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Sawing off the branch?

25 October 2013

Peter Forster looks at Evangelical ideas in the scholars' light

Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism
Christopher M. Hays and Christopher B. Ansberry, editors
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THE growth of the Evangelical movement in the past half-century has posed interesting challenges for those Evangelicals who wish to participate in mainstream academic theology. This collection of articles asks whether Evangelical scholarship can embrace modern historical criticism without compromising the doctrinal beliefs that are central to Evangelicalism.

The authors draw an interesting parallel with the conflicts when, before the Second Vatican Council, the traditional church authorities conducted a lengthy war with what was regarded as "modernism". They wish to see Evangelical scholarship move beyond the similarly rather polarising caricatures that have often dogged debate, to something akin to the more creative encounters in recent Catholic experience.

Traditional disputes over biblical inerrancy are sidelined in favour of a series of case studies. There is a particularly good treatment of the Adam/Eve narratives in Genesis 2-3. The consensus of critical scholarship regards these narratives as mytho-poetic, whereas Evangelicalism (drawing inspiration from Augustine) has laid great weight upon their historicity, and the passing of Adam's sin - and guilt - down subsequent generations.

The resolution offered here is to recognise that the narratives them selves do not actually support the idea of inherited guilt, the source of all human sin being found in the free and responsible acts of individual people. Adam is everyone; everyone is Adam. The thrust of Genesis 2-3 is to demonstrate the basic character of humanity's relationship with God, and this does not require a belief that an individual person, Adam, ever created the ontological source of human guilt.

Thus relieved of such a responsibility, Genesis 2-3 is able to enhance the traditional Evangelical emphasis upon individual responsibility for sin. In this instance, historico-critical research actually strengthens an important tenet of Evangel-icalism.

Chapters on the Exodus, and broader Deuteronomic history argue that an exodus from Egypt did happen, and that a reasonably consistent "Mosaic" voice can be discerned in the first five books of the Bible. Beyond that, the authors are content to accept that a great deal of imaginative re-telling of the stories took place before the books assumed their current form. To argue about the historicity of a passage tends to miss the point. It matters more that the voice of Moses continues to speak dynamically through the Judaic tradition, even hundreds of years later. It is authority, not authorship as such, that is the mark of authenticity.

The chapters on the New Testament are more tentative, where certain aspects of the historicity of the texts are understandably regarded as more crucial. At this point, longer treatments - of, for example, the Virgin birth or the empty tomb - are required, which go beyond the sphere of historical criticism as such.

Overall, the authors believe that from a more honest engagement with historical criticism a more authentic picture will emerge of how God has chosen to reveal himself; but, they suggest, all historical judgements can only ever be a buttress, rather than a pillar, for Christian faith. This leaves open the question: where are the actual pillars to be found? At this point, the nature of the authors' appeal to the development of tradition becomes crucial.

Dr Peter Forster is the Bishop of Chester.

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