‘Let no one ever again affirm that conservative evangelicals have no regard for scholarship.’
It was with that statement that Bishop Stephen Neill began his review of a 1976 book entitled ‘History, Criticism and Faith’. This book was a collection of four essays by F.F. Bruce, R.T. France, Colin Brown, and G. Wenham. In it, they discuss ‘Myth and History’ (Bruce), ‘the Authenticity of the Sayings of Jesus’ (France), ‘History and the Believer’ (Brown), and ‘History and the Old Testament’ (Wenham).
Unfortunately, Neill’s advice has not been followed. The very next year (1977) James Barr published his book ‘Fundamentalism’ which accused conservative evangelicals of having knowledge, but not real scholarship, of having doctrines, but no coherent theology. And similar accusations continue to be made up to the present time. In the 2009 book, ‘The Historical Jesus: Five Views’, Luke Timothy Johnson, himself no minimalist when it comes to historical criticism, complains about evangelical Darrell Bock:-
[He] takes the compositional shaping by the Evangelists (above all Mark) as reporting the words, the intentions and even the inner thinking of Jesus. Bock has not yet really engaged the Gospels critically as sources. Despite the statements that open his essay, he has not yet grasped what historical analysis requires.
Going back to Neill’s review, however: warmly as he praises ‘History, Criticism and Faith’, he faults Wenham for ‘an almost childish absurdity’. Wenham ways:-
Biblical scholars can continue to read the Old Testament on Sundays as the Word of God, but on weekdays treat it as a human production full of all kinds of errors.
It is surely clear that one who reads the Bible as the Word of God on Sunday will read it as the Word of God on Monday, though perhaps with slightly different concerns in mind; one who reads it on Monday as a human production full of all kinds of errors is not likely to read it at all on Sunday.
I wish I agreed with Neill, but I’m afraid that I don’t. I remember, years ago, reading an article in the Methodist Recorder in which the writer complained bitterly that there are many ministers who hold quite sceptical views about the Bible, yet preach a much more conservative message to their congregations.
A similar point is made by Old Testament scholar Peter Enns. He reports a discussion that took place soon after the publication of ‘Inspiration and Incarnation’, a book in which Enns affirms ‘the presence of myth, contradictions, and numerous historical problems in the Old Testament, not to mention the New Testament’s midrashic use of the Old’ (Enns’ own words). A biblical scholar commented that there was nothing new in Enns’ book. In response to this, a friend chimed in, saying that she (or he) had never heard ‘this stuff’, though taught by the scholar himself (or herself). According to Enns, the scholar replied: ‘Our job is to protect you from this information.’ Amazing.
Enns adds that:-
It’s been known within the evangelical community to encourage promising seminary students to pursue doctoral work at major research universities, but for apologetic purposes: infiltrate their ranks, learn their ways, expose their weaknesses. Or, related, they are told to “plunder the Egyptians”—a phrase actually used. To appropriate whatever in critical scholarship can aid the cause and either ignore or fight against the rest.
On the basis of this anecdotal evidence (so much for scholarship at this point!), Enns concludes:-
And so you have three postures by this faith community toward the threat posed by the academic study of the Bible: gatekeeper, spy, or plunderer. What lies beneath these postures is a deep distrust of the academy.
What Enns doesn’t seem to realise (or has forgotten, since at one time he himself was once to be found within the fold of those he now seems to despise) is that there is such a thing as ‘believing scholarship’. In fact, any Christian scholarship that has become disconnected from the Christian confession has thereby become tyrannical.
That there can be tension between critical scholarship and confessional belief no-one will doubt. That some people are too reluctant to review either their knowledge (based on critical enquiry) or their beliefs (based on their Christian confession) will not be denied. But we must not – we dare not – make a one-sided commitment to criticism.
After all, ‘Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age?’ (1 Cor 1:20).
In their foreword to the ‘Understanding the Bible’ commentary series, the editors (Robert L. Hubbard Jr. and Robert K. Johnston) reject what they call the ‘precritical’ approach, and the ‘anti-critical’ approach. Instead, they say, that have adopted the approach of ‘believing criticism:-
This approach marries probing, reflective interpretation of the text to loyal biblical devotion and warm Christian affection. Our contributors tackle the task of interpretation using the full range of critical methodologies and practices. Yet they do so as people of faith who hold the text in the highest regard…The authors in this series combine a firm commitment to modern scholarship with a similar commitment to the Bible’s full authority for Christians. They bring to the task the highest technical skills, warm theological commitment, and rich insight from their various communities. In so doing, they hope to enrich the life of the academy as well as the life of the church.
