« Historical Criticism and Evangelicalism: An Uneasy Relationship »

Modern biblical scholarship—also referred to as historical criticism, and less often today “higher criticism”—has an uneasy history with evangelicalism. In fact, evangelicalism’s intellectual component is largely a sustained response to the methods, philosophy, and conclusions of historical criticism. In some cases that response has come in the form of the rejection of historical criticism, in other cases a synthesis or adaptation of its methods and conclusions with evangelical theology.

The tensions are rooted, I feel, in the core commitment of the evangelical movement to the authority of Scripture. Since Scripture is divine revelation, i.e., God’s self-disclosure, its “authority” is tied explicitly to inerrancy and a number of corollaries such as historical accuracy and the essential theological harmony of Scripture.

Scripture’s function in evangelicalism is to lay down the basic map of Christian thought and practice, what we are to understand about God, Christ, Scripture itself, the human condition, and Christian practice. The task of historical criticism, on the other hand, is to peer “behind” Scripture and inquire as to its origins and meaning as understood within the cultural context in which the various texts were written. These two diverse approaches to Scripture are not easily compatible.

In principle, evangelicalism is not inimical to historical inquiry. In fact, one of evangelicalism’s hermeneutical pillars is the interpretation of Scripture in its historical context and in line with its original, intended, meaning—what is typically referred to as “grammatical-historical interpretation.”

The tensions with historical criticism are not over the mere idea of investigating Scripture in the context, but in manner in which historical critics get there and the conclusions that they reach. In both respects, historical criticism has tended to undermine evangelical premises of biblical authority.

What complicates matters considerably for evangelicals, however, is that the general contours of historical criticism are widely persuasive, even universally so outside of evangelical (and fundamentalist) communities. I see four general, interrelated, aspects of historical criticism that are well established in biblical scholarship and also, in various ways, at odds with mainstream evangelicalism’s understanding of the nature of Scripture.

1. Biblical origins. The Old Testament we know today has a lengthy developmental history, both oral and written. The drawing together of these traditions that did not commence in earnest until the Babylonian exile (6th c. BC) and did not come to an end until sometime during the Persian period (roughly 5th and 4th centuries BC) at the earliest. This does not mean that the Hebrew Bible was written out of while cloth during this period. Some books or portions of books clearly were, but many others were added to or updated in some way.

Issues surrounding the formation of the New Testament are similar, but involve a much shorter period of time.

2. Perspectives of the biblical writers. When speaking of their past, the Old Testament writers were not working as modern historians or investigative journalists to uncover verifiable facts (as we might put it). They were more storytellers, conduits for generations—even centuries—of tradition, which they brought together to form their sacred text. In the Old Testament we have Israel’s national-religious story as seen through the eyes of those responsible for giving it its final shape.

This is not to say that they invented these traditions on the spot, but they “packaged” their past as they did to address their present crisis—exile, return, and an uncertain future. Israel’s inscripturated story both accounts for this crisis and also points the way forward to the hope that God has not abandoned his people but has a glorious future in store for them.

A similar issue holds for the New Testament, where the Gospels reflect the experiences and thinking of various Christian communities a generation and more after Jesus’ ministry on earth. They, too, are presentations of Jesus and the early missionary activities that reflect the perspectives and needs to the respective communities.

3. Theological diversity. Given historical criticism’s focus on matters of biblical origin, the diversity of the various biblical texts is highlighted with no pressing concern, as we see in evangelicalism, to draw these diverse texts into a harmonious whole. Hence, historical criticism speaks freely of the different theologies contained in Scripture.

One practical implication is that the evangelical hermeneutical methodology of allowing “Scripture to interpret Scripture” tends to fall on deaf ears among historical critics. 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.

4. The problem of historicity. This last aspect of historical criticism in effect summarizes the previous three: the Bible does not tell us what happened so much as what the biblical writers either believed happened or what they invented. This is not to say that historical critics think nothing of historical importance can be found in Scripture, but that any historical information is inextricably bound up with the perspectives and purposes of the biblical writers. 

