Abstract: Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism, edited by Christopher Hays and Chrisopher Ansberry, argues that evangelical scholars have failed to embrace historical criticism to the extent that they could and should. This review essay surveys the book’s argument by chapters, asks how its claims should be evaluated, and arrives at the conclusion that while the Hays-Ansberry proposal marks a significant step in discussion of these matters, it is not always a step in a helpful direction.
A new book has appeared on wings of urgency and promise: Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism.1 The urgency is voiced on the back cover by Professor Daniel Block at Wheaton College. He declares that the book “is addressed to all, including seasoned scholars, to pull their heads out of the sand and stop pretending that the results of historical-critical scholarship cannot and should not contribute to our understanding of Scripture—a charge I have personally heard.” It sounds like craven obscurantism on a massive scale has overtaken an entire generation, including its scholars. A book that exposes this is welcome indeed. The promise is voiced by Australian NT scholar Michael Bird, who states, “This is the type of discussion on faith and criticism that evangelical scholarship has needed for years. Thankfully, an intellectually rigorous and theologically sensitive approach to these matters is finally upon us!” It sounds like ideas heretofore unknown have suddenly emerged into public view. A book that achieves such a noble end deserves careful scrutiny and a broad hearing.
This essay proceeds in three steps. First, it surveys the argument of the book’s nine chapters. Second, it notes that the book claims to champion “the Church,” though it cancels out many things people in churches have always believed and in most church settings still do. We raise the question of how “the Church” should view this book’s arguments. Third, the essay offers concluding evaluative comments, though some evaluation is unavoidable throughout the essay.
1. The Argument of the Book
Co-editor Hays pens the opening chapter (and contributes to four others): “Toward a faithful criticism.” Hays earned multiple degrees at Wheaton College before completing a DPhil at Oxford, studying at St. Andrews and Bonn along the way. He begins by pointing out how “conservative scholars” are hampered in their study of the Bible by “a dual commitment to apprehending its theological message and affirming its factual integrity” (p. 1). “Historical critics” also have a dual commitment, but in Hays’s view it is a more honest one. Like conservatives they seek to understand the text’s message. But they are also open to the possibility that there is “slippage between the way that the Bible describes historical events and the way those events actually occurred in time and space” (p. 1). In other words, they exercise freedom to determine that the Bible does not always get things right. It is clear, then, that these “dual commitments” are not symmetrical, as the conservatives are bound to affirm the text is true while “critics” labor under no such trammels. This queering of the pitch, in which evangelicals are embarrassingly retrograde and critics inclined to valid and compelling results, is a recurrent feature of the book.
It is no wonder, then, that Hays sees value in becoming more like the critics. “This book discusses the theological challenges that confront the biblical interpreter who engages with historical criticism” (p. 5, Hays’s emphasis). It is not historical critics who may need to defer to God and Scripture; it is evangelicals who need to realize that historical criticism demands (and should be given) authority to qualify and adjust their historical and ultimately theological convictions, beginning with their understanding of the Bible itself and then on to things the Bible has normally been thought to affirm, leading Christians to affirm those things, too.
Evangelical engagement of these challenges is presented as a new and somewhat unprecedented enterprise. As we point out below, interpreters as far back as Jonathan Edwards have been engaging historical criticism in its modern form (in some respects it is as old as Celsus)2 for nearly 300 years,3 so at first this makes no sense. But later in the chapter, Hays writes that “evangelical scholars, even our own colleagues and former professors, by and large have not embraced critical scholarship” (p. 19). Apparently, “embrace” does not mean learn about, come to terms with, utilize certain findings of, profit from the insight of, examine, understand, interact with, or the like, for as §3 below points out, evangelicals scholars at the co-editors’ alma mater Wheaton College (to name just one place) have been engaging historical criticism and in that sense embracing it for generations. “Embrace” apparently means accept the conclusions of and make doctrinal adjustments in response to. This book, then, is an apologetic for historical criticism at the expense of significant historic Christian (not merely evangelical) convictions.
Hays sees no reason not to take these steps, for he trusts J. D. G. Dunn that there is no “slippery slope” in which a Bible that contains frequent inaccuracies (since that is what historical criticism concludes and this book accepts) in smaller matters must be suspect in the really big issues like Jesus’s resurrection, God’s deliverance of the Israelites out of Egypt (though not necessarily in the way Scripture describes), and God’s faithfulness to save his people (pp. 4–5). The big things are still true, though many lesser biblical affirmations are now in doubt.
Evangelicals, it turns out, are guilty of only “clubbing historical criticism on the head with our confidence in the unswerving factual accuracy of the Bible” and using “inerrancy as a cudgel” (pp. 13–14). Hays argues that evangelicals are “obligated to make a genuinely critical assessment of the historicity of those events” described in Scripture (p. 14), something they apparently have never undertaken before. In sum, “the book’s editors encourage a new generation of Christian biblical scholars” to achieve what previous generations did not: “a faithful criticism” (p. 23). This “criticism” admits “the sharpest challenges of contemporary research” (p. 23). The result will be a “critical faith” that modifies “traditional assumptions” (as if previous Christian beliefs and reasoned conclusions on historical matters were just “assumptions” rather than time-tested observations and doctrines) “in the light of new insights,” meaning the findings of historical critics (p. 23).
