Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism Part 2

Appropriation and Constructive Use of Historical Critical Method in Biblical Studies

To read part 1 – The Promise and Perils of Historical Critical Method in Biblical Studies LINK

Some readers may conclude that we have been unduly alarmist in our discussion of the impact of historical criticism which have proven detrimental to the faith of some evangelical scholars. It would be good to recapitulate our concerns by referring to a recently published book – Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism ed., Christopher Hays and Christopher Ansberry which presents the current state of the historical critical method in evangelical scholarship. The authors are self-confessed evangelical scholars teaching at two venerable evangelical institutions and their book carries endorsements by several established evangelical scholars.

Reading the book confirms the concern that adoption of historical criticism could result in a shift towards liberal teachings: 1) denial of the historical Adam and Eve, 2) doubts about the reliability of the Biblical account of the founding of the nation of Israel, 3) the book of Deuteronomy was not written in the time of Moses. It was a produced much later at the time of King Hezekiah. The various books of prophecy were not written by the purported prophets but by some anonymous groups of followers who codified an ongoing collective tradition. Since it is impossible to identify the actual writers, it would be more accurate to describe these writings as pseuepigraphy, 4) New Testament criticism shows the events narrated in the gospels do not accurately reflect the original context as later anonymous authors took the liberty to redact and collate the texts to serve their own theological purposes. Finally, 5) the Book of Acts is demonstrably not historically reliable as critics conclude that there are discrepancies in historical details and theology between the Paul of the Book of Acts and the Paul of the Pauline Epistles.

Why are these evangelical scholars willing to revise, if not abandon these important evangelical biblical teachings and align themselves with teachings currently prevailing within the liberal establishment? Perhaps their decision was a necessary gesture of commitment to play by the rules set by patrons of the enterprise of historical criticism. But the rules insist that the (evangelical) beliefs of the practitioner be excluded in framing research question, and deciding what constitutes relevant data in making value judgments over competing theories. In this regard, the historical critical method elevates human judgment to be autonomous and independent of accountability to any divine authority – if the Bible is regarded as fallible, its truth claims must be subject to critical judgment as any other human document. However, if historical criticism requires its practitioner to discount miraculous elements in the name of critical rationality, then sooner or later the (evangelical) practitioner would end up discarding the fundamental tenets of evangelical Christianity.

Perhaps, these evangelical scholars should seriously ask themselves if the compromise of their belief is worthwhile or necessary. Well intentioned evangelical scholars may be willing to risk compromising their faith in order to impress their liberal counterparts, but they will do well to be reminded by Karl Barth who noted that believing scholars merely gained a grudging tip of the hat despite all their valiant efforts to impress the cultured despisers of Christianity.

Regardless, it should be acknowledged that critical investigation of Scripture has forced evangelicals to examine more closely the basis of their faith, and to express more clearly and confidently the nature of their beliefs. The Bible may be the Word of God, but it is not revealed in timeless, ahistorical manifestations. Historical criticism may yield destructive results, but it remains relevant because the process of revelation of God’s Word which spans more than 1000 years, was given through human agencies living in a variety of ancient cultures and recorded in several languages. The fact that revelation is codified in an objective literary record means in some aspects it requires human investigation. The crucial question which will make a difference in the outcome of the historical inquiry is whether such investigation is willing to allow for the possibility of divine intervention in human history.

Our considered view is that historical criticism is fruitful if applied appropriately with due respect to the object of research, that is the Bible with its self-attestation as the Word of God. I refer the reader to two excerpts discussing two great evangelical scholars – Ned Stonehouse (a New Testament scholar) and Carl Henry (a systematic theologian) – who have set the guidelines on how to engage in historical criticism on terms that are consistent with one’s commitment faith and rational inquiry.

Excerpt 1 on Carl Henry’s Criteria for Constructive use of Historical Criticism
But full attention to these concerns does not require the critical negation or sensational rejection of biblical claims. The fact that the biblical writers say what they say, ought, all things considered, to be taken at first glance—even by the practitioner of historical criticism—as in all probability expressing what was actually the case, that is, as a reliable or trustworthy report.

