Reviews of

Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism

In Christopher B. ANSBERRY, Christopher M. HAYS, Historical Criticism, SPCK, Steve Walton on October 8, 2013 at 5:27 pm


2013.10.19 | Christopher M. Hays & Christopher B. Ansberry (eds.). Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism. London: SPCK, 2013. xiv + 241 pages (PB). ISBN 9780281067329.

Review by Professor Steve Walton, Tyndale House, Cambridge.

Many thanks to SPCK for providing a review copy.

This book stems from recent debate, especially in the USA, about whether and how evangelical Christians may engage with historical-critical study of the Bible. To a British eye, the debate looks a little dated, for such questions have long been considered, and largely resolved, in the UK (one thinks, for example, of the valuable 1977 volume edited by Howard Marshall, New Testament Interpretation). Since the growth of the Tyndale Fellowship and Tyndale House’s work in the 1950s to 1970s, British evangelicals generally do not have the same suspicion of historical-critical scholarship of the Bible as there appears to be in some circles in the USA. The sad recent experiences of such as Peter Enns, Chris Keith and Antony Le Donne, in losing posts because of suspicion that their historical judgements imperilled evangelical beliefs,1 form a key context for this book, written by younger American evangelical scholars. Quite a number of the authors have studied for their PhDs in the UK, notably at St Andrews, and this may mean they have imbibed some of the British approaches to historical criticism.

What is new in this volume is the deliberate attempt to engage with specific historical judgements concerning the Bible, and doing this in the context of the recent movement towards theological reading of Scripture. Many of these scholars use a ‘rule of faith’ (such as the ecumentical creeds) which determines the boundaries of valid Christian interpretation of the Bible, and see this as opening up a space within which to do historical scholarship without fear of its consquences.

The shape of the book is that, after Christopher Hays sets the scene (ch. 1), the core essays (chs 2–8) engage with key historical questions where mainstream historical critics have come to conclusions at variance with those traditionally held by evangelical (and, one might add, most other orthodox) Christians. These essays range across both Testaments and approach each question by sketching the views of historical critics on the issue (which sometimes vary considerably among themselves), and then asking how far these views are compatible with an orthodox Christian faith. Recognising what the authors are attempting to do is important, for they are not necessarily endorsing the views they expound in their survey of historical approaches to each question: the focus of their discussion is in the second part of each chapter. The final essay (ch. 9) seeks to consider what a ‘faithful criticism’ and a ‘critical faith’ might look like in twenty-first century scholarship.

First, Christopher Hays sketches the core concerns of the book (ch. 1). The authors aim to engage with traditional themes of Christian (specifically, evangelical protestant) theology from the perspective of historical criticism; that is, what would be the consequences for Christian theology if the historical critics are right? Hays then outlines the contents of book helpfully.

Hays and Herring then engage with historicity of Adam (ch. 2), and note that modern scientific research inclines most OT scholars today to think that there was not a first couple who sinned (originating sin), and whose sin led to concupiscence (original guilt). They discuss the key New Testament passage, Romans 5:12-21, and assess it as showing that human sin results from human choice (v 12) and thus that originating sin or guilt is not necessary. They argue that vv 18-19, which parallel Adam and Christ, should be understood through the lens of v 12—that is, they observe that vv 18-19 say that sin spread to everyone, but those verses do not say how sin spread; v 12 explains the means by which sin spread: because everyone sinned. They thus argue that it is not necessary to conclude that original guilt is the cause of human sin. They go on to show the crucial role of Augustine in interpreting this debate, and argue that his grounds for believing in original guilt are not accepted today, and so his development of original guilt should be rejected. They propose that James 1 offers a better account of concupiscence which does not depend on original guilt being transmitted from parents to children.

Next, Ansberry considers the exodus (ch. 3), and sketches maximalist and minimalist views of its historicity, ranging from the view that it happened as narrated in Exodus (particularly as argued by the Egyptologist James Hoffmeier) to the belief that the exodus is entirely fictional, invented later to provide justification for Israel’s self-understanding as the people of God (particuarly citing Nils Peter Lemche). His sympathies clearly lie at the maximalist end of the spectrum, but he is keen to stress that history necessarily involves interpretation and selectivity—and thus the point made by Lemche and others, that the exodus has an identity-forming role for Israel, is valid and important. Ansberry concludes that some form of exodus is required for Christian faith to be credible, and urges evangelicals to get involved in the historical discussion.

Ansberry and Hwang go on to reflect on the place of Deuteronomy (ch. 4), comparing various approaches to the provenance of the Deuteronomic Torah, as to whether it pre-dates Hezekiah’s time and (if so) by how much it pre-dates that period. Various proposals concerning the compositional history of Deuteronomy flow from these views. They then focus on the theological implications of the historical location(s) proposed for the Deuteronomic Torah. Here, their key claim is that ‘authorship’ in the ancient world is more about the authority of the material than its origin. The linguistic evidence is that Deuteronomy is in Classical Biblical Hebrew, not the Early Biblical Hebrew which would be required if it originated entirely in the Mosaic period: thus the material has been contextualised for later periods of Israelite history. There is a nice discussion of 2 Kings 17 as an example of this contextualisation process at work. Thus Deuteronomy itself, and its wider influence in the OT, shows the concern to continue to hear the Mosiac voice in different periods of history.

Warhurst, Tarrer and Hays address prophecy (ch. 5), focusing on apparent failures of prophecy, and vaticinia ex eventu (prophecies after the event). They argue that the biblical text (and some ancient Near Eastern parallels) should determine how prophecy is understood, not as a one-to-one correspondence between prophetic word and fulfilling event, but more dynamically. Jonah is a key example, oft cited elsewhere, to show that a prophet’s announcement of coming judgement is not deterministic—for in Nineveh, the people responded in repentance to Jonah’s announcement of yhwh’s coming judgement, and the coming disaster was averted. This allows the authors to argue that 2 Peter accounts for an apparent delay of Jesus’ return because of (the lack of sufficient) human response of repentance. Thus, they claim, the expectation of the second coming is secure.

