Better The Devil You Know

Dr. William Larkin of Columbia Biblical Seminary and School of Missions presented a paper at ETS Southeastern conference a few weeks ago entitled Engaging the Critical Consensus: An Agenda for Evangelical New Testament Scholars to 2050. His thesis is quite telling.

Sounding the alarm, Dr. Larkin points to the slow decay of assent to biblical authority which results in even a believing use of the historical-critical method. The authority of traditional beliefs resting on the truth claims of an inspired and inerrant text are usurped by the historical-critical method. The "affirmation of truth telling Scripture" is slowly replaced by the foundationless creep of the critical consensus. Indeed, "'critical judgment' makes human reason the assessor of any historical document, including Biblical revelation. In the historical-critical method, reason exercises an authority over the Biblical text by engaging in a "preliminary critical treatment" of it to ascertain whether its content is historically accurate and authentic. In doing so, and because it can only make critical judgments in probabilities, it renders the text's content uncertain. In fact, it relativizes the Biblical text, treating it in the same way it treats all other historical documents." (Ernst Troelstch, "Historical and Dogmatic Method in Theology" (1898))

Believing scholarship has adjusted for this. The believing critic, even while employing its historiography to establish critical datum, actively filters out its anti-supernaturalist presuppositions (just as I was taught to do at my alma mater.) But Larkin doesn't think this simple adjustment is enough. The received historical-critical method carries "an assumption of an inaccurate and inauthentic element in the Gospel tradition." It is pagan from the ground up. Therefore, "the approach of the 'believing critic' in his use of the historical-critical method leaves him, in the end, not only defenseless against the challenges of the critical consensus, but actually can lead him to abandon a high view of Scripture, as he reshapes his definition of the nature of sacred Scripture to bring it into line with his critical findings." Quoting Mark Noll: "Individuals [believing scholars] holding [the historical-critical] position affirm that historical, textual, literary, and other forms of research (if they are not predicated on the denial of the supernatural) may legitimately produce conclusions that overturn traditional evangelical beliefs about the bible."

Egad! Do you follow the admission made in the above paragraph? I'm almost blown away by its frankness. The reason for the slow and inevitable erosion of a high view of Scripture, even among believing scholars is that evangelical scholars have no real methodological basis for legitimately laying aside the conclusions they themselves derive from (pagan) historiography, even where such conclusions undermine their own confession! Such scholarship holds on to belief by mere assertion, being but a highly nuanced fideism.

And it isn't enough simply to argue case-by-case against anti-supernaturalist conclusions. Larkin points to Nigel de S. Cameron's observation that nineteenth century believing critics who tried this eventually found themselves "marooned" on a playing field dictated by the presuppositions of anti-supernaturalist scholarship. Larkin believes we are seeing the same thing today, where believing scholarship slowly finds itself appealing "to dogmatic considerations" which have "no longer any avail in the world of (Biblical) scholarship." God help us! What can be done?

Let's see what Larkin recommends.

Evangelical scholarship must, says Larkin, "find a healthy via media in New Testament Studies--one which practices a methodology appropriate to the nature of the text as fully human, but without error, and as fully divine, speaking God's truth." Indeed, the call to an appropriate methodology is a central part of what is to come; "a methodology appropriate to the nature of the text ... as fully human ... and fully divine." The call is for a new methodology: the historical-theological method. We are on a new quest, a quest after this historical-theological method; a method which will "from the stance of faith, with inerrancy as a functioning non-negotiable, and a hermeneutics of good will, . . . assess the historical data of Scripture and, with integrity, always come to the conclusion that Scripture is historically authentic and historically accurate." The remainder of Larkin's address lays out the program in a "four part "push back" agenda for NT evangelical scholarship to 2050."

"First, we must address the Foundations of the Historical-Critical Method and complete its critique in the area of the foundational principle, "critical judgment." Second, we must address Methodology, particularly in the area of formation of the Gospel tradition and Synoptic Gospels composition. Third, we must work in the area of Evidence, building strong cases from the content of NT books for the correctness of their explicit claims to authorship. Fourth, in relation to Theology/Overall Methodology, we must rehabilitate the unique nature of Scripture as a warrant for a modified, indeed, transformed historical-critical method--an historical-theological method."(italics mine)

Now understand, conservative biblical scholars--believing scholarship--has been addressing historical-critical methodology on a daily basis in a hundred different forums both specialized and non since the sixteenth century. Yet, we are still at Spinoza; still at Schleiermacher! Larkin's isn't a call for something new, but is a cry to regroup on a battlefield lost wholly to the Enlightenment. Even the rhetoric of victory is gone. There is no lift in the voice, only the gravelly soldier's paean to duty--do you hear it? The fatalism. And, mixed with the chortled ignorance and dismissive attitude flung at the anti-foundationalists, I don't see any possibility of change.

Larkin is right, the criticism must go to the very presupposition of things, but one cannot expect to find something approaching what the Enlightenment means by "a methodology!" I'm sent scratching my head to my own drafting table. I'm sent to puzzle out Radical Orthodoxy, to steer my bark into a hermeneutical turn and to scratch out fides quaerens intellectum with the Ebenezer-stones of narrative and tradition. In short, I have to trust theology again, and look to the horizon for the dawning brightness of the eschaton.
William J. Larkin, "Engaging the Critical Consensus: An Agenda for Evangelical New Testament Scholars to 2050" paper presented at the Southeast Regional Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Columbia, SC, March 2006.

biblical authority; historical-critical method; Nigel Cameron; William Larkin; innerancy