Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What's the Big Deal?

J.R. Daniel Kirk has an interesting post on why he doesn't believe the pastoral epistles were written by Paul [HT: Michael Bird]. In the post he discusses one of the common reasons why some Evangelicals vigorously demand Pauline authorship: the doctrine of inerrancy. Reflecting on this strong commitment to the historic undestanding of inerrancy that many have Kirk makes the following statement: '...no theology worth holding is going to so exert its control over our reading of the Bible that it will forbid us from saying what good exegesis of the passage demands that we say.'

I think that Kirk is exactly right here and this expresses one of my chief concerns for the continued intellectual viability of Evangelicalism. Why do some so strongly insist that an inerrant Bible must look like 'X?' The 'Xs' are manifold, they may be single authorship of Isaiah, Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, or a literal 7 day material creation within the last 10,000 years to name a few. The Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch is the most baffling to me. Why is it acceptable for Evangelical NT scholars to hold to Luke being composed from multiple sources like Mark and Q, but an Evangelical OT scholar might receive great backlash from certain quarters if he accepts JEPD? I just don't get it.

If we really trust that God has revealed himself in Scripture and if we really believe that the Bible is true and authoritative, we should let it tell us through our best exegesis what we should believe on these issues. I've had some people suggest that being open on these questions puts me in the position of 'judging the Bible/God.' Aux contrare, if anything, it's the other way around.


  1. I think there are a number of different things going on here, and most of these various evangelical positions are not of equal weight. That is, the Pastorals letters say they are from Paul. In my opinion, the obvious reading is to assume Paul wrote them, otherwise you (generic "you," not personal) have to prove that "From Paul" means "Not from Paul" or "Not from Paul in a way that every other letter that says 'From Paul' means it." That isn't a slavish adherence to a doctrine of inerrancy.

    Mosaic Authorship of the Pentateuch, however, is not claimed by Scripture. It's implied, but not claimed. With that said, I don't think the problem is the use of sources in the Pentateuch, many, if not most, evangelical scholars I know would have no problem with that (and Gordon-Conwell has some really conservative evangelicals in its OT department). The problem comes with the dates assigned to those sources, as well as the methodology (which makes the JEDP theory laughable, in my opinion).

    In the end, Kirk has an axe to grind, as even a cursory reading of his blog shows. And I'm always wary of people with an axe to grind.

  2. Thanks for the comment danny. I was using Kirk's blog post as a starting point for discussion of a more general point about the control that's exerted in some circles over what one can and cannot believe on questions of critical scholarship. I actually am inclined as of now to grant Pauline authorship of the Pastorals, and I probably would shy away from JEPD too, though I do think that the Pentateuch was compiled from several different (some probably non-Mosaic) sources.

    I also know that there are many Evangelicals who are open on these questions. I tried to make it clear that I wasn't painting all Evangelicals as closed minded on these issues. I actually think that the main source of the problem aren't professors, but are pastors, seminary and university boards of trustees, and donors.

    I agree that Kirk has a bit of an ax to grind, but I do think that his point is still valid.

  3. It's funny, but most pastors I know are more open to hearing things like "Moses didn't write all the Pentateuch" or "Moses used sources in writings the Pentateuch" or something along those lines. I wonder if that's part of growing up in New England, where openness is more valued than in some parts of the country (I say that realizing that most people I know who attend schools like Harvard would consider me a close-minded fundamentalist).

    I also find Kirk's comment ironic. He's concerned that reformed folks allow their theology to control their exegesis, but he wants to argue that the Pastorals aren't written by Paul, even though they say "from Paul," because they don't fit Pauline theology as he understands it.

  4. For the record, I appreciate that you don't toe the evangelical party line and look at issues critically. I'd like to think I don't either, though perhaps I'm wrong.

  5. I'm sure that region plays a factor, and while personal experience certainly was an impetus behind what I wrote, I've seen and heard plenty from certain notable individuals for me to know that my experience is part of a wider phenomenon.

    I do think that you do a good job of critically thinking through the issues too and not just accepting a position because it's the standard Evangelical position. After all, that's what Sola Scriptura is all about!

  6. A couple months ago I received one of best compliments I've ever been given when someone described me as "fiercely loyal to Scripture." I could have retired right then.

    This is why I appreciate guys like N T Wright, even when I disagree with him. Whatever else one can say about him, he is certainly trying to let Scripture speak for itself. He doesn't always succeed in my estimation (then again, none of us do), but he goes for it.