Where does authority lie? Peter Enns on historical criticism and evangelicalism

Peter Enns has written a clear, concise and sensible piece on the uneasy relationship between historical criticism and evangelicalism that I think is well worth reading. He notes the tensions between evangelicalism’s commitment to scripture as divine revelation and the proper task of historical criticism, which is to look behind scripture—to “inquire as to its origins and meaning as understood within the cultural context in which the various texts were written”. Evangelicalism is comfortable in principle with the grammatical-historical method, but it is not happy with the way critical tools have been used—very effectively—to undermine the authority of the texts.

He then highlights four aspects of historical critical scholarship that are at odds with the mainstream evangelical understanding of the nature of scripture: i) an account of the origins and development of the biblical texts which is at variance with the ostensible narrative; ii) a view of the authors of the texts as “storytellers”, transmitters of traditions, rather than as “modern historians or investigative journalists”; iii) a tolerance of theological diversity (“Reading Genesis, for example, through the eyes of Isaiah or Paul in order to understand the meaning of Genesis would be like reading Shakespeare through the eyes of Arthur Miller and expecting to gain from it an insight into what Shakespeare meant.”); and iv) the assumption that “the Bible does not tell us what happened so much as what the biblical writers either believed happened or what they invented”.

Enns thinks that evangelical scholarship has come to a temporary truce with historical criticism:

it is acceptable to mine historical criticism and appropriate its theologically less troubling conclusions but to draw the line where those conclusions threaten evangelical theology.

The problem is that this accommodation simply lures thoughtful evangelicals far enough into the troubling world of historical criticism for them to realize just how arbitrary and precarious the compromise is. It’s not sustainable.

So how do we move forward? Enns thinks that the answer is probably to promote “an explicit synthesis between evangelical theology and historical criticism”, though he recognizes that this might push evangelicalism to the breaking point. Interesting.

I am an advocate for such a synthetic discussion, though I would also stress that historical criticism is not the end all of biblical interpretation for the spiritual nourishment of the church. But where historical matters are the focus, historical criticism is a non-negotiable conversation partner.

As I see it, the pressing issue before evangelicalism is not to formulate longer, more complex, more subtle, and more sophisticated defenses of what we feel God should have done, but to teach future generations, in the academy, the church, and the world, better ways of meeting God in the Scripture we have.

I agree with pretty much the whole of this analysis. I might quibble over the final statement that what we really need to do is to “teach future generations, in the academy, the church, and the world, better ways of meeting God in the Scripture we have”. I would put the emphasis on teaching the narrative of God rather than the God of the narrative.

But what stuck out for me was the point about the perspective of the biblical writers—that they are “storytellers, conduits for generations—even centuries—of tradition”. I think the basic problem here is that we place far too much reliance on scripture for our raison d’être and far too little on the historical existence of the people of God as a called and inspired community. The community is not determined by scripture. [pullquote]The community is determined by the sovereign decision of God to have a people for his own possession. Scripture is a by-product of that calling.[/pullquote]

It is a historical community, and therefore the honest historical-critical evaluation of its sacred texts is entirely appropriate. But it is equally necessary to respect the fact that from at least the exilic period through to some time around the end of the first century the biblical community told this particular story about its historical existence. This work of storytelling or self-narration is historically indisputable, and arguably it is not in settling the veracity of scripture that we resolve the question of authority but in listening to the community tell its story.

The church today continues to share in that historical existence and continues—albeit in much more complex and disjointed ways—to narrate its own existence. It’s a bit like a biological family. A family has a right or reason to exist not because in the past someone took the trouble to write up a family history. It exists simply because it is a family—because its identity gets transmitted from one generation to the next. The record of its early history undoubtedly contributes to and enriches that identity, perhaps it even comes to define it, but the family doesn’t fall apart if it turns out, on closer examination, that the account is not fully reliable.

