Evangelicals are trained to be highly suspicious of historical criticism. No wonder given how this critical tool has been used to undermine the truth of the Christian faith. Like most things, the problem wasn’t taking a critical view of historical evidence per se, rather the difficulty was the deistic and athiestic assumptions frequently grounding historical criticism.
In a nut shell, historical criticism involves a series of principles that are purported to help scholars determine whether a purported event or person took place or existed respectively. Think of how a police officer gathers evidence to find the perpetrator of a crime. The parallels are striking.
One of the principles of historical criticism is correlation, does the document or story match the time in which it is purported to be in. For example, if a document says the clock tower tolled noon, and the story is alledged to have occurred in 4000 B.C. (before clock towers were invented) then we can be suspicious of that aspect of the document. Collaboration is another principle which asks, “Does external evidence support the claim?” Do we have other documents form enemies or disinterested parties who also comment on an event or person? The proximity principle refers to how close (in distance and time) to the original event/person was the record made? The bias is that testimonies closer to the event would be more reliable than those later. For example, should we believe Islam’s claim that Christ never died (a claim made by a religion that started in the Arabian desert miles from Israel and centuries after Christianity?) or should we believe Christianity whose documents were written by people from Israel and can be placed in the first and second centuries A.D.?
Up to this point, there isn’t anything that Evangelicals would consider controversial. But there is another element that is debated and that is the principle of replication. Critical scholars ask does the purported event seem reasonable? For instance, if the Bible says Jesus healed a blind man, scholars ask, do miracles happen? They frequently say “No.” because they don’t see miracles today. Christians say “Yes.” Here biases regarding the nature of reality lie at the center of the controversy.
The question for the public is, “Why would a bunch of Jewish fisherman preach that Christ performed miracles and suffer martyrdom for it, if it didn’t happen?” Your answer to that question determines whether you think Christianity is true or not.
Next week, I will explain why Christians need to think about the nature of historical evidence as it is an important consideration in order to ground one’s faith in something that is reasonable rather than fideistic.
Stephen M. Vantassel is a tutor of theology at King’s Evangelical Divinity School and specializes in environmental-theology.
Copyright 2010 Stephen M. Vantassel