The Gospel Coalition

 

Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?

James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary, editors | Review by: Joshua Greever



James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary, eds. Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2012. 560 pages. $35.00.

 

Throughout the church’s history, some have questioned, dismissed, or attacked the Bible’s narratives as errant. Within the last few years, some claiming evangelical credentials have joined in these dismissals. The most recent of these was Kenton Sparks’s work God’s Word in Human Words (Baker Academic, 2008), which served as the immediate impetus for Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? and to which many of the contributors specifically respond. Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? is a lengthy volume with contributions from 22 scholars. 

 

Summary

 

Part 1 introduces the book with essays covering biblical inerrancy from the standpoint biblical, systematic, and historical theology. Thomas McCall surveys recent contributions to religious epistemology and suggests that Christians may use critical biblical scholarship but without its obligatory methodological naturalistic approach. Graham Cole argues that history matters to the Christian because God acts in time and space. To believe in a “historyless” theology is to sever the “vital nexus” between theological doctrines and divine acts in history (62). Mark Thompson argues that biblical inerrancy is both “theologically robust and exegetically defensible” (74). He contends that inerrancy is founded on: 1) God’s personal veracity; 2) God’s sovereignty in the created order such that human agency is not lost and God is not limited; 3) divine accommodation; 4) God’s use of human speech and writing; and 5) God’s direct involvement in giving Scripture. James Hoffmeier discusses the place of history in Old Testament theology, focusing on the Exodus and wilderness narratives. Although some scholars deny the Exodus ever occurred, Hoffmeier argues that its historicity is “central” to Old Testament theology (106), for the events surrounding it pervasively shaped Israel’s religion (112-32). Michael Haykin concludes the section by reminding the reader that the “Battle for the Bible” has been waged since the early church. By analyzing the arguments of Irenaeus against the Gnostics, Haykin shows that Irenaeus held a deep conviction that the Bible was perfect and sufficient for eternal salvation, and could legitimately be called “the ground and pillar of our faith.”

 

Part 2 concerns “The Old Testament and Issues of History, Authenticity, and Authority.” Here Richard Averbeck with Exodus 19:1-24:11 and Robert Chisholm with the Flood account and David’s introduction to Saul’s court attempt to demonstrate that source criticism often fails to recognize either a text’s discourse features or its literary coherence. Next, Robert Bergen shows from an analysis of Genesis 1:1-2:3 that “[a]uthors of biblical narratives implicitly revealed their communicational intentions by controlling the distribution of lexical items within stories” (201). The intent is to show that if the biblical authors took such care to communicate well, it is plausible that they took a corresponding level of care to ensure the truthfulness of their message. The next two essays, by John Hilber and Richard Schultz, cover the issue of prophecy in the Old Testament. Hilber presents evidence from the Ancient Near East to show that it is plausible to affirm that the prophets in ancient Israel wrote or compiled their own prophetic oracles, and that Israel faithfully transmitted them. Schultz specifically argues, against Sparks, for the unity of Isaiah and the possibility of seeing an eighth century setting to most or all of Isaiah. Next, Alan Millard analyzes several historical-critical issues relating to Daniel, including the date of the exile in Daneld 1:1, the madness of Nebuchadnezzar, the legitimacy of Belshazzar as “king of Babylon,” etc., and concludes that scholars have too frequently dismissed the historicity of the details of Daniel. Willem VanGemeren and Jason Stanghelle in their essay argue that the psalm titles are authentic, not because they were written by David, but because they contain the Davidic vox. This approach, which the authors borrow from Paul Hiebert’s “critical realism,” allows for a realistic way of letting Scripture interpret Scripture. Jens Kofoed concludes the section by arguing that the presence of cultural memory in the Old Testament does not preclude its historicity.

 

Part 3 concerns “The New Testament and Issues of History, Authenticity, and Authority.” Robert Yarbrough begins this section by reminding the reader that biblical scholars regularly dismiss the claims of the Bible, so evangelicals should not be shocked. He further urges evangelicals not to assume that Sparks’s “believing criticism” will do anything other than evacuate “believing” for the sake of “criticism.” Craig Blomberg follows by showing how John’s chronology of the Last Supper and crucifixion can be harmonized with the Synoptics. Next, Darrell Bock proposes that many of the “problems” in the New Testament can be solved by making a distinction between accuracy and precision. In the instance of healing the centurion’s son, for example, Matthew records the centurion speaking with Jesus (Matt. 8:5-13), whereas Luke records emissaries from the centurion speaking with Jesus (Matt. 7:1-10). Bock argues that, insomuch as the emissaries were speaking for the centurion, the centurion was speaking to Jesus. Thus, both accounts are accurate, but Luke’s is more precise. Further, Eckhard Schnabel argues that the literary, theological, and historical arguments all are compatible with and even suggest that the Pastoral Epistles are Pauline, not pseudonymous. He concludes “[t]here is no unambiguous evidence that Jews accepted a text whose pseudonymous attribution to a particular author was recognized as false” (400). Thomas Davis concludes the section with a survey of the archeological evidence from Cyprus during the first century A.D. He concludes that the evidence demonstrates the accuracy of Luke’s record in Acts 13.

