From my own personal experience, as well as my observation of others, it seems to me that there are two types of responses when conservative Christian students encounter higher criticism for the first time: either to disregard it all as the irrelevant machinations of godless scholars hoping to destroy the faith, or to uncritically accept everything and abandon their faith (usually in light of what my Dallas mentor Dan Wallace calls the “domino view of doctrine,” in which a brittle bibliology is the foundation of one’s faith; when that goes, so does the whole house of cards). Entering my second semester as a public university TA for biblical studies courses that teach the historical-critical method, I see my students from conservative Christian backgrounds really struggling with this material on a daily basis. If only there were a resource, I’ve often thought, that would help them to constructively engage with biblical criticism, and recognize that the two extremes I have described are not the only ways forward.
Enter, then, a wonderful new book edited by Christopher Hays and Christopher Ansberry. Their Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism (Baker Academic, 2013) is just the sort of book I can recommend to my students, and just the sort of book I wish I had as an undergraduate wrestling with higher criticism for the first time. The explicit aim of the book is nothing less than “a call for conservative interpreters of the Bible to be both critical and evangelical” (17). In other words, the book “aims to stimulate evangelicals to engage seriously with the historical-critical method by demonstrating that the very fact of such engagement does not jeopardize one’s Christian confessions” (18). The unique contribution of this book is to ask What’s really at stake? in terms of theological consequences if we were to accept the scholarly consensus on different historical-critical issues.
To take just one of their case studies, the chapter on pseudepigraphy and the canon (by Ansberry, Strine, Klink, and Lincicum). The scholarly consensus that certain biblical books were not authored by who the books claim to be the author poses a huge problem for many conservative students. If, for instance, the pastoral epistles were not written by Paul, how can we take them seriously as Scripture if they start with a bald-faced lie? In this chapter’s section on the Pauline epistles, the authors walk through criteria by which scholars detect epistolary pseudepigraphy before explaining why scholars have assigned different epistles to various categories (“undisputed,” “spurious,” and “disputed”). This kind of explanation is especially helpful for beginning students that may need to hear the critical argument presented in more detail. Following the overall format of the book, the authors decline to evaluate the evidence for this view, and instead dive into the much more interesting question of the theological implications if this position were to be adopted. As the authors conclude, “To claim that pseudepigraphy is irreconcilable with infallibility can arguably only result in subjecting Scripture to our own autonomous standard of perfection, instead of seeking the perfection Scripture has in a historically a posteriori act of discipleship” (155). Instead, “if ancient perceptions of authorship and the realities of text production were more fluid than are modern conceptions, then historical criticism opens new horizons for thinking about the way in which God worked through the Holy Spirit to compose and codify the biblical text” (156). In other words, while accepting pseudepigraphy in the canon may force us to reformulate our notions of authorship, authority, and inspiration, they in no way undermines Christian faith or orthodoxy. And there might even be a positive benefit, in that it “refines our understanding of the nature of Scripture, reorients our focus in the human author’s work to God’s work and reinforces our trust in the Spirit’s activity through the production of Scripture” (157). Ultimately, our trust in the authority of Scripture comes from God, who oversaw its writing and place in the canon, and not on the basis of human authorship.
I don’t expect that this, or any of the other “solutions” in this book, will be satisfying to all, but at the least, the contributors to this volume should be heartily commended for encouraging conservatives to engage with historical criticism in a constructive manner and to realize that, in many cases, much less is actually at stake than one might originally assume. It is a resource that I will heartily recommend to students struggling with negotiating faith and scholarship.
This book was provided courtesy of Baker Academic without the expectation or requirement of a positive review.