In a recent book, Inerrancy and Worldview: Answering Modern Challenges to the Bible, Vern Poythress, professor of New Testament Interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, investigates the vital question of how one’s worldview influences their approach to the Bible. (You can read my review of Poythress’ excellent book here). What is a “worldview?” Poythress explains,
Many basic assumptions about the nature of the world fit together to form a worldview. A worldview includes assumptions about whether God exists, what kind of God might exist, what kind of world we live in, how we come to know what we know, whether there are moral standards, what is the purpose of human life, and so on (21).
Each of the components that Poythress lists—and his description is not exhaustive—relates directly or indirectly to several (if not all) of the theological categories that undergird and guide our approach to the Bible (e.g., the possibility of revelation, the nature of divine inspiration, the adequacy of human language, etc.). In other words, the matter of worldview has immediate relevance to how we frame our doctrine of Scripture. The crux the problem is the fact that “[m]ost modern worldviews differ at crucial points from the worldview offered in the Bible” (21).
These considerations relate directly to my recent review of Kenton’s Sparks’ book, God’s Word in Human Words. Sparks is one evangelical (among others) who is proposing a wholesale modification of our understanding of inerrancy based on modern critical studies.
Sparks argues that evangelicals can and should assimilate the “assured results” of historical-critical scholarship into their doctrine of Scripture. He also demonstrates a broad knowledge of historical scholarship and a profound appreciation for those who have labored in the field. What he fails to consider is that those who conduct such work usually labor from a worldview that is, at several points, diametrically opposed to a biblical worldview.
The observation, however, that those who work in the area of historical-critical scholarship usually come at the Bible from assumptions not in accord with Scripture’s own should not be seen as simplistic recourse to the claim that historical-critical scholars are devoid of the Holy Spirit—an approach to biblical scholarship that Sparks strongly rejects.
The conservative argument usually goes something like this: “Biblical critics are not Christians, and, as Paul has said, ‘The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned’ (1 Cor. 2:14 NIV). End of argument. According to this line of thought, the critics err because they do not share our assumptions and/or because they lack the resources of the Holy Spirit. So we may safely ignore their pagan view of ‘scholarship.'”
If there is one perspective that I am challenging in this book, it is the fideistic perspective embodied in the argument that I have just described (GWHW, 303).
While we can join with Sparks in rejecting an approach to scholarship that uses theological reasons to escape rigorous engagement with historical-critical research or to justify unhelpful generalizations (e.g., “pagan scholarship”), we must also point out the validity of this deduction from 1 Cor 2:14. Scripture is replete with evidence suggesting that one’s spiritual condition will sway one’s intellectual commitments. Those who were blind to Jesus’ identity sought to undermine the historicity of his resurrection (Matt 28:13-14). It may sound unsophisticated to the larger academy, but Scripture is clear that unregenerate man actively suppresses the truth (Rom 1:18-20). There is a kind of healthy suspicion believers might have when those who reject the God of the Bible undertake the study of his Word.
At some point evangelicals who so readily embrace the “assured” findings of historical scholarship must concede that the underlying spiritual and intellectual commitments that form the scholars’ worldview will inevitably affect their study of history and the conclusions they draw about the veracity of the biblical narrative. If scholars’ presuppositions about whether or not God exists, the kind of God that exists, the nature of humankind, the direction of history, the possibility of miracles, and the role of reason are in opposition to what Scripture asserts regarding these matters, it is likely that they will make direct and significant challenges to Scripture’s truth claims, whether they are aware of their core intellectual commitments or not.
It appears theologically and epistemologically naïve, therefore, for evangelicals to enter into an examination of historical-critical scholarship without an honest recognition of the profound and fundamental differences that exist between an evangelical and a non-evangelical worldview and how such differences will guide one’s study of the Bible.