Chapter 1, like chapter 9, is a bookend for the entire volume. Chapter 2 is one of the book’s longest chapters and treats “Adam and the fall.” Authors Hays and Stephen Lane Herring note the widespread denial of the historicity of Gen 2–3. They then conduct a sort of thought experiment: “imagine what would happen to hamartiology if there were no Adam and no fall” (p. 32). They examine Second Temple views to establish what Paul as a Jew in that milieu likely believed. Paul’s insistence on revelatory knowledge (“I did not receive [the gospel he preached] from any man” (Gal 1:12; cf. 2 Cor 12:1–7; 1 Thess 2:13) does not factor in; Paul’s understanding must be analyzed on strict analogy with what critics reconstruct from contemporaneous sources. Accordingly, because the authors “do not find . . . among Paul’s contemporaries . . . the belief that humans are made guilty of what Adam did” (p. 36), Paul did not hold this belief, even though many through the centuries have affirmed that he teaches it in his writings and that it is the most compelling understanding of both Genesis and the appalling darkness and suffering that attends the human experience through the ages, including the ages storied in Scripture.
Hays and Herring proceed to rethink Rom 5:12–21. They affirm it may not matter for us whether Adam existed or not (though it admittedly did matter for Paul), so that “one can sustain a case that Romans 5 does not teach original guilt” and “that Paul’s [theological] argument in Romans 5 will still remain perfectly tenable” despite his faulty “ancient [historical] assumptions that we no longer countenance,” like Adam’s existence and its necessity (p. 45). The authors stress they are just “speculating, imagining, musing” (p. 54), but one wonders how much this is a rhetorical device to disavow responsibility for their definite and somewhat drastic proposals. They make passing mention of 1 Cor 15:20–49 (p. 37), but they do not deal with the clear statement about Adam’s role in all human sin found in that passage: “For as by a man [i.e., Adam] came death, by a man [i.e., Christ] has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor 15:21–22).
Chapter 3 by co-editor Ansberry is “The exodus: fact, fiction or both?” Ansberry, who received his PhD in Biblical Theology: Old Testament from Wheaton College, also co-authors chapters 4, 6, and 9. The shortest chapter of the book, chapter 3 casts maximalists like “evangelical Egyptologist” James Hoffmeier and others, including Iain Provan, V. Phillips Long, and Tremper Longman III, against minimalists like Thomas L. Thompson and John Van Seters, for whom “the exodus never happened” (pp. 64–65). Well, did it happen (so the maximalists), or did it not (the minimalists)?
One might be inclined to turn to the Bible, but it is not much help here because while “a multitude of texts” speak of the exodus, their testimony is varied and ambiguous, creating “a variegated portrait that defies precise reconstruction” (p. 63n22). It seems that if we cannot precisely reconstruct historical events to which Scripture attests, we are justified in doubting whether they happened. Ansberry concludes by “suggesting” that “some sort of historical exodus occurred via divine intervention,” but he admits with this suggestion he has “moved beyond the realm of historical inquiry and entered into the realm of faith” (p. 72).4 This is because “we must recognize” because of historical critical protestations “that direct historical evidence for the exodus does not exist” (p. 72). Again, the Bible’s own witness cannot be decisive. And again, the demand for exact precision is a factor: “precise historical minutiae of the event will most likely not materialize in our lifetimes” (p. 72).
Space precludes lengthy recounting of all subsequent chapters. The general drift of the book is sufficiently clear from the three chapters highlighted above. In chapter 4, Ansberry and Jerry Hwang pose the question, “No covenant before the exile? The Deuteronomic Torah and Israel’s covenant theology.” Historical criticism since W. M. L. de Wette (1770–1849) has concluded that the precursor of Deuteronomy (Urdeuteronium) was not composed by Moses but traces its origin to the times of Josiah or perhaps Hezekiah (i.e., seventh or eighth century BC; pp. 76–78). Others argue that the document took shape during or after the exilic period (post 586 BC). In either case, at best historical criticism allows us to speak in faith (not historically and factually) of a Mosaic voice, not Mosaic writings in any direct and sure sense. But this is no loss for the believing evangelical, who accepts the verdict that “Deuteronomy’s authority as Christian Scripture is located in the content of the document in general and the Holy Spirit’s work through authorized tradents in particular” (p. 94), Moses himself not being among the authorized, of course.
And so the pattern continues throughout the book. Chapter 5 (“Problems with prophecy,” by Amber Warhurst, Seth B. Tarrer, and co-editor Hays) shows how often biblical prophecies are mistaken (pp. 99–104). Or they take place after the event (vaticinium ex eventu; pp. 104–13). Even Jesus made a false prediction (pp. 116–17). Yet because these mistaken projections are in the canon, “the preservation of seemingly5 inaccurate prophecies as the word of the Lord reflects their character as trustworthy prophecies in the sense that they faithfully reflected the outworking of God’s plan” (p. 104). It seems that whereas we used to think of the Bible’s predictions as unerring truths and evidence of God’s unfailing faithfulness—for he alone knows the end from the beginning (Isa 46:10)6—we must now think of many as true only because they had or have a noble intention or outcome.
