMMF is a good faith effort to present a positive case for a traditional mainstream evangelical view of the Bible. Some of the contributors are clearly irked with Sparks, but by and large most contributors succeed in finding a balance between blunt disagreement and respect.

2. Most of the contributors are names well known among evangelicals. They are well trained and have thought through and written extensively on their positions, and what they say is worthy of respect and considered attention regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees. I found nearly all of them very much worth reading and learned things from them.

I will go so far as to say that there is no better contemporary exposition of the mainstream evangelical understanding of the nature of the Bible and how properly to respond to the pressing challenges of critrical scholarship (although see 4 below).

3. In edited volumes, it goes without saying that not all contributions are of equal value. Despite the impressive lineup, some essays obscured issues more then shed light, others seemed off topic, and one, in my opinion, actually undermined the project itself, Jens Bruun Kofoed’s essay “The Old Testament and Cultural Memory.” (The OT reflects not “the past” but how the past is remembered, i.e., how postexilic Israelites understood themselves in their cultural moment, which is something I could see Sparks saying and other authors in this volume contending against.)

4. The tone of the volume is set early on when inerrancy is claimed as the “central doctrine of Scripture among Western churches and … Scripture’s own teaching about its truthfulness” (p. 18). This is not up for discussion, and of course, given the book’s aim, one can see why. The problem, however, is that it is not too difficult to point out  instances of “confirmation bias,” where (1) data favorable to the paradigm are emphasized, (2) otherwise ambiguous data are given generous interpretations, and (3) non-compliant data are obscured, ignored, or their shortcomings overstated.

To be clear, everyone is guilty of confirmation bias on some level–including Sparks. Human beings tend to hold on their narratives and seek ways to confirm them. But DHMMF does not rise above that fray; it is as susceptible to the charge of confirmation bias as a number of contributors accuse Sparks of being. DHMMF is a good example of this very dynamic: “Our model is an inerrantist model and here is how we are able to interpret the data in support that model.”

Specifically, one runs up again what I have called elsewhere the “it’s possible” argument, which is a common rhetorical device among evangelicals: cast doubt on the competing paradigm by pointing out it inconsistencies, thus establishing the (mere) possibility of one’s own, which is deemed a sufficient defense of that paradigm regardless of its own inconsistencies. The problem, however, is that there are many possible models for explaining Scripture, the critical model being one of them.

The central question to be asked is which model (inerrantist or critical) accounts best for as much the data as possible, as economically as possible, and leaving as little cognitive dissonance as possible in the wake. So, yes, essential Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch is a “possible” model, but so is postexilic redaction of various oral and written traditions. The issue is which of these possible models answers the most questions concerning the available data while creating the fewest problems.

In this respect, I do not think the volume is successful in defending the absolute value of a mainstream inerrantist paradigm over against a critical one. It simply shows the possibility of how one can maintain that paradigm given an agreed upon starting point which then governs the interpretation of the data.

5. Again, in view of the stated goal of the book, alternate models are generally discounted insofar as they do not affirm an inerrantist starting point. With one or two exceptions, I did not see much acknowledgment for the genuine challenges raised in the moden study of Scripture. More often than not, non-traditional (non-inerrantist) views are attributed to modernist and postmodernist influences (the implication being that the current evangelical paradigm is free of such influences). In several essays, one gets the impression that the entire modern study of Scripture is an act of spiritual rebellion, though the essays as a whole do not take this approach.

6. The editors did a very good job making sure the hot button issues were addressed in the book. Personally, I would have liked to have seen some discussion about myth in the Old Testament, but there was no discussion of Genesis 1-11 (other than one unfortunate  comment in a footnote dismissing myth as a viable category for inerrancy, p. 64, n. 25).

I would also have liked to have seen some discussion of scribal culture in the ANE and in ancient Israel to address when the books of the Old Testament could have been written and for what reason (e.g., Karel van der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible). I found a persistent undertone in several of the essays of a modern western “bookish” mentality, which does not reflect how ancient, largely oral, cultures went about the task of writing.

Along with that, the role of the exile in kick-starting the formation of the Hebrew Bible as we know it, a staple of critical scholarship, is not addressed.

7. I appreciate the division of the book into four sections: theological prolegomena, OT criticism, NT criticism, and archaeology. For my tastes, an expanded section on OT archaeology and perhaps one or two (not five) theological essays would have provided more space to address some substantive historical issues. (I also think Hoffmeier’s essay on the exodus needed to be grouped among the archaeological essays, not the theological prolegomena.)

8. I don’t mean to make enemies here, but I do wish this volume could have been published with Eerdmans, Baker, or IVP. Crossway has become to go-to publisher for defensive expositions of fundamentalism and evangelicalism, and I fear it may keep this volume from attracting critical attention it deserves from scholars outside of those arenas.

OK. I said brief–and I was, but this is still longer than I had intended. There is clearly a lot the authors have given us to think about, and I recommend the volume for appreciation of a learned defense of an evangelical paradigm and for critical appraisal.


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  • toddh

    A generous review. It’s difficult for me to give much credence to books like this after seeing the flaws in my previously held views on inerrancy and evangelical appropriations of critical scholarship. So from that standpoint, I appreciate the call to engage with this book and see where it has value.

