Why is it that some Christian scholars engage in what James Barr called ‘maximal conservatism’? Why is it that, according to Peter Enns, evangelical Christians are far too ready to ‘defend’ the Bible against ‘attacks’ on its (supposed) moral uprightness, historical accuracy, and theological consistency? Why is it that Kenton Sparks feels the need to accuse evangelical biblical scholars of giving the impression that they accept all the tools of critical scholarship while, on the other hand, blithely insisting that the use of these tools, ‘when properly used’, must uphold their own predetermined views about the Bible does, and does not, teach?
Readers of this blog will perhaps know that I do not formally subscribe to a doctrine of biblical inerrancy (I’m a Brit, after all, and evangelicals over here tend not to be so sold on the idea of inerrancy as our North American counterparts). But even non-inerrantists such as myself still need to give an account of why we tend to gravitate towards ‘conservative’ understandings of biblical morals, history, and doctrine.
Various answers could be given to this question, some of which are less noble than others. I will allow for the possibility that some scholars take a ‘conservative’ approach because that is what their ‘group’ (denomination or educational institution) expects. To do otherwise would invite censure or even dismissal from employment.
But there are other, more honourable, reasons for this tendency towards evangelical conservatism. The fact is that Christians come to biblical scholarship as Christians. They come as men and women of faith. They do not, and they should not, bracket off their scholarship from their belief.
Biblical scholarship still has a habit of bracketing off Christian faith, and, accordingly,
‘still generally operates within a mechanistic world-view, according to which the universe is understood as a closed system, operating according to rigidly structured ‘laws of nature’ which are entirely predictable and never deviate. By definition, therefore, the unpredictable cannot happen, and on this view it is inevitable that the gospels should be seen as something other than history, for they do contain accounts of a number of unique happenings which appear to violate the ‘laws of nature’ as set out by Newtonian science.’
(John Drane, Introducing the New Testament, p223)
It is simple enough to give priority to the methods of critical scholarship, and to treat the Bible as a merely human production (there is no evidence, outside the Bible, that this happened, therefore we must doubt it). It is also a simple matter to accept the Bible, in its entirety, ‘on faith’ (the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it). But to hold both criticism and faith in a symbiotic relationship is more difficult, but much more fruitful. We must read the Bible as a human document, written out of the historical and cultural contexts of its various authors (to say nothing of their personalities and experiences). But we must also read it as a God-breathed book, coming from the mind of a creating, redeeming Lord.