by Peter Enns
July 1, 2013
Modern biblical scholarship—also referred to as historical criticism, and less often today “higher criticism”—has an uneasy history with evangelicalism. In fact, evangelicalism’s intellectual component is largely a sustained response to the methods, philosophy, and conclusions of historical criticism. In some cases that response has come in the form of the rejection of historical criticism, in other cases a synthesis or adaptation of its methods and conclusions with evangelical theology.
The tensions are rooted, I feel, in the core commitment of the evangelical movement to the authority of Scripture. Since Scripture is divine revelation, i.e., God’s self-disclosure, its “authority” is tied explicitly to inerrancy and a number of corollaries such as historical accuracy and the essential theological harmony of Scripture.
Scripture’s function in evangelicalism is to lay down the basic map of Christian thought and practice, what we are to understand about God, Christ, Scripture itself, the human condition, and Christian practice. The task of historical criticism, on the other hand, is to peer “behind” Scripture and inquire as to its origins and meaning as understood within the cultural context in which the various texts were written. These two diverse approaches to Scripture are not easily compatible.
In principle, evangelicalism is not inimical to historical inquiry. In fact, one of evangelicalism’s hermeneutical pillars is the interpretation of Scripture in its historical context and in line with its original, intended, meaning—what is typically referred to as “grammatical-historical interpretation.” The tensions with historical criticism are not over the mere idea of investigating Scripture in the context, but in manner in which historical critics get there and the conclusions that they reach. In both respects, historical criticism has tended to undermine evangelical premises of biblical authority.
What complicates matters considerably for evangelicals, however, is that the general contours of historical criticism are widely persuasive, even universally so outside of evangelical (and fundamentalist) communities. I see four general, interrelated, aspects of historical criticism that are well established in biblical scholarship and also, in various ways, at odds with mainstream evangelicalism’s understanding of the nature of Scripture.
1. Biblical origins. The Old Testament we know today has a lengthy developmental history, both oral and written. The drawing together of these traditions that did not commence in earnest until the Babylonian exile (6th c. BC) and did not come to an end until sometime during the Persian period (roughly 5th and 4th centuries BC) at the earliest. This does not mean that the Hebrew Bible was written
out of while cloth during this period. Some books or portions of books clearly were, but many others were added to or updated in some way.
[Similarly,] issues surrounding the formation of the New Testament are similar, but involve a much shorter period of time.
2. Perspectives of the biblical writers. When speaking of their past, the Old Testament writers were not working as modern historians or investigative journalists to uncover verifiable facts (as we might put it). They were more storytellers, conduits for generations—even centuries—of tradition, which they brought together to form their sacred text. In the Old Testament we have Israel’s national-religious story as seen through the eyes of those responsible for giving it its final shape.
This is not to say that they invented these traditions on the spot, but they “packaged” their past as they did to address their present crisis—exile, return, and an uncertain future. Israel’s inscripturated story both accounts for this crisis and also points the way forward to the hope that God has not abandoned his people but has a glorious future in store for them.
A similar issue holds for the New Testament, where the Gospels reflect the experiences and thinking of various Christian communities a generation and more after Jesus’ ministry on earth. They, too, are presentations of Jesus and the early missionary activities that reflect the perspectives and needs to the respective communities.
3. Theological diversity. Given historical criticism’s focus on matters of biblical origin, the diversity of the various biblical texts is highlighted with no pressing concern, as we see in evangelicalism, to draw these diverse texts into a harmonious whole. Hence, historical criticism speaks freely of the different theologies contained in Scripture.
One practical implication is that the evangelical hermeneutical methodology of allowing “Scripture to interpret Scripture” tends to fall on deaf ears among historical critics. Reading Genesis, for example, through the eyes of Isaiah or Paul in order to understand the meaning of Genesis would be like reading Shakespeare through the eyes of Arthur Miller and expecting to gain from it an insight into what Shakespeare meant.
4. The problem of historicity. This last aspect of historical criticism in effect summarizes the previous three: the Bible does not tell us what happened so much as what the biblical writers either believed happened or what they invented. This is not to say that historical critics think nothing of historical importance can be found in Scripture, but that any historical information is inextricably bound up with the perspectives and purposes of the biblical writers.
There are other ways of outlining the nature of historical criticism, of course, but this will do to highlight why tensions exist between historical criticism and evangelicalism. The former presents us with a Bible that the latter is loathe to accept in toto because of its significant theological ramifications.
Yet, most evangelical biblical scholars understand the persuasiveness and positive impact that at least some aspects of historical criticism have had on our understanding of Scripture. One need only glance at a decent evangelical Study Bible or commentary to see that impact.
The tensions between evangelicalism and historical criticism have not been settled, nor will they be in the near future, at least as I see it. There seems to be an implicit détente, where it is acceptable to mine historical criticism and appropriate its theologically less troubling conclusions but to draw the line where those conclusions threaten evangelical theology.
This sort of back-and-forth dance can ease tensions temporarily, but it virtually guarantees that each generation of thoughtful evangelicals, once they become sympathetically exposed to historical criticism, will question where lines should be drawn and why seemingly arbitrary lines have been drawn where they are.
The fact that these inner-evangelical tensions keep coming up anew each generation suggests that older solutions to these tensions are not persuasive but more a temporary stopgap measure to maintain evangelical theological stability. A possible way forward is to promote an explicit synthesis between evangelical theology and historical criticism in order to achieve, potentially, a more lasting peace. The difficulty here, however, is that such synthesis might threaten the very structure of evangelicalism to the breaking point.
I am an advocate for such a synthetic discussion, though I would also stress that historical criticism is not the end all of biblical interpretation for the spiritual nourishment of the church. But where historical matters are the focus, historical criticism is a non-negotiable conversation partner.
As I see it, the pressing issue before evangelicalism is not to formulate longer, more complex, more subtle, and more sophisticated defenses of what we feel God should have done, but to teach future generations, in the academy, the church, and the world, better ways of meeting God in the Scripture we have.