Chapter 6 (“Pseudepigraphy and the canon” by co-editor Ansberry, Casey Strine, Edward Klink III, and David Lincicum) shows how historical critical study casts in doubt the origin of numerous biblical books: the Pentateuch, Isaiah, John’s Gospel, and many if not most of Paul’s letters. Critics’ conclusions are termed “historical evidence” (evangelical scholars’ conclusions, which are almost totally ignored, are, by contrast, just their beliefs) and require evangelicals to construct “new models” so they can “make sense of pseudepigraphical compositions that may at some level have an intention to deceive, but still function as canonical Scripture” (p. 154). To think authorship matters is to subject “Scripture to our own autonomous standard of perfection” (p. 155). The writers hector readers with other dire charges like idolatry (p. 156) if they doubt the historical critics; more on this below.
Chapter 7 treats “The historical Jesus” (by Michael J. Daling and co-editor Hays). They lament the personal ties of apostolic witnesses who gave us the four Gospels: “Unfortunately, any information we have about the self-awareness of Jesus is conveyed to us by the testimony of those whom Jesus affected during his lifetime” (p. 159). Those who did or do not follow him are apparently capable of superior insight. The authors ask whether “it is theologically necessary that Jesus possessed or disclosed awareness of his own divinity” (p. 164). Their answer: “Probably not” (p. 164). Not all miracles reported in the Gospels may be factual (p. 168). Happily, the authors think the virgin birth and Jesus’s resurrection are theologically necessary and even to some extent historically true: “Critical study of the historical Nazarene possesses ample room for the faith of the Gospels, Nicaea and beyond” (pp. 180–81). What critical study forbids as empirical affirmation is still permitted in the ecclesial and worship setting. It may be doubted whether the patristic church would ever have arrived at the stunning creedal affirmations of “Nicaea and beyond” if they had taken such a dim view of the veracity of so many things the Bible asserts.
Chapter 8 (“The Paul of Acts and the Paul of the epistles,” by Aaron J. Kuecker and Kelly D. Liebengood) deals with chronological and theological problems arising from contrasting statements found in the Pauline corpus, on the one hand, and in Acts, on the other. Acts was written “between 20 and 40 years after Paul’s death” (p. 198), essentially ruling out Lukan authorship; if many of Paul’s letters are pseudepigraphical (see ch. 6), it is no wonder that there are going to be discrepancies, as both corpora would contain a great deal of hearsay rather than the direct testimony of parties on the scene.
Yet discrepancies should not be overplayed (p. 198), for “canonical critics” teach us that “the Church” formed a canon to express its theology and Barth teaches that “God’s self-revelation does not emerge from history” but vice versa (p. 199). As a result, “the faithful Church” must not “always relentlessly harmonize the discrete voices of Acts and the epistles” (p. 200). Rather, the basic question, to which the authors answer yes, is whether “Luke’s Paul and the Paul of the epistles bear witness to the same Messiah Jesus who pours out the Spirit and makes known the Father” (p. 202, their italics). There may be discrepancies in details, but “the chief claim of Christianity is not that God has given us a book of doctrine [who suggests this is Christianity’s chief claim?] but that God has acted in history in and through Jesus of Nazareth” (p. 203). Additionally, God “takes into account human limitation for writing, speaking or thinking about an infinite God” (p. 203). Whereas Christian thought has often affirmed God’s hand in assuring the veracity of Scripture, since Scripture itself teaches this and figures like Jesus affirmed it, the authors concede that God’s written word cannot transcend the error that dogs all human production. (Is there a tension here with chapter 2’s assertion of human freedom from original sin?)
Chapter 9 (“Faithful criticism and a critical faith”) by the co-editors contains few surprises. It assures “conservative Christian seminaries and academics” that “they can cease their embargo of historical criticism” (p. 206). While the limitations of that criticism are fleetingly affirmed (e.g., p. 210), overall it is Christian teaching and belief over the centuries (and especially among evangelicals now) that call for adjustment. This is to be a true “disciple” (p. 211), one who discerns that and how the Holy Spirit through historical criticism disabuses us of the old notion that all of Scripture is true in all that it affirms, rightly interpreted. For if we do not “participate in historical-critical inquiry” in ways this book calls for, we not only repudiate a divine mandate to seek truth (about which the Bible, woodenly believed, often misleads): we impose “our own terms on how God can speak through the process of biblical interpretation” (p. 212). To affirm Scripture’s comprehensive veracity is idolatrous; to concede its pervasive erroneousness is the mark of the informed disciple, as Kenton Sparks and Peter Enns have shown (pp. 214–15). The authority of the Scripture lies in how “it reveals God truly to us” (p. 217), not in factual details. I am not sure the authors ever tell how they came to know so much about the invisible, eternal God’s identity and nature, given that Scripture is not the sure source once thought.
