How Historical Criticism Challenged My Faith . . . Then Strengthened It By Karen Keen

“Students like you scare me.” Those were the words of a well-known biblical scholar at a well-known evangelical seminary when I sent an enthusiastic inquiry about the possibility of studying under him in a PhD program. I mistakenly conveyed passion for making a difference in the world, and he decided my zeal was detrimental to objective research. Deflated, and not a little irritated, I shot back, “Don’t you find any greater meaning in your work than intellectual entertainment?” When pressed, Prof. G (as I’ll call him) conceded that, yes, he did hope his research and teaching had significance beyond the academic tower. But his answer did little to assuage my perplexity at his initial response. Needless to say, I did not apply to that school.

That said, I came to understand Prof. G’s concern: some Christian students take the Bible out of context, devotionalizing it in blind religious fervor rather than producing serious scholarship. His concern was valid and, yet, his jadedness caused him to mistake my enthusiasm for naïve idealism. Somewhere along the line, he had learned to protect his reputation from the skepticism of mainstream biblical scholars who often view evangelicals as deficient in academic rigor. Prof. G.’s response reflected overcompensation to the point of suppressing his own passion and that of students like me.

I was certainly passionate—not with blind fervor, but deep longing to know and follow God. I stepped into the world of biblical scholarship out of love for Scripture, enrolling in seminary while still working full-time in student affairs at a local university. Initially attending seminary was my expensive “hobby.” I simply wanted to learn. But the joy it brought me left no doubt that I was meant to do this full-time. I dreamed of getting a PhD in biblical studies. I began to look at programs and decided to first pursue a ThM. I sensed that my conservative Baptist seminary, while preparing me well for a close reading of the text, had not exposed me sufficiently enough to mainstream scholarship. After being accepted to Duke Divinity School, my evangelical professors congratulated me, but also expressed caution. In my circles, Duke was considered a liberal institution that might lead me astray (a misconception, I realized, once I got there).

My professors were right that delving into historical criticism and other mainstream methodologies would impact the way I understand and read Scripture. Similarly, doctoral work at Marquette University would take me beyond the simple world in the text, to both the world behind and in front of it. But rather than leading me astray, it took me deeper into truth. Like many students from an evangelical background, I was shocked by how much I had not been taught in church or my Baptist seminary. Sometimes my gaps in knowledge left me embarrassed. At Duke, I read Elephantine papyri for an Aramaic course, which mention a Jewish temple in Egypt. Before I could catch myself, I blurted out in class, “But there’s only one temple, and it’s in Jerusalem.” My classmates and teacher looked at me quizzically, and I immediately felt foolish for my ignorance.

I began to ask new questions, including what does the world behind the text mean for me as a Christian? At my previous seminary, I was told it didn’t matter because, ultimately, the biblical authors provide their interpretation of history. They selectively reported on events to advance a particular inspired message from God. Other historical facts, then, were superfluous for the spiritual life. And yet, as I studied the world behind the text, I realized it, too, had something truthful to say. Sometimes that truth conflicted with ways I had been taught to read Scripture. The tension between historical criticism and theological interpretation challenged my faith. In retrospect, that tension was reflected in Prof. G’s response to me. He was an evangelical desiring to be seen as a legitimate scholar within the guild at large. That required him to care about mainstream methodologies. Yet, he hadn’t reconciled the two in his heart. Some part of him believed he needed to suppress religious passion to be a reputable scholar. While my seminary responded to the mainstream guild by ignoring it, Prof. G craved its validation. Neither approach seemed right to me.

It’s true that the academe at-large often frowns at the mixture of religious life with scholarship. It doesn’t know how theology and historical criticism fit together. As my studies advanced, I wasn’t sure either. I went through what many evangelical students experience when they are exposed to historical-critical scholarship: disorientation. Historical-criticism sheds important light on the way ancient culture shaped the articulation of the biblical authors’ theology. This knowledge was both helpful and daunting. As I wrestled with the human traits in Scripture, I noticed problems with certain theological interpretations that I hadn’t seen before, interpretations that were not well reconciled with historical facts. I was moving closer to truth, but it was new and unsettling.

For awhile, I was uncertain how to read the biblical text as Scripture. It felt as though I had to choose between historical criticism and theology. Yet, only studying the world behind the text felt vapid, and only engaging in theological reading felt dishonest. I missed how Scripture used to come alive for me, but I could not go back to what now seemed like a naïve reading of the Bible. What I needed is what philosopher Paul Ricoeur calls a “second naïveté.” Regarding faith, he wrote: “No longer, to be sure, the first faith of the simple soul, but rather the second faith of one who has engaged in hermeneutics, faith that has undergone criticism, post-critical faith.”[1]

Over the past several years, my life as a scholar has been enriched by a second naïveté, a post-critical faith. That process has involved bringing together both historical criticism and theology, seeking to understand how both of these truths fit together. Murray Rae’s History and Hermeneutics has proved helpful for me in this regard. As Rae observes, history is theological.[2] He rejects the common bifurcation in scholarship between history and theology. God is active in history, including beyond what is mentioned by the biblical authors. Scripture itself testifies that Jesus did and said many things beyond what is recorded (John 21:25).

Last fall, Eerdmans published my book The Word of a Humble God: The Origins, Inspiration, and Interpretation of Scripture. It bears the fruit of my years wrestling with the tension between historical criticism and theological interpretation. The tension has given way to a cooperative relationship where the truths drawn out by both methodological approaches yield new insights into the character of God and the nature of Scripture. I began to look for God’s activity in ancient scribal culture, manuscript traditions, redaction, and canon formation. What was God doing when it comes to the making of the Bible? What purpose might God have intended in the way it comes to us?

Surprisingly, historical investigation is the very thing that allowed me to see the humility of God. How astonishing that an all-powerful God collaborates with human beings in the making of the Bible. God could have dropped a book from heaven, but didn’t. God formed human beings to share power with them, granting them stewardship of the whole earth and promising to share a throne (Gen 1:26; Eph 2:6; Rev 3:21). God’s humility is demonstrated in choosing to empower human beings with spiritual gifts of prophesy and sacred craftmanship (à la Exod 31:1-6).

It was through historical criticism that I began to see a community of faith emerge through the communal process of Scripture’s formation, as prophet and scribe worked together, as generations across time contributed to the project. I won’t give away too many spoilers but The Word of a Humble God looks at the historical process of how the Bible was made and ponders its theological significance. We need not avoid historical criticism as irrelevant nor elevate it as academically superior. Rather, God is with us as we journey through time. History is theological.

Karen R. Keen (ThM, Duke) is a biblical scholar and spiritual care provider with The Redwood Center for Spiritual Care and Education. Her research interests include hermeneutics, ethics, reception history, and the nature and function of the Bible. Karen’s goal is to make biblical scholarship accessible, particularly as it intersects with the pressing socio-cultural concerns of our time. She frequently comes alongside pastors and Christian leaders to support their work in building up the Body of Christ.

[1] Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 26.

[2] Murray A. Rae, History and Hermeneutics (New York: T&T Clark, 2005).