So we face a curious paradox. If biblical criticism leads to false and destructive results, and if it is indeed as intellectually bankrupt as some conservative theologians aver, then why have so many thoughtful believers entered university graduate programs with a vibrant devotion to God only to emerge on the other side of their studies with a dead or failing faith, and with the firm conviction that historical criticism easily bests the traditional viewpoint?
Do Christian graduate students succumb to the deceptive power of university professors? Are they easily swayed to sacrifice their faith on the altar of academic respectability? Is hubris so endemic to academic inquiry that most graduate students–even Christian graduate students–arrogantly use critical scholarship to escape God’s claim on their lives?
Perhaps. But even if these questions direct our attention to important issues, there are other questions worth asking, questions traditionalists sometimes overlook.
Is it possible that the persuasive power of historical criticism rests especially in its correctness? Could it be that historical criticism–like the astronomy of Galileo–has been destructive not because it is false, but because the church has often misunderstood its implications?
If so, then we may eventually have to face a tragic paradox: the church’s wholesale rejection of historical criticism has begotten the irreverent use of Scripture by skeptics, thus destroying the faith of some believers while keeping unbelievers away from faith.
If this is indeed what has happened and is happening, then nothing less is needed than the church’s careful reevaluation of its relationship to historical-critical readings of Scripture. That reevaluation is my agenda here.
Kenton L. Sparks
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