As a (moderately) good postmodern—and as a student of literature rather than of history—I have tended to avoid many of the problems raised by historical-criticism regarding the factual integrity and coherence of the Bible. The reason is that I think that the more interesting and more pressing problem for modern evangelicalism has to do not with whether the texts are demonstrably true as historical records but with what they are actually saying as historical records. To put it another way, it is not the factual distortions of the singular dogma of inerrancy that need to be corrected so much as the interpretive distortions of the multiple theological constructs that make up the evangelical belief system. What sort of story is actually being told here?
Still, I am greatly enjoying Kenton Sparks’ book God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship. His central argument is that evangelical scholarship has to face up honestly to the mostly well-grounded results of historical criticism, whether it likes it or not, because it may be paying a much higher price for its intellectual ambivalence, if not dishonesty, than it realizes.
Could it be that historical criticism—like the astronomy of Galileo—has been destructive not because it is false, but because the church has often misunderstood its implications? If so, then we may eventually have to face a tragic paradox: the church’s wholesale rejection of historical criticism has begotten the irreverent use of Scripture by skeptics, thus destroying the faith of some believers while keeping unbelievers away from the faith. If this is indeed what has happened and is happening, then nothing less is needed than the church’s careful reevaluation of its relationship to historical-critical readings of Scripture. (21)
The book is an excellent resource for any evangelical scholar trying to navigate a safe passage between the Scylla of fideistic anti-intellectualism and the Charybdis of secular scepticism—oh, and the other Charybdis of postmodern anti-realism. But it is an uncompromising book, and half-way through I am curious to know how he is going to formulate his promised practical realist solution to the serious challenge that historical criticism presents to evangelical confidence in scripture.
For now, I will take the opportunity to list, in slightly abbreviated form, the reasons Sparks gives for the agnostic rhetoric that evangelical scholars have a habit of falling back on when discussing historical critical findings relating, for example, to the authorship of the Pentateuch, Isaiah or Daniel or to the relationship between the Gospels. They pretty much speak for themselves.
First, it appears to me that many evangelical biblical scholars have not yet adequately synthesized their theological commitments with critical scholarship.
I would make this, rather than the fourth one, the most important reason. We have to keep reminding ourselves that the journey from slavery in the Egypt of modernity is a long one through a difficult intellectual wilderness—and who knows how far we still have to travel? Success will depend not only on how well we synthesize these separate academic tasks but also on our willingness to integrate theory and praxis, theology and discipleship—for which reason, though the connection may not be immediately apparent, I draw attention to Kester Brewin’s discomforting post “Crushed Testicles | Living in Theological Fear”).
Second, a number of conservative scholars, many of them ordained clergy, have pastoral hearts and so wish to shield their readers from disruptive, faith-testing bouts with cognitive dissonance.
A third reason for the rhetorical ambiguity of evangelical biblical scholarship is that evangelical scholars are often wedged uncomfortably between their desire to be good scholars and their desire to sell books to conservative readers.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, there are institutional issues at stake. Many evangelicals teach in conservative schools and colleges where the administrators and board members are very suspicious of modern biblical criticism, not only because it smacks of the old and destructive liberalism but also because it seems out of touch with their institution’s commitment to the authority of Scripture. (167-68)