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Two (or More) Kinds of Scripture Scholarship


In chapter 8, I presented a model for the way Christian belief has or can have warrant. According to the model, Scripture is perspicuous: the main lines of its teaching—creation, sin, incarnation, atonement, resurrection, eternal life—can be understood and grasped and properly accepted by anyone of normal intelligence and ordinary training. As Jonathan Edwards said, the Housatonic Indians can easily grasp and properly appropriate this message; a Ph.D. in theology or history or biblical studies is not necessary. Underlying this point is a second: there is available a source of warranted true belief, a way of coming to see the truth of these teachings, that is quite independent of historical study: Scripture/the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit/faith (IIHS for short). By virtue of this process, an ordinary Christian, one quite innocent of historical studies, the ancient languages, the intricacies of textual criticism, the depths of theology, and all the rest can nevertheless come to know that these things are, indeed, true; furthermore, his knowledge need not trace back (by way of testimony, for example) to knowledge on the part of someone who does have this specialized training. Neither the Christian community nor the ordinary Christian is at the mercy of the expert here; they can know these truths directly.

Nevertheless, of course, the serious and scholarly study of the Bible is of first importance for Christians. The roll call of those who have pursued this project is maximally impressive: Chrysostom, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and Karl Barth, just for starters. These people and their successors begin from the idea that Scripture is divinely inspired in such a way that the Bible constitutes (among other things) a divine revelation, a special message from God to humankind; they then try to ascertain the Lord’s teaching 375in the whole of Scripture or (more likely) a given bit. Since the Enlightenment, however, another kind of scripture scholarship has also come into view. Variously called ‘higher criticism’, ‘historical criticism’, ‘biblical criticism’, or ‘historical critical scholarship’, this variety of scripture scholarship brackets or prescinds from what is known by faith and aims to proceed ‘scientifically’, strictly on the basis of reason; I shall call it ‘historical biblical criticism’—HBC for short. Scripture scholarship of this sort brackets the belief that the Bible is a special word from the Lord, as well as any other belief accepted on the basis of faith rather than reason. Now it often happens that the declarations of those who pursue this latter kind are in apparent conflict with the main lines of Christian thought; one who pursues this sort of scholarship is quite unlikely to conclude, for example, that Jesus was really the preexistent second person of the divine trinity who was crucified, died, and then literally rose from the dead the third day. As Van Harvey says, “So far as the biblical historian is concerned . . . there is scarcely a popularly held traditional belief about Jesus that is not regarded with considerable skepticism.”449449   “New Testament Scholarship and Christian Belief” (hereafter NTS), in Jesus in History and Myth, ed. R. Joseph Hoffman and Gerald A. Larue (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1986), p. 193. I shall try to describe both of these kinds of scripture scholarship. Then I shall ask the following question: how should a classical Christian, one who accepts “the great things of the gospel,” respond to the deflationary aspect of HBC? How should he think about its apparently corrosive results with respect to traditional Christian belief? Given the extended Aquinas/Calvin (A/C) model, I shall argue that he need not be disturbed by the conflict between alleged results of HBC and traditional Christian belief.450450   I therefore concur (for the most part) both with C. Stephen Evans in his The Historical Christ and the Jesus of Faith: The Incarnational Narrative as History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996) and with Peter van Inwagen in “Critical Studies of the New Testament and the User of the New Testament,” in God, Knowledge, and Mystery (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995). That conflict does not offer a defeater for acceptance of the great things of the gospel—nor, to the degree that those alleged results rest on epistemological assumptions he doesn’t share, of anything else he accepts on the basis of biblical teaching.

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