One of the most encouraging developments in evangelical thought in recent years has been the willingness of scholars to engage with scientific and historical criticism. I have recommended the work of Kenton Sparks and Peter Enns before. Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism, edited by Christopher Hays and Christopher Ansberry, is very much in the same vein. It serves as a good introduction to a number of critical debates. Did Adam and Eve exist? Did the exodus really happen? Did Israel’s covenant theology predate the exile? Did the prophets always predict the future accurately? Does the phenomenon of pseudepigraphy compromise the canon? Is the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospels historically reliable? And is the Paul of Acts compatible with the Paul of the Letters?
The aim of the book is to show that historical criticism can be done honestly and critically by evangelicals without jeopardizing the fundamental tenets of a Christian confession. The argument in most of the chapters is that even if, in any instance, we were to accept—let’s say hypothetically—the findings of historical criticism, the basic theological truth at issue remains pretty much intact. Not surprisingly, there is less willingness to entertain the hypothetical possibilities when it comes to the virgin birth or the resurrection of Jesus.
The book walks along the wall dividing history and theology in something of a hurry and inevitably slips off one side or the other from time to time. The most striking inconsistency that I noticed comes in the chapter on prophecy by Amber Warhurst, Seth B. Tarrer and Christopher M. Hays.
The authors deal candidly with the main critical difficulties with biblical prophecy: on the one hand, the undeniable failure of some predictive prophecies written before the event; on the other, the contrived “success” of some prophecies written after the event—technically known as vaticinium ex eventu, the classic example being Daniel’s prophecies regarding Antiochus Epiphanes. They also discuss prophecies which have been subjected to secondary redaction “to reflect new theological perspectives or changes in historical circumstances” or which have been “appropriated by later communities as on-going possibilities for their future” (98-99).
They suggest a number of ways in which historical criticism can lead to a better understanding of biblical prophecy. Prophecy cannot be held accountable to “rationalistic conceptions of language, time and causal relationships”: it shares in the complexity and contingency of history; it is not an exact science. “Prophecy is an organic, creative word moving toward an ultimate goal rather than a static pronouncement with only a single, narrowly defined means of fulfilment”. Likewise, the fulfilment of prophecy should be understood “as a broader process of the ‘filling up’ of God’s redemptive goal” (100-101). In other words, we have to allow a margin of error. Prophetic language is imprecise, figurative, suggestive. Understanding prophecy in deterministic terms “does not adequately account for human free agency, historical contingencies, and God’s freedom” (102). Vaticinium ex eventu is accommodated in the frame of a historical understanding of the place of apocalyptic literature in the canon. What’s more…
…the reconstrual of Daniel in the light of vaticinium ex eventu actually aids our hope in the truthfulness of Scripture, insofar as it relieves Daniel of the responsibility to foretell events accurately, a responsibility which is entailed by modernist suppositions about prophecy as a primarily predictive activity. (112)
That is, if we accept that Daniel 7-12 is mostly prophecy after the event, we have to lower, or at least modify, our standards of truthfulness, which means that prophecy after the event is no longer a problem, which is a circular argument if ever I saw one…. But never mind, the discussion is mostly bold and illuminating.
The real problem arises when it comes to dealing with the central Christian dogmatic assumption about New Testament prophecy. The book has attempted to offer “a contextual and historically aware description of the way in which ancient prophecy purported to function” (113). But how does this help us sustain “our own future hope for the return of Jesus and the consummation of the kingdom of God” (113)?
The authors point out that the scriptures “appear to evince a pattern of promising a climactic future vindication of the people of God, and then later admitting quietly that things did not work out precisely as anticipated” (113). “Jesus promised that his Second Coming in judgement would take place by the end of his contemporaries’ lifetimes” (117). That should be seriously embarrassing for evangelicals.
The solution that Warhurst, Tarrer and Hays come up with—on the basis of 2 Peter 3:8-9—is that fulfilment is deferred because “the repentance of humanity was insufficiently robust”. “In short: the deferral of the fulfilment of prophecy says less about the truthfulness of God than it does about the fidelity of humans” (123). This looks to me like dogmatic special pleading. How does waiting longer than a generation enable all to come to repentance? Peter’s statement assumes more or less the same time-frame as Jesus.
The obvious solution to the problem is the historical one—and it’s extraordinary, given the preceding discussion, that the authors don’t even consider it. When Jesus talked about coming on the clouds of heaven, or coming as judge to vindicate his followers, or the coming of the kingdom of God, when the wicked tenants would be put to a miserable death and the vineyard of his people let out to other tenants who would give him the fruits (cf. Matt. 21:39-41), all within a generation, he had in mind the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and the reconstitution of Israel around himself. Ah, but there are dogmatic problems with that line of thought….