Thursday, July 30, 2009

1 Faith, Evidence, and Biblical Scholarship

The potential beginning of this possible booklet is coming into view. Here's my thought for the first section. Drafts of subsequent sections include...

2. Biblical Hermeneutics
3. The Old Testament Canon
4. Genres in the Pentateuch
5. Critical Issues in the Pentateuch
6. Critical Issues in the Historical Books
7. The Poetic Sub-Genre
8. Critical Issues in the Psalms
9. Critical Issues in Wisdom Literature
10. Critical Issues in Isaiah
11. Critical Issues in the Other Prophets 1
12. Critical Issues in the Other Prophets 2
The issues of this booklet have been the source of great controversy in the past. Interestingly, the controversy has died down quite a bit these last thirty years or so, even in evangelical circles. The focus among evangelicals turned much more to soul winning and growing the church in the eighties and nineties. Then this decade has seen a resurgence of interest in serving the world, ministering to the poor and needy worldwide.

To many of our youth, perhaps even our pastors, these issues may seem very foreign, things they've never heard about. In some ways, they seem so tangent to doing the work of the ministry. I personally find them largely tangential to hearing God speak through the Bible. It seems to me a minister should have heard of them, but should not spend too much time worrying about them. In those instances where these issues have come up, young ministry students often say things like, "Who cares who the author was--the message is true."

Hiatuses of this sort provide rare opportunities for reflection and potential reassessment. Was the fervor and zeal of past evangelicals warranted? If it was for its time, is it still warranted? Why did they respond so vigorously? What was going on historically and sociologically at the time? A few decades can potentially bring a clarity those in the middle of battle did not have at the time.

On the other hand, of late we have also seen a revived defense of traditional evangelical concerns in some circles as well. While evangelicalism was busy growing the church, some of its children went to seminary and got doctorates in a context where they were not as pressured to come to a particular conclusion on these issues. In the context of that freedom, some of them found ways to reconcile their faith with certain elements of broader biblical scholarship. Some traditional evangelicals have suddenly found scholars in their midst who are evangelicals but who do not draw as rigid boundaries as were sacrosant in some circles at one time.

My goal in this booklet, in addition to making sure ministers have at least heard of these issues, is to try to find a middle way of faith that respects both what the late Robert Webber called "traditional" and what he called "younger" evangelicals (The Younger Evangelicals 2002). Obviously there are many younger evangelicals with traditional views and there are older evangelicals who hold broader views than some of their contemporaries. Indeed, it is clear that these categories are biased toward the younger evangelicals, one of which I would consider myself.

But my goal is not to try to convert either "traditional" or "younger" evangelicals to a particular position on specific issues. The middle way I seek is not a particular position on these issues but a general attitude toward them in relation to faith. First, I am urging honesty in relation to the evidence. Most of us, including myself, usually think we are more objective than we actually are. Objectivity is often best found in the conflict of opposing views. Although the internet age has made it more and more difficult, it has often been easy enough for "conservative" and "liberal" alike to surround themselves with those who agree with some supposed party line. Objectivity is difficult to find in such enclaves.

Whatever we might disagree with in postmodern trends, the overall climate has drawn our attention to the fundamental role faith inevitably plays in our understanding of reality. X does not always mark the spot. In a world where we admit the evidence is less conclusive than the previous age assumed, we realize it is not irrational to take a faith position even when the evidence does not currently seem in our favor.

This situation potentially gives us great freedom. We do not need to skew the evidence in order to take a position that is more possible than probable. Although others may disagree, I have long felt that scholars of both conservative and liberal stripe sometimes confuse what it is possible to argue for and what is a more probable reading of the evidence. In a postmodern age, we can be up front about our presuppositions and need not pretend that the evidence is always in favor of the positions we take.

An even more important development in twentieth century thinking is the realization that, regardless of the origins and history of a text, meaning is ultimately a function of a person hearing or reading it. If we reflect on this phenomenon a while, it may eventually transform our perspective on these sorts of issues. Why has scholarship these last two centuries, both conservative and liberal alike, spent so much time arguing over meanings the text had in the past when in order for it to be God's word today, it must have an inspired meaning today?

What a tremendous irony! Certainly Christianity will not have much credibility if it claims the Bible was not also God's word in the past. New religions that claim to have timeless truth but that only started a few years ago have never been very credible. But it seems peculiar that we have expended so much time and energy questing after meanings of the past when we need a word from God today.

So we hope in the next few pages to cover some of the basic issues that have been raised these last two centuries in biblical scholarship. We believe a minister should at least be aware that they exist. We wish to respect those who take varied positions on them, while trying to be as honest as we can be about the way the issue seems to lie evidentially. We presuppose Christian faith, but do not insist that faith necessarily requires a specific position on every issue.

Again, we believe that what is important to hear the books of the Bible as Christian Scripture is to read them with Christian eyes. It is not necessarily to read them in their original meanings, although these meanings were also surely God's speakings to ancient peoples and situations too. It is thus Isaiah read through Christian eyes, assisted by the Holy Spirit, that is God's word for us today. The process by which Isaiah reached its current form, whatever it was, was surely filled with inspiration as well, perhaps with God speaking to more than one ancient individual along the way. But coming to a firm conclusion on these sorts of issues will not necessarily help us hear God's word in this text.

And so it is with a spirit of faith that we proceed through these issues. These sorts of issues have been called "critical" issues in the past. No doubt some in the past used this term to suggest that other scholarship was uncritical, that is, not objective. The historical critical method was thus promoted as an approach that was really interested in the truth, as opposed to those who disagreed. That sort of hostile bias was no doubt part of the reason fundamentalists and evangelicals fought so vehemently against such claims that very often were hostile to faith. As we said earlier, we hope that the current climate and hiatus from such battles might make it possible for us to be critical thinkers about these issues and full of faith, regardless of our specific conclusions.

1 comment:

CD-Host said...

I'm of the opinion we are between waves. The late 19th-early 20th century skeptical wave was a move to recontextualize the gospels in their historic context. Was Jesus the messiah what does it mean to be the messiah? A message of political and social revolution.

What never made it into liberal Christianity though was trying to put Christianity fully in its religious context. For example how much can we translate the bible using ideas not from other books of the bible but from middle platonic, neoplatonic, stoic, hellenistic jewish... books?

I think within a generation that is going to be the big struggle.