Evangelical Scholars and the Limits of Historical Criticism

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by Neil Godfrey

Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 5.03.44 pmTwo evangelical scholars declare as an article of faith that historical criticism has a place in their study of the Bible:

The scholars in this volume believe that we should approach Scripture as a collection of historical texts. . . . As evangelicals, we believe that there needs to be space for an approach to Scripture that is historical critical. 

That credal statement comes from Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism by Christopher M. Hayes and Christopher B. Ansberry.

I really don’t quite know how to respond to a claim that historical critical analysis should be enshrined as a statement of belief. Where does one start?

The contradiction would be mitigated a little if the authors meant that the Bible’s books should themselves be approached as historical artefacts that required historical examination and explanation. How do the letters and gospels in the New Testament , for example, compare with other literature of the day? When do they first appear to be independently acknowledged in the historical record How can we best account for their contents and any “traditions” surrounding them?

But reading further it is very clear that what Hays and Ansberry really mean is that the stories found in those books are “believed” to be in some literal sense historically true:

This endeavour ought well to be historical, because we believe that God has chosen to reveal himself in history, to Abraham, to Israel, and ultimately through Jesus.

This leaves no room to question the fundamental core of the Bible’s stories of Abraham, Israel or Jesus. Yet a number of scholars without such faith constraints have indeed used historical critical tools to reject completely any truth underlying the stories of the patriarchs and to reshape the Biblical story of Israel beyond all recognition to anyone brought up on Bible stories.

It would appear then that historical criticism is only permissible if it serves to support the faith:

And this endeavour should be critical because, in the footsteps of the great Reformers, we do not want to confuse our human traditions with God’s own revelation. . . . 

In fact, refusing to engage in historical criticism at all can only have the effect of preparing the next generation for apostasy — or at least preparing them to leave evangelicalism. 

I’m not exactly sure what defines an “evangelical” but I do suspect that this is the approach of a good many biblical scholars. The difference with many is that they have a more liberal faith that does not require Jesus to have been born of a virgin, have performed miracles and have been literally (and physically) resurrected.

Theology always trumps historical criticism: 

It should be admitted that historical-critical inquiry does have its dark side, and one need not read long to amass many examples of a certain species of tiresome rhetoric among its adherents (e.g. language of the sort claiming that historical criticism at long last wakens its practitioners from their dogmatic slumber and frees the New Testament from the theological bondage to which it has been forcibly suppressed). One wonders if the cavalier confidence of such historical critics might not render them like the guards in the cover art on this volume. They are so certain that dead men do not rise that they snore at their posts. . . .

One reads in so many of the works of these “historians” the own “species of tiresome rhetoric” belittling the “philosophical outlooks” of those who deny the possibility of miracles and the very idea of God acting in history/

Modern rational thought must be kept within due constraints:

[M]ust historical criticism be viewed as an ideology whose demands are total? If we answer ‘yes’ . . . . then evangelicals should steadfastly refuse to practise it. If an ethics of belief will allow only those things that pass the bar of verifiable history, defined in Late Modern terms, then the ideologically determined historical method can permit nothing approaching an orthodox, much less evangelical, Christianity. . . . 

Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism testifies to just how all pervasive this very limited application of historical criticism is in the wider field of biblical studies. When the authors explain the various “extremes” of interpretations in the academy for, say, Jesus, they write:

Nevertheless, even many of those disposed to this naturalist world-view do not deny that Jesus was widely known as a doer of spectacular deeds. The biblical texts provide ample testimony to fact that people around Jesus believed that they had witnessed supernatural phenomena. Thus supernatural potency came to contribute to Jesus’ reputation even beyond the boundaries of his followers (e.g. Josephus, Ant. 18.63). 

And that’s about as far back as “historical criticism” generally does. The Bible says Jesus performed lots of miracles so even though we many not want to naively believe the literal details of each narrative we can substitute a fuzzy idea that somehow people who saw Jesus came to think he had supernatural powers.

The possibility that stories like these were tales made up and inspired by other well-known stories of mythical miracle workers is very rarely even raised as a question let alone seriously examined. Yet that would surely be one of the first questions any serious historian would ask.

A serious historian would also want to comment on a most remarkable fact about the way these miraculous stories are narrated in the gospels. What is most unusual in a work of ancient history or biography is that those miracle stories of Jesus are told as bald facts without any suggestion of an author expressing some sympathy to readers who have want to hear some additional reason to believe them. Such an unsympathetic presentation is most unlike the way other ancient historians occasionally broached a story of a miracle being performed by a historical person. Yet such a necessary historical-critical question is, to my knowledge, scarcely ever raised among works of biblical historians.