Submitted by peter wilkinson on  Fri, 07/05/2013 - 12:43

I was struck by this comment in particular:

I think the basic problem here is that we place far too much reliance on scripture for our raison d’être and far too little on the historical existence of the people of God as a called and inspired community.

This is a crucial point. If the scriptures are more historical documents than of relevance to individuals and communities of faith today, it’s difficult to see their value. They can be read like any other historical document — or not. It doesn’t really matter too much.

You then say:

The community is determined by the sovereign decision of God to have a people for his own possession. Scripture is a by-product of that calling.

This is true in one sense, but in another sense O.T. scripture presents itself as having a formative authority over the people of God. It’s rather more then a by-product of a calling.

This is also true of how scripture can be seen to work today. A sovereign decision of God comes first, if that’s how you want to put it, over who will constitute the people of God. But scripture is there to determine the character and purpose of the people, as well as having a role in drawing people to faith in the community-forming God.

Peter Enns presents an interesting view of the relationship between historical criticism and what he calls evangelical theology today. The ‘unease’ in the relationship may be more imagined than real. There was also an ‘unease’ in the relationship in the 19th century, when the ‘assured results’ of h.c. were said to hold the key to the meaning of scripture. Historic ‘historical criticism’ proved to be less assured in providing the promised results than were claimed for it. Maybe the same will prove true today, and a synthesis of the kind Peter Enns describes will prove an unnecessary goal.

I can’t help thinking of Karl Barth, who took his grounding in historical criticism back to his Swiss pastorate, and quickly found that it had little impact on his congregation. It was then that he developed his belief in scriptural revelation as a means of assured knowledge and communication, and the results were very different.

But to go back to the piece you have written. You also say:

But what stuck out for me was the point about the perspective of the biblical writers—that they are “storytellers, conduits for generations—even centuries—of tradition”.

Is there really an imbalance between recognising the historic communities within which these writers lived, and the purposeful content of the stories they were writing? Why can the stories not also be repositories of the truths they contained, as the raison d’être of their communities — their distinctive beliefs about themselves, their God, their world, and their purpose in history?

Submitted by Tim Hallman on  Fri, 07/05/2013 - 14:59

Years ago a Catholic friend gave me an article contrasting his church tradition with Protestant evangelicalism when it came to Scriptural authority. I was struck by the incredulity expressed towards the author towards my tradition that over-emphasized the authority of the Bible with little regard for those communities that wrote the NT and the church community that pulled the NT together. I now appreciate his incredulity, all these years later, thanks to guys like Dr. Enns.

The problem, IMO, is that evangelical identity lies in doctrine not in community. Most, statements of faith, for example, put scripture above and before the church or tradition. And these understandings of scripture are doctrinal first not historical or communal (despite the fact that they were developed within a historical community).  

One of the many challenges your project, if we can call it that, faces is that western evangelical’s identity is driven by theology and they see any move away from doctrine driven faith as liberalism and relativism. Even the Christian Left is mostly driven by a modernist mindset in this regard, they just want different doctrines to form that identity. 

Viewing ourselves through the lens of a chosen people of God means putting the comforting structures of systematic theology and the familiar patterns of a doctrinal reading of scriptures in the background. And that for many evangelicals feels like abandoning orthodox Christianity. 

A doctrine becomes a philosophy when it becomes an all pervasive and controlling idea.  When this happens a doctrine stops being a fortress and becomes a prison.  Sola fide may be an example of such a doctrine.  Evidence that sola fide is philosophy in many quarters is shown by the way verses that seem to challenge it are sidelined to obscurity.  E.g Luke 14.33 should be a very important scripture since it lays down the conditions for discipleship but it is largely unknown and unquoted.  It is the percieved threat to Sola fide that has achieved this.  It is in churches that have lost any identity apart from doctrine where this tendency is strongest. In churches that find their identity in history a threat to Sola fide is allowable since their security is found partly in belonging to an historic comunity.