Scholarly approaches to biblical studies are often characterised as either critical or conservative. ‘Critical’ would be seen either as ‘progressive and open-minded’ or ‘radical and sceptical’, whereas ‘conservative’ would be viewed as either ‘faithful to the historic faith’ or ‘traditionalist and close-minded’, depending on the observer’s own point of view.
However, I think that to pitch ‘critical’ and ‘conservative’ as polar opposites is a mistake, because it sets up a false dichotomy.
The approach to be preferred, I think, is not ‘either critical or conservative‘, but ‘both critical and confessional‘. The relationship between the two – critical and confessional – would not be a polarised one, but rather a symbiotic one. The interpreter has have in one hand (as it were) all the legitimate tools of critical scholarship, and in the other hand his or her Christian creed. And the two would be in regular conversation with one another, each guiding, informing and (where necessary) correcting and refining the other. My critical faculties shape my belief, and my belief guides my interpretation.
To read the scriptures critically is to read them as a human documents. To read them confessionally is to recognise that they are the written word of God. To emphasise the Bible’s human aspects while neglecting its divine inspiration leads to the dead-end of thorough-going liberalism. To emphasis the Bible’s divine inspiration at the expense of its human aspects takes you into fundamentalism.
The Bible, then, is not merely a human word. Nor is it only a divine word. Nor is it half one and half the other. It is both human and divine. Combining the two is a challenging, but exciting and vitally important, task.
Some years ago, David A. Hubbard explained it this way:-
There is no necessary evangelical stance on a host of biblical questions. But there may be an evangelical mood—a set of attitudes that provides a framework for our scholarly efforts. First, we are disciples who happen to be scholars, not vice versa. Next, we labor first as members of Christ’s body and second as practitioners of a guild. Third, we are willing participants in a historical movement called evangelical, orthodox, and Bible-believing, among other rubrics. We toil as guardians of a heritage even as we strive for fresher and clearer insights into the texts we treasure.
But the tensions inherent in this ‘both/and’ approach can lead either to a capitulation to critical opinion or to a need to toe the party line. Hubbard reports that Ralph Martin, a colleague at Fuller Theological Seminary, had asked him, in the mid-seventies, to look at the manuscript of the second volume of his New Testament Foundations. Martin had taken the view that the Epistle to the Ephesians was written in the tradition of Paul, rather than by Paul himself. The question was (says Hubbard):-
did we at Fuller want to be first on the block to break with the conservative-evangelical consensus on this?
Martin, who ‘experienced measurable pain in those conversation’, agreed ‘to soften
somewhat his conclusions for publication’. In the event, he expressed those conclusions as follows:-
The Epistle to the Ephesians, in our understanding, adds considerably to our appreciation of Paul’s ministry since it represents and embodies not only the substance of the apostle’s missionary message, but the development and extension of that message to a new set of conditions. Ephesians, with its clearly discerned distinctive, adds a superstructure to the Pauline kerygmatic base.
That is all rather telling, in that it confirms that, at least in this instance, the published opinion of an evangelical scholar was ‘softened’ for reasons that had more to do with ‘not breaking ranks’ than with academic integrity.
If I were considering taking up some formal study the Bible and Christian theology, I would be looking for a course that taught the Bible and theology both critically and confessionally.