The writers conclude by calling for piety (pp. 218–20) and venturing an allegorical reading of portions of Heb 12 (p. 222) in which coming “to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem . . . to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly” is likened to doing “faithful criticism with a critical faith” as espoused in this book (p. 221).
2. What Should “the Church” Believe?7
In some ways one can only affirm this book’s central imperative, one echoed in a German monograph that appeared in 2012.8 We need a Christian faith that is not obscurantist nor ruled by populist demagogues out of touch with historical research. And we need a criticism that is not allowed to destroy or otherwise supplant a living Christian faith that results in fulfillment of our love for God and others (e.g., p. 212). I wish to underscore the potentially positive impact of the Hays-Ansberry proposal if it be carried out aptly and wisely: Bible believers and especially those who lead congregations or otherwise teach or preach the Scriptures do well to be aware of critical theories about the Bible and reasons why so many think it is a book of fables or even fabrications. Christians not made aware by their church leaders of critical objections to Scripture may feel betrayed and tempted to leave the church when they first learn of problems on CNN or in their freshman college humanities class. This is not only a matter of learning about critical objections either: a workable view of the Bible’s truth needs to be instilled, one that can handle the manifest tensions, apparent discrepancies, and unsolvable questions that surface when one begins to pore over Scripture in a careful and systematic fashion.
At the same time, questions about the book arise. At the mundane level, why no author index? Books wishing to be taken seriously by academics need to grant the time-saving favor of providing this significant information.
More seriously: a major theme of the book is how many facts once thought to be important (like Pauline authorship of his epistles, John’s authorship of the Fourth Gospel, the historicity of the Gospel miracles, Jesus’s freedom from errors like false prophecy) are really not so important any more. Only a couple of really essential facts are, like the incarnation and Jesus’ resurrection. But why those facts, since the authors admit they are in the end theological beliefs, not realities or events to which “historical evidence” can or does convincingly attest? I sense throughout the book a strong affirmation of old-fashioned Kantian faith (formulated in lasting fashion by F. D. E. Schleiermacher, with innumerable permutations since) in which “faith” is defined in ultimately non-empirical and non-doctrinal terms and in which “knowledge” is limited to the empirical facts affirmed by the hegemony of a guild (the book favors an entity it calls “historical criticism”). One problem here is that our (biblical) sources combine events supernaturally caused with eyewitness observation and testimony concerning those events. Early Christians affirmed what they had seen, heard, and handled (cf. 1 John 1:1–3) and wrote these things down in documents quickly acquiring the “Holy Scripture” status that OT writings already possessed. They did not just “believe” things but actually observed them.
This book concedes that historical criticism “problematizes”9 the Bible’s factual claims but wants to hang on to something historically rooted, which to “problematize” would be to deny Christian faith its legitimacy. How can the authors salvage these historical facts? And why do they even need them? In their hermeneutical system, it is the ahistorical truth of Christianity’s essential claims, not the historicity of factual details, that matters. It seems that the authors overlook that we can already trace about a 200-year history of various implementations of their proposal.10 They likewise were not able to access recent books by a pair of prominent German NT scholars exposing the bankruptcy of historical criticism as it has been applied to the Bible since the rise of the Enlightenment.11 The results in the form of the severely eroded Protestant churches (“the mainline”)12 in North America and in their British and European correlates, all long ruled by Kantian hermeneutics, are not encouraging.
But rather than raise more questions along these lines, I thought I would take a cue from the book and think about the response to this book by “the Church,” a term that occurs fifty times or more in this work. This “Church” is usually presented as being on the side of this book and its authors, and they cast themselves as defending its integrity and aiding its mission.
Yet consider the basic claims that the book’s seven central chapters make. To get credit for “embracing” historical criticism and holding a faith that is sufficiently critical, both of which evangelicals “must” do, evangelicals are called on to make the following concessions:
1. Perhaps Adam’s sin did not cause his descendants to sin. In other words, the Western Christian teaching of “original sin” is unbiblical. Every person sins on their own and is guilty based on that and their own evil desire, not on anything having to do with Adam (or Eve).
2. Perhaps much of the story of the exodus (God’s delivering his people out of Egypt) is not true. God did deliver his people somehow, but the stories told about this in the Bible contain much myth, legend, and folklore.
3. Perhaps Moses didn’t write Deuteronomy, even though Jesus and the NT writers thought he did. Rather, a thousand years or more later, someone or some groups put together the information found in Deuteronomy.
4. Perhaps Jesus made a mistake in prophesying that he would return soon (see Matt 16:27–28; Mark 13:24–30). There are other prophecies in the Bible that did not come true, too. Still, many prophecies are true, and we believe God still saves through the message of the Bible even when some of its predictions have turned out to be unreliable.
5. Perhaps Isaiah did not write all of Isaiah, the apostle John did not write the Gospel of John, and Paul did not write all of the “Pauline” letters. Rather, later individuals or groups wrote in the names of these famous people. This is the process the Holy Spirit used to give us what the church later came to call “Scripture.”
6. Perhaps some of the miracles in the Gospels did not happen. The incarnation and the resurrection are really the only two biblical miracles that must have happened in order for Christian faith to be true. Whether other miracles in the NT are true can be debated.
