If someone asked you what the greatest intellectual challenge to the Christian faith is for young Christians who really care about their faith, how would you answer? Atheism? Actually, no. While the spate of diatribes by new atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens over the last ten years attracted many angry and disillusioned young professing Christians, it didn’t really influence serious students because, well, it was blind faith posing as science or bad philosophy.
How about the challenge of world religions? Again, no. Compared to the verifiable historical record of Christianity, belief systems such as Islam and Mormonism simply do not compare, since they cannot be verified. Scientology is too weird for all but the most extreme, intellectually darkened narcissists. Hinduism is a designer religion that appeals to personal choice and provides nothing greater than one would receive from following Hollywood celebrity comings and goings in the tabloids.
What then is the great challenge that possesses genuine power to lead students of Scripture away from confidence in Scripture and undermine their faith? The answer: Old Testament Studies, specifically, OT higher criticism. Over the last few years a growing number of evangelical OT scholars have begun to promote the idea that since the OT bears similarities to other Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) writings (often written before the corresponding OT texts), we ought to interpret the OT as a document (or collection of documents) in the same manner that we do the ANE texts.
In many ways these ANE texts shed light on the OT in very helpful ways. After all, the events of the OT didn’t take place in the late 20th century in New York City. They took place more than 2,500-6000 years ago at minimum in a land and culture very foreign to our own, with interaction with many neighboring peoples and cultures, including Hittite, Sumerian, Canaanite, Egyptian, Akkadian and others. Much as been learned about the biblical concept of covenant by studying ancient Hittite Suzerain treaties and royal grants.
The problem lies in the ANE accounts of events that present an opposing worldview and conflicting record of events to the biblical description and account. The primary characteristic of many of these ANE texts is that they are mythic in nature. That is, they describe significant events similar to the creation of the world, the flood, the Exodus, and so on, in ways that are obviously (to our modern scientific world) merely myths, and not descriptions of reality.
The aforementioned evangelical scholars have begun to go public with their agreement with critical scholars that the OT is, in many ways and in many places, mythical in nature and not factual. They claim that OT authors (whoever they might be, but not who we thought they were) didn’t have a modern mind (true), and therefore couldn’t have described events in a way that we can take as scientific fact (false). This has raised doubts about many things evangelicals have taken for granted for generations, and that Christians have believed for centuries: the historicity of Adam, the direct creation of the world by God as described in Genesis 1-2, Adam and Eve as first humans, the fall into sin as described in Genesis 3, the worldwide flood, the confusion of languages at Babel, the authorship of the Pentateuch, the existence of a Hebrew nation in Egypt, the Exodus, any predictive prophecy, and so on.
Why has this had such a devastating impact on the faith of so many? First, without a doubt, the OT presents Christians who believe in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture with a host of difficult questions of consistency and historical verifiability that are not easily answered. For those committed to inerrancy, such as myself, these questions often have no easy answers. This has prompted many to redefine inerrancy to remove the tension of taking apparent contradictions literally, but in the process they have undermined the reliability of Scripture. Serious students often have no answers to these challenges and are shaken in their faith. They come to doubt the reliability of Scripture and the foundation of their beliefs begins to crumble. Before they know it, skepticism toward the Bible as the authority for the faith begins to grow, and they are left at the mercy of higher critics who are more than happy to completely gut the faith of anyone who relies on their methods of interpretation. Second, a sense of intellectual superiority grips a person who comes to believe that he can sit in judgment of the truthfulness of the Bible. This downright Satanic and Edenic spirit is intoxicating and often takes a person much further than he intends to go in his judgment of Scripture.
Admittedly, some of the problems that the OT presents are thorny. In a two-month study of OT higher criticism two years ago, I found it very difficult (but not impossible) to reconcile inerrancy with some of these problems. But one dare not jettison inerrancy that is clearly claimed in Scripture for the difficulty of some obscure passages. That is, the Scripture’s claims about itself as inspired and inerrant are clear. The apparent contradictions that trouble us are mostly obscure, and in the past many have been solved by discoveries in linguistics, archaeology, history, and other intersecting disciplines.
The point is that one does not have to resort to using ANE myths as our guide to interpreting the OT. There are better ways of dealing with OT problems than accommodating Scripture to the spirit of the Ancient Near Eastern age or our modern age of scientific enlightenment. The question is, where can we find a reliable guide through this perilous journey of understanding the OT in light of its ANE setting?
In part 2, we’ll review a new book that provides a biblical framework for engaging these issues while maintaining a strong view of the inerrancy of the Bible.