The gospels are assumed to be “historically true” to the extent that they depict Jesus as a miracle worker. And if historical criticism wishes to protest then it can take a back seat:

In other words, historical criticism is out of its methodological depth when evaluating the allegedly miraculous. 

Even biblical scholars who profess to be atheists or agnostics — like Casey, Crossley, Ehrman — are caught up in the same presuppositions.

Ansberry and Hays associate more “liberal Christian” scholars such as Robert Funk, the principle figure associated with the Jesus Seminar, among those who would “overthrow Christian dogma”:

A historical reconstruction of Jesus that is antagonistic to a theistic world-view can hardly produce a theologically relevant figure, except as an attempt to overthrow Christian dogma (one thinks of Lüdemann or Funk here.) 

That could hardly be plainer. The interest is not in historical criticism for its own sake. Historical criticism must be controlled and applied within strict limits in order to serve theological interests.

The main difference with most other scholars who are not “evangelicals”, I suspect, is that the latter have either a more liberal theological agenda (and hence allow a slightly larger play-pen for historical criticism) or they have no theological agenda but they do have academic interests that must work within the models and rules set down by discipline overwhelmingly dominated by various shades of belief.



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Neil Godfrey

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17 thoughts on “Evangelical Scholars and the Limits of Historical Criticism”

  1. There is a position (stated here all too briefly) which requires comment: It is “theoretically” conceivable that God exists, that Jesus existed, that God used Jesus as a special prophet, and that supernatural acts so identified him. Are the historical data available sufficiently convincing to verify these last two or three “hypothetical” assumptions? The NT apologists in my view have scored a few hits, especially against some outlandish mythicist alternatives, but they have not come close to a positive proof of their position. The “evidence that demands a verdict” is not what they want.

    1. “It is “theoretically” conceivable ..” is true of any possible figment of human imagination and therefore has zero rational credibility as a starting point.
      It’s akin to ‘possibly equals probably”.

      1. “Figments” of “imagination” actually vary widely in probability. The concept e.g. that the cosmos depends on a Self-existent supreme being is likelier than the notion e.g that the world stands on a tortoise. I do not have to agree with NT-apologist William Lane Craig that “most philosophers” agree with him that if it is “at least possible that God exists” then it follows “logically” that he does exist, but philosophical arguments for God are in a different category from simple superstitions about Ganesha or Ganymede; see e.g. Robert J. Spitzer, “New Proofs for the Existence of God” (2010) pp.13-225.

        Does a rational, unprejudiced, well-informed historical inquiry into the credibility of the canonical gospels lead to the conclusion that they are (1) reliably factual accounts and (2) support a conclusion that “God” was actually “at work” in Jesus; I do not think so.

        A young student friend shrewdly remarked that arguments about the existence of God are like arguments about the existence of the North Pole: they sound plausible but the North Pole takes no apparent interest in them itself. Of course, one can visit the North Pole, but “the Lord” has never “come into my life” and a Baptist acquaintance tells me that he fears on that account that I may have been predestined before conception to endless torture in hell!

        1. “The concept e.g. that the cosmos depends on a Self-existent supreme being is likelier than the notion e.g that the world stands on a tortoise.”

          I am going to take issue with this. The idea that the world stands on a tortoise is improbable because of a large data base of information we have about the cosmos. The term “supreme being” lacks the clarity needed to build a sound hypothesis and the phrase “Self-existent” lacks any data base whatsoever. So what we have, I think, is clear evidence that the tortoise idea is very improbable (unlikely) whereas the supreme being idea, as defined or notated, is without an effective data base upon which to make any probabilistic, likely hood claims. It’s not by chance that theology spends most of its time developing deductive arguments. All we can really say so far concerning your defined being is that it is not probabilistically disproved like the tortoise and that it might have plausibility when and if we can define it clearly.

          We tend to use ‘likely’, ‘probably’ and other similar words loosely to refer not only to probabilistic outcomes but also to deductive and intuitive outcomes. This can lead to the category mixing that I think is taking place in the sentence highlighted.

          1. The “category mixture” is simply a result of compression which in turn is an attempt to avoid the boredom of over-lengthy arguments in what used to be called “natural theology”. On defining the difference between “contingent” and “self-existent” being I can only refer readers here to well-known theistic philosophers. Come back if however this reply is considered inadequate.