7. Perhaps Acts and Paul’s letters make conflicting claims at some points—there are discrepancies that amount to historical errors. But they both witness to Jesus as the Messiah, and that remains true even if there are errors in the details of their writings when we compare them.
It is clear what “the Church” consisting of this book’s authors and their favored intellectual leaders (e.g., Hans Frei, John Webster, Brevard Childs, James Dunn, Karl Barth) think of the seven points above. The Church demands that evangelicals “embrace” (i.e., accept as true) their conclusions. This might not disturb “evangelical faith” in the sense of the personal faith (fides qua creditur) of the book’s contributors—time will tell. But it would mark a decisive break with the high view of Scripture’s authority associated with confessional Christianity through the ages, including but not beginning with or limited to the “evangelical” era however that be defined.13 “The” Christian faith (fides quae creditur) flourishes in symbiotic relation with Holy Scripture that defines and sustains it.
To get a second opinion from “the Church” on the wisdom of “embracing” historical criticism as this book proposes, I sent out an informal questionnaire to Christians with a wider frame of reference. For the book seems dominated by a perspective in which “the Church” is what some postgraduate students from a few British universities and their mentors, living or deceased, say it is. It cannot have escaped their notice that “the Church” that has given up on the full truth of the Bible has withered in size in recent generations and often degenerated in faith and practice. Meanwhile, we are witnessing over roughly those same generations the largest numerical increase in history of another “Church.”14 In most cases this Church implicitly trusts all God’s word understood as Scripture from Genesis to Revelation—and not just in faith but in fact.15 In fact, “charismatic and evangelical Christian renewal movements” with a view of Scripture sharply contrasting with that of Hays-Ansberry “are the only religious movements in the world today that are growing through conversion.”16
So I asked some Christians known to me from domains where the Christian faith is experiencing growth the following questions. I intentionally chose people whose identity is not wholly determined by the “evangelicals” who are the main targets of the book under review. (I acknowledge this poll yields only anecdotal results skewed by my selection of contacts, but the results are no more arbitrary than defining “the Church” based on the range of authorities Hays and Ansberry cite.) I queried,
What do you think of this book’s argument? Is it important for our faith and ministry that all of the Bible be true? Or is it OK to admit that “critical” scholars may be right in many of their charges against the Bible’s truth? Evangelicals can admit that the Bible may contain some (or many) errors and mistakes. This does not change the main truth of what we believe and preach in the church and to the world.
One respondent was an Asian female PhD student (OT) in North America. Her answer to point 1 above (Adam and original sin) cites Rom 5:14–17 and adds, “I personally cannot see how it can pass the test of Paul’s argument that Jesus is the second Adam who is a cooperative representative of human beings.” In answer to point 2 above (the limited historicity of the exodus account), she writes, “1) Just because there exists literary similarity between the Exodus and ANE literature does not mean that they share genre. 2) It seems to me that one has to subscribe to Ernst Troeltsch’s philosophy of history (or something of this sort) to find the argument reasonable.” She finds all seven assertions dubious and concludes,
It is utterly important for our faith and ministry that all of the Bible is true. I’d agree that evangelicals cannot always convince the ‘critics’ that the Bible as traditionally interpreted is correct. But this is not sufficient for evangelicals to abandon traditional interpretation. It should prompt evangelicals to work more carefully in communicating Christian faith.
A second respondent hails from Muslim Africa. He has a PhD in engineering from a major British university; in part due to government persecution in his Sharia-law homeland, he and his family are now living diaspora-style outside of Africa. His first language is Arabic, so his answers in English lack literary polish. Yet they adequately communicate the response of a significant “Church,” the church languishing under the heel of bitter persecution:
First it seems that this is not the first time that followers of Jesus were faced with such accusations and claims against their Bible, or the Holy Spirit already knew that this would be the complaints that followers of the road will receive during their lifetime. It is always the work of the complainer to object, “Did God really say . . . ?” (Gen 3:1). It was happening before as testified by the first books written, from Moses to Revelation. These accusations are certainly raging at our present time.
Next this African lay church leader states: “The Holy Spirit points us that in 2 Timothy 3:16: ‘All scripture is God-breathed’ and God uses his people to speak out as written in 1 Thess 2:13, Jos 1:7–9, 2 Peter 1:21, and 2 Peter 3:15. God also is the protector of his word as written in Rev 22:18–19 and Deut 4:1–4.” Hays-Ansberry pass over most of these verses; in the rare cases where they cite any of them, they leave untouched their possible implications for a doctrine of Scripture.
The same African respondent raises a historiographical point with an eye to Western history: “Witnesses and those who signed the Declaration of Independence vow [i.e., vouch] for its accuracy. Historical books that tell us about Europe and its wars were written by witnesses and historians. So how come witnesses and historians of the old times are all unreliable now?” And he makes a concluding doxological point: “As a scientist and engineering researcher, every day that passes that the world is amazed by the modern technology and how far it reaches, I get more affirmed that the miracles and power of our Lord are much more than I can imagine and foretell.” In other words, far from observed reality demanding that we claim less for God and Scripture, the more we discover, the more inclined we should be to affirm all Scripture teaches.