Bridging the two Testaments, Ansberry, Strine, Klink and Lincicum consider pseudepigraphy (ch. 6), working through four examples: the Pentateuch, Isaiah, John’s Gospel, and the Pauline letters. In each case, they (very briefly!) lay out the reasons critical scholarship considers there to be pseudepigraphy in these books, and reflect on what this means for how evangelical scholars see Scripture. Their key issue is that if pseudepigraphy exists in the ancient world and in the Bible, then authorship is clearly not as important as it is in today’s world (with our stress on individual intellectual property rights, copyright, and the like). For ancients, authority lay in community tradition, and associating the Pentateuch with Moses was a claim to authority, not necessrily a claim to authorship. On the Pauline letters they are least satisfactory: they ask the question what it would imply that pseudepigraphy (which they acknowledge was considered deceptive in New Testament times) was used in documents which are now regarded as inspired Scripture, but do not provide any real answer.

Moving in the New Testament, Daling and Hays consider the historical Jesus (ch. 7). They focus on four ‘flashpoints’ in debate: Jesus’ self-presentation; miracles; the virginal conception of Jesus (mis-named, as often, as the ‘virgin birth’); and the resurrection of Jesus. This chapter feels like an exercise in ‘How much can I strip down a car engine and it will still work?’, in which the authors consider which views (from among the spectrum which they sketch on each issue) is compatible with orthodox Christian Christology. The resurrection is, for them, the sticking point; other points seem more negotiable.

Finally, Kuecker and Liebengood discuss the portrait of Paul in Acts and the epistles (ch. 8). They sketch key tensions that have been observed between the way Paul is portrayed in the two sources, focusing on chronology (which visit to Jerusalem in Acts corresponds to the visit in Gal 2:1-10?), and theology (what about apparent variations between the ‘two Pauls’ in their understanding?). On chronology, they consider the two main solutions to the Acts-Galatians issue (Acts 11:27-30 = Galatians 2:1-10; and Acts 15 = Galatians 2:1-10), arguing that neither imperils any item of the creeds. This is a place where the appeal to a ‘rule of faith’ as determining whether a view is acceptable or not becomes explicit. On theology, they sketch the influential position of Vielhauer (who argues that the Paul of Acts is significantly at variance from the theology of the Paul of the [undisputed] letters), and those of Borgen (who sees greater theological compatibility between the ‘two Paul’s) and Childs (although here they do not really spell out how Childs’ view cashes out in relation to Paul in Acts and epistles). They then identify a series of key issues in engaging with interpreting the texts that are significant for this discussion. They only hint that the (rather hyper-Lutheran) view of Paul assumed in the classic discussions of Vilehauer and Borgen is now regarded as passé in the light of the debates around the so-called ‘new perspective’ on Paul (whichever view one takes of the ‘new perspective’), which locates Paul more securely in first-century Judaism. Disappointingly, they do not suggest how this might re-shape this discussion—although, in fairness, this is a task not widely attempted by others either (there is a PhD or two to be done here!).

In the last essay (ch. 9), the editors seek to pull the threads of the discussion together by identifying what has been learned, and what the key features of a faithful criticism and a critical faith should be. They rightly argue that historical criticism is unavoidable for Christian faith, for Christians appeal to God’s intervention in history, not least in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus—to appeal to particular events necessarily entails historical investigation. An interesting feature of this essay is that the approach proposed would locate evangelical scholarship within the mainstream of Christian scholarship, rather than driving it away into a ghetto (which has, alas, been the case at some times and in some places). The appeal to a ‘rule of faith’ here is a significant foundation for the argument: the ecumenical creeds become the measure of what counts as faithful criticism. I was also delighted to see, after all the (properly) intellectual grappling going on in the core chapters of the book, a stress on devotional engagement with God and the church as a key feature of Christian scholarship (pp. 218-20). This is a helpful essay which engages well with the issues, and would be a great help to a theological student grappling with historical critical study of the Bible.

The appeal to a ‘rule of faith’ throughout this book reflects recent discussion on theological interpretation of Scripture. While this has potential to help in the issues which form the focus of this book, proper critical thought, and a secure evangelical stance under the authority of God through the Bible, imply that such formulations are in principle open to critique by Scripture. Anglicans will quickly think of Article XXI on General Councils, ‘they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.’

For example, N. T. Wright (in How God Became King, London: SPCK, 2012) has recently drawn attention to the ‘hole’ in the creeds concerning the life and ministry of Jesus, and suggested that this leads to a neglect of the message of the four Gospels, treating them purely as the ‘back story’ of the One who is now the Lord of glory. Wright proposes a revised creed in the light of his work on the Gospels: how might the authors of this collection of essays regard that suggestion? Do they see the creeds as immutable? This is a topic which will require further discussion.

Overall, this is a valuable book for evangelical students and scholars to read. It does not shy away from the central issues raised by historical criticism, but faces them squarely, and considers how far mainstream critical views are compatible with an evangelical Christian faith. It offers some very helpful avenues for reflection and models of how to think faithfully and critically about the issues, without giving up on either angle.

1 See, e.g., the helpful discussion in a series of blog posts by David Williams, ‘Why You Must be Dying to be a Christian Scholar’ (accessed 1 October 2013), here, here, and here.

Professor Steve Walton
Tyndale House, Cambridge
steve.walton [ at ]

  1. […] Walton, professor at Tyndale House Cambridge, has a good summary and review of Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism by Hays and […]

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