In summary, evangelical theology properly affirms that:
1. Historical criticism is not inappropriate to, but bears relevantly on, Christian concerns.
2. Historical criticism is never philosophically or theologically neutral.
3. Historical criticism is unable to deal with questions concerning the supernatural and miraculous.
4. Historical criticism is as relevant to miracles, insofar as they are historical, as to nonmiraculous historical events.
5. Historical criticism cannot demonstrably prove or disprove the factuality of either a biblical or a nonbiblical historical event.
6. To assume the unreliability of biblical historical testimony—or of Xenophon’s Anabasis or Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War—in order to believe only what is independently or externally confirmed, unjustifiably discounts the primary sources.
7. Discrimination of biblical events as either historically probable or improbable is not unrelated to the metaphysical assumptions with which a historian approaches the data.
8. A historian’s subjective reversal of judgment concerning the probability or improbability of an event’s occurrence does not alter the objective factuality or nonfactuality of the event.
9. Although the historian properly stresses historical method, he is not as a person exempt from claims concerning supernatural revelation and miraculous redemptive history, for the historical method is not man’s only source of truth.
10. Biblical events acquire their meaning from the divinely inspired Scriptures; since there could be no meaning of events without the events, the inspired record carries its own intrinsic testimony to the factuality of those events.

Says Barth: If disobedience to Scripture in Roman Catholicism has taken the form of the church hierarchy and councils imposing their decisions upon and thus superseding Scripture, disobedience in Protestant circles has taken the form of higher critics imposing arbitrary speculations upon the Bible and thereby undermining its authority. Neither the verdict of church councils nor the verdict of historical criticism and critical science escapes the danger of substituting eisegesis for exegesis. “Bible exegesis should be left open on all sides, not, as this demand was put by liberalism, for the sake of free thinking, but for the sake of free Bible” (Church Dogmatics, I/1, p. 119).

If the historian begins with the assumption that the most qualified or concerned witnesses are likely to be unreliable, even where they lay down their lives in full confidence of the truth of their cause, not only does the recovery of history become an impossible task, but historical criticism then renders no greater service than the aesthetic self-entertainment of the historiographer himself.

Taken from Carl Henry. God, Revelation, and Authority. 6 vol set. Originally published: Waco, Tex. : Word Books, c1976-c1983. (4:402-404), Crossway Books 1999.

Excerpt 2 on Ned Stonehouse’s Appropriation of Historical Method
To illustrate the proper and legitimate use of the historical method we look at Ned Stonehouse, an evangelical scholar who pioneered the use of both form criticism and redaction criticism in the study of the synoptic gospels. I summarize some observations arising from Moises Silva’s analysis of Stonehouse’s book The Witness of the Synoptic Gospels.

First, it reveals that the author hoped to clarify “the character of the gospels themselves” (all four of them eventually) and “the nature of their testimony to Christ.” Stonehouse did not claim that he embarked upon this project with what some may call scholarly detachment — that artificial cloak of critical piety which so often hides commitments of the most fundamental character. Quite the contrary. Stonehouse tackles the subject precisely because of its importance for “the question of the authority and truth of the gospel witness to Christ”; and that in turn is the crucial, even “burning question for all who cannot escape the issue of their relation to him.” In other words, at stake here is nothing less than the authority of Christ, and it is for the sake of that crucial question that Stonehouse asks a more basic one: What do the evangelists in fact say about him?