  • Michael Roberts

    An interesting discussion. I question their premise that inerrancy has been a central doctrine. Surely it is only from the 19th century. Further one needs to be clear what history is . It is an interpretation and selection

  • Mark Chenoweth

    It would be nice to see more of a discussion on whether inerrancy WAS the position of the Church all throughout history. I think one can make a clear case that Augustine was the first to really have a similar perspective to modern evangelicalism on this point.

    Tertullian- “Never mind if there does occur some variation in the order of the [gospel] narratives. What matters is that there is agreement in the essential doctrine of the Faith” (Against Marcion, IV:2).

    The statement presupposes that there is DISAGREEMENT in matters that aren’t essential doctrines of the faith. Sounds more like infallibility or limited inerrancy to me.

    Would any of the writers in the book be comfortable with Gregory of Nyssa’s allegorization of the death of the firstborn in Exodus or Origen’s allegorization of all of Joshua? Both of these approaches acknowledge that on a purely literal level, the bible may not be inerrant.

    What’s interesting is that some of the authors like Craig Blomberg, have said on different occasions that inerrancy shouldn’t be the watershed doctrine of evangelicalism:

    “Despite inerrancy being the touchstone of the largely American organization called the Evangelical Theological Society, there are countless evangelicals in the States and especially in other parts of the world who hold that the Scriptures are inspired and authoritative, even if not inerrant, and they are not sliding down any slippery slope of any kind. I can’t help but wonder if inerrantist evangelicals making inerrancy the watershed for so much has not, unintentionally, contributed to pilgrimages like Ehrman’s. Once someone finds one apparent mistake or contradiction that they cannot resolve, then they believe the Lindsells of the world and figure they have to chuck it all. What a tragedy!”

    • peteenns

      Mark, for the record, the kinds of issues that occupy contemporary inerrancy squabbling are not what Ancients were concerned about, and so i don’t accept the evangelical meme about inerrancy. I don’t grant that assertion for guiding the discussion. In my opinion, the drama of Xian hermeneutics, beginning with Paul, evinced diverse thinking about what to do with the OT, and “inerrancy” hardly describes that process. I fully agree the ancients had a very high view of Scripture but they can’t be co-opted , as some of the authors of DHMMF do, in defending their view.

  • Tim

    Great to see you’re engaging with this scholarship Pete. I agree that these articles seem to have been written in the spirit of critical engagement with the scholarly community, and my worry was that their being considered an apologetic work (which of course they still are) would preclude this type of consideration. I look forward to reading your future posts as you review DHMMF!

  • Andrew Vogel

    What I find odd, is that I consider the inerrantist model to be a product of modernism, not the other way around. I am glad they limit it as a central doctrine for “western churches” and not the entire church.

  • It’s my reading on ancient scribal culture (van der Toorn, Tigay, et al) that helped me see the scriptures and inspiration in a different light. And yes, _Scribal Culture_ is a really great book! I, too, look forward to your comments about DHMMF!

  • “I found a persistent undertone in several of the essays of a modern western “bookish” mentality, which does not reflect how ancient, largely oral, cultures went about the task of writing.”

    Pete, I was challenged this week when I suggested in a colloquium that 1 Enoch may be more influenced by cultural memory and oral culture than by what I believe you are referring to when you speak of a “western ‘bookish’ mentality.” The professors who challenged me in my presentation could not conceive that material from the OT could be disseminated through culture except through a fairly stable text tradition. (My proposal was labeled “preposterous.”) They argued for the near-exhaustive memorization of the OT (as though this guaranteed the memorized text always wielded conscious influence over subsequent dissemination). Though not in so many words, the other presenters who did not share my perspective (or had not considered/encountered it before) were constantly engaged in parallelomania (i.e. Hays without sophisticated controls and cautious application). If one were to accept their perspective on the use of the OT in 1 Enoch, one would have had to conclude that there is no such thing as genre, only texts that quote, allude to, or otherwise echo the OT.

    All of that to say, I think the “bookish” mentality of which you speak is an important assumption that some conservative evangelical scholars are both aware of and committed to. This is one place where there needs to be further, sustained dialogue.

  • James

    This is a very positive discussion and I hope it leads to a widespread evangelical review of the doctrine of scripture including inerrancy. I suspect that word will need to be scrapped or clearly redefined in the process.

  • great “review” Pete. I appreciated your tone and generosity of spirit. It makes me want to read rather than dismiss the book even though I’m sure I won’t agree with much of it.

  • toddh

    Alright. I read the introduction and much of the first chapter in a Kindle sample and it made me want to throw my Kindle against a wall, so that’s enough of this book for me. My faith is too important to me to allow myself to be scared off by the “CBS” boogeyman!

  • Jon hughes


    Having read your book (Inspiration and Incarnation) and Greg Beale’s book (The Erosion of Inerrancy), all I can say is that your book was uplifting and stimulating, whereas Beale’s book was tedious and dry.

    That doesn’t mean that you’re right and he’s wrong (and I myself have no settled conclusions here), but the ongoing discussion that you are having here is a good one!

    Every blessing.

  • Nate

    Well has that time occurred?

    “It is likely that at that time other evangelical scholars will want to chime in on this site, too.”

    Because they sure didn’t on this thread, at least not in the sense that I think you meant it, Pete.