Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?

April 20, 2012 — 2 Comments

  • Editors: James K. Hoffmeier, Dennis R. Magary
  • Title: Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?: A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture
  • PublisherCrossway (March 1, 2012)
  • Paperback: 544pgs
  • Reading Level: Seminary (or avid Bible School)
  • Audience Appeal: Prophets interested in historical apologetics and doctrinal defense
  • Amazon
  • Westminster

[You’re reading this review of Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? because I asked Crossway for a review copy and they said yes!]

Just a little over 4 years ago, Kenton Sparks wrote a book called God’s Words in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship. The book weighs in at over 400 pages and is not for the faint of heart. It is similar in purpose to Peter Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation in that it is posing problems for biblical inerrancy by showing specific instances in the Old Testament (and the New’s use of the Old) that appear to undermine the concept (or even possibility) of inerrancy. While God’s Words in Human Words was primarily an academic book written to teachers and church leaders, a more popular form of the book Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and The Dark Side of Scripture is set to be published here in a few weeks.

In the midst of all of this, a group of scholars, primarily from the Department of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, grew concerned about the content and purpose of Sparks initial book. What started as a colloquium at TEDS grew into the collection of essays now published as Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? The purpose, as the editors explain is “to offer thoughtful, substantive responses to questions raised by critical scholars, regardless of their theological orientation, rather than ad hominem retorts” (21). From what I’ve gathered in reading through the book, I would say they’ve succeeded rather well in their aims.

Before getting to that though, a little more stage setting is in order.

The Issue at Hand

I haven’t read Sparks book myself, however, it had been published prior to my fourth semester Hebrew class. I navigated the issues he brings up, but only dealt with his presentation of them indirectly. I am familiar with his general modus operandi (which is similar though not identical to Enns, who I have read) and even apart from reading Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? I do not find it persuasive as an approach to biblical interpretation. This is mainly because I do not see his hypothesis as the best way to account for all the available data, but also I see it methodologically problematic if you’re committed to Christian orthodoxy.

My general impression is that both Sparks and Enns mean well, but they appear to me to be both epistemologically misguided and theologically off-track. Had I been less trained philosophically and not well-studied in ancient Near East backgrounds and literature, I might have found them both to be more appealing. But as it is, I think both Sparks and Enns are selling the birthright of a sound approach to biblical interpretation for the stew of a higher critical approach that is at odds with traditionally Christian ways of reading Scripture.

That being said, this isn’t necessarily an issue that I think is an open and shut case. Inerrancy is a sticky issue, and may not be the best word for the concept people are invoking when they use it. Also, it is a word that gets thrown around a lot, and also gets used to abuse people from time to time (e.g. Mike Licona). In short, inerrancy can certainly be misused, but I’m not so sure its out-lived its usefulness. Without digging too far into that on-going discussion, I think inerrancy is a theologically sound concept, but I think it is one that needs to be well nuanced to account for the data. I also do not think that it is a concept that is disproved simply by what appears to be a relevant counter-example in the biblical text (which coincidentally is also true of scientific theories).

Paradigms in Conflict

In my mind, the best way to conceptualize the issue is one of paradigms. In the same way that science is paradigm driven, biblical studies is too. A reigning paradigm in a field of study is not disproved or rendered in adequate because counter examples exist, but rather the tension is allowed to remain while issues are worked out. Both Sparks and Enns are writing as scholars who changed their predominant paradigm and are offering an apologetic to those still on the side they left. To them, the counter examples had the cumulative effect of destroying the paradigm. This led to Sparks and Enns adopting the higher critical paradigm, but retaining their theological convictions. The result is a kind of awkward middle ground where evangelical scholars find their paradigm inadequate, and liberal scholars find their theology unpalatable.

Audience

This is an issue I don’t want to explore too far here, but just want to use the issue of paradigms to point out who Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? is really for. If someone has effectively switched paradigms to the higher critical paradigm, the evidence presented in this book will probably not convince them to switch back. It is however evidence that needs to be assimilated in some way. So, if you find yourself in agreement with the proposal and paradigm of authors like Sparks and Enns, you need read this book and make sure you’re accounting for the data these scholars bring to the table.

If on other hand, you do not think Sparks and Enns are generally persuasive, and find yourself concerned that people seem to be jumping the shark on traditional Christian paradigms for reading and interpreting Scripture, you’ll find this book helpful. Speaking as someone who has taken classes that covered most of the material in this book, if you haven’t been to seminary recently, and don’t plan on going anytime soon, this is quite the resource to have in your library in place of that educational experience. Granted, a 500+ page book won’t make up for not having taken several semesters worth of classes on the same topics, this is about as good as it gets when it comes to summarizing a defense for the traditional paradigm.

The essays are broken into four categories, and we can look briefly at each in turn. While I could probably spend a good couple hundred words on each essay, I’m just going to give a quick overview from here on out. While the bulk of this review could have been focused on the “what” each essay covers, I’ve decided instead it was more important to dig into the “why” that comes with this book.

