History, Criticism and Faith

Written by Colin Brown Reviewed By Edward Ball

The avowed aim of the four essays in this volume is ‘to explore certain crucial areas where history and faith meet’ (p. 7), and in some respects this brief is admirably fulfilled. The book will certainly prove useful to those who want orientation (including bibliographical), from an evangelical perspective, to several major areas where the truth and authority of the Bible have long been understood to have a direct connection with its historical veracity. Thus, F. F. Bruce (pp. 79–100) provides a useful, though disappointingly brief, sketch of a number of questions related to the theme of mythology in the New Testament, while R. T. France has a most helpful discussion of the authenticity of the sayings of Jesus (pp. 101–143). He examines critically the presuppositions and validity of the various ‘criteria of authenticity’ which have been applied to the sayings in the Synoptics, gives reasons for assuming that the burden of proof lies on those who reject the authenticity of the latter, and offers some comments on the character of the evangelists’ use of the dominical sayings-tradition (it was neither ‘freely creative’ nor ‘rigidly literalistic’, p. 133). Not all will agree with him on points of detail, and the last topic, in particular, is clearly open for further discussion. It may be, for example, that we have to do in the Gospels with a freer and more ‘creative’ use of tradition by the early Christians than the analogy with rabbinic Judaism would imply (cf. O. Betz, What do we know about Jesus? (1968), pp. 21f.). Furthermore, some evangelical scholars would not wish to restrict the discussion of authenticity to the question of whether particular sayings were actually spoken by the earthly Jesus (cf. E. E. Ellis, TSF Bulletin 65 (1973), p. 10). Even if Dr France does restrict himself to the latter approach, we must still ask whether this is just a question of historical research, or whether vital theological issues are raised also. To put it crudely, what sort of ‘non-historicality’ are we willing as evangelicals to consider within what purport, apparently, to be historical traditions?

Similar problems are raised by Dr Gordon Wenham’s more broadly based contribution (pp. 13–75). This offers a clear and readable survey of some of the major issues in Old Testament study, dealing in particular with the relationship between history and theology in the Old Testament, and outlining the values and limitations of various methods of biblical criticism. Dr Wenham makes generous use of quotations from the works of Eichrodt and de Vaux in favour of the view that the validity of the Old Testament’s theology is directly related to the (substantial) historicity of its narratives. Very well; but would these scholars go far enough for Dr Wenham in their attitudes towards historicity? ‘De Vaux is prepared to accept that there are mistakes in the details of the early history, but not in its fundamentals’ (p. 31). Just where, then, does the evangelical want to draw his boundaries in this matter? He accepts the Old Testament as God’s Word on the authority of Jesus; but how does it function—particularly in its historical parts—as authoritative Scripture? There are, indeed, hints at a distinctively evangelical approach to historical issues on pp. 64f., where it is said that ‘God … could have preserved his truth over many centuries in oral tradition’. But that, surely, is not in dispute. The question is whether God did ‘preserve’ it in the way conservative evangelicals have traditionally understood, and what this implies with respect to matters of historicity and the evangelical’s use of historical-critical methods with whose premises he may seriously disagree. Professor Bruce also raises the last point (p. 84), but hardly starts to grapple with it here (see also Dr France’s comments on p. 106).

More help in this direction might have been expected from Dr Brown’s essay (pp. 147–224), which, however, while raising a number of issues related to the ‘faith and history’ problem, does not really seem to get off the ground in the end. This may be just the complaint of a non-philosopher, but I think that in some ways it reflects my disappointment with the symposium as a whole; perhaps the sub-title, with its talk of ‘exploratory studies’, raised my hopes too high. Many dark corners on well-travelled paths are illuminated, but these essays in themselves do not appear to lead to the drawing of many fresh maps.

Edward Ball

St. John’s College, Nottingham