Christopher M. Hays and Christopher B. Ansberry, Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism (London: SPCK, 2013). (Amazon.com)

61BmG9PYZmL._SY300_[Let me begin this review with three preliminary notes: First, this will be a longer, more thorough review, so if you want the gist of the matter I recommend skipping the “Summary of the Contents” section. That said, I ask that you refrain from being too critical of this review or the book being reviewed if you choose to do this. Second, I understand that reading a long review like this one may be tiresome to do online, so I have provided it as a PDF here. Third, I will continue my blog sabbatical until July 1st, but I did feel obligated to review this book now, because I was active in requesting a copy for review, and I will be out-of-town for over a month, so it was more expedient to post a review earlier than later. Also, please pardon me if I do not reply to comments until next month.]

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Christopher M. Hays and Christopher B. Ansberry have edited a volume that needed to be written. I don’t know that I have said that of any other book that I have reviewed. This observation is subjective, of course, but I presume that there are many evangelicals who will agree as this book gains a larger audience. Why would I say this? Evangelicalism may not be fundamentalism, but it is closely related. In recent years evangelicals have realized that we have two options as concerns our posture toward historical-critical scholarship of the Bible: (1) remain in an intellectual ghetto of our own creation, following the example of fundamentalists who engage critical scholarship for apologetical purposes and nothing more or (2) participate in “faithful criticism” while maintaining a “critical faith” as this volume promotes. There are evangelicals who can attest to reading the Bible as Scripture—an authoritative guide for Christian thought and practice that we’d consider to be the very “word of God”—who simultaneously sense the need to engage critical scholarship, not as opponents, but as participants.

Many evangelicals will argue that this is impossible. Personally (if I may), this is not an acceptable answer. For some evangelicals the concerns raised by critical scholarship are concerns we share. In other words, yes, it is possible to be an evangelical who is skeptical of attempts to reconcile the evolutionary paradigm of human origins with the narrative of Genesis 1-3. There are those of us who do not feel obligated to defend the historicity of the Great Flood if there is no geological evidence for it. This is not mere compromise, as if these concerns arise from a misguided desire to be accepted by the broader culture, but rather our own study, our own exegesis, led us to realize that ignoring the tensions (contradictions?) of the Bible is intellectually dishonest. Rather that retreat from the findings of critical scholarship many evangelicals have determined that their own calling to worship the Christian God with all our “heart…soul…strength…mind” means honestly studying the evidence while leaving open the possibility that our previous understanding of how the Bible can be true, or how the Bible can be Scripture, needs to be tested and rethought.

If you are an evangelical who holds in tension both a profound respect for the Bible as authoritative Scripture, and a sincere conviction that historical-critical scholarship appears to have exposed some of our presuppositions about the Bible as unsustainable, then this is a book you will want to read.

Message of the Book:

Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism is a book written by evangelical scholars who assume that historical criticism has something to offer evangelicals, which can enhance our understanding of the Bible, while realizing the epistemological limitations to historical critical methodology. In other words, the contributors may or may not affirm the “consensus” of academia, but their engagement with critical scholarship remains open to the possibility (likelihood) that critical scholarship may force Christians to rethink their presuppositions. Many of the chapters use a paradigm that does not argue for or against the consensus, but rather asks what it might mean if the insights of critical scholarship are accurate, what would this mean for evangelicals and our doctrines? This is a key point. This book is neither a full embrace of critical scholarship (in fact, often, the authors do a fair job of masking their own views) nor an apologetical attack of critical scholarship in defense of how evangelicals have traditionally understood various doctrines (the major exception in this volume is the resurrection of Jesus).

Summary of the Contents:

In Chapter 1 (Toward a faithful criticism) Christopher Hays writes, “This is a book about historical criticism. This is not a book about inerrancy.”[1] While this book does have implications for one’s doctrine of Scripture it is not primarily about whether or not one should use words like “inerrancy,” “infallibility,” or something else. Rather, the writers of this book assume that historical criticism has something to offer readers of the Bible, period: even confessional, Christian readers, no matter what word is used to explain their views.