Secondly, the preface reveals that, in Stonehouse’s opinion, his approach to the study of the gospels marked a break in method. It marked a break, on the one hand, with the usual critical emphasis on literary relationship and oral transmission, for, as he tells us, “the first obligation of the scholar is to understand the testimony of the records” and thus preserve “the primacy of exegesis.” On the other hand, his method also signaled a break with the traditional conservative approach. He recognizes that his method cannot be as comprehensive as that of a commentary, but he argues it “offers the distinct advantage of permitting a far more thorough and detailed consideration” of the major problems. More important for our purposes is Stonehouse’s detection of the error in perspective characteristic of the usual evangelical handling of the gospels. He argues: “Much of the popular knowledge of the gospels is, I fear, of a kind which detaches details from the broad gospel contexts, resulting in a blurred vision of the precise features of their testimony.” We should mark his concern not to treat details in isolation, but rather within their broad contexts.

Thirdly, Stonehouse refuses to deal with the gospel material in isolation from contemporary critical scholarship. It goes without saying that Dr. Stonehouse was fully abreast of that scholarship. But his approach does not consist in a mere paying of lip service to the scholarly establishment. He tells us, in fact, that he has selected “the most important questions which have been thrust forward in the modern discussion of the gospels.” One must note that Stonehouse did not select these questions as a means of ridiculing the critics; on the contrary, he chose them as the most effective means of clarifying the character of the gospels. The very structure of the book, moreover, reveals his sensitivity to the importance of critical research for a proper understanding of the biblical documents. This approach is worlds apart from the run-of-the-mill evangelical commentator who dismisses with astonishing ease, or ignores altogether, those kinds of issues which, precisely because of their difficulty, affect at a fundamental level the interpretation of the text. It is also worlds apart, however — and I hasten to add this — from the tendency, rather prevalent in some quarters, to allow the consensus of unbelieving scholarship to determine the limits of our evangelical commitment.

In the fourth place, Stonehouse speaks of the value of comparing the gospels with one another. Many readers may have interpreted that emphasis as a concern for harmonization. To a certain extent, it is true, Stonehouse thinks of harmonization as part of his responsibility, but a careful study of his book makes plain that it is only a secondary interest. For example, on page 189 he tells us that it is “in pursuance of our effort to discover the distinctiveness of the testimony of Matthew [that] our attention has been directed to certain features which some to conspicuous disclosure through a comparison of the disposition of this gospel with that of Mark” (my emphasis). In other words, his interest in comparing the gospels leads him to detect, not necessarily the identity of their testimonies (harmonization), but rather the differences. This is also the reason why he had paid special attention to the early chapters in Matthew, a section which highlights the divergence of this evangelist from Mark (p. 123).

Moises Silva is aware that Stonehouse himself like all scholars may be questioned at some finer points, but he summarized the following lessons we should take from Stonehouse.

First of all, we should recall Stonehouse’s appreciation for careful scholarship, whether arising from evangelical circles or not. Stonehouse himself, no doubt, was strongly influenced by his teacher, J. Gresham Machen, in this regard.32 The tendency to play down the significance of contemporary critical theories, and the apparently related habit of too swift a use of modern scholarship when it supports a conservative position — these are qualities that we must eschew once and for all.

Secondly, while unabashedly reaffirming the objective, historical basis of our Christian faith, we need to resist the strong impulse to demand that ancient writers conform to our modern views of history. This is not to suggest some sharp discontinuity between the old and the new, but merely to remind us that we must develop a genuine sensitivity to the presuppositions all of us bring to the text. Rather than assuming what the biblical writers may or may not have said, let us devote ourselves to an honest exegesis of the documents themselves, allowing them to determine our understanding of their character. “The primacy of exegesis,” we may assume, was Stonehouse’s motto; may it be ours too.

Finally, we can never forget that responsible exegesis takes place only when we submit ourselves to the authority of Scripture and thereby become responsive to the wholeness of the divine counsel. Though we run the risk of being accused of arrogance, sometimes not unjustly, let us do our work with confidence that we serve Him who “from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.”

Taken from “Ned B. Stonehouse and Redaction Criticism” by Moises Silva – “Part 1: The Witness of the Synoptic Evangelists to Christ,” Westminster Theological Journal 40 (1977) and “Part 2: The Historicity of the Synoptic Tradition, Westminster Theological Journal 40 (1978).”

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