In the last half of the 20th century, the church saw a consistent, sustained attack against the truthfulness and reliability of scriptural narratives. We do well to note that such attacks are nothing new. Jesuit attacks on the clarity of Scripture in the Counter-Reformation, the anti-supernaturalism of the Enlightenment, and the 19th-20th century evolutionary views of religion are all examples of how “higher criticism” has sought to undermine believing confidence in the biblical text. What is troubling about more recent attacks on the reliability of Scripture is that they have come from corners of the church which have traditionally defended plenary, verbal inspiration and the trustworthiness of God’s Word.
Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith is a collection of essays from Christian scholars who are committed to defending the reliability of the Bible (especially biblical narratives) from such “higher critical” attacks. In particular, the essays are aimed at responding to the sustained critique of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy offered by Kenton Sparks in his recent book God’s Words in Human Words. The stated purpose of the essays is “to offer thoughtful, substantive responses to questions raised by critical scholars, regardless of their theological orientation, rather than ad hominem retorts” (21).
The book is a collection of twenty-two essays, divided into four sections: 1) Biblical, Systematic, and Historical Theology; 2) The Old Testament and Issues of History, Authenticity, and Authority; 3) The New Testament and Issues of History, Authenticity, and Authority; and 4) The Old Testament and Archaeology. While each of the individual essays has its own strengths and weaknesses – and the appeal of any essay may vary from person to person based on their theological interests – I have chosen one essay from each of the four sections that were especially helpful in bolstering the defense of plenary, verbal inspiration.
The first essay (“Religious Epistemology, Theological Interpretation of Scripture, and Critical Biblical Scholarship: A Theologian’s Reflections”) is a fine piece addressing how a Christian scholar can – in good conscience – reject the general consensus of higher critical biblical scholarship. As the title suggest, the argument largely follows philosophical lines, exploring the differences between classical foundationalism, coherentism, and moderate foundationalism (35-38) and the important distinctions between internalism and externalism in epistemic virtues (38-40). The heart of the essay, though, illustrates the (often unspoken) philosophical assumptions of “higher critical” biblical scholarship. McCall argues that “higher critical” biblical scholarship “is (at least partially, perhaps mostly) operating upon distinctly philosophical scaffolding, but that there is reason to suspect that this very scaffolding is itself unstable” (52). The Christian scholar, convinced by the Holy Spirit in the infallibility of the scriptural text, does not need to “stretch or mash the evidence…in dubious ways. In the event that his arguments fail to convince other critical scholars, he can readily admit that as well – and again without feeling pressure…to give up a belief simply because he cannot show exactly how it is justified for him” (53).
In Part II, which focuses on Old Testament issues, Richard E. Averbeck provides an exemplary essay in which he refutes the “consensus views” of higher critical scholarship (cf. Essay 6 – “Pentateuchal Criticism and the Priestly Torah”). After briefly discussing the weakness of the historical-critical method (152-154) and the strength of the assumptions of “believing” scholarship (155-156), Averbeck provides some case studies which explore how the two approaches handle important texts from the books of Moses (159-177). In his conclusion, Averbeck encourages believing Christian scholars both to think critically without wavering from the conviction that “it is methodologically wise to take a more generous stance toward the reliability of the text and argue that the problem is with the scholar’s misunderstanding of the text, sometimes my own included, but not the text itself” (179).
The third major division of the book focuses on New Testament issues. While Robert Yarbrough’s essay (“God’s Word in Human Words”) is a particularly helpful response to Spark’s hermeneutic of suspicion, the most outstanding essay in this section is Eckhard Schnabel’s defense of the Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles (“Paul, Timothy, and Titus: The Assumption of a Pseudonymous Author and Pseudonymous Recipients in Light of Literary, Theological, and Historical Evidence”). The essay examines the proposed literary, theological, and historical arguments against Pauline authorship and provides convincing responses to each of them. In the latter part of the essay, Schnabel presents five arguments against pseudonymity in New Testament (especially Pauline) studies (398-403). He concludes his argument by asserting that “for scholars and Christians who accept the biblical writings as Scripture, the weight of tradition that includes the Pastoral Epistles in the New Testament canon seems to prevent the suggestion that these letters should be excluded on the basis of the assumption that the early church failed to see their pseudonymous character…as the evidence that has been surveyed demonstrates, there are good reasons to accept the Pauline authorship of these three letters” (403).
The fourth and final section of the book focuses on issues raised by archaeology. In his essay entitled “The Archaeology of David and Solomon,” Steven Ortiz helpfully lays out the problem faced by archaeologists seeking evidence to support the narrative texts of Scripture. He reminds us that “The reality is that the archaeological evidence for the period of the united monarchy is sparse, is often controversial, and provides ambiguous answers to those questions” (497). He effectively shows the limits of good archaeology (498) and asserts that believing scholars ought not expect archaeology to definitively settle controversial points of debate (515). However, the archaeological work being done today continues to contribute to the reliability and truthfulness of the biblical record (516).
The challenge to the authority and reliability of the Bible is one of the most important issues facing the contemporary church. This volume is an indispensable resource in providing a substantial, scholarly response to such challenges. The book’s intended audience is the scholarly theological community and is not an “easy read.” However, the time and effort invested in this collection of essays will be well rewarded. The volume is highly recommended!
James K. Hoffmeier (Ph.D. University of Toronto) is professor of Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern history and archaeology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
Dennis R. Magary (Ph.D. University of Wisconsin-Madison) is chair of the department and associate professor of Old Testament and Semitic languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith: A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture, Edited by James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012. 542 pages.