Hays discusses how evangelicals have reacted to historical criticism over the years, including splitting from mainline seminaries or secular universities to form their own more conservative institutions. Now, ironically, many who are graduating from these schools sense the need to engage historical criticism, sometimes embracing the findings of scholarship. There are theological implications to this shift. Does engagement with historical critical scholarship lead to heresy, or at least heterodoxy? Maybe, but it may be as equally possible that the evangelical doctrine of Scripture has defended a bibliology that is unnecessary, so that some evangelicals who should be able to comfortably address historical critical scholarship flinch from doing so not because it would be a disservice to the Bible itself, but because it would be viewed with scorn by fellow evangelicals. This book aims to remedy that: “As evangelicals we believe that there needs to be space for an approach to Scripture that is historical critical.”[2]

Hays doesn’t deny that historical criticism “does have its dark side,” nor does he embrace historical criticism as “value-neutral,” but rather he recognizes “…the growing chorus calling evangelicals to engage in an intellectually honest and academically rigorous wrestling match with Scripture in all its troublesome particularity.”[3] Likewise, Hays realizes the danger of embracing historical criticism just as it becomes other than vogue, but he doesn’t foresee this happened. Even as scholarship recognizes other hermeneutical approaches (e.g., post-colonial, ecological, queer, theological), and the historical critical approach looses its “hegemony,” it is unlikely that the method will be abandoned.[4] Some have been “tempted to forge uneasy alliances with postmodern rejections or critiques of Modernism,” to escape the reign of the historical critical approach, but this doesn’t rescue Scripture, per se. Rather, it introduces a new set of problems.

Evangelicals are asked in this chapter to avoid fight and flight. Instead, evangelicals ought to participate, honestly, asking ourselves what historical critical studies has to offer us. Hays provides some history regarding the relationship between evangelicalism and historical critical scholarship. Then he seeks to define evangelicalism (following Timothy Larsen) so that his presuppositions regarding the identity of the movement are easily understood. This is followed by the outlining of the procedure used by the contributors as well as a summary of the forthcoming content.

Chapter 2 (Adam and the Fall) by Hays and Stephen Lane Herring addresses the topic from an angle that may be familiar to those who have read Peter Enns’ The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins. The chapter begins with a summary of scholarship on the Pentateuch (e.g., JEDP) beginning with H.B. Witter’s observations concerning Genesis 1:1-2:4a and 2:4b-3:24, through Julius Wellhausen’s influential theories, on to the aftermath of these debates. The authors briefly compare and contrast Genesis with other Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) stories of origins, asking how shared mythology and the compositional nature of the Pentateuch may impact our understanding of important doctrines. Hamartiology functions as the case study as the authors asks whether our new understanding of Genesis—if critical scholarship is embraced—significantly alters our understanding of sin (and therefore, soteriology). This study includes a survey of how early Judaism understood sin, and Adam’s role, then moves to Paul, specifically Romans 5. The authors conclude that Paul, like his contemporaries, taught “…people deserve death because of their own sin.”[5] This interpretation may not sit well with some Reformed and Baptist evangelicals, but others should find a familiar argument.

Two final questions are asked: “Are we obliged to believe in a historical Adam because Paul believed in a historical Adam?” and “Does Paul’s argument in Romans 5 fall apart if there were no Adam and no original sin?” The authors exemplify how we often affirm the argument of biblical writers, even when we don’t share their presuppositions. Likewise, as should be expected, no, the authors do not find that Paul’s argument is dependent upon a historical Adam. In order to better establish a “biblical” hamartiology the authors juxtapose Romans 5 with James 1:13-15 showing how individual responsibility matters, and asking how this might assist in our understanding of why Paul uses Adam in his argument as he does. Finally, the authors engage in the exercise of historical theology. Most of this discussion evaluates Augustine’s contribution to our idea of “original sin,” while also tapping into the eastern (Orthodox) tradition to ask if original sin has always been a central tenant of Christian doctrine.