A third respondent is from North America but is married to a German and has lived much of his adult life in a Muslim country, where he has been arrested frequently for his witness. In recent years, and at this time, he is banned from that country (and hence from his wife and children who remain there), a banishment he is fighting with every legal and spiritual means so they can be reunited and their ministry together resume.17 For the record, he is a graduate of Wheaton College, just like Hays and Ansberry. But he has a different take than they do on the book’s findings:
. . . of course I disagree with them. Maybe some of these authors think their books are only being read by Westerners, but I can assure you from my years living in the Muslim world that these sort of books are eagerly read and studied and used by Muslim scholars intent on finding evidence to prove what they’ve already decided to believe, namely, that the Bible has been corrupted. In fact, in recent years a notable Muslim scholar in Turkey began writing scathing attacks on the Bible using evidence and lines of reasoning almost all of which were taken from these sorts of books.
A pastor in Istanbul, Turkey, has published a 770-page book in response to these attacks.18 Will the Hays-Ansberry proposal require him to write another?
This Wheaton graduate makes a second point:
The book you’re reviewing seems to be an attempt to build bridges between Evangelicals and historical criticism scholars, much like Schleiermacher tried to build bridges between Christianity and its so-called “cultured despisers,” and we know the bitter long-term results of that. Yet far from building bridges between Evangelicals and others, this book may well end up equipping Muslims to tear down the most important bridge to knowing Christ as Savior, God’s Word.
The same respondent goes on to say: “Another reaction: the book seems to think that in many situations some but not all of the miracles might be true. But in the time of the OT true prophets were required to be right all the time, not just some of the time.” The point here (drawing, e.g., on Deut 18:22) seems to be that the historic Church views Scripture as prophesied via the work of God’s Spirit (see, e.g., 2 Pet 1:20–21) and accordingly unerringly true.19 But if it is false in many places like the Hays-Ansberry proposal affirms, it really loses the status of God’s divinely prophesied message to his people and the world.
This respondent’s German wife—valiantly upholding family and ministry in her husband’s absence—should be permitted a voice, as in email communication she expressed the following: “I am not a scholar, just a missionary wife and mother, but I wanted to say,” she explains, how thankful she is, that her “heart [is] filled with joy and hope” when scholars uphold the Bible’s truth. “In a context [i.e., that Muslim country] where day in and out I am confronted with the notion that the Bible is corrupted and has been changed and therefore not an authority to be taken serious and coming from a country [Germany] where unfortunately liberal theology originated and seeing the weakness of the churches as a result,” scholars “speaking out on the truth of the authority of the Bible are like a breath of fresh air!”
The question on the table in this section is: What should “the Church” believe? The answer would seem to depend significantly on who we take “the Church” to be. Is it those counseling demotion of the Bible’s authority on the authority of historical criticism? Ansberry and Hays cast themselves as ecclesial leaders, “theologians who are (we pray) rudders in the hands of a divine helmsman” guiding the Church “between the devil and the deep-blue sea,” meaning “anti-intellectual sectarianism” and “rigorous but apostate criticism” (p. 205).
But is “the Church” question more complex? In the Hays-Ansberry proposal, we can side with the devil evangelicals (all of whom except for them are cast as suspect), surrender to the deep-blue sea of extreme critics (disbelieving the Bible is not extreme but simple factual truth), or agree with Hays-Ansberry. Where does that leave the several hundred million not only in the West but in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere who see more compelling reasons—perhaps most notably divine sanction and mandate and the testimony of Scripture itself including Jesus’s own example—for continuing to uphold the Bible’s entire trustworthiness?
3. Concluding Observations
Many will thrill to this book’s approach, findings, and guidance. While as already stated I affirm its aims, and agree that growing believers throughout the world should learn from their Christian leaders the challenges and difficulties that inhere in affirming the Bible’s full trustworthiness, I have raised some reservations. In closing I offer four additional comments.
First, the book propounds the mystifying and erroneous notion that evangelicals have never embraced historical criticism before. Since Hays and Ansberry are both Wheaton College alumni and give the impression that their professors lived in denial of historical criticism’s claims, I would like to relate a different experience. I graduated from Wheaton, too (MA, ’82). One of my NT professors, J. Julius Scott Jr., after a Wheaton undergraduate degree in the 1950s, did his PhD under F. F. Bruce on the Jerusalem church AD 70–130. His major discussion partner was S. G. F. Brandon, author of The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church. In it Brandon argued that Jesus was a political revolutionary influenced by the Zealots. The suggestion that Scott, in his doctoral work and in his lifelong teaching career, did not embrace historical criticism is silly. In his classes students read primary sources, Kümmel on NT introduction, Walter Bauer on historiography, J. D. G. Dunn on Christology, Bultmann on hermeneutics, Eduard Lohse on NT backgrounds, Van Harvey on historiography and Christian belief, and E. P. Sanders on Paul. This was over thirty years before Hays-Ansberry’s claim that evangelicals, including professors at Wheaton, had yet to embrace historical criticism.