There are other ways of outlining the nature of historical criticism, of course, but this will do to highlight why tensions exist between historical criticism and evangelicalism. The former presents us with a Bible that the latter is loathe to accept in toto because of its significant theological ramifications.

Yet, most evangelical biblical scholars understand the persuasiveness and positive impact that at least some aspects of historical criticism have had on our understanding of Scripture. One need only glance at a decent evangelical Study Bible or commentary to see that impact. 

The tensions between evangelicalism and historical criticism have not been settled, nor will they be in the near future, at least as I see it. There seems to be an implicit détente, where 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.

This sort of back and forth dance can ease tensions temporarily, but it virtually guarantees that each generation of thoughtful evangelicals, once they become sympathetically exposed to historical criticism, will question where lines should be drawn and why seemingly arbitrary lines have been drawn where they are.

The fact that these inner-evangelical tensions keep coming up anew each generation after suggests that older solutions to these tensions are not persuasive but more a temporary stopgap measure to maintain evangelical theological stability. A possible way forward is to promote an explicit synthesis between evangelical theology and historical criticism in order to achieve, potentially, amore more lasting peace. The difficulty here, however, is that such synthesis might threaten the very structure of evangelicalism to the breaking point.

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.

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Reader Comments (11)

Doesn't the whole problem evaporate if the biblical text is differentiated from the Word of God which impels belief on its own, not out of any rational understanding, and only by believing can one come to understand? This is the classic position, is it not? If Evangelicals could not listen to Barth, why not Augustine?

Have you read Joseph Ratzinger's Jesus of Nazareth? It seems to reflect his own way of assimilating historical-critical scholarship to an orthodoxy that's not mired in reactions to modernity or post-modernity.

July 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDan

I would agree with Peter’s statement that the tensions between historical criticism and the evangelical movement is rooted in the evangelical commitment to the authority of Scripture. The four aspects of historical criticism he outlined—1) Biblical origins, 2) perspectives of the biblical writers, 3) theological diversity, and 4) the problem of historicity—also seem to strike at the heart of the dispute as well. But I wonder if the synthesis is even possible, given the beginning positions of evangelicals and historical criticism on the authority of Scripture.

Looking to Peter’s sense of the incarnational analogy of Scripture as a starting point, while evangelicals will have to wrestle with the implications of the 100% human dimension of the Bible that historical criticism, historical critics will have to seriously consider the 100% divine aspect of Scripture. Can a historically critical approach to the Bible be synthesized with a view of the authority/inerrancy/infallibility of Scripture that legitimately captures the 100% divine aspect of Scripture?

Evangelicals, with all their diversity of how they articulate this side of Scripture, believe that the 100% divine aspect of Scripture is God speaking to believers today, as it did to those who read or heard the words of Scripture throughout the history of God’s people. Can historical criticism affirm that no prophecy of Scripture came from someone’s interpretation; that no prophecy of Scripture was ever produced by the will of a human being; that men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit? (2Peter 1:20-21) This seems to me to be a fundamental aspect of what it means for Scripture to be 100% divine. If this is jettisoned in the evangelical-historical critical synthesis, then it will no longer be a synthesis of the two positions, but more of a cannibalism of evangelicalism by historical criticism.

July 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChuck Sigler

Perhaps a degree of consensus on the diversity of views in Scripture is achievable.

This does not require everyone to have the same view of the historicity or inspiration of the Bible.

We do need to promote acknowlegement of the dialogue between and diversity of Biblical authors as a "high" view of Scripture as it actually is—counterintuitive as it is, "higher" than inerrancy.

With this we might reach more consensus on the practical and moral issues that trouble the church today, without everyone having to agree on the exact nature of the Bible.

July 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan Pitts


To answer your question the way you pose it, no, you can't synthesize it. But I think you're painting this picture wrong. I no next to nothing about Hegelian synthesis, but as I understand it, synthesis doesn't reconcile everything (your "100%") in the thesis with everything ("100%" again) in the antithesis. It seeks to reconcile the best in one with the best in the other.