Chapter 3 (The exodus: fact, fiction, or both?) by Christopher B. Ansberry is dedicated to the exploration of the role of the exodus in Christian doctrine and whether it can withstand historical criticism. Ansberry provides an insightful discussion into the differences between “maximalist” and “minimalist” historians, evaluating what members of these schools of thought think about the Bible as a source for history. It is in engagement with these two paradigms that he examines the evidence (or lack thereof) for the exodus. Ansberry concludes that something like the exodus is essential for Christian doctrine, though that doesn’t demand that we uncritically embrace the narrative wholesale, nor does it mean we should pretend to have evidence for the event that we do not have. In summary, he writes, “The historicity of the exodus from Egypt in some form is foundational to Israel’s identity, her relationship with God and future hope. Nonetheless, we must recognize that direct historical evidence for the exodus does not exist and that the precise historical minutiae of the event will likely not materialize in our lifetime.”[6]

Chapter 4 (No covenant before the exile? The Deuteronomic Torah and Israel’s covenant theology) by Ansberry and Jerry Hwang addresses the concerning matter that the covenant of Deuteronomy appears to be an exilic or post-exilic creation. The authors summarize the scholarship that has been done on Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic authors. This includes the arguments for a pre-exilic creation during the reforms of Hezekiah or Josiah and that for an exilic or post-exilic creation. Then the authors explore the compositional history of the document. The important question is how these insights impact our theological understanding of Deuteronomy.

The second half of this chapter may be the most helpful in the book. The authors discuss authorship and the nature of authorship in the ancient world juxtaposing it with how we moderns understand authors. There is a difference between Moses as author and a Mosaic tradition. The question is whether a Mosaic tradition as the root of Deuteronomy’s composition is sufficient theologically, which the authors affirm that it is. Much of what is said in this chapter is quite relevant for discussions regarding the voice of the historical Jesus and the voice of Jesus as relayed by the Evangelists in the Gospels. This chapter ends with a provocative and exciting series of proposals regarding the role of Moses, later authors, and the Holy Spirit in creating an authoritative document.

The most paradigm-shifting chapter in the entire book must be Chapter 5 (Problems with prophecy) by Hays, Amber Warhurst, and Seth B. Tarrer. These authors tackle (what appears to be) failed prophecies in Scripture, asking whether or not our understanding of “fulfillment” is accurate. They propose that the goal of prophecy is not merely prediction and exact fulfillment. One perfect example is the Book of Jonah where the only prophecy is that of Nineveh’s destruction, yet the narrative shows that God works to show mercy and grace, which is the real goal of the prophecy. Jonah knows this, which is why he tries to flee from God. The authors provide the reader with very insightful, challenging arguments for prophecy being reevaluated in light of (1) God’s freedom and (2) human response.

This is not the end of the discussion though. Vaticinium ex eventu or “prophecy after the fact” is very troublesome for many evangelicals. The best example is Daniel 7-12, which is presented as predictive, but which most scholars understand to be retrospective. The authors explore this genre’s function in the ANE, and whether we should question our assumptions about these sorts of prophecies rather than denying that they come after the events.

Also of importance is what the authors call “deferral of prophetic fulfillment,” where a prophecy such as Jesus’ return in Matthew 16 and Mark 13 appears to have been incorrect. A case study is presented on how Jeremiah’s “seventy years of exile” prophecy is reinterpreted in Chronicles, Zechariah, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Daniel. This model is then used in comparison with 2 Peter to ask if the canonical message shows us that prophecy is contingent upon human response, i.e., prophecy may be understood as implicitly stating “if x then y will happen, but if not x then y will not happen.” In the case of Jesus’ return, as 2 Peter proposes, the problem is repentance has not happened as it ought, therefore, God mercifully delays the parousia.

Chapter 6 (Pseudepigraphy and canon) by Ansberry, Casey A. Strine, Edward W. Klink III, and David Lincicum, addresses whether or not pseudepigraphy is acceptable for a canonized, authoritative document. There is more discussion of the Pentateuch and the Moses tradition, but in addition the authors explore the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah, Second Isaiah, Third Isaiah) and whether one can honor and stand within the prophetic tradition by expanding and continuing the writing of their document (Moses and Isaiah). This study has implications for how New Testament authors quote and reshape Old Testamant texts. Similarly, the authors examine how the anonymous Gospel of John should be understood when we consider the history of authorial identity related to this document (apostle John? John the elder? a Johannine community?).

