Baker Academic

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Christopher Hays’s “Toward a Faithful Criticism” and Theological Institutions—Chris Keith

I’ve just finished the opening essay in Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism (SPCK 2013).  It’s by Christopher Hays and is a thoughtful statement on why (evangelical) believers in Jesus should engage in historical criticism.  It gives a bit of an overview on the current state of things and also why they wrote this book.  He says, “This volume is . . . the book that the authors very much wish they had as a companion text when they were students sitting in lectures on biblical criticism” (19).  Essentially, Hays forwards the two-sided argument (1) that evangelicals must engage with historical criticism and acknowledge that historical critics are right about some things and (2) that this engagement “does not jeopardize one’s Christian confessions” (18).  Hays sets the stakes high by noting that, by choosing not to engage with historical criticism, professors at evangelical institutions are essentially “preparing the next generation for apostasy—or at least preparing them to leave evangelicalism” (8). 

Hays is a great writer who aptly uses good turns of phrase.  Plus, he makes some really important points about the relationship between Christian faith and historical criticism.  For example, he insists rightly that a particular view of inspiration is not—and never has been—the litmus test for Christian identity.  I can see that this book is not only timely but also critical for the classrooms of evangelical institutions because there’s no doubting that these institutions are, in general, in an identity crisis.  By and large, this chapter has the feel of what it is:  Hays was groomed at Wheaton and went on to become an excellent scholar engaging with historical criticism; he’s now returning to tell the fold that it’s not all that bad out there and that students don’t have to shun the critics as they have often been told.  This is a good thing.

I confess, though, that my reading of the chapter is marked by a conflict of emotions and practiced ambiguity.  For one thing, the church tradition in which I was raised has never really settled on whether it is part of evangelicalism (even though it clearly shares evangelicalism’s fundamentalist roots) so even in my upbringing I never had a clear sense of being evangelical.  For another thing, although a Christian, I am very hesitant to identify myself too closely with evangelicalism because it’s one of those words that mean drastically different things to different people.  I see some self-identifying evangelicals and think, “No, that’s not me.”  I see other self-identifying evangelicals and feel camaraderie.  Like many young Bible scholars who come from such circles, I long ago decided that the label itself was pretty useless unless one wants to use it as a branding mechanism, and I didn’t/don’t.  My own thought is that the second a budding Bible scholar decides to follow the questions instead of the answers s/he was taught, these types of labels become more of a hindrance than anything else.  I’m also jaded on this particular topic, though, which leads to my next point.

My reading of the chapter is also undeniably tinted by the absolute debacle at my former employer where a bunch of anti-intellectuals (on faculty and in the community) succeeded in having Anthony Le Donne fired, essentially crumbling all the positive ground that we had gained.  I'm fortunate that I'm no longer in such a context, but based on those experiences, three things kept coming to mind.

First, I think Hays needs to define what he means—and, more importantly, what others should mean—by “historical criticism.”  As we all know, there’s a plethora of methods and assumptions that fall under that umbrella.  In the situation that I just described, being a historical critic was like being a Satanist (okay, a slight exaggeration on my part, but only slight; I’ve seen Christians treat Satanists better than the way some people in that town treated Anthony, and me).  And yet, no one ever really knew what they meant by “historical criticism” other than “doesn’t share my view of inspiration.”  It became a catch-all term for pseudo-intellectuals and others that let them jump from one issue to another unrelated issue.  For example, an older colleague accused Anthony and me both of denying the resurrection based on publications where we never (not once) mentioned the resurrection, all based on the fact that we were using “historical criticism.”  That was one of the livelier (and truly sad) meetings I’ve ever been in.  So a clear definition of historical criticism would be helpful.