So the grammatical-historical thesis contributes a seriousness to scripture to the synthesis, and the historical-critical antithesis contributes a method of understanding that makes more sense of the creation narratives, the "flat earth" passages, etc.

Eventually this synthesis will become a thesis, provoking a new antithesis, and the wheel will spin yet again.

(I'm oversimplifying this. Again, I'm no expert on Hegel.)

July 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKenton

If Scripture is relative to its cultural/historical background then it is not reliable as it would be if it was literally God breathed. If Scripture is so relative then it has no value as absolute and universal. However the Bible does claim to be God-breathed, given by God with the writers "born along by the Holy Spirit". Thus, if this is true, it is thoroughly reliable and authoritative regarding personal and church practice. It answers, perfectly, the big questions, it works in practice and it is consistent. Indeed it is so consistent that our only way of understanding meaning is to see how the actual words are used throughout the Bible.
Your post modern Bible has none of these things. It can give us no answers and it is of no used for personal and church relations with God and with men. It talks a different language and nothing is certain.
If God speaks, and God cannot lie, then we have certainty, which your post modern Bible does not.
The Higher criticism tended to want to do away with the supernatural, It was a movement born of materialism. God, of course, is not of the material though He created it. We are aware of this and of this debate and awareness is not of the material.
The 'proof of the pudding', so to speak, is in the practice. Where the Bible was believed and practiced then people were and are lifted to a higher standard of behaviour. Where the Bible is rejected anarchy, fraud, lies and back stabbing prosper.
You might ask who campaigned to stop the slave trade and slavery? What was it that motivated them if it was not the Biblical view of humanity and of humanity's responsibilities to God and to other humans? Now we not longer read, reverence nor obey the Bible so, inevitably, we have a society in turmoil on the verge of anarchy.
We might look at other movements as: factory and mine reform, education for the working classes, humanitarian treatement of animals and children and the protection of children, with the raising of the status of women.
Your relativistic views of the Bible are leading us into a society increasingly cruel and selfish, lacking kindness, generosity and respect.

July 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRoger Penney


Over the past year I have taken a number of classes from a major Christian university where I had the opportunity to discuss inspiration with other students. I think it would be helpful if at some time in the future you directly address what is in the background of your piece: Bibliolatry, or making an idol of the Bible. In that class, I regularly ended up debating people who I think have accidentally confused the nature of Jesus as the Word of God with scripture as the word of God. In a dynamic similar to having faith in their faith instead of faith in God, these people honestly looked at scripture as incapable of having error because the word of God (or was it Word of God?) is divine. In one exercise, we had to answer whether or not people could be saved if they didn't believe scripture was inerrant. I'd say over half of the class declared that you can't be a Christian if you don't believe in absolute inerrancy (after all, you have to trust God fully to be saved and that includes the word of God). When I asked them about the salvation of the first century Christians who didn't have a fully compiled canon handy I typically got no response. In my experience, belief in the Bible has replaced belief in God for a good number of Christians.

For those who have a more healthy view of scripture, there are still many who I know who still hold a high view of it even though they are occasionally challenged by historical findings. One of the primary reasons for this is that historical findings in the last 100 years have seemed to be a lot like the science of the last 100 years. None of the findings in either of these seem to be true 20 years later. So, it's not that they don't want to integrate historical study into understanding the background for scripture, it's that historical study is a moving target and more of a curiosity than something authoritative. This might settle down in a couple of hundred years, but I doubt in our lifetimes that people who lean on historical study (or science) will arrive at a consensus that is stable enough that people will feel comfortable attaching scriptural interpretation and theological conclusions to it.


July 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Wilkinson

I’m not sure Peter was using “synthesis” in its Hegelian sense; but I think that any kind of real synthesis of historical criticism and the evangelical sense of the authority of Scripture would cannibalize one side or the other. Historical criticism investigates the origins of the ancient text in order to understand “the world behind the text.” Evangelicals, at a minimum, would posit a divine author in control of and behind “the world behind the text.” It seems to me that seriously negates the thrust of historical-critical Biblical scholarship. Conversely, it seems that negating a divine authorship of Scripture removes the heart of evangelicalism.

