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Over at Respectful Conversation, Harold Heie is continuing his series “American Evangelicalism: Present Conditions, Future Possibilities.” This month’s topic is “Evangelicalism and the Modern Study of Scripture.” My contribution to this topic is “Historical Criticism and Evangelicalism: An Uneasy Relationship.

The purpose of this post is to offer a constructive description of the nature of this uneasy relationship. Here are three snippets.

Scripture’s function in evangelicalism is to lay down the basic map of Christian thought and practice, what we are to understand about God, Christ, Scripture itself, the human condition, and Christian practice. The task of historical criticism, on the other hand, is to peer “behind” Scripture and inquire as to its origins and meaning as understood within the cultural context in which the various texts were written. These two diverse approaches to Scripture are not easily compatible….

What complicates matters considerably for evangelicals, however, is that the general contours of historical criticism are widely persuasive, even universally so outside of evangelical (and fundamentalist) communities….

The tensions between evangelicalism and historical criticism have not been settled, nor will they be in the near future, at least as I see it. There seems to be an implicit détente, where it is acceptable to mine historical criticism and appropriate its theologically less troubling conclusions but to draw the line where those conclusions threaten evangelical theology.

This sort of back and forth dance can ease tensions temporarily, but it virtually guarantees that each generation of thoughtful evangelicals, once they become sympathetically exposed to historical criticism, will question where lines should be drawn and why seemingly arbitrary lines have been drawn where they are.

I hope you can make your way over and look at the other contributions and take part in the conversation.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.