            1. Of course it’s inadequate – you’ve just brought up a problem, received an answer, and then hand-waved the answer away as insufficient by telling people to go read some books without even providing the authors you’re thinking of, let alone the titles.

              My PhD advisor would have tossed me out of his office if I’d hand-waved a response like that in a one-on-one meeting with him, let alone if I’d done it in a public forum. There’s a category mixture problem here – you’ve juxtaposed a provable claim that can be verified or falsified with data (world on the back of a tortoise) with an unprovable one that cannot be verified or falsified (cosmos “depends” on a “supreme being”). You also have not defined your terms “supreme being” or “depends” (or for that matter “cosmos”, “tortoise” or “world” – but at least for those we have real world observable phenomenon that we can all agree represent “tortoise”, “world” and “cosmos” – we have no such thing for “supreme being” or how the cosmos “depends” on such a thing).

              1. Do I detect an unnecessarily unpleasant ad hominem undertone in your comment?

                If this thread was principally concerned with the question of the possible existence of “God”, rather than the historicity of miracle accounts in the NT, then I might have written at greater length. Your PhD adviser could have provided a reading list on the case for and against the coherence of the concept of “God”, theism and “metaphysics”, and your curiosity to read widely different viewpoints might already have led you to some of them. I already mentioned Spitzer, but if a bibliography is appropriately demanded here, then I shall be happy to provide one.

            2. Thanks for the response. I enjoy reading your posts.

              “On defining the difference between “contingent” and “self-existent” being I can only refer readers here to well-known theistic philosophers.”

              This is not the issue that I raised. I understand the deductive application that revolves around contingency in theology. What I am challenging is where one can find a data base for making a ‘self-existence’ claim so that one can therefore refer to it in likely hood (probabilistic) terms as one can (negatively do) with a tortoise carrying the world on its back.

              p1 It was claimed that the earth sat on the back of a tortoise;
              p2 That claim is unlikely by way of evidence;
              p3 A claim is made for a more likely “self-existent” being;
              p4 No evidence is presented for this claim;
              Therefore, the claim for a “self-existent” being is not (yet) established from the category that dismisses the tortoise claim.

              Bringing the discussion back to historical issues, Ehrman, early in his recent book on historicity stated that one of the criterions, I think it was embarrassment, made a certain idea “more likely”. He did this without referencing an historically verifiable, evidential data base for the criterion. One cannot simply drop probabilistic language into a deductive claim. There needs to be a data base for likely hood claims to gain purchase or to reside within a syllogism. This muddled categorizing in biblical studies represents a significant factor in the less reliable product coming out of the process when compared to Classical studies.

              1. I appreciate the fine point you make and your efforts in laboring it. Just for the record, my mention of Prof. Craig (who “defines God” as a “transcendent being”) refers to his article “Does God Exist?”, in “Philosophy Now”, Nov/Dec 2013.

  2. Historical criticsm is ultimately rationalism and rationalism seeks to explain [defeat] mythology and even demythology , a process that it started , in effect over two hundred years ago … when will such authors learn?

    1. It probably is. I am Australian with a strongly British-influenced primary school curriculum behind me but since 1981 with the publication of our Macquarie Dictionary I think Australians have been allowed to spell it either way.

  3. I’m reminded of the famous line: “Philosophy is the handmaid of religion” — which I used to think came from St. Thomas Aquinas, but now I see that it first appears in the work of Philo of Alexandria.

    Similarly, history must be kept subordinate to faith. It’s merely a tool in service to Jesus.

  4. “. . . historical criticism is out of its methodological depth when evaluating the allegedly miraculous.”

    So, if somebody today claimed to have witnessed a miracle, would scientific forensic analysis be “out of its methodological depth”? What is the proper way to evaluate such claims?

    1. I think they are privileging their “spirituality” of course. And in a very haughty, proud, vain way. Asserting it is above all other understandings. Or here, “methodologies.”

    2. I appreciate the point, since unexplained anomalies are not ipso facto divine interventions in the world, and I am not impressed by Licona’s treatment of Hume and others in his book on the Resurrection. But I would expect serious critical atheist scholarship to attempt to produce responsible, carefully argued and well documented explanations of NT origins superior in “power and scope” to theistic accounts.

  5. It sounds like the editors are coming from a Southern Baptist perspective, which teaches that the Grammatical-Historical Method is the only “correct” way of analyzing the Bible. In the Baptists’ view, the Historical-Critical Method is illegitimate. So the editors are trying to argue that you can use the latter while still keeping “the faith.”

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