Of course, it is one thing to expand the authorial tradition of someone like Moses or Isaiah and something else to write in the name of Paul or Peter, when the author(s) is not Paul or Peter, not expanding something written by Paul or Peter (which may or may not be true of the epistles of Paul and Peter with questionable authenticity). The end of this chapter summarizes Pauline scholarship on Paul’s epistles. Then the different understandings of pseudepigraphy are presented; namely, as (1) an accepted literary convention or (2) a “philosophical school” of thought where students continue a teacher’s legacy or (3) an intentional deception (or even a so-called “noble lie”). The Pastoral Epistles are evaluated through these prisms allowing the reader to think through the implications.

Chapter 7 (The historical Jesus) by Hays and Michael J. Darling addresses four important matters: (1) Jesus’ self-presentation/self-understanding; (2) Jesus’ miracles; (3) the virgin birth; and (4) the resurrection. The reader is introduced to the robust conversations that have taken place during the First, Second, and Third Quest for the Historical Jesus. Did Jesus think of himself as Messiah? Did Jesus understand himself to be divine? The authors present us with the various positions that have been taken on this matter over the years.

Jesus’ miracles seem beyond the realm of historical criticism, since historical criticism embraces naturalistic methodology, and one principle is that of analogy, which many scholars argue makes embracing miracles unlikely (though others, and Craig Keener comes to mind, argue that we do have examples of miracles today, therefore our principle of analogy is sufficed). The virgin birth and the resurrection are “big miracles” if you will, so they receive attention individually. As one might imagine, there are those who deny these events outright, those who are more or less agnostic, and those who find good reason to affirm the historicity of the virgin birth and/or the resurrection. One area where the authors of this chapter find little wiggle-room for an alternative understanding of tradition is the resurrection, which is presented as the central doctrine of Christianity.

Chapter 8 (The Paul of Acts and the Paul of the epistles) by Aaron J. Kuecker and Kelly D. Liebengood evaluates the claim that the Paul we find in Paul’s epistles (especially the undisputed ones) and Luke’s depiction of Paul in Acts are incompatible. The chapter begins with a case study between Galatians 2 and Acts 15/11:27-30, 12:25. While it may or may not matter whether one can reconcile the chronology we find in Galatians 2 with that of Acts it does seem to matter whether Paul’s theology in his epistles matches the theology of the Lukan Paul.

Kuecker and Liebengood choose three scholars who have different views on this matter: Phillip Vielhauer, Peter Borgen, and Brevard Childs. Vielhauer argues that Luke’s Paul is different than the Paul of Paul’s epistles. Borgen presents the two as far more complimentary. Childs addresses this topic from a completely different angle: the canonical critical approach, i.e., allowing the documents to be in dialogue based on their final canonized placement rather than their historical agendas. The authors of this chapter then evaluate the theological implications of embracing the views of one of these three scholars before providing some of their own insights into the challenge of comparing Paul’s occasional letters to Luke’s historiography as well as the possible role of canon formation in our historical investigation.

In the final chapter, Chapter 9 (Faithful criticism and a critical faith) Ansberry and Hays make a final pitch for a robust evangelical engagement with historical critical study of the Bible. The authors remind us that historical criticism is not going to disappear, so it must be engaged. Likewise, it is not evil, but a tool that can be used to the benefit of the church. The authors claim, “This book does not doubt that historical criticism can be dangerous…But fundamentalist obscurantism can also imperil the faithful.” Or, with more detail:

Far too many have been taught to understand the Bible in modern terms removed by millennia from the ancient cultures that composed the sacred texts. In this way, Christian doctrine has been pitted against science, archaeology and ancient history. Under such sad conditions, people’s faith can be snatched and devoured by evolutionary biology, by the Epic of Gilgamesh, by vaticinium ex eventu, by an archaeological record lacking evidence of a million-man-march from Egypt, or by a Gospel Synopsis that shows divergent details in the Evangelist’s depictions of Christ. Sure, atheistic critical scholarship is dangerous, but so is benighted pietism.”[7]

The authors call upon conservative seminaries to “cease their embargo on historical criticism,” arguing that the attitude of these seminaries “…pens up a great multitude of Christian biblical scholars whose voices and expertise could help change the landscape of historical criticism, could back down specious iconoclasm and could answer the occasionally snide and condescending censures of the Church’s opponents with wise and rigorous truth.”[8] The remainder of the chapter explores how historical critical studies may benefit the church and her theology in the future.