This is the approach that Stephen Neill found in evangelicalism back in the 1970s. This is the approach which continues (and must continue) to flourish in the present day. Peter Enns is right to warn us against hyperconservative, anti-intellectual resistance. But he, and others like him, need to find a way of reasserting and expositing ‘the faith the was delivered to the saints’. Otherwise, in being rescued from the frying pan of evangelical obscurantism we shall be delivered into fire of critical tyranny.
Believing scholars seem, for the sake of their membership of the academy, to be willing to set aside their beliefs when they do their scholarly work. Thus N.T. Wright, in writing Jesus and the Victory of God, took account only of the Synoptic Gospels, because to include the Gospel of John would have led to his work being discredited and therefore ignored by many of his peers in the academy. As an ad hominem approach, that’s fine; but if a believing scholar persists in taking the line of the lowest common denominator all the time, then that’s hardly believing scholarship. It is, in fact, to rend asunder what God has joined together (the heart and the mind, if you like).
I was interested to read, in the autobiography of that noted evangelical scholar, F.F. Bruce, that he was relieved to find himself teaching in a secular institution rather than a confessional institution. That way, he could pursue his study without the constraints imposed by the latter. I can understand ‘where he is coming’ from on this one: the history of the ‘inerrancy’ debate in the US shows what pressure evangelical scholars can be placed under when they find themselves at loggerheads with the confessional stance of their employers. But, on balance, I think if would be better if biblical scholars practised their craft within the believing community than within the secular academy.
Earlier this year (2014) the prestigious Society for Biblical Literature launched their web site Bible Odyssey. This aims to present the findings of critical biblical scholarship to lay persons and others in an accessible way. Larry Hurtado says:
It’s good to see competent scholarship taking to the Internet increasingly, recognizing a responsibility for public dissemination of scholarly work.
It’s certainly an interesting and useful resource, and I shall consult it frequently. But I don’t understand how Hurtado can be so bland about it. As far as I can tell, the information on Bible Odyssey is skewed terribly by the fact that the contributors only ever seem to work within naturalistic interpretations of the biblical texts, whatever their personal beliefs might be. They are in the antecedents and precursors to the Biblical narratives, and to consider what theological point the biblical authors might have been wishing to make. To take the example of the Virgin Birth (actually, virginal conception) of Jesus: Joel Hoffman wants to show that Matthew used the LXX (Greek translation) of Isa 7:14, rather than the original Hebrew, because that would then give him what he needed – a ‘virgin’, rather than merely a ‘young woman’. Mary Foskett is keen to explain that ‘the virgin conception and Mary’s consent to the divine plan (Luke 1:38) speak as much to God’s concern for the downtrodden and the depth of Mary’s faith as they do to the miraculous nature of her pregnancy.’ Well, maybe. But N.T. Wright, who contributes a short article on the views of resurrection and the afterlife that were held by the Jews of Jesus’ day, doesn’t seem to have (yet) been asked to explain why he believes (as he certainly does believe) that God raised Jesus actually, physically, from the dead. Similarly, the various writers on the crucifixion of Jesus tell us, for example, what they think the Romans were up to, but not, (to put it bluntly) what they think God was up to.
J.I. Packer complains that
contemporary theological writers for the most part pursue the internal discussions of the guild, that is, of the class of professional teachers of theology in universities and seminaries, who as a body continuously debate different points of view on the historic beliefs of the church, with varying degrees of commitment to that heritage. In this world of sustained intellectual activity, as in all circles of academic exchange, breadth, balance, acuteness of statement, and dialogical solidity of argument are the values primarily sought, so that the bearing of particular positions on the life of the people of God becomes a secondary interest. (Keep in Step with the Spirit, 2005 ed., p12)
One important effect of tyrannical scholarship is that the biblical and theological literature of previous generations is devalued. The earlier critical efforts as viewed as outdated, and pre-critical writings as historical curiosities at best. I, for one, am not prepared to accept this state of affairs. To take the example of the commentary of Matthew Henry: one the one hand, his exegesis is remarkably sound (because he sticks so close to the ‘naturual’ meaning of the text), while on the other hand, his theological and practical inferences and observations are often much more insightful than any offered by modern interpreters. In fact, modern commentators often do not consider it their job to offer such theological and practical remarks. If ever they become too ‘preachy’, they are soon criticised by their reviewers. But to fail to bring out the doctrinal and pastoral meanings of the text is to deal with that text as if it were not the written word of God.