Historical Criticism and the Evangelical

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Since the inception of historical criticism (hereafter HC) in the postEnlightenment period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, conservatives and evangelicals have wrestled with their relationship to this discipline. Due to its origins in rationalism and anti-supernaturalism, it has been a stormy relationship. In the nineteenth century, the Cambridge trio Lightfoot, Westcott and Hort opposed the liberal movements of rationalism and tendency criticism (F. C. Baur) with a level of scholarship more than equal to their opponents, and in Germany Theodor Zahn and Adolf Schlatter opposed the incursion of HC. In America scholars like Charles Hodge and Benjamin Warfield in theology and J. Gresham Machen and O. T. Allis in biblical studies fought valiantly for a high view of Scripture along with a critical awareness of issues. However, in none of these conservative scholars do we find a wholesale rejection of critical tools.

From the 1920s to the 1940s little interaction occurred as fundamentalism turned its back on dialogue with higher critics, believing that to interact was to be tainted by contact with the methods. It was then that wholesale rejection of critical methodology became standard in fundamentalist scholarship. However, in the late 1940s the rise of evangelicalism (including the birth of ETS!) renewed that debate, and scholars like George Ladd and Leon Morris once more began to champion a high view of Scripture within the halls of academia. Since then evangelicalism has continuously debated the extent to which evangelicals could participate in higher critical studies and still maintain a high view of the authority of the inerrant Scriptures.


Alan Johnson in his 1982 presidential address to ETS used an excellent analogy when he asked whether higher criticism was "Egyptian gold or pagan precipice," quoting Augustine on the Christian use of pagan philosophy in his On Christian Doctrine (II, 40.60).

Just as the Egyptians had not only idols . . . so also they had vases and ornaments of gold and silver and clothing which the Israelites took with them when they fled.... In the same way all the teachings of the pagans contain not only simulated and superstitious imaginings . . . but also liberal disciplines more suited to the uses of truth.... When the Christian separates himself from their miserable society, he should take this treasure with him for the just use of teaching the gospel.1

Johnson concluded that Augustine's point applied to the evangelical use of historical criticism. While extreme caution should be exercised, he called ETS "a Society where those who are involved in the refinement of critical methodologies under the magisterium of an inerrant scriptural authority can move us gently into a deeper appreciation of sacred Scripture and its full appropriation to our lives and to the mission of the Church in our age."2

Others, however, have rejected any possibility of evangelical involvement in HC. John Montgomery called such pursuits the death knell of evangelical orthodoxy.3 In fact, when questioned in a meeting of this society if he was not "throwing out the baby with the bath water" in his rejection of redaction criticism, Montgomery replied, "The difference is, you think there's a baby there, and I don't." This is indeed the question: "Is there a baby in the bath water of critical methodology?" Norm Geisler argued that the philosophical roots of HC were so pervasive to its methodology that to use them would de facto constitute an attack on inerrancy.4 Gerhard Maier began a lengthy debate in Germany by arguing that the historical-critical method does not elucidate Scripture but rather is contrary to the biblical concept of revelation and replaces inspiration with human reason, propositional truth with faith-encounter, and divine revelation with human experience. …