Evangelicals, historical criticism and the second coming

One of the most encouraging developments in evangelical thought in recent years has been the willingness of scholars to engage with scientific and historical criticism. I have recommended the work of Kenton Sparks and Peter Enns before. [amazon:978-0801049385:inline], edited by Christopher Hays and Christopher Ansberry, is very much in the same vein. It serves as a good introduction to a number of critical debates. Did Adam and Eve exist? Did the exodus really happen? Did Israel’s covenant theology predate the exile? Did the prophets always predict the future accurately? Does the phenomenon of pseudepigraphy compromise the canon? Is the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospels historically reliable? And is the Paul of Acts compatible with the Paul of the Letters?

The aim of the book is to show that historical criticism can be done honestly and critically by evangelicals without jeopardizing the fundamental tenets of a Christian confession. The argument in most of the chapters is that even if, in any instance, we were to accept—let’s say hypothetically—the findings of historical criticism, the basic theological truth at issue remains pretty much intact. Not surprisingly, there is less willingness to entertain the hypothetical possibilities when it comes to the virgin birth or the resurrection of Jesus.

[pullquote]The book walks along the wall dividing history and theology in something of a hurry and inevitably slips off one side or the other from time to time.[/pullquote] The most striking inconsistency that I noticed comes in the chapter on prophecy by Amber Warhurst, Seth B. Tarrer and Christopher M. Hays.

The authors deal candidly with the main critical difficulties with biblical prophecy: on the one hand, the undeniable failure of some predictive prophecies written before the event; on the other, the contrived “success” of some prophecies written after the event—technically known as vaticinium ex eventu, the classic example being Daniel’s prophecies regarding Antiochus Epiphanes. They also discuss prophecies which have been subjected to secondary redaction “to reflect new theological perspectives or changes in historical circumstances” or which have been “appropriated by later communities as on-going possibilities for their future” (98-99).

They suggest a number of ways in which historical criticism can lead to a better understanding of biblical prophecy. Prophecy cannot be held accountable to “rationalistic conceptions of language, time and causal relationships”: it shares in the complexity and contingency of history; it is not an exact science. “Prophecy is an organic, creative word moving toward an ultimate goal rather than a static pronouncement with only a single, narrowly defined means of fulfilment”. Likewise, the fulfilment of prophecy should be understood “as a broader process of the ‘filling up’ of God’s redemptive goal” (100-101). In other words, we have to allow a margin of error. Prophetic language is imprecise, figurative, suggestive. Understanding prophecy in deterministic terms “does not adequately account for human free agency, historical contingencies, and God’s freedom” (102). Vaticinium ex eventu is accommodated in the frame of a historical understanding of the place of apocalyptic literature in the canon. What’s more…

…the reconstrual of Daniel in the light of vaticinium ex eventu actually aids our hope in the truthfulness of Scripture, insofar as it relieves Daniel of the responsibility to foretell events accurately, a responsibility which is entailed by modernist suppositions about prophecy as a primarily predictive activity. (112)

That is, if we accept that Daniel 7-12 is mostly prophecy after the event, we have to lower, or at least modify, our standards of truthfulness, which means that prophecy after the event is no longer a problem, which is a circular argument if ever I saw one…. But never mind, the discussion is mostly bold and illuminating.

The real problem arises when it comes to dealing with the central Christian dogmatic assumption about New Testament prophecy. The book has attempted to offer “a contextual and historically aware description of the way in which ancient prophecy purported to function” (113). But how does this help us sustain “our own future hope for the return of Jesus and the consummation of the kingdom of God” (113)?

The authors point out that the scriptures “appear to evince a pattern of promising a climactic future vindication of the people of God, and then later admitting quietly that things did not work out precisely as anticipated” (113). “Jesus promised that his Second Coming in judgement would take place by the end of his contemporaries’ lifetimes” (117). That should be seriously embarrassing for evangelicals.

The solution that Warhurst, Tarrer and Hays come up with—on the basis of 2 Peter 3:8-9—is that fulfilment is deferred because “the repentance of humanity was insufficiently robust”. “In short: the deferral of the fulfilment of prophecy says less about the truthfulness of God than it does about the fidelity of humans” (123). This looks to me like dogmatic special pleading. How does waiting longer than a generation enable all to come to repentance? Peter’s statement assumes more or less the same time-frame as Jesus.

The obvious solution to the problem is the historical one—and it’s extraordinary, given the preceding discussion, that the authors don’t even consider it. When Jesus talked about coming on the clouds of heaven, or coming as judge to vindicate his followers, or the coming of the kingdom of God, when the wicked tenants would be put to a miserable death and the vineyard of his people let out to other tenants who would give him the fruits (cf. Matt. 21:39-41), all within a generation, he had in mind the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and the reconstitution of Israel around himself. Ah, but there are dogmatic problems with that line of thought….

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Thanks for this really interesting review which has persuaded me to buy the book in question!

Isn’t it fair to say (as many Evangelical scholars are now pointing out) that dogma is always behind all historical analysis? If dogma is seen as the presuppositional framework which needs to be in place in order for us to be competent to read a text, then surely one cannot avoid bringing such a dogmatic framework to the reading of a text? This is merely another way of saying that there is no “objective” presuppositionless meaning to any text?