 

Part 4 concludes with four essays on the theme of “The Old Testament and Archaeology.” John Monson and Richard Hess respectively write on the archeological evidence associated with Israel’s conquest of Canaan as recorded in Joshua and the evidence for monotheism before Josiah. Michael Hasel and Steven Ortiz both contribute to the archeological evidence of the early years of the monarchy in Israel.

 

Evaluation

 

The strengths of this volume are many. The impressive number of scholarly contributions is matched by the content. To include so many scholars from a variety of backgrounds and expertise shows the seriousness of the issue at stake. Indeed, biblical inerrancy is a doctrine worth upholding. Thompson rightly notes that inerrancy is undergirded by the personal veracity of God and his commitment never to lie but always to be truthful and faithful (84-87). The “God-breathed” nature of Scripture sets it apart from any other book and is the reason why it is trustworthy (94-96).

 

Further, the methodology proposed by the contributors is sound. For instance, when one is faced with a barrage of archeological “nonevidence,” it is easy to succumb under its “assured results” that certain biblical events never occurred. But the contributors make clear that archeological “nonevidence” is not sufficient to prove or disprove the historicity of an event. It is simply not true that “absence of evidence is evidence of absence” (cf. Monson). This is the “fallacy of negative proof,” which is often used by biblical scholars to deny the historicity of a biblical event.

 

Another sound methodological point made by several of the contributors is that texts need to be read as “innocent until proven guilty,” not the other way around. At times biblical scholars approach the text with a hermeneutics of suspicion that assumes the errant nature of the text unless proved otherwise. But these same scholars frequently approach extrabiblical texts without this same suspicion. If, for instance, a scholar believes that Thutmose III of Egypt invaded Canaan in the 15th century—not on the basis of archeological evidence but only on textual support—then that same scholar should be consistent in giving the biblical text the same benefit of the doubt (110). In this way, then, evangelical scholars are more consistent in their methodology than many other biblical scholars, simply because they approach the text without first assuming its error.

 

This leads to another strength of the book, namely, that the contributors call scholars to look afresh at the biblical text. Too often source critics form their theories without properly observing the text’s discourse features. The best example of this comes in Chisholm’s article, where he notes that the critical argument for the incoherence of David’s introduction to Saul’s court is founded upon the assumption that 1 Samuel 16:14-23 and 17:55-58 cannot be harmonized (191-93). They contend that Saul meets David twice in these texts, which shows the redactor used two conflicting sources. But Chisholm rightly notes that in 1 Samuel 16:14-23 the question concerns the identity of David, whereas in 1 Samuel 17:55-58 the question concerns whose son David is. This makes sense for Saul to ask whose son David is, since he promised his daughter to the man who defeated Goliath. In other words, scholars need to observe the features of the text more closely. Being sensitive to discourse analysis, the Near Eastern way of telling stories, and the Hebrew manner of recursive writing would save scholars from making baseless source-critical theories.

 

Yet another strength of the book is the contributors’ emphasis that it is neither human to err, nor does divine accommodation necessitate error. Sparks argues that, since to be human is to err and since the Bible was written by divinely inspired humans, therefore divine accommodation means God accommodates truth to errant human conceptions in order to reveal himself and his actions. This accommodation, Sparks argues, is a miracle, for in the Bible God communicates using errant worldviews. But Cole rightly argues that this is not the only way to understand divine accommodation. Calvin, for instance, argued that God “lisps” when he speaks to us, yet in such a way that truth is not compromised (63-66). There is mystery here, but it is not an irreconcilable mystery, for the greatest expression of divine accommodation is the incarnation of the Son of God (89-90). Jesus was truly human, yet without sin. The miracle of the incarnation proves that it is not beyond the power of God to inspire sinful humans to write an inerrant book.

 

The weaknesses of the volume are relatively minor compared to its strengths. To some, a 560-page volume is intimidating. To others, the scholarly nature of the book may be difficult to use, since some of the articles use technical terms associated with linguistics or archeology. But the volume is intended for seminarians, pastors, and thoughtful laypersons, so this perceived weakness is actually one of its strengths.

 

A few minor notes: Robert Bergen’s article on word distribution is helpful for understanding the main point of Genesis 1:1-2:3, but it does not contribute much to the purpose of this volume. He notes this but explains that if the biblical writers took such care in communicating clearly, then “[o]ne may plausibly infer from this that the biblical authors maintained a corresponding level of concern for precision and accuracy with respect to historical details included in the narratives” (202). This may be so, but it is not necessarily so. There have been many good communicators in history who were not truthtellers.

 

Further, the book would have been stronger if it included an article on the Johannine emphasis on truth. For instance, Jesus is himself the truth (John 14:6) who is the “faithful witness” (Rev. 1:5). The “Spirit of truth” guides his people into all truth in the words of the New Testament (John 16:13). The statement "these words are trustworthy and true” (Rev. 22:6) sums up not only Revelation but also the entire canon. More reflection on this Johannine theme would have demonstrated the significance of holding to biblical inerrancy.

 

One final note: it is true that there are difficult texts in the Bible to understand or to harmonize with other texts. But let the response of Christians everywhere be not to doubt the Bible’s veracity or the veracity of God himself, but to resolve anew to study the text with patience. May this volume be a means to that end.

 

Joshua Greever is a PhD candidate in New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He and his wife, Amelia, have two children and are members of Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville.



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