Second, I affirm many, probably most, of the points that Hays makes in this chapter, but a side of me that still feels very burned by the fire he’s trying to put out has to wonder if it’s a losing effort.  I hope it is not.  But as I read that chapter, I couldn’t help but think of Pete Enns, Anthony Le Donne, Michael Pahl, and a whole host of other scholars who have lost their jobs/ministries at schools over similar issues.  I also couldn’t help but think of another host of scholars who are simply keeping their mouths shut at schools, justifying their lack of transparency on issues by citing the ministry that it enables, and praying that a trustee or more conservative colleague does not ask them that one question that boils an irreducibly complex issue down to a black-and-white answer with big implications for the well-being of their families.  This week I heard of yet another stellar NT scholar who was forced to resign from a school in the USA over, of all things, his eschatology.  Hays and his colleagues have written the manifesto about why such things shouldn’t be the case. 

This brings me to my third point—administrators.  Hays doesn’t really mention this issue, but for me it is the critical one that will determine the long-term impact of this important book upon its target audience.  My personal opinion is that we Christian academics can write all the books and articles in the world; we can speak at conferences as well as churches; we can earn scholarly credentials and mature beyond the naiveté that marked our first steps on this path; we can write excellent critical monographs on issues unrelated to faith, not because we are trying to “go behind enemy lines” but because we are compelled to be honest scholars and are not afraid to admit that we and our tutors in the faith were wrong about some things; we can also write popular-level and devotional books related directly to our faith, not because we are trying to hide from the big, bad academy by addressing the pew-sitters but because we are compelled to be honest scholars and are equally not afraid to admit that we and our tutors in the faith were right about some other things; we can become proficient at relaying critical insights to our less-learned brothers and sisters with sensitivity and care as well as honesty and openness; we can simultaneously hold Baur and Bruce as idols without becoming beholden to either; we can similarly come to glean theological insights from Aquinas as well as Nietzsche; we can go through the gut-wrenching, soul-scarring process of unreservedly putting it all on the poker table of faith; we can pull our winnings back from the table in more of an act of humble survival than triumphant conquest as we watch others walk away from the table empty-handed with a mixture of sadness and admiration; we can emerge knowing what we know and, more importantly, knowing what we do not know; we can come to see some on our side of the aisle as crazy charlatans doing more damage than good and some on the other side of the aisle as holding profoundly more insight than our professors ever told us; we can work hard to have a voice in a discussion that our detractors often cannot even understand; we can, in short, become critical-thinking believers who are able to train the next generation to think for themselves as well.  But none of this is going to matter, in terms of historical criticism and institutions of theological education, without administrators who will stand up to fundamentalists, with all the social and financial implications that it may entail, and tell them that the Anthony Le Donnes, Peter Ennses, and Michael Pahls of the world have a ministry worth having on their campus.  I hope that those administrators will read Hays and Ansberry’s book and take it to heart, because these Christian scholars are right.


  1. A good, thoughtful set of comments, Chris. I'm looking forward to reading the book.

  2. Good job, Chris. I think you are spot on. Looking forward to the rest of your review, and to the American publication of the book.

    --Scott Caulley

  3. Amen and amen. I share your hope, though I am pessimistic as well. I want to see a bigger tent for evangelicalism, but I think the fundamentalist have more cash.

  4. Amen. Last paragraph about brought me to tears.

  5. Thanks for this. I especially share your concern about defining historical criticism. It may be more effective to work hard at re-defining the term for Christians who are averse to it, showing the necessity and helpfulness (as well as limitations) of historical-critical approaches, and say, in effect, "See, this is historical criticism and it is not the boogey man," rather than, "historical criticism isn't such a bad boogey man." Subtle difference, but important.

  6. This is a powerful and moving piece, thank you. Two questions though. Is the book addressing primarily US issues (while I don't know many of the contributors, some of the names sound American to me!)? What has your experience been in the UK? Working in both the UK theological college and university sector, I'm thankful not to have encountered this dichotomy myself. However, what I have experienced in recent years from other theologians (e.g. doctrinal or pastoral theologians), is a devaluing of the results of historical criticism. The word 'barren' sticks in my mind as one description of the fruits of our labours. Therefore, my other question would be whether this book is simply too late. Is it seeking to close the door after the horse has not simply bolted, but, for at least some ecclesial theology, after it has been replaced by alternative means of transport?