So in reality the question is not “how do we avoid letting our dogma affect our interpretation” but rather “how do we ensure we have the right dogma to interpret well” ? 

Barney, I’m a little puzzled by your identification of “dogma” with “presuppositional framework”. The Oxford Dictionary of English defines “dogma” as “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true”. You don’t lay down presuppositions—they are already there. Surely a religious text is interpreted on the basis of presuppositions, and then an authority derives dogmas from that reading, which it lays down as incontrovertibly true.

These dogmas then become the presuppositions for subsequent readings of the text within the tradition, but historically they remain interpretive outcomes rather than starting points. The aim of a historical hermeneutic would be to establish the presuppositions of the community that originally produced and read the text. Those presuppositions, I would have thought, are clearly different from the conclusions reached by later interpreters.

Andrew, thanks for replying. You make a good point about the difference between dogma and presupposition. But you’re also right that there’s a fluid relationship between the two. Often what starts as a presupposition, when challenged, is examined and may become dogma as a result. I think this is what happened with the doctrine of the Trinity. Presupposition became dogma, and then dogma became presupposition for later generations. 

I guess my question really is: is dogma inherently bad? Should we avoid all dogmas at all costs? Because if your answer to that is ‘yes’, then I am not sure what basis we would have for even being interested in what the New Testament says. Isn’t the canon of the New Testament its own kind of dogma? 

And, in a sense, isn’t the belief that the right way to read the New Testament is narrative-historically itself a dogma?


I was entirely tracking and affirming with you, and think I would enjoy this work. But then, in the last few paragraphs a fundamentalist hermeneutic seems to emerge (anticipated timing must trump the anticipated nature of prophetic fulfilment). I would presume this is in order to rescue the New Testament from ridicule, but by most measures of Evangelicalism, endorsing Sparks and Enns already put you outside the more conservative element that would be discomforted by the idea of post-exilic covenant construction, ex eventu “prophecy”, etc., so I assume that is not it.

So, I struggle to discern whether you are endorsing the historical critical appropriation in evangelicalism (e.g. Enns, Sparks) or a hermeneutic guided by fundamentalism (the need to justify prophetic expectation in the NT). Or, maybe applying both depending on the texts: the latter for NT eschatology, the former for most everything else?

Always interesting, Andrew. Thank you.

James Metzger

It’s a good question, James. I think I would say that it is neither of the two options you suggest. On the one hand, I am less interested in historical criticism as a tool for establishing the veracity of a text than in what we might call a historical perspectivism—how is a text to be understood from its historical perspective, regardless of whether it is exactly what it claims to be. That requires historical judgments about the context of the text. We may not be able to say with certainty that Jesus gave the apocalyptic discourse as we find it in the Gospels, but we can still ask what Matthew or his community would have understood the Jesus portrayed in the Gospel to have meant if he had spoken these words.

On the other hand, I find that once the historical perspective has been established, it is very difficult to escape the conclusion that the Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel spoke prophetically about the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple as, among other things, the concrete historical vindication of his disciples. To the extent that we think that Matthew gives us reliable information about the historical Jesus, that would count as an apologetic for New Testament prophecy, and I don’t see why we shouldn’t be thankful for that. But what I personally find compelling in this is not that one prophecy or another can be defended but that the story being told—not least prophetically—coheres both with Jewish thought and history. So, yes, the credibility of the New Testament is somewhat at issue, but in narrative-historical terms rather than in the manner of the old fundamentalist defence of scripture.

What doesn’t quite add up to me here is that a number of the New Testament writers appear to have become increasingly embarrased by the delay of the parousia, culminating in 2 Peter chapter 3. It seems crystal clear to me that the writer of 2 Peter 3 (certainly not Peter himself, but a much later writer) did not consider the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem to have been the fulfillment of Jesus’ ostensible prophecy; if we want to be extremely generous and give 2 Peter a pre-70 AD date, it still seems crystal clear to me that the writer of 2 Peter 3 would certainly not have considered the coming destruction of the temple and Jerusalem to have constituted a fulfillment of Jesus’ ostensible prophecy. Would you agree or disagree Andrew? If you would agree, would you say that the writer of 2 Peter 3 held a mistaken, minority position about Jesus’ ostensible prophecy?

Much of the New Testament was written before AD 70. All of it was written before AD 311, which I think constitutes in historical terms the second horizon of eschatological judgment in the New Testament. I discussed 2 Peter briefly today in this post. It looks forward to a judgment on those who are opposing and corrupting the faith of the community addressed, as part of a wider judgment on a godless world. The language is intensely apocalyptic, but I don’t see any real problem with interpreting it as prophesying judgment on the Greek-Roman oikoumenē—much as I think Revelation prophesies divine judgment against idolatrous Rome.

bruce | Tue, 08/06/2013 - 06:00 | Permalink


Are you familiar with the works of Margaret Barker? She is the proponent of Temple Theology. She makes a distinction between first and second temple saying the first was created after Melchizedek while the second was purely Levitical. She has done a lot of research in secondary sources including the Dead Sea Scrolls to come up with her conclusion which is: we have the wrong Old Testament. It sounds very radical and controversial but some of what she writes resonates.