Neither Scott nor other professors in the Bible department at Wheaton back then (like Walter Elwell, John McRay, Norman Ericson, Andrew Hill, James Hoffmeier, Alan Johnson, and others) cut corners on requiring students to learn from and interact with—in a word, to embrace—historical criticism. In fact, when Wheaton professor Alan Johnson (now retired) gave his ETS presidential address in 1982, he explicitly argued for evangelical appreciation of and involvement with historical criticism.20 Some years later Andrew Hill (still on the Wheaton faculty) published a distinguished commentary in a premier historical-critical series edited by David Noel Freedman.21 Current NT professor Douglas Moo’s critically acclaimed commentary on Romans interacts at hundreds of points with “historical critical” interpreters including C. K. Barrett, James Dunn, Joseph Fitzmyer, Ernst Käsemann, Otto Kuss, Ulrich Wilckens, and many others.22
Part of the appeal of the Hays-Ansberry book is that they cast themselves as courageous pioneers with sophistication to go where their fuddy-duddy predecessors never would or did. This may play well in British university seminars where stereotypes (often unkind) abound of the vast and varied world of “evangelicalism” especially in the U.S. The vision of an intellectually benighted “conservative” faith community culpably out of touch with the sure pronouncements of a sacrosanct elite is, however, inaccurate on several counts.
Nor is it just the Wheaton College heritage that the book misrepresents, for many colleges and seminaries in the evangelical heritage have been equally proactive in bringing students into dialogue with historical critical views. A widely used NT introduction, designed specifically for college freshmen, contains chapters on historical criticism.23 But long before Wheaton College’s founding in 1860, Moses Stuart was at work establishing his credentials as the father of biblical criticism in North America.24 Stuart was, like Jonathan Edwards already mentioned, an evangelical. Princeton Seminary in the nineteenth and early twentieth century was fully cognizant of and in extensive interaction with historical criticism.25 Down to the current time, there exist any number of major works by evangelicals which make use of and interact with historical criticism—but which Hays-Ansberry inexplicably ignore. George Ladd wrote a book on this very subject almost half a century ago.26 In a discussion on miracles, how can one pass over Craig Keener’s recent and magisterial two-volume work?27 Or any number of evangelical Gospels scholars and their numerous commentaries and publications on Jesus studies—Craig Blomberg, Darrell Bock, Don Carson, Craig Evans, Craig Keener, Andreas Köstenberger, Howard Marshall, Grant Osborne, Robert Stein, and many others? Wheaton’s Richard Schultz (a student of Brevard Childs) has published significantly on the authorship of Isaiah,28 but nothing is said of this in Hays-Ansberry. In exploring the Pastoral Epistles as pseudepigrapha (154–56), little is gained by leaving totally unmentioned the strong cases for Pauline authorship presented over recent decades by Donald Guthrie, Don Carson and Doug Moo, Philip Towner, L. T. Johnson, Robert Mounce, Stanley Porter, Eckhard Schnabel, and others.
Hays-Ansberry argue that evangelicals have failed to embrace historical criticism; some readers may feel that it is Hays-Ansberry who need to get up to speed on scholarship in the Christian tradition.
Second, on the subject of biblical scholars and academic theologians believing themselves to be the gatekeepers for the beliefs of the church (an issue touched on in the previous section), it is worth pondering Michael Legaspi’s important monograph The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies.29 The title speaks tellingly regarding what has happened to Holy Scripture under the watchful eye and often unsparing dictate of academic experts plying the hermeneutics of “historical criticism.”30 They are expert, to be sure, in the sources and lore and principles and methods and convictions of their guild. There always has been, and always will be, much to learn from their, as from all, true erudition. But Legaspi shows the essentially different Bibles that we are talking about when we speak of Scripture as historical criticism in the academy understands it, on the one hand, and Scripture as the Word of God as understood most frequently among Christians through the centuries, on the other. Should the two be in dialogue? Undoubtedly. Do they operate in strict isolation? Hardly.
But Jeffrey Morrow, commenting at length on Legaspi’s book, has rightly recognized the character of much historical criticism as “secular allegory.”31 That is, “precisely by denying the plain meaning of the text in search of more authentic history behind the text as we have it, historical criticism often results in fanciful reconstructions, more allegorical than literal, that would make Origen blush.”32 He continues, “We need to unmask how claims that do away with traditional, patristic, medieval, spiritual exegesis and instead focus exclusively on the literal-historical level often mask a secular allegory at the service of another kingdom, not the Kingdom of God.”33 Morrow argues in the service of Catholic teaching, but Protestants seeking to uphold an historic and evangelical fides quae (body of saving Christian doctrine) can concur with him: “We must be fully aware, when we engage in biblical exegesis, that we tread on sacred ground.”34
I think it is fair to say that we catch not a whiff of this kind of reverence in the Hays-Anbsberry volume with its one-sided deference to historical criticism. My sense is that the book under review wants to steer the church pastorally on the basis of (1) a hermeneutic that is ill-suited for this purpose and (2) an understanding of the Bible that does not take sufficient stock of what Legaspi uncovers and what 200 years of Western church history confirms.35
This leads to my third point: I predict that the Hays-Ansberry proposal, with which the editors are obviously comfortable, will just be a starting point for many who receive it with enthusiasm. Benjamin L. Dueholm recently observed, “The sexual revolution once aimed to re-center sexual ethics on love rather than heterosexual marriage. But revolutions are loath to end where their early enthusiasts planned. More and more, the sexual revolution seems apt to turn on love itself as a norm.”36 Hays and Ansberry aid and abet a movement that I suspect is bound to turn increasingly on the Bible itself.
