Do historical matters matter to faith? This is an intriguing question. Though the answer may seem obvious to many it is not so to others. To many evangelical Christians, Scripture, among many things, is an historical book that gives us a window into a time gone by in world history. There are events, places and people it gives an account of that only it gives us an account of. To those who would answer “no” to the beginning question, these historical discrepancies leave them questioning the historical accuracy of the text and sometimes abandoning it all together. For those who answer “yes,” they either have to say Scripture is plain wrong as a historically reliable witness to these things, or they must argue that it is the only record we have of them and should be trusted as much as any other historical text that stands as a single witness to the past. What are Bible believing Christians to make of this?
For decades, this discussion has been raging but it seems to have picked up steam more recently with the work, among others, of Kenton Sparks and his book God’s Word in Human Words. In short, Sparks calls into question the inerrancy of Scripture in regards to its historical reliability. To Sparks, Scripture is no less authoritative in its theological assertions and worldview even if the historical references it makes are tied to those theological assertions. To many evangelical Christians who hold to the traditional understanding of Scripture’s authority and inerrancy, this is problematic.
In an effort to respond to Sparks’ work, and that of others, James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary have edited a new book titled Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?: A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture. This is an academic work that addresses the issues the authors see in the works of Kenton Sparks, Peter Enns, Donald McKim and others in regards to their view of inerrancy and subsequently their interwoven view of the historicity of Scripture.
For the many contributors of this book, their basic assessment is this:
Spark’s proposal and similar proposals have been frequently weighed and found wanting in the history of the Christian churches. Not only does his viewpoint depart from a traditional Christian understanding of Scripture’s truthfulness, but it likewise does not accord with Scripture’s self-attestation about its truthfulness or trustworthiness. (p. 17)
This is no small accusation, but their desire to respond to and interact with Sparks and others shows the seriousness of questioning the Bible’s accuracy when it comes to historical matters.
The book is broken into four major sections: Part One deals with biblical, systematic and historical considerations, Part Two deals with the Old Testament and historicity, Part Three deals with the New Testament and historicity and Part Four deals with the Old Testament and archeology.
Part One lays the foundation for one’s understanding of the relationship between history and Scripture’s account of it within its narrative. In the first chapter Thomas Mccall deals with the issue of knowledge as it relates to history. How can we know what happened in the past, how sure can we be that we are right in our knowledge of it and how does this affect our reliance on Scripture’s attestation of the past? To be sure, these are important questions. Also related to this discussion is the place of critical biblical scholarship (CBS). CBS has traditionally seen itself and its method as authoritative and binding on all historians and historiography. Following C. Stephen Evans, McCall essentially concludes that while CBS provides some helpful guidelines for accurate historical method, they are just that – helpful guidelines, that are not authoritatively binding on the method (p. 45-46).
In the second chapter Graham Cole addresses the issue we are faced with, if we have a “historyless systematic theology.” “Sensitivity to the historical dimension of Scripture is not an option. It is inescapable if justice is to be done to the Bible’s own content” (p. 57). If Christians are to rightly regard Scripture as an interpretation of history, than surely its accuracy on historical events matters to faith and its subsequent theology. Cole later argues that the actual happenings of history matter for systematic theology for three reasons: it is a valuable source for ancient cultural expressions such as weights and measurements, it is of value as a witness to God’s deeds in the past such as the Exodus and it’s greatest value rests in being God’s breathed out Word as stated in 2 Tim. 3:14-17 (p. 66).
Perhaps the most accessible and helpful chapters in the Part One, and the entire book, are Mark Thompson’s chapter on the theological account of biblical inerrancy and James Hoffmeier’s chapter on the historicity of the Exodus as essential for theology. These two chapters alone are worth the price of the book. Thompson gives five theological pillars of the doctrine of inerrancy which I have spelled out in an earlier post. As I have also discussed more fully in an earlier post, Hoffmeier uses the Exodus as a test case to show why it is necessary for theology and Christianity that the historical events recorded in Scripture actually took place.
Parts two and three address a number of historical accounts in both the Old and New Testaments in order to show why their historicity is a necessary part of the theological foundation for the text. They go on to declare that in fact the events, people and places recorded in the text can be assuredly trusted to have actually existed in the past. Many of these chapters take up the issues presented in various forms of critical reflections of the Biblical text, such as form and literary criticism.
Part four deals with archeology and the Old Testament. The authors here show the relationship with and the role that archeology has in supporting the historicity of the Bible. John Monson’s chapter on the conquest of Canaan is a breath of fresh air as he removes the dirt and fog that CBS has tried to put on our Biblical reading glasses. Monson rightly contends, as do a number of the other contributors, that it is wrong to conclude that the absence of archeological evidence is evidence against something. There is more to providing reliable support for an event than archeological evidence. “Cumulative evidence that yields strong possibilities in favor of the biblical text is far more convincing than nonevidence” (p. 456).
Do Historical Matter Matter to Faith? is evidence that the traditional view of the authority, reliability and inerrancy of Scripture is not without merit, evidence or a strong scholarly case. This is a weighty academic work that proves its case well. I recommend it to every biblical student, pastor and teacher. The only drawback to the book is its lack of accessibility to the lay audience. Some chapters, like chapter eight titled “Word Distribution as an Indicator of Authorial Intention: A Study of Genesis 1:1-2:3,” will be lost by many Bible students and pastors unless they have a very good grasp of Hebrew and textual analysis.
So let’s return to our initial question: Do historical matters matter to faith? The answer to this question proves to be a watershed issue that leads to very divergent conclusions. The contributors of the book believe historical matters do matter for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the trustworthiness of Scripture and God Himself who has spoken through it to us. The character of God, our relationship to Him and our theology depend, in part, on the historical accuracy and reliability of Scripture.
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