Each chapter includes a list of several books recommending further reading on the topic addressed. The end of the book includes an extensive bibliography. Finally, there is an index of ancient texts.

Concluding Thoughts:

Some of these chapters offer what many evangelicals may interpret to be more radical solutions, e.g., the chapter on Adam and the Fall or the chapter on prophecy. Other chapters may not be as rattling, like the chapter on Paul of the epistles and the Paul of Acts. What all these chapters have in common is the desire to engage historical critical studies, participate in the scholarship, yet show that evangelicals need not do so from a purely apologetical posture, nor worry that their findings will spell doom for their Christian faith.

I began this review with the claim that this is a book that needed to be written. I believe that many who read this book will agree. You may find that this book “concedes more ground” to liberal Protestant and non-Christian thinking than you’d like to see. You may find that some sections are “begging the question,” sometimes choosing to draw the line in a way that may seem arbitrary or oddly convenient (e.g., the exodus and the resurrection of Jesus are presented as too important to rethink radically). Nevertheless, both readers who are more conservative than the contributors of this volume, and even those who are more “liberal,” may find (should find) that this book is a solid, worthy engagement with some serious topics, especially considering the forthright presuppositions presented by the editors and authors.

I wish this volume had existed when I began my graduate studies in a conservative evangelical seminary several years ago. I received a great education, but often I felt intimidated in expressing my doubts about how the Bible was being presented at various points. Instead of fully embracing the approach of my professors, or allowing my doubts to consume me, I decided to study the topic in my own spare time. I remain grateful to confessing scholars like Peter Enns whose Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament and N.T. Wright whose The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture (now titled Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today) allowed me to reconcile my Christian faith with a deep need to address some of my concerns about the nature of the Bible. If a book like Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism had existed back then it would have saved me much anxiety as well! This is the sort of book that I’d recommend even conservative evangelicals read, and conservative evangelical educators recommend to their students, unless one thinks that people who do not agree with their bibliology have compromised beyond what should be allowable.

If I were to teach a class on hermeneutics in an evangelical seminary or college this is a book I’d consider making required reading. Why? Even if one does not affirm the conclusions of the contributors to this volume, and even if one does not think their investigations yield fruit worth personally consuming, I can guarantee that one will have students who do wrestle with these matters. To force those students to embrace one’s view, or to hide alternative approaches from those students, seems to me to be bad pedagogy, if not ethically concerning. Evangelical academics must recognize their dual role as educators and pastors. A book like this offers both a solidly academic read as well as a pastorally sensitive approach to many of the problems that arise when reading the Bible.

Now, again, I am aware that there will be evangelicals who dislike the idea of trying to reconcile the Bible as authoritative Scripture with the Bible as a collection of situated historical documents like other situated historical documents. This is understandable, but it is important to recognize something to which I alluded above: there will be evangelicals who cannot swallow the apologetic responses to historical criticism of the Bible. If evangelicals determine that those with doubts and questions must either be socially excommunicated or beaten into conformity, then evangelicalism will loose many good, sincere Christians who confess the central tenets of Christianity, but who cannot embrace a “perfect Bible” as we sometimes understand perfection. I appeal to those evangelicals to recognize that there is room in our tent for those who affirm inerrancy to the extreme of verbal plenary inspiration as well as those who may understand the inspiration of Scripture to allow for historical inaccuracies, some forms of mythopoeic language, and so forth.

This book was received in exchange for a review courtesy of SPCK. Bloggers at NearEmmaus.com are under no obligation to provide positive reviews.


[1] 1

[2] 6

[3] 7-8

[4] 11

[5] 38

[6] 72

[7] 205

[8] 206

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