Saturday, February 2, 2013

Review: Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?

Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture, edited by James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary, is a compendium of scholarship on the historical-critical method of biblical study, by a host of scholars who hold to a high view of Scripture (are confessing evangelicals) and offer a riposte to fellow evangelicals who, in appealing to the accommodation theory of biblical integrity and authority, lambaste their kin as "poorly trained" in all matters important to biblical studies.  One of the main reasons for this book serves as a rejoinder to Kenton Sparks' book, God's Word in Human Words; An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Method (he even calls the scholarship of Egyptologist Kenneth A. Kitchen an argument "that the earth was flat").  No small insult.  Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? is an apologetic offered to reprieve the tides of skepticism (and insults) that have squeezed the life out of the trustworthiness and historical reliability of the Bible over the the past thirty years.

This book is scholarly, with a view toward the aid of theologians, pastors, and laypersons.  In that sense, it has a sweet aroma.  For those interested in "apologetics," this book will prove an immense help in dealing with critical scholarship as it merges into the 21st century, carrying the baggage of modernist, German higher criticism, and postmodern theories of hermeneutics where historical fact is eschewed, leaving the reader with nihilist theories like deconstruction and existential pragmatics.  Mostly, Christian apologists are trained how to reconcile apparent contradictions in Scripture, or offer arguments for the existence of "God" (generic theism), philosophical problems regarding divine omnibenevolence and the presence of evil, and the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, along with the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts.  This leaves biblical studies majors rolling their eyes at the apologists who are "untrained" in matters of the real McCoy: knowing the original languages, critical theory (source, form, redaction, socio-rhetorical), archaeology, and cultural background.  While Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? doesn't cover all of these subjects, it does cover a swath of major critical theory from Genesis through Revelation (as it were) that has served to undermine the historical reliability of the text of Scripture.

For example, this tome covers all manner of tasty tidbits such as deutero and trito Isaiah authorship (Richard L. Schultz), pseudonymity in the Pastoral Letters (Eckhard J. Schnabel), archaeology and the Joshua account, Pentateuchal criticism (Richard E. Averbeck) and religious epistemology.  Those with background in biblical studies will recognize the following names that offer a plea for realism in the historical-critical conversation: Robert W Yarbrough, Craig L Blomberg, Darryl L.Bock, and Richard S. Hess.

The first chapter will get some brief attention here and is written by Thomas H. McCall who writes about "Religious Epistemology, Theological Interpretation of Scripture, and Critical Biblical Scholarship."  This chapter is an appropriate opening for the book, as prolegomenon and is an appeal to the strength of Reformed Epistemology (RE), or modest foundationalism.  Modest foundationalism, as an epistemological theory, has been popularized by analytic philosopher Alvin Plantinga (along with Nicholas Wolterstorff and William P. Alston), affirming that "evidential arguments" are not required in order to have beliefs that are justified or warranted.

RE is helpful for ordinary Christians who either don't have the time or the wherewithal to interact with critical biblical scholarship (CBS).  Does anyone?  McCall does a great job at defining his terms and providing real-life examples of what it might look like to encounter CBS, which purports to strongly deny, for example, that the Exodus is a bone fide occurrence of history.  This makes the chapter enjoyable even as it contains erudite subject matter.  One who holds to RE may eschew what is called "internalism" in favor of a "mild externalism," the former of which puts pressure on the individual to submit to the authority of CBS as "above reproach," and puts the "knower" in a constant battle to attain cognitive rest amidst the onslaught of the crude empiricism so prevalent in CBS.  

Because an internalist will feel pressure to offer reasons for his belief in the face of critical assessments of biblical data, for example, he will demand "direct access" to grounds for belief in the Exodus.  Now, if CBS is "above reproach," the internalist will more than likely abandon his belief in the historical veracity of the Exodus account until "further evidence comes in."  Not so for the externalist.  An externalist who holds to Reformed Epistemology will believe in the truthfulness of Scripture under the instigation of the Holy Spirit and believe the "great things of the gospel" (Trinity,incarnation, atonement, salvation, eternal life, etc.) and hold them as "properly basic beliefs."  These properly basic beliefs are foundational (hence, "external") to one's epistemic edifice, and as such, do not need CBS to confirm them.  While an externalist will feel much less pressure to abandon his belief in the Exodus based on his properly basic Christian theism, he is still open to the findings of CBS and can engage in a dialogue with it.  McCall is keen to point out that often, CBS smuggles in a "methodological naturalism" into biblical studies, which precludes the notion of miracle or supernatural history.  As such it is guilty of begging the question on epistemological grounds as to the nature of reality and what can be known, and is not in accord with a third epistemological category, virtue theory.  Virtue theory demands that we acknowledge, in our epistemological task, that desires, emotions, and the will to believe certain things--at foremost importance, truth--are taken into account when building our houses of knowledge.

Finally, McCall asks his readers, along with Peter van Inwagen, "Do you want us to listen to you?" where the reader is the critical biblical scholar.  Dr. van Inwagen asserts that because Christian theism is a properly basic belief, the ordinary Christian can have a "clear conscience" in believing in the historical reliability of Scripture without having to submit his epistemic edifice to the authority of CBS.  This isn't to deny CBS its rightful place in scholarship, but it is to put it there.  So far, a great book!

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