Does Modern Evangelical Textual Criticism Count as Liberal Theology? We Affirm.

While perusing FB I came across an article from Christianity Today entitled A Neoconservative’s Plea to Those Leaving Conservative Churches. This article is a book review of Roger Olsen’s Against Liberal Theology: Putting the Breaks on Progressive Christianity. Olsen focus of attention is on “exvangelicals” or those who “grew up in fundamentalist churches, found them stifling, anti-intellectual, legalistic, whatever, and rushed past the middle ground to the opposite end of the Christian spectrum, to liberal Christianity.”

What piqued my interest was the fact that Tim Berg, a member of the Textual Confidence Collective, shared this article to his FB wall. Admittedly, I find modern textual criticism to be species of liberal theology and the evangelical sort of text criticism to be liberal theology lite at best.

Between the focus of the article and the fact that Berg shared it, I couldn’t help but read to see if the Bible is mentioned in the context of “fundamentalists” leaving “stifling, anti-intellectual, legalistic, whatever” churches only to seek comfort in the bosom of liberal Christianity. Low and behold there is one summary reference to how liberal Christians treat the Bible. That reference reads,

“For liberal theology, the Bible is a repository of human insights into spiritual matters rather than a supernatural communication from the Holy Spirit himself.”

At first glance, it would seem that the TCC and conservative evangelicalism at large does not believe the Bible is a mere repository of human insight rather than communication from God the Holy Spirit. But given the appropriate context, particularly the context of textual criticism, and modern evangelical textual critics fit the bill quite nicely [i.e., Liberal Christianity abounds]. Observe the following examples.

Let’s begin with the least potent of our examples. Dirk Jongkind writes,

“The church of the Reformation cut through centuries of ecclesiastical theology and confessed the authority of the original Scriptures over against any theological convictions of the later church.”

Dirk Jongkind, An Introduction to the Greek New Testament (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 91.

Perhaps Jongkind is merely being sloppy here but to say the Reformers “cut through centuries of ecclesiastical theology” and confessed the authority of Scripture despite “any theological convictions of the later church” seems to tell the reader that the Reformers arrived at their Bibliology apart from Medieval Catholic theology [which of course they didn’t]. It’s almost like the Reformers pulled their Bibliology out of thin air. One possible implication of holding such a position is that if the Reformers could pull their Bibliology out of thin air, so can we. Again, this is the weakest example I have but it certainly degrades the use of the theological in determining the authority of Scripture.

Moving on, D.C. Parker writes,

 “The best it [philology] can do with regard to the New Testament is to use evidence derived from our study of the extant tradition to present a model of the problems with the concept of the author.”

David C. Parker, Textual Scholarship and the Making of the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 26-27.

Here Parker as an evangelical tells the reader that the best philology [a sub-discipline of textual criticism] can do with the New Testament is use evidence to present a “model of the problems with the concept of the author.” Right there, do you see it!? There’s the Holy Spirit right there in the work of philology! Bah…here the New Testament is treated as less than a repository of human insights into the spiritual, let alone treating the New Testament as the communication of the transcendent God in the person of the Holy Spirit.

Parker goes on to say,

“I should add a word of warning, that in the case of biblical research bibliography will inevitably find theology dragged into it at some point.”

Parker, Textual Scholarship, 30.

Dragged in? Here Parker has to warn his readers. Those stifling, anti-intellectual, legalistic, whatever “fundamentalist” Christians are going to try to drag theology into textual criticism sooner or later. Theology like, “The Bible is the communication of the Holy Spirit.” Can anyone say, Liberal Christianity?

Still, Parker remains a treasure trove. He writes,

“This is particularly true for the New Testament, where views on the quality of an editorial text may be closely connected to a strongly held belief…This kind of belief is not something one can engage with at a scholarly level, because it is an a priori view and not one reached by scholarly research.”

Parker, Textual Scholarship, 102.

So for Parker, not only is theology going to get dragged in, but also theology is not scholarly, it is merely a priori or a belief believed before the facts. As such, in Parker’s view, don’t even try to engage these folks in any kind of scholarly debate. In context of the article at the head of this post, if a modern text-critic were to encounter a believer who believed the Bible was the communication of the Holy Spirit, let’s be clear that that is not a scholarly position nor should anyone try to overcome that non-scholarly position with scholarship. In other words, believing the Bible is the communication of the Holy Spirit is stifling, anti-intellectual, and/or legalistic. See a trend here?

From Jongkind and Parker we now turn to Dan Wallace who writing in kind declares,

A theological a priori has no place in textual criticism.”

 Daniel B. Wallace, “Inspiration, Preservation, and New Testament Textual Criticism” in Grace Theological Journal 12 (1992): 21-51. 51.

That is, a theological a priori like the Bible is the communication of the Holy Spirit has no place in textual criticism. Again, this is the very definition of Liberal Christianity as defined by Roger Olsen and reiterated in the Christianity Today article.

Finally, I give you Eldon Epp who writes,

“With a few notable exceptions, the relationship of textual criticism and the theology of the church was much neglected in the second half of the twentieth century – until very recently.”

 Eldon Jay Epp, “Issues in New Testament Textual Criticism” in Rethinking New Testament Textual Criticism (ed. David Alan Black (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), Kindle: 624.

Epp here observes that Jongkind, Parker, and Wallace are not the outliers or the odd ones out. No, they are normative. Only until “very recently” has textual criticism thought to allow theology into the text-critical enterprise and it seems quite clear that Parker and Wallace definitely did not get the memo.

So what do we learn from all of this? Setting aside all the other beliefs of these men, it is clear that in the field of Bibliology they, who according to Epp are normative in the field of textual criticism, treat the Bible as something approximating “a repository of human insight” while wholly and positively rejecting Christian theology and Christian a priori from the text-critical process.

This we call Liberal Christianity.

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