The Bible tells us that Israel “plundered the Egyptians” as they left Egypt (Ex. 12:36). In his treatise on biblical interpretation, On Christian Doctrine, Augustine applied that statement to the Christian mind. There is truth to be found in non-Christian learning. Christians should find that truth, embrace it, and put it in service of proclaiming the gospel.
Augustine’s point is sound. As Christians living among fellow image-bearers in God’s world, we should look for truth, no matter the source. Augustine was writing with ancient philosophy in mind. In our day, we might think of the massive body of biblical scholarship available to us. Some of that scholarship comes from evangelical thinkers. But much of it is non-evangelical, particularly scholarship undertaken in the historical-critical tradition.
In this essay, I do not use “non-Christian” and “non-evangelical” as synonymous or interchangeable. Nor do I mean to say that an author’s self-identification as evangelical guarantees the trustworthiness of that author’s methods or conclusions. I have in mind scholars working in the historical-critical tradition who typically do not identify as evangelical, and sometimes do not identify as Christian.
As Christians living among fellow image-bearers in God’s world, we should look for truth, no matter the source.
As we study the Bible, and particularly as we prepare to teach the Bible to others, we might ask ourselves if and how we should consult historical-critical scholarship. Is it worth studying commentaries written by learned people who may not share—and may even be hostile to—our core convictions about the Bible and the gospel?
The short answer is yes. But how can we do so in a way that will enrich our understanding of the Bible while avoiding the pitfalls that such study can sometimes bring? Let’s consider three benefits of engaging historical-critical scholarship, and then three principles to guide us in that engagement.
First, engaging historical-critical scholarship often yields rich literary insights into the text of Scripture. To take just one example, in the last generation Pauline scholarship has helped us to understand more clearly the structure of Paul’s letters. Grasping the way in which Paul may have used rhetorical forms current in antiquity helps us, for example, to appreciate the movement of his argument in Galatians.
Second, engaging historical-critical scholarship can open doors to rich historical and archaeological information that can enhance our study of the Bible. For example, in the last 50 years scholars have explored with breadth and depth the history, beliefs, and practices of Judaism in New Testament times. While this scholarship has provoked debate and disagreement—sometimes heated—our grasp of the New Testament’s world has been markedly enriched.
Third, engaging historical-critical scholarship can yield insights into the meaning of Scripture. The discipline of biblical theology, B. B. Warfield noted more than a century ago, “came to us indeed wrapped in the swaddling-clothes of rationalism, and it was rocked in the cradle of the Hegelian recasting of Christianity. . . . But already . . . it [has begun] to show that it was born to better things” (2:12).
We can say much the same about the study of the kingdom of God in the Gospels for the last couple of centuries. Patient, thoughtful engagement of this scholarship has yielded a harvest of insight into the meaning of Scripture.
Three Principles for Study
So, what are some principles to guide us in engaging historical-critical scholarship? The first thing we should do, whenever we pick up any resource to help us understand the Bible’s teachings, is to learn the author’s commitments. What does this person understand the Bible to be and to teach? Getting a handle on an author’s framework is the first step toward discerning what we can glean, and what we may safely leave to the side.
Getting a handle on an author’s framework is the first step toward discerning what we can glean, and what we may safely leave to the side.
Second, if we are preparing a lesson or a sermon, and we decide to consult an historical-critical commentary, we should be sure to read it alongside commentaries by scholars we know and trust. If we find insight in the writings of someone whose convictions may differ from ours, it is always wise to see what other scholars—trusted scholars—have to say. Such comparison will not infallibly yield the truth, but it will assist us to think clearly and carefully about the meaning of the text.
Third, we should take our audience into consideration. If the people I’m teaching have been exposed to historical-critical scholarship and have some knowledge of it, then it may be wise to address that in the course of my teaching or preaching. On the other hand, if the people I’m teaching have little to no familiarity with this scholarship, then I may not want to introduce these issues to them in a Bible study or a sermon.
We don’t always find truth in the places we expect. It can show up in surprising places. This pursuit requires a lot of hard work and tremendous discernment. But if the reward is richer insight into the meaning of Scripture, then our “plundering” will have been worthwhile.