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Limping Towards Charity: From Fear to Anger

Posted by  on June 19, 2013

Evangelical Faith Cover ArtToday we welcome Dr. Christopher Hays, biblical scholar and friend of TCF, as a guest author. In this 3-part series, he reflects on the formative process behind his writing of the book Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism, which is being released this week.  His story illustrates that the ways in which we engage controversy can ultimately serve to shape us in the image of Christ.

I have a rather classic Napoleon complex. Short, belligerent guy with something to prove: that’s totally me. Granted, I never tried my hand at pan-continental military conquest; my overcompensation tends to manifest itself in an almost principled commitment to conversational contrariety. I’m really the last person who should be writing a piece for The Colossian Forum. (Take a look at the vision statement; it’s all about “reconciling the unreconciled” in the Church.)

I’ve got a book coming out on the subject of “historical criticism” of the Bible. (It’s co-edited by my buddy Christopher Ansberry and collaboratively authored with a bunch of our friends.) Historical criticism is basically a way of asking whether or not things actually happened the way the Bible says they did. It deals with questions like “Was there an exodus from Egypt?” or “Did Paul write all of his epistles?” or “Did Jesus really do miracles?” At the risk of stating the obvious, historical criticism is super controversial among traditional Christians. A lot of the debates over historical criticism have been downright rancorous. And I have to admit that, when I started drafting my book, I also scooped up a lot of rhetorical mud and set to work slinging it at everyone who disagreed with me.

In the end, however, I don’t think the book my colleagues and I produced is another specimen of internecine hostilities. We have been trying to deal with controversy without getting nasty. This post is something of a diary of how I have been learning to disagree differently. Perhaps more accurately, these are the first couple pages of notes on a subject about which I need to learn a whole lot more.

I did my undergrad and a couple of MAs at a WONDERFUL evangelical school, brimming with brilliant professors and students who made me love Jesus a lot more than I had before. I also got a killer education in the Bible there. But we didn’t deal with historical-critical issues in a lot of depth. I think this is probably because the particular way that their Statement of Faith characterizes the inspiration of Scripture (“verbally inspired by God and inerrant in the original writing”) doesn’t leave much room for the sort of awkward historical-critical questions that can really gum up the tenets of Christian belief.

The problem that I ran into, however, is that when I went to Europe to do my doctorate in New Testament studies, I didn’t know how to think about historical criticism. On the one hand, I felt like there were compelling reasons why less-conservative scholars had come to their critical conclusions. On the other hand, I had an inchoate but nauseous sense that these problems might unravel the fabric of my faith in God. Rattling around in the back of my head was the somewhat acerbic rhetoric of conservative pundits who warned against the worldly wisdom of the liberal university. The whole thing was pretty scary. What made matters worse is that I didn’t feel like the evangelical quarter was terribly helpful to me when I was dealing with these problems. There was lots of literature telling me why a given critical perspective was true or false, but I couldn’t find many people to help me think through what would happen to my Christian faith if the historical critics were right.

Fortunately I had a lot of great friends at the Universities of St Andrews, Oxford, and Bonn, and with their help I found my way out the other side of fear. I plotted my views on some of the basic critical issues, and in the end my faith was no worse for the wear (indeed, it was probably stronger than ever). But then, instead of being afraid, I was angry. The emotional energy of fear was transmuted into a self-righteous outrage. I was ticked off at evangelicalism because, instead of endowing me with intellectual resources to deal these significant problems, I felt like the conservative church simply frightened me with warnings that I’d lose my salvation if I ventured into historical criticism. To make matters worse, I was suddenly at risk of angering the fundamentalist momma bear, and I watched aghast as one Christian scholar after another was fired for adhering to critical views that I now shared.

So I decided to put a book together. Its goal was to explain that evangelical Christians don’t have to be afraid of historical criticism, that historical criticism need not jeopardize the cherished tenants of our faith. But in those early days of writing, rolling around in my Napoleonic preconscious was a savage desire to nail to the wall every jumped-up fundamentalist who had ever shot his mouth off about historical criticism. The language of the pages I contributed to the volume was sharp, sarcastic, and self-righteous. And I didn’t apprehend how my pugnacious and bigoted arrogance was rotting my writing from the inside out.

Mercifully, a number of experiences conspired to bridle my temper before the book went to press. In the next post, I’ll explain how fighting about evolution, writing about eschatology, and engaging in missiological pan-handling (i.e. fundraising) have convinced me to try to act like less of a jerk.

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Dr. Christopher M. Hays (DPhil, University of Oxford) is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow on the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Oxford. A specialist in the subject of Christian wealth ethics (i.e. how to be moral with money), he is the author of Luke’s Wealth Ethics: A Study in Their Coherence and Character (Mohr Siebeck, 2010). He also takes occasional breaks from theological navel-gazing as an associate of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics. He is a member of the Theological Education Initiative of United World Mission, and in the autumn of 2013 he will be moving to South America to serve as a missionary-scholar in Argentina.


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