The divine aspect of Scripture is at the heart of what it means to be an evangelical: “To the evangelical Christian, Scripture is the Word of God, given in the objective form of propositional truths through divinely inspired prophets and apostles, and the Holy Spirit is the giver of faith through that Word.” Carl Henry, “The Authority of the Bible,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible)

In his book, Inspiration and Incarnation, Peter Enns said he thinks about the Bible as parallel to or analogous to the incarnation of Christ: “The term I prefer is incarnational analogy: Christ’s incarnation is analogous to Scripture’s ‘incarnation.’” (p. 18) Peter later suggested that it might be better to think of the incarnational parallel between Christ and the Bible. But whether you think of it as an incarnational analogy or parallel, the heart of orthodox Christology, back to The Council of Chalcedon, is the 100% humanity and 100% divinity of Christ. He is truly God and truly man; “consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all the ages of the Father according to the Godhead.” (The Symbol of Chalcedon) The dual nature of Christ as “100% human, 100% divine” then has its parallel or analogy in Scripture.

If we use Peter’s incarnational analogy for how we frame an understanding of the authority of Scripture, the fully divine must coexist with the fully human in an evangelical sense of Biblical authority. Retaining the divine side without compromise is essential. To be sure, some rethinking of what an evangelical sense of the authority of Scripture is necessary, but I don’t think Barth is the answer.

To me, it seems the best relationship between historical criticism and evangelicalism would be a robust, but clearly defined use of historical criticism; but one that does not neutralize or negate an evangelical sense of Scripture (like the one given above by Carl Henry). But as I’ve said, this may not be acceptable for a legitimate historical critical approach to Scripture.

July 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChuck Sigler

In my view, the premise of inerrancy is at odds with the doctrine of Original Sin. Throughout history (including the Bible itself) we see God using sinful humans to do His work, all the while exhibiting the same sinful tendencies the unconverted exhibit. Paul is the classic example of this of course, describing himself as the worst of sinners even as he lays the foundation for Christian theology.

Evangelicals insist that we must believe that humans managed to create documents that were free of sin or error. I believe that you can harmonize historical criticism with Evangelicalism by tempering the demands Evangelicals make on scripture by acknowledging the historical relationship that has always existed between God and man. In that since I see scripture as divinely inspired errancy. Like the greatest theologians and heroes of the faith, it reflects divine truths about God without revealing the full truth or freeing itself of its human origins. In short I believe that the Bible is divinely inspired, but it's a divinely inspired mess, and that's what God intended it to be.

July 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChristian Vagabond

The most striking part of this piece for me was the comment about historical criticism's assumption of theological diversity among the biblical authors and how this affects its willingness to "let scripture interpret scripture." I had never quite put those ideas together that way before, but I think Peter is right to suggest that this assumption has a huge impact on theological hermeneutics and the presumed "authority" of scripture.

This brought to my mind a question: can evangelical theology ever accept "theological diversity" as part of its understanding of scripture?

My first thought is that such an understanding of scripture couldn't exist in evangelicalism. But then, as I was reading another commenter who mentioned historical critics accepting the divine nature of scripture in any sort of synthesis on this issue, what occurred to me is this: the assumption that scripture must speak with "one voice" in evangelicalism is not merely a corollary of understanding scripture as "inspired by God," it also depends on a theological assumption that God is a "simple" being who doesn't change (and therefore, consequently, God's message to the world must be "simple" rather than "diverse"). If there was an evangelical theology which saw God as a complex, multi-faceted being capable of change (as we humans are), then such a theology would not have a problem with simultaneously affirming the divine origin of scripture and the theological diversity of its message.

