I have wondered sometimes what it was like to observe the influence of higher criticism on evangelical institutions in Scotland during the second half of the nineteenth century. Having attended some of the events at the recent Society for Biblical Literature meeting in Boston, I now have some awareness of what the past influence would have been. My appreciation is not based on travel back in time, but on witnessing a discussion arranged by a prominent American Christian publisher with a notable evangelical pedigree. The discussion concerned a recent Baker publication called God’s Words in Human Words, sub-titled ‘An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship,’ written by Kenton L. Sparks.
The author of this work responded to the panel who discussed his book, none of whom found fault with his departure from evangelical standards concerning the inerrancy and reliability of the Bible. In his comments, he stated emphatically that he did not believe in Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy (it was put together several centuries later); he was convinced that many Old Testament prophecies had not been fulfilled within their possible time span, and so were failures (I did not hear him say anything about the possibility that some divine promises of blessing are conditional upon appropriate responses of those who heard them); and he was adamant that the apocalyptic sections of Daniel come from the second century BC and not from the accepted time of Daniel. Yet he announced that he was an evangelical, teaches at an institution which claims to be evangelical, and is published by a company that says it is evangelical.
As I listened to his response, I realised that all I had to do was imagine that the speaker was Robertson Smith in the final third of the nineteenth century in Scotland. He too shared the opinions now expressed by Sparks and also claimed to be an evangelical while teaching at an evangelical seminary (the Free Church College in Edinburgh). Despite the initial interest and success of Smith’s views within the church and the profit made by publishers of his works, the results of his (and others) teaching were catastrophic for evangelical churches, denominations and theological institutions that adopted them as they were for publishers who advocated them and for the thousands of professing Christians who accepted them. Yet the applause of acceptability by the educational elite did not mean that tolerance of error was a means of spreading evangelical influence.
Will the current attempt be any more successful? There is wholesale rewriting of the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures taking place today across the evangelical spectrum. Great interest is being aroused, and desire for literature on the topic is seemingly insatiable, with many leading publishers involved. Inevitably, more books will follow, but perhaps we can find out what they will contain by looking back to see what their predecessors wrote about when the same views were articulated by the higher critics of the nineteenth century. The large evangelical denominations of Scotland in the nineteenth century quickly disappeared, and one of the reasons for their decline was their willing embrace of higher critical views.
Of course, the other detail that the whole discussion reveals is that the term ‘evangelical’ and its equivalents are so meaningless that using them conveys no accurate information about the user until he/she gives further details. At one time, in twentieth century Western Evangelicalism, it was assumed that an evangelical was an inerrantist as far as the Bible was concerted. No doubt, some scholars such as James Orr can be mentioned as being different from that rule. But that is the point – he was an exception. Today, the exceptions are those who believe in inerrancy and it seems that they are observing the speedy decline of the evangelical movement, a decline that is hastened from within evangelicalism itself.
There are other lessons from that period as well, which may have more relevance for those who accept the inerrancy of the Bible. One response to the higher critics by evangelicals was to abandon doctrinal convictions under the illusion that while it was essential to maintain a high view of the Bible it was not so essential to maintain accurate views regarding other doctrines of the faith and they could be adjusted and tweaked in order to make them acceptable to all who acknowledged the inerrancy of the Bible. Doctrines such as sovereign election and particular atonement were minimised. Instead of compromising with those who opposed their views on inerrancy, many compromised on other doctrines. History tells us that such a response, while enthusiastically adopted for a while, even perhaps by a large number of supporters, does not protect the church from decline.
Another response was to adopt the lifeboat mentality which saw that the church was sinking and instead of trying to repair the holes launched lifeboats to pick up those who were sinking in the waters. The lifeboats were evangelistic efforts and missions, which initially had great success, as the number of defunct buildings testifies to us today. But this response did not prevent the church from declining, and in some cases from disappearing altogether.
No doubt other lessons can be deduced. Perhaps others will assume that the ones I have highlighted have been distorted. If I have done so, I apologise. Yet I would suggest that one important response was missing during the decades when higher criticism was rampant and seems to be missing today as well. This response is also sadly missing in me, and it is a lack of serious prayer about the whole issue. Pointing out the errors and defects in various movements and writings is the easy part; getting on our knees and pleading with God to purify his church and restore his cause is another matter altogether.