Biblical, Systematic, and Historical Theology

In the first section of the book, we’ve got 5 essays laying out the paradigmatic issues that need to be addressed before looking at the biblical evidence. The first chapter presents Thomas McCall’s discussion of the nature of knowledge and how it relates to interpreting Scripture in general before relating his findings to the nature of critical biblical scholarship. It functions as a kind of opening manifesto for rest of the book, and is followed by Graham Cole’s essay on the importance of a historically grounded systematic theology. The third chapter is Mark Thompson’s defense of the concept of inerrancy, which he grounds in the doctrine of God. He addresses the difficulties with the concept, but points out what I noted above, difficulties themselves do not destroy the position but call for humility in dealing with them. One such difficulty, the historicity of the exodus, is dealt with in the following chapter by James Hoffmeier. Another difficulty, the supposed lack of historical precedent for the concept of inerrancy is dealt with in the final chapter in this section by Michael Haykin who shows what Irenaeus had to say on the issue.

The Old Testament and Issues of History, Authenticity, and Authority

The second section, as well as the third move to deal with specific issues related to interpreting the Old and New Testaments respectively. If one is familiar with the notorious areas of discussion higher critical biblical studies, you’ll see all the usual suspects for discussion here in this section. There are essays on source criticism in general, particular applications to the Pentateuch, Psalms, Isaiah and prophecy in general. There are also essays on the historicity of Daniel in Babylon and the difference between cultural memory and actual past as it relates to the Old Testament. In all, you’ve got all the right discussions taking place in this section and the chapters engage the issues well.

The New Testament and Issues of History, Authenticity, and Authority

When it comes to the New Testament section, you have a similar grasp of the important issues and essays to cover those topics. Two of the essays are more general in nature. First is Robert Yarbrough’s reflections on how God’s Words in Human Words is a kind of “shift story.” He then shows how Sparks’ “conversion” isn’t really a new story, and there are also examples of scholars telling a “shift story” in the opposite direction (higher critical to evangelical). The following essay is Craig Blomberg’s response to some higher critical charges in New Testament studies, some of which are directed at him personally. We then have Darrell Bock using case studies in the Gospels to demonstrate the distinction between precision and accuracy. The next essay covers the issue of pseudonimity as it relates to the authorship of the Pastoral Epistles, and the final essay digs into the archaeological evidence for Paul’s presence at the island of Cyprus.

The Old Testament and Archaeology

In the final section, we dig even further into archaeological evidence, but this time at it relates specifically to the historicity of the Old Testament narratives. Here again, the major issues are brought to the table. First, we have the Joshua conquest narratives, followed by issues surrounding early Jewish monotheism. The final two essays relate to the nation of Judah’s actual existence, first in general, and second as it relates to the united monarchy period. And with that the book comes to a close.

Conclusion

While the book is formulated in response to Sparks’ book, he is never vilified, and from what I can see, Sparks is the one who is generally guilty of disparaging rhetoric in this particular discussion. As Craig Blomberg’s notes in his essay, “he uses impassioned language, especially related to authors’ motives, that goes well beyond what any historian can ever know and that shows that he is particularly exercised on this topic” (346). In distinction, none of the authors in this particular book exhibit excessive zeal to beat down the opposing position. The scholars responding in this book are gracious with their words and do not spend extensive space in their essays attacking Sparks’ person or ideas. Rather, they simply point out places where his book misses the mark, either by overlooking important counter-evidence, or force fitting evidence to fit the higher critical paradigm he has decided to use. In general though, the essays do not have the feel of being formulated specifically in response to Sparks. Rather, without have read or even heard of Sparks, most readers will benefit from these essays. Sparks is generally brought in tangentially, and the essays read like scholars talking about their particular expertise on a given topic and only bringing in Sparks’ work where necessary.

Like I said above, I think this is a great resource. I’m not particularly optimistic about it convincing people to change paradigms from a higher critical approach, but do feel that it covers the issues well enough to allay concern on the part of people who have heard of Sparks or Enns work and wonder if they might be on to something in their approach to Scripture. The downside to this book may that it is not really written for a popular level audience like Sparks’ upcoming book is, but taken as a resource for teachers and church leaders on this topic, I don’t think this book can be beat.

Nate

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I’m an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let’s connect!

2 responses to Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?

  1. John C. Poirier June 22, 2012 at 10:32 am

    I just read this book, after reading Sparks’s book a while ago, and I thought one major aspect of it was confusing: the title of the book would suggest that the book is about whether “historical matters matter for faith”, while the majority of the essays are about whether “inerrancy matters for historical matters”.

    From the title, one would think these articles are aimed at someone who thinks that the gospel does not have to be grounded in history (a position that does not characterize Sparks at all), but they are in fact aimed at someone who simply has come to realize that the Bible is not inerrant.

    So someone is confused. Either the title was horribly mischosen, or (worse yet) the writers in this book don’t realize that “Do historical matters matter for faith?” and “Does inerrancy matter for historical reference?” are two separate (and mutually nonimplicating) questions.

    • I think the subtitle of the book is a roundabout way of saying that historicity and inerrancy go hand in hand, and that inerrancy and faith in the truthfulness of God’s word likewise go hand in hand.

      Usually, at least from what I’ve seen, people tend to deny inerrancy either on historical or scientific grounds. I think the book is aimed at the former category, not necessarily someone who thinks the gospel does not have to be grounded in history, which means they are using “faith” in a different sense than “saving faith.”

      But, I think you’re right and perhaps “faith” shouldn’t be part of the title, or there shouldn’t be a subtle slight of hand between “inerrnacy” and “faith,” since many people deny inerrancy and then don’t abandon the faith (at least not right away). On the other hand, maybe they know something about the situation that escapes both of us.

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