This is because their book registers a vote for the biblical revolution set in motion by historical criticism and against those from whose ranks Hays and Ansberry hail and whose alleged opposition to historical criticism they reject. They pooh-pooh Ernst Troeltsch’s sober (and in hindsight prophetic) declaration that if you give historical criticism as it actually exists and functions your little finger, you must give it your entire hand,37 as if either I or Gerd Lüdemann invented the claim (pp. 7–8, with notes 13–14). But it would be wiser to respect the persuasive power and essential construction of historical criticism not just as a set of methods (which it is not) but as an entire and totalizing worldview (which in its own understanding it is).38 The history of movements sacrificing the whole truth of the whole Bible for the sake of extending an olive branch to parties not committed to the whole range of historic Christian conviction (God not being a piecemeal God) is not encouraging.
This is not to mention the disastrous pastoral and missiological implications of church leaders following Hays-Ansberry and suddenly announcing to Bible-honoring congregations, or proclaiming to the lost in the post-Christian West, to Muslims in the Middle East, or to Hindus in India (or anywhere), that the Christian Bible long claimed to be true by “the Church” is now known to be, well, substantially less so. But believe our testimony to Christ (testified to historically almost no where else besides this Bible) anyway!
A fourth and final point is this. It may be that the Hays-Ansberry hope is that by playing along with the critical consensus, building bridges so to speak by severing ties with older convictions, evangelicals will not only be saddled with a lesser load of onerous convictions that non-evangelicals fault them for holding; they will also, possibly, be taken more seriously by the hegemony whose views they now feel compelled to embrace.
This is a noble hope, and I wish those well who feel it is their calling and destiny; there have been and are notable examples of scholars who have followed this track. But I was reminded of its dubious prospects for widespread success in reviewing a premier historical-critical work on John’s Gospel recently. The author concedes that the Fourth Gospel’s historical and theological claims were accepted as completely true throughout the centuries . . . until theology and history were set at odds by various Enlightenment convictions.39 Almost overnight, “the authorship of the Gospel of John by an eyewitness became questionable” among key German interpreters whose views gradually gained traction.40 John’s Gospel was interpreted as mythical (Strauss), philosophical (F. C. Baur), or allegorical (Jülicher).41 For Jörg Frey, these claims (despite being discredited by subsequent scholarship) are sufficient to demonstrate forever the fallacy of reading John as historically reliable and theologically authoritative. Evangelical scholars like Theodor Zahn, B. F. Westcott, Leon Morris, Don Carson, Andreas Köstenberger, Craig Blomberg, Craig Keener, and the like who defend John’s authorship, historicity, and theological veracity are guilty of intellectual dishonesty leading to “speculations that are foreign to the text and historically completely absurd, like the possibility of two temple cleansings.”42 People who still think like this are not to be taken seriously as discussion partners.43 The price for admission to a place at the discussion table is accepting a predetermined menu of options, and the essential or even substantial truth of John’s Gospel as universally affirmed in the church prior to the Enlightenment is not on offer.
This reminds us that there is a historical-critical dogmatism as entrenched and dismissive as the closed-mindedness Hays-Ansberry seem to posit among evangelicals. I suspect that many of the historical-critical conclusions they entertain in their book (like non-Pauline authorship of the Pastorals) are the results of applying critical dogmatism to biblical and historical phenomena, not necessarily high scholarship or “critical” thinking in the best sense. L. T. Johnson demonstrates with respect to the authorship of 1–2 Timothy, “The authenticity of the Pastorals increasingly becomes a matter of dogma” in relatively recent times44—and not church or “evangelical” dogma but “critical” convictions resistant to empirical challenge.
Evangelical scholars should continue to be maximal in their interaction with historical-critical sources, as Morris and Carson and Blomberg and Keener and others have been. But we should be clear that it is often historic Christian affirmation that Scripture speaks truly about faith and history that is the chief object of critical rejection. (Sometimes it is poor evangelical scholarship, and that needs to be admitted and remedied.) The problem is not primarily some unyielding and embittered “evangelical faith” that arose in the last few generations and that we should now sweeten by intermingling a few (or many) spoonsful of historical-critical conclusions (like no Adam). What evangelicals believe does not in itself establish, and will not change, things the Bible claims are true. Those things are the sticking point for many committed to historical-critical tenets; evangelical interpreters are simply witnesses to a manifestly plausible construal of the biblical texts, as they are called to be.
While the Hays-Ansberry proposal marks a significant step in discussion of these matters, many will conclude it is not always a step in a helpful direction.