Book Review: Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism

Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism

Today’s book review is of an interesting collection of essays that have found their way into some of my own essays, plenty of conversations, and some of my own thinking. Edited by two Christophers: Hays, a Postdoctoral Fellow at Oxford, and Ansberry, Visiting Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College; this is, in the words of the first chapter, “a book about historical criticism. This is not a book about inerrancy“. This is a helpful distinction, and demonstrates from the get-go that this is a thoughtful and careful book. With endorsements from Daniel Block, Michael Bird and Mark Noll, my expectations were high as I sat down (initially in front of my somewhat-bemused hairdresser) to read this compact volume from SPCK.

A lot of the time, ‘evangelicals’ are something of a bogeyman, shunned by mainstream theological scholarship and society. This is the result of unfair caricatures, but there are often times when evangelical faith comes into conflict with so-called ‘higher criticism’. The history of evangelicalism is a fascinating one. This volume, then, contends that the poles identified by the authors as more conservative compared to more historically critical, and so this book is written for those who “stand somewhere between these two poles… most of all for such students, seminarians, pastors and scholars that we write this book“. There is a helpful potted summary of why this tension is extant, and how evangelical theologians can/should approach historical criticism.

It is beyond the scope of this review to examine in detail each of the essays, but my reading of them left me with a generally very positive impression. Particular highlights from my armchair include the previously quoted ‘Towards a Faithful Criticism’, the opening chapter from Christopher Hays. This was a stirring call to engagement, which sat well with the final chapter, ‘Faithful criticism and a critical faith’, authored by Hays and Ansberry together. The two chapters that were most personally helpful for me, however, were chapter 2, ‘Adam and the Fall’ by Hays, and chapter 6, ‘Pseudepigraphy and the canon’, by Edward W. Klink III and David Lincicum. The former aided my constantly evolving (mind the pun?) thinking on Adam and origins, whilst Klink/Lincicum’s chapter was a challenging and thought-provoking examination of some big issues. I enjoyed their conclusion;

historical criticism… clarify and enhance our understanding of the way in which God has chosen to condescend to speak through Scripture… Rather it redefines our understanding of the nature of Scripture, reorients our focus away from the human author’s work to God’s work and reinforces our trust in the Spirit’s activity through the production of Scripture“)

The remaining chapters of this 230ish page volume deal with ‘The exodus: fact, fiction or both?’, ‘No covenant before the exile? The Deuteronomic Torah and Israel’s covenant theology’, ‘Problems with prophecy’ (Old Testament prophetic literature foretelling things, not NT Gift, if you were wondering), ‘The historical Jesus’ and the penultimate chapter, ‘The Paul of Acts and the Paul of the epistles’. As  you can probably tell from that list, the overall breadth of the book is helpful, and each essay goes appropriately deep, with a range of suggestions for further reading.

Overall, then, this is a helpful book, and a worthy addition to the bookshelf of a theology student, seminarian/ordinand, or interested pastor. This is not a book for new Christians, or those who are not already reading more theologically, but it is a very helpful collection of essays on some key topics/questions in biblical criticism. Apart from the first and last chapters, which serve as bookends casting vision, each of these essays is not so much a final word, but rather a word or two serving to underline that there is not a final, damning verdict. This is living scholarship, and I look forward to reading more from the various authors and contributors as time permits!

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