July 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAlex Marshall

Suppose we think of this as an ongoing conversation rather than a search for a solution. We'll solve some problems as we go, but we won't expect to have done with the conversation any time soon. And we will want to pay attention, reflectively, to where our conversation currently is. In this regard I think a couple of things Pete has said here are particularly helpful.

First, we have a kind of "implicit détente," where evangelicals learn things from historical criticism while keeping some of its more troubling conclusions at bay. This seems to me a healthy response when you don't quite know what to think about a challenge. We do it all the time when we read books that trouble us: we don't simply give up what we believe, but we don't simply dismiss the challenge. We set it aside for a while, hoping to come back to it later (maybe years later) with more wisdom and a better idea how to think about the problem.

The detente is not a bad thing, but it is temporary. But so is every position we take in a conversation where we're learning things. So the "détente" is nothing to be ashamed of but also nothing to put a great deal of trust in. We've got to keep learning.

And we do. The second observation Pete made that particularly interests me is that each new generation of evangelical scholars questions where the lines have been drawn and rejects some of the older solutions. This sounds to me like a description of learning over the generations. It also means we don't know in advance where the conversation will lead us. I suspect that the inherent suspicion of historical criticism that has been part of evangelicalism's "DNA" since its inception will have to change. But I don't think any of us can foresee exactly how, yet.

In this kind of conversation, we must deal with disagreements and anxieties about whether we're getting things right, and worries about the future. But that's life, and the Bible doesn't give us an escape from life. But there are two reasons not to be paralyzed with worry.

One is that the kind of conversation we're involved in, right now, is the ordinary kind of thing that happens in any healthy intellectual tradition. As Alasdair MacIntyre points out, an intellectual tradition is largely constituted as an ongoing argument about what belongs to the tradition. That argument about itself is part of its health. It's only when you stop arguing and asking questions that the tradition becomes moribund. So one of the things we should do is resist the kind of anxiety that would lead us to try to shut down the conversation, suppress questions, etc. An implicit detente is fine, but we have to expect it to be temporary.

And second, we should pray, knowing that that the Christian tradition is in the unique position of being able to trust in the promise of the Holy Spirit, whom our Lord sent to us to lead us into all truth. We can expect a bit of conflict, but we can also expect nourishment from this conversation.

July 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPhillip Cary

I'm not a scholar at all but am keen to read what you intellectuals are saying. We "simple" Christians are struggling with the constant stream of scientific facts which contradict the bible on many fronts. Who wants to have a faith based on half truths and whole lies?? Who wants to have a sense of being fooled, misled, brainwashed if not intimidated? And yet, we want to "love", believe in life hereafter, be the best we can..... The truth often hurts... and yes, as I read, it is probably better to let it come out little by little. However, being in the middle of this process, it has a huge undermining effect. Let us openly and honestly admit and clearly point out where the bible is outright wrong, yet the message of "love" etc remains. At this point in time many broadminded Christians feel deceived by the many "untruths" in the bible and the refusal of churches to admit it -so they walk out, for sure. Just the teaching that Jesus = God is so false - anyone who can read the words spoken by Jesus himself can read that He refers everyone to the Father, that everything was given to him by the Father. God Himself says over and over that there is only one God = He. When people could not read or comprehend, yes they were easy to fool. But there are less and less of those..... and the churches should wake up to this and stop all the nonsensical, complicated, fictitious interpretations. Sure, there will always be grey areas (eg the Virgin Birth) - okay, admit they are "incomprehensible" and accept it for that. Have you noticed Jesus never talks about the virgin birth?!! That means eternal life does not depend on what you believe here... Stick to the words of Jesus as the number one authority, the rest comes second.... No matter what the apostles, the churches or whoever says, if we listen to Jesus with the goal to determine a faith of love, forgiveness and the rest, maybe then we can respect the churches again. And this needs to be combined with honesty about scientific and historical facts. God teaches: nothing is perfect - let's admit it! For now too many feel just fooled. And by the way, The Christian churches had better act quickly as Islam is marching on ..... and conquering.... in such a pace, it scares me.... to death of Christianity.

July 31, 2